Friday, November 17, 2006

Guest Post: Laura J. Mixon on Jack Williamson's Memorial Service

Steve and I went to Jack Williamson's memorial in Portales yesterday. There are supposed to be two Locus issues coming that will be devoted to remembrances of him, and there have been tributes in the NY Times, LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. Letters have flooded in from all over the world. In addition to his influence and vision, which molded the field of SF, he was just an amazingly kind, decent, modest, and loving man. He touched so many lives, including mine.

I've always thought it was so cool that he was a native New Mexican, too (Well, he moved here when he was eight or so, but given that he's still got almost twice as many years here as I do, I figure he more than qualifies...) In the booklet prepared for his memorial, they printed some words of his, including what it felt like to grow up in a small New Mexican town. I could see my own childhood in his words, and in the slide show they gave, of him and his family and friends, who stood on front porches a lot like my own.

He grew up in Portales. I spent the first couple years of my life only a stone's throw away in Roswell, and the rest in Albuquerque, a few hours to the west. Like me, he ran barefoot in summer among honeysuckle blossoms, goatheads, ants, and desert brush. At night, he too watched the meteors (and in more recent years, the satellites) track across the huge starry sky. Like me, he could always look across the hilly desert plains at the mountains on the horizon, with their thunderstorms and their verga, or he could lie back in the grass and stare up into that startling indigo-blue sky. Like me, he lived near space and military research centers and ancient Indian villages, with green chili stew and Hispanic music and churches -- amid teachers and shop owners and artists and ranchers and other people eeking out a living in a poor state.

Our childhoods were separated in time, but not so very far in space, and he fell in love with the vast array of possibilities that science and technology promised, too. Not a blind love -- he was concerned about its abuses -- but he also saw its potential.

About ten years ago, a group of us NM (and formerly of NM) writers and SF folks started a little mailing list, and Jack joined, too. I always treasured his posts. He was a regular guest at our local SF convention, Bubonicon (which btw is a really lovely, literary-oriented con; y'all should come). Once or twice, we had the opportunity to talk about SF stories we loved. I remember once we talked about Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber. Another time, we shared our experiences of how much therapy had benefited us. We discussed evolution and meteors.

We did not have opportunities to connect often, but whenever we did, he was present with his whole self -- his rational mind, his loving heart. I was only one of many people whose lives he touched. I doubt if he even knew how much our occasional conversations and contacts meant to me. It was a great gift he gave me, of his time and attention, and I will always treasure that memory.

SF writer Connie Willis, Patrice Caldwell, who taught with him at ENMU, and his niece, Betty Williamson spoke at his service. Craig Chrissinger was there, as were Ed Bryant, Walter Jon Williams, and others from the SF community.

Nearly every piece written about his life mentions that he came to New Mexico in a covered wagon. That fact is mentioned so often because it is so striking. He was an honest-to-God American pioneer, a denizen of the old west. His family almost certainly knew people who had known Jesse James, who lived in that area, too. They also mention all the terms he coined: terraforming, anti-matter, genetic engineering, to name a few. He was as much a pioneer in the field of SF as he was a pioneer in the west.

Here lived a man who was born at the start of the 20th century and who lived several years into the 21st: a man educated in the humanities and widely read in the sciences. He not only saw all the wonders, dangers, and terrors that have unfolded in the past century; he even predicted some of them, in that peculiar, watercolor-soaked way SF is known for.

His own words about his life, from the booklet handed out at the service:

"We lived close to nature. ... I recall the look and feel and smell and taste of whatever grew in the sand: the wonder of sleek green acorns swelling in their ornamental cups on the low-growing oak brush we called shinnery; the magic promise of a tiny tender watermelon growing out of its dying bloom; the mystery of the sensitive plants that shut their leaves when you touched them. There was sweet nectar to be sucked from one white, deep-necked bloom. Grassburrs and goatheads had to be avoided in the summer, when we were happily barefoot.

"I enjoyed them all [my classes], but one I loved was called 'Literary Figures.' A wonderful way of self-education, it let me pick one or two inviting writers and explore them with a little group of curious students. ... Best of all, I was allowed to teach science fiction. When a newspaper described the pioneer course that Mark Hillegas taught at Colgate in 1962, I proposed one of my own. Though some of my colleagues considered it 'fluff,' the department approved it, and I taught it for a dozen years, from 1964 until I retired.

"Though writing is another social thing, it's lonely, the responses long delayed. In the classroom, what you say and do gets instant feedback. And you belong. You're accepted, commonly respected, sometimes even loved.

"Science fiction remade my life when I found it long ago in those early pulp magazines where it was being invented. Its name was strange at first to nearly everybody. Not that many cared to know. Not then, because the magazines looked like trash. They were cheaply printed "pulps: with queer machines and horrid monsters on their cover, but for the few of us who dug them, even their names were drenched and dripping with wonder. Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories, Astonishing and Startling and Marvel; even Wonder Stories. ... Most of these once-beloved magazines are gone now, and all of us have changed. Yet I think we need wonder more than ever now ..."

It's not surprising to me that Jack embodied this uniquely Southwestern blend: a love of the humanities, of scientific and intellectual reach, of nature, technology, culture, a mix of down-to-earth friendliness, and a deep, thoughtful intellect. In Jack, it was all rolled up into a single, lovely person.

He had a long and fulfilled life, and he was prepared to die. He was surrounded by people who loved him. He retained his mental faculties pretty much right up till the end, and enjoyed good health well into his last years. I'm very grateful for all of that, and for the great gift of all those years we had with him.

But damn. I will miss him sorely. Good-bye, Jack.

Added by Steve: NPR story with quotes from Ray Bradbury, Jim Frenkel, and Patrice Caldwell.


Steven Gould said...

Rick Hauptman, long time friend of Jack, told me yes, Jack was kind and supportive of everyone, but this didn't mean he liked everybody. "There were people who he was just as glad when they didn't sit down and talk to him. But he wouldn've never let them know that to their face."

Gentleman. Scholar.

Too often used but apt here.

Steven Gould said...

There had to be three hundred to four hundred people there.