Michelle and I were extremely tense. I could hardly bear it. “My” category was up next, Best Australian Science Fiction Novel.
We were at the Aurealis Awards. My fourth published novel, TIME MACHINES REPAIRED WHILE-U-WAIT, was a finalist in the category. My previous books had all made the finals in their years as well, but this was the first time we had come to the award ceremony, which was in Brisbane.
The theatre hosting the awards night was full to bursting with industry professionals from across the country: writers, artists, publishers, editors, and of course their long-suffering partners and spouses. It was hot. I kept being surprised by the tropical heat in Brisbane, and in this theatre, jam-packed with speculative fiction enthusiasts, even more so. The women looked fabulous, all dressed up for a great night out; the blokes rather less so, but some definitely made the effort. I had broken with a lifetime of accumulated rock-hard tradition and was wearing a proper long-sleeved button-down shirt. Because, after all, it was at least mathematically possible, a one in five chance, that my humble, scruffy, red-haired step-child of a book might win. I did not think much of its chances. It was up against some vastly talented authors with amazing books, and I was a fat schlub from Perth who sweated too much.
But my book did win. The universe tilted in my direction. The emcee announced my name, and the title of my meagre book.
Michelle clamped her hand on my leg and gripped it as if her life depended on it, and made a great exclamation. I could not speak. I was staring at the big screen, where it said that K.A. Bedford had won the Aurealis Award for Best Australian Science Fiction Novel, for 2009. I still could not speak.
The audience erupted. I had never heard anything like it.
And that was true. I had not.
High school. Fifteen years old. Big, overweight, a picture of oppressed misery, shuffling through my days and nights. Bullied, hated, rejected, mocked, teased. On reflection, I am not sure why I did not consider ending my life. Probably one important reason was my best friend Michael (my murdered best friend Michael), and the other was my family. I couldn’t do that to them. So I carried on, slogging through life.
The one thing I loved at this time was science fiction. I had grown up during the late 1960s and the 1970s, a time unironically referred at the time as “the Space Age”. People seriously called it that. Because the very air seemed to vibrate with the promise and excitement of a future in space, in orbit, on Mars, on the Moon, away from Earth, doing big, exciting things. It was “the High Frontier”. There was talk of gigantic orbital space colonies. Asteroid mining. Lunar cities. Commercial spaceflight. Men on Mars by the 1980s.
Some of my earliest memories are bound up in the manned space program, and especially with the Apollo Program. I was six when I saw, on blurry, confusing, black and white TV, men land on the Moon. I did not understand, at the time, what I was seeing. Even though our local TV station had round-the-clock live coverage, with a panel of talking heads in a studio trying to interpret events for the audience, there was still a profound gap in understanding between what the pictures showed and what we understood. There was more helpful information in the audio feed. “Contact light.” “The Eagle has landed.”
That there would soon be more people on the Moon was not even a question. We, and it was absolutely understood that this was a global “we” moment, would not only go back, but we would go on, and out into the dark.
It was the late 1960s. STAR TREK was a thing. People would use the word “groovy” in a sentence unironically.
My sense of who and what I was was formed in this period. On one hand my world was all about the mad, giddy excitement of space, but also about the paralysing terror of the atom. This period was also the first peak of the Cold War. Kids in America having to do bomb drills, hiding under their desks. I don’t recall anything like that. Maybe, most people here thought we were too far away from anywhere worth nuking. I never thought that. I spent a lot of time thinking about this, wondering about a hypothetical bomb dropped on the centre of Perth–would the blast effects reach as far as my school in Wembley? Depended on the size of the bomb, really. A ten-megaton weapon, almost certainly.
Age 15 was very much like a post-apocalyptic wasteland of the soul, but I was no Mad Max, roaming the waste lands in a hot muscle car, sorting out bad guys. My thing, as I say, was science fiction. I read books, and I watched movies and TV (at a time when most movies and TV in the genre were rubbish), and hung out with my couple of friends.
And I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote and I wrote some more. At age 15, not yet into the Unbearable Weight of Being in Year 11 that would ultimately cause my breakdown, my nightly homework burden was more manageable. I was able to find time for writing. And so I wrote. Wrote wrote wrote wrote wrote. I wrote in the morning and I wrote in the evening. I wrote all day long, in any spare moment I had.
