I guess that most people by now will have seen the news that Charles N. Brown, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Locus, died yesterday on the way back to California from Readercon in Boston. I know that Liza and the team at Locus HQ are working on tributes to him for the August edition of the magazine, but I just wanted to put my own thoughts down here now, and offer anyone else who wants the opportunity to do the same the chance to use the comments.
As a relative newcomer to the Locus family (it’s not an overstated way to describe it), I first got to know Charles in 2005. He came up to me at the post-Hugo party at the Glasgow Worldcon that year and allowed, in that hangdog way he had, as how some people had been saying nice things about my work: did I want to review a particular book for Locus? It wasn’t an easy assignment: the book was by a friend, it required a lot of background reading first, and I didn’t have many words to work in, but it was a fun challenge. Without saying anything directly, he made clear that he’d chosen the book very deliberately with that in mind. Then, at ICFA the following Spring, he came up to me with the idea of retrospective columns on authors of classic sf: would I be interested? I asked if there were any constraints – word-length, who I could cover, and so on. He seemed remarkably unconcerned about all that: he’d picked me to give a different generation’s perspective on the classics and was happy to let me get on with it. (He seemed to have the illusion that I was a young person, which I did nothing to disabuse him of.) And from that point on, I was in the family: allowed scope in my column to talk about pretty much whoever I wanted; edited lightly and with care; hauled off to good restaurants whenever I was in the right place at the right time. I knew perfectly well he disagreed with, for instance, my opinions on Heinlein or van Vogt, but the most I ever got was a gentle push that I might want to look at work X which, he said, would answer some of my objections. He was usually right.
And then, in February of last year, I got to stay at Locus HQ in the Oakland hills for a couple of days; Gary Wolfe was in town as well, and we all sat around talking as sf folk do. My original plan, to see if I could persuade Charles to arrange a trip to the legendary French Laundry restaurant, didn’t work out, but along with Amelia Beamer we discovered plenty of good places to eat in Berkeley. I got to peruse the extraordinary Locus library, on rolling shelves in a room carved back into the hill. Charles allowed me to ransack his collection of Mahler CDs, tolerating my loudly expressed views on Abbado or Haitink with benign paternal amusement. Charles always said that he liked Mahler for the same reasons he liked sf: that it was in the end teleological, that it said something about where humanity was ultimately going. I said that I liked Mahler for the tunes, the orchestration and the occasional vulgar blazes of sound. Explosions and spaceships aren’t everything, he said.
We disagreed about a lot, most recently at Readercon just this last weekend: on a panel on novels of the year, he handed out a list of books he’d liked, and I picked entirely different ones. But he took my disagreement in good spirit, and said afterwards that I’d genuinely persuaded him on the merits of one book he’d initially disliked. The next day, when we sat down with John Clute and Gary Wolfe to do a taped discussion on van Vogt’s science fiction, he was wonderfully evocative about the effect van Vogt had had on him as a teenager, and how happy he was that books like Slan were still in print and selling. Continuity of that kind mattered a lot to him.
All this, I’m sure, proves the old saw that eulogies tend to reveal more about the person delivering them than the person they’re supposed to be about. But there are a couple of Charles-esque traits that I think plenty of others will recognise from the descriptions above: his deep and wide knowledge of sf, his tendency (especially unusual in this field) to be a canny listener as much as a talker, his frequent unsolicted acts of kindness, his love of food and wine.
As the story I linked to at the start says, Charles had laid plans carefully so that Locus will continue after his death, and that’s what we all intend to do. (Those of you who know Liza Groen Trombi and the rest of the team will realise that Charles has assembled an incredibly able group to do this.) At some point, I think we’ll all be able to step back and get a sense of what an achievement it was that he established and oversaw for over 40 years a magazine of this kind. As Patrick Nielsen Hayden just said, “There’s a very real sense in which the modern science fiction world, professional and fan, can be defined as ‘the set of people who know what Locus is and care about it.'” It’s probably not for someone who writes for Locus to say what its importance is (and Patrick gives a perfectly fair qualifier in his next sentence), so I just want to finish by fixing on one word that a lot of the notes I’ve seen about Charles have used: mentor. I’ve gone on at such length about my own encounters with Charles because I suspect many other people will have similar stories to tell, and they’ll have found, as I did, that he was quietly – or occasionally not-quietly – teaching them things about the field he loved. So Locus is only one of the legacies he leaves behind.