Sunday, November 20, 2011

Kathleen Stein

There were moments in nearly every conversation with Kathleen Stein when you could sense that she was on the brink of saying something -- or not saying it -- and was weighing the words she would use, or not use to make a point or launch a critique or deflate a pomposity. Or just let things go.

Letting things go was not Stein's style. Generally, she chose to speak up, and when she did her words were always well-chosen, with attention paid to specificity if not to tact.

But that didn't matter -- she was not being rude. There were points to be made, not points to be scored, and that very crucial difference set Kathleen apart conversationally as surely as did the quality of her arguments, her insights, her mind.

Kathleen died instantly last Sunday, in a fall during one of the hikes that she loved.

Stein, during her long -- epic! -- tenure as staff writer at OMNI, became one of the very best writers on science, and particularly neuroscience, in the country. Her stewardship of the magazine's legendary interviews is the prime reason they are legendary.She followed science with the assiduousness of a good reporter, and pursued its explication for general audiences with the enthusiasm of an evangelist.

Which last is a strange, but deliberate choice of words -- Kathleen had less use for or belief in anything supernatural or mystical than anyone I have ever known. She was a rationalist and an articulate one, who did not tolerate the word "nonbeliever" because it implied that there was something she chose not to believe in. Which she knew there wasn't.

She came to science writing and editing, the old-fashioned way, working her way toward her own best metier
one story at a time, in various fields.

She was a rock journalist for awhile, and a good one, writing for Circus, Creem, and others. Lester Bangs referred to her as "Kathi" Stein, but she used another variant spelling when, as Cathi Stein, she wrote Elton John: Rock's Piano Pounding Madman in 1975, when Elton"s and Stein's careers were both relatively new.

How she hated to have that little book mentioned! But she hated it with a twinkle -- which she would deny existed -- in her fierce eyes. It was an honest piece of work-for-her, quickie paperback dues-paying by a  journalist headed for other things.

Those other things could have been anything -- Stein was interested in all of it, and could write well about any of it.

At OMNI she turned her interest in everything into writing, and editing, pieces on everything -- neuroscience was her passion, but she was a grand generalist, and could write as well about the broad intersections of science and culture, as she could about the minute and minutely specific details of cortical structure.  

It would be nearly a third of a century before her next book, The Genius Engine: Where Memory, Reason, Passion, Violence, and Creativity Intersect in the Human Brain and this time the byline was:

By Kathleen Stein.

Damned right -- and a damned good book it is, a careful, and carefully written, examination of the prefrontal cortex.

 The last time I saw Stein in person, she joined my son and me for a beer on a gorgeous New York Saturday afternoon, four years ago this week. We spoke often -- though not, now, often enough -- on the phone, but being with Stein in person was a richer wonder, one that I always looked forward to, even when I saw her nearly every day at the office.

That Saturday it had been a few years since I'd seen her in person, but she was still Stein -- how could she not be -- and in the course of a couple of hours the three of us spoke of many, many things.

At one point, we were talking of Norman Mailer, who had died just a few weeks before, and Stein said that his death felt "like one of the foundational pillars of the universe had been removed."

I feel that way now, about her, about a universe without her.

As I understand things, it was probably an injury to the prefrontal cortex that killed Kathleen last weekend. And if so, one can imagine that final instant of her consciousness being pure Stein, observing as she died the effects of gravity upon her own cortex.

That's too facile, of course, and far too easy a search for some comfort. Kathleen wouldn't have allowed me to get away with that, were she here to glance at this piece.

But she's not. 
I will miss her for the rest of my life, but I will also for the rest of my life be grateful for the pleasure and the privilege of having known Kathleen Stein.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Joanna Russ

Sad news this morning, with word that Joanna Russ has died.

Although she published relatively little fiction in the past couple of decades, and was never prolific, there was a decade or so, from '68 to '78, when she was producing some of the most challenging and well-written SF in the world. Her best work included the novels The Female Man, the remarkable And Chaos Died, Picnic On Paradise, We Who Are About To, and shorter works including "Souls," "When It Changed, "Poor Man, Beggar Man,,"  every one of which worked beautifully as fiction and as science fiction, a tough double-act from which she never flinched.

I taught The Female Man in 1976, and can still, 35 years later, recall both the excitement and distress the students expressed, often simultaneously, at the unflinching challenges that novel offers. The richness and rigor of Russ's imagination, matched and even exceeded by her gifts both with prose and dialectic made that novel one of the outstanding accomplishments of the 1970s. It was an audacious and substantial novel then, and remains so today.

The first Russ I read were some early Alyx stories in Damon Knight's Orbit anthologies, and bought the Alyx fix-up, Picnic On Paradise when it first appeared, as an Ace Science Fiction Special in 1968. Russ and Alyux turned "heroic" fantasy" on its head even as the success of Conan reprints was beginning to spur much of heroic fantasy's long and ongoing retreat into pulp cliche and convention.

Joanna Russ was a stern and tasking critic as well, a scholar and a playwright.

But it is as a writer of fiction that I will best remember her, and it is with her fiction that I will, a bit later today, curl under a tree and do just that:

Remember her.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Blue Aronica

A bit of background, in the interest of truth-in-reviewing -- Lou Aronica is a dear friend of many years. We've worked together,  we read each other's work, we're open and blunt when criticism is called for, despite which we get along beautifully. I saw an early draft of Lou's new novel awhile back, and Lou nods, nicely but unnecessarily, to me in his acknowledgements.

