among other things. I'm sad.
I was just musing last week that he was still alive, as far as I knew he was spry and probably in his nineties (and he was 93, turns out).
My mind always turns to demographics, in this case the science fiction field. Did you know (I ask myself) that Frederik Pohl outlived C.M. Kornbluth* by 55 years? And Pohl was older than Kornbluth by three and a half years, too.
* Pohl and Kornbluth were frequent collaborators, most famously on The Space Merchants.
I know I am very much GAFIA. It's been nearly twenty years since I have trod the byways of fandom. I still have lots of friends in science fiction fandom, but -- for instance -- it's been years since I knew the names of TAFF and DUFF winners.
But. Spokane, the new winner of the Worldcon race? Boggle.
I just realized that Samuel R. Delany has now been a published novelist for 50 years (The Jewels of Aptor, 1962). Gee! I just had a conversation with him three weeks or so ago; I wish that I'd thought of that to congratulate him.
He was my favorite writer as I passed from adolescence to adulthood, and his writing colored my theories about dealing with life and people. I was fortunate to stumble upon science fiction fandom* -- the writing part, not the movie and tv part -- and somehow, David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer got it in their head that I would be a perfect houseboy** for Samuel Delany, who needed one to take care of his mudane life while he worked his very late book.
So I went. I should have written down all of it; now, it's faint, except I was very happy, and amazed. We talked constantly, and I felt stretched; I wish I had a teacher like that. Chip -- which everybody called him -- was frank, penetrating, the most intelligent man I know, and, especially, was perpetually fascinated; he said that everybody was interesting. Ever since, I tried to keep that belief.
I'm grateful for many things that were, really, random, but they happened to me young enough that they shaped me.
* thank you, Patrick and Teresa.
** some people snerk at this. whatever.
A story about a succesful, unpopular lawyer in the 1820s in the Border States, who moonlights as a slave trader. A slave in his thirties with consumption was sold by the lawyer; he dies two days later. The lawyer covers it up; the only witness was another slave, a blacksmith, and a slave's word is no good in court. The purchaser knows he got cheated, but can't do anything.
The lawyer and purchaser meet by chance that night, while the purchaser is getting his horse shod by the blacksmith. The lawyer decides to be fair, or at least half-fair. But the purchaser growls, and reaches for (the lawyer thinks) his gun. The lawyer shoots the purchaser. But the purchaser's hand is empty, and he is dead. The lawyer is quickly surrounded; the unarmed man, dead, and the lawyer, alive and holding the smoking gun. The lawyer, panicked, turns to the blacksmith slave. The slave is silent.
The Hugo ballot for science fiction is out. The novel category, five items, has two novels that were copy edited by me: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, and Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi.
Every time I proofread the computer security brochure that features large pictures of machines and the prominent headline "Serve and Protect", I shudder.
To my relief, Amazon is finally announcing the 11th volume of the complete Sturgeon, The Nail and the Oracle, for July 2007. It's going to be introduced by Harlan Ellison. What do you want to bet he finds a way to claim that Sturgeon has been inadequately appreciated by the philistines of the science fiction world?
Jim Baen was a complicated man. I worked for him for a while, and I appreciate the employment he gave me at a time when I badly needed it; he was, on the whole, a reasonable and pleasant man to work for.
I just wanted to note, briefly, that Baen's place in science fiction was easy to summarize incompletely, and that this was regularly done not just by his detractors -- and he did publish some authors whose worldviews ranged (for me) from simpleminded to revolting -- but also by his advocates and fellow-travelers. Certainly, Baen represented the harder sf side of things, and the libertarian bent, and the individualist. But he often took these things, well, more seriously than others. For example, he was one of Joanna Russ's publishers, and when he was the editor of Galaxy, he serialized We Who Are About To... -- a novel that was a response to Poul Anderson's Virgin Planet and similar Lost Humans Who Must Re-establish Civilization stories, except in this one the protagonist understands that her place in the new heirarchy is to breed and be used until they all die (because the planet is truly inimical to them); instead she kills everyone and spends the last half of the book having reveries while she dies. It is one of the most controversial and misunderstood books in science fiction history, a book that was vilified by the conservative side of science fiction, and received a juvenile, fatheaded dismissive review from Spider Robinson, who (along with many others) described it as a book about a "coward". Why did Jim Baen publish it? My guess is that he saw that it was a strong individualist statement, and that was more important than whether it was a nasty feminist book or a book that criticised the politics of other books he liked. He also published a definitive edition of the Alyx stories, incorporating Picnic on Paradise, another mercilessly grim lost-people book that is one of the most wonderfully written books the field has ever seen, every page a stylistic delight.
