Ansible 50 Feature
Beccon '87 After-Dinner Speech
This is a great idea, isn't it? So much nicer to have Christmas at this time of the year instead of at the end of December, when the shops are always so crowded. Reminds me of those clips you used to get in The Queen's Christmas broadcast to the Commonwealth back in the 50s, with the traditional shot of Australians eating chilled prawns, roast turkey and Christmas pudding on Bondi beach. There was always a Christmas tree planted in the sand. It was decorated with what I now realize was probably vomit.
Last week I got this fortune cookie sort of printout which said Your Role Is Eater. I thought fantastic, I like role-playing games, I've never been an Eater before, I wonder how many hit points it has?
And then I saw another printout underneath it which said that at 2200 my role was After Dinner Speaker, which is something you'd expect to find only in the very worst dungeon, a monster lurching around in a white frilly shirt looking for an audience. Three hours later the explorers are found bored rigid, their coffee stone cold, the brick-thick after dinner mint melted in their hands.
That reminds me why I gave up Dungeons and Dragons. There were too many monsters. Back in the old days you could go around a dungeon without meeting much more than a few orcs and lizard men, but then everyone started inventing monsters and pretty soon it was a case of, bugger the magic sword, what you really needed to be the complete adventurer was the Marcus L. Rowland fifteen-volume guide to Monsters and the ability to read very, very fast, because if you couldn't recognize them from the outside you pretty soon got the chance to try looking at them from the wrong side of their tonsils.
Anyway, this bit of paper said I was to talk about Alien Christmases, which was handy, because I always like to know what subject it is I'm straying away from. I'll give it a try, I've been a lot of bad things in my time although, praise the Lord, I've never been a Blake's 7 fan.
Not that Christmases aren't pretty alien in any case. It's a funny old thing, but whenever you see pictures of Santa Claus he's always got the same toys in his sack. A teddy, a dolly, a trumpet and a wooden engine. Always. Sometimes he also has a few red and white striped candy canes. Heaven knows why, you never see them in the shops, and if any kid asks for a wooden engine these days it means he lives at the bottom of a hole on a desert island and has never heard of television, because last Christmas my daughter got a lot of toys, a few cars, a plane, stuff like that, and the thing about them was this. Every single one of them was a robot.
Not just a simple robot. I know what robots are supposed to look like, I had a robot when I was a kid. You could tell it was a robot, it had two cogwheels going round in its chest and its eyes lit up when you turned its key, and why not, so would yours. And I had a Magic Robot... well, we all had one, didn't we? And when we got fed up with the smug way he spun around on his mirror getting all the right answers we cut them out and stuck them down differently for the sheer hell of it, gosh, weren't we devils.
But these new robots are subversive. They are robots in disguise.
There's this sort of robot war going on around us. I haven't quite figured it out yet, although the kids seem incredibly well-informed on the subject. It appears that you can tell the good robots from the bad robots because the good robots have got human heads, a bit like that scene in Saturn Five, you remember, where the robot gets the idea that the best way to look human is hack someone's head off and stick it on your antenna. They all look like an American footballer who's been smashed through a Volkswagen.
They go around saving the universe from another bunch of robots, saving the universe in this case consisting of great laser battles. The universe doesn't look that good by the time they've saved it, but by golly, it's saved.
Anyway, none of her presents looked like it was supposed to. A collection of plastic rocks turned out to be Rock Lords, with exciting rocky names like Boulder and Nugget. Yes, another bunch of bloody robots.
In fact the only Christmassy thing in our house was the crib, and I'm not certain that at a touch of a button it wouldn't transform and the Mary and Josephoids would battle it out with the Three Kingons.
Weirdest of the lot, though, is Kraak, Prince of Darkness. At £14.95 he must be a bargain for a prince of darkness. He's a Zoid, probably from the planet Zoid in the galaxy of Zoid, because while the models are pretty good the storyline behind them is junk, the science fiction equivalent of a McDonalds hamburger. I like old Kraak, though, because it only took the whole of Christmas morning to put him together. He's made of red and grey plastic, an absolute miracle of polystyrene technology, and he looks like a chicken that's been dead for maybe three months. Stuff two batteries up his robot bum and he starts to terrorize the universe as advertised, and he does it like this, what he does is, he walks about nine inches ver – ry slowly and painfully, while dozens of little plastic pistons thrash about, and then he falls over.
