It's fair to say that 'Bimbos of the Death Sun' has become quite the legend within science fiction fandom. Every time that name gets mentioned, a host of fans, usually older school fans, perk up and join the conversation. That happened here recently when it was picked for the monthly CASFS Book Social and I realised that I'd never read it. What's more, I don't even own a copy, though I somehow own two of its sequel, Zombies of the Death Pool, and one of those is signed. So, it's about time that I read the thing!
I should emphasise here that it isn't a science fiction novel at all, lurid pulp title notwithstanding. It's a mystery novel that happens to be set at a science fiction convention and, while Sharyn McCrumb certainly doesn't get everything right in the world of conrunning, she does a pretty good job of nailing our little corner of fandom with humorous effect.
Hilariously, the book began as a joke, one that came back both to bite the author hard and land her an Edgar Award for the Best Paperback Original of the year. It started as a spoof entry into a short story contest at college and became a title that had to be used properly.
Eventually, McCrumb figured out the book that would go with it, all about an engineering professor who wrote a hard science fiction novel whose title got changed on him, to his abiding horror. Wouldn't it be funny if he went to a sf/f con to promote it while simultaneously attempting to hide his identity from his students? Much further down the road that became McCrumb, known in a particular circle not for her many other novels but for this title.
Fortunately it's also a lot of fun. McCrumb's approach isn't to savage this weird community of ours or to cosy up to it like we're not weird. She takes a very agreeable middle ground where she looks at fandom respectfully, even as she skewers some of our traditions. The book was published in 1988 and it does reflect a fandom of former days, so it's definitely dated now, but much of it remains accurate. Many fans have taken umbrage at her "stereotyping", but hey, I can put faces to most of the characters in this book.
The engineering professor she came up with is Dr. James O. Mega, who teaches electrical engineering at Virginia Tech, where McCrumb had studied English. His hard science fiction novel is about a space station hit with radiation from a dying star that has the strange effect of decreasing the intelligence of the female members of the crew. Of course, the cheap paperback house that publishes it renames it 'Bimbos of the Death Sun' and gives it a lurid cover.
So to promote it, which any author will tell you is at least sixty percent of their job, Mega's partner, Marion, who teaches English, pushes him towards a local sf/f con, Rubicon, a scene she's familiar with but which he has stayed blissfully away from. It's not surprising to find that he's promptly given a whole slew of tasks, as a Guest of Honor, including judging the short story competition.
Frankly, I'd have enjoyed this immersion of a mundane into fandom, even one who's technically a professional, introduced to tradition after tradition by a knowing partner, even if that was all there was here. Mega flounders very well indeed, always polite but always half-lost. He's bemused and shocked at the same time, which is always a fantastic combination of emotions. But, of course, there's something more and that something is a murder.
Given how much he manages to professionally offend everyone at the con, it's no surprise to discover that the victim is Mega's massively more experienced fellow Guest of Honor, Appin Dungannon. Apparently, back when 'Bimbos of the Death Sun' was new, fandom was abuzz with discussions about who Dungannon is in real life. Surely it had to be a real author, right? Well, he may or may have a basis in reality but, if he does, I'm guessing it's actually not just one author.
He's known for a series of fantasy novels that's well past its sell by date, but people keep on buying the things so he keeps writing more. He likes the royalty cheques if not the series itself. He's also notably outspoken, with no personal restraint mechanism to hold him back from ranting and raving if he feels the need, as he does when someone appears in the masquerade as his primary character, Tratyn Runewind. The former aspect made me think of Piers Anthony while the latter reminded me more of Harlan Ellison. Given how many authors regular fans meet at cons, any one of them could conjure up another pairing and be just as accurate.
Anyway, Dungannon is shot dead, at the convention and, while the police are called, it falls to Mega to solve the case in style, leading a LARP in the style of Hamlet with the killer surely numbered among the players. That's a fun way to translate the old Agatha Christie finalé with Poirot bringing all the suspects together in the drawing room for the big reveal into a setting more appropriate for these characters and this venue.
It's fair to say that the first page played into my favour. McCrumb places a visiting Scottish folksinger into the same hotel as the convention, with the inevitable comedic culture clashes, and she puts him to good use, but I was convinced just from him being thankful that the pale blue blonde in the lift didn't call him an Australian. Sometimes clichés are real and that's one of them.
As the novel rolled on, I caught plenty of mistakes; while McCrumb may have attended some sf/f cons before writing this book, she clearly didn't work on a committee. However, much of this is accurate, from Mega's immersion on. I particularly liked the frustrating but rewarding connection between filkers and a professional folk musician, and the various ways by which fans react to the death of a guest of honor, not just the rush to the huckster's room to buy up his now more valuable work but the way the death was announced and how the Runewind cosplayer handled a memorial.
The Australian line on page one had me grinning and I stayed that way most of the way through, appreciating little details and descriptions, even when they predate my involvement in fandom. Many of them come from Diefenbaker, a very capable fan whose grounding in reality makes him a useful translation tool for Mega. I see the value in APAs, for instance, but Diefenbaker's note that they're "soap boxes for people who can't get anyone to publish them" or "a chain letter for disturbed children" is still hilarious.
I'll follow up next month with 'Zombies of the Gene Pool' because I want to see how Mega progresses in fandom. Presumably he doesn't run screaming into the night, so he ought to return more knowledgeable and part of the scene. A single con is either more than enough for any mundane or more than enough to make them one of us, one of us, gooble gobble. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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