Thursday, July 16, 2009

Bye, Phyllis

photo by Robert Sawyer

I am very sad to pass on the news that Phyllis Gotlieb died this week of complications from a burst appendix. Phyllis was a pioneer in Canadian science fiction, and was writing the stuff when it was a rather weird thing to do - at a time, in fact, when it was largely assumed to be a male genre. Those were in some ways lonely days, and as the Canadian science fiction scene developed Phyllis was an enthusiastic and dearly loved member of the community.

We always say someone will be missed, when they have died, and this time it's as true as it ever is. What a lovely, funny, spirited, irreverent, and generous soul.

Here's the CBC obituary:

Phyllis Gotlieb, sci-fi writer and poet, dies at 83

Last Updated: Wednesday, July 15, 2009 | 6:33 PM ET Comments8Recommend28

Phyllis Gotlieb, the novelist and poet said to be the first Canadian science fiction writer, has died. She was 83.

Gotlieb died Tuesday at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

Gotlieb earned a Governor General's Literary Award nomination in 1970 for Ordinary Moving, a collection of her poetry.

Her 1982 novel A Judgment of Dragons won the inaugural Aurora Award for best Canadian science-fiction and fantasy novel.

She has been called the mother of contemporary Canadian science fiction, and the Sunburst Award, for adult and young adult sci-fi, was named after her first novel.

Gotlieb was born Phyllis Bloom on May 26, 1926, the daughter of a man who ran a Toronto cinema chain.

"I would go to whatever theatre my father was running, and spend the day there with my movie mags and my pulps — Doc Savage and The Shadow especially. I had such a pop culture background, Mickey Mouse was my hero," she said in a 2002 interview with Maclean's.

She was an only child, like fellow sci-fi writers Robert Silverberg, Frederik Pohl and friend Judy Merril. Her ambition was to be a writer, but she saw her future as a poet.

She married Calvin Gotlieb, a pioneer in computer science who taught at the University of Toronto, and they had three children.

Gotlieb published her first poetry pamphlet, Who Knows One, in 1961, followed by the collection Within the Zodiac, which earned her a reading tour with Irving Layton and Earle Birney.

While she was struggling with writer's block in the early 1950s, her husband suggested she try science fiction.

"My poetry had dried up, but as soon as I started SF, it came back," she said. Initially she sent stories to sci-fi magazines, but in 1964 got a publisher for her novel Sunburst.

Fellow sci-fi writer Robert J. Sawyer credits her with opening doors for Canadian writers with U.S. publishers.

Her science fiction, like her poetry, often focused on ethical questions, and she shied away from pat solutions.

Sunburst was about a community with telepathic powers and the problems it faces, a theme that would frequently resurface in her fiction and short fiction.

O Master Caliban! treats themes of genetic mutation. Flesh and Gold looks at a world with more than one sentient race and an unequal balance of power.

Her Starcats trilogy features two cats as protagonists. Written in the 1980s, it includes A Judgment of Dragons (1980), Emperor, Swords, Pentacles (1982) and The Kingdom of the Cats (1985).

In 1969, Gotlieb published Why Should I Have All the Grief?, a novel about the aftermath of Auschwitz in a Canadian Jewish community.

She also wrote several verse plays commissioned by CBC that are published in the 1974 collection Doctor Umlaut's Earthly Kingdom.

Her last novel, Birthstones, was published in 2007.

Gotlieb is survived by her husband, three children and four grandchildren.

You can find Phyllis' website at

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