Maureen died a little while ago and her funeral was yesterday but it’s taken me a while to pull together my thoughts. I felt it appropriate to post this here as my friendship with Maureen was born of the period when I used to publish stuff here and I know she used to read and occasionally comment on the site.

Maureen Kincaid Speller was one of the most remarkable people I have ever known. I consider myself immeasurably richer for having known her and infinitely poorer for the knowledge that I will never see her again. She was unique.

I first met Maureen on one of three separate occasions. Memory rebels at any further attempts at ordering as I cannot remember a time when I was aware of her existence whilst not also being her friend. This is because Maureen didn’t so much meet you as effortlessly envelope you in her social world. She was not one for tentatively moving up through the gears from polite smiles to small talk and then on to shared references… No, she just reached out and included you in whichever conversation it was that she happened to be having. I may not be able to remember exactly when it was that Maureen and I first met but I am certain that the first thoughts I had about her in person were ‘who the fuck is this madwoman and why is she talking to me?’

Maureen’s casual but persistent inclusivity was unusual in that it came less from an extrovert’s need to stage-manage conversations and more from a genuine desire for intellectual connection. Maureen would sometimes speak to me of her youth and I always got the impression that, prior to her relationship with Paul, the people in her life tended to view her love of books as a baffling and border-line embarrassing eccentricity rather like going to the shops clad in a beard of bees.

This lack of early support and encouragement seems to have cast a long shadow over Maureen’s life. It left her feeling as though she were perpetually on the outside looking in, always hearing exciting conversations taking place in other rooms whilst not being allowed to participate. This sense of pre-emptive rejection meant that when Maureen Kincaid Speller included you in a conversation, it was not because she valued inclusivity as some kind of abstract liberal principle but because she wanted to hear what you had to say as a person. More than anyone I have ever known, Maureen believed in the power of conversation and the ability of books to shrink the distances between human hearts. She never once took for granted either her connection to SFF or the connections she made with individual fans.

Maureen viewed herself as a critic. She treated criticism with the upmost seriousness and revelled in that identity even when she struggled to do much writing herself. Indeed, it is telling that two of her final contributions to the discussion of SFF include a lengthy piece about the challenge of engaging critically with a much-loved author and a podcast that was politely trying to clear a space for critical engagement in spaces that have, over time, come to view it with no small degree of suspicion.

A few years ago, Maureen was going through one of her periodic bouts of self-doubt. No longer able to see the value of her contributions to the field, she asked me where I thought her critical strengths lay and I, having been put on the spot, answered that I most valued her voice. At the time, this went down like a lead-balloon as I suspect she was looking to me for reassurance her that she had the requisite number of skill-points to unlock the ‘Critic’ prestige class. While Maureen may not have liked my answer, I continue to stand by it as the things that draw me back to Maureen’s writing are her sensibility and her voice rather than her ‘take’ on any specific book or trend. Maureen viewed herself as a critic and it is only right that we should honour that self-image but I believe that thinking of Maureen in terms of her contributions to criticism is to diminish both the scope of her intellect and the depth of her commitment to the conversation surrounding SFF.

Back when I was most active in SFF, people used to produce manifestos and series of blog-posts expanding their thoughts on criticism and the ways in which it differed from reviewing and the kinds of unpaid PR work that have become increasingly common in book-adjacent spaces on social media. While there is, naturally, discourse to be had over power dynamics within SFF and who has the ability to speak in a disruptive manner in spaces that have come to be dominated by marketing and professionalised cliques, the point is that fandom is a set of social relations and social relations change. The window for certain forms of speech opens and closes with the passage of time and while Maureen seems to have felt most at home inhabiting the role of critic, she was other things as well. In fact, she was arguably one of the most adaptive thinkers in SFF commentary because she was willing to change and to follow the conversation.

Glancing at Maureen’s page on ISFDB, it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer scale of her commitment to writing about science-fiction and fantasy. Most people who try their hands at reviewing often wind up burning out or migrating towards other areas but Maureen started putting her work out there in the 1980s and continued producing work right up until this year. As someone whose critical career pre-dated the internet, the scale of Maureen’s output also had physical implications. I remember visiting Paul and Maureen in Folkestone for the first time after being asked by the British Science Fiction Association to help put together a collection of her reviews. They pulled these huge stacks of zines off of shelves that were deeper than a man’s arm and piled them all at my feet. At one point, Maureen flicked through a magazine with some hand-drawn cover art, harrumphed, peered over the round spectacles she favoured at the time and fixed me with one of her fabled Hard Paddington Stares before instructing me that some of these pieces were going to need a vigorous edit if they were ever to see the light of day again.

