Conviction – Syncon 88 – Convention Book – The Guests of Honour – Spider Robinson

Transcribed by Elaine Walker, all typos faithfully reproduced.

Conviction, aka Syncon 88 was in Sydney in 1988 and was the 27th Australian NatCon. This is a small excerpt from the Con Book, as a ‘biography’ of one of the GoHs, Spider Robinson, written by John Varley

Spider Robinson

Your first question probably has to do with his name. Was he born “Spider Robinson” or something else? That’s a tough question – and so are all the others. Real facts about “Spider” are hard to come by. Lessons learned early in life are the hardest to break, and interviewers approaching “Spider” soon find he will answer nothing until he’s made his one free phone call to his lawyer.

But, through diligent research and a few modest bribes, I have unearthed a sketchy biography of this man known as “Spider”, and I’d like to share some of the facts with you – at least, the ones where the statute of limitation has expired.


The tiny kingdom of Freedonia lies wedged between Chile and Argentina. It is the only place in the world where Esperanto is the official language. There, on a date lost to history, in the capital city of Hundofliki (in English, roughly, “Dogpatch”), a child was born to Jackie and Bill Rubekolofilo (roughly, “Son-of-the-Red-Breasted-Nuisance”). Christened Juan Araneo Rubekolofilo, the child quickly picked up a nickname, “Sputinfaneto” (Baby-who-spits-up-a-lot), even more quickly shortened to “Sputter”.

His childhood was pleasant, pastoral, bucolic. His father Bill was a penguin rancher, and his mother Jackie worked in the government office of Esperantisation. Freedonia had been settled during the brief, almost unnoticed, period of Basque Imperialism, so Jackie’s days were spent turning Basque words into Esperanto words – no easy task, as she delighted in telling her family. Sputter’s brothers and sisters – Wheezer, Froggy, Stymie, Darla, Alfalfa, Farina, Buckwheat and Oatmeal – spent their time at the pointless, distasteful tasks familiar to all rural children, taking time out now and then to put on shows and make silent movies.

But Sputter was a rebellious youth. Old police blotters from Hundofliki tell the story: early arrests for breaking gumball machines, annoying the neighbours’ sheep, slandering the State, unauthorised possession of a nuclear weapon and punning in the forbidden Basque language culminated in a sensational trial on the charge of first degree anserhauto-ansero (literally, “Goosing a goose”, but, more accurately, “Disgusting behaviour with waterfowl”), the bird, in this case, being under age. Sputter was able to avoid prison through a linguistic technicality (something common in Freedonia at the time) by pointing out the correct charge should have been pingvenoseksa, “unnatural acts with a penguin”. Since no one in Freedonia had the stomach to even write this work down, much less charge him with it, the case was dismissed. Thus, early in life, did Sputter learn the power of language. Other demonstrations were soon to follow. Esperantisation threw Freedonia into chaos. The economy was rocked when no one could decide on which word to use for “farmer”, a situation that threw thousands of honest Freedonian peasants into unemployment and created masses of refugees streaming into town searching for something to be. Sputter’s brother, Wheezer, was shocked to learn that his own name, in Esperanto, meant “my bladder is about to burst”, and his sister, Darla, was disgraced when her name was translated as “she who pulled the train after the homecoming game”. That was nothing compared to Alfalfa, whose name would not translate at all, and who had to cease to exist. This would have been hard enough for the Rubekolofilo family, having their beloved Alfalfa gone, if he hadn’t been so noisy about it. His moans of hunger kept them awake many a night.

Sputter rise to his brother’s defense. He led marches through Hundofliki, carrying placards reading, ‘SAVE _________________”. the government was thrown into disarray, and soon toppled. Sputter and his family were forced to seek asylum with the neighbouring Argentines, who were shocked and dismayed to learn of Freedonia’s existence in the first place. An invading army soon remedied that situation, and Freedonia slipped into the mists of History.

But not Sputter. He found work in a slot-machine factory, and soon was losing all his wages testing the devices. (An interesting sidelight: Spider Robinson invented both the cherry and the sliced watermelon. Every time either one of them comes up in Reno, Vegas or Atlantic City, he gets a small royalty. Some years this adds up to as much as $30 Canadian.) He gathered his humble belongings: a set of lockpicks, a favourite blackjack, a month’s receipts from the slot-machine company’s safe, and boarded a tramp steamer, his departure unnoticed except by a flock of female penguins who wept disconsolately on the dock.

He spent three lonely months on Ellis Island – this despite the fact that the huge immigrant facility had been closed down for seven years. He later claimed the place reminded him of home, and was so he was reluctant to leave it. Reports of wild parties, shipments of illegal contraband, loud guitar music, and hundreds of irate harbour seals around Ellis at this time are still being investigated, and probably have no basis in fact.

Sputter arrived in New York to a tumultuous ticker-tape parade. The parade was for John Glenn, but that didn’t matter to the starry-eyed boy from the hinterlands. This was New York! The Big Apple (in Esperanto: Grandegapomo)! Here he would make a name for himself; here he would make his fortune! Two years later he slipped over the border into Canada, intact but for a patch on the seat of his britches, which he left in a bloodhound’s mouth.

