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Charles N. Brown: The Joy of SF September 2002

Charles N[ikki] Brown has been involved in the science fiction field since his early teens in the late 1940s, writing for various fanzines in the ’50s and ’60s before starting Locus in 1968.

Brown was born June 24, 1937, in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up there. He attended the City College of New York, with time off from 1956 to 1959 to serve in the US Navy, and finished his degree (BS in physics and engineering) at night on the GI Bill while working as a junior engineer in the 1960s.

Photo by Mark R. Kelly
Married twice — to Marsha Elkin (1962 - 69), who helped him start Locus, and Dena Banatan (1970 - 77), who co-edited Locus for many years while Brown worked full time — he moved to San Francisco in 1972, where he worked as a nuclear engineer until becoming a full-time SF editor in 1975.

During his SF career, Brown has been the original book reviewer for Asimov’s; written the Best of the Year summary for Terry Carr’s annual anthologies (#s 4-16, 1975-1987); written for numerous magazinedes and newspapers; edited several SF anthologies; and produced SF anthologies; and produced SF reference books and other bibliographical material, including The Locus Index to Science Fiction with William G. Contento since 1984. Also a freelance fiction editor for the past 35 years, many of the books he has edited have won awards.

Brown has traveled extensively for the past 20 years and appears regularly on writing and editing panels at the major SF conventions around the world. He is a frequent Guest of Honor, speaker, and judge at writers’ seminars, and has been a jury member for several of the major SF awards. As editor of Locus, he was won more Hugos (23) than anyone else. Oddly enough, he has always lived within a mile or so of Robert Silverberg — in Brooklyn, in Upper New York City, and in Oakland, California, the latter where he and the Locus offices, and his extensive book and magazine collection, have been located since 1973.

The complete interview:

“We began Locus because The Boston Science Fiction group was bidding for a Worldcon in Boston. It was only supposed to last a year, to help get Worldcon in Boston, which had lost the bid in ’67. They were told it was because no one knew who they were, and if they had a publication it would help. I said I’d edit if the group published and paid for it. Then, I found out it was fun. It was also nominated for a Hugo that first full year (in 1970 for 1969), and I liked that, too. I also liked getting free books.

“I try never to do anything for just one reason. The name, Locus, has more than one meaning: mathematically, it’s the locus of points where fandom, authors, and publishing come together. It’s also LOCus: Letter of Comment to us. And finally, I can’t resist a pun, so we planned on sending out a plague of Locuses.

“I also wanted Locus to be a tribute to Ron Ellik, a close friend, and patterned it after fanzines he had run: Fanac (with Terry Carr, a Hugo-winner), and Starspinkle (with Bruce Pelz), both of which had mostly fannish news. Ron was killed in an auto accident in 1968, when he was in his last 20s. It seemed like a fitting memorial to try to do a magazine similar at the time. Also, I wanted to be a fiction writer, and felt a deadline would force me to write every day, and give me a certain fluency with words.

“I’d been involved with the SF professionals since the 1950s, so I was doing the pro news. Ed Meskys wrote most of the fan stuff, and Dave Vanderwerf, who was the third person on the masthead, actually published the magazine in Boston, and the Boston group paid for and sent it out. Basically, it was PR for Boston, and Locus promoted Boston for the Worldcon. (It worked; Boston won the 1971 Worldcon bid.)

“The logistics didn’t work out though, so from issue nine in October 1968, Marsha and I did it on our own. After I moved to Oakland in 1972, my second wife, Dena, kept it going while I worked full-time in San Francisco as a nuclear engineer, until I was laid off in 1975 during the nuclear meltdown. Instead of looking for other work as an engineer, I decided to try to make a go of writing and doing Locus full time. It made sense: for one, SF was my favorite subject; and two, I wanted to be my own boss. I vowed then and there never to wear a suit again, never a tie or uncomfortable leather shoes. And never to work for anybody as an employee. I’ve pretty much stuck to all of that for nearly 30 years.

“I had been an avid convention attendee since 1950, had chaired my first convention in 1953, and was a panelist on various fannish or SFnal subjects over the years — from my other life as a nuclear engineer, I even got to correct John W. Campbell on a panel — but the turning point for me was the 1966 Westercon. SF and mystery writer Anthony Boucher was the original editor of F&SF. He was also the New York Times SF and mystery reviewer. Every year at Westercon he gave a report on the best new SF books of the year. He got sick (we didn’t know at the time he had lung cancer) and couldn’t make it at the last minute, and they asked me to stand in for him. I studied up on what was being published, etc. I’d never been solo in front of an audience before, but I got up and started talking, and realized I loved it! They had to shut me up or I would have kept going. After that, I realized I was an expert. (Boucher’s obituary, alas, was the first piece of news I wrote for the first trial issue of Locus in April 1968.)

