Charles N. Brown: Sci-fi enthusiast and founder of 'Locus' magazine

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:42

At first glance, Charlie Brown the man bore little resemblance to Charles N. Brown the publisher. Charlie Brown, a nickname he hated for over half a century, ever since Charles Shulz's Peanuts became famous, was jovial, opinionated, hedonistic, harum-scarum, quite obviously indolent. Charles N. Brown was the highly competent editor, publisher and owner of Locus magazine, which he co-founded in 1968 in Boston and ran until the day of his death in the skies over San Francisco.

The miracle of Locus was not so much that it swiftly became the news organ of choice for the American science-fiction community, but that it has remained so for more than four decades. In 2009, at the end of a decade of profound crisis for print magazines, Locus was larger than ever, more responsive to the world it covered (its reviewers gaining ever more space to work in), and even more accurate in its record-keeping (its monthly bibliography of new releases in the field remains astonishingly accurate and full). Over the years, the magazine won 29 Hugo awards.

The open secret of Locus was of course Brown himself. Like so many endomorphs, he was indefatigably productive while seeming not to work at all. He knew almost everyone in the field, and their secrets as well (which he did not ever unethically divulge). He understood from the beginning that Locus could only flourish as the magazine of record and sounding board for the field if it itself propounded no agenda, and if he himself engaged in no feuds or theoretical disputes, offering instead an intense advocacy for the central importance of science fiction as the imaginative literature for our age. Everything in the magazine was shaped to that end: its methodical accuracy; comprehensiveness; quantity and quality of review copy; expansiveness and depth of the interviews. Very few writers – no matter how hermitic – ever refused a Locus interview with Brown; and very few failed to look wiser in print than they might have otherwise.

Charles Nikki Brown was born in Brooklyn in 1937, and served in the US Navy during a time of peace (1956-1959). He took a BS in physics and engineering from the City College of New York, married twice, suffered for a few years in a day job as an engineer; and moved to the San Francisco area in 1972.

The office/home he soon established at the very top of Oakland, which also housed his vast library in an underground temperature-controlled vault with rolling shelves, soon became a place of pilgrimage for fans and writers on the road. The view from the deck combined sublimity and egregiousness: mountains and suburban rooftops. It was here that Charlie Brown and Charles N. Brown were most at home together.

Charles discussed with his guests the logistics of science fiction as a business (always dire), opera (he was deeply informed) as a necessary passion in any person of culture, and the state of the world (not quite terminal). Charlie described, with great pedantry, food, which he consumed in huge, killing quantities, for he was not the gourmet he sometimes pretended to be, but a gourmand. As for clothing, he adorned himself almost always – whether in Oakland on his deck, in New York taking a cab a hundred yards, or in London moderating a panel – in a Hawaiian shirt and short pants, with bare feet and flamboyantly polished toenails. He was rarely seen to wear more than this, and rarely less, except when he pretended – he became vast in his later years – to swim in a heated pool. Charlie was uproarious and babyish, a Man Who Came to Dinner who always paid his way.

At Readercon this July, the finest of the literary conventions he loved so much to attend, he wore both faces. Charles conducted an intense roundtable discussion, for later publication in Locus, on the work of the sci-fi writer A.E. Van Vogt. I found his Socratic probings as astute as ever. Charlie ate lots, and enveloped attractive young women – harmlessly – in his great arms, grinning all over his quite alarmingly ugly face. He was in the heart of the heart of his family. He got on the plane back to San Francisco but died during the flight.

John Clute

Charles Nikki Brown, publisher: born Brooklyn, New York 24 June 1937; married 1962 Marsha Elkin (divorced 1969), 1970 Dena Benatan (divorced 1977); died en route to San Francisco 12 July 2009.

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