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.

The Short, Sweet Life of Pippa

We buried a 5-month-old puppy yesterday. Her name was Pippa, and she weighed less than ten pounds. She came to us from Puerto Rico with Allysen, where she had been rescued and made briefly part of Allysen’s parents’ household. She was adorable and sweet and alert, probably part border collie but tiny.  We decided that she was of the breed Foxbat, or Borinquen terrier, and she captured all of our hearts. She made friends with Hermione, our boxer, who doesn’t always like other dogs. Moonlight the cat was a slow adopter, but I was sure it was just a matter of time before they bonded, too.

Pippa never got that time. She was here for just four days before she started having seizures during the night. The seizures subsided for a short time after we started her on some meds from the vet, but soon they returned—frequent and severe. Monday night, late, we took her to the Mass Vet Referral Animal Hospital, where we got the grim news that the outlook was poor without major medical intervention, way beyond anything we could undertake—and even with the intervention, there would be a lot of uncertainties. And so we made the heartbreaking decision to let her go peacefully, which she did while we held her in our laps. We brought her body home, and the next day laid her to rest in the back yard. With her we put the ashes of Sam the beagle and Mattie our first boxer—ashes we’d kept on a shelf for years because we couldn’t bear to do anything about them at the time. It comforted us, thinking that Pippa was in good company.

Here’s Pippa, as I imagine her right now on the Rainbow Bridge

Jeanne Robinson 1948 – 2010

Jeanne Robinson—wife of Spider Robinson and his coauthor of the Stardance novels—died last Sunday after a long bout with cancer. I knew Jeanne well enough to say hello to, on the rare occasions when we met her and Spider at cons. I feel as though I know them better than I do, from their work. Jeanne’s passing marks a sad loss for the SF community.  Spider has written about her passing on the Stardance Movie blog.

Victoria Bolles: Godspeed

Now for the difficult post.  My friend Victoria passed away yesterday.  The cancer won in the end—at least as far as her life on earth is concerned.  Most of you don’t know Victoria, but she was a founding member of the writing group that I’ve been part of for about thirty years now.  She could tell you exactly how many years; that’s the sort of thing she remembered.  I joined the group a couple of years after it got started.  It was bigger then.  But for a very long time now, it’s been five of us: Victoria, Craig, Richard, Mary, and me.  I hesitate to say that it’s now just four.  She’s going to be with us for a long time, even if she can’t physically be there.  (We never named the group formally, but always just called it the Writing Group, as though that were a perfectly good proper name, and maybe it is.)  We have been not just workshop partners, but dear friends. We’ve been with each other through marriages, divorces, kids born, kids gone to college, careers won and lost, and family members and other friends lost to the reaper.  We’ve been mad at each other, and we’ve cheered for each other, and pursued both life and the written word together.  We’ve also bitched about getting old together. 

Here’s a picture of the Group taken on the day she married George. I’m not sure what year that was, somewhere around 1990. (Craig, Rich, Victoria, me, Mary.  We’ve all greyed a bit since then.)

I’m sad to lose her to something as dreadful as colon cancer, but I’m glad she was able to find so much joy in her last year.  Her husband George hardly ever left her side, and friends literally from all over the world prayed for her and sang for her and sent her thoughts of healing and love. She and George, some years ago, became intensely active in the world of shape-note singing, and they traveled far and wide to join with others in their love of this particular form of music.  (There’s another name for it, but it escapes me at this moment.)

Allysen and I saw her a few weeks ago, and she knew then that she didn’t have too much longer.  But what struck us more than anything was the amount of life she still had in her.  We talked and laughed, and even discussed having the Group meet gathered around her bed some weekend afternoon.  That never happened; she got too weak soon after. 

I suspect a lot of her friends are singing for her right now, and for George whom she left, and I hope she’s at peace.  I’m sure she is.  Bye, Victoria.  Peace, always.

J.G. Ballard (1930 – 2009)

Science fiction writer J.G. Ballard has died, at the age of 78. The news took me by surprise when I read the Boston Globe this morning. But what stunned me more was that someone could write an obituary of the man and not even mention that he wrote science fiction, much less that he was a highly influential writer in the New Wave movement of the 1960s.

I discovered Ballard as a teenager, with the short stories gathered into collections such as The Voices of Time and Vermilion Sands, and then the apocalyptic novels The Drowned World and The Crystal World. Ballard’s voice, darkly psychological, was a startling departure from any science fiction I had ever read before. I still have the paperbacks:

At the time, I knew nothing about the New Wave movement, I just knew I had discovered a writer who tapped into something in my own psyche—and I wanted more. Unfortunately, his work that followed, such as Crash, left me feeling cold and alienated, rather than engaged, and I regretfully moved on. But those earlier stories left a mark on me, one that I think probably influenced my own writing in subtle ways, and perhaps more than the work of any other single writer shifted my interests toward the psychological in SF.

