Van Aaron Hughes
Van Aaron Hughes was a friend of mine. He died Aug 29, 2023, after a fairly long battle with pancreatic cancer. He went by Aaron, mostly.
I’m angry that he’s dead. I’m angry that one of the best people I know never got to see his 60th birthday when he still had so much to do and to give and to experience, while so many crappy people go around ruining things and crapping up other people’s lives for much longer. I’m angry that he and his wife Liz had just found each other, and were barely able to rejoice in sanctuary of their glorious love for a few measly years before it was cut short. Someone as awesome as Aaron, and as Liz, deserved much more than that. It is monstrously unjust and there’s nothing I can burn down to make it right and that’s enraging too.
I met Aaron in the Denver SF book club (yes, the one from all my reviews). He was one of the founding members, way back in 1994, and helped to keep it going for many of those years. His commentary was always super insightful and thought-provoking. He brought with him a knowledge of the deep history of SF. For many of the books we read, he could explain the context of the SF publishing world at the time it was published. Who was responding to what trends, what pressures forced an author to add or remove what elements, etc. He had a large collection of first-edition first-print-run printings of great works of SF. He raided used book stores whenever he traveled to search them for more.
Aaron was incredibly smart, which was almost the best thing about him. He was a lawyer, and argued before the Supreme Court of the United States twice. I did not find this out until I’d known him for many years, because he’s not the type of person who brags about things. He’s just a guy, like anyone else, and if it’s relevant he’d mention it, but how often does such a thing actually come up in conversation?
He was a delight to talk to on any subject, because he was always genuinely curious about what other people thought, and would incorporate their views and offer his own. He was the ideal of rationalism that I aspire to, and that I think all rationalists should aspire to. Interested, absorbing, modifying when appropriate, but with high standards that he didn’t hide. He wasn’t a rationalist, he was a generation too old and the movement missed him, but he would have been glorious as a rat. I wish he had joined us, I wish I would have pressed him on it, because all of us in the Denver Rat community would have benefited greatly from his presence. He didn’t need us, he was already there in mental layout and epistemological attitude, but we would have been that much richer if we had him as an elder to use as a behavior-model.
And maybe we would have rubbed off a bit on him. Maybe he would have signed up for cryo. Maybe he would be preserved in a tank right now, with all of us hoping fervently we can find a way to engineer him back into animated existence in the next few centuries before some catastrophe takes him away from us for good. Instead of being reduced to decaying remnants of flesh.
Aaron was incredibly kind, which is the actual best thing about him. He was calm, reasoned, and treated everyone as a full human deserving of empathy and respect. He would disapprove of me burning things down because I’m angry he died. He would stand up for those who were being mistreated in his presence. He was supremely able to disagree with people without attacking them. Disagreements were natural and unthreatening to him, a thing that marks us as human rather than a thing that makes us enemies. He really did want to understand why you thought and felt differently, even if he acknowledged you were wrong (and, likewise, thought that he was wrong). It didn’t make you any less his friend. If you weren’t his friend, it didn’t make you any less worthy of the same courtesy and respect we show to everyone else.
Did I mention he’d make a great rationalist?
Aaron is the reason I write as much as I do. I learned in our book club that he was a legit published SF author. He had stories in Fantasy & Science Fiction (one of the big three physical SF magazines), and while I was in book club won a Writers Of The Future award (his winning story is in Volume 27 of WotF, the 2011 collection). He encouraged me to write. He encouraged me to join the writers workshop he attended, the one run by Ed Bryant, and helped to critique many of my stories. He pushed me to submit my stories to magazines, he was the one that convinced me it was a big deal to get published in the physical paper ones, and he encouraged me to submit to WotF as well, which I also won later on (Volume 34). I am a far better writer that I would’ve been otherwise.
His short story, The Body Pirate, was published in F&SF in 2015 (July/Aug issue). It delves deeply into structure play, with the narrative splitting into two side-by-side columns when the protagonist(s) split into two, and reforming when it/they merge. It did this to explore identity. Of course I loved it. It got great reviews. He was planning on making it into a novel, he had already told me how it was going to end, and it was going to be absolutely glorious. He never got the chance. We’ll never read what he had in his mind. And I’m incredibly angry about that too.
And Aaron saved me from bigotry. Aaron was a Republican. I’d never been close friends with a Republican before I met him. My circles were deep Blue, and we all knew that Republicans are ignorant, spiteful, homophobic assholes. One or two might seem OK, but underneath the exterior, they just hate a lot, and the enjoy lording their wealth and power over others and basking in their privileges. When I learned Aaron was a Republican (again, after a year+ of knowing him) I didn’t believe it at first. He was a genuine good person! Better than most people I knew, in fact. Quite a lot kinder, more considering, and more compassionate that most of my liberal friends. And so freakin’ smart to boot!
It didn’t take very long for me to realize I had been the one that was wrong all along, and that actually I’d been a hell of a bigot. I came to see how a reasonable, kind person would choose to vote Red. And specifically, NOT because they were deluded or weak or had a secret flaw. A pretty minor shift on the amount of trust one has in a few groups, the lessons one takes from recent history, the trade-offs one is forced to make, and the weights of a few values, bring the same picture of the world into a slightly different focus where choosing an R over a D is the rational and highest net-utility move for everyone in many cases. He was a better person than I am, and he was a Republican for good reasons because of that. Even if I disagreed with him on expected utility a bit, I could see how he saw things.
Meanwhile, he’d never judged me for being a Democrat, or an Atheist, or whatever.
I still disagree with him on most of the points we disagreed on. But I don’t think a person should or can be judged by a political affiliation anymore. And I would go so far as to say that if you don’t have any Republican friends (like actual, true friends) you are likely a bigot too. Same if you don’t have any Democrat friends.
I’m sad that Aaron was one of the few people that I could talk with about these sorts of things and be completely sure it wouldn’t affect how he treated me or what he thought of me. I’m sad that is gone from the world. I’m poorer without him in my life. The whole world is poorer and uglier without him around. The world will continue to grow, of course, with the input that was Aaron eventually swallowed up entirely. There will always be that knot in the grain where he ended, where the rest of reality had to contort itself around that loss. I hope that knot stays hard and tight in the fabric of reality for all time. When the excavators of reality in the far future are taking core samples and slicing up this part of our history, I hope they break a few blades at that spot and shake their heads and say “Damn, that must’ve been a hell of a human there. That must’ve been an amazing, truly loved guy.”