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In Print: The Little Mother of Science Fiction Was My Grandma!

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J.G. Ballard is often quoted as saying science fiction died around the time editor, writer, and anthologist Judith Merril left New York for Toronto. "I remember my last sight of her," he recalled in 1992, "surrounded by her friends and all the books she loved, shouting me down whenever I tried to argue with her, the strongest woman in a genre for the most part created by timid and weak men."

What he probably meant by dead was "commercial." When a new genre breaks and the money storm comes, the hacks run into the streets with their hands out, and often the crap stampede chases serious lit heads away from an idiom just as they're becoming aware of it. Certainly by the early 90s the connective tissue between Jules Verne, sci-fi cult legend Frederik Pohl, and Stephen Spielberg was stretched so thin as to seem invisible.

By that time Merril was long gone--she left the country in 1968, disgusted with American politics but also unnerved by the power she'd accumulated in the "literary ghetto" of New York's sci-fi industry. In Canada, though, she managed to nurture a modest legacy that endures to this day. For one, Toronto's public library maintains what's now called the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation, and Fantasy, which began with the 5,000 or so works Merril personally donated in the summer of 1970. It now houses some 57,000 items.

For another, Toronto is home to Emily Pohl-Weary--the granddaughter of Merril and Pohl, the second of her three husbands. Pohl-Weary, though not a specialist in science fiction, is a writer and scene maker in her own right. She once coedited one of Canada's best-known zines, Broken Pencil, which reviews other indie rags and covers underground culture from all over the world, and still edits book reviews and fiction there. (Fanzines and sci-fi go way back; Merril herself started out publishing one called Temper!) Kiss Machine, the sharp-looking photocopied zine of snappy fiction and cultural essays Pohl-Weary founded with artist Paola Poletto, prints a lot of new sci-fi, but follows a "surrealist strategy." Still, she declares, "every single artistic creation of mine is heavily influenced by science fiction." She remembers being baby-sat at her grandmother's office at the library: the writer let the girl loose in the stacks. "I was weaned on SF!" she says.

Kiss Machine has just published its sixth issue, and Pohl-Weary is polishing the manuscript for her first novel, "Sugar's Empty," which she pitches as "a weird mix of pop culture, urban fantasy, and, well, a ghost love story." She's been working on it for years, but before she could buckle down for the final stretch, she had some family business to take care of.

Merril was only married to Pohl for about five years, and they split up in 1953. He now lives in Palatine, but Merril died in 1997. According to her contemporaries, "the little mother of science fiction" was a mace-tongued, big-thinking, free-loving woman who chuckled at the dogmatic feminists following her vapor trail. But the lifelong smoker spent her last years nearly immobile, and didn't finish her final writing project: her autobiography. Pohl-Weary, Merril's main caregiver at the end, was entrusted with its completion. Credited to both women, Better To Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril was printed by Toronto's Between the Lines Press last year.

The volume is filled with personal photos, and its narrative, spun from memories, essays, and letters to thinkers and lovers, spirals through the daily, intellectual, and imagined lives of sci-fi's early heroes. We follow Merril from her garret period, writing in zines and doing editorial work, through her thrill at creating speculative fiction of her own. In a letter to Theodore Sturgeon, her lover when she wrote her first SF short story, she likens her aroused writing apparatus to a bulldozer from his novelette "Killdozer": "I can do it, Ted, by God...I can sit up there on the dozer and MAKE IT GO." Also documented are her rise to influence in New York and her subsequent expatriation.

In Toronto Merril also got shrewd with Canada's arts-patronage system, which funded her memoirs despite their failure to materialize. She apparently passed this skill down to her granddaughter: Kiss Machine recently won a grant to expand its content and readership, and Pohl-Weary got to quit her day job for a few months to work on "Sugar's Empty." "Ha, ha! 12,000 clams in my hot, grubby pocket!!!" she writes in an E-mail. "If I had to work full-time, I'd never get anything creative done."

In Pohl-Weary's introduction she observes that Merril couldn't bring herself to wrap up her autobiography "because once she was finished, what could she possibly do next?" Finishing the book alone after Merril's death, she says, was neither easy nor fun. All she had was a partial manuscript, a dozen interview tapes, and a set of instructions. She missed her grandmother, but harbored--as did many--mixed feelings about her. "The fire-like intensity of her love and interest in people did not always dampen into strong and lasting friendships," Pohl-Weary writes. "At times it seemed Judy loved to burn bridges. I often wonder whether I too would have been brushed aside if she didn't need me as a constant caregiver."

Pohl-Weary is reading from her novel in progress and hawking the new Kiss Machine as part of this month's Perpetual Motion Roadshow, organized by Toronto sci-fi novelist Jim Munroe, who also runs the indie-publishing site nomediakings.com. Each month a different crew of writers and artists does a seven-day, seven-city reading tour in the U.S. and Canada. Pohl-Weary's fellow travelers are local filmmaker Bill Brown, who edits the travel zine Dream Whip, and Toronto autobiographical cartoonist Matt Blackett. The tour comes to Quimby's (1854 W. North, 773-342-0910) on Tuesday, May 20, at 8 PM.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Walter Weary.

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