[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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Judith Merril: An Appreciation

by Robert J. Sawyer

Firs Published in The Globe and Mail: Canada's National Newspaper, Tuesday, September 16, 1997

Reprinted at the request of the editors in:
The Newsletter of The Writers Union of Canada
Tangent: The Only Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Fiction Review Magazine, Fall 1997/Winter 1998

"I just wanted to say that I just read your tribute to Judy (it came up in a search on her), and that I found it the most honest & caring piece I have seen on her bar none. You captured the Judy I knew. Thanks for it." —Jim Smith

"Your piece captured a lot of her spirit; I was really touched by it." —Judith Zissman (Judith Merril's grand-niece)

"A moving and fitting tribute." —Don Hutchison, editor of Northern Frights

Copyright © 1997 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

I first met science-fiction writer and editor Judith Merril twenty years ago, in 1977. I was a high-school student at Northview Heights Secondary School in North York, Ontario, and our school SF club was planning a science-fiction convention.

It's traditional at such events to have an author designated as "Guest of Honor." We all agreed that Judith was the person we wanted. At that time, she was hosting segments of the British SF series Doctor Who on TVOntario. Hers was a name to conjure with — even as teenagers, we knew she was a towering presence.

We wrote Judy, inviting her to attend, and, to our delight, she agreed. The truth, though, was that at that point none of us had yet read any of her work. So we began to seek it out.

We were surprised by how little of it there was, and that, even then, none of it was recent. Judy had a tiny output, almost all of which was written in the 1950s: a handful of short stories, a couple of solo novels, a couple more in collaboration with Cyril Kornbluth under the pseudonym Cyril Judd.

But, still, she had left an indelible mark. One short story in particular — her first published work, "That Only A Mother," dealing with a horribly deformed child born to a woman exposed to nuclear radiation — is a genuine classic.

Science fiction was invented by a woman — Mary Shelley, with Frankenstein — but had been dominated by men for over a century thereafter. Judy brought a feminine element back into it; she demonstrated with that one, simple, stark story that SF could be a vehicle not just for detached extrapolation about the future, but for powerfully moving explorations of the human condition.

Judy and I kept in touch after the convention and, in 1984, I was one of a couple dozen people to receive a copy of a letter she sent out to all the "good science-fiction heads" in the Toronto area. Judy had been noting the emergence of writers such as Terence M. Green, Guy Gavriel Kay, Edward Llewelyn-Thomas (now deceased), Andrew Weiner, and myself, and had declared that the Toronto SF community had reached "critical mass."

In the early 1950s, Judy had belonged to The Hydra Club in New York, a group of young SF writers who provided networking and support for each other. She was asking us all to gather at Toronto's Free Times Café to create "Hydra North."

Hydra North is still going strong 13 years later. But Judy only came to four meetings in all those years.

That was typical Judy. She was a catalyst, a great starter of things: founder of Hydra North; founder of what's now called The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy, part of the Toronto Public Library; founder of the Tesseracts series of Canadian SF anthologies published out of Edmonton.

She was, I think, always looking to recapture the past — perhaps an odd thing for a science-fiction writer to long for. Her Hydra Club in New York had included a lot more than just gossip about the publishing business: there'd been a fair bit of bed-hopping, as well, and Judy, right until the end, was a lusty woman.

She made passes at more than one local SF author. Until declining health forced her to curtail her traveling, she wintered in Jamaica where, as she used to often observe with a twinkle of her piercing gray eyes and a lascivious grin, men don't mind older women. Indeed, I remember being quite flustered interviewing her in 1985 for CBC Radio's Ideas series; she kept making comments about the phallic nature of the microphone.

Anyway, the members of Hydra North were too Canadian, too sedate, too yuppie for the Judy who used to be a Trotskyite; for the Judy who came to Canada to protest the American involvement in Vietnam; for the Judy who had lived at Toronto's notorious Rochdale College; for the Judy who smoked pot. You could hardly call someone who was born in 1923 a child of the Sixties, but, really, she was precisely that: a believer in free love and a radical.

Judy was often seen at meetings of The Writers' Union of Canada raising hell, and she was active with numerous political and social causes. She was a great protester in the Sixties, and, to our huge benefit, she never outgrew that.

So, yes, she rarely attended meetings of the group she started, and yet, somehow, she was always there: a presence. Her name would come up every time, with people recounting whatever outrageous thing Judy had said or done recently.

Judy died this past Friday. By coincidence, there was a party for the local SF community Saturday night at the home of Robert Charles Wilson, another Toronto SF writer; it had been long planned, and there seemed no reason to cancel it.

Indeed, I think we all felt a need to get together and talk about our loss. And, of course, we toasted Judy, and some of us got misty-eyed. But over and over again people commented on how difficult it was to be Judy's friend; how demanding and sharp-tongued she could be. (A few years ago, a Toronto SF writer got married; his wife proudly announced the news to Judy, whose reply was, "My condolences.")

Yes, she could be hard to like. I always thought it was perhaps because she had a wider perspective. She was looking out for the human race; individuals sometimes got lost in the shuffle.

