David G. Hartwell

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As I write this, David Hartwell is hovering on the edge of death. He suffered a massive brain bleed yesterday and is not expected to survive.

David, for those of you not in the field, was one of the most influential editors in the history of science fiction. He was responsible for the careers of many who work in the field today. And he was especially interested and generous to Canadians.

Unlike other public figures many of us have been mourning this month, I knew David. Not well, but well enough to say that I liked and respected him and always looked forward to seeing him at science fiction conventions we both attended.

I knew David as an editor before I knew him as a man. His collection of the Year’s Best SF was always the one I turned to first. We had similar tastes, I guess, and thinking about it, I would have to say that he influenced my own style as an editor and anthologist. How sweet it is to remember that David was the one who handed me my Aurora Award for editing the anthology, Blood and Water. I recall that his smile couldn’t have been bigger and warmer than if he had won the award himself.

I suppose I first met David in Chicago in 2000 at the TOR party at the World Science Fiction convention. It was a brief introduction and we hardly spoke but we met again off and on over the years. And more and more we would find time to talk – about books, about the progress of his young children through school, about whatever topics came up.

I’ve never been much of a note taker – even in university – so when I tell you that I often wrote down things that David said on panels or on those occasions he gave a lecture about the history of SF or the process of editing, maybe it will tell you how much I admired his intellect and his erudition. What David didn’t know about SF may not have been worth knowing.

Anyone who spent even a few minutes with him will remember David’s kindness, his curiosity, his subtle wit, his intelligence or, if nothing else, his wild taste in neckties. In fact, David’s neckties were so famous that they actually created an exhibition of them for the art show at the World SF convention in Montreal.

The last time I saw David in person was in Ottawa at the end of October. He had decided to drop in at the local convention, coming all the way up from New York to be with us. David was one of those people who was as much a fan as a professional and I think he genuinely loved to be with those of like mind and spirit. We chatted for a good half-hour beside the Bundoran Press table in the dealers’ room. Again if was a wide ranging and happy talk – despite some personal troubles David was going through.

If I had known it was going to be the last time I would speak to him, I would have told him how much I admired him. I can’t do that now so I’m telling you.

And that’s ten minutes.

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Losses

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Last weekend I attended SFContario where the annual CanVention – the national SF con – was also being held. Each year they give out the Aurora Awards and this year I was nominated in the category of Best Related Work for Strange Bedfellows. I would have liked to win as I am very proud of that book – an anthology of political science fiction. I didn’t, which was a bit disappointing especially when I discovered that I was in first place until the final round of balloting. Such is life with preferential ballots.

Still, I could hardly gripe. I did finish second to a very deserving OnSpec magazine. Given that I support them every month through Patreon, I obviously think they are worthy. And there is always next year.

Meanwhile, on Monday the NWT territorial election was held. I had a number of friends running – most of whom did not win (though some did). My boss’s son was one of the losers and though he finished respectably (almost) tied for second, I’m sure he is feeling disappointed. I know the experience from my own electoral career and suspect he is probably second guessing himself now. What could I have done differently? Why didn’t people support me? Whose fault is it? His disappointment is significant – it feels like a personal rejection – but may be less severe than the incumbent MLAs, including two Ministers, who lost their seats. It is well known that losing your seat can lead to depression, though it usually passes in a year or so.

And, in any case there will be another chance to run for office. In a democracy it happens with great frequency at one level or another.

To put all this in perspective:

On the Friday evening before SFContario, I learned that Barry King, an SF writer and organizer had died suddenly from complications of pneumonia. He was in his forties and I had seen him only a few weeks before, when he seemed in perfect health. I didn’t know Barry really well. We had met half a dozen times and I had recently bought one of his stories for my latest anthology, published in October. He had invited me to take part in Limestone Genre, a new SF gathering he had helped organize last year in Kingston.

I had got to know him well enough to know he was a smart witty man, a good writer, and was well loved by his friends and of course his family. Their sense of loss makes anything I or my political friends experienced in the last week completely trivial. For Barry, for Barry’s family and friends, there is no next year, there is no future opportunity. There is only the permanence of loss and grief.

My heart goes out to them but in the end only time and their love for each other can heal the loss they have experienced.

I was once told that when a bad thing happens to you, you should ask yourself if it will matter one year or five years from now. Losing an award is a transitory thing, losing an election is forgotten in five years. Losing someone you love never goes away. Perspective.

And that’s ten minutes.

Perspective

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I spend most of my days immersed in politics. It is, of course, my day job as a policy advisor to a Canadian Senator – though there I think less about the gritty day-to-day- of retail politics and more about the issues and policies that politics is meant to – though it often doesn’t – solve. But even then I have to speculate on how one might approach the issues depending on which party or parties form the next government.

