Heinlein Centennial – Day Two

Note: The below account was written in 2007, days after the event in question. Excerpts have appeared here and there, but this is the first time the entire piece has been published.

Day Two – 7/7/7

Saturday Wandering I

After the party into the wee hours, Saturday morning is a bit of a late start. Locomotion seems possible if done carefully. Our first “must” of the morning isn’t until 11 AM, so not too bad.

Heinlein Prize Trust

Heinlein Prize Trust session

Louis, Buckner, and Amy at the Heinlein Prize Trust session

Buckner Hightower and Sean Thompson are representing the Trust here this weekend, and it’s Buckner who is giving the presentation. There are various paste board blowups of “Flight Into the Future” design contests run by the Trust in Europe and China around the room. Dr. Peter Diamandis, first winner of the Heinlein Prize (“Accomplishments in Commercial Space Activities”, and currently valued at $500,000) is in the audience, as are Amy Baxter and her husband, Louis.

Buckner talks about the three main areas in which the Trust is pursuing its mission. The obvious one is the Heinlein Prize, which is modeled after the Nobel prize and is meant to be a significant prize both in prestige and funds to act as an incentive to those entrepreneurs who might someday be in the running for it.

The second is “education”, mentioned generically in the Trust document, and which the Trustees have turned into the “Flight into the Future” contests. These are aimed at young space scientists (under age 30).  It is meant both to promote their research and thinking about commercial space technology and also to allow them to meet each other and begin the networking and cross-pollination that is so important to building a viable long-term infrastructure of support for a commercial space industry (or, really, any major long-term project). Buckner mentions that the Trust would very much like to do a “Flight Into the Future” for the Americas, but US “ITAR” (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) rules have been interpreted by the State Department up to now in ways that would make it impossible for American space scientists to share their research with scientists from, say, Argentina, at the same Flight Into the Future conference. The Trust continues to try to work through this issue –either it will be resolved in favor of a contest for all the Americas, or separate Flight Into the Future contests for the US and the rest of the Americas will be held.

A third track of Trust activities includes increasing, both directly and in cooperation with others, Robert Heinlein’s reputation as a literary figure of the first rank. In this area, there is support for like-minded organizations such as The Heinlein Society, appearances at conventions such as this one, producing the definitive Virginia Edition of collected works, and digitizing and making publicly available the Heinlein Archives –which until today was only available to the occasional academic who was able to make the trip to Santa Cruz, California to visit it in person. This is now only hours away from changing. Also in this area would be the Trust’s support for Bill Patterson, Robert Heinlein’s biographer, during the years of his researching and writing the massive two volume biography he has produced. The biography is now approaching publication at Tor, edited by David Hartwell.

Buckner offers to take questions from the audience. One person advocates changing the Heinlein Prize from one offered for “Accomplishments” to one aimed at seeding likely-looking next-generation commercial space companies. Buckner responds in two ways, one of which I was expecting and one which was something of a surprise. The first is that the Trust document, as drawn up at Ginny’s direction, is quite specific regarding the “Heinlein Prize”. It is to be for “Accomplishments in Commercial Space Activities”, and therefore the Trustees cannot change the Prize to one that is meant to be a speculative seed money kind of award. Secondly, Buckner offers that in his experience as a long-time member of the commercial space activities community that in fact the capital markets are open and sufficiently interested in this area as to not make seed money a serious problem anyway. If you have a good business plan you can find capital. This latter was good to hear; someday I’ll have to corner Buckner and have him talk on the subject at a little more length.

Seeing Peter Diamandis in the audience, Buckner invites him to provide his view on the question. Diamandis talks about being a “serial entrepreneur”, and the usefulness of awarding the Heinlein Prize to an individual of that nature rather than a company. The implication being that Peter Diamandis isn’t done forming commercial space companies by any means, so there’s no fear of “gold watch-itis” effect from receiving the Heinlein Prize. He also reveals that he used some of the Prize funds to support his own list of worthy causes.

Heinlein Centennial

Buckner, Deb, Peter, Amy, Sean, Geo, Louis, Jim

After the HPT panel is over, we hang around to chat for awhile. It turns out that there is another “virtual friend” in the room that we are now meeting for the first time. James R. Cunningham, a friend of Ginny’s, and a board member of the Heinlein Foundation (an entirely separate entity from the Heinlein Prize Trust) that Ginny set up to support the Butler, Missouri public library shortly after Robert’s death, now introduces himself and his wife. We’ve emailed with Jim off and on over the last several years as well, so it’s very nice to once again have the opportunity to put a face and voice to an “old friend”.

