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January, 2009 : Feature:

Signals 16

I write this on the day of Algis Budrys' funeral. On the night he died, I wrote a memorial and posted it on my website. I also sent a modified version to Locus.

As I did, I realized I have written a lot of memorials lately. All week, I have felt rather like Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: I have reached an age where I lose friends instead of gain them.

That saying brought to mind my grandmother. When she was about 90, she talked with my cousin and me about death. My cousin and I were twenty-somethings with no understanding of death and dying, offering her platitudes: We don't need to talk about this now, Grandma; We don't need to think about it; We don't want to upset you.

At that last comment, she shook her head. You're not upsetting me, she said. I think about death a lot. Most of the people I know are dead.

Most of the people I know--and have known--are still alive. I'm not yet as old as Indiana Jones (give me twenty years. Please.), and I don't feel like I'm losing more friends than I'm gaining.

So why has AJ's death prompted this response in me?

Because, I realized, I am losing mentors. Some became friends. Some simply walked by at a science fiction convention while I watched in awe.

My position as editor, first at Pulphouse Publishing and later at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, let me work closer with some of these writers than I ever would have if I had simply become a writing colleague.

I have stories about Andre Norton and Reginald Bretnor and Avram Davidson that I might not have had otherwise. I knew these people. Not well, in the case of some, and very well in the case of others.

That realization came along with another: I had forgotten what a young genre science fiction is. I had met the giants in this field, people who were, in many cases, pioneers. They're gone now--Jack Williamson and Damon Knight, Isaac Asimov and Poul Anderson--but I'd met all of them, and in the case of several, I got the opportunity to study with them.

The realization came up because of my early memories of Algis Budrys. Somehow, Writers of the Future had commandeered the United Nations General Assembly room for its award ceremony. Well-known writers from all over the world had attended. Many spoke on panels.

When it was all over, we gathered in a hotel suite at the U.N. Plaza Hotel. AJ was there as was my husband Dean Wesley Smith, and a few of the winners. Most everyone else had gone to bed.

AJ started reminiscing. Apparently, the U.N. Plaza hotel wasn't far from some of the old sf offices and a few of the restaurants used by a group of pulp writers who used to live in New York. AJ rattled off stories of John Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard (back when he was writing, before Scientology) and Robert Sheckley and dozens of others, stories I was too stupid to write down, stories told too long ago for me to remember with any accuracy.

AJ's not the only one who told stories from the pulp days. I listened to Julius Schwartz, who was the most important editor at D.C. Comics in the Silver Age, tell stories from the pulp era when he was a fan. I watched Julie make presentations at conventions, using a slide projector to show old photographs of fandom in the 1930s and 1940s, photographs of people long gone--except, in those days, Sam Moskowitz. Sam always came to the presentations too, kibitzing from the back.

Some of Julie's stories I can recite from memory since I heard them so many times, but why get my recycled version when you can read the real thing? Fortunately, the greatly missed Brian Thomsen was smart enough to help Julie with his memoirs in a book called Man of Two Worlds: My Life in Science Fiction and Comics (HarperCollins, 2000).

So many of the writers we've now lost wrote autobiographies or memoirs of particular times in their lives. Some were well-written tales of days gone by, filled with the very new, incredibly young history of the field of science fiction. Others caused great controversies as they rehashed the thirty-, forty-, and fifty-year-old feuds.

I had no idea that the stories I'd heard--from Damon Knight's reminiscences about the first Nebula Awards to Jack Williamson's memory of discovering the first science fiction magazine ever published on the newsstand in his small town--would go on to live only in the dusty pages of books, many no longer in print.

Those stories were so much more interesting when told with the edge of anger (from the old feuds) or the embarrassing amount of detail (some of the sexual exploits [it was rather like hearing your parents talk about the night you were conceived]) or the twinkle in the eye that promised so much more than the teller of the tale would ever reveal.

Because I came into science fiction publishing in the 1980s, I got to meet so many of the field's founders who were still producing excellent work. They were also paying forward. They taught new writers. They told stories. They gave advice.

