From Holier Than Thou #25. Copyright 1987 by Marty Cantor. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Physicists are often too deeply engrossed in their work to use their common sense. They spend years working on their GUTs (Grand Unified Theories for those of you who have let your Scientific American subscriptions lapse), not realising that the essential clue is under their very noses, or would be if they spent more time in the bar and less in musty laboratories. Carruthers was expounding on that very subject at GrogCon Three. He was, of course, in the bar, while, in the function rooms, the sercon fans were holding a panel on the exact composition of Chromatic Dragons, Spayed Gerbils, and Pangalactic Gargleblasters. I'd had my fill of arguments over the comparative merits of aging that old Janx Spirit in PVC or in Styrofoam coolers and had retreated to the sanity of the bar.

As I entered, Carruthers nodded in my direction and said, "There's further proof for you. The weak force that attracted him to the panel was overcome by the strong force attracting him to the bar. Talking about drinking's all well and good, but the real thing just can't be beaten."

"That's easy for you to say, Carruthers," interjected Patrick, "but you can't call it a Grand Universal Theory. If it was universal we should note an increased concentration of fans in the bar, but it seems to be an equilibrium situation. Individual fans diffuse in and out, keeping the average concentration of fannishness constant. I wouldn't mind hypothesizing that fannishness is inherently repulsive, so you'll never get above a certain concentration without some external pressure, holding fandom together."

"You mean like musk oxen herded together to keep out the blood crazed wolves?" said Ursula.

"Yes. Something like that. I mean, look at the atomic nucleus. The bigger it gets, the more neutrons need to be there to keep the thing from flying apart. That's why there are so many filkers, media fans and SCA types at worldcons, and even then the larger worldcons are hellishly unstable, like uranium nuclei."

"While I hate to disagree with you," said Carruthers in a tone that almost had us believing him, "I'm afraid that your analogy is quite false in this case. You see I know why there are fewer real fans at conventions now-a-days, and the reason is far more prosaic."

There was a lull in the conversation. The assembled fans were too well acquainted with what happened when someone responded to Carruthers' cue lines. Then, from the back of the room, a voice, suspiciously like Carruthers' own, asked, "And what is the reason?" Fortunately for Carruthers, I was the only person in the bar who knew about his recent correspondence course in Ventriloquism, and I wasn't saying anything. His teaser had me hooked.

"I'm glad you asked me," he said. "You see, a few years ago I was sent to Maryland on business. I don't think I can describe the business¨several of the people involved are still alive¨but it left me with some time on my hands. I did what any fan in his right mind would do. I found a delightful little inn, checked its cellar, and settled in for the week.

"It was four days later, I think, that I found myself reading the local newspaper over breakfast. Out of habit, I had turned straight to the letters' page. It was a thoroughly mundane journal and in any other part of the state my chances of finding a name that I recognised would have been phenomenally low. Today was different. There, emblazoned at the bottom of a letter was a name that I could not possibly have overlooked¨Harry Warner, Jr. I knew I was near Hagerstown, but I hadn't even considered looking up Harry. It just didn't seem the done thing. The letter made all the difference. It was a strongly worded missive urging the city fathers to adopt more liberal licencing laws. Try as I did, I could wring no hint of sarcasm or ironic humour from the letter. It was written dead straight. There was something seriously wrong here. Harry would no more consider condoning broader bar hours than he would accept an offer of GoH at a SPACE 1999 Convention. I determined there and then to visit the Hermit of Hagerstown.

"Somehow I hadn't expected Summit Avenue to be as industrial as it was. I'd pictured it as a genteel slope populated by wooden two-storey houses couched in abundant greenery. Instead I found myself on a dingy city block, surrounded by large warehouses. The only thing that made me certain that I was approaching the residence of a fannish legend was the local graffiti declaiming the lousehood of Yngvi, and asking, of no one in particular, the identity of the being who had sawed Courtney's Boat. As I got closer to the address I noted the rusted out hulks of postal delivery vans that had attempted one bag too many in their run to the Warner household. I saw numerous deepetched tyretracks in the bitumen, showing where the semi-trailers of opera libretti had passed.

"I had no doubt of the moment that I arrived at 423. There ahead of me was the gaping maw of the largest postbox I had ever seen. As I drew up to the curb, a fully laden mail truck pulled up to the orifice, and three burly postal officials leapt out and started hurling mail sacks into the beckoning void. I heard one gasp urgently, "Hurry up! The next three vans are only minutes behind us.'

"I made my way along the driveway that led to a tatty factory side door. On it was written, "To gain entry tap out the room number.' With scarcely a thought, I rapped seven hundred and seventy times. The door swung open, and I nursed my skinned knuckles.

"There, in front of me, was a slight scholarly figure dressed in neat casual gentleman's lounging attire.

"'You must be a fan,' he said. "Welcome. I don't get many visitors here.'

"'My name's Carruthers,' I said. . .

"'Oh yes, Carruthers. Three times winner of the S.M.O.F. award; editor of REALLY SECRET FANZINES THAT ONLY REAL SMOFS GET and bar-fly extraordinaire. Your reputation precedes you Mr. Carruthers. Would you care for coffee?'

"We were soon seated in a remarkably comfortable study, sipping brewed coffee and munching on delicate biscuits. I took in the oil paintings of airships and the faded photographs of old-time fans. Warner turned to me. "Well, Mr. Carruthers, what brings you to my humble abode?'