When I’m not working, I’m often reading, talking or thinking about politics. I follow the polls almost obsessively while fully cognizant they are never more than a fuzzy snapshot of how the populace is leaning – yesterday. They are of little value in predicting how the people will think and vote three weeks from today. And, having followed politics in Canada all my life I know that there is only a few percentage points between a minority or a majority or a government by one party and another. A few percentage points is generally within the margin of error of most polls.

So it is not surprising that they sometimes get it wrong; maybe it’s more surprising that they usually get it (approximately) right.

But sometimes I take a break and realize that there is more to life than who wins and loses an election. Indeed, while changes in governments do make a difference in people’s lives so do natural disasters or unexpected and often inexplicable shifts in the economy. There is so much that occurs at a high level over which we have limited control that, while we should never disengage from the fray, we should sometimes take a few days off to simply enjoy life and, as they say, count our blessings – if we have any.

This weekend Liz and I spent with our good friends, Rob and Carolyn. We sold books and we chatted with friends. We shared meals and engaged in a wide range of conversation – some of it personal and some more abstract or intellectual. We also shared a few jokes – some good; all elaborate – and generally enjoyed each other. Politics was hardly ever raised. We had more important things on our minds – like our personal futures and the pain associated with dealing with aging parents and siblings and friends. Pleasure and pain, laughter and sorrow – the human experience.

But mostly we simply lived. We breathed in and out and we enjoyed our food and our drink. We waited up to see the lunar eclipse but were thwarted by the clouds. So we talked about next time or about other things we would see and enjoy in the coming years – foolishly confidant that there always would be a next time.

Politics is important – but sometimes it is important to remember that politics is not life.

And that’s ten minute.

Memento Mori

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The curse of self-awareness is the foreknowledge of our death. It is the one thing we can know about the future; we will die. Some try to avoid this unpleasant truth with dreams of medical immortality or even the hard upload into mechanical selves. Still dreams. As we like to say, human immortality is only fifty years away and always will be. The awareness of death is certainly central to all religions and explains all those wishes for an afterlife. There must be something more than these three score and ten.

The price we pay for the privilege of getting older is measured in the currency of memento mori. With each year we are doled out constant reminders that the abyss is approaching. Parents age and die, friends grow enfeebled. Eventually everyone goes – live long enough and you will certainly be alone.

Why so glum, chum?

It’s been a rough few months. One friend had to cancel a long-planned visit because of sudden health concerns. My mother-in-law broke her hip and while she is on the mend, at 90, her life will never be more than a shadow stretching forward. My wife’s sister has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and several friends are struggling with their own versions of that illness.

Then this morning Liz woke up with a terrible pain in her lower leg. She couldn’t even get out of bed the pain was so intense. She’s no weakling but it made her cry. We called 911 and ten minutes later the paramedics arrived and took her away to hospital. There were no other symptoms so it is hard to say how serious it is but I can’t help but feel worried. We are quantum creatures: tough and fragile in the same breath.

The clock is ticking for us all. But surely midnight is a ways off yet.

And that’s ten minutes.

Past Lives

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Recently I found out that a former wife was seriously ill. I didn’t discover it on my own but from a mutual friend – a person who has kept contact with both of us even though the two of us have been apart for more than 25 years. This was a woman I spent seven years of my life with and, so, I am sad to hear the news. Yet, not nearly as sad as I feel for other people I know who are facing similar challenges. We were once intimate but there is now no immediacy to the feelings I have. It is like it is happening to someone else in some other life.

I’ve taken a look to see how she is doing and while I recognize her on one level, on another she seems like a stranger. Not only because of the passage of time but rather because of what time — and all the events that happen over the span — does to us all. It changes us. But not in a linear fashion; not like a movie that tracks our lives from one moment to the next as if there were not disjunctions along the way.

Yesterday, I had coffee and conversation with a new friend — a face-to-face with someone I had previously only known over Facebook. He told me — in the course of our wide-ranging conversation — about his daughter, Anna. Anna judges her present actions based on what she thinks future Anna might think about them. Will she be happy and proud or disappointed? She also looks back on past Anna, sometimes, I suppose, with pride but also with disappointment. The more I thought about it, the more impressed I was with the profound understanding this young woman has about herself.

When we look back, we tend to see a cord that connects our present self with our past self — a single line of connection that gets us from there to here. Yet if we look closely, often that cord is filled with tangled knots — the complex and difficult situations we’ve passed through. Failed marriages, ruined careers, traumatic events. Looking closer still we might discover that the cord that enters the knot is made of one thing — say, nylon rope — while the cord that emerges is made of something else — perhaps braided cotton. It is quite possible that somewhere inside the knot those cords are not even connected. We entered as one thing but came out as another.

It makes sense in a way. We know that people can sometimes change dramatically — converting from one religion to another for example. Why would we think that the person who emerges from such an experience would even be the same after? Isn’t that what is meant by the change from Saul to Paul on the road to Damascus? But if we can change so readily — and I now think, so often — what does it mean to say: I am this person. What does it mean to think that I could continue to be me if uploaded to a machine or taken up to heaven?

