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Charles Sheffield dies


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November 16, 2002

To put the thing very plainly, Charles Sheffield was the finest man I ever met in my adult life. He was kind, gracious, funny, generous, talented, and wonderfully intelligent. To have been his friend was a genuine privilege.

But I am to talk about Charles and science fiction. The first thing I should do is pronounce it as he did — science fiction. In speaking the words, as in writing his stories, the emphasis for Charles was on the science. The science mattered. Science fiction has been called the literature of ideas. Charles cared that the ideas made sense, were logically self-consistent. The story could stretch or twist what was known, or even violate known facts — if it did so with logic and internal consistency. If it posited that two and two made five, then the story had to take place in a world where that was true, and the consequences of that fact were explored. But the story could not tell the reader that two plus two equaled five if it took place in our world, where everything depends on it equaling four.

A few years back a novel came out, supposedly science fiction, but in large part an exploration of ethical and moral issues. I bought it, but never got around to reading it — because Charles read it first, and skewered the science in it, and concluded that the scientific errors made the premise and the events of the story impossible on their own terms. In short, the protagonist faced a dilemma that could not have happened, given the situation as presented in the book. The author had gotten it wrong, and Charles was a strong believer in getting it right. Others might have dismissed his objections as hairsplitting — but only others who did not know the science as well as Charles did and could not see how fundamental such errors are. The errors in that book, as in many others, were great enough that he could no longer take the book seriously, because the errors made the story impossible. To offer my own analogy, it would be as if Samuel Clemens had described the Mississippi as flowing north, and sent Huck and Jim floating toward Minneapolis. A mistake like that would make a hash of the story, and make the moral issues it explored completely irrelevant.

And that is why the science mattered for Charles. Science built the world where a particular story could take place, where people could take actions and make decisions that had consequences. If the science was wrong, then the world it made was wrong, and thus the story could not have happened — and the people in it could not be real. Therefore the problems couldnít really happen, and thus could not matter.

Read what Charles wrote, and youíll see he gets it right. The worlds make sense. The problems in his stories hold together. When the people in them take actions, the actions have consequence.

But there is science fiction, the literature, and science fiction, the community, the culture. Charles is — not was, is — a central figure in that community. He won the major awards — the Hugo and the Nebula. He was president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He traveled constantly to conventions and receptions and other events, and was always a popular speaker wherever he appeared. But though all that is true, and essential, it misses much of what made Charles Charles.

His sense of fun, his pleasure in life, his enthusiasm, were a gift to all of us. I have never known anyone who was as much of a pleasure to talk with. Charles was the person I turned to first whenever I was unsure of a technical or scientific point in my own writing. That being said, I was always hesitant about calling him too often, because he would keep me on the phone for 45 minutes — and I would enjoy every second of it, and then feel guilty about robbing him of 45 minutes of his work day. The question that was the reason for the call might be disposed of in three minutes. The rest of the call might be a quotation from a poem that Charles would assume I knew as well as he — I never did, of course — a wry analysis of whatever tempest in a teapot was brewing in SFWA, a story about his children, a happily bemused report on the doings of his less-than-sensible dog, a gloomy update, cheerfully presented, on the quality of and/or speed of production of whatever he was writing, a learned dissection of a science discovery that was news to me that Charles knew all about, a mention of where he had just been, and where he was about to go, and on and on and on — all of it great fun.

Charles and I often shared hotels rooms at conventions, and the time spent with him was often the most entertaining part of the weekend. On one memorable occasion, at the Nebula Awards, at the end of a long evening, we were both getting ready for bed, in a undersized hotel room — about as large as Grouchoís stateroom in A Night At the Opera. There was a fold-out bed, aside from the regular bed, and once it was opened up, we found it was almost impossible to maneuver about the place as we changed, brushed our teeth, and dodged around the furniture, preparing to bed down.

There was of course a long and very courteous argument, ala Alphonse and Gaston, in which each of us tried to claim the fold-out, so the other would be able to take the real bed. As I recall, I won that fight, but just barely. All the time, Charles kept up nine-tenths of the conversation, gleefully analyzing the slanderous remarks of the featured speaker, the breath-taking incompetence of the organizers that had almost forced cancellation of the weekend, the probable fate of a newly-launched magazine, the absolutely pointless bickering and backstabbing we had just witnessed. All of it thoughtful, all of it entertaining. He got into bed, drew up the covers, lay his head on the pillow, and he kept talking. He fell asleep as he spoke, in mid-sentence, but all of it made perfect and stimulating sense, right up to when he dozed off. He was far more interesting in his sleep than most people are awake.

For years, I put forward the suggestion that Charles should have his own television talk show — Digressions, with Charles Sheffield. There would be a desk, with Charles sitting behind it, and a phone on it. A caller would phone in and mention any subject of interest. Charles would take that as a point of departure and just keep going, weaving in Kipling, the Goon Show, orbital mechanics, politics, the struggles of remodeling his house, the latest NASA boondoggle, and whatever else came into his remarkable mind. Whenever I suggested the idea, Charles would maintain that he didnít digress, because, if given enough time, he would bring the talk back to the original topic. Well, maybe.

