Tribute to Bill Patterson

When Bill Patterson died on April 21, the sf field lost its best-known Heinlein biographer and fandom lost one of its most interesting raconteurs.

Bill’s health problems dominated his Facebook page in his final days – he complained about a painful hiatal hernia on April 19, struck an ominous note about needing to “catch up enough oxygen” on April 20, and made a thoroughly alarming post on April 21: “Reaching some kind of transition — too little o2 in brain to function.” Later that day he passed away.

Bill’s sister, D. Rhonda Wallace, commented online: “He lived his life to the fullest and the way he wanted. That is all anyone could ask for! (He did it his way).”

Patterson was born in St. Louis in 1951 but grew up in Phoenix, where his family relocated in 1956. As a young man he attended Arizona State University for two years, majoring in history.

In 1969 he joined a local science fiction club at the Phoenix Public Library. Before long he was also involved with the Phoenix chapter of the Tolkien Society where a very young Patrick Nielsen Hayden met him in 1971 – “Being twelve, I was mostly ignored by all, save for a large fellow named Bill Patterson who talked to me almost as if I were human…. When I showed up for the next meeting, I found they’d changed the location and not bothered to tell me. Well, I was twelve.”

Within five years Patterson was one of many Phoenix fans working on a successful bid to bring the Worldcon to town – but only after their ambition to host the Westercon had been frustrated by an LA committee co-chaired by yours truly. Everyone was impressed with Bill’s publications for the bid and the 1978 Worldcon. They looked super professional, the text prepared with a IBM compositor at a time when the rest of us were using typewriters.

Partly inspired by the collision between these two committees of college-age fans, Patterson wrote an 80,000-word history of Phoenix fandom titled The Little Fandom That Could in which I was not held up as a good example. However, nearly all of us reconciled sooner or later. Bill agreed to participate in the 2010 Loscon program which I organized. And at the 2011 Hugo nominees’ reception I made sure to tell Bill how much I admired his work on Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve. I thought it was highly readable and a first-rate work of historianship. I respected his consistent decision to confine the narrative to things that could be established by documentation and testimony — bypassing the very many juicy opportunities for speculation and opinion-mongering, all of which were relegated to endnotes. (And they are fascinating endnotes!)

Because Patterson was Virginia Heinlein’s choice for her husband’s biographer some expected him to deliver a hagiography. He did not. Besides, even a hagiography would have annoyed Heinlein. Those familiar with the Dean of SF know he would have been irate to see all of his personal activities publicly analyzed, no matter the tone. Patterson was as frank as he could possibly be with the sources available. And they were quite extensive. He said there were 75 million words of Heinlein material in the repository.

In the 1980s Bill moved to San Francisco and developed into a Heinlein scholar. He founded the Heinlein Journal in 1997 and co-founded the Heinlein Society with Virginia Heinlein in 1998. After she died in 2003, the newly-formed Heinlein Prize Trust asked Patterson to consult with the Robert A. Heinlein Archive of the University of California, Santa Cruz’s McHenry Library to integrate new material she had donated. He was designated The Heinlein Scholar of the Heinlein Prize Trust.

Bill did a vast amount of work on the Trust’s Virginia Edition of the Collected Works of Robert A. Heinlein, locating manuscripts and writing extensive endnotes for the books.

He also helped organize the Heinlein Centennial which took place in Kansas City in 2007.

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better by William Patterson, Jr. is scheduled for publication June 2014. Readying the second volume for publication was not as straightforward as Bill had expected. Time was spent expanding the text and dividing the manuscript to make two volumes instead of one, an idea ultimately abandoned:

In the spring of this year [2012], midway into David [Hartwell]’s first set of edits for this volume, he brought up the possibility of splitting this volume into two books, giving a three volume biography in all. There was some back and forth; ultimately David decided not to go forward with a third volume, and since he gave me the word late in August, I’ve been working ever since to cut the manuscript back to the same size as volume 1. Possibly with the idea of a third volume in mind, David had asked for an expansion of the text that ultimately accounted for about 400 pages of new manuscript. The expansion itself was not particularly demanding, as I had cut much more than that out of the manuscript in 2005 and 2006 — but it was neither possible nor desirable simply to restore the old version; the expansion incorporated all of Hartwell’s edit.

