Monday, April 28, 2008

Phil

Phil worked at Systems Applications Inc. in the late 1970s, as did I, although he worked in the telecommunications policy analysis group, while I was a smog modeler. I'm not sure how long he'd worked there before we got to know each other, but I'm pretty sure that the first thing he said to me was "Were you at Westercon last weekend?"

So Phil was a science fiction fan, among other things, the other things including being an economist and a libertarian, back when there was still some intellectual meat in libertarianism, which is to say before it became a front operation for the Conservative Movement. Phil was a fan of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! trilogy, for example, and did a bit of work on "cap and trade" air quality management policy analysis for SAI before he left. In those days, cap and trade was a new idea, and new ideas fascinated Phil.

We were simpatico, he and I. We had one long conversation once on a drive down to Los Angeles, five or six hours of non-stop ideas, back-and-forth on philosophy, economics, space exploration, computers, science fiction and fantasy, all the seriously geeky stuff that we sort know each other by. There were the usual "agree to disagree" areas, and we were also fine with that.

At one SAI party, there was a game of charades where I drew "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Phil was on my team and the clues went, five words, first word short, second word sounds like [make circular movement with hands] round, ground, hound, on the nose, fifth word sounds like [makes dribbling motion] Basketball!—blank Hound blank blank Basketball, The Hound of the Baskervilles! On the nose, and we were done, total elapsed time less than fifteen seconds and the other players were just blinking. What had just happened? Some form of telepathy no doubt.

Phil left SAI to go to work on a "dream project," one of those companies trying to build a private space launch vehicle. He also got involved with Eric Drexler's Foresight Institute, and Drexler stayed with Phil and his wife Gail when he first moved to California. Gail was more serious than Phil; when one of my first stories, "Shaggy Purple" came out, one about the discovery of an astronomical object so implausible (a purple star, inspired by a piece of astronomical art I'd once seen at a convention) that one of the characters decided it must have been artificially constructed. Later in the story, some alien artifacts are discovered orbiting the star, cinching the theory, but the character does not tell anyone except the narrator that he's pretty sure that whoever made the star did so as a joke, to upset alien astronomers perhaps. But with only the star and a few enigmatic artifacts as evidence, the story soon fades from public attention.

Gail was of the opinion that the discovery of the existence of an alien race would have had a bigger impact. Phil understood why the story was named "Shaggy Purple."

I lost track of Phil when I got sick in the mid-80s. In the early 90s, when I was beginning to reconnect with various folks, I checked the phone book, found Phil's name, and called the number. I only got an answering machine the first time, and it was Gail's voice, and the message made no mention of Phil.

I was hoping that they'd gotten divorced. Not because I wanted them to split up, of course.

When I finally got through to Gail, she told me that Phil had died the year before, at 41, of stomach cancer, only a couple of years after his father had died of the same thing. She speculated that whatever had activated the cancer had done so for both of them at some time in the past and the induction time had just been a little different.

That's another one of those examples of intellectualization that I sometimes point out.

We spoke for over an hour, maybe more than two. It turned out that a college buddy of mine had worked for the Foresight Institute for a time, so there was some gossip about that. Periodically we circled around to Phil and his quick and untimely death. He'd only lived a couple of months after the diagnosis. One of his comments at the time was to envy the 18 months to two years that AIDS took to kill its victims. Two years looks awfully good to someone with only a month to live.

I want for Phil to not have died. I want for him to have made a lot of money, one way or another, and to have gotten into space, either in a sub-orbital flight in a craft from a company he was a part of, or as one of those space tourists who get to go to the Space Station by paying the Russians. I want for nanotechnology to have created a cure for Phil's cancer, even though I don't believe that Drexler has a clue and that his view of nanotechnology is snake oil squared. I want a time machine to be able to go back and stop whatever it was that triggered Phil's and his father's cancer so that both of them would still be alive.

I want world peace and I want to dance the Charleston with Louise Brooks. I want to hear a duet between Joni Mitchell and Tim Buckley. I want to teleport to Barsoom. I want all sorts of things that I can't have, that I could never have, even if I were fortune's most favored son.

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