Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Posts Tagged ‘writers

Mourning Ursula LeGuin

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Earlier this week, well-known science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. LeGuin died at age 88. While this was a very long and well-honored life, most of the SF&F community is in some degree of mourning due to how influential LeGuin was on the entire field of SF&F.

Most people who have read any SF&F at all are aware of her best works, which include the Earthsea Trilogy, THE LATHE OF HEAVEN, THE DISPOSSESSED, and the gender-bending THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, that deals with a planet where traditional gender roles do not apply and people can become male or female as the situation arises due to a type of estrus. But LeGuin also wrote poetry, short stories (in and out of SF&F), and any number of other things…and in some ways, she was primed from birth to become a writer.

Now, why do I say that? Well, her mother was a writer. Her father was an anthropologist. And she came from a well-read, well-educated household, with three siblings; all of them were expected from a very early age to reason and explain their reasoning to their intelligent parents, along with reading widely and being able to research nearly any subject.

All of these things — reading widely, being able to research, and being able to reason and better yet, explain your own reasoning — are important to writing. If you don’t read widely, you’re only rarely going to be able to produce anything of worth; if you can’t research new things, you can’t possibly explain them; if you can’t explain your reasoning, you can’t tell a story, because the story would ramble, meander, and perhaps wander off on tangents as it would not be properly set up in the first place.

LeGuin could and did all of those things. But her style, even from the first, was unusual. She wrote in a way that was both moving but also passive; she let the words speak precisely because of how they were stated, and let the reader interpolate a lot as to how people felt about whatever was going on in whatever story.

For example, in my favorite of all her works, THE LATHE OF HEAVEN, George Orr has a gift: He can dream true, and thus change his world through his dreams. But he doesn’t know what to do with it, and is afraid of it, so he refuses to use it.

Enter a corrupt psychiatrist, William Haber, who believes he can control Orr’s gifts. (Orr has no choice to see the man, either, as Orr was abusing drugs to keep himself from dreaming true and thus altering the world.) And over time, Orr loses nearly everything — his world, his girlfriend, even his psyche — until he realizes he must stand up to Haber once and for all.

The problem is, by this time, Haber has figured out how Orr’s managing to do what Orr’s done. And Haber’s version of a utopia is far worse than anything Orr has dreamed up, all unwittingly…so almost all of the pulse is internal, dealing with how Orr feels (which I like quite a bit), rather than external, though there is some of the latter (in particular, what will this horrible guy Haber do with the power Orr refuses to use?)

THE LATHE OF HEAVEN is the most deeply romantic novel LeGuin ever wrote. The romance between Orr and Heather Lelache (later Andrews, as in different worlds she married, or didn’t, thus changing her last name) is halting but real. Orr is enriched by his love for her, and she is given an unusual type of dignity along with the ability to realize that being soft does not make you weak by her love for him. And thus, they become better, wiser, kinder people…that is, until Haber interferes with the relationship. (Which for those who have read this, and are going, “Barb, you are misstating this,” is exactly what Haber does. Haber doesn’t like Heather at all. And he’s just as happy once Heather’s out of the picture, because Haber realizes instinctively that Heather is the main reason Orr will oppose him, due to Orr’s innate passivity.)

See, what I think LeGuin was saying is that we all deserve to find love. Whether we’re more passive than not, whether we’ve made mistakes (as both Orr and Heather have definitely done more than a little of that), whether we’ve done everything right all the time is immaterial. What matters is that we do our best, and stand up for what’s right, even when it’s difficult — and even when the best solution seems to be passive, rather than active, everything will find a way to work itself out over time if you just keep making your best effort.

That’s why I enjoyed THE LATHE OF HEAVEN so very, very much. I could see myself in Heather, for sure. I even saw a little of myself in George Orr, even though I’ve never been considered a passive sort of person…still, having gifts that you don’t always feel comfortable in using is a theme most people recognize instinctively, as we all have talents we’re sometimes afraid to use for various reasons. (Granted, not everyone wants to admit this. But it is the verimost truth.)

So if LeGuin had only written that one, very fine novel, I’d have remembered her and have mourned her craftsmanship and humanity, both of which shone through as a writer.

But as I said, she wrote many other things. And in nearly everything she ever wrote, I found value and worth…which is all you can ask of any writer, really.

And for those who want entertainment and just that in their stories, well, LeGuin could do that, too. Witness the Earthsea trilogy, TEHANU — the fourth book of Earthsea, and THE OTHER WIND, the fifth book. These are all ripping good reads, with heart and pluck and adventures, and kids of all ages enjoy them to this day.