Cutting a 1400+ page manuscript back to about 1000 pages is a time-consuming and finicky process involving several passes through the entire thing.

Almost 15 years after Bill started work on the biography, with the final volume on the verge of appearing, Bill died unexpectedly. I’m so sorry he will miss the accolades he deserved for finishing this epic task.

[Thanks to Michael J. Walsh and Joseph T. Major for the story.]

5 thoughts on “Tribute to Bill Patterson

  1. In 1986, I was kind of horrified while at a party at I-Con, off campus at one of the affiliated hotels…

    It was lovely, a nice amalgam of people amiably hobnobbing and schmoozing, the early moments of what held all the promise of a lovely party–

    David Hartwell took out a guitar (where had he hidden it?)–

    And began singing.

    Everyone looked up with the same reaction:

    “Who is this prick trying to take over the party?”

    People’s conversations stopped, folks started walking out the door, and his sixteen-year old daughter
    seemed mortified.

    “Ah… Dad’s doing his thing.”

    And the party was kind of over.

    Seven years earlier, Hartwell had committed the single most unprofessional deed I’ve encountered in all the years since.

    I had proposed a media tie-in to Hartwell at his then publishing gig, one which was covered under license, and which, if you knew the details, you would agree would have been neat, AND made a ton of dough.

    (Trust me! 😉

    Hartwell had encouraged the submission, asked for many tweaks and then, one day, when I called, pleasantly, to inquire about the project’s status, he gave me the good news.

    The book had been bought!

    We talked for a while, about some more simple additions he wanted, all of which were easily doable.

    And then, a week later, I got a strange, devestating single-spaced, one-page letter, on company stationary saying he had made a mistake.

    The book wasn’t bought.

    Sad to see that Hartwell is still screwing with people.

    And cutting a wonderful party.

  2. I first met Bill in 1974 and for some reason we immediately became fast friends. He was my friend for 40 years. He was a stalwart, good, close, loyal, loving friend. He was, as his friends would say, full of “Billitude,” but we loved him anyway. I was emailing him from work on Tuesday before his death and we were talking about — what else? — Heinlein. It is cliche’ to say, but my life is now infinitely poorer for his loss.

  3. I never met Bill in person, but on Usenet and in e-mail he was always a great guy, and I admired him as a writer. Reading the first volume of In Dialogue With His Century turned that admiration to outright envy, and the desire to raise my own game as a writer. The thought that Bill didn’t make it long enough to see volume two cross the finish line and reach the public just seems impossibly cruel and unjust.

  4. I knew of Bill, but I did not know him.

    I do know that he left many valuable contributions behind and positively influenced many fans.

    I’m grateful for the work he’s done for the Heinlein estate.

    And thank you Mike for putting this post up.

  5. A very nice man and the world’s foremost expert on Robert Heinlein, Bill Patterson, wrote a review of my book that was to appear in the May issue of Prometheus. He was also going to write an essay for my next book on business and capitalism in science fiction.

    On April 15 he emailed to say how terrible he felt. The next day I received an email that was totally garbled. I responded and he said that he literally fell asleep at the keyboard. He felt that bad. He said he would send me a copy of the edited proofs very shortly.

    He was very excited because the editor there said that the entire issue was being built around his review of my book. He was looking forward to seeing what that meant.

    I have emailed hm several times since to inquire about his health. I became concerned when I did not receive any responses. He was always quick to respond.

    I just found out that he passed away on April 20.

    http://file770.com/?p=16741

    I never met the man but I am sad.

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