Saturday Wandering II

I head over to the Westin thinking that Peter Diamandis is scheduled for a noon session there. However, it turns out to have been rescheduled for 1pm. So while Louis donates blood, Deb, Amy, JT and I have a pleasant lunch together in the lobby restaurant .

 Peter Diamandis

Diamandis is nearly a force of nature. At one point in the weekend Jim Gifford remarks to us that without seeming to rush or hurry in the least, Diamandis gets three times as much done for a given time increment as anyone else in whatever room he happens to be in. We wonder if he might be a “Gulf” superman.

He not only recognizes the D. D. Harriman comparison, he embraces it, by pointing to “The Man Who Sold the Moon” as an actual business plan that he is carrying out. His goal is to personally provide the welcome wagon for NASA’s re-arrival at the moon, having beaten them there by a few years. That line produces a roar of approval from the audience.

Peter spends his hour going over the history of the X Prize, the X Prize Cup, his plans for a “Rocket Racing League”, and his Zero Gravity company. This latter is very much a better name from a marketing perspective than the informal name used for NASA’s earlier version – the “Vomit Comet”.  Indeed, NASA has retired their aircraft and is now renting flights from Zero Gravity. He has lots of slides and demos to show us, including a clearly thrilled Stephen Hawking doing spins in zero g recently. Said Peter, “After the sixth go round I started negotiating with him for when we could stop”.

 Saturday Wandering III

Deb and Amy decide that a dip in the hotel pool sounds like a wonderful idea, so while they go to do that, I head over to the Dealer Room and hang out at the Society table for awhile with Jane and Pam. They seem satisfied with how the amount of traffic and activity that’s been coming through.

 All You Zombies–

ARTC –the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company—is here and doing two radio plays this weekend. They arranged with Ginny before her passing to create radio plays for four of Robert A. Heinlein’s classic short stories. Collectively they call these four “The Dean’s List”. They are “Solution Unsatisfactory”, “The Man Who Traveled in Elephants”, “All You Zombies–”, and “The Menace from Earth”. These last two they are performing here this weekend; the first today and the second tomorrow. In fact, we will find out later that since ARTC was bringing a full set of Audio/Visual people with them anyway, Bill Ritch volunteered his team to provide and run the A/V in the main event site at the Westin where all the large signature events are being held. This was truly duty “above and beyond”.

“All You Zombies—“ is one of Heinlein’s most honored short stories, being incredibly complicated and tightly woven.  If it isn’t the most anthologized Heinlein short story, it must be very near the top. Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of it, more admiring it as a master-class work of technical artistry in the fewest possible words rather than feeling an emotional connection to the story.  Whenever I re-read it I can almost hear Robert thinking to himself, “Hah! Let Damon Knight try to beat this!” ARTC does an excellent job of bringing it to life, however.

Saturday Wandering IV

Now it’s time to start getting ready for the gala dinner, the cocktail mingler of which begins at 5 PM. But first Amy Baxter has her own session, so I go get gussied up for the dinner and then head for Amy’s session.

Amy Baxter: Heinlein’s Grandchild

Amy Baxter

Amy Baxter, the Heinlein's adopted granddaughter

I’m trying to remember when we first met Amy and Louis – I think it was at Torcon in 2003, just a few months after Ginny’s passing.   Amy insisted (she didn’t have to insist very hard, however!) that Deb wear Ginny’s wedding ring and Robert’s Annapolis ring at the Heinlein Society’s dinner that year. I’ve mentioned upstream how she came to be the Heinleins’ adopted granddaughter –she wrote to them at the age of thirteen and offered herself for the position. If you know Amy, that sounds like an entirely typical story. She saw a need she could fill, so she filled it. As the years pass, she has begun to feel more comfortable talking in public about “Grandma”, for which all of us in the Heinlein community are grateful. So far as I know, this is the first time she has done so in a formal convention panel.

Deb Houdek Rule

Deb at the Centennial Gala

Deb arrives part way through, having gotten dressed up for the Gala Dinner. Allow a proud husband to observe that she “cleans up well”, as the saying goes. She’s also taken advantage of the wireless broadband in our hotel room to “turn on” the Online Heinlein Archives to the public. It’s live and waiting for customers.

