SOL Rising

Number 20, January 1998
Page 1 of 3


SOL Rising #20 was a tribute to Judith Merril, who passed away in September 1997.

The View From A Chair
A Message From The Collection Head
The Merril Collection: A Chronology
Judith Merril: A Brief Biography

Tributes

Go to Page 2

Go to Page 3

Back to SOL Rising page


The View From A Chair

"We erect tombstones for our dead relatives and build monuments to our dead leaders. When a beloved writer dies, we read his works, again. A writer, if what he says is worth the hearing, and if his skill is sufficient to make it worth hearing twice, builds his own memorial while he lives. "

When Judith Merril wrote these words in The Year's Best SF: 11th Annual Edition (1966), she was speaking about Shirley Jackson who had died in August, 1965. When I recently reread them, I realized no tribute I could write about Judy could ever describe, with such simple poignancy, how I and many, many others feel about this extraordinary woman better than her own words, written over thirty years ago. Still, the desire, and the need, to honour such a remarkable individual is strong and so we dedicate this issue to Judy, with admiration and respect. My thanks to all those who have so graciously shared their thoughts and memories with us in these pages; to their heartfelt words, let me now add a few of my own.

Judy touched the fives of countless people over the years and whether that touch was tender or a swift kick to one's motivational backside, it was always honest and honestly intended to help rather than harm.

Few people have the strength of will to act upon their beliefs, however deeply felt, but Judy did and in spades. She brought intelligence, wit, and relentless determination to every cause she espoused, and those causes were numerous and varied. Her own writing reflects her passionate convictions and Judy's stories are filled with images of strong women and of society as it could be and should be.

Judy's contribution to the science fiction community, as well as to the literature itself, is truly remarkable. Besides being an author, she was also an editor, teacher, media commentator, and, yes, the occasional rabble rouser. Without Judy's generous donation of her personal collection to the Toronto Public Library, the "Spaced Out Library" would never have been born and we would not now have the world class science fiction research collection which bears her name (albeit over her quite strenuous protests).

But more than this, Judy helped shape the overall course of science fiction in a way few other people have or ever could. She encouraged many in their careers, rattled more than a few cages, and challenged all of us to look at ourselves and our world from a myriad of viewpoints. She could shake us out of our complacency with the power of her words and that is a rare and precious gift indeed. This power, coupled with her vibrant spirit, is the heart of Judy's rich legacy to us, her "memorial" if you will. May we use it wisely.

Jody Hancock

Back to top   Home


A Message From The Collection Head

Judith specified having an office in the building where her donation was housed for as long as she lived. We all thought it would be longer.

She remained intensely supportive of the Collection, walking in and telling the staff about new books that she thought the Collection should hold or demanding "something good to read!" We would all flinch when she did that because whatever it was that we recommended, all the staff knew she was going to hate it. She made a point of destroying our peace of mind, correctly feeling that vegetative trance was not a particularly productive frame of mind.

I remember one time when I gave her a new book which had received excellent reviews, she gave it back three days later, telling me that she hitherto had never encountered a writer who actually used the phrase, "had I but known!" Bloody woman.

The converse was true, on those occasions when we scored-she loved Octavia Butler and liked Jo Clayton and Jane Lindskold; the person who recommended them felt that she had shot the moon.

Judith's support wasn't expressed in kind phrases. If you asked for her help, you got it. Sometimes this took the form of questions that cut to the bone, pungently expressed. Bloody woman.

You may measure the impact a person had on your life by the silence when they leave. No more questions, no more laughter, no more advice. And now the silence is huge, echoing, and I am sitting here crying.

Bloody woman.

Lorna Toolis

Back to top   Home


The Merril Collection
A Chronology

1968
Judith Merril moves to Canada. Her science fiction collection is loaned to residents of Rochdale College.

1970
Judith Merril donates her collection of books to the Toronto Public Library. Known as The Spaced Out Library, the collection is maintained at 566 Palmerston Ave.
Madge Aalto (Medeleine Morton) is appointed Head of Collection.

