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Reflections on Neil

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.

19 Comments

  1. Comrade X
    Comrade X September 8, 2021 2:41 pm

    Claire a very kind and thoughtful eulogy.

    I never met Neil nor read any of his books but because of yours and other’s descriptions of him I have ordered some of his books now to read. He sounded like an interesting individual to have known.

  2. Sam Hall
    Sam Hall September 8, 2021 2:54 pm

    Very well said and well done.

  3. Val E. Forge
    Val E. Forge September 8, 2021 2:55 pm

    I’m with Comrade X. Had heard of Mr. Smith (and The Probability Broach) but had never read it or his other work. Your words. Claire, make me want to. Where might we find some of the other eulogies you mentioned?

  4. Claire
    Claire September 8, 2021 3:02 pm

    Thank you, guys. That one was hard to do.

    Sam Hall — Coming from you, who knew all the Smiths better than I did, that’s a reassuring compliment. Thanks for the official memorial link, too.

    Val E. Forge — If I got all the URLs right, you’ll find the other eulogies linked in the second paragraph above.

  5. Rylla Smith
    Rylla Smith September 8, 2021 3:20 pm

    Dear Claire, my parents taught me very well, and it was people like you who furthered that education by exposing me to such works. Thank you, and thank you also for writing this lovely tribute to my dad. It softens the blow of missing his presence in the house to know he is so fondly remembered by others.

  6. Cathy LZ Smith
    Cathy LZ Smith September 8, 2021 3:27 pm

    Thank you, Claire. Perfectly accurate. Beautifully said.

  7. Toirdhealbheach Beucail
    Toirdhealbheach Beucail September 8, 2021 3:34 pm

    Thank you Claire. That was lovely eulogy and speaks well of your opinion of him.

  8. stevefromMA
    stevefromMA September 8, 2021 3:59 pm

    I read Broach years ago, will now reread. I always thought that, as a gun totin Libertarian, Neil was kind of sidelined as an author, though maybe other SF folks know him more than
    I think.

    I had never read this essay, recently resurrected by your old group, Claire. It is pretty powerful, would be great assigned as part of the required mangled U.S. history course in high school but never happen.

    http://jpfo.org/smith/smith-why-have-to-be-guns.htm?awt_a=A4_P&awt_l=GTTOw&awt_m=IrKy.VL5YVZn_P

  9. Claire
    Claire September 8, 2021 5:31 pm

    Thank you, Rylla and Cathy, for joining us here. It means a lot to me to “see” you again. I know how much Neil loved you both (and Cathy, how much he relied on you over the years).

    There’s no doubt at all that thousands, tens of thousands, will remember Neil. For some, Neil’s influence may be so ingrained that they may not even realize what they gained from him. But it’ll be there.

    Take care of yourselves and know that a lot of people out here are thinking of you.

  10. Claire
    Claire September 8, 2021 5:34 pm

    T-B — Thank you (as on so many other occasions) for your kindness.

    stevefromMA — It’s been years since I read that piece by Neil. It cuts right to the essence. Thanks for finding it and linking to it.

  11. Kurt
    Kurt September 8, 2021 6:24 pm

    Lovely! I never had the chance to meet him (more’s the pity), but possess most of his SF, and read all of what I have at least twice.

    His most influential essay is of course “Why did it have to be guns”, and and it has become my mission to point people at it whenever it makes sense.

    To Rylla and Cathy, you are luckier than I, to have known him well, whilst I knew him only through print, and my heart wilts a bit with the passing of a hero, for such he was.

    Kurt

  12. Jolly
    Jolly September 9, 2021 6:11 am

    There’s a book, I think, “It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand” which promotes the idea that freedomistas got their start reading Rand’s books. While that may be true in MY case – for the last 30+ years, when I wanted to present the ideas of freedom – I gave them a copy of Probability Broach ( sorry Claire, your books would be second after the ice-breaker ).
    When the comic-book version came out, that was my go-to introduction.
    I agree that it was Neil’s best, but I like Tom Paine Maru quite a bit, too.
    Over the years, I think I’ve purchased at least 25 copies of PB.

    Thanks Neil

    Jolly

  13. Claire
    Claire September 9, 2021 6:43 am

    Yes, It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand is a hilarious and accurate account of early-modern libertarianism (written by Jerome Tuccille, father of the wonderful J.D.). But that was then. The Probability Broach is forever.

    And I agree, Jolly, Neil’s books before my books is a much better introduction. That’s great that you’ve given away so many copies.

  14. John Wilder
    John Wilder September 9, 2021 8:59 pm

    I hadn’t heard . . . he was a giant, and always had a fun read. I learned a lot from him, even though I never had the pleasure of meeting him.

  15. J. Kent Hastings
    J. Kent Hastings September 11, 2021 1:38 pm

    I concur with your description of El Neil. J. Neil Schulman and I went to a Mexican restaurant with the Smiths during the Alongside Night movie tour. El Neil was perhaps gratified that I actually read his novels with evidence from my remark that since the annoying Ted Kennedy senator character in Pallas or Ceres wasn’t obliterated, but actually learned better by the end, that El Neil must have been kidnapped and replaced by an android. His works have been inside my head since I started reading them after the founding of SEK3’s The Agorist Institute in 1984. El Neil is missed.

  16. The Freeholdert
    The Freeholdert September 11, 2021 4:17 pm

    Beautifully done, Claire. It’s and old phrase, but accurate: We are the less for his passing.

    I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Smith, even though I was fairly active in our local SF scene. I remember reading The Probability Broach and going “Who is this guy and what else has he written?” Of course, we know the answer to that. But I kept an eye out for each new one.

    For me, it was a comp sci instructor who got me started actually thinking. Writers like Heinlein and Rand kept me at it. Then it was L. Neil Smith. You came later on, as did others.

    I’ve done my best to “pass on the gene” to my kids. They’re still in field testing, but early results are promising. I think I need to pick up a copy of Broach for my daughter and the audio book for my son. It’s high past time they meet the man.

  17. Top W Kone
    Top W Kone September 13, 2021 12:00 am

    Oh wow. About three weeks ago I ran across several L Neil Smith books in a box, two I had not read before so I broke them out and devoured all five in the box.

    Now I’m both sad and glad. Sad he has passed, but glad the universe saw fit to remind me of him as he passed.

    Thank you for your kind words and stories.

  18. Eric B Oppen
    Eric B Oppen September 21, 2021 10:59 am

    I only ever met him in person three times (living where I do, with a limited-at-best travel budget, made it hard) but we corresponded frequently over the years. I’m working up an article about him for the Libertarian Enterprise.

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