The Gala Dinner

There are actually three things going on tonight with the moniker “Gala” attached to them.  From 5 PM to 7 PM there are two simultaneous events –“The Gala Dinner” and “The Gala Reception”.  With the former you get dinner. I wasn’t at the latter, so I can’t say for sure, but I think it was a typical no-host bar mingler for those folks who for whatever reason didn’t feel like doing the Gala Dinner.  At 7 PM, the two groups will recombine again (and any other member of the convention as well) for the Gala Ceremony itself held in a portion of the same room where the Gala Dinner is being held. This is Westin Century C, the main room where all the major events have been. The back half has been configured as dinner seating and will be cleared out just before the Gala Ceremony itself begins.

Audrey has set aside two tables for the Heinlein Forum folk and guests, and we end up overflowing them just a little. Poor Uri Gonda has to give up my scintillating repartee in exchange for being one table over chatting with dinner partner (and leading agent in the SF world) Eleanor Wood all night. Poor fellow; though oddly every time I glanced over there he seemed to be bearing up well. Each table holds ten people. At ours there is Chuck and Linda Coffin, Yoji Kondo, Amy Baxter and Louis Calderon, Ed Johnson, Rosie Postelnek, Herb Gilliland, and Deb and myself.  We shall stipulate for the record, your honor, that each of the ladies present at the affair was lovelier than every other lady there. If you find this logically improbable, then I direct you to Stranger in a Strange Land, where Jubal Harshaw proves otherwise near the end of the book. While you look for it, I shall make my escape.

Amongst all the tuxedos and suits, Chuck Coffin (Lt. Col, USA—Ret) isn’t looking too shabby himself. He’s got his dress uniform on, and a lifetime of service to his country is spread across his chest.  On those rare occasions when Chuck can be coaxed to recount how he first met Mr. Heinlein at a space development conference in the 1980’s, he will usually allow as how the fact that he was wearing his uniform at the time probably commended him to Mr. Heinlein.  Well, Chuck’s spiffy dress uniform is about to contribute again –this time it’s (in part) commending him to Audrey and Jim Gifford’s attention as toastmaster for the event.  This gives him a chance to prove his ability to improvise under pressure, and he writes notes at a furious pace while muttering to himself  a bit about being surprised at the last minute with the task. I can’t help but go for the cliché—“Shut up and soldier, Soldier”. This earns me a well-deserved dirty look from Chuck, and a giggle from Linda.

Herb and I chat a bit. It turns out that neither of us has met Dr. Vincent Pisacane, the “Heinlein Chair” for Aerospace at the US Naval Academy. Pisacane is supposedly here this weekend, or was at least on Friday, as he had a session of his own about “how the position came to be created and what he does”. I have some idea how the position came to be created –Ginny endowed it, at first anonymously, not too long after Robert passed away. This again takes me back to that KTLA kinescope from the set of Destination Moon. There is Robert Heinlein dragging a young naval officer sent by his service to be an observer into the spotlight to be interviewed on television.

Missing out on meeting Pisacane is one of my regrets from the weekend, but then there would have had to be at least three of me to do everything I would have liked to do that weekend. A Google  search tells me that he is the author of Fundamentals of Space Systems, which apparently is the text book he teaches his class at Annapolis from. It is described as “…developed to satisfy two objectives: the first is to provide a text suitable for use in an advanced undergraduate or beginning graduate course in both space systems engineering and space system design. The second is to be a primer and reference book for space professionals wishing to broaden their capabilities to develop, manage the development, or operate space systems.” I think that  would satisfy Robert and Ginny just fine; it appears to be the kind of book you’d expect to find Holly Jones, PhD listed on the spine as co-author.  And, by the way, if you’re willing to pay textbook prices, you can find it on Amazon.

Herb has also told me that for the first time ever, he will be teaching a full semester-long course on Robert Heinlein’s fiction this fall at USNA.  Individual works have been taught in the past as part of English classes, but this will be the first time a full course dedicated to Heinlein will be offered.  He’s still developing it over the course of the summer –I’ve made a note to check back with him how it went. Who knows, maybe I’ll put my Education Chair hat on and see if I can wheedle an outline and other class materials out of him for the Society to distribute to other post-secondary educators to use as a model for a similar course at their institutions.  Could happen; so look for that email, Herb!

At any rate, back to the Gala Dinner, where probably that kind of “digression” is happening a hundred times a minute around the room. Zahra Gifford, fourteen and lovely in her first party dress, has borrowed a pen from Deb in order to get autographs from famous people in the room on her Gala Dinner Ticket. These are in fact designed specifically for that purpose. By the time Deb gets that pen back it will have been used by Peter Diamandis, Brian Binnie, and several other notables to autograph Zahra’s dinner ticket. It’s now a collectable itself, and is in our trophy case. Hey, win-win, right?