1973
Doris Mehegan is appointed Head of Collection.

1975
The Spaced Out Library is moved to 40 St. George St., 2nd floor.

1980
The Friends of the Spaced Out Library is founded. The circulating collection is started.

1981
The Building Committee is formed to find a new permanent home for the Collection. Task is completed fourteen years later.

1986
Lorna Toolis is appointed Head of Collection.

1991
The name Spaced Out Library is officially changed to The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy. The Friends of the Spaced Out Library change their name to The Friends of the Merril Collection.

1995
The Merril Collection moves to 239 College St., 3rd floor.

Back to top   Home


Judith Merril
A Brief Biography

1923: Josephine Judith Grossman is born January 21 in Manhattan to Samuel Grossman and Ethel Hurwitch.

1936: Judith discovers the Trotskyite group the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL).

1940: Judith marries Daniel A. Zissman, an YPSL friend, and moves to Philadelphia. While bedridden with the flu and a toothache, she reads several of her husband's science fiction magazines. Intrigued, she goes out and buys more.

1942: Daughter Merril is born. Judith takes her daughter's name as a pseudonym, which she later comes to use for all purposes.

1945: While Dan is away in the Navy, Judith moves to New York and becomes involved with the Futurian Society.

1947: Judith and Dan divorce. Judith becomes editor at Bantam Books (until 1949).

1948: Judith's first short story "That Only a Mother," is published in Astounding.

1949: Fred Pohl, Judith and others form The Hydra Club. Shortly thereafter, Judith marries Fred Pohl.

1950: Judith's first anthology, Shot in the Dark, is published by Bantam. Her first novel, Shadow on the Hearth, is published by Doubleday.

Daughter Ann Pohl is born.

1953: Judith and Fred divorce.

1956: Judith, Damon Knight and James Blish organize the first Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference. The conference becomes an annual event.

The first SF: The Year's Greatest… anthology, edited by Judith, is published. The series continues for eleven further annual volumes, displaying "a daringly eclectic taste, publishing work from outside the standard boundaries of the genre." (Locus)

1960: Judith marries merchant mariner and union organizer, Daniel W. P. Sugrue; she separates permanently from him within two years.

1965: Judith begins tenure as "Books" columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (until 1969).

1966: Judith spends a year in England gathering material for her New Wave anthology England Swings SF, championing experimental fiction and stylistic innovation.

1968: Following the violent suppression of an anti-Vietnam war demonstration at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Judith moves to Toronto, where she serves as a resource person at Rochdale College and makes her extensive library available to the community.

1970: Judith donates her science fiction book collection to the Toronto Public Library, forming the Spaced Out Library.

Judith writes programs for CBC Radio, most notably for the program "Ideas," including a ten program series about Japan and a number of individual programs on ecological and speculative subjects (until 1975).

1972: Judith returns to Japan (her first visit was in 1970) for an extended stay in order to assist in translating Japanese science fiction stories into English.

1976: Warner Books publishes The Best of Judith Merril, edited by Virginia Kidd.

1978: Judith becomes commentator for episodes of Dr. Who broadcast on TVOntario (until 1981).

1983: Judith receives Canadian Science Fiction Lifetime Achievement Award for contributions to the field (she receives a second award in 1986, for achievements in editing).

1984: Judith assembles a social gathering of Toronto area science fiction professionals, which leads to the formation of Hydra North.

1985: Judith edits the first volume of Tesseracts, a continuing series of anthologies of Canadian science fiction.

1991: Judith has triple bypass surgery.

Judith receives Milford Award, presented at the Eaton Conference on SF and Fantasy for contributions to editing and publishing.

1992: Judith is honoured with tributes and appreciations at the Harbourfront International Festival of Authors in Toronto.

Judith begins writing her memoirs, tentatively titled Better to Have Loved. (After her death, granddaughter Emily Pohl-Weary continues to work on memoirs.)

1996: Judith attends WisCon in Madison, Wisconsin, as a Guest of Honour.

1997: Judith is honoured as Author Emeritus at the Nebula Awards ceremony of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Judith Merril passes away on September 12 in the cardiac unit of Toronto General Hospital from congestive heart failure and complications following an angiogram.

