Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Family Matters • by Bruce Bethke

Nota bene: This is the introduction George Scithers wrote 36 years ago for the original magazine publication of “Cyberpunk” in Amazing Stories. Please read it closely.

I no longer remember the name of the con. It was somewhere between 25 and 30 years ago, and I want to say it was a WorldCon, but in truth, I don’t remember. What I do remember is that I was with a bunch of other mid-list, mid-life, and mid-career pros, we were in the professional SF/F writer’s natural habitat—the hotel bar—and we were having just a great old time, drinking heavily and swapping divorce horror stories. My first wife, Nancy, had just kicked me out, changed the locks, and filed for separation, and to be honest, I deserved it. In those days I was Bruce Bethke, Nearly Famous Science Fiction Writer, and I was a real jerk.

What struck me at the time was how casually everyone there took the news. It was as if it was a rite of passage, or an occupational requirement, or perhaps even a milestone on the road to success. “Okay, you’ve just sold your fifth novel. Time for your first divorce.” “Ha ha, SFWA: we put the fun in dysfunctional!” Ben Bova gave me a signed copy of his book, Survival Guide for the Suddenly Single. The then-editor of the SFWA Bulletin asked me to write an article on how to protect your intellectual property rights in a divorce. A certain editor who shall remain nameless, assuming I was broke and desperate for cash, tried to talk me into a book deal, ghostwriting for a certain media personality who had a burning desire to see his name on the cover of an SF novel but no actual time to write, knowledge of the field, or discernible writing talent. It was a wonderful evening of back-slapping camaraderie.

Later, when I sobered up, it began to disturb me. It wasn’t just that being a writer seemed to be toxic to marriage and family: it was how readily the writers I knew (and at the time, I knew hundreds of successful writers) accepted this toxicity. I realized I could count on my fingers all the writers I knew who had intact first marriages and functional families. By and large my peers were women whose cats were their surrogate children; women who had one or two children but with male gametes supplied by a long-gone donor; men who would never get married and father children because they just didn’t swing that way; or worst of all, really successful male writers who had been married, but were now perfectly content to let their children be raised by their ex-wife’s next man. Or woman. Or whatever.

That’s when it struck me. The problem wasn’t that being a writer is somehow toxic to marriage and family. It was a matter of selection bias. My peer group was composed of divorced SF/F writers because we were all, every one of us, people who believed it was more important to our careers to be there, at that con, drinking with our fellow writers and editors in a hotel bar, than at home with our families.

This, in turn, explained a nascent trend I at first thought I was only imagining I was seeing. The world of SF/F—at least, the social, convention-going, devoted fandom part of it—was not just family-neutral, but in the process of turning actively family-hostile. And the problem wasn’t just with passing trends in fiction, or the idiosyncrasies of the current batch of editors who bought it, or the greedy bastard publishers who printed it. The problem was the writers.


It was too late to save my first marriage: the best I could hope for was to try to have a good post-marriage for the sake of my daughters. Later I remarried, and added a step-son and another son to the family. I worked—really worked—at being a good husband and father, and quit going to cons, unless I could go with my family. For example, in 2010 we had a great time together at Dragon Con. To those of you going to Dragon Con this weekend, have fun! Wish we were there!

Emily would have loved Dragon Con. She grew up to be a costumer, a crafter, and a devoted fan of all things Harry Potter. We lost Emily eight years, eleven months, and three days ago: suddenly, from a natural cause that was undiagnosed, unpredictable, and apparently, unpreventable.

People ask why I don’t put together a collection of my short stories from the 1980s and 1990s. That photo at the top of this column is the reason. I get as far as the introduction George Scithers wrote for the original magazine publication of “Cyberpunk” and grind to a stop. Other people look at my publication credits and see a bunch of short stories, some of them pretty good, some Nebula-nominated, some even world famous. What I see is all the time I stole from my daughters’ childhoods and all the damage I did to my first marriage, chasing the mirage of being Bruce Bethke, Nearly Famous Science Fiction Writer.


A few people know that in 2010, when we went to Dragon Con, it was between the time Karen (my second wife) was diagnosed with breast cancer and the first round of what’s turned out to be an eight-year odyssey of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and then more of the same. Karen has beaten the odds: she’s not cured by any means and probably never will be, but she’s still here, and still in the fight.

What even fewer people have known until recently is that in December of 2012, my first wife, Nancy, was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma. After a five-and-a-half year battle, she left this world sometime between late Sunday evening, August 19, and early Monday morning, August 20. Her funeral was this past Saturday.

For those of you who have asked why I wasn’t at this year’s WorldCon (Aug. 16~20) and really don’t care what did or didn’t happen there: are you kidding?


Thirty-six years later, we know part of the answer to the questions George Scithers posed in his introduction. Nancy and Emily now sleep for eternity, side-by-side in a small churchyard cemetery in rural Minnesota.

As for me? You can’t fix yesterday. But you can learn from experience, and try to pass on what you have learned.

This was my experience. Learn from it.


Lou Antonelli said...

I guess I'm lucky I'm my own boss, I have my own office, and I work with my wife. Because I don't have to worry about anyone seeing me tearing up at my desk.

Gary said...

Sobering, and a lesson for any and all of us.

Mark Keigley said...

Man, rough road...thanks for sharing this...

David The Good said...

Thank you, Bruce. Love to you and Karen.

Rachel and I are on 14 years so far, and I'm now about a dozen books in to my not particularly impressive career. It's hard to see the many very talented people who haven't been as fortunate. I'm sure my career would have advanced much farther if I spent less time with the kids, but man... I appreciate the warnings. I've been burning the candle at both ends lately.