Versatile sf author, poet and linguist Suzette Haden Elgin died January 27. She’d been experiencing health troubles for a long time, and abandoned several newsletters and her blog a few years ago due to the effects of Fronto-Temporol Dementia which, as her husband, George, explained in 2012 — is “a condition that develops more rapidly than Alzheimer’s disease, and does not respond to any form of treatment or medication.”
Elgin began her career as a science fiction writer in the late Sixties. Having remarried after being widowed, Elgin found herself a mother of five and at the same time a graduate student in linguistics at UC San Diego. She began writing sf to pay her tuition.
Andrew Porter recalls, “I pulled her first short story, ‘For the Sake of Grace’, out of the slushpile when I was assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Ed Ferman published it in 1969. It was subsequently widely reprinted and anthologized. She was one of the few authors I discovered who went on to a wide-ranging and productive career.”
Elgin completed her grad school work by writing two dissertations, one on English, the other on Navajo. She was later hired by San Diego State University, where she taught until she retired in 1980.
Elgin’s first novel, The Communipaths, published in 1970 as half of an Ace double, marked the beginning of her Coyote Jones series, followed by Furthest and Star-Anchored, Star-Avenged.
She then wrote the Ozark Trilogy, Twelve Fair Kingdoms, The Grand Jubilee and And Then There’ll Be Fireworks. Coyote Jones also appeared in another book set in that universe, Yonder Comes the Other End of Time.
In the mid-1980s she produced her best-known work, Native Tongue, The Judas Rose and Earthsong – sf novels where women create, word by word, a language of their own called Láadan to help free themselves from men’s domination. (A Láadan grammar and dictionary was published in 1988 by SF3 of Madison, Wisconsin.)
Elgin made another key contribution to the genre by founding the Science Fiction Poetry Association in 1978. For awhile she edited its newsletter, Star*Line. Her poem “Rocky Road to Hoe” won SFPA’s Rhysling Award in 1987. The organization also honored her by creating the Elgin Award in 2013.
Although Elgin admitted other poets disagreed, her essay “About Science Fiction Poetry” defined genre poetry in this way —
It seemed to me that the field of sf poetry badly needed rigor (the quality that makes hard sf hard), so that there’d be a way to stand up and argue for its literary value. People look at Picasso’s abstract paintings and object that their six-year-old child could do that — but Picasso could put a pencil on a sheet of paper and draw a magnificently realistic horse (or anything else you asked him for) as a single line, without ever lifting the pencil from the paper. That’s rigor. Because he could do that if he chose, he could also break all the rules if he chose; that’s fair. I wanted sf poetry first to prove that it could do the thing rigorously; after that, if it wanted to fly off into the never-nevers, it would at least be possible to point to the body of rigorous work and say, “When sf poets choose to, they can write like this; they’ve proved that, and now they have the right to break the rules.” So I assumed “poem” as defined, and proposed that an sf poem was one that had two parts: a science part, and a fiction — narrative — part. Like most grandiose projects, mine didn’t go far; the sf poets shouted me down in short order. But I still think it was, and is, worth a try.
Elgin’s other nonfiction enterprises were considerably more influential. Her Ozark Center for Language Studies was dedicated to reducing violence in the U.S. and getting information about linguistics out to the public. She wrote a remarkable book called The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, whose goal was “To establish an environment in which verbal violence almost never occurs and which — on those rare occasions when it cannot be avoided — it is dealt with efficiently and effectively, with no loss of face on either side.” (I used it in my own work.) She taught four basic principles: “Know that you are under attack. Know what kind of attack you are facing. Know how to make your defense fit the attack. Know how to follow through.” She taught workshops based on the material, and wrote several follow-up books, one of which was a novel, Peacetalk 101.
She was a widely respected professional in multiple fields who will be truly missed.