“I also had a big coup in April 1968, for Lunacon: I got Arthur C. Clarke to come talk about 2001, which had just opened (a report on that was also in that first trial issue of Locus).

“At one point, Locus was going to cover SF, mystery, and Westerns. We were doing the SF because it was the smallest part, and planned to expand, but those both withered: Westerns disappeared, and mysteries diminished (though now have made a comeback). SF kept growing, so we never got to the other two.

“Don Wollheim said: ‘SF is literature for adolescents of all ages.’ Do I think it’s true? Yeah. Adolescents question the world, and SF is the only literature that does that — it’s still true now. That’s the joy of SF, too.

“My escape when I was a kid was into books. I played with other kids; I wasn’t an outcast, but I always felt like an outsider anyway. I liked being solitary. I started reading by myself in 1943. I read comics, Westerns, mysteries. The Hardy Boys. Tom Swift. I read Edgar Rice Burroughs and the imitations. The Roy Rockwood “Bomba” books were favorites.

“I started reading real science fiction when I was about ten. The first issue of Astounding I remember was the December 1946 issue, which had ‘Metamorphosite’ by Eric Frank Russell on the cover, with guys turning into flowers and stuff like that. It was creepy and I loved it. I didn’t discover the other pulps until much later.

“I liked SF because it gave my mind something to work with. It was exciting. It was satisfying to read about the universe, about how the world worked. It was a dialog, and I could take part in it. It wasn’t listening to your elders; wasn’t something my parents knew better than I. In fact, our elders were very much against it at the time, which made it all the more interesting.

“I used to hang out at the neighborhood library in Brooklyn, and I kept asking the librarian for SF, and I was precocious enough they gave me advance copies of SF books to review and decide about for them. I wrote little reports for them. So that was when I first started writing and getting free books!

“I was reading the young adult end of SF: Robert A. Heinlein, of course, Isaac Asimov’s “Lucky Starr” books, Andre Norton, Don Wollheim’s “Mike Mars” stories. I remember I was reading some SF one day, and this other kid came over — he was older, must have been 15 or 16, and I was 12 or 13 — and he said, ‘Why are you reading that old junk? You should be reading better stuff.’ And he tried to push me towards H.G. Wells, and things like that. But I wasn’t interested in looking at ancient books, the famous stuff. We had a basement science club at the time, and were busy reinventing fandom. He told us it existed already, and introduced us to the Queens SF League. It was much too adult for us at the time.

“I attended my first convention in 1950. I was just 13. It was run by the Hydra Club, one of the professional groups, and was held at the Henry Hudson Hotel in New York. All the famous writers were there, like Fred Pohl, Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, Lester del Rey, Poul Anderson, etc. And I looked at all these, to me, old people — the oldest one was Fred Pohl, who was 30; 30 is old when you’re 13. I started going to as many conventions as I could. I hung around the writers, listened to them: they were my gods.

“The wonderful thing about SF fandom in the 1950s — and it was just SF then, not fantasy or horror — was taking part in that dialog about the universe, what the stories are about. SF then was Astounding and Galaxy and then the rest of the pulps. The book field hadn’t exploded yet.

“SF is a way of looking at the world. The SF dialog mostly started with John W. Campbell, Jr. in the late 1930s. SF authors talk to each other about ideas, literature, etc. The dialog is still there today, but not as much. It’s mostly in short fiction: stories talk to each other, and every story you read becomes part of your idea of SF. It’s the way consensus is reached. Those who convince the best, theirs becomes the accepted future, the background for other stories.

“The stories are dealing with each other, though most don’t realize it. If you read a Mars story, the new reference now is Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Mars’ books. Burroughs wrote about the fantasy Mars, so did Ray Bradbury. Heinlein gave us the paradigm for the realistic, settled Mars in Red Planet. Fred Pohl wrote about Mars, and Ben Bova took his from Pohl and Heinlein. But Robinson is the reference you have to take into account when writing a Mars story today.

“William Gibson’s cyberpunk stuff was so new when he started, but eventually his work became the background for later generations. What’s new in one generation is background in the next.

“If you miss three quarters of the conversation, it’s OK, because the earlier conversations are in the later stories, too. The problem with stuff by outsiders is that they don’t know any of the dialog; the characters and background might be excellent, but the SF ideas are usually simplistic.