Anyway, I don't have any way to wrap this up, really. Jim Baen was a complex figure, and I suspect the obituaries are going to reduce him more than obituaries usually do: especially those that praise him. He is a real loss, not just to traditional science fiction but to the field.
I've seen several people link approvingly to the Seattle P-I's obituary of Octavia Butler. One hesitates to say anything like this, because it seems churlish, especially in the face of a respectful obit, which is a good deal more than science fiction figures used to merit; but: I think it's a pretty bad obit, that in the course of calling Butler unique covers a few easy, superficial, not especially unique things about Butler while entirely missing what made her indeed unique.
First, it gets basic facts wrong or leaves them out -- her first novel wasn't Kindred, and it wouldn't hurt when referring to the famous Clarion workshop to actually name it. Second, the people it directly quotes are extremely minor figures in sf*, who mean very little even to regular readers of sf and certainly mean nothing to the general public. Third, it's historically ignorant and earnestly club-footed:
Butler's work wasn't preoccupied with robots and ray guns, Howle said, but used the genre's artistic freedom to explore race, poverty, politics, religion and human nature.
"She stands alone for what she did," Howle said. "She was such a beacon and a light in that way."
Butler did stand alone, but not because her work wasn't preoccupied with robots and rayguns -- by the time Butler came along, no one of importance had been preoccupied with these things for three generations -- and not for using the genre's freedom to explore any of the things mentioned, all of which are and were done by others; "she was such a beacon and a light in that way" is just so much cant.
The whole piece leans on her as a social sf writer, speaking of her handling of issues like race, slavery, etc. She did that, but it isn't what set her apart. She was the greatest modern writer of biological sf. She was a piercing thinker, not just about women's or racial issues but about anything she considered. She was truly unflinching, thinking through all the consequences of her ideas, creating work that was deeply disturbing not because it tried to be but because it carried absolute conviction. Butler never shrank from her vision. She was Tiptree without Tiptree's bravura theatrics but with firmer control and zero sentimentality. Butler was relentless. When you entered one of her stories, you needed to be ready to be shaken to the core.
That is what we have lost.
*This is certainly not meant as a commentary on the the character or skills of the people quoted, two of whom I know and think are terrific people.
I just discovered that Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary -- the publishing industry standard -- misspells Isaac Asimov as "Issac".
I am not kidding.
Greg Egan, "Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies" (1992 Interzone, reissued in Egan's Axiomatic, 1995)
Egan is as interesting as any science fiction writer alive, but his huge strength -- endlessly surprising ideas that open beneath the reader like trapdoors, each trapdoor sufficient for an astonishing story by itself -- is mitigated by areas in which he is just passable: characterization, style, tone, motivation, dialogue. He's not bad at any of these -- reading Egan is never painful -- but there'd be very little reason to read him if not for his ideas (and his development of the ideas).
"Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies," unfortunately, isn't one of his well developed stories. The idea is interesting -- humanity has had some kind of mass sea change in which prevailing belief systems manifest as psychic forces that compel all within their range to believe, and the city of the story is divided into zones of belief that vie and shift, with the protagonist one of a minority who seem to have kept free by constantly keeping between the zones, never being overwhelmed by any one belief system.
This is interesting, but Egan uncharacteristically only gives his idea a single twist, and that a light one (the paths being traveled by the uncaptured are, perhaps, themselves a zone, and existence in a non-believing state is no more subject to free will than any other). The rest of the story is a kind of mechanical exposition of a day spent as this kind of philosophical nomad, including an unconvincing and unnecessary attempt to explain how the situation ("the Meltdown") came to pass, ending in an argument over the twist explained above, but leaving the protagonist fundamentally unchanged -- and his decision to leave his companion does not signal any deep change in the protagonist, but rather in the companion.