Kraak has got the kind of instinct for survival that makes a kamikaze pilot look like the Green Cross Code man. I don't know what the terrain is like up there on Zoid, but he finds it pretty difficult to travel over the average living room carpet. No wonder he terrorizes the universe, it must be pretty frightening, having a thousand tons of war robot collapse on top of you and lie there with its little feet pathetically going round and round. You want to commit suicide in sympathy. Oh, and he's got this other fiendish weapon, his head comes off and rolls under the sofa. Pretty scary, that. We've tested him out with other Zoids, and I'm here to tell you that the technology of robot fighting machines, basically, is trying to fall over in front of your opponent and trip him up. It's a hard job, because the natural instinct of all Zoids is to fall over as soon as you take your hand away.
But even Kraak has problems compared with a robot that was proudly demonstrated to us by the lad next door. A Transformer, I think it was. It isn't just made of one car or plane, it's a whole fleet of vehicles which, when disaster threatens, assemble themselves into one great big fighting machine. That's the theory, anyway. My bet is that at the moment of truth the bloody thing will have to go into battle half finished because its torso is grounded at Gatwick and its left leg is stuck in a traffic jam outside Luton.
We recently saw Santa Claus: the Movie. Anyone else seen it? Pretty dreadful, the only laugh is where they apparently let the reindeer snort coke in order to get them to fly. No wonder Rudolf had a red nose, he spends half the time with a straw stuck up it.
Anyway, you get to see Santa's workshop. Just as I thought. Every damn toy is made of wood, painted in garish primary colours. It might have been possible, in fact I suppose it's probably inevitable, that if you pressed the right switch on the rocking horses and jolly wooden dolls they turned into robots, but I doubt it. I looked very carefully over the whole place and there wasn't a single plastic extrusion machine. Not a single elf looked as though he knew which end to hold a soldering iron. None of the really traditional kids' toys were there – no Rambos, no plastic models of the Karate kid, none of those weird little spelling and writing machines designed to help your child talk like a NASA launch controller with sinus trouble and a mental age of five.
Now, I've got a theory to account for this. Basically, it is that Father Christmases are planet-specific and we've got the wrong one.
I suspect it was the atom bomb tests in the early 50s that warped the, you know, the fabric of time and space and that. Secret tests at the North Pole opened up this, you know, sort of hole between the dimensions, and all the stuff made by our Father Christmas is somehow diverted to Zoid or wherever and we get all the stuff he makes, and since he's a robot made out of plastic he only makes the things he's good at.
The people it's really tough on are the kids on Zoid. They wake up on Christmas morning, unplug themselves from their recharger units, clank to the end of the bed (pausing only to fall over once or twice) playfully zapping one another with their megadeath lasers, look into their portable pedal extremity enclosures and what do they find? Not the playful, cuddly death-dealing instruments of mayhem that they have been led to expect, but wooden trains, trumpets, rag dolls and those curly red and white sugar walking sticks that you never see in real life. Toys that don't need batteries. Toys that you don't have put together. Toys with varnish on instead of plastic. Alien toys.
And, because of this amazing two-way time warp thingy, our kids get the rest. Weird plastic masters of the universe which are to the imagination what sandpaper is to a tomato. Alien toys. Maybe it's being done on purpose, to turn them all into Zoids. Like the song says – you'd better watch out.
I don't think it will work, though. I took a look into my daughter's dolls'-house. Old Kraak has been hanging out there since his batteries ran out and his mega cannons fell off. Mr T has been there for a couple of years, ever since she found out he could wear Barbie's clothes, and I see that some plastic cat woman is living in the bathroom.
I don't know why, but what I saw in there gave me hope. Kraak was having a tea party with a mechanical dog, two Playpeople and three dolls. He wasn't trying to zap anyone. No matter what Santa Claws throws at us, we can beat him....
And now your mummies and daddies are turning up to take you home; be sure to pick up your balloons and Party Loot bags, and remember that Father Christmas will soon be along to give presents to all the good boys and girls who've won awards. (Terry Pratchett)
This postprandial speech from Beccon's 'Christmas Dinner' helped delay the present Ansible: for several weeks I gave up in a fit of pique at Terry's vile act of sending a spare copy to Matrix. But then I thought of all my non-BSFA readers, and couldn't resist using the only item ever (in those early days) to reach Ansible on disk.... Dave Langford