How did this come to pass? Details are sketchy, and certain matters still in litigation cannot be discussed here due to a series of restraining orders. Also, the grand jury is still deliberating, and there is a chance that Governor Cuomo won’t sign the extradition papers. Far be it for me to prejudice pending legal matters. So, circumspectly …

He quickly changed his name to the handle under which we all now know him. He purchased an accent in a shop on 42nd Street. It sounds like The Bronx, but you figure it out. He went to work at the U.N. who hired him on the spot, when he pointed out the vast organisation had no Basque-Esperanto simultaneous translators on it staff. The work was to Spider’s liking. Since no one at the U.N. spoke either Basque OR Esperanto, there was scant need for his services. This left him with much time on his hands to pursue his other interests – most of which we will not discuss here, for reasons mentioned above.

But three of Spider’s interests during this period bear mentioning. The first is his music, He began singing on the streets, guitar case open to receive the tips of appreciative New Yorkers. Before long he had earned four or five dollars, and was able to take his act into ‘beatnik’ coffee houses, where musicians performed for no salary, for the sheer joy of their art. So meteoric was his rise in this career that, in no time at all, he had a busy schedule of performances in all the better burlesque houses, paying only nominal fees for his bookage.

The second was his interest in punning, which went from a mild affliction to a galloping pandemic during this period of his life. The less said about it the better … but it is rumoured that his flight to Canada was precipitated by a pun involving an aardvark, a car park, and a card shark. Luckily it is lost in history.

The third concerns what Spider always called his ‘weird stories’. Back in Freedonia, perched on a rail above the penguin pens, he used to regale his brothers and sisters with odd little tales involving spaceships, ray guns, trips to the moon, and a bar where the strangest people were apt to drop in for a drink. Now, in New York, he got the idea of writing some of these stories on paper and sending them in to magazines and book publishers. They kept getting rejected, but Spider was undaunted. He wrote more, and kept sending them in. His friends told him to give up, that nothing would ever come of it. With fierce determination, Spider kept at it. But his friends were right. Nothing ever came of it. Spider now lives in total obscurity in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he breeds penguins.


All lies, of course.

Last year, I was invited to be Guest of Honour at TusCon, in Arizona. Soon, as cons always do, they asked me to provide them with bio and biblio information. The prospect filled me with weariness. I have a ten-year-old bibliographical handout somewhere (I’ll update it one of these days), but I can never find them. As to biographical information, I really don’t like giving it out. It’s a personal and illogical position, but there it is. Then, the TusCon people asked me who I’d like to write the bio page about me in the Program Book. I said, if he was not too busy, Spider Robinson would be perfect … and the whole scheme dawned on me. He could do it (if he had the time and if he agreed to do it at all) only if he made up all the facts about me prior to the time of our first meeting. He could tell the truth from then on – if he was so inclined – but he had to make up all the stuff like where born, where educated, names of children etc.

See, though I count Spider as one of my best friends in the world, I really don’t know much about him. Not much factual, anyway. I assumed he didn’t know much about my life, either. So this way, he’d be spared the tedium of asking me questions I didn’t much want to answer, and maybe everybody would get a giggle out of it. Judging from the reaction to his piece at TusCon, it was not a bad idea. And so now, for his sins … you guessed it: he gave me the same set of conditions for CONVICTION, with the same results you have just read.

I’m getting close to two thousand words and I haven’t spent much time listing his books or praising his work, have I? And his books ought to be listed. (Let’s hope someone else has been assigned the task of bibliography, because you won’t get one here.) And as to praising him … for one thing, you got to figure he’s pretty good, or why would CONVICTION have flown him all the way from Vancouver, at considerable expense, to be your Guest of Honour? … If you haven’t read NIGHT OF POWER or MINDKILLER or TELEMPATH, then run, do not walk, to the Huckster’s Room and pick up copies. And if you haven’t read the tales of Callahan’s Place, what are you doing at a science fiction convention, anyhow? Well, maybe you’re just starting out. But read them. I envy you.

(I’m supposed only to discuss Spider here, but it’s impossible not to mention Jeanne. [I assume someone else is writing something about Jeanne – which is great because I wouldn’t want to do anything like the above foolishness, and I don’t know if I have the words for a serious appreciation. And, while Jeanne, like Spider, is someone I’ve only met for short periods of time over the years, they’re both special friends. {And if you know one thing about Jeanne, it is that she is a dancer. And I have never seen her dance. So why do I feel like I have seen her dance?}])

And, in the second (there was a first place up there, somewhere), you don’t get the number of Hugo and Nebula Awards Spider has unless you are a damned good writer. He is a wonderful singer and songwriter and guitar player, too. And I almost forgot to mention STARDANCE, the most moving story I have read in many years, and maybe that is why I feel like I have seen Jeanne dance.

With all that going for him, the puns are a small price to pay.


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