She is survived by two daughters, Merril and Ann, six grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Judith loved warm climates, kept many houseplants, and travelled to Jamaica many times. She was a dedicated anti-racist and anti-war activist, a strong supporter of all forms of literacy and a vehement opponent of all forms of censorship. She never lied and always lived an economical lifestyle.

Assembled with the assistance of Ann Pohl, and from biographies appearing elsewhere by Spider Robinson, Allan Weiss and Locus.

Back to top   Home


Micheal Moorcock

I've written and talked about Judy Merril's public achievements elsewhere, most recently in my introduction to Fritz Leiber's III-Met in Lankhmar.

Reading through some of the obits by the old gents who knew Judy in the forties and seem to be claiming most of her singular achievements for themselves, it's no further surprise to me why she chose to live first in England and then in Canada, rather than in her native US. Like Faulkner, Chandler, Welty, Dick and many others before and after her, she got more respect in those countries. She got the respect she deserved.

I loved Judy. I fought with her over almost every interpretation she made and a lot of the writers she liked. She told me she thought my Final Programme was an evil book. I told her she had shit for taste. I was responsible for getting her old work reprinted in England. She said my Fireclown was the best book I ever wrote and showed some hope for me, after all. I said that proved she had shit for taste. She rewrote (reluctantly) Shadow on the Hearth for the line of SF paperbacks I edited. I didn't care a fig about her taste, but I loved her effect. She was an extraordinary catalyst, a perfect editor. She had unmatched instincts for compiling anthologies. She could have done every one of them blind, by her nose alone, not reading a word.

I was by no means the only one to beg her to write new fiction, but in a sense the brilliant editing she had done for so many years had left her irredeemably self-conscious about her own writing. She couldn't judge it. At that time she was the most powerful and respected editor of SF in the world. She felt she had no one she could trust to judge her work for her. She had been one of the leaders in setting high standards for American SF, developing the genre until it attracted some of the most ambitious literary writers of their generation, but by the mid-sixties and the death of Boucher, she said, she had no mentor. She had always needed a mentor, she said. Sturgeon had set that pattern. Those old patriarchs were really something. Now she was the mentor of others and it wasn't a role she felt comfortable with. She tried to make Ballard her mentor but he was more interested in cars at the time. There was a symbolic contretemps over a borrowed Parker pen. She went to Japan. Which became her new enthusiasm. But there was another drawback to her personality which stopped her fulfilling all that promise. She was probably the laziest person I ever encountered.

I have never known anyone so capable of procrastination. I'm a fairly good time-keeper and I hate hanging around in airports. Travelling with Judy was a nightmare. One time, at Orly, arguing over the punctuation of a piece she'd written and I'd typed for her (so that she wouldn't miss the further-extended deadline), we missed three planes in succession because she insisted each time that there was no rush. She trashed hotel rooms, she embarrassed me in public, she had no judgement where a pretty face was concerned and she became half-involved in intrigues she barely understood-in languages she didn't speak. Whatever the narrator suffers in Travels With My Aunt, I suffered with Judy. There are worse ways of suffering.

She liked dope a lot. When I knew her best, she'd go almost anywhere for a spliff. For a while Jamaica gave her most of what she most enjoyed. She was the only old friend to attend Fritz Leiber's wake, joining in the spirit when they put a glass of scotch and a cigarette in Fritz's hands and brought him back into the party. She was chuckling when she told me about it. Everyone who knew her remembers that terrible chuckle, counterpointed by wheezes and coughs, as she recounted some much-relished story.

Judy came to England in the mid-60s some time after the likes of Disch, Sladek, Clute, Zohne and others had settled there. It was a great time to be in London. If you took the opportunities for experience, it was a Golden Age. To Judy it was an affirmation of all her idealism. And she wasn't about to turn her back on opportunities for experience. She had become enthusiastic about the work we were publishing in New Worlds and which Chris Priest had dubbed the New Wave. Judy, notoriously tin-eared in this area, came up with something even sillier. She called it the New Thing. She quoted the Beatles and dropped a little acid; and England Swings SF was her monument to that wonderfully pixillated period when everything seemed possible and it was your duty to try everything at least once. They were great years, enhanced by Judy's presence.

