Dicks of the Light

Terrance Dicks (10 May 1935–29 August 2019)

First times are both easy and impossible to remember.

There must have been a book based on The Clangers. I read the “Bleep and Booster” cartoons in the annual Blue Peter book, with no sense of what it was. And children’s books, for the under sevens, often shade between fantasy and sf.

But for all my disdain for Wookiebooks (which is probably spelled wrong), I’d place my bets that the first sf novel I read was Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth, followed by Doctor Who and the Genesis of the Daleks. And I’d like to think that it was in October 1977, when I moved up to Nottingham Road Junior School, because I was probably allowed in a different section of the library by then. I suspect I’d watched “The Face of Evil” as my first television encounter — although I have a ghost memory of Three and Jo Grant looking out over a balcony in “Planet of the Daleks”. But I took these two hardbacks home and devoured them. Continue reading →

Farewell, Mike

I think the last time I saw Michael Levy was at Worldcon in 2014 — on one of dozens of walks along the centre of the Excel between the hotel and the programming. He was in an electric wheelchair, which threw me a little, but I’d gathered he’d not been well.

We picked up the conversation that we’d had over the years, on either side of the Atlantic, from emails, from social media, and he seemed much more interested in how I was getting on. I suspect we ran into each other again, in more or less the same place, always between events.

I suspect the last time I had contact was an email, gently chivvying me for my tardiness, my lateness in some editorial duties. It is a sign of his gentleness that I applied my own guilt rather than he made me feel guilty — I fgind myself wanting to live up to his standards. He was going into hospital, for an operation, he would be out in a few days, then there seemed to be a delay in his release, and the next I heard he was in a hospice.

I can’t now remember if he was at the Liverpool conference in 2001 — but thinking about it I must have already met him at the SFRA conference in Schenectady in May 2001.

I was well out of my comfort zone and travelling abroad for the first time alone — my first time in America. Pretty well everyone was welcoming — I met or remet the many of the editors of Science Fiction Studies, for example — but I know that Mike put me at my ease. This was as well, because I was co-organising the SFRA conference the following year with Farah Mendlesohn at New Lanark Mills.

Do what you want, he said, you have a free hand.

Well, if I’m being honest, it wasn’t as free as that implied. It wasn’t quite “Tiggers like everything in the world except hunney and haycorns and thistles”, but it turned out there were some SFRA rituals that needed observing.

Mike was unruffled, endlessly patient, and guided us through the minefield. We pulled the conference off.

mikelWhat was clear from this and later encounters is that he had a good word for everyone, and I suspect everyone had a good word for him. If, say, I’d had a bumpy experience with someone, he would listen, be sympathetic, offer counsel, smooth things over. And I tell you, the few people he was less than impressed with… you’d be hardpressed not to agree.

I’d also met Javier Martinez at the 2001 SFRA, and somewhere along the line he stepped in to rescue Extrapolation, and roped in Mike, Sherryl Vint and myself to help out.

Well, two out of three good choices ain’t bad.

And then work and family got in the way for Javier and Mike stepped in to be Managing Editor. We joined up with Liverpool University Press and found a firmer foundation to stand up. Other great academics joined us after Sherryl moved on, filling her shoes, and always there’s been a sense of who will fit in, who can we work with, who will improve the journal?

As someone who is on both sides of the editorial process, I know how bruising submitting an article can be — for example, when there is a needlessly brutal reader’s report. Mike was skilled at dealing with these, at responding to potential writers. On the very rare occasions that we had to deal with a prickly author, he got us through it. I think I was only edited by him once — a piece for The Lion and the Unicorn, a venture outside my comfort zone, but he got me through the process. I’ve lost track of details, but there would have been changes needed, there would have been editorial queries, but Mike left no scars.

Mike was a friend, a confidante, a colleague, a mentor, a scholar, a painstaking and painless editor and — this should not be a surprise but it is still striking — I see that the responses on Facebook to the news that he was dying reveals that he was this and more to lots of other people I already respect as well as people I must get to work with.

I hope he knew that — although in truth I wonder if that would have embarrassed him. I will miss the laughter and his wisdom and the sense of mattering.

And now I’d better get on with copyediting a submission.

Terry Pratchett (1948–2015)

It must have been somewhere around 1984 or 1985, and it must have been in Kevin’s bedroom, one lunch time or after school, that there was an advert in a computer magazine for The Colour of Magic (1983). Maybe it was a bit later and it was The Light Fantastic (1985). At some point I bought both — I suspect at a long-lost sf and gaming shop in the Broadmarsh Centre — and read and enjoyed, although I preferred the novel to what was effectively a few novellas. I bought each paperback as it came out and, in 1989 in Leeds at a convention, had the slightly embarrassing experience of queueing up to get an already-signed copy of Mort (1987) signed by Pratchett. I had found copies of The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981) in the local library and read them — indeed I bought the latter when the library sold it.

At some point in the early 1990s I went to a conference on Mikhail Bakhtin in Sheffield, and sat there wondering why no one was talking about Pratchett and Death. Eventually, this turned into an article for Foundation (“Terry Pratchett and the Comedic Bildungsroman” (1996)), which I was never quite sure whether was a parody of an academic or serious. As if there’s a difference. In time, Farah Mendlesohn, Edward James and I edited a collection of essays on Pratchett for FoundationGuilty of Literature (2001), which was nominated for a best-related book Hugo, and when I started writing books for Pocket Essentials it was one of the ideas I pitched. That was a fun summer or autumn, reading the novels one by one, made weirder by receiving a missive from Colin Smythe.

It had come to someone’s attention that I was writing a biography of Pratchett and people were somewhat aghast that I hadn’t spoken to anyone more than remotely connected to Pratchett. I pointed out that this was a work of criticism — which wasn’t actually reassuring to all parties, but it was hoped that it would be better than the one that three people had edited a couple of years earlier. Coughs quietly. And indeed, I was led to believe that a biography might not be objected to — although I presumed that most of it would be about someone sat at a keyboard. I was invited to visit Colin Smythe and picked up from the station by a large expensive car, and was lent a copy of the book that was going to come out just as we went to press.

At that point I had OD’ed on the novels. At some point I wrote a piece on Only You Can Save Mankind (1992) in relation to other virtual reality war novels — “’We Has Found the Enemy and They Is Us’: Virtual War and Empathy in Four Children’s Science Fiction Novels” (The Lion and the Unicorn (2004) 28(2)) — and I was commissioned to edited a book on Pratchett for Greenwood Press, An Unofficial Companion to the Novels of Terry Pratchett (2008), which damn near killed me. Certainly I could have done without an all-night proof read of the galleys putting right the errors introduced into the manuscript. And I learned — as I had with the Pocket Essentials — that some of Pratchett’s readers don’t like anything other than absolute praise. OK, sobeit: He was the finest comic writer of the last thirty years. But sometimes he nodded.

This is going to go on, but here are two parts of the intro to the Greenwood volume. I’m not sure I ever read Making Money, but I will and no doubt will be lured back to read him. Just because you love a writer’s work, doesn’t mean that it can’t be criticised. Continue reading →