GNU Terry Pratchett!

Good day readers. This is Jeff’s daughter Julia, and I hope you don’t mind my taking some of your time.

We lost Terry Pratchett yesterday. It seems like a particularly unfair kind of cruelty to lose him barely a week after we lost Leonard Nimoy. My dad has never found the right Pratchett book to suck him into the series, or maybe he just hasn’t found the time, which is why I’m here talking to you about him instead.

To be entirely honest, I kind of expected to one day get to meet Sir Terry. I imagined that I would quietly say that I was a big fan, ask him to sign a book (Going Postal, probably — it was my first) and then escape before embarrassing myself or discovering too much about my hero.

I’m a little bit of a cynic sometimes, though not nearly as much of one as I pretend to be in public. (Look, the lure of “coolness” is strong, powerful. Don’t talk to me about honesty.) Terry Pratchett was a little bit of a cynic as well, and by ‘a little bit of a cynic’ I mean ‘incredibly unbelievably cynical’. He was also an incredible idealist. I don’t quite know how he managed to be those two things at once, without having Terry Pratchett to show him the way.

As I said, Going Postal was my first Terry Pratchett book. I vaguely recall receiving it as a Christmas or birthday present when I was somewhere around twelve years old, and nothing about it seemed deep or meaningful to me except for how very clever it was. It seemed like delightful, fluffy, brain candy that I devoured like, well, candy, and giggled at nonstop. The first of his books that made me think thoughts about morality and philosophy and the nature of the world was Hogfather, and it did so by hitting me over the head with a sledgehammer that was somehow full of nuance. And then I think it stole my wallet, but what can you do. It also made me think a lot of thoughts about how much I wanted to be Susan Sto Helit. And then came I Shall Wear Midnight, which is the last Tiffany Aching book but the first one I read, and it was the first of his books to reach out and take me by the hand and help me become a stronger person. I never wanted to be Tiffany Aching, I just needed her example to follow.

The best way I can describe the world as it is shown to me by Terry Pratchett is that it is incredibly possible. It’s a world where you can look true things in the eye and yet somehow not despair. It’s a world in which you can do the task in front of you, because it is there needing doing and you are there in front of it, and so it is yours to do. It’s a world in which you can become a real witch in five easy steps, by which I mean that everything important is very very difficult and requires care and thoughtfulness but maybe you can manage not to screw up too badly if you try your very best.

Terry Pratchett helped me in much the same way that going to my church helps me — in that I don’t do it very often, I’m always promising to apply its lessons more consistently, and when I do make use of it, the world looks a little different and my efforts in the world work a little better. My mother is going to be very upset with the syntax of that sentence. Sorry mother. Some forces are too powerful for good syntax.

Terry Pratchett helped me do things. He helped me think things. I understand that he was an atheist, but I hope he won’t mind too terribly when I say that Terry Pratchett was one of my favorite pastors.

GNU Terry Pratchett.

Losing Leonard Nimoy Is Hard. Losing Spock Is Even Harder.

The passing of Leonard Nimoy at age 83 saddens me in much the same way that losing Neil Armstrong did, back in August of 2012. (Has it really been two and a half years?) Armstrong was a space pioneer. Nimoy created the role of a space-fiction pioneer. And both carved lasting places in my heart, and in my view of the world and the century I’ve lived in.

I never knew Nimoy personally, but I do feel that I know, and love, Spock. As a science fictionally literate teenager, my initial reaction to Star Trek in its original 1960s run was that the pointy ears and walled-off emotions were pretty cheesy and unoriginal. But Spock grew on me with time, as did all of the Trek characters. It wasn’t until years later, after countless viewings of the reruns, that I came to appreciate Nimoy’s acting, and to realize that it was Enterprise family I loved, more than any of the much-touted forward-thinking virtues of the show (though those were good, too). And at the heart of the family were Spock and Kirk, with Spock possibly at the heart of the heart. Later came the movies, and the death and rebirth of Spock, and that’s when he really came into his own as a character, and as a friend in my own mind.

We’ll always have Spock with us, of course. And in his own way, Leonard Nimoy will always be with us, even as he journeys now in the beyond. But we’ll never again get to see him play Spock in something new. And that, in a way, is what hurts the most.

Godspeed, Leonard Nimoy. Live long and prosper. And thanks for all that you’ve given us.

Frederik Pohl, 1919-2013

We’ve lost another giant—maybe the last of his generation of Golden Age science fiction. Frederik Pohl, along with Clarke, Heinlein, and Asimov, occupied a central position in my formative years as a lover of science fiction. More than any of the others, he kept growing in maturity and ambition as a writer—showing a burst of enormous creativity in his late 50s, with two of his finest books, Man Plus (1976) and Gateway (1977). I consider Gateway one of the top five books in all of science fiction, and I’m not sure what the other four would be.