That bit of history is not intended as a caveat: buyers of his Blue need no warnings other than to set aside a few undisturbed hours. Blue will not let you put it down.

Like all good fiction, Blue asks "What If?" Because Blue is a fantasy novel, the question carries implications larger than this reality. There are several of these questions, each carefully placed, elegantly asked, in the novel:
  • What role do our imaginations play in our creation of the world we live in, as well as the worlds we imagine?
  • Are there times when the worlds of our imagination become not merely distractions from the problems we face, but also crucial elements of our survival?
  • Is the appeal of the fantastic -- of fantasy itself -- dangerous? How easily a devotion to an imagined place of our creation become more real than the world we must live, and die, in?

But the largest, and most moving of the questions that propel Blue's narrative, and raise its already high narrative stakes to even higher emotional ones, is this:

What is our responsibility to our children and to both their imaginations and their understanding of the often harsh nature of the world we've brought them into?

It's a question that every parent faces, sooner or later, and most of us face it in moving, sometimes shattering, but still mundane contexts: children grow up and move away, marriages dissolve and families are separated, time passes and with its passage come changes.

Some parents, tragically, face the question more ultimately: children die or are killed, or are otherwise lost in ways that alter forever both the parent and, often, the parent's memories of the time before tragedy.

What Lou Aronica accomplishes in Blue is to take this basic, and universal, question, wed it to a beautifully realized and absolutely believable fantasy plot, and somehow explore the theme on both levels, deeply examining the natures of parenthood, loss, responsibility while also unveiling -- and deeply examining -- a wholly believable and self-consistent imagined counter-world which is faced with its own version of the questions confronting the novel's protagonist.

The treatment of that protagonist, Chris Astor, is what grounds Blue in our real world, and at the same time enables the transcendent vision of the counter-world, Tamarisk, to be equally grounded for all of its fantastica. Chris Astor is a good guy, a guy who understands the nature of responsibility and takes it seriously, particularly  his responsibilities as the divorced father of a teenaged daughter. Becky, at fourteen, is the center of his life, a center from which he feels increasingly estranged. Chris knows that he can be a better man than he is, though is uncertain how to become that better self. He knows as well that he's been better in the past.
Nine years ago. Chris saw five-year-old Becky through a life-threatening illness by creating, with her. Tamarisk -- a place they could go and not have to face the world of doctors, treatments, fear, death. Tamarisk was their world, Chris and Becky's, something so special and vivid and idyllic that it took on a life of its own.  

Now, after a divorce that flowed in large part from the opposite of idyllic Tamarisk -- the brutal honesty, expressed angrily out children's earshot, that a child's desperate illness and its strains can impose on a marriage -- Chris is cut off from Tamarisk  and, increasingly. from his daughter. Aronica's use of that opposition is superb, as is every one of the novel's oppositions and parallelisms, which are always effective and never strained. The opening scene, a divorced father fast-forwarding through old home movies, watching time speed up even as it passes into the, well, irretrievable past, is heartbreaking and beautiful, closing with the TV screen, like Chris's life, going blue.

It's a pleasure to read Aronica's prose. He is always clear, telling his story in a style and with language that invites the reader in, welcoming them and keeping them welcome from one well-realized scene to the next, whether the scene takes place in this world or in Tamarisk. Only occasionally does Aronica over-explain or over-describe his character's feelings and thoughts, the rare missteps the more noticeable for their rarity. Most of the time his characters speak for themselves, in sharp and believable dialogue that's notable for its avoidance of the cloyingness that too often harms father/daughter stories. His mastery of point-of-view ensures that readers experience each character as a separate and memorable individual; whether that individual lives here or in Tamarisk, their motivations and insights are believable and consistent.

A pleasure as well to encounter a deeply imagined fantasy world that doesn't re-use the same old small furry creatures in Thomas Kinkade houses. Instead, Tamarisk is a refraction (sic) of our own world with its problems and challenges, as well as a reflection of Becky and Chris. Whether or not Tamarisk is real, the world becomes as real for the reader as for Becky and Chris.

That Aronica makes every bit of this seem absolutely effortless is a testament  both to his obvious skill as a writer -- there are half a dozen aspects of this book, beginning with the creation Tamarisk itself, that are exceptionally difficult to accomplish, much less accomplish as well as Aronica does here -- and to the integrity he brings to, and invests in, his material.

Blue is a novel about love, love of father for child, child for father, love of life, love of imagination, love of nature.

It is also a major and ambitious fantasy novel -- that also works beautifully well for the rational among us as a serious psychological, and metaphorical, investigation of the appeals of fantasy -- that one can hope is the first of many novels of many different types.

Wherever he goes as a writer -- which is wherever he wants to, although it's hard to imagine him writing ReturnTo Tamarisk, or The Winds Of Tamarisk -- Lou Aronica has given readers a wonderful experience that can be read on many levels, but an experience that above all reminds readers of the joys of parenthood, and the ways in which those joys so often exist alongside, and sometimes exist more deeply because of, the loss of childhood that parenthood itself in so many ways and, like Blue, on so many levels, inevitably and inexorably requires us to confront.

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