Monday, July 13, 2009

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.
That's a lovely tribute, Mark — you did Charles proud and nailed so much of what he did for the industry and the people in it.

Nicely done, Mark. I scampered over here the moment I heard the news, and I knew you'd have a post worth reading.

It was a shock to hear that he's gone. Locus, and Charles, were perhaps the closest the field had to an institution in all these decades of relentless change... I can't help shake the feeling that without him that institution will be rocked to the core.

It was a relief to hear about the Locus Foundation... which you've mentioned before, of course, but I guess I never really paid attention to.

- John
Good, honest, write-up, Mark. Thanks.
Beautiful tribute, Mark. It's been amazing seeing the stories about Charles all over the internet, and I certainly recognize the man you knew, both good and bad and larger than life.
-Marianne Jablon
Very touching, Mark. This is the Charles I knew and loved (toenails and all).
Mark gets it right when he says that, for Charles, science fiction mattered. He was a driving force. Too many of the people I grew up with, and the people I see every day, smile politely when the subject of SF surfaces. I wish they could have known him.

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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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