And more practically, what does it mean for a society whose youth seem attracted to becoming something else — a different culture, a different religion, a different view of what makes anyone human, anyone valuable?

So I am left with this. The ties that bind us are not certain; they unravel at the lightest touch. So the best we can do is imagine future selves and wonder how our present actions will make them feel — or, in fact, make them, real.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Order of Things

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Harve Bennett died yesterday. He was a writer and producer involved in the Star Trek franchise. In the wake of Leonard Nimoy’s recent death, it produced a fresh outpouring of grief on social media. Add to that the serious injuries Harrison Ford suffered in a plane crash and it has been a rough week for fans of the SF genre. I, too, have felt a few tears hover on the edge of my eyes.

It is always sad when we see our icons pass. Even worse is the passing of elderly parents or friends. Every one is a real loss in our daily lives and a reminder that eventually everyone we love will die and we will have to suffer the pain of their going. Unless, of course, we die first.

This is the natural order of things. We are born, we live, hopefully, a rich full life and then we die. We are mourned and then life goes on. So, when I hear that an 83 year old actor has died I feel a little sad — it marks the end of an era. A milestone in my own life. Another reminder of mortality.

Time is passing and neither wealth nor fame nor talent nor good works can halt its effects. We are all going to die.

Yet that simple truth — observable, falsifiable (point out one person who doesn’t die), more certain even than taxes — is very hard to accept. Blame consciousness if you like. Think how blissful it must be to be a dog. You go through life — it is either nice or nasty but you don’t spend all your time fretting about it. You enjoy the good and creep away from the bad. Then you don’t feel well and then you are gone. No worries.

Not so with us. We know early in our lives that we are going to go. It is one of — though certainly not the only one — pillars of religion. The afterlife — the grandest denial of death that has ever been constructed. Whether it is heaven or reincarnation — the central tenet of every religion is that life only transitions; it doesn’t end. Even atheists spend a certain amount of energy thinking about the singularity and our pending transition to immortal robot life.

The McGarrigle Sisters put it best in their song: Why Must We Die?

But, really, life is sweeter knowing that it must end. Knowing that you may never see flowers again, aren’t they more beautiful, isn’t their aroma more delightful? Could we really cherish anything if we knew it was here forever in unlimited supply? Even chocolate might lose its delight if you had it eight times a day for fifty years.

Death after a full life is natural. It is death that comes too soon that is the greatest tragedy. Women and men cut off at the height of their powers; children who never had a chance to blossom. These are the wounds that never heal. These are the blows from which lovers and parents never recover. These are the deaths that rob us of life.

So accept the natural order of things and hope you never have to suffer the unnatural one.

And that is ten brief and fleeting minutes.

Longing (Cuban Diary)

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The most painful of emotions is longing. It implies an irredeemable loss, a choice made that is forever regretted, a love abandoned.

I was sitting in a bar in Cuba. There was a piano player – not one of those great Cuban jazz geniuses, just a journeyman musician making a living from tips. Two couples walked by, intent for the most part of going from one place to another, intent on the next thing, supper perhaps or a better bar. But one of the women, an attractive blonde of a certain age – maybe 42 – turned her head as the rest walked on. Her eyes were fixed on the piano player, her head turning as the rest of her party — the man holding her hand— continued on, oblivious to her intense interest.

Her face was almost expressionless except for the longing in her eyes. It floated there on the surface of her gaze, almost unbearable to see. Then, with the slightest gesture of her head, the faintest of sad smiles, she turned away. And carried on with the life she had. That’s what you do. Time’s arrow flies in only one direction. And you move forward or you wilt in the dead soil of the past.

One of the songs the piano player performed was “My Way,” written by Paul Anka but made famous by Frank Sinatra. When you looked around the bar – you could see that some people didn’t know it, some did and for some it was an anthem that either defined their life or denied it. Men and women listened with smiles on their lips or shining eyes.

One of the lines of that song: Regrets I’ve had a few – is for some people unbearably sad. Regrets. Lost opportunities, lost loves, lost ways. To do it my way is often a choice you only understand in retrospect.

My life has not been without choices and, of course, I think sometimes about the other paths I could have taken. I could have been a chemist – I have a B.Sc. and could have gone much farther – or I could have been a professor – I had a full Ph.D scholarship in political science (which I turned down). I could have been a father or even a man who stayed married. I have been none of those things.

Do I regret it? How could I? I have the life I love. I’ve written books, I’ve travelled, I’ve loved and lost and loved again – never more deeply than now – and found peace with all those choices.

Do I ever suffer from longing? Perhaps once or twice. Who doesn’t wonder – from time to time – what might have been?

Time’s arrow is a prick. But the life we have is the only life we can ever have. Not much point of longing for more.

And that’s ten minutes (Cuban time).