Charles Sheffield: Farewell
I'll be adding more to this piece as it comes in, but I really wanted to get it online with the issue. Thanks to the folks who've sent in emails already, and thanks in advance to those on the way. - Ern
left: Charles as Lunaon 2001 GOH with his wife, Nancy Kress
I'd known about Charles's illness since before Con Jose, and in the Tor suite we all signed get well cards for him and Robert Forward, who also passed away recently, and also of brain cancer. I've lost other friends to this, and am struck by the weird feeling, just coincidence I hope, that it's the best and brightest that this scourge attacks.
The more I read about Charles, the sadder I am that he has passed on, but the gladder I am that he walked among us and that his spirit endures, both in his writing and the memory of the urbane and compassionate person he was. In his memory, I'll try to keep an eye out for good science, an effort to be a contributor to the community, and a better person than I am. Ad Astra, Charles.
SFWA Annoucement / Michael Swanwick / Dr. Arlan Andrews, Sr / David Brin / David B. Coe / Don Smith / Eva Whitley / James Gunn / John Dipale / Yoji Kondo-Eric Kotani / Marcus Chown / Mark W. Tiedemann / Rob Chilson / Michael Flynn / Kevin J. Anderson
SFWA Annoucement: "Charles Sheffield, 67, former President of SFWA and winner of the Nebula and Hugo Awards for his novelette "Georgia on My Mind", died of brain cancer on November 2. His wife, writer Nancy Kress, was at his side.
Dr. Sheffield's first published science fiction story, "What Song the Sirens Sang", appeared in Galaxy in 1977. In all, he had well over 100 pieces of short fiction published, a half-dozen collections, a number of non-fiction works, and well over two dozen novels. He also wrote well over 100 technical papers.
In a statement, current SFWA President Sharon Lee said: "SFWA mourns the loss of one of its finest statesmen, who was never less than a gentleman. The President and Board of Directors extend their deepest sympathy to Charles' family and friends."
For more information about Dr. Sheffield, please visit his website
Michael Swanwick - It was at a Disclave. I walked in on the “How to Destroy the World” panel just as it was ending. Charles Sheffield gave a moving ex tempore summation that began, “But I believe that if we can survive the next hundred years, we’ll have the tools to make a paradise of Earth...” When he was done, the room boomed with applause. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more appreciative audience. Afterwards, as the panelists trailed out, Charles took me aside and said, “Michael, I just heard a very alarming thing. They told me that you said I should be on this panel because I’d enjoy destroying the world!”
Well, not exactly. I’d been on that same panel a year before, along with several other left-leaning eco-Green Asimov’s writers (I shall not mention Stan Robinson by name), and we’d been so disapproving of the very notion that we’d run the topic into the ground. So I told the con committee that next time they should select a batch of can-do Analog types. I specifically mentioned Charles Sheffield as the sort of guy who’d approach the task in the spirit intended, give good weight, and then proceed to make something special of it.
As indeed he had.
It’s extremely difficult for me to write about Charles because although I only ran into him occasionally, literally every encounter I ever had with him has left behind a warm memory. This makes his loss very hard to take indeed. He was a brilliant and multi-talented man with a razor-sharp wit and astonishing recall (give him an excuse, and he’d recite the works of the Romantic poets for hours), which, combined with his looks and bearing and beautiful manner of speech could have made him very intimidating indeed. Yet he was never intimidating. What I recall most about him was his kindness. I once saw him spend hours patiently explaining the business aspects of writing to a young unpublished writer, just because she’d asked. He was always aware of the feelings of the people around him. He could defuse a painful situation with a word.
Charles was everything a science fiction writer should be, and yet rarely is. He was a fine writer and, the people who worked with him tell me, an equally fine engineer. He was witty and urbane. Did I mention that he had a good mind? He taught himself to speak Farsi in four weeks! Most of us thought that, like L. Sprague de Camp did with his generation, he would outlive us all. None of us minded. Because if you have to send an ambassador into the future, who better? He would’ve made us all look good by proxy. Yet he died far too young, with his best books still in front of him. All readers have cause to mourn his loss. Those who knew him are particularly bereft.
Okay, I knew I wouldn’t do a good job of this. I’m just too upset. So I’ll stop now. I’m painfully aware that had he been given an analogous chore, Charles would have done a superior job of it. That’s the kind of man he was. A real gent.
We’ll all have to be better people now. Because, alas, Charles isn’t around anymore to take up the slack for us.
Dr. Arlan Andrews, Sr - Padre Island, Texas - Dr. Charles Sheffield was one of the finest gentlemen I have ever met: gracious, charming, educated, witty -- and the very best gossip in all of SFWA.
I first met Charles personally in 1991 at a Balticon, and later had wonderful times with him and others at monthly dinner meetings of Washington, D.C.-area SF writers, often hosted by Scott Edelman, then of Science Fiction Age magazine. We participated in several structured speculative conversations, which Scott then transcribed into SF Age articles. Charles was my guest for tours of the White House, and he reciprocated by reading my story manuscripts with frank and useful observations. We briefly conferred on some mutual business opportunities and consulted as part of a group of SF writers advising the U.S. government.
