Fans and friends of Hugo-winning science fiction writer Spider Robinson were saddened by the news that his daughter Terri died earlier this week after a brave fight with breast cancer. The tragedy is all the greater coming four years after the death of Spider’s beloved wife and frequent co-author Jeanne from a rare form of biliary duct cancer. Robinson has long been one of SF’s most beloved figures, not just for his terrific novels and short stories but for being a delightful presence as a speaker and filk singer at conventions, and even among those of us who have also gone through the tremendous loss of loved ones, it is hard for us to conceive what it must be like to lose the two most important people in your life so soon and so close together.
Spider was one of numerous science fiction and fantasy writers who I first learned about through Canada’s legendary interview program Prisoners of Gravity, a beloved and very much ahead-of-its-time show that helped expose viewers to both up-and-coming and veteran authors, and handled issues and subjects with a mixture of sophisticated intelligence and flip humor (er, humour, we’re talking Canada here). Among the other authors I was introduced to through the show were Robert Sawyer, Neal Gaiman and George R.R. Martin, but Spider always stood out, not just for his striking appearance (think a tall, long-haired Steve Buscemi in a straw hat), but his folksy demeanor and storytelling ability, and-this has always been important to his fans-a sense of humour that was ribald yet intelligent, biting yet gentle. This guy, I thought to myself, is an author to seek out. In short order I bought or took out and read many of his books: Stardance, written in collaboration with his Jeanne, Time Pressure, Mindkiller, Telempath, the collections Melancholy Elephants and User Friendly and of course, the Callahan’s Cross-Time Saloon Series. Oh, my cup runneth over!
But before all of those, I read “Rah, Rah R.A.H!” This was Robinson’s full-throated defense of Robert A. Heinlein, originally delivered as a speech at the 1980 Boston Science Fiction Convention and reprinted in 1992 in the Heinlein tribute book Requiem, edited by Yoji Kondo (along with “Robert,” his more personal reminiscence of his friendship with the man who made him a science fiction fan and inspired him to be a writer). Despite being a self-professed liberal lamb, Robinson enthusiastically set aflame every straw man argument and criticism made against Heinlein with the cackling glee of Margaret Hamilton, and it’s even more satisfying to read them today in this era of self-righteous Social Justice Carrie Nations decrying Heinlein (often without even bothering to read a single one of his books) for not meeting their Production Code regarding political and social correctness.
Now here’s where the story gets personal. I had read Robinson’s essay during a break from summer school English class, when my teacher told us that for bonus marks, we could write a letter to an author of our choice (living or dead; you could write to Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams if you liked). I was one of two students to do so (the other student chose William S. Burroughs) and decided to write a letter to Robinson, specifically, a reply to “Rah, Rah R.A.H!” I forget exactly what I wrote about, but it was good enough to get an A+ and after sitting down and looking at it for a while, I said to myself “You know what? This is also good enough to send.” So I did. Two months or so later…there came a letter with the return address of Tottering-on-the-Brink, British Columbia. Never heard of that place, who sent this? Well, it turns out Spider Robinson had also thought the letter was good enough…for a reply! And what impressed me the most is that, as my father told me, “he wrote to you as an adult” not a teenager, much less a student. It was an act of kindness and respect I will never forget, as well as a learning moment in how to approach people.
What can us, Spider’s fans, provide other than heartfelt messages of consolation during this tragic time? In “Rah, Rah R.A.H!” Spider said that if you truly want to honor Heinlein’s memory, you should give blood, as much as you can, and that’s what you should do as well. Cancer patients are always need of transfusions due to the side effects of chemotherapy, and some need them more than others due to the type of cancer and how it affects the body and the production of blood cells. If you haven’t signed up to be a bone marrow donor, do so; if you aren’t eligible to be one, get as many people as you know who are to sign up for the registry. If you plan to have kids, also plan to have the umbilical cord donated for stem cell therapy. Donate to local cancer charities, and participate in walks, runs, and other sporting events to raise funds or sponsor those who are participating. Do everything you can to be a friend and a helping hand…even to people who have no clue you exist. Be the sort of good man Spider Robinson was to me more than twenty years ago.
And never lose your sense of humour.