(To clarify, TEHANU is about an older woman as she finds love, all unlooked for, with the former Archmage, Ged from the first three books. But there’s still a great deal of stuff there that younger kids will like, and the romance is certainly not a graphic one.)

So, here’s to you, Ursula LeGuin. I’m glad you lived. I’m glad you left behind excellent novels and stories and essays and poetry. And I hope your family — which includes, effectively, the vast majority of the SF&F community — will find comfort in your memory.

Jim Valvano and Michael B. Caffrey: Transformational Lives

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On this, the tenth anniversary of my husband Michael B. Caffrey’s passing, I want to discuss something interesting I’ve recently watched. Something I hadn’t expected to have parallels with my husband’s life . . . but actually did.

This, oddly enough, was the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Survive and Advance, about the 1983 NCAA Champion North Carolina State Wolfpack and their charismatic coach, Jim Valvano.

For those who don’t know much about sports, you may not know much about Jim Valvano. He died in 1993 after a yearlong battle with bone cancer at the age of 47. But even though he’s been dead now for 21 years, Valvano’s shadow continues to linger — in a good way.

Valvano was a coach who believed very strongly in his players, in his team, and in dreams. (Yes, I said dreams.) He believed if you couldn’t dream something and believe it would happen, you couldn’t achieve it. And he actually had his team rehearse things like cutting down the basketball net (something done after winning a very important game, like a national championship), because he wanted them to know deep down to the bottom of their souls that they could do anything.

Valvano — affectionately known by his players as “Coach V” — lived a transformational life.

But what goes into making a transformational life, anyway? Was it the charisma, which is still evident in this speech (at the 1993 ESPY Awards, when Valvano was eight short weeks from death)? Was it the sheer tenacity of the man, who gave as his personal philosophy this phrase — “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” — as part of that same speech? Was it because Valvano was one of the best basketball coaches the East Coast ever produced?

It was all of that, but it was also something more. Jim Valvano made people believe they could do it. He was a positive, inspirational force of nature, with the outsized personality of a stand-up comedian but a heart as big as the Atlantic Ocean. And he made people believe in themselves — not just his 1983 Wolfpack team, but the many people who heard his motivational speeches, read his autobiography, and heard his final major speech at the ’93 ESPYs.

Having a talent like that is incredibly rare.

I’ve only known one person who had it in my entire life: my late husband, Michael. Though Michael was not an outsized personality — certainly not like Valvano, at any rate — he had a presence that was beyond anything I’ve ever known.  A certainty, a positivity, and a belief that I could do anything I wanted no matter the obstacle. No matter how many times I might stumble. No matter how many times I might actually fall.

He believed I could do it. More than that: he believed I would do it.

Watching Survive and Advance was both inspirational and heartbreaking for two reasons. One, Valvano died at age 47; Michael died at 46. And two, there were so many things in there that “Coach V” said that reminded me of my husband . . . it’s hard to explain, because Michael’s manner was nothing like Jim Valvano at all.

But the message — the powerful, motivational message — was exactly the same.

The words that rang truest of all were these, again from Valvano’s ’93 ESPY speech:

“”Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.”

My husband did not have cancer. He instead died of several heart attacks in one day, without warning, to the point his ventricle failed him. But he once told me that no matter what happened to him — as he believed his own health wasn’t all that wonderful — he believed his heart, his mind, and his soul would endure. And he’d never stop loving me. He’d never stop caring about me. And he’d never, ever stop believing in me.

He told me that about a year before he died, when I was about to go in for a needed surgery that I was fearful of, and I have never forgotten it.

I know that Jimmy V’s life was lived in the public eye. Michael’s certainly wasn’t. Michael’s life didn’t touch nearly as many people — how could it?

But Michael is remembered by many. He helped many writers, including the late Ric Locke, with his editing. He helped many people believe they could indeed do exactly what they put their mind to doing . . . and that’s what makes a transformational life.

You come into contact with someone like that, and your whole life changes. It gets better, because you can do more. Even through the mourning, you can still do more. And you get up every day and you try your level best, because you want to be worthy of that belief.

My husband would be astonished that I’d mention him in this particular context, especially as he was also a sports fan. He’d probably see absolutely no parallels between himself and the famous “Coach V.”

But he’d be wrong.