I run into Michael Farr as well, and here’s another gentleman moved from the “virtual friend” file into the “actually met” file. Mike is a successful software entrepreneur from the Silicon Valley and an ardent fan of science fiction in general and the works of Robert A. Heinlein in particular. Mike is also dedicated to making a positive difference with his efforts, and is leading a new “Heinlein Writing Contest” committee of The Heinlein Society that will offer major prizes for short stories that display the spirit, ideas and philosophies of Robert Heinlein. The hope is this will result in a full anthology of such stories as well. At one point, I was given to believe the contest would be announced tonight, but apparently this is not going to be the case. It will instead be announced at the closing ceremonies tomorrow.

But now dinner is over, and we’re being moved up to the row seating area of the room while the wait staff clears out the dinner tables. Deb and I get a row with Jim Cunningham and his wife, and Herb Gilliland. Jim, much like Amy, is beginning to open up in public a bit more about Ginny. He offers to tell Deb some of his Ginny stories should she like to collect them for posterity.

 The Gala Ceremonies

Robin Wayne Bailey, President of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) is our Master of Ceremonies this evening. Bailey is of the Algonquin Round Table school of MC-ing –stylish, urbane, witty, and surgically attached to his Martini glass. In addition to being SFWA President, and of course a sf&f author himself, he’s also a Kansas City resident and one of the founding members of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame that was originally housed at the University of Kansas and is now merged with Paul Allen’s Science Fiction Museum in Seattle. So when it comes to promoting and respecting the history of science fiction, Robin Wayne Bailey has paid his dues.

It is nearly hopeless that I’m going to get all the events/presenters in the right order, so I’m just going to do as well as my memory will allow to touch on as many as I can remember. It was a long program, as well it should have been. Presumably the con-com’s DVD will straighten it out eventually!

I’ve mentioned Chuck Coffin was pressed into duty as “Toastmaster”. In addition to heartfelt toasts to Robert and Ginny individually, what I remember best was Chuck introducing one effort as “I always get the shakes before a. . .toast”, thus paying tribute to his own favorite Heinlein work, Starship Troopers, by hommaging its first sentence. Additionally, Chuck offered one of Mr. Heinlein’s own toasts as given at a dinner Chuck attended –“Gentlemen! To the ladies!”

The libertarian wing of the Heinlein tapestry was heard from with a video showing the brass cannon that was the symbol of the Luna Free State (“The Brass Cannon” being a working title for what eventually became The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) being fired several times at a gun range, after some discussion of how it came to be in the possession of Brad Linaweaver and the process for restoring it into firing condition.

Peter Diamandis gave a shorter version of his one hour presentation from earlier in the day.

Buckner Hightower of the Heinlein Prize Trust gave a shorter version of his panel presentation as well, and announced that the Online Heinlein Archives were now open for business. Buckner made a point of making sure Deb and I were required to take a bow for that, which we were glad to do.  As I tell everyone –“She did it. I just helped a bit here and there at the edges.”

Robert James read a letter from Jack Williamson, written in 2005, chiefly about his remembrances of the Manana Literary Society days in Los Angeles before WWII. As Jack had just passed away last November, if there was a dry eye in the house it wasn’t seated in my chair.

Spider and Jeanne Robinson spoke, and then sang a song from Variable Star that Spider co-wrote with David Crosby (of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young fame). Spider accompanied them on his guitar, and this fact will be important shortly. Though later Jeannie assured us this guitar was NOT the famous “Lady Macbeth”, as She is rarely allowed out of the house.

Jeanne talked about her “Stardance Project” and showed a presentation to illustrate what might be possible in Zero G dance, with the intent to use advances in CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) to produce a film of such a dance choreographed by her. As Spider put it, if anything better had been invented to promote space travel than a nearly naked young lady doing modern dance in Zero G then he wasn’t aware of it. Jeanne took questions from the floor afterwards, and one questioner asked her if she expected that she and her dancer might go up on one of Peter Diamandis’ Zero Gravity flights to get real experience of the matter. Jeanne responded that would be lovely, but that as yet she did not have enough money to do so. A voice instantly recognizable as Peter Diamandis’ then came from the floor, “Jeanne, I’ll fly you.” The man has style and a flair for the dramatic, yes he does.  He might also have just realized he wouldn’t mind having a few pictures of a lovely modern dancer in Zero G for his own promotional purposes.  As if Jeanne’s night hadn’t just gotten even better than she’d hoped, up hopped Amy Baxter onto the stage to present her with a check for $1,000 and urge others to do likewise. After the ceremonies were over I saw several people approach Jeanne to press cash or checks into her hands to support “Stardance Project”.