The most amusing incident I recall about Charles was in 1998, when at the Worldcon in Baltimore he was reluctant to attend the crabfest. I convinced him that as Toastmaster it was his sworn duty to lead all of us pros and fen in the eating of the crabs, so he dragged Nancy to the affair, located across the harbor. So there at our table sat this refined British author-scientist-scholar in T-shirt and shorts with mallet in hand, smashing crabs and quaffing beer. A glorious scene which I photographed and now treasure (and which appeared in Locus).
I last saw Charles in March of this year, when we met at a pub across from D.C.'s Union Station and caught up on a couple of years worth of news/information/gossip, putting away significant amounts of Guinness. He was in the best of spirits and appeared to be in good health. I will always remember him this way -- friendly, warm, wise -- in a raincoat on a dark Washington street, waving goodbye in the rain.
It was my honor to have shared some brief moments with this most human of human beings. My condolences to Nancy, to the rest of Charles' family, and to all of us, his grieving fans and friends. Ad astra, Charles!
David Brin - Like so many of the most interesting people, Charles Sheffield was complex. Despite many years of friendship, I can't say I began to plumb his depths.
A modern, adaptable person picks and chooses. While never discarding his proper English dignity, Charles gladly dropped every trace of Old World stodginess. He became more devoutly American - in the best sense of the word - than most who were born here, jumping from idea to enthusiasm to eager project with the enthusiasm of a puppy and the tenacity of an orca. Charles fizzed, but with class.
Yes, he was a polymath, a renaissance man... all that. A scientist with a sense of what-if wonder. An imaginative author with discipline. But more. What impressed me most was his way of turning to the quietest person present, paying some attention, asking a question and really listening to the answer. (Striving to follow his example, I keep forgetting; it's hard for an egotist, alas. But Charles made it seem natural, even easy.)
Let me put is this way. If ever a court convened to put the male sex on trial for its many faults, I would concede it all. Then I'd enter Charles Sheffield as Exhibit A for the defense.
"See?" I'd say. "If we can do this - be like this - maybe we're worth something, after all."
I miss him terribly.
David B. Coe - Author of the Crawford Award-winning LonTobyn Chronicle: -I met Charles Sheffield and Nancy Kress at Chattacon in 1998. It was one of my very first professional appearances -- my first book had come out a few months before and I was still awaiting the release of my second. Naturally, Charles and Nancy knew nothing about me. I, on the other hand, knew exactly who they were and felt completely overwhelmed. Both of them went out of their way to make me feel comfortable, treating me as a peer, asking me about my work, including me in their conversations with other, more established writers. They also taught me a great deal, simply by example. Charles, with his humor, his charm, his professionalism, and his patience, showed me that even the most successful writers must always take the time to visit with their fans and speak with those aspiring professionals who would follow in their footsteps. I didn't have the opportunity to spend time with Charles Sheffield at subsequent conventions, but I have carried the lessons of that weekend with me ever since, and I will never forget the kindness he showed me.
Don Smith - Farewell to a Fellow Writer…Charles Sheffield - Most writers (struggling and professional) find “Writer’s Digest” an invaluable tool. My favorite section is Nancy Kress’s column on fiction. Year after year, month after month of continuous literary lessons, Ms. Kress’s advice means more too most than four years of college.
Which is why I am deeply saddened to hear that her husband, of five years and fellow writer (who had over a quarter century of success), Charles Sheffield died of brain cancer, after a three month battle, on November 2nd, 2002 in Maryland.
Mr. Sheffield admitted that he was a reluctant science fiction writer. According to his autobiography (found at his web site dated April 2002) Mr. Sheffield came across Larry Niven’s RINGWORLD while on a trip through the Middle East. When he returned home, nothing seemed to impress him.
“When I was back in the United States. I went to the bookstores to find more things like RINGWORLD. I didn't find much. What I did find was a lot of sludge, occasionally well-written but mostly content-free (for this I blame the New Wave in science fiction, though my wife does not agree). I hated what I was finding; and after a while I had the dangerous thought, ‘You know, I could probably write something as bad as this myself.’ I tried,” says Mr. Sheffield.
Mr. Sheffield decided to challenge himself.
“I decided that I would keep writing until I had sold three stories, which would be enough prove that I could write. And then I would stop, and return to the mundane world of large government projects and management meetings,” he says.
His tenacity led to nearly a thirty-year career and over twenty-five books as well as many, many short stories.
Hopefully, Ms. Kress will take comfort in knowing that she is in the hopes and prayers of all who ever picked up the pen - to inspire, to instruct or even just to invent.
Eva Whitley - In 1980 I ran programming at Disclave, the Washington, DC area convention. The author formerly known as Somtow Sucharitkul (SP Somtow) talked me into putting him and Charles Sheffield on to an hour-long panel with the improbable name of "The Cambridge Theory of Science Fiction" (or maybe Oxford, my memory isn't what it used to be).
I was dubious about this so I put it on the first slot of the day, Saturday morning.
Those lucky souls who dragged themselves out of bed got to see a hilarious panel. The only thing I ever saw that came close was Bob Tucker's Guest of Honor speech, also at Disclave, (but two years earlier), and Bob Shaw's Hugo ceremony at Atlanta Worldcon, 1986.
