Since L. Neil Smith died on August 27, many people he influenced have paid their tributes.
Kent McManigal’s is one of the most heartfelt. Sarah Hoyt said a touching goodbye to her friend. Neil’s daughter Rylla wrote his obituary. Wendy McElroy and her husband Brad Rodriguez were among the first to speak.
Me, I’m slow. Eric Oppen and others who gave me the news when it first came out on the Monday after Neil’s death must have wondered whether I cared.
I just needed to reflect before saying my thanks.
I met Neil in 1982 or 1983. I’d read his first (and still best) SF novel, The Probability Broach. Not only was I delighted and dazzled — but I was in charge of speakers for an upcoming convention. And I knew who was going to be first choice!
The day I called Neil, he was ecstatic. Not because some nobody from nowhere was offering him a speaking gig, but because he’d just signed a contract to write the Lando Calrissian novels for the Lucas people, a very big deal indeed.
Neil came to speak at the convention and also to give a class, for an extra fee, on guns.
Two things stand out in my memory.
The first is that Neil, in that short few days, magicked me from being a minarchist to an anarchist, and did it with a mere sentence or two. He also introduced me and other firearm class attendees to the concept of stopping power — that the object in having to fire a gun at a bad guy wasn’t to kill or to wound or anything else that TV made us think it might be; it was to stop the attack and the attacker. That may seem very basic to everybody now, but it was as big a revelation to me back then as was the possibility of libertarian anarchism.
The second is that I had assigned the task of squiring Neil around town to a smart, gorgeous, effervescent, but rather ditzy young woman. Within a day, both had come to me separately and pleaded would I please, please liberate them from the pairing as they simply couldn’t stand the sight, let alone the presence, of each other.
I can’t recall what their issue was. But years later I would understand that there was a certain essential “Neilness” in that collision.
I didn’t see Neil again for many years. But I owe him (and several people around him) for a big development in my life.
It was the early 1990s — the days when FidoNet was the nascent way for early-adopting nerds and the casually curious to connect “online” — when online meant dialing long distance into some often-faraway bulletin board (BBS) and typing into the void.
There was a BBS focused around Neil Smith in Ft. Collins, Colorado, where he lived — and focused on guns, of course; with Neil and his fans, it was often guns and their vital importance in defending lives and liberty. I dialed in, got involved — and eventually ran up the most terrifying phone bills of my life in private exchanges with one of the wittiest people in the group.
That was Charles Curley, who eventually became the “Significant Sweetie” of my early Hardyville and article fame. Charles and I were together for seven years and we’re still friends 20-some years later.
Charles and Neil were friends — well, frenemies, anyhow (oh, how they could battle over tactical issues of freedom!) — and didn’t live too far apart. So although Neil and his family and I were never close, we saw a fair bit of each other in the years I was with Charles.
Neil was devoted to Cathy and Rylla and always supportive of freedom newbies and shooting newbies (and fellow writers, I later learned). He could be a prickly character and had, let’s say, an enviably healthy ego. But he had a good heart and a generosity of spirit that now shine through the tributes others have written about him.
I recall the last time I saw him in person. He, Cathy, and Rylla came to our house for a Mexican dinner and each of the three left me with a special memory.
First Cathy, because I had chosen an entree that was more complicated than I’d realized. Cathy pitched in cheerfully and helped get it done without a hint of impatience or judgment on my hostessing skills.
Then Rylla. Rylla was 7-1/2 years old and after dinner she sat down and read aloud from my old volume of Grimm’s fairytales. This was not some expurgated, modernized, carefully-dumbed-down-for-the-ill-educated version, but an old-fashioned translation from the German, full of hithers and thithers and complicated phrasings that would stump most kids far older than she. Rylla breezed through it. I remember her reaching the word “chandelier” and pausing for a second. I was about to help her (how many 7-1/2 year olds would even attempt that word?), but before I could, she figured it out on her own, pronounced it perfectly, and continued with the story.
Great teaching, Neil and Cathy. Rarely have I ever been so impressed with a child. I hear she’s grown into a wonderful adult, too.
My most outstanding memory of Neil from that last encounter? I might have been clumsy in planning my entree. But I am very good at making flan, the traditional Mexican custard dessert. And Neil was very good at eating. I don’t recall how many helpings he had. But wordsmith that he was, before he left that evening, he pronounced himself my “biggest flan.”
Yeah, it’s a trivial memory. But it was a sweet, charming, and very Neilish one to end with.
RIP, L. Neil Smith. I hope you knew at the end how many lives you touched. How many gun newbies you taught and encouraged. How clear you made the connection between guns, personal responsibility, and freedom. How many minds and hearts you influenced in the direction of liberty. And how well you entertained us with your stories along the way.