Monthly Archives: July 2009

The Charles N. Brown Memorials

Over the weekend I attended the Charles N. Brown memorial, which was held in San Francisco at Borderlands Books, Sunday beginning at noon. That event was preceded by a smaller ‘memorial bar-b-q’ at Brown’s house in Oakland on Saturday evening, for the extended staff and a few guests who had flown in from out of town. I drove up from L.A. with Yeong on Saturday, arriving at the house just as the smoke from the grill began seriously billowing.

The mood was congenial and even festive, considering the circumstances, with people reminiscing about Charles, of course, but also catching up with friends they hadn’t seen in months or years. Locus staff were there, along with spouses (including the husbands of Liza and Amelia, Matt and Mars respectively, whom many of us had heard about for years but never met), as were Bob Silverberg and Karen Haber, Connie Willis and husband Courtney, Cecilia Holland, Eileen Gunn and John Berry, Mark Budz and Marina Fitch, and others. Gary Wolfe had flown in Thursday, partly to meet with the lawyer handling the estate. Gary, Liza, and Kirsten were named trustees of the estate in Charles’ will, and will handle the transition of assets to the Locus Foundation, which has a couple loose ends to tie up before becoming an official nonprofit organization.

It had not been announced, but Charles had been cremated, and his ashes were in a box inside a velvet bag, on one of the Craftsman tables in a corner of the living room.

Charles’ estate will be left to the “Locus Science Fiction Foundation”, as it’s formally known. The intent by everyone in the Foundation is to leave the house and collection intact, indefinitely, as a working space and as a resource. The magazine will go on, with no changes anticipated in the near term, though some changes are bound to occur in the longer term as others will necessarily replace what was Charles’ guidance.

Saturday evening the bbq focused on grilled meat — chicken, ribs, sausage, tri-tip — as Charles would have wanted it, someone said. Beer, wine, champagne, and single malt scotch flowed. Stories were told and memories shared.

The crowd at Borderlands on Sunday was somewhat larger — 50 or 60 people, I’d guess, with store managers Alan Beatts and Jude Feldman ably stage-managing, and providing tables of hors d’oeuvres and an open bar. The crowd mingled for some time before Liza called everyone’s attention and introduced Gary Wolfe, who spoke briefly about the “Magus of Oakland” and then introduced the principal speakers, Bob Silverberg, Dick Lupoff, and Connie Willis. They talked about Charles, his place in the field, related memories, told some jokes. A central Silverberg incident (paraphrasing in the 3rd person)–

Charles was an autograph hound early on, and every time he saw Silverberg would present him with three or four of his latest books for signatures. On one occasion Brown and Silverberg were late for an appointment, but Brown insisted on getting an autograph in a particular rare first edition right away. So Silverberg obliged, a bit irritated.

A few months later Silverberg suffered the famous fire that burned his mansion in New York, including the top floor with his office and book collection. He set about rebuilding his collection of his own books, with help from friends — including Brown, who gave to Silverberg the rare first edition he’d gotten autographed.

Which is why someday Silverberg’s executor will wonder why his library contains a copy of one of his own books signed “Here’s another goddamn autograph – Robert Silverberg”.

Dick Lupoff also related memories, and told about being locker buddies with Charles at the local YMCA until just recently. Connie talked about doing the Locus Awards with Charles, and driving…

On one trip to New Mexico for the Jack Williamson Lectureship, Connie was driving with Charles in the car and three other cars following — and she got lost, in Portales, confused by the angled grid of some of the town streets. She made a few turns trying to orient herself, with the other cars following, then finally pulled over and got out to tell the car behind her to lead the way.

She got back in her car and Charles asked what she was doing. She explained that she didn’t know where they were and told the other car to lead. I know exactly where we are, Charles said. You do?? Why didn’t you tell me? Charles replied, Because it’s so much fun watching you get exasperated!

Despite the humor, Connie finally broke down and finished through tears.

Liza followed, also fighting tears. Amelia read an email from the airline, apologizing to passengers for the delay upon landing because of a medical emergency, an email that had been sent to everyone aboard — including Charles. A few others spoke — Ellen Klages, Rina Weisman, Carol Buchanan — and then everyone crowded together for what was called the final Charles Brown photo op. Liza took a couple photos, Amelia a couple, and Alan Beatts a couple — I think they plan to photoshop them together, so that everyone present will appear in a single photo.

Look for it in an upcoming issue of Locus Magazine.

July 20, 1969: Witnessing the Inevitable

I’m old enough to remember — I was 13, in the summer between 8th and 9th grades. Star Trek had ended a couple months earlier, I had survived two weeks in the hospital following a ruptured appendix a couple months before that (“In the Year 2525″ ran endlessly on the radio that played in my shared room), a year or so before that, 2001: A Space Odyssey had premiered, and only a year or two before that, I had started reading science fiction. My family was living in a Chicago suburb, where my father was working as an industrial architect on what became known as Fermilab.

We had a black and white TV, and I remember the grainy pictures as we sat late into the night (if I recall correctly), watching the descent down the ladder and the famous first words. I can’t say I remember, first-hand, much else.

I do remember more of the context, and of events before and after. I was old enough to recognize the historical importance of the event, though young enough that it did not seem quite so awesome, so miraculous, as it did to the adults, who lacked the science fictional perspective I’d just recently acquired.

A couple of weeks later, my family set off on one of our standard summer vacations, driving and camping from one national park to the next. We hit Great Smoky Mountain National Park first, and then we visited Washington DC, staying not in a campground but with cousins of my mother’s in a Washington suburb. Sometimes it’s the peripheral events that linger in the memory as long as the central events: we visited Dulles airport, just so my father could admire the architecture, and there I bought a paperback book called We Reach the Moon by one John Noble Wilford, who I see is still 40 years later writing for the New York Times; the book was an early example of what became known as ‘instant’ books, written and published within days or weeks of a newsworthy event. (And of course, I still have the book.) And I remember, during that stay with my mother’s cousins, explaining to everyone what the film 2001 was ‘really’ about — I had read the book.