"I explained my business visit, and the letter in the paper. His face became ashen. "Mr. Carruthers. I fear you are in terrible danger. You must leave immediately. It's him . . . Martin . . . he's done it again. Quickly, to the door.'

"I had barely time to grab my overcoat as he pushed me through the door. I turned to speak and, as I did, the floor below me gave way.

"I woke to find myself chained to an ancient Victorian typing desk, with a bookstand at eye level, and an antique typewriter at my fingers. Stretching out from me in all directions were rows of similar desks, and to each was chained a person. The girl to my left looked over in my direction. "Oh good. You're awake. I hope you aren't feeling too bad.'

"The voice was strangely familiar. I'd heard it over the phone years before. "Aren't you Linda Blanchard?' I asked.

"'That's right, Mr. Carruthers.'

"'But you gafiated years ago.'

"'I'm afraid not, Mr. Carruthers; no more than you have.'

"She was interrupted by a deep voice from the front of the room. "You! Blanchard! Stop the talking. You're not at a bloody convention now. Get typing. There's another five sacks to get through before morning.'

"Linda's face twisted despairingly, and her hands started to flex on the keyboards. On her bookstand was a copy of a badly dittoed fanzine, its print barely visible in the dim lighting. My heart leapt out to her as I recognized it as a copy of James Styles' CRUX. Whatever was going on here was cruel and unusual punishment.

"There was no such fanzine on my bookstand, and I allowed myself the luxury of looking around further. We were in a large warehouse and, having discovered Linda, I was now prepared for the shadowy features of hundreds of fans long considered gafiates. Between the rows of desks scuttled lesser creatures, taking typed papers and exchanging fanzines. The clattering of typewriters wasn't quite the soundtrack that I'd have associated with a Dantesque vision, but the screams as knotted typing fingers surrendered to R.S.I. fitted ideally. A stooped figure paused by my desk and cackled.

"'You're a new one, aren't you? Well, you'd better get your two pagers done, else you'll find yourself here with Poor Mike. Poor Mike couldn't write 'em proper, could he? Kept trying to put bits of cockroach wing in with every letter, didn't he? Poor Mike!' The remains of a once proud fan looked up at me, and added, 'You'll tell me if the Chivas Regal arrives, won't you?' and then scuttled on, thrusting a tattered slouch hat onto the mass of lank hair that plastered its skull.

"I'd scarcely recovered from this apparition when my desk was thumped by a horny fist. "Well Carruthers, nice to see that the master has snared another one. We'll get plenty of work out of you, and we need it. Bloody Bergeron just cracked. Said if he had to write one more nice letter to Avedon he'd puke all over the typewriter. We'll have to demote him to gofer. Still, sooner or later we'll get her too.

"'Now the routine here is nice and simple. You write your share of two pagers and we feed you. If you don't, we don't feed you.' He smirked and then added, "Of course you'll be working on the slush pile at first, but, if you do a really good job you'll get promoted to writing letters to HOLIER THAN THOU.'

"So saying, he placed a copy of a tattered fanzine in front of me. It was called TAANSTAAFL. It had been typed straight to stencil using a $25 Coles typewriter, with the ribbon in, and featured three stories by the editor plus artwork from his thirteen year old sister. "The boss says that you've got to write a positive and encouraging letter to that one, concentrating on the time you found a collection of obscure player piano rolls in the outhouse of a macrobiotic garlic freak.'

"I shuddered and started the letter.

"It went on like that for weeks. At night we were allowed to slip to the floor and sleep a good five hours. Every six hours gofers who had fallen into disfavour brought around bedpans. Every twelve hours gofers in even worse standing brought around take-away chicken from McDonalds. I determined to get away.

"My first plan failed abysmally. I'd collected loose staples for months, and had fashioned them into a rough file with which I'd hacked through my chains. Then, under the cover of the dim lighting, I'd secreted myself into a mailbag full of completed letters. But I'd failed to consider the extra weight I'd added to the bag. After a suffocating, jolting trip to the post office, the bag was stamped "Insufficient postage' and was returned to the workhouse. I suffered the indignity of writing replies to TREKzines which had asked Harry for contributions to the "Bring back the Enterprize' Fund and the pain of an "Insufficient Postage' stamp on my butt.

"It was only once I'd won my way back into the good books, and was writing replies to MAINSTREAM and FUCK THE TORIES that I got to put my second plan into action. I carefully incorporated passages of SMOFish code into my letters and, in a matter of months the Surrey Limpwrists, led by Comrades Hanna and Nicholas, in their helicopter gunship "Kill the Fuckers,' liberated the workshop.

"The Yanks were all enrolled in a re-education programme to help them to overcome the effects of their incarceration, in the most ideologically sound manner, you understand. I gather that the process has taken rather longer than expected, which is why you just don't get that many fans at conventions nowadays."

Patrick frowned. "But I got a letter from Harry just a month ago."

"True," Carruthers replied. "The Comrades found it expedient to keep the workshop going for a while, until the re-education programme could get into full swing. They even kept Harry on, for his signature. They assure me that they're gradually winding it down. I guess the prices they're getting from the paper recyclers might have a little to do with how slow the winding-down process is. Harry's little business keeps three paper mills supplied, you know."

Carruthers took a long swig of his drink. "In the meantime, should you ever get the chance to visit Hagerstown, avoid it, however attractive it may seem."

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