"Roll up, roll up! Get your antimatter here! Gravitons, superstrings, Higgs bosons — all going cheap. Every proton has a lifetime guarantee! Buy caloric, aether and nebulium while theories last. Special offer on orgone and vril! Dried ghosts, astrographs, universal meters. Superconductors and Bose-Einstein condensates. Athanors and alembics. Test tubes and Bunsen burners, if anyone still uses them."
I switched on Markor's Domestic Star to spotlight the stock. It had taken all afternoon to set up the booth, and I didn't want to have to take everything home again. As the scientists began walking in, I mentally assigned a sales target to each experimenter.
Pale from lack of sun, or tanned scary colours from exposure to strange rays, the early arrivals stared at each other as if they'd forgotten what other people looked like. Their expressions told of the despair of failure, or the voyeuristic exhilaration of uncovering the universe's secrets. Only a few remained unmarked, as if they'd discovered an anti-ageing drug, or been silently replaced by a robot they'd foolishly made in their own image. I recognised most of the arriving scientists, but one face was missing.
I don't remember where this story came from. However, I can make a plausible guess.
In the mid-1990s my main hobby was songwriting, as I harboured ambitions of getting a band together, releasing records, becoming a rock star, and so forth. It's perhaps just as well that I never got very far, because I enjoyed the songwriting rather more than the sometimes tedious business of rehearsing and performing. The discipline of practice and productivity smoothed my later move into writing fiction, which is similar to songwriting except that you don't have to recruit four other musicians, agree on a creative direction, and persuade them all to turn up at rehearsals.
Back then, I recorded dozens of songs at home on primitive equipment. For a song called "Monster Movies", I experimented with sampling. Whenever an old B-movie appeared on TV, I taped the soundtrack while watching the film, making notes of interesting dialogue or sound effects so that afterward I could extract the best snippets. I watched a fair few of those old sci-fi and horror flicks, paying close attention to ensure I didn't miss anything, since any sample suitable for use in a song would be no more than a few seconds long.
The experience of closely watching a batch of B-movies must have stuck in my head and subconsciously inspired "Demonstration Day", the first draft of which I wrote only a couple of years later. Many of those old films featured a stereotypical mad scientist, meddling with Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. What struck me most about those scientists was that they appeared to lead a terribly isolated existence. They often operated alone in remote laboratories, which might be convenient for research into unnatural creatures or mysterious forces, but meant forgoing the supportive benefits of working with fellow researchers. Despite their pioneering achievements in the fields of corpse reanimation and superintelligent machines, these cinematic scientists almost certainly never attended conferences, taught students, or published in peer-reviewed journals.
I therefore conceived the idea that B-movie mad scientists would occasionally want to get together at a secret convention, where they could discuss wacky theories and demonstrate their insanely dangerous experiments. Such a gathering would give me the opportunity to have fun writing about all sorts of sci-fi clichés.
The main characters would be scientists with a range of quirks and esoteric expertise, all furiously competing for prestige. I realised that I also needed a foil for the scientists, a character who interacted with them but had an outside perspective. Hence I created the role of Drake, the salesman who attended the convention to promote his catalogue of scientific supplies. B-movie laboratories are usually full of impressive-looking gear, little of which can be found in regular stores, and so Drake's Devices became the one-stop shop for all the mad scientist's equipment needs.
"Demonstration Day" is about Drake's attempts to locate a missing scientist who is one of his best customers. During composition, I found it easy enough to come up with amusing incidents. The hard part was crafting a sufficiently strong plot to sustain the story. Writing comedy is not simply a matter of stringing jokes together — you also need all the usual elements of plot, character and setting. Indeed, my guiding principle for constructing a comedy is that if all the jokes are discounted, the remaining framework should still be a structurally sound story.
Like most of my early stories, this one went through several versions and submissions before reaching a saleable state. In 2002 I submitted the fourth draft to Oceans of the Mind for their upcoming Science Fiction Mysteries theme issue. The editor replied saying that he'd filled the issue, but he liked the story enough to take it for another mysteries issue he planned to run in 2003.
This was my sixth story sale, and the payment was bigger than my five previous sales put together — partly because "Demonstration Day" was longer than most of my previous work, but mainly because Oceans of the Mind paid me six cents per word. It marked my first sale at professional rates, and consequently felt like a big step in my nascent career.
The story eventually appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Oceans of the Mind. Although this was my 6th story sale in order of acceptance, it became my 13th story in order of publication. (You can see by this difference that the chronological listing in my bibliography doesn't give the full picture of how my progress felt at the time.)
"Demonstration Day" received a small degree of recognition, in the form of a couple of very favourable reviews, followed by an Honourable Mention in Year's Best SF edited by Gardner Dozois. The reviews constituted the most positive press I'd yet had. In early 2004 I thought to myself, "Hmmm... people liked the story, and it was a lot of fun to write. Why don't I do a sequel?"
I wrote the original story with little thought of a sequel. Indeed, if I'd realised it had series potential, with hindsight I would have written "Demonstration Day" slightly differently. (For instance, I probably wouldn't have used first-person viewpoint, which is fine for a single story but becomes restrictive in the longer term.) Nevertheless, I subsequently ploughed ahead and created a "continuity file" with all the information about Drake's universe, which expands with each story.
Oceans of the Mind subsequently published two sequels: "Best In Show" and "The Franklin J. Berneville Memorial Trophy for Saving The World From Extreme Peril". Meanwhile, I sold "Demonstration Day" as a reprint to Jim Baen's Universe, who also paid me professional rates. In terms of revenue and sequels, "Demonstration Day" has been my most successful story to date. It's also one of my favourites among my own work.