Science fiction is a community full of very bright people with very limited social skills. No one was as gracious as Charles was toward certain over-enthused, under-informed fans. It was a rare convention where he did not allow himself to be cornered in a hallway after giving a talk by some one who knew half as much as he did and wanted to say it all twice. The people who do this sort of cornering are among the most irritating in the world — but Charles suffered fools remarkably well. In situations where most other writers would be frantically looking for some way to escape a monumental bore, Charles would turn it into a real conversation. Afterwards, he might report his interlocutor was speaking complete rubbish — but the speaker of that rubbish would have walked away knowing he had been listened to, and answered honestly.

Fools he would suffer, but not foolishness. In a field where large egos can make small issues swell to gigantic proportions, Charles was one of the guardians of common sense — calmly speaking up at a meeting where everyone else was shouting, writing the letter that pointed out the inevitable unintended and undesirable consequences of the latest final decision of the membership sub-committee.

For want of a better term, he was one of the elder statesmen of science fiction, one of the grown-ups who knew how to calm down the inevitable tantrums that all-too-regularly sweep through the field. But while he took care to take care of science fiction and SFWA, he never took it too seriously. He took great and justifiable pride in his Hugo and Nebula awards, but that didnít stop him from describing them as the ďgold medals in the Special Olympics of literature.Ē

Charles carried himself well, and, I think itís fair to say, made good use of his quite dignified appearance, and of his very urbane British accent. He was one of that rare breed of man who actually seemed comfortable wearing a tie. The way he looked and the way he talked added an extra dollop of authority to whatever he said.

But the urbane appearance also gave him a certain license, and he used it. At one local convention, there was a tradition of holding a Saturday Night dance. Somehow, one year, the committee found a disk jockey far more interested in esoteric new-age antiphony than in dance music. The result — an increasingly rebellious crowd of would-be dancers standing around listening to multilayered arrhythmic disharmony — and Charles, in jacket and tie, in the back of the room, leading the revolt, shouting at the top of his lungs for someone to put on the Rolling Stones.

On another occasion, Charles and I somehow got roped into being the tame science fiction writers sitting in on a conference on the future of education, conducted by a pack of well-intentioned bureaucrats who had long since lost sight of the forest for the trees. The gist of it almost seemed to be that education would run a lot more smoothly without students. I wonít say the presenters were heckled, but I donít think they were ready for quite as many pointed questions as Charles provided.

At a recent World Science Fiction Convention, Charles was involved in an elaborate presentation that involved him being dressed up as a pirate — a very elegant and urbane pirate. He was delighted with the costume, and looked terrific in it, whereas most people would have looked ridiculous. He had the balance of humor and dignity that let him put the thing over splendidly.

There was a wonderful sense of mischief in his heart. I run a very small reprint publishing business, and not so long after September 11, 2001, an agent called me trying to sell a book by one of his clients. The book in question was a very dark and violent tale, full of murder and cold-blooded mayhem, culminating in the destruction of a major American city in a firestorm deliberately set by terrorists. For various reasons not related to its literary merits, it simply wasnít the sort of book my shop did, and I turned it down on those grounds. Charles told me I should have called the agent and told him I was rejecting it because ďit wasnít funny enough.Ē

One last story, that Nancy wanted me to tell, even though it isnít strictly speaking science fiction. Iíd file it instead under surreal whimsy — another of Charlesís many talents. As the victim of the story, Iím not sure I ever did get all the details of the thing. Likely someone in the audience will know a clearer version of it.

Back in the summer of 1994, I was getting ready for my wedding, and, of course, one of the things I had to do was buy clothes suitable for the occasion. For reasons not worth explaining, I had to prepare in May for a July wedding in California and an August reception in Washington. Somehow or another, the only time I had to buy shoes for the big event was during yet another convention over the Memorial Day weekend. I slipped away between events, bought a pair, and returned. I ran into Charles and said something to him along the lines that the shoes were a lot more expensive than I had expected. Probably I mentioned the difficultly of finding them in my size.

Now it will come as no shock at all that Charles was a better dresser than Iíll ever be, and I think the whole thing started because he was so amused at my naÔvetť concerning such matters as the price of shoes. Charles bided his time, and, three months later, at my wedding reception, he apparently instructed everyone he knew there to buttonhole me and ask me about my shoes. I therefore spent a good part of what was supposed to be a big fancy party in my honor puzzled as to why I was talking about my shoes with any number of people. It took me a while to track down the culprit. He could be identified by the gleam in his eye.

Charles was a good writer, a good scientist, a good friend, a good husband, a good father. But Charles is not all past tense. Charles is here, now. In the words he wrote, in the science he did, in the children he raised, in the family and friends whom he loved, and who love him, Charles remains. We share him, among ourselves. He is here, with all of us, because he has touched each of us. We are lucky to have known him, and privileged to remember him.

This is about that point in these remarks where I should do one of the things Charles could do so well. I should pull a quotation, some little-known but perfectly apt line or two of poetry, out of mid-air. I should tie everything together with one last gentle, wickedly witty remark. I should inspire all of you to go out and learn more, think more, imagine more. Charles could have done all that, and in fewer words than Iíve just used.

Still, there is one thing I can do, one thing I can say. Something I was so glad I had the chance to tell Charles before he left us. If, by ill chance, you didnít get the chance to say it to Charles before the end, today would be a good day to do so.

I love you, Charles.

Everyone here does.

— Roger MacBride Allen

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