At the time, I knew Maureen’s work chiefly from its appearances online and in the magazines of the British Science Fiction Association but as soon as I started looking into her back-catalogue, I quickly realised that Maureen’s engagement extended much further. I was lucky enough to know Maureen for more than fifteen years and before I had met her she had already served on award juries, been a guest of honour at conventions, been responsible for convention programming, made the Hugo shortlist for Best Fan Writer and administered the BSFA. I mention all of these things in the same breath because these were all honours and activities I understood as someone whose engagement with SFF post-dated the creation of online venues and spaces. The further back I looked, the more I realised that Maureen was an accomplished and celebrated contributor to SFF before online fandom was even a thing.

This is significant as, back in the noughties, a lot of older and more established fans were acutely hostile to the idea that publishing stuff online might be viewed in the same light as publishing stuff in the form of a fanzine. This may seem absurd in the current climate but a serious attempt was even made to restrict the Hugo fan-categories to material published in traditional zines. To her eternal credit, Maureen was not one of those fans… she was simply delighted to discover that people were discussing books on the internet and so followed the conversation online. In fact, one of Maureen’s more endearing traits was her desire to overcome whichever technological barrier stood between her and the conversation. For Maureen, there was no fundamental difference between mimeographed zines, academic journals, blogs, online magazines, Discord servers or podcasts; they were all just different places to talk and if you wanted to participate in the conversation you learned the technology and adapted your thinking.

It is in this sense of continuity between different venues and forms of conversation that Maureen’s voice really rings out. If you are fortunate enough to read her more recent criticism or receive her editorial advice, you will find the same voice and sensibility that once graced the pages of traditional fanzines like Bottled Lightening, Snufkin’s Bum or Steam Engine Time. That voice was so distinctive and endearing that it not only won Maureen a Nova award for traditional fan-writing, it also helped her become the beneficiary of the 1999 Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund. Decades later, Maureen would still speak animatedly about the many experiences she had travelling the country and meeting American fans. She had even internalised regional American culinary discourse on a number of issues including what constitutes a proper ‘barbecue’.

In the years that I knew her, Maureen tended to downplay the work she had done in non-critical fanzines because that whimsical and intensely personal style of fan-writing had fallen out of fashion in an SFF culture that was growing steadily more serious and commercialised. Whenever I asked to see her earlier writings, Maureen would adroitly change the subject but when I did eventually track down copies of her non-critical work, I was delighted to find the exact same voice that was present in all of her criticism. A voice that was somehow always on the brink of both exasperation and child-like glee; the id of fandom’s passion always held in check by the wry and erudite superego of someone who treated the act of writing with a sense of magisterial solemnity.

I called the collection of Maureen’s early reviews …And Another Thing because Maureen was someone who always had something more to say. There were times when starting a conversation with Maureen was like popping the cork on a bottle of champagne; it was as though her ideas had spent years maturing in an oaken cask beneath a French chateau only for them to force themselves out with such force that you could only stand clear and help mop up the spill. Maureen wrote the way she spoke; in long, looping sentences that moved effortlessly from one insightful observation to another, filling the room as quickly and efficiently as possible lest someone dare to try and shut her up. There was always more to say and more conversation to be had. Lunch at the Speller Kincaid household only ever ended when someone looked up and noticed that the sun had gone down.

Maureen’s commitment to SFF and her desire for intellectual connection broke through all boundaries. When the energy began to ebb away from traditional fanzines and towards online publication, Maureen simply altered her methods and followed the conversation. When the energy began to ebb away from blogs, Maureen altered her methods again and drew more heavily upon her skills as both an editor and an administrator. Many recent arrivals into the orbit of SFF’s institutions may know Maureen chiefly as the long-standing senior editor of the reviews department at Strange Horizons but Maureen’s commitments extended to a number of other institutions including research bodies, journals and small presses. Maureen’s commitment to the conversation was such that she not only followed it wherever it went, she also rolled up her sleeves and did the work required to allow others to participate. SFF culture will miss Maureen because even when she wasn’t participating in the conversation, she was helping to include, empower, and welcome others. The casual inclusivity that Maureen practiced in person was echoed at every level of her work.

Maureen will be missed for everything that she was and everything she did.

A Perspective on Perspectives

The Good people at Nerds of a Feather are currently experimenting with a couple of new formats including the Blogtable I was lucky enough to participate in earlier this week. The second format they have tried is called Perspectives and it seems to involve a number of bloggers responding to a particular piece or event. For reasons best known to The G, they chose my reviews of Terraform and Uncanny magazines as the basis for their first Perspectives.

Whenever people respond to anything I write (particularly negatively, natch) my first instinct is to mutter about them getting the wrong end of the stick but this time, I was reminded of an old article by John Clute in which he talks about the wonders of ‘misprision’ and how someone’s decision to latch onto a meaning other than the one you intended can serve to open up interesting perspectives on the original piece. Plus… it would be a bit off of me to argue that the author is dead and then argue that people have failed to interpret one of my essays correctly! So rather than seeking to ‘correct’ their responses or ‘punish them for their impudence’, I’ll respond to their ideas directly and use them as an opportunity to clarify some of my own thinking.

Continue reading →