Charles N. Brown

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.

6 thoughts on “Charles N. Brown

  • July 13, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    I wish I'd gotten to know him half as well as you did. I'm glad you, and I, and so many people have so many happy memories of him.

  • July 14, 2009 at 12:17 am

    I just spent the day travelling back from Finncon via Amsterdam. What was the first thing I did, as soon as I got home, and before I'd taken my suitcase upstairs, removed my shoes or had a beer? Open Locus, of course – it had arrived while I was away. It was only later that I logged on and learned the news.

    I only met Charles on a handful of occasions, most of them at conventions in the US. But we had a couple of long chats in his hotel room and I've often reflected on the things he said, just as I'd often reflect on Charles' comments and opinions in each issue of Locus. His recent piece on "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" had got me thinking about Heinlein again – wondering if it wasn't time to reassess some of my own opinions on the man – and when I picked up a copy of Starman Jones at the Finncon dealer's room, I couldn't help thinking of Charles and what he thought of that book in particular. I took it as a given that at some point I'd get to talk to him about it. Now I know I won't.

    All sympathies to Charles' many close friends and the staff of Locus. Long may it run. — Al Reynolds

  • July 14, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    Charlie's joys and loves were many — good food, good drink, excellent company and great conversation, opera, and, of course, SF. Charlie gave himself body, mind, and soul to the SF community, creating and nurturing LOCUS along the way.

    That effort required increased amounts of time; the success of LOCUS meant less personal time with Charlie (at least for me). While at a Con, he and I came only to wave to each other — fondly, I thought (and hoped) — as Charlie hurried to yet another 'business' meeting and I mosied along.

    But I always was happy for his success: a LOCUS subscriber for ~35 years, I suspect that its successes and triumphs will continue, even though Charlie's quiet intelligence will not.

  • July 15, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    I was so sorry to hear about Charlie.

    I first met Charlie when I was a teenaged neofan in the late 1960s, and he was selling mimeoed Locus issues at East Coast cons. He was always nice and helpful to me despite being fifteen years older. In the late 1970s, on my first business trip to the Bay Area, I visited him in his house in the hills of Oakland, received the tour, took him out to lunch, and then attended a memorable party that night (that includedmy only extended conversation with Terry Carr). I had just began publishing Thrust as a semi-prozine, and Charlie treated me as an equal. I have seen him often over the past ten years at Worldcons, the last time in Denver near the end where he told me to get in touch with him before the next Worldcon so he could invite me to the Locus suite. I'm going to Montreal next month, but now that will not happen. I wish I had found time to go to Readercon and see him one last time.

    I hope that you will keep Locus operating as Charlie’s legacy, retaining his vision of a community focused on the core of science fiction literature.

    – Doug Fratz

  • July 15, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    I'm very sad for the news.
    As a reader from a different and distant country (Italy) and from a
    different language I can only say that it's incredible how Charles Brown was
    able to be close, like a science fiction grandfather
    Be strong

  • July 17, 2009 at 4:44 am

    I am extremely sad to hear about Charlie's passing. LOCUS meant a lot to me at different stages of life. Best memory of the institution he founded was reading LOCUS in the late '70s in the UCLA Research Library and realizing, "wow, there's a SF _world_, not just reading!" Then dreams of becoming a BNF, LOL. Later, what I read first always in LOCUS was Charlie's editorial. I will miss him and his thoughts immensely. Rest well sir and keep dreaming.


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