“As with almost every SF person, I wanted to be a writer, but didn’t do much about it for years. One of the reasons I started Locus was that I wanted to write, and I figured if I had a deadline, I would write. The idea was to do Locus, and then move on to fiction. Then I discovered I loved to edit. I did a series of quasi-stories for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1975 on how it would be to live in the year 2000 — it’s already here! I had no impulse to write fiction after I discovered editing; I had thought I wanted to write fiction, but what I really wanted was to be a part of the wonderful group of people I loved. I found that writing and editing Locus was perfect. I remember when I realized I was writing and publishing 20-30,000 words per month and was actually making a living as a writer.

“I had problems with being smart when I was a kid in high school. I didn’t have to study. I tried doing that in college, but it didn’t’ work. I also got involved with too many things: SF, chess, bridge, etc. I dropped out of college and joined the Navy (it was better than being drafted into the Army). That was in January 1956.

“In the Navy, I had a lot of time to read, and read everything I could get my hands on. I was involved with a lot of SF fans, and they sent me fanzines, and I still had my subscriptions to the magazines — Astounding, Galaxy, If, F&SF. I spent time in Europe, South America. Saw Antarctica. I was stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I was a communications technician, dealing mostly with gyroscopes, telephones, and stuff like that. And I was the movie operator; I had to pick movies for the crew. I saw at least two movies a day, every day. I probably saw every movie ever made up until about 1959 — at least twice! Needless to say, I’m not a movie fan anymore.

“After the Navy, I started doing some writing for fanzines; artwork and photography too, and I was having fun going to conventions. In 1960, Bjo Trimble started the first art show at Worldcon, and I was the first official photographer.

“I married Marsha Elkin in 1962 — which also changed my life. By then I was working as an electrical engineer and finishing night school, so I had more money. Marsha and I started going to more cons in the 1960s; in 1966 we tried to make all the conventions in the US, which was pretty hard — though there weren’t that many then. We were also part of the Worldcon committee, which was our excuse for doing it.

“The ’60s was a turning point in SF and the whole social structure in the US, and the field was affected by a number of things: Star Trek, the counter culture, the Vietnam War; it was a time when women were developing more independence.

Star Trek was probably the most important thing that happened to SF — it pushed SF into the general market, and changed the whole SF world. More women started getting interested. But the main thing that happened, suddenly SF was mainstream.

Star Trek was big from the beginning. Basically, Gene Roddenberry developed an audience by going to SF authors to write it, not Hollywood writers. At the 1966 Worldcon, Roddenberry came with a preview of Star Trek. He brought women in sexy costumes, put on a special masquerade, and treated us all as colleagues. Star Trek brought us a lot of new readers. Star Wars not as much. The combination put SF into the present culture.

“I actually got involved in Star Trek in 1968. Bjo Trimble was running the “Save Star Trek” campaign from Los Angeles, and needed a base in New York to put pressure on the network. It turned out to be me. Fans picketing the network stayed with us. Roddenberry sent boxes of Spock ears and other stuff to us to give away or sell to get money for the campaign. That was the first campaign of its sort that actually worked, and it was done by SF fans.

Star Trek had its downside, too. The plots and ideas were from the 1930s, coming out in the 1960s. Media SF is always 30 years behind the cutting-edge SF. What we talk about now in the literature will be big in SF media 30 years from now.

“Up until the late 1960s, you could keep up with everything being published, but not after that. Again, this was partially due to Star Trek. The SF media audience made publishers interested in getting out more books. Unfortunately, the expansion also produced a lot of junk.

“By the late ’60s, The Lord of the Rings was popular. So-called high fantasy didn’t start until the ’70s, and that was commercial fantasy, started by Lester del Rey. He said: We’ve got this very strange Tolkien rip-off manuscript, I can make this a bestseller — and he did. That was Terry Brooks; he was the first. Del Rey promoted him as a Tolkien clone, and did a big Tolkien-type promotion on it. It sold a lot of copies, and this was the start of the commercial fantasy field.

“There are limitations on the literature, because it has to be commercially viable; but this is also what makes it good and gives it a wider appeal. As with poetry, it has to transcend its limitations to be really moving; SF has to transcend its commercial side and say something new about the world.

“Thrillers, mysteries, commercial fantasy, and most other types of commercial fiction are consolatory by nature. They imply a wrongness in the world that has to be set right to return the world to the equilibrium point it started at before that wrongness. But SF says you can never put the genie back into the bottle. After the story, the world changes and changes and changes. This is also why SF won’t usually sell in bestseller numbers: because it’s not consolatory, and doesn’t return the reader to a normal life.

“Though a lot of fantasy is crap, wish fulfillment, the best of it is very important. Fantasy fits into the natural world and tries to place us in that natural world. All reality is consensual, as is economics: it works because people think it will work. A recession comes because people stop thinking it’s working. Fantasy is important for the mythology and fairy tales it’s based on. Life has to be meaningful, that’s why mythology was invented: to explain the world to us; to create that consensual reality. Then you codify it with religion: if you have gods, you have to placate them. Then you move to science — one follows the other. For me, one replaces the other.

