I woke up this morning to news I wasn’t hoping to hear for many years. Steven Utley, writer, reader, and friend, had passed away.
He’d emailed a bunch of folks just after Christmas, letting us know his diagnosis. He sounded himself, positive, and I really believed that he’d beat this. Even when he mentioned the brain lesion, the loss of fine motor skills, his tone talking about treatment gave me all the false hope I needed to hear.
I sent Steven a couple of emails over the course of the last fortnight, being generally supportive.
I didn’t pick up the phone and call. I wish I’d picked up the phone and called him.
My first communication with Steven Utley was over the phone. It was 1996 or 1997, back when I was living on “Young One’s Central”, and Steven had just moved to Tennessee. I was hanging around with the wrong crowd (Jonathan, Jeremy and Richard from Eidolon), doing the wrong things (reading stories by Howard Waldrop), and the idea of starting a small press fell into my head. I’d scored Utley’s number from the manuscript for the intro to Custer’s Last Jump, and after performing numerous timezone calculations (this was way before mobile apps or google) I plucked up the courage to call him.
I was a 23-year-old punk rock loving kid back then, full of wild enthusiasm and a lack of a solid clue, but I tried to sound mature and professional on the phone. I don’t recall being shit-scared (my little secret: whenever I approach a writer or editor about a new project, I am shit-scared) but I probably was; also worried about how much the call was going to cost, as international phonecalls were really really expensive in those days.
As it turned out, Steven had just had a collection deal fall through, so he was happy to talk and sent me a list of stories. Jonathan Strahan gave me a copy of the SFWA standard contract, I filled in the gaps (I doubt I knew enough to know what the rest of it meant) and sent it off. Steven signed it, and the rest is history.
That last section skips over something big. Why did I approach Utley to publish a collection of his work? Having read and loved “Custer’s Last Jump”, I began wondering who this Steven Utley guy was (I knew who Howard Waldrop was). I hit the shelves of Murdoch library, found a published bibliography, photocopied it and then set about reading everything I could that was listed. I photocopied every story of his they had among the shelves: from Asimov’s, F&SF, Galaxy, a bunch of others — if you find an issue on the shelves that falls open to an Utley story, it’s probably my fault.
I read all those stories on the bus back to Young One’s Central, I made multiple trips to make sure I had all I could. Those stories were amazing, full of ideas but much more importantly, full of humanity. I was only beginning to understand the difference between plot- and character-driven fiction, and Utley filled my head full of incredible characters. He could paint a person, or a trait of humanity, in a short story, telling you all you need to know in a few lines of dialogue; from the spaceship captain in “Upstart”, looking the titanic alien in the eye and asking ‘Who wants to know?’; to the marine in “Dog in a Manger”, destroying all of humanity’s treasures, ‘We couldn’t let them have it.’; to the doctor fighting cholera in “Haiti”, “Fuck men on Mars.”
There were so many characters, from Devonian explorers, to the mysterious country doctor, to women finding independence; always normal people, though sometimes in extraordinary situations. I really believe that Steven loved all of his characters, even the ones he didn’t agree with, and each of his stories were filled with the right people for the job. His disagreeable types were still characters, not stereotypes or pastiches.
Reading those stories at the time, I came to the conclusion that Steven Utley was the best damn short story writer on the planet. I may have been 23 and I have no idea what crap my head was full of back then, but I’m damn sure that kid was right about one thing.
Except Steven Utley isn’t on the planet anymore, at least not in the right way. I’m an atheist, but at times like these turn to thermodynamics for solace, so that Utley’s constituent atoms will always be with us.
We also have his stories, tales of love, hope, humanity, and they will live for a long time still.
These words aren’t really enough, but I’m sure that in coming days and weeks others far more eloquent than me, who knew Steven closer and longer, will share their stories.