I first encountered his work, I believe, in The Space Merchants, which he coauthored in 1953 with C.M. Kornbluth. (I didn’t read it in 1953; I was only four years old at the time. I started reading him in my teens.) I still have many old paperbacks of his earlier work on my shelf. Just scanning a list of his titles evokes all kinds of feelings of golden-age sense of wonder: Search the Sky, Gladiator-At-Law, Drunkard’s Walk (which I was especially fond of as a teenager because of the tastefully drawn naked woman on the cover), Starchild, Rogue Star, Turn Left at Thursday, Starburst, The Siege of Eternity, The Case Against Tomorrow….

And yes, the title of my own work in progress, The Reefs of Time, is a knowing echo of his The Reefs of Space.

Pohl did just about everything there was to do in the SF world. He was an editor (Galaxy magazine), an agent, a solo writer, a collaborative writer, a futurist, a columnist and blogger, a president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and a SFWA Grandmaster. He was also a perfect gentleman, and a fascinating speaker. I only met him once or twice, but he treated me, a fresh upstart, with graciousness and warmth.

You can read more about his life and work at the New York Times and the Guardian.

I hope he’s enjoying a perfect view of the stars from where he is right now, perhaps sitting around a table with some of the other departed greats, in the observation lounge of a heavenly starship. Godspeed, Frederik Pohl, and thank you for all of the visions.

Another Loss: Film Critic Roger Ebert, at 70

I’ve never been a regular reader of the Chicago Sun-Times, but when it comes to checking reviews of movies I might be interested in (especially movies that show up on cable), the first reviewer I check is always Roger Ebert. I’ve trusted his reviewer’s eye and sensibility ever since I first encountered him with Gene Siskel, on Sneak Previews, on PBS. He died yesterday at age 70, after a long struggle with cancer. The Sun-Times has a detailed obituary, and Blastr has one that focuses more on his interest in science fiction. He was a lifelong SF fan, as well as a  perceptive reviewer of movies of all genres.

Along with millions of other moviegoers, I’m sure, I mourn his passing. But I’m grateful for the legacy he’s left us of intelligent, compassionate, critical thought about the movies. I’ll keep checking for his reviews as long as they leave them up on the web.

Neil Armstrong, 1930 – 2012

A giant of a man died today, and I feel great sadness, even as I celebrate my own birthday. Neil Armstrong has left us.

I remember it like it was yesterday: July 20, 1969, holding my breath as the Apollo 11 Lunar Module finally landed on the Moon, with Neil Armstrong at the controls. And then, some hours later (late at night in Huron, Ohio), watching the grainy black and white TV images of Armstrong, and then Buzz Aldrin, stepping onto the surface of the Moon. I knew then that the world would never be the same, and that history would forever be divided between the time before humanity walked on another world, and after.

Neil Armstrong steps off the Eagle

Neil reads the plaque declaring that Apollo 11 has come on
behalf of all Mankind.

A defining moment for humanity, but also one for me personally. Many of my friends lost interest in the space program soon after, but I never did. To me it was, and will always be, one of mankind’s grandest adventures.

Others will write more knowledgeably of Armstrong’s life and career. But I’m pretty sure of one thing: a thousand years from now, if we’re still around, the name Neil Armstrong is one that people will remember.

One small step… and another, and another. Godspeed, Neil Armstrong.

Bootprint on the Moon

Sally Ride, 1951 – 2012

America’s first woman astronaut died Monday at the age of 61, of pancreatic cancer. Sally Ride was an inspiration to millions, and not just girls and women. I remember what a triumph it felt to me, back in 1983, when she rode Challenger into space, ending once and for all the perception that American space travel was solely the domain of men. Nowadays, women fly missions all the time, and sometimes command them. It’s easy to forget that as recently as the early 1980’s, women were simply not part of the NASA equation. The Soviet Union had sent a woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into space twenty years earlier, but that had not signaled a general welcome of women into the Soviet space program. In the case of Sally Ride, it really was the shattering of a glass ceiling. After the loss of Challenger in 1986, Dr. Ride was named to the presidential commission that investigated the cause of the tragedy. She later went on to found Sally Ride Science, an organization devoted to supporting girls’ and boys’ interests in science, math and technology.

Here was a woman who made a difference. It’s sad to see her passing. Godspeed, Sally Ride.