“Physics replaced religion. It says: This is how the natural world is put together. SF connects science and mythology — SF is the new mythology. Myths being created now are the basis of new stuff later on.

“Horror has changed completely over the years. When Locus started, horror was limited to supernatural fiction; the others — serial killers, madmen, secret conspiracies, etc. — were called terror or suspense stories. Now horror includes all that creepy non-supernatural stuff. We try to limit ourselves to the supernatural kind, but it’s hard. That said, I’m not convinced that horror is a genre at all. It’s a way of telling a story. Some of the best horror is part of other subjects.

“True horror, to me, is when you lose control of your life. Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), which says we can’t trust our own senses; can’t tell what is reality, is the scariest novel I know.

“In many ways, SF is much more important overseas. In many countries, writing is a political and philosophical act in opposition to the government — especially repressive regimes. Science fiction nearly always flies below the radar. If you set something in the future, governments don’t understand irony, satire, and that you’re really talking about them. All good writers question the status quo, but SF has become the hidden language of the dissidents.

“After Tianneman Square, we came close to canceling an International SF meeting in China, but the Chinese SF writers convinced us they needed us to keep them going. We went, and it was one of the most important trips of my life.

“I’ve gotten to travel all over the place in the last 20 years — China, Russia, Poland, various Iron Curtain countries, as well as Europe and South America. The single most important thing is to listen to other people and talk to them. You always are affected somehow. Locus has an international viewpoint because of that. It’s why I do what I do, why I travel a lot. It’s fascinating to see the world and have your outlook change constantly.

“The viewpoint of Locus is not limited to SF. Besides reading SF, art and music are important to me. They’re all interconnected: the symphony, opera, painting, sculpture, music, literature: art makes you look at things differently. The best SF does this too. Locus is also about art, about its impact on you.

“SF is the most important literature of the 20th century. It shaped the world sociologically from the very beginning. H. Bruce Franklin argues (in War Stars, 1988) that the future war novels of 1880-1917 brought about the climate that led to the military/industrial establishment. SF got people worrying, thinking about future war stuff, and finally trying to anticipate it.

“Space travel came from SF ideas. There would be no space travel if the kids who read SF hadn’t decided to make it happen, and become the scientists and engineers of the ’60s. The ideas, thinking about the future, is what SF does best.

“Everything I do at Locus is predicated on ‘SF is important.’ SF isn’t about science, it’s more about philosophy, writing about important things — who we are, where we’re going, what we’re doing; the meaning of life. It’s more eschatology than science. We all have to have a meaning, have to figure out why we’re doing something, have to try to understand the universe. It’s not predictive, but more extrapolative: if this happens, then this might happen.

“The 20th century was the SF century. It affected everything, and we now live in a science fiction world. It won’t be quite the same in the 21st century. Science fiction will be just as important, but things will probably be different. In 1992, during his Worldcon guest-of-honor session, Donald Wollheim was asked about the future of science fiction. He said the future of SF is bright, but then he paused and said he wasn’t so sure about SF publishing.

“The ways ideas are disseminated are changing rapidly. There’s an Internet project on designing aliens and thinking up scenarios. It doesn’t have an author or publisher — just a committee. SF ideas are everywhere. Books will still be important, but will probably be a smaller part of the field.

“SF will be about something different. It won’t be about war or space travel. The hyperdrive is now mainstream, so something else will be cutting edge. SF has to be ahead of the curve. Lately, it’s nanotech. But that will eventually move into mainstream, and then we’ll have something else.

Locus’s lifetime, so far, has spanned the period of SF’s greatest growth. I think Locus has affected it. In the early days, we wrote up sales and commercial and possibilities, and sent the head of each publishing company a free subscription: Locus treated SF as a professional commercial market, and it became more important and grew in size. It was happening anyway, but I think we helped. Besides, it got us a lot of ads.

“My thoughts change with every issue of Locus. Locus is not there to help others find SF, but to help me understand it; I’m both the publisher and the audience.

“I’m now 65 and worried about turning into an old fart. A magazine needs constant change. It needs the editor to look at each issue as an outsider and see what should evolve — change the emphasis, the look, etc. It should be done slowly, but it should be done. Ian Ballantine was the most successful and innovative publisher ever, but he also said that when you got something right was the time to start worrying because it would only be right for a little while. It’s why I’m turning more and more of the magazine over to other people, why I’m retiring as writer and editor. I’ll still be involved as publisher, but others have to supply that outsider/insider look. Now I’ll be able to step back and look at the magazine and laugh at myself, because if you can’t laugh, you’re in trouble.”


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