There is some decent business with the protagonist trying to work through thoughts while subject to a constant barrage of psychic philosophical propaganda; but the story would have been much better if there were more of that, more development, more anything, really. It's an idea sketch, without even a plot draped over it. Strangely, it's the last story in the Axiomatic collection, so presumably either Egan or the publisher thought it one of his best. It isn't, but even failed Egan is intriguing.
And then, two days ago, even worse news.
Damon Knight, 1922 - 2002
Arguably the most important figure in modern science fiction, with an unmatched breadth of accomplishments: he made crucial contributions to the field as a writer, editor, critic, organizer, historian, and educator.
As a writer, he's best known for short stories, especially "The Country of the Kind," "Stranger Station," "Masks," "Not with a Bang," and "I See You." He is most famous outside the field for having written the short story "To Serve Man," which became probably the most famous Twilight Zone episode.
He had always been a good but sporadic writer, but late in in his life he made a sudden leap as a novelist; the last two he wrote are the most ambitious and best of his life, deeply strange and creepy.
As an editor, he founded Orbit, an original anthology series (21 volumes) that revolutionized American science fiction in the late sixties, central to the American half of science fiction's new wave. The stories were literary, often experimental, and entirely eschewed space travel and other traditional elements of science fiction, because Knight thought they were played out and belonged to another era. It was in Orbit that Knight discovered and developed Gene Wolfe, who published most of his early stories there.
He was the first serious critic of science fiction; his columns, reprinted in the book IN SEARCH OF WONDER, were both insightfully appreciative and instructively nasty, and remain excellent reading today, whether or not one is familiar with the stories he's writing about.
He founded the Science Fiction Writers of America, and he co-founded the Milford Conference, which was the first regular workshop for professional science fiction writers.
He wrote the book The Futurians, a well-researched and anecdotally wonderful history of a group of 1940s fans that ended up having wide professional influence on the field (they included Frederik Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth, James Blish, Judith Merril, Virginia Kidd, Donald Wollheim, Knight, and Isaac Asimov).
He co-founded Clarion, the first and by far most successful science fiction workshop for unpublished writers, which has had a profound effect on American science fiction of the last thirty years; among its graduates are Bruce Sterling, Kim Stanley Robinson, Octavia Butler, George RR Martin, Vonda McIntyre, George Alec Effinger, Martha Soukup, and dozens of other writers I forget right now.
He took easily to the internet, and was a major figure on the science fiction round table on GEnie, which was the central online hangout of science fiction. He was acerbic, goofy, and kind. I literally can't think of a death among the major figures of the field that would upset me more. It's been a bad few weeks.
R.A. Lafferty, 1914-2002
His death has been a long time coming -- he was a longtime alcoholic, and was a creaky old man when I last saw him twenty years ago -- but it still makes me dreadfully sad.
Lafferty was one of the true originals; there was no other writer like him. His style was recognizable in a single sentence; his narrative voice was a ludicrously overblown and self-conscious tall-tale teller's voice, suffused in Irishness, American Indian mythology, conservative Augustinian Catholicism, and just plain crankiness. He was also flat-out hilarious.
His work was published as science fiction by default, not because it fit there exactly but because it fit worse anywhere else. He wrote some of the best weird stories ever, and it's almost futile to begin listing them: "Nine Hundred Grandmothers", "Eurema's Dam", "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne", "Continued on Next Rock" (the best geology story ever written), "Narrow Valley", "Slow Tuesday Night", "Entire and Perfect Chrysolite". . . and splendid outpouring over three decades.
He was an erratic novelist, though even at his shakiest there was always his incomparable voice; at his best -- Fourth Mansions, maybe, or Past Master -- they were marvelous. He started writing late, not publishing until he was in his forties (as an alternative to drinking, he said), and he'd written nothing new for perhaps the last fifteen years, maybe more.
He will be terribly missed.