At that time, Barry Bayley (Knights of the Limits) was looking after the boarding house he lived in on Portland Road, Holland Park. It was cheap and convenient and for a while it sheltered a significant portion of the best US and English SF writers and artists associated with New Worlds.

Many came and went, but Barry was a permanent resident. The fantasy artist James Cawthorn lived next to John Sladek. They lived below Tom Disch. Judy ruled the basement. Sometimes she stayed down there for weeks. It could be horrible. Some of my descriptions of Mrs. Cornelius's mephitic basement in nearby Blenheim Crescent (The Condition of Muzak) are based on Judy's place. Mrs. Cornelius's coarse common sense derives from Judy's. At Portland Road intense relationships developed which Judy sometimes seemed to engineer. Her dirty laugh was the appropriate chorus to the various dramas taking place in various parts of the house. Her ancient flames came and went, leaving with averted faces whenever one of us turned up, as if by avoiding direct eye-contact they might not be recognised. Famous oldsters, survivors, like Judy, with a thousand years of experience written in their faces. Gigging in London. Passing through. Glad to find her in town. They were a record of Judy's enthusiasms-for jazz, for science fiction, for left-wing politics-authenticating her own stories, giving extra meaning to what we already knew about her. And making it doubly frustrating that she would not use her talents to write about it.

Lots of us tried to get her to do it. But it was hard enough teasing her F&SF review column out of her at anything less than two months late and she missed deadlines as casually as she missed planes. Fundamentally lazy, she devoted too much of her energy to manipulating others to do things for her. She saw her greatest talent as a catalyst. But that was just the easiest talent she could use. It showed, of course, in the wonderful eclecticism of her anthologies. She enjoyed an exceptionally wide range of reading. She had a habit of contacting the writers she admired. In London she brought many of us together.

I gave a few parties for her, especially when she first arrived. She'd tell me which of my friends and acquaintances she wanted me to invite, besides mutual friends, and I invited them. Actors, painters, poets, editors, academics and musicians mingled. Arthur Clarke met William Burroughs and they got on famously. Snarling like rabid dogs, J.G. Ballard and the poet Peter Redgrove duked it out over a profound but now totally forgotten philosophical disagreement. Rival columnists found enthusiasms in common. Scientists and academics exchanged ideas. Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton and other pop artists got to meet pop stars, philosophers and their favourite pulp writers. Young hopefuls were introduced to old has-beens. Film stars played the banjo, folk singers chatted up film directors. Lasting relationships were formed.

I got a great reputation for my parties. But the truth is I would never have given them, never have thought of inviting all those different kinds of people, if it hadn't been for Judy's insistence. I even forgave her for publishing my address in one of her Year's Best anthologies and suggesting that visitors were always welcome at my Notting Hill family home (address supplied), which was the hub of all that was happening in Swinging London... Our front steps showed visible erosion. In the end we had to put signs on the door, the politest of which read Go Away...

I also learned never to plan an event around her, even if that event was in her honour. Sometimes she didn't show up. Sometimes she showed up very late with hosts of casual friends. Sometimes she defeated all expectations and arrived on time without any extra company.

As always, Judy took my complaints with equanimity, like an old cat waiting for the temper-storm to subside. And then she would go about her business, as always, setting her own agendas and blazing her own trails.

I said I was worried about her health. She told me she was in control of all that. Her father actually had picked his own moment, by jumping out of a window at the time of the Great Crash. She believed her mother, a healthy hypochondriac, had deliberately given herself the heart-attack which killed her.

Judy also believed you could make your own hair curl if your will was strong enough. But I'd like to think she chose her own moment to die. It wouldn't be beyond her. The only thing that makes me unsure about it is that if she had chosen that moment as her last, she'd probably still be sitting here, arguing over a point of punctuation or the merits of some author or the shortcomings of Authority, having missed her deadline as usual.