And I was lucky, I guess. In twenty years of friendship, I can't recall us ever exchanging a harsh word. But I saw others feel her sting.

She wasn't mean — I don't think she had a vindictive or nasty bone in her body. But she was always blunt: she said exactly what she thought. And what she thought was always penetrating; she had one of the sharpest minds of anyone I'd ever met, and could slice though artifice and pretension with surgical precision.

For years, Judy got grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, in theory to write her memoirs. I say "in theory" because, well, there was some feeling amongst other writers that perhaps she wasn't really working on them. Oh, we all believed her at first, but as years went by and they didn't materialize, people did begin to talk.

(Despite respiratory and cardiac problems, Judy smoked right to the end; she used to say she'd had two great addictions in her life, and she'd managed to break one — writing.)

Her memoirs could have been explosive. She was there at the birth of modern science fiction; she knew all the greats, including Isaac Asimov, Lester Del Rey, Poul Anderson, and Frederik Pohl (who was her husband for four years), and, well, as I said, she had been a lusty woman. Multiple publishers were interested in acquiring the book.

At the shivah for Judy on Sunday, several other writers and I went gingerly into her office in her apartment at Toronto's Performing Arts Lodge (her stint hosting Doctor Who had made her eligible for residency there). For writers, the office is in many ways more personal, and more revelatory, than even a bedroom.

We looked over the detritus of her writerly life: old magazines, almost crumbling to dust, with stories by Judy in them; Japanese translations of her books; and so on. We could feel her still there, in that cramped room, at that chair, in front of that Macintosh computer — a presence.

But what caught our eyes most were the bottom two drawers of her black steel filing cabinet. Both were labeled "Memoirs."

They did exist; perhaps not finished, perhaps not polished, but they did indeed exist — two drawers full of them. Pandora's box was there, in front of us. We desperately wanted to open the drawers but, of course, we didn't.

Still, there was no doubt that Judy knew how to play the grant game — remember, she hadn't published a word of new fiction since coming to Canada in 1968, and yet she managed to frequently receive arts-council grants.

Indeed, I remember her phoning me in 1985 and asking me to interview a female French-Canadian SF writer for CBC Radio; Judy wanted this writer to come to Toronto, and if she could line up a couple of interviews, she could get her a Canada Council travel grant to make the trip. I agreed; one did not refuse Judy.

And, of course, it was arts-council money that covered her fee for editing the first Tesseracts anthology of Canadian SF, which came out in 1985.

Five more volumes in the series have been produced since (my wife and I edited the most recent one, Tesseracts 6). Judy — who many would say was the greatest SF anthologist ever — could easily have edited all the volumes herself, receiving cushy grants to do so. But she chose not to. Instead, she insisted that each volume have a different editor.

Why? Well, starting in 1956, Judy had edited twelve annual best-of-the-year science-fiction anthologies in the United States, culling the finest work from both genre pulps and general magazines. Her singular taste defined what science fiction was during that period; she drove it in new directions, changing its face forever.

Also influential was her 1968 anthology England Swings SF, which brought the British "New Wave" in science fiction — a literary movement devoted to soft, psychological tales exploring inner, rather than outer, space — to North America.

More than any other editor in its history, Judith Merril shaped modern SF, and moved it squarely into the realm of literature.

I think, perhaps, Judy was surprised by what a force she turned out to be, and by what an impact she had had on the genre. And although in the early 1980s she recognized the burgeoning field of Canadian SF, and had decided to spotlight it, she felt uncomfortable, somehow, about being the one shaping it; indeed, she wanted no single vision to control it, hence her insistence on a rotating editorship for the anthology series she founded.

In all the years I knew Judy, this was the only indication I ever had that she really understood — and was perhaps even a little daunted by — what she had become.

A presence.

I'll miss her.


Robert J. Sawyer is one of only seven people in history to win all three of the world's top awards for best science-fiction novel of the year: the Hugo, which he won in 2003 for Hominids; the Nebula, which he won in 1996 for The Terminal Experiment; and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, which he won in 2005 for Mindscan.


At its founding meeting in 1984, Judith Merril asked Robert J. Sawyer to serve as coordinator of Hydra North, Canada's first association of science-fiction professionals; Sawyer filled that role for the next eight years.

On May 25, 1990, the Toronto Public Library renamed its special SF collection, formerly known as "The Spaced Out Library," to "The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy." The specific wording was Sawyer's coinage. In 2003, he went on to be the first author besides Judith Merril herself to ever serve as writer-in-residence at The Merril Collection.

Sawyer and his wife Carolyn Clink were chosen as editors for Tesseracts 6, one in the series of Canadian SF&F anthologies founded by Judith Merril. At Judy's request and recommendation, Rob took over teaching her science-fiction writing course at Toronto's Ryerson University starting in May 1997; Judy passed away the following September.

More Good Reading

Rob named Writer in Residence at The Merril Collection
Rob's introduction to Tesseracts 6, one in a series of anthologies founded by Judith Merril
The history of Hydra North
More about Canadian SF
Rob's tribute to A. E. van Vogt
Rob's tribute to Isaac Asimov

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