Those peripheral events were the context in which I witnessed the first moon landing. Yes, it was amazing and historic… but at the same time, it was a modest achievement, and it was inevitable. There were space stations and starships and a whole future history yet to come. Apollo 11 was significant — but in a way I couldn’t admit or explain to anyone else, not so impressive, really. The really cool stuff was yet to come.

Of course, much has changed since then.

The Heirs of Charles N. Brown

It was a shock — though not completely unexpected. If anything, Charles’ health seemed worse a couple years ago, while recently, despite occasional hospital visits and the recurring downtimes during conventions, his general cheerfulness gave the impression that those mere physical limitations were incidental, that his spirit drove him on. I envied him the energy and determination to continue to travel as he did, to attend half a dozen conventions and conferences every year. He seemed a force of nature — of science fiction.

Among the many things I learned from Charles was that tributes to the dead were to be about the departed more than about oneself. So I will say these things first:

Without presuming to speak for others, for any of the other present or past editors and contributors to Locus, I think that there are many heirs of Charles N. Brown — the many of us who learned and carried out his philosophy of science fiction. Science fiction was not a field to be covered lightly; it mattered. It mattered as a literature, even a philosophy, that was constantly growing, always questioning itself, forever advancing as a dialogue between one book and the next, and the next. Charles always resisted suggestions to expand Locus’ purview and marketability by covering media or gaming or graphic novels, or by reviewing 4th books of trilogies, no matter how popular those books were with readers. Locus was *not* to be the Publishers Weekly of SF, in that sense; its core was always the books that mattered, the writers with something new to say, and, yes, the business developments that kept them all alive.

Here on this first day of the news of his death, questions about the future of Locus remain. Yes, there is a succession plan — there has been a Locus Foundation for several years now, with Locus staff and contributors, as well as big name writer friends and supporters (Connie Willis, Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub), and there have been plans for carrying on the magazine after his death. Everyone associated with Locus intends for the magazine, for its position in the field, to persevere. It will go on.

Now I will turn to more personal reminiscences.

I’ve known Charles since February 1988 (near as I can recall), when my phone rang one day and it was Charles Brown from Locus, asking if I wanted to write a monthly short fiction review column. I’d been sending annual lists of my favorite stories for Locus’ recommended reading lists, with longer and longer letters of comment each year, since the mid-’70s, and he thought I might handle a monthly column. I had no prior publications anywhere, but was flattered and said yes. It seemed to work out. I didn’t meet him until a few months after that phone call, at that year’s Westercon in an oven-baked Phoenix, when he invited me to a Locus soiree in his room (I met Robert Silverberg there too!) He was friendly, though in a quirkish, abrupt way; and you had to get used to those eyes. (And those toes.) Over the months and years, through redlines (columns were sent as hardcopy via snailmail!) and phone calls, he taught me some of the ropes of reviewing — for example, I didn’t need to keep saying “in my opinion” or variations thereof, because bylined reviews were *by definition* opinion — just one of his many lessons not just in journalism, but in his approach to coverage of science fiction in Locus.

Over the years I saw him at conventions and eventually, when the big World SF convention (San Francisco 1993) was close enough to his house in Oakland, saw his amazing residence. It was the first of many visits there over the years — he was unfailingly generous with, and understandably proud of and eager to show off, his house with its spare bedroom space (the Murphy bed adjacent to the downstairs library).

Charles didn’t drive, and on two occasions I provided driving services for road trips with him — in 1999, for three days in New Zealand before Worldcon in Melbourne, then afterward when we drove from Melbourne to Sydney via Canberra, and in 2000, a tour of the Big Island of Hawaii following that year’s Westercon (described with photos here). On those trips especially I saw Charles’ good side — his gourmet delight in dining (his seafood tower on ice at a restaurant in Sydney is an event he continued to recall as a pinnacle eating experience), his eagerness to share his expertise in art at many a museum visit — and his occasional bad side — his impatience with the quirks of others, his abrupt moods, and his seemingly callous disregard for the feelings of others. He could seem aloof, and may be he was, maybe he deserved to be, given his position. In latter years, entire conventions would pass when he would barely notice my presence. I tried not to take it personally; I’ve heard similar stories from others.

In 1997 I volunteered to set up Locus’ website, back in the days when the web was just getting going, and I used the opportunity to learn about HTML and creating webpages at my day job — my 27 years now day job with a large aerospace corporation — to apply that to Locus. He was willing and grateful though cautious to the end; we settled early on, on a limited set of content from the magazine to sample on the website each month, and it wasn’t until very recently — the past six months, with the advent of the News Blog — that he allowed expanded coverage to appear on the website, and that was only because of competition from other websites (not, ahem, because of time limitations on my part).

I’m not sure he always approved of decisions I made about the website (he ran hot and cold over the annual April 1st features, for instance, even though they were originally his idea!), but he was always supportive, always allowing me to make decisions about what he considered an independent publication, even if that distinction was lost of most readers. And so I am grateful to Charles Brown to giving me the opportunity to contribute, in my own modest way, to the field we both loved and cherish.

I’m glad I had a chance to have dinner with him just a couple months ago, as happy an event as any of those Locus convention dinners of yore; I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to speak with him since then… to ask him what he thought of Peter Sculthorpe, to recommend Glenfiddich 15, to talk about current books, a subject on which he always had the advantage. There were always things to talk about with Charles.

Again, finally, though I try not to presume to speak for others — I feel confidant, certainly on my part, that Locus will go on.