I wish she was still physically in this world. Her tremendous effect remains. Our affection and our memories remain. Neither she nor I really believed in any familiar form of life after death, but it cheers me at this moment to imagine Judy up there with all the other quarrelsome writers and philosophers and artists, surrounded by equals at last, by peers and mentors in profusion, starting arguments, ending others, lazing away eternity in one long, wonderful, eclectic conversation.

Judy's heaven.

Michael Moorcock, writer and editor, has written many fantasy and science fiction books. Formerly resident in England, he now lives in Texas.

Back to top   Home


Spider Robinson

Excerpted from a speech given on the occasion of the tribute to Judith Merril at Harbourfront, in October 1992.

ANECDOTES FROM MY OWN FILES

I have racked my brains for funny Judith Merril stories, any hilarious events that occurred when we were [together], any memorable insights she displayed or remarkable behavior she evinced in my presence. Almost nothing surfaces from my memory banks. I have been happily and monogamously married for eighteen years, and refuse to discuss politics at all under any provocation, and so Judith and I have never had anything to quarrel interestingly about. We've had good times, lots of laughs, and done a little business: nothing that makes a good anecdote.

But I do have one anecdote I find worth recounting… even though it is not a funny-type story. It goes back about a decade. Judith had come to Halifax, almost certainly for one of the later Halcons. We invited her out to dinner, and for lack of a sitter were forced to bring along our daughter, then six years old. It was the first time Luanna had ever been to a Japanese restaurant, her introduction to Japanese food, and she was surly about it. She just knew she was going to hate that stuff. We placed our orders… and then we waited. And waited. And waited. After we had waited well over an hour for food that Luanna knew she was going to hate, her sullenness threatened to give way to open rebellion. Before Jeanne or I could act, Judith took matters in hand: began talking to Lu, involving her in conversation, telling her stories, jollying her along. When the food finally arrived, the kid fell on it with great glee, and pronounced it wonderful. That's all: nothing spectacular, nothing of lasting literary significance—Judith simply displayed an ability to mollify an infuriated six-year-old. And I'm not even really sure why I'm telling you about it… except that Luanna, who has since changed her name to Terri and gone off to college at the University of Victoria, remembers the event, and Judith, with total clarity and fondness. And has no recollection whatsoever of the half-hour birthday conversation she had on the phone, a few months later, with some old guy named Heinlein. (And she still loves Japanese food.)

I was Toastmaster for the 50th-that's right, the 50th!-World Science Fiction convention, in Orlando. Six thousand people attended. Among the attendees were most of the surviving members of First Fandom, those who started the whole tradition of Worldcons in 1939, and most of the professionals currently working in the field. Knowing that I would be speaking at this tribute [at Harbourfront], I spent what little time my Toastmaster duties left me buttonholing pros and Big Name Fans who had been contemporaries of Judith, and asking them for Judith Merril stories—ideally, funny ones.

I received dozens. To my mild astonishment, 50% of them were either unflattering or uncomplimentary—or were perceived as such by the teller. Almost no one wanted to be quoted. "Oh, I've got a great story-but you can't use it." I heard enough juicy gossip to curl my hair-and found an interesting pattern emerge.

One story resurfaced a dozen times, for instance. A number of American pros and fans went to Loncon II, the second Worldcon to be held outside the US, in London England in 1965, and Judith was asked to speak there. Several people told me of the deep embarrassment and anger they felt when she delivered a speech that amounted to an apology for America, and its involvement in Viet Nam.

I began checking, without letting myself be caught at it. None of the people who told me that story now believed that the United States should have been in Viet Nam in '65; at this point they probably would have agreed with Judith's speech. Yet they were all still mad at her for having made it then, for embarrassing them and their British hosts. The war itself hadn't embarrassed them; only a sincere apology for it.

All the other stories that kept recurring, that were not political in nature, were sexual in nature.

Several people, for instance, made snickering reference to a question often asked in SF circles in the '50s and '60s: "Have you been anthologized by Judith Merril yet?"