Ray Bradbury, SF Master (1920 – 2012)


Ray Bradbury, the last of the Big Four in science fiction, died today. Over the years we’ve lost Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and now Ray Bradbury. We’ve lost many other great writers, of course, but few would argue with placing those four at the top in their influence on the literature, and influence on young writers. It’s like the passing of a Great Age in Middle Earth.

Bradbury was a master of the short form, and probably the first acknowledged science fiction writer to gain the respect of the mainstream literary world. (Probably because he was at heart really a fantasist more than an SF writer. He was also a remarkable stylist.) Did your high school literature book have any science fiction In it at all? If it did, it was probably by Ray Bradbury. “The Pedestrian,” maybe. Or “The Veldt.”

He wrote for the screen, as well. I’d been a fan of his fiction for many years before I discovered that he’d written the screenplay for the 1956 John Huston-directed adaptation of Moby Dick, with Gregory Peck and Richard Basehart.

I was one of probably thousands of young writers who found both encouragement and frustration in reading his work. (My favorites: The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes.) The encouragement is from the delight in reading his visions. The frustration is from the illusion he cast that it was all so easy. He really made storytelling look simple. And that is a mark of a master. I never knew him personally, though I saw him a few times at Nebula Awards events. The last time, I think, was when I saw him accept his SFWA Grandmaster Award in… you know, I don’t remember the year or the city, but I can see him inching his way up to the stage, with the assistance of his son, as though it were yesterday. Edit: I also remember that he had a sense of humor about his infirmity. When he finally got to the microphone, his words were, “Do you ever have the feeling that everyone’s watching you?”

There’s a fine remembrance at the Washington Post, and all kinds of interesting details on his Wikipedia page

Godspeed, Ray Bradbury!

Our Dog Hermione 1999-2011

In a real shocker to the family, we lost our beloved boxer Hermione this morning—pretty much without any warning. Not quite twelve years old, she had seemed like a healthy, if slowing-with-age, dog. Just yesterday, I looked at her and thought, You’re looking fit for your age. I hope we have you for a couple more years.

 Hermione, pretty much the way she always looked

This morning she staggered up out of her bed, stumbled, fell, and couldn’t get up. She was dazed, and her lips and gums were pale. We got her to the vet as fast as we could, but the news was grim. An ultrasound showed a tumor on her spleen, with internal bleeding. Dr. Grosser, a lovely woman who has seen Hermione through several difficult situations, couldn’t offer much hope. It would be possible to spend thousands (which we don’t have) on surgery to try to buy her a few months. But she couldn’t recommend it, even medically. Hermione’s condition was likely to grow worse, not better. The doctor’s recommendation was to put her to sleep before she went from dazed and helpless to being in a lot of pain. And that’s what we did. All four of us were there—I’d gone to get Julia out of high school—and Hermione was aware of us being with her. She went peacefully.

About two minutes after she slipped away, Alexandra, our older daughter, changed abruptly from sobbing tears to a big smile and cried, “She’s running!  I can see her.  She’s happy!” I looked up at Alexandra and saw joy and recognition of something ethereal in her eyes. That vision for those few seconds transformed Alexandra on the spot and greatly comforted the rest of us.

Hermione was one of the sweetest-tempered dogs I’ve ever known. She didn’t always like other dogs, but she never met a human who wasn’t her friend. And she was supremely tolerant of her buddy Moonlight the cat, who would from time to time swat her for no apparent reason except to say hi. As a puppy, Hermione was almost ludicrously eager to please, but as she matured, she came to decide that life was not entirely about following instructions. We were always kind of glad about that.

Hermione and Moonlight, in younger days

The house feels strangely empty now. Moonlight seemed for a moment to sense that something was wrong, when we came home–but who knows what cats can understand? And I guess I’ll have to get used to going on walks by myself now.

Phil Palmer, We’ll Miss You

My father-in-law Phillip Palmer died Sunday evening, in Ponce, Puerto Rico. He was 87. Allysen was down there at the time, and had visited him in the nursing-care home just hours before he died. She’s there with her mom now, and with her brother Andrew, who’s just flown in.

Phil was a wonderful guy, a lover of travel and good food and wine, who in his working life was an electrical engineer in international sales. It was thanks to that work that he and his wife Fay settled in Puerto Rico, a place they loved in their bones. Phil had a hard last few years—especially this final one, with several heart-attack trips to the hospital, and a rapidly declining ability to get around or to do the things he loved to do (home renovation projects, mostly). It’s not that many years ago that he masterminded the lovely deck that’s now on the back of our house here in Boston. He loved building things, and especially loved changing things.

Phil in 2007

I’ll write more later. For now I need to focus on helping Allysen from a distance, and on getting the rest of us ready to go down there to join her for the memorial.

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