Canadian Content

Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril — Judith Merril & Emily Pohl-Weary

Better-to-have-loved

2002’s Hugo-nominated Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril is the posthumous autobiography of noted writer/editor Judith Merril. Merril having passed away in 1997, the work of turning Merril’s notes into a book fell to her granddaughter Emily Pohl-Weary. Better to Have Loved is also a forthright and frank reply to a few sanitized histories of science fiction published in recent years.



Although the various chapters are in rough chronological order, this is less a conventional autobiography and more a set of related essays that paint a portrait of a significant figure for both science fiction and Canada. Merril was an ardent Zionist in her childhood and later a Trotskyite; her political allegiances evolved considerably over her life. However, the core values that determined those allegiances never wavered. Those values would shape what she wrote and which stories she selected for her long running Best SF anthology series; they would also lead her from the nation of her birth to Canada.

Her introduction to life in science fiction came when Dan Zissman (Merril’s husband from 1940 to 1948) volunteered for the submarine service. Merril ended up sharing accommodations in New York City with an assortment of Futurians. The Futurians included in their numbers such noteworthy authors as Asimov, Kornbluth, Blish, and Knight; significant editors like Wollheim and Pohl; and editor/agent Virginia Kidd. Though a latecomer to the community, Merril would become one of the more influential Futurians (like her one-time husband Fred Pohl). She wore several hats with skill, winning acclaim as a writer, as editor, an academic, and as a documentarian for the TV station TVO.

Perhaps Merril’s greatest influence on the field of SFF was as anthologist and book-reviewer. Anthologists, particularly of Best Of anthologies, can shape the readers’ perception of what is genre and what is au courant. Book reviewers have even more genre cachet and are, I believe, widely revered as gods [1]. From the mid-1950s to about 1970 [2], Merril edited the variously titled Year’s Best SFs. Although there have been many Annual Best SF anthologies over the decades, some of which were co-edited by women, Merril’s was unique because she was the only woman who helmed a Best SF series on her own, sans male helpmeet.

A sojourn in the United Kingdom exposed her to the British New Wave, which inspired her 1967 anthology England Swings SF. Depending on where you stand on the whole New Wave/Get Off My Lawn kerfluffle, she was either one of the visionaries who helped transform American SF, or patient zero for the plague that ruined SF. From 1965 to 1969 she was the book editor for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

The book gives readers a Merril’s eye-view of various SF personalities. Many of them were her lovers to one degree or another. Merril is straightforward with the plain facts, but eschews salacious details. As one might expect in a field like SF, which (contrary to certain claims) has been slow to accept women as full members, her gender and colourful love life led to accusations that her success was due to her lovers (one prominent critic was James Blish). This accusation is, of course, false.

Dissatisfied with the politics and culture of the US, Merril emigrated to Canada, specifically to Toronto, Ontario, then Canada’s second city. Various essays explain what led her to this decision. It says something about the US of the time (the Vietnam War, the events of the 1968 Democratic Convention) that legendarily stodgy old Toronto (in a province that had been run by a conservative dynasty since Mary Pickford was a top star) appeared more hospitable. Merril soon became a major figure in Canada’s science fiction and education communities.

Merril also established the Spaced Out Library, now renamed in her honour. It is an important research resource I intend to gleefully pillage at some point in the future.

~oOo~

I enjoyed this book quite a lot, but found it hard to review in my usual fashion. Not every reviewer is suited to every book. Wrestling with it essay by essay produced something unworkably long, but my attempt at a bird’s eye view was not notably better. I invested the evening reading this, so … you’re getting a review. You can, of course, stop reading at any point.

Unfortunately (from my point of view), Merril and I don’t see eye to eye about which aspects of her life were the most interesting. I would have liked to learn more about the work she did for her Year’s Best SF anthologies. I’ve read biographies of a few other anthologists and none of them have gone into detail on the process either. I guess anthologizing seemed more mundane to the people creating the anthologies than it does to me.

The reasons why someone would not want to delve too deeply into the lurid world of book reviewing are so obvious that I will not go into them here.

The ancillary material provided in the books was quite useful. Materials included a timeline of Merril’s life, a bibliography, and an essay on some of the important people in her life. I wish I could say the same of the index. The book does have one, but it’s short and (as I discovered) isn’t as complete as it should be. I know it’s a bit weird to be as obsessed with indexes as I am but they’re an important element of non-fiction.

I would like to have been able to give more space to her experiences at an interesting but doomed experiment at Rochdale College. Ditto to the 108 mini-documentaries she did for TV Ontario, Thanks to a paucity of broadcast networks in the Canadian boonies, I managed to miss them all [3] and lack vital perspective. I’ll see if I can track some of them down.

This book will probably be of greatest interest to science fiction fans, but even non-SF reading Canadians may find much to entertain them. One of the core values that unifies Canadians is a shared loathing and contempt for Toronto (to be found even in neighboring regions, which would be doomed to rural stagnation, economic depression, and ungoverned chaos should Toronto ever vanish from their lives). Merril became Canadian but she never incorporated Toronto-loathing into her worldview [4]. To encounter, even second hand, someone who can say straight-facedly:

I knew by then Toronto was the place where short-sighted self-interest and bureaucratic death wish can be stopped.

is a strange and marvelous thing.

Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril is available from Between the Lines.

1: Well, I assume. Because it is obvious.

2: I am not sure whether Best of the Best collections count as sufficiently new. If so, the series ended in 1970. If not, then the last time a woman edited a Best SF series of annual anthologies without a male co-editor was before Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon.

3: Until comparatively recently, TVO didn’t figure into my consciousness. When I was growing up, it wasn’t one of the three channels we could receive. For much of my adult life, I didn’t have a functioning television and/or didn’t subscribe to cable.

4: She talks about being American in public in various contexts from the UK to Canada, which I thought was interesting from the point of view of a Canadian whose parents were both American. As a consequence, I can provide quite a lot of advice to Americans moving to Canada, not all of which is for my own amusement.



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