God, but it was all rubbish. Very prolific rubbish.
Some days I could manage maybe three entire short stories.
My output was ridiculous. I knew nothing about editing or rewriting. I only knew what I read in other people’s short stories, which meant Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, among others. I read loads of their stuff. I did have a rough understanding of story mechanics. My Year 10 (third-year) English teacher, a nice lady actually from England, was very encouraging, and told me to keep at it.
The school instituted a program of writing awards. Each month there would be a prize for best story.
I entered often. Most months there were entries from other students, too, but some months it was just me.
Once, for some reason, the school admin decided to take advantage of having the entire student body present in the gym for an assembly in order to award that month’s lucky winner of the writing award. Which, not for the first time, was me.
The gym gave everything a very distinct sort of acoustic vibe. The merest squeak of a chair, or quiet cough or murmur behind hands, were all not so much magnified as smeared across the entire space, rendered audible but almost indistinct. And there was a smell of sweaty socks in shoes, of breath expelled, of accumulated human warmth.
Then, the headmaster starts going through the program, his various remarks, introducing departmental heads and their thrilling reports. Kids kicking chair legs, shifting their weight in their seats, restless, concealing yawns, glancing at one another, maybe furtively passing notes. Needing a piss.
But, wait: now the headmaster is proud to announce–and here it comes!–your gut knots up, you’re instantly sweating down your back, your shirt sticking to the back of the plastic chair–the winner of this month’s writing award. “Please give a big hand…” And he announces my name.
I make a thunderous, clattering, nervous noise with my chair as I get up, my mouth dry. I stumble and trip on chair legs as I make my way to the outside aisle. I can hear my footsteps, my heartbeats, my hair growing. Even my hair is embarrassed on my behalf.
I go up on stage, in the ringing silence. You could hear mice blinking behind the rear walls.
The headmaster and my English teacher make a big fuss. There is a bit of “come on, then!” applause. I am made of ash at this point. They hand me a certificate. I mumble something.
Time Traveller Adrian, watching this from behind, up near the back of the stage, a tall middle-aged, plump man going grey, shakes his head, wishing he could murder those kids out there, withholding their support. He remembers being hated. He remembers being the unlovable virgin the girls would not hold hands with in ballroom dancing classes. He has tried, tried hard, in the intervening decades, to understand why they were like this. Was I really so loathsome? Was it group dynamics? Was I just the designated Hate Target, like Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984, subject to the ritual 2- Minute Hate, the person you were told to hate, only you were never sure exactly why?
Time Traveller Adrian, watching the silent auditorium stay silent as a lonely boy makes his way back to his seat, wonders why even the boy’s friends seem quiet? Were they quiet? Did they say anything, maybe privately afterwards? The Time Traveller remembers nobody much wanting to read anything the boy wrote. Maybe everyone’s just embarrassed. Maybe the boy is embarrassing himself and should stop. Certainly nobody here other than teachers is encouraging him.
The Time Traveller also visits the Aurealis Awards, and watches the grown-up man receive his award. The man makes a rambling, awkward, not-expecting-to-win speech, being careful to thank Michelle before doing anything else. He says he doesn’t want to be that actress at the Oscars who thanks everybody except her wheelchair-bound husband, in the audience, with a camera on him.
The Time Traveller blends in with this crowd and is sometimes mistaken for the award-winner, except the Time Traveller is much older and lighter. He watches, during the afterparty in the lobby outside the theatre, packed to the gunwales, the author sweat like he’s never sweated before. He knows what the problem is. The author is confused. While the author has won this prize once before (for ECLIPSE, in 2005) he’s never been here to receive it. It makes a difference, being there, in front of your peers. It’s a new experience. It’s shocking, getting called up, someone handing you the actual award, and then standing there as a big room full of people cheer and clap and generally thunder their stonking approval at you. All but one of them people you’ve never previously met, and most of them have never encountered you outside the pages of your books.
And they are telling you, you are one of us. We are your people. Welcome.