What these anecdotes all amounted to, I found, was that Judith Merril was a sexually liberated woman before there was even a name for that. And even though such behaviour now not only has a name, but is considered by polite society as acceptable behaviour for a "respectable" woman, most of the people who recounted her exploits of those days to me could not shake their no longer valid but nonetheless long held distaste for her nerve in doing such things before there was a climate of opinion to accommodate it. Dammit, the woman simply had a helluva nerve, having more fun than I did!

Not all of those who spoke to me were judgmental. Ben Bova, for instance, who came up in SF a generation after Judith, told many of the same sorts of stories, but with fondness, humour and obvious affection. The general trend was this: the younger the writer, the more recent his or her entry into the field, the more likely they were to have warm and flattering things to say about Judith.

I wish it were possible to assemble at a single convention all of the Canadian SF professionals, and ask them for Judith stories-I am intuitively certain that they all have at least one, and I'm sure a higher percentage would be fondly recalled. It is one of the many ironies about Judith, that in a country [the US] which prides itself on rugged individualism, she seems to have established a reputation as too ruggedly individual—while here [in Canada] in a society which prizes peace, order and calm, she has come to be seen as a pillar of the literary establishment, a welcomed enabler for an entire generation of wild-eyed dreamers. Not, mind you, that she has lost any of her gadfly nature, her iconoclasm, or her enormous talent for shit-disturbing-ask any member of the Writers Union of Canada. (Listen, this woman is one of the few people ever to have successfully sued Harlan Ellison!) But she picks her fights, these days, and makes more friends than enemies in the process.

Two of Ben's stories involved his friend and mine, the late Dr. Isaac Asimov, and I will repeat them here since I find them funny:

Isaac and Judith were both at the same party in New York, and Isaac had, as was his invariant habit, been flirting outrageously with the ladies, boasting loudly and extravagantly of his sexual prowess. Everyone knew that Asimov was the most harmless of wolves and faithful of husbands. He and Judith left separately, but chanced to meet on the street outside the party-whereupon Judith, with a wicked gleam in her eyes, braced him and said, "Well, Isaac, you've been talking big all night: the answer is yes. Your place or mine?" and took him by the collar. According to Isaac, he disappeared into the subway so fast he created a sonic boom...

Another time, Isaac was sitting at the head table at some convention banquet, and the Toastmaster pointed out to the crowd a famous writer sitting in the audience, who, he said, "had just been anthologized by Judith Merril." Ben and Isaac knew that Judith and that writer had just concluded a passionate affair—and Isaac, not realizing his mike was live, muttered, "Euphemisms, always euphemisms!" The house came down, and Ben choked on his ice water...

Jay Kay Klein, the photographer of science fiction, is not a notoriously eloquent man; his poetry is expressed with his camera lens. But I will use his words to close this.

I remember him looking down and to the left, the way you do when rummaging through old visual memories, and saying, with an odd wistfulness, "Judith was not pretty. But through sheer force of personality she exuded something, some quality that drew men to her like butterflies to a flower filled with nectar. Twenty-five years before women's liberation, she was a forceful woman on her own. She was the Woman of the Future, twenty-five years before women, even women who thought about the future, thought they had one."

I am honoured and proud to be a part of this tribute to the Woman of the Future. She is far more than merely a national treasure. She is a planetary treasure. The one common writer's ailment she has apparently never suffered is carpal tunnel vision. So long as she is loose in the world with a typewriter and a telephone, no bullshit anywhere is safe. And her typewriter has recently been upgraded with seats and an airbag…

Without Judith Merril, neither science fiction nor Canadian science fiction nor Canadian literature nor the world at large would exist in their present form. Whatever we may make in future of the start she gave us, we who care about Canadian fantasy and science fiction may take some small comfort in being able to say that it is, at least to an extent, all her fault.

It may be that, as some have charged, Canadian Science Fiction is a radiation-stunted little mutant That Only A Mother could love. But there is no doubt that Judith Merril IS its mother ... and that she loved us deeply and well. We shall miss her, terribly and always.

Spider Robinson is the author of several award-winning science fiction novels and many short stories. He lives in Vancouver, B.C.

Back to top   Home

 


2000 Friends of the Merril Collection