Locus Magazine

Michael Blumlein
by Andy Duncan
Locus, December 2019

I was not often in the physical presence of Michael Blumlein, but each encounter lingered in my memory. He spoke very softly, asking many questions — often deep ones — and then thanking people for the answers, sometimes adding that the answers had moved him. I have known many active listeners, but Blumlein was an active ponderer, seeming to operate under the assumption that everyone he met was profound, and had some knowledge that he, too, needed to know.

I was his roommate at Sycamore Hill 2015, where he brought the wonderfully odd manuscript that became “Choose Poison, Choose Life” (Asimov’s 10-11/16), and for the whole week, he talked not about himself at all, certainly not about his cancer treatments, but not about his writing, either; he mainly wanted to know about my students, who they were, what they longed for, what they needed. “They sound just like the students at UCSF,” he said. “Isn’t that great?”

My notes show that over the course of that week, Blumlein highly recommended The Man with a Shattered World: The History of a Brain Wound by A.R. Luria, translated by Lynn Solotaroff; Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl by Marguerite Sechehaye, translated by Grace Rubin-Ransom; Ursula K. Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Ornelas”; and Lars von Trier’s movie Melancholia, which he said was “designed to make the audience feel what depression is like. You don’t understand it, but you feel it.” That’s a very Blumleinian list!

He was a unique person, even among the other writer-physicians ( or physician-writers) I’ve known, and his fiction is unique, too: humane and horrific, technical and lyrical. He really was a one-person genre.

I last saw him in July 2019, when I was briefly in the Bay Area, and he kindly came to Liza Groen Trombi’s dinner party in my honor. We agreed we didn’t see one another often enough, and that is even truer, now.

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Remembering Michael Blumlein
by Rudy Rucker
Locus, December 2019

A king walked among us.

I met Michael Blumlein in the fall of 1986, a few months after my wife Sylvia, our three children, and I moved to the SF Bay area from Virginia. Richard Kadrey was the first of the local SF cohort to contact me. He and writer Pat Murphy were living on Lincoln Avenue by Golden Gate Park. They invited us to a party.

After so many years of reading about the Beats and the hippies, I was thrilled to meet San Francisco writers, and alert for oddity. Marc Laidlaw’s oblique way of expressing himself caused me to jump to the conclusion that he was high on mescaline, and Michael Blumlein’s recently shaved head led me to deduce, quite incorrectly, that he was a junkie with AIDS.

Hardly anyone shaved their heads back then — and once other people started doing it, Michael took to wearing a long ponytail. Eventually he shifted to moderately long locks, a kind of Jim Morrison look which suited him. He was a very handsome man, and a fascinating character.

When I met Michael, I knew a little about his work because he’d sent me the most disgusting and politically inflammatory story that I’d ever seen, “Shed His Grace”. This was for an underground SF anthology, Semiotext(e) SF, which I was editing with Peter Lamborn Wilson. Blumlein’s story was about a man who castrates himself while watching wall-sized videos of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. We’d asked for edgy stories, and Michael called our bluff. The volume appeared in 1989 — to the customary small-press blaze of no publicity and no reviews. But it mattered.

Anyway, in 1986, all I knew about Blumlein was that he’d written this horrific but tasty story. Maybe that’s why I was so quick to draw wild conclusions from his shaved head.

Michael worked as a physician in the student health service branch of the University of California in San Francisco. He told us that the main health issues with young people were skin, sex, stress, and sports. Beyond these parameters, he knew all sorts of weird, diseased things about the human body. And of course that found its way into his novels, such as The Movement of Mountains and his deeply gnarly The Healer.

In conversation, Michael presented himself as mild-mannered and soulful, and he was prone to using a counselor’s conversational style of asking endless questions. After a few months, I started seeing this mode as evasive, sly, and even condescending, so I bugged him about it. He knew of course what he was doing, and he laughed at my rudeness. Generally speaking, I amused him. And he was always generous with praise.

In time he began opening up more, and we grew closer. I learned that under the mild and pleasant surface, Michael seethed with the same contempt and bitterness that I myself have always felt towards the powers that be, and that made him that much more of a friend. Talking with Michael was like being high: a golden aura in the air, a sense of jellied space and time, the knowledge that I could be completely open with my friend, the certainty that no matter how many conversational levels I jumped, he’d always stay with me.

At least once a year, I’d go up to SF to spend an afternoon with Michael. And sometimes we’d get together with Terry Bisson, Carter Scholz, and Kim Stanley Robinson for a writers’ afternoon. Michael and I talked a lot about writing, or not writing, or what to write, or how we could sell our work, or why published works didn’t garner the vast acclaim they deserved. Always there was an illusory feeling that there must be some trick, some secret, some move that would make it all happen. And then, oh well, we’d flip back to the now moment, the two of us the same as usual, in golden jellied space and time, laughing at each other and fondly sharing our bitterness towards the uncaring world.