I keep those of those lovely teenage girls who accompanied Nan and Charles to the Balticon Green Room a few years back. As good a writer he was, he also seemed to work hard being a good dad. That's not easy.
Oh, and Bob Tucker? Don't die. I need someone around who can make me laugh.
James Gunn - Charles Sheffield carried on the great tradition of hard science fiction with wit and style, and in person was an affable, gentle, kind, and rational person. He'll be missed by science fiction and the world.
This e-mail was forwarded to me, so
I'm hoping I'm using the correct e-mail address.
Yoji Kondo/Eric Kotani - I met Charles Sheffield, who passed away on November 2, in 1979 at a party in Annapolis hosted by Robert A. Heinlein. He was already established as an author then. Charles was a scientist with a Ph.D. in mathematical physics from Cambridge and worked in the space program; we shared something in common there.
We wrote "Looking about in Space" for Jim Baen's magazine "New Destinies", and over the last several years we worked together to organize three AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) symposia, the last two of which were "Space Access and Utilization beyond 2000" (2000) and "Interstellar Travel and Multi-Generation Space Ships" (2002). Charles was a fine author, a gifted scientist, and a wonderful friend.
Marcus Chown - Cosmology Consultant, NEW SCIENTIST - Charles Sheffield wrote a very kind review of my book, THE UNIVERSE NEXT DOOR, in the Fall BULLETTIN OF THE SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY WRITERS OF AMERICA. I e-mailed him to thank him but never received a reply. Now, sadly, I know why.
My memory of Charles is taking him out to lunch with the novelist Doris Lessing when I was book editor of the English science magazine, NEW SCIENTIST. He was very nervous at meeting Lessing because of her reputation and because he had not read any of her novels. He needn't have worried because she immediately told him she loved one of his books. It was the book of remote sensing images of the Earth that he had put together long before such images became a staple of magazine color supplements. After that they got on like a house on fire.
I didn't meet Charles many times. But I liked him. He was a nice bloke.
Mark W. Tiedemann - Charles Sheffield wrote excellent hard science fiction, but what was most impressive was that he never rested on what for many a lesser writer would have been plenty for a successful career. He stretched himself. He took chances. As a result, he wrote books that left a lasting impact not just for their technical and theoretical panache, but for what they had to say about people, in all their myriad aspects. He pushed the limits of the field and showed just what could be done with this unique form we work with. He was really damn good and he will be missed.
Rob Chilson - Some time back -- several years, now I think of it --I bought a collection of stories by Charles Sheffield.Opened it up, read the table of contents, and found I remembered every story. See, I read three digest SF magazines a month, and have done for thirty years, in addition to oodles and scads of other SF/Fantasy/etc., including anthologies and collections. For me to remember a third or a half of the stories in a writer's collection is remarkable.
Because, in such a flood of fiction, only the truly remarkable can be remembered.
I go to a fair number of conventions, meet a number of people ... too many to remember them all, even were my memory better than it is. But I remember Charles. I remember him well, and always will. That, too, is remarkable. Of course, so was Charles, and so remembering him is not such a feat as it might seem.
Been meaning to mention to Charles about remembering all the stories in his collection, next time I saw him, but it kept slipping my mind. Now it's too late.
Michael Flynn - Introductions - This is the way I remember things.
I first met Charles Sheffield at one of those author-editor receptions that SFWA runs in NYC. We were introduced by our mutual agent, Eleanor Wood, who told me that it had been at Charles' urging that she had taken me on. I last met Charles at the Millennium Philcon, where we discussed some few points of proton-boron fusion and constant acceleration and Charles read an excerpt from his Erasmus Darwin stories. In between, he was one of the finest men I have ever been privileged to know. His loss has profoundly saddened me.
He was a gentleman and a scholar, possessed of a dry wit and great erudition, never loath to answer foolish science questions -- and I asked more than my share. At one of the Chicons we spent an evening in search of the elusive Tor party, which had been expelled from its hotel room for excessive rambunctiousness. When -- after ducking in and out of several other parties -- we had tracked Tor down, Charles introduced me to Tom Doherty.
I was grateful for the introductions, to Eleanor and to Tom and to others in the field, and several years back, at a local Philcon, I was able to return the favor. As Nancy Kress and I were on our way to lunch at Denny's, we bumped into Charles, whom Nancy had not then met, and we invited him along.
You'll like Charles, I told Nancy. And in fact she did. Over lunch, they fell to quoting the opening lines of various poems and challenging the other to come up with the rest. By the time I had to leave for another engagement, Charles, the physicist, was winning. He was full of delightful surprises like that. It was a long lunch, I learned later, and at the next Philcon Charles thanked me for the introduction.
You're welcome, Charles.
Kevin J. Anderson - "Charles was smart. Charles was not just funny, he was also *witty*.
Charles was entertaining. Charles was incredibly erudite, yet he could be a nerd with all the rest of us.
"I saw him only a couple of times a year, but it was always like we were old neighbors. His easygoing charm made everyone around him feel like a good friend. Damn."