J.G. Ballard: best known for Empire of the Sun, maybe—but one of the science fiction greats.

Arthur C. Clarke (1917 – 2008)

One of the last of the towering giants of our field is gone. Sir Arthur C. Clarke has died at the age of 90. I learned of it when my daughter called from college to tell me she’d seen it on the BBC news site. (There’s a much better obituary in the Washington Post, also reprinted in the Boston Globe.) I was stunned, even though I knew I shouldn’t be; his health had been frail for years. Nonetheless, I feel deeply saddened, and at the same time grateful for the wonders of the imagination that he brought us all. Like many of my generation, I grew up inspired by AsimovHeinleinClarke, as well as many of their contemporaries. With Sir Arthur’s passing, that towering triumvirate is all gone now. In this world, all that remains is their work, and memories. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty impressive monument.

Photo from AP, via Boston Globe

I never met Arthur Clarke, but we corresponded briefly when I was in college. (Correspondence is probably glorifying it, but that’s how I choose to remember it.) When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, Arthur Clarke was there with Walter Cronkite, covering the story. Being a big fan of Clarke’s at the time (in particular, I loved his short stories and the short novel Against the Fall of Night), I wrote to him in care of CBS News, telling him how great it was to see him there on TV with Walter Cronkite. A week or so later, I got a postcard back from him, thanking me. He’d written it as he was departing for his home on Sri Lanka.

He and I shared a love of something besides science and science fiction, particularly science fiction with transcendent themes—and that was scuba diving. That’s something I’d always wished we could have talked about. It was not to be, in this world. Maybe in the next.

“All writing is a form of prayer.” —John Keats

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922 – 2007

Kurt Vonnegut has died, from brain injuries resulting from a fall. He was 84. (See New York Times obituary.) An iconoclastic writer, he had a big influence on me during my college years, circa 1970. I remember first encountering his work with Cat’s Cradle, which I started and at the time didn’t finish. It just didn’t grab me, somehow; probably I was looking for something more like “normal” science fiction. I also tried Player Piano and didn’t like that, either; it was too normal, and seemed like just another take on the familiar Brave New World theme.

But then he came to give an informal talk at Brown, where I was in school, and I went to hear him. I was an aspiring writer, and he was a sensationally popular author. In person, he was fascinating, very unassuming and welcoming to questions from the students. I remember someone asking him what his favorite novel was (I believe this was before Slaughterhouse Five), and he said that he had had the most fun writing The Sirens of Titan. That title had seemed so preposterous to me, so unserious (I was pretty serious about my SF back then) that I hadn’t even thought of reading it. But I got a copy of Sirens—and I loved it. Somehow that story infected me with Vonnegut’s sardonic sense of humor and absurdity, and from there I went back and tried Cat’s Cradle again; and it was all different this time. On the second attempt, I thoroughly enjoyed it, too. Finally I read Slaughterhouse Five, and that one did me in, not just for the heavy-hitting themes inspired by Vonnegut’s witnessing of the Dresden fire-bombing in World War II, but for the silly stuff, as well. The line, “Kazak wuzza dog. Kazak wuzza dreat big chronosynclastic infundibulated dog” has been embedded in my mind ever since. (I hope I got that right. I typed it from memory.)

Reading those books was an intense emotional and intellectual experience for me, but one that was never repeated. His later books didn’t do it for me, and my world-view now is pretty different from what it was when I was in college, so I don’t know how the books would stand up to rereading. But I’m profoundly grateful to him for what he gave me then and there, when this aspiring writer needed it.

Rest in peace, Kurt Vonnegut.

Jack Williamson (1908 – 2006)

One of the towering giants of the SF field has left us. Jack Williamson, who traveled in a covered wagon as a boy in the American Southwest, and on many a starship in his fiction, died today at the age of 98. His first short story was published in the Dec. 1928 issue of Amazing Stories. His novel The Stonehenge Gate was published in 2005. He won many awards over the years, but most recently he won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards for his novella “The Ultimate Earth.” That was in 2001, and I was proud to be on the same ballot with him (for a novel; I didn’t win).

I didn’t know him well personally, but we served together on the SFWA Awards Rules Committee (formerly the Nebula Awards Committee), and had many email exchanges in the course of that business. I was proud to be on that committee with him, too.

There’s a good summary of his life and career on wikipedia.

Jack, you’re in a greener place now, where royalty checks never come late! Smile down on us and wave!

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