It’s because Michael lived, and was with me, that I continue to do what I do. His loss was so painful that I continue to struggle with it, ten years later . . . but it’s because I knew him, was married to him, and got to see how he overcame his own obstacles that I have refused to give up.

If that’s not the epitome of what a transformational life is all about, I don’t know what is.

————

Note: If you want to read Michael’s writing — and I hope at least some of you do — please take a look at the two stories I’ve been able to put up as independent e-books over at Amazon: “A Dark and Stormy Night” and “Joey Maverick: On Westmount Station.” These are both stories of military science fiction, though the first is while Ensign Joey Maverick is on leave and participating in a “low-tech” sailing regatta (meaning approximately 20th Century tech) and the second is when newly-minted Lieutenant Maverick is about to ship out for the first time. In essence, the first story is a search-and-rescue story with some romance, and the second story is that of a young officer stopping an unexpected saboteur at a very early hour in a completely unexpected place.

A third story has been started (a bridge story, written by me with some details from Michael’s notes), and I’ve also written two stories in Michael’s universe from a different perspective entirely that are currently making the rounds (if all rounds end up exhausted, they, too, will end up as e-books).

So at least some of Michael’s words continue to live, which is what I vowed when Michael died suddenly. And if I have anything to say about it — if I get enough time on this Earth — all of them will.

SF Writer Ann (A.C.) Crispin Has Died

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Science fiction and fantasy writer Ann (A.C.) Crispin has died at 63 due to cancer, numerous sources have confirmed.  (Here’s an obituary from Tor.com.)  Ms. Crispin wrote numerous novels, many of them being media tie-ins with emotional depth and resonance (such as her two Star Trek novels, YESTERDAY’S SON and TIME FOR YESTERDAY); she also wrote two excellent novels with André Norton, GRYPHON’S EYRIE and SONGSMITH, and several in her own STARBRIDGE series.

Ms. Crispin was an excellent writer, but she also was very interested in helping newcomers navigate the world of publishing.  Alongside this blog is a list of links, one being to a site called Writer Beware.  That site was co-founded by Ms. Crispin and Victoria Strauss because they both wanted writers to arm themselves with knowledge and to know what a reasonable, honest contract from a publisher should look like — and what one definitely should not look like.

I never met Ms. Crispin personally, never talked with her in any depth online, but I still feel a debt is owed to her due to all of her advocacy through Writer Beware.  And as I read and enjoyed many of her twenty-four complete novels (much less her numerous short stories), but never reviewed any of them (some of them predate my excursions into reviewing; others were printed in the years right after my beloved husband Michael’s passing, where I rarely reviewed anything or had much of an online presence, either), I wish I had said something while there was still time.

Others who did know Ms. Crispin personally have shared at least some of their experiences, including Crispin’s best friend, Victoria Strauss a few days ago (Crispin had posted a message saying she knew her time was short, and Ms. Strauss posted a wrap-around message with a picture of the two of them together, walking along the beach — it’s a beautiful shot).  As Ms. Strauss said today, “Please honor Ann’s memory, and her work, by reading her books and spreading the word about Writer Beware.”

I agree.

On a personal level, I wanted to mention that my late husband, Michael, was also a fan of Ms. Crispin, partly because he was a huge fan of Andre Norton and knew about Crispin’s two collaborations with Norton.  He started reading Ms. Crispin’s work because of those collaborations, as did I, then read her Star Trek novels and the entire Starbridge series, among others.  We also recommended her books to our friends, though we found that most of them had already read her books before we got a chance to recommend them.  (Strange how we all tended to read the same books, but that is a subject for a different blog than this one.)

In case you haven’t read Ann Crispin’s work, here’s a link to her available books on Amazon.  Take a look.  Then buy something, and look forward to a great read with emotional depth and poignance.

Because that’s what Ms. Crispin was best at, whenever she wasn’t over at Writer Beware helping out other writers.

My condolences to Ms. Crispin’s family, especially her husband, writer Michael Capobianco, her best friend, writer and Writer Beware co-founder Victoria Strauss, and to all of her fans, everywhere.  She will be greatly missed.

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Note: Earlier this week, the SF&F community lost another great writer — a pioneer in the field, no less — Frederik Pohl — at the age of  93, and the world at large lost writer and television broadcaster David Frost at 74.  Supposedly, it’s a myth that noteworthy passings come in threes . . . yet here, that myth has proven out.  (Strange, that.)

Written by Barb Caffrey

September 6, 2013 at 3:20 pm