On Friday, I was getting ready for the blizzard which was scheduled to start that night. But we all know that blizzards can’t be scheduled. They run on their own clock; they lift days out of context; they up-end intentions. In short, they make time stop.
Sometimes, a blizzard is a gift to writers, at least if we have good insulation and a solid roof over our heads. As long as snow accumulates, we can’t do much but write. With that in mind, early Friday morning, I made a point of answering all school-related email to clear a path.
That’s when I got the email message from my agent with the subject heading: “Shelf Awareness Pro for Friday, January 22nd”. Given the punctuation, what followed was very likely typed from her phone:
“Very sad and very sudden. We lost our editor David Hartwell from a sudden Accident last night from which he did not recover.”
Below was the obituary. I just stared at the screen, wanting it to say something else.
David Hartwell sent me a contract to publish my novel Judenstaat with Tor Books almost exactly a year ago. I’d sent him the manuscript on the recommendation of Terry Bisson, another writer of alternative history who thought the book would be a good match for Hartwell. And it was—to the point where he accepted it without additional edits. I found an excuse to meet him in New York last March when we were scheduled for a “long lunch” and he told me about how much fun it would be to figure out how to market my book.
I’ll admit that I’d never before heard “fun” and “market” in the same sentence. Yet Hartwell was clearly a happy warrior. As Phillip K. Dick’s literary executor, and a senior editor at Tor, he had been shaping the direction of Science Fiction for a generation. He was also distinctly old-fashioned. He said I shouldn’t bother with a Twitter account because the audience for my novel wasn’t likely to tweet. On the other hand, they’d read Facebook. “I’ll friend you,” he said, “so I can see what you’re up to.”
Although David Hartwell was born in Massachusetts, there always seemed—to me—something distinctly Western about him. Maybe it was because he wears a cowboy hat in his Facebook Profile picture. More likely it was a kind of expansive generosity that makes me think of a mountain range. He’d wanted to introduce me to Chip Delany, and casually mentioned that he would try to get a copy of my book to Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon. I didn’t push it. Frankly, I was more than a little dazzled by the company he kept. I was never dazzled by David himself, though. Maybe I should have been. I’d only begun to understand what Hartwell had accomplished. I’m still learning.
Growing up in the ‘70s, you could say I lived in the shadow of the Hartwell mountain range. Like many other misfits of my generation, I devoured Vonnegut, moved seamlessly to anything resembling a dystopia, and read those books until I broke their spines. Was I avoiding my own troubles? Actually, those troubles were right there on the page, mundane and brutal: in the world in which everyone was finally equal and Harrison Bergeron’s parents sat in front of a television, watching their genius-renegade son tear the weights off a ballerina; or in London 635 AF (After Ford) where Bernard the scrawny Alpha hears his tall and perfect fellow-Alphas whisper about the alcohol dropped into his test tube during gestation; or as the child in the cellar moans in the midst of the glorious happiness of Omelas; or in the Ministry of Truth where Winston Smith erases an unperson from the public record.
What Vonnegut, Huxley, Le Guin and Orwell taught me was this: If everything runs smoothly, you can be sure something terrible is going on, and eventually someone will get chewed up in the cogs of the machine. In theory, these pieces are speculating about imaginary worlds or futures , but make no apologies for referencing the present, whether it be in 1961, 1932, 1973 or 1948, and also, somehow, they are writing about the life and prospects of an overweight teenage Jewish girl in in Northeast Philadelphia. Even at their most hopeless, as Orwell seems to be in Nineteen Eighty-four, the authors are intensely angry, and they gave me courage.
Most of all, I learned that I was not alone. Philip K. Dick in particular was a champion for those of us who are—let us say—wired differently, the easily distracted kids, the non-linear thinkers, the ones who are now classified, rather delicately as “on the spectrum”. Dick was also fond of schizophrenics. For him, difference wasn’t a disability. It was a superpower. So you think I have to fit in? Fit into what? You say I need to face reality? I’ll call your bluff. Sir, there are multiple realities, layer upon layer of them, each with its own logic and chain of consequences. Which reality, exactly? Tell me, and then, I’ll face the opposite direction.
Now it’s Sunday afternoon. The blizzard ended late last night, and my stepdaughter used a tape-measure, and reported an accumulation of twenty inches. The soft, clean, frankly dazzling snow that blew against our windows has become an obstacle. We tried to dig out the car, and there was nowhere rational to put the snow we shoveled without burying something else. I shook snow out of the trouser-cuffs and went upstairs to write this for a man I had only just begun to know, yet in some ways, had known all my life.
Judenstaat will go to press; the efficient machinery of Tor has already posted it for preorder. For the past few months, I’ve been working with David’s assistant Jen Gunnels, and hadn’t heard from David himself in some time. I’d like to think he had a hand in the choice of the cover—a good one. I’d like to think he’d checked in with the publicist who will check in with me, eventually.
But now I can’t check in with David Hartwell. The book will enter the world without him, and maybe he laid some groundwork, and it will get noticed. I can’t say. I can only be grateful that he opened a way for my novel to find an audience.
I wish beyond words that the sort of fiction Hartwell championed could serve as a guidebook to an alternative reality where I did not read the email message on my screen on Friday morning. Could I toss the I Ching, look through different window, take a new drug, dream a new dream? Is there a wrinkle in time’s fabric? Can I shake time hard enough to dislodge a different story? David, is there another version of all this where you are still alive?