The years went by. Michael’s wife Hilary Gordon was our good friend, too, and the four of us occasionally had dinners or went to parties together. Michael and I kept writing, always pushing it further — and working our day jobs to pay the bills. I’d see him at cons, when we went, and we always met at Borderlands Books or at the SF in SF soirées when one of us would do a presentation.

Michael would draw a big crowd for his presentations. He had a lot of friends around San Francisco, having grown up here. He had an odd quirk of not always reading from the book he was pitching. Maybe he was shy about his prose, afraid people wouldn’t like it — even though his work was great. When he presented at Borderlands on his story collection What the Doctor Ordered, he delivered an academic Power Point lecture on genetics. I couldn’t believe it. But the audience enjoyed themselves, so what the hey. Another time at Borderlands, I’d hung a show of my paintings to go with my book reading. That day Michael and Hilary bought one of my favorite works, Four-Dimensional Ducks. Carl Barks beaks with swirly Ab-Ex bodies.

Whenever someone in our family would get a really serious health problem, I’d phone Michael and ask for advice. He was always calm, kind, sensible, humorous, patient, even though — as Hilary eventually told me — sooner or later all of Michael’s friends eventually phoned him for medical advice. I think we all wanted to have a full-time doctor like him. Who wouldn’t?

When Hilary turned 60 in 2012, Michael and their daughter Risa organized a really wonderful surprise party for Hilary at Bissap Baobab, a raffish, cheerful African restaurant on Mission Street. We had a whole room to ourselves, with a buffet, and music and dancing. Michael was wearing a trim, disco-dandy-type outfit, with tight pants and a fitted shirt — he’d had it since the seventies, and it still fit. He was the very picture of joy and health.

A month later the bomb hit. He had lung cancer. Out of nowhere. The surgeons removed an entire lung. It wasn’t enough. They went back and cut out a chunk of the remaining lung. Michael was in a hell-world for weeks. And they weren’t done with him yet. Chemo, radiation, gene therapy — an unrelenting barrage of hammer blows.

Even so, within a few months Michael was back on the street. And for a while he got better, before he got worse. I continued going up to SF to visit with him. He had this novel he was trying to finish; it started out with a guy who tries to have his dead father cremated, but the old man’s bones won’t burn. We’d talk about the book and I’d make suggestions, and he’d politely act interested in what I said, but then I think he’d ignore it, and that was fine. It was fun just to talk about the mechanics of our works in progress, in a workshop kind of way.

Once we were walking around Michael’s neighborhood, and we passed a clock store. I took Michael’s photo in in front of this Big-Ben-type window display — and he held out his arms like clock hands.

“How much time is left?” I asked him.

“What time is it now?” was his response.

I wanted him to tell me about the nightmares and horrible hallucinations he must have had in the hospital. He started to tell me what he’d seen in the underworld, but then he broke off. “Nah. I don’t want to.” He was back in the light. That was what mattered.

Michael lived for seven years after his cancer’s onset. There’s a tendency to say that people with terminal diseases are courageous. To my ears that’s not exactly the right word. What Michael did was less dramatic-sounding, but just as hard and just as real. He kept going. He wasn’t raging against the dying of the light — at least not the times I saw him. He acted normal. Not thespian, not self-aggrandizing.

On the way out, Michael and Hilary took a lot of trips, and they often weekended at a house they had near the Russian River. They were close with their son and daughter and their new grandchildren. Michael joked and carped, always right there. He was dying, but he thrived. Is that courageous? It was Michael.

He wrote a brilliant essay about dying, initially called “Unrestrained and Indiscreet.” I saw him read this at an SF in SF evening. I posted my recording of his talk on Rudy Rucker Podcasts, and I shot a nice photo of him that later appeared on the cover of his PM Press chapbook, Thoreau’s Microscope, which includes the final form of his essay. He continued working on that novel involving the man whose bones won’t burn. Hilary says it’s with his agent now, and maybe it’ll come out. I hope so.

Michael also wrote a final novella about mortality — Longer. In a spooky touch of synchronicity, the character in his novella dies of a heart attack just before going unprotected into the vacuum of space. And Michael himself died of a heart attack — shortly before the cancer could finish him off.

Farewell, mad genius, kind friend, fellow traveler. I won’t see your like again.

But, wait: last week I did see him. I dreamed about going into a café and there was Michael at a table, his face very clear and distinct. I sat down next to him.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

He shrugged. “I’m still around.”