James Gunn introduced the Campbell Award honorees for this year, Ben Bova and James Morrow.

The Centennial committee had their own writing contest, with three prizes in each of two classes, amateur and professional. Shame on me for not remembering more of the names, but I do remember Fran Van Cleave as one of the awardees on the professional side, as Fran is also a longtime member of the Heinlein community. I also recall the first prize amateur’s award winning entry being described as “Like finding John Varley in the slush pile”. Yes, I can hear you grinding your teeth –“Geo, you mean to say there’s a new John Varley out there and YOU FORGOT HIS NAME!?”  Umm, yeah.  I’m not happy about it either, but it is what it is. Surely you can’t keep a new John Varley down any more than you can keep the old John Varley down, so we’ll just have to wait for his inevitable reappearance.

Dr. Jordin Kare and Margaret Middleton, well known in the filking community, then took the stage to lead the crowd in singing “The Green Hills of Earth”. Unfortunately, they’d neglected to bring a guitar with them. Out went the cry from Margaret, “Is there a guitar in the house?”  I don’t know for sure –maybe it was a setup. But I saw the look on Spider Robinson’s face as he leapt to his feet, thrust his guitar into the air over his head, and ran for the stage. It was the look of a man who’d been waiting his whole life to find himself sitting in the audience when a desperate cry went up for a guitar to save the day. I could nearly see the giant red “S” appear on his chest, and his lips forming the words, “Never fear, Dear Lady, I am coming to your aid!” The sing-along was another of those moments in the proceedings that caused the invisible xylophone player to do his number on my spine. One verse to get the hang of the tune (after all, most of us had only read the words and never heard the tune) and then the crowd sang the rest right alongside Middleton and Kare.

Arthur C. Clarke addressed the convention by way of pre-recorded video. It was only three years ago that he was able to do live interchanges with his American friends from his Sri Lankan home when he received the Heinlein Award at Noreascon in 2004. Now he does not feel up to even those. He talked about his long friendship with the Heinleins, both ups and downs, and then said goodbye. It had very much the feeling of finality to it, as though Sir Arthur believed it to be the last such opportunity he would have.

Speaking of the Heinlein Award, Yoji Kondo presented the 2007 edition on behalf of the award committee to Elizabeth Moon. Ms. Moon was not present, however, and Eleanor Wood accepted the lovely medallion and certificate on her behalf.

Now we’re up to what was for me (and, if post-event conversations are indicative, for pretty much everyone), the emotional highlight of the evening. Many of you will have seen at one time or another the video of Virginia Heinlein reading her husband’s “This I Believe” on his behalf, as the acceptance speech, when he was awarded, posthumously, NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal in 1988. The Centennial committee had acquired an audio copy of Robert’s original reading of the same text from Edward Murrow’s show in 1952. As Ginny began to read, up came Robert’s voice over top of hers, and they read it nearly together in sync, with both voices recognizable but Robert’s dominating. Then, at the end, the two voices gave the final line, “This I believe with all my heart” one after the other.  If there was a dry eye in the house, then I want to find that person and wake them up because they just missed a heckuva show.

 The post-Gala Ceremonies Party

After some hanging around chatting in the area immediately outside Westin Century C, we head down to the bar in the lobby area for a quick drink with various folks. Having neglected to pass my dinner ticket around for autographs during dinner, I do so now.  Then it’s up to the Giffords’ suite for a post-Gala party. Much of the Heinlein Forum crowd is there, but also most of the con-com senior staff, Spider and Jeanne, Mike and Sharon Sheffield, and Amy and Louis. That’s just off the top of my head –there were a lot of people there and most of us were somewhere between totally wired and really tired. The thing I remember best is having an opportunity to talk to Spider and Jeanne at length in person for the first time ever. We’ve emailed; we’ve had the odd minute here and there; we’ve waived across rooms, panels, dinners. . . now we had an old fashioned chat fest. It was very, very nice, and there were hugs all around when the party broke up in the wee hours again.

Next: Heinlein Centennial Day Three


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