I learned how to write science fiction from Jack Williamson, who sold his first story in 1928 to Hugo Gernsback, the man that the books credit with founding science fiction publishing. I studied with the second and third generation of SF writers, including Damon Knight and Frederik Pohl, and writers who came into the field later, like Kate Wilhelm and Gene Wolfe. Harlan Ellison and Algis Budrys were both columnists for F&SF during my administration, and so many excellent writers sold me stories, not just at F&SF, but at Pulphouse, from Roger Zelazny to Jack Cady to Ursula K. Le Guin.

Many of these writers are still alive and still writing, because writers never retire. But they have stories, stories they don't write down. Stories that will get lost to time when the storytellers die because fans like me expect the storytellers to continue forever, unabated.

Writers don't die. Their works live on. But their bodies do go.

When Damon Knight died, I found myself at a loss for words. I did not know, until Damon died, that I viewed him as a pillar of the Earth (which, I must add, would amuse Damon mightily). Pillars of the Earth do not die, because they can't. They're holding the world together.

But the world went on without Damon, just like it's going to go on without AJ, and it has gone on without Jack Williamson or Julius Schwartz.

I'm better for having known all of these people and I wish, oh, how I wish, I'd bottled those stories they told, the reminiscences, the ones that never made it into the books or the autobiographies or the memoirs.

Giants still live among us.

Listen to their stories. Because even though most of the Giants have written about their lives, writing is not the same as oral storytelling. A writer has time to consider, time to edit. A writer can delete the passage that will anger an old friend or neglect to mention that one-time assignation that might have changed the direction of the entire genre.

An oral storyteller rarely edits. An oral storyteller may have practiced the tale, but never tells it the same way twice. And sometimes that oral storyteller will let something slip. A little gem gleams, a moment passes--and then it's gone.

Like AJ is gone, and Damon, and Bob Sheckley, and so many others.

As a field, we're lucky. We've carried our history with us. Science fiction as a genre appeared in the first part of the twentieth century, so it makes sense that in the first part of the twenty-first, we'd lose our pioneers and innovators.

Some did not live as long as the genre they've created. Others matched it in longevity--as long as a human being could without science-fictional-type intervention. Science fiction is slowly moving into the place where the mystery genre now resides--where the pioneers are gone, the innovators are almost gone, and the genre's memory resides in books and research papers and dusty old photographs.

I, for one, will miss the living history.

But I am glad that for one brief portion of my life, I got to sit at the feet of giants.

Copyright © 2009, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. All Rights Reserved.

About Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a Hugo award-winning writer who was, once upon a time, a Hugo award-winning editor. She has published fiction in almost every genre under a variety of names. Her most recent science fiction novel is Diving into the Wreck which Pyr
published in November. Her novella, "Recovering Apollo 8," won last year's Asimov's Readers Choice Award and was nominated for a Hugo. The novella has just been reprinted in Russian. For more information, go to her website at


Jan 7, 06:55 by IROSF
Do you have something to say? This is the place.

Article is here.
Jan 8, 12:35 by Walt Gottesman
Thank you for your homage to some of the greats in SF and your recollections of their oral story-telling. Those memories and your recounting of them will, like old photos, become even more valuable, at least to some of us, as more years, and more greats, pass on by.

In 1997 I almost got a rejection slip from you! Ray Bradbury recommended that I send one of my stories to you at SF&F. I did, and got an encouraging rejection letter not from you, but from Gordon Van Gelder who had replaced you as the editor there. Have remembered your name since then and after reading your article in IROSF will at long last seek out your fiction. Thanks again for sharing some of your memories.

Jan 8, 17:13 by JM Cornwell
One of the best things about the SF community is that it is a community and one that opens its arms and its experience without hesitation. I, too, have sat at the feet of giants and some of my most treasured letters came from some of those giants who took the time not to just reject my stories but to teach me. AJ was one of those. He took the time to type 2-3 single spaced pages every time he sent one of my stories back and each time I learned something new, but mostly I was in awe that a giant noticed a flea. Many of those giants noticed this flea and shared their wealth of knowledge and their friendship and I am richer for it.

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