War stories

Remember when we used to go places and hang out in crowded bars?

The subject of cave diving came up in a slack I'm in and I would up telling this Barcon Story, and since I'd typed it up and I love it I figured I would share it with the class.

I was at Montreal Worldcon sitting in the bar with a bunch of people. I was nominated for a Hugo for "Shoggoths in Bloom" and I was absolutely thrilled to be at the Grownup Table for one of the first times in my career. Ellen Datlow was there, and Pat Cadigan, and Gardner Dozois, and Walter Jon WIlliams, and a few other people I had not met.

These latter included a guy a few years older than me who I didn't know but who had really spectacular bleach blond spikes, and somehow the conversation got around to "what's the most dangerous thing you've ever done as research for a book?"

Now, I dunno if you know this, but any time folks who do dumb dangerous things recreationally get together, it's a race to the bottom. So one person will be like, "Oh, I learned how to alpine ski in the backcountry, but it wasn't really dangerous, I had good guides and we followed the avalanche guidance, it was fine."

And the next person will nod and be like, "Yeah, we canoed up the Amazon but it wasn't really dangerous, we had good guides and plenty of bug spray."

And the first guy will be like "Yeah, not like those wingsuit guys, those guys are crazy fuckers."

(The wingsuit guys and the cave divers are the people everybody is like, WTF is wrong with you.)

So I say, "Well, I learned to rock climb, but it was all sport and toprope climbing on well-mapped walls, not really dangerous at all, I had friends along who were experts and got me situated. So it wasn't really dangerous, not like hang gliding."

And the blond guy next to me is like, "Oh, I learned to hang glide for a book, but it wasn't really dangerous, yadda yadda. Not like caving or something."

And I'm like, "Oh I went caving a few times for research, it was pretty scary and I convinced myself once that I was gonna get stuck, but I was with experienced cavers and in explored and mapped caves, we weren't like pushing caves or anything. It wasn't really dangerous. Not like free soloing or BASE jumping or whatever, I just read up when I needed to write about that."

"Yeah," says blond guy. "Not like cave diving. Not really dangerous."

At which point, Walter Jon Fucking Williams, like a sand shark lying in wait, leans across the table and says, "Oh, I went cave diving for a book..."

"...but it was fine, it wasn't that dangerous, I had good guides and it was really safe."

He pauses and thinks a minute. "I guess the trip before us two guys didn't make it back."

And we all threw napkins at him, because clearly he had won.


I turned to the blond guy and introduced myself, and he stuck out his hand and said "Oh, I like your work, good luck at the Hugos, I'm Steve Boyett."

AND READER I ABOUT PISSED MYSELF RIGHT THERE and made a total spectacle of myself squealing about how much 12-year-old me loved ARIEL, his goddamn book about the trash-mouthed unicorn. The climax of which involves Our Heroes hang-gliding from the World Trade Center to the Empire State Building.

Narrative payoff, man. It's best when it happens in the reader's head.