Living Without Fear: A Memorial for Patricia A. McKillip

This is a hard blogpost for me to write, for Patricia McKillip was my favorite author.

When you watch the constellations up in the night sky, do they watch you in turn? In the dark corners of an ancient city where a jeweled slipper can get you killed, what can you buy with a bit of chalk? What is the riddle which spelled the end of the Earth Masters, and the wizards too?

It is hard to express in words the beauty of McKillip’s prose; her prose is as ephemeral as catching a dream in spider’s silk. Better to urge a person to read her work firsthand and gain knowledge of it that way. All of her books have a vibrant bit of soul in them. McKillip was one of the most lauded modern fantasy authors, with 23 major Sci Fi/Fantasy award nominations and seven wins. She was inarguably one of the greats.

But accolades mean very little to the reaper.

I’ll tell you the real story of what McKillip means to me.

In the story ‘The Forgotten Beasts of Eld,’ the wizard Sybel summoned the terrible demon Rommalb. She made a pact with that monster- it agreed to serve her, but on the condition that she never know fear. This was not the simple fear of horror movies and jump scares, but the fear which drives men to murder and enslave people. Sybel accepted this bargain for she, in her ice-hearted freedom and solitude, had never had cause to know fear.

The demon’s gamble paid off. Sybel lost that pact when the outside world intruded into her scholarly seclusion and tried to enslave her. In her rage at nearly being enslaved, she fought back using cunning magics and evil strategy. She allowed fear of being enslaved again into her heart. She very nearly lost her life when the demon came to collect.

Over the years, I’ve identified with Sybel more and more. I, like Sybel, have always kept other people at arm’s length. Like Sybel, I enjoy pursuing scholarly endeavors. We both have our special interests (me, reading books; Sybel, collecting Forgotten Beasts). Some people might think me aloof. But, in truth, I keep people at arm’s length out of self-defense. Growing up, I was bullied for being different.

Growing up, I saw in Sybel a loner hero who was victimized by bullies and turned to bitterness as a result. Is it any surprise I connected to her?

In recent years I’ve begun to suspect that I might in some way be neurodivergent, which would explain why I’m so bad in social situations. If that’s true, it would mean I’m different for biological reasons. In Sybel, I see a metaphor for what a lot of us different weirdos go through: forced into isolation out of a desire to survive, only to have the outside world intrude in our solitude, insisting upon controlling our every thought and deed. The outside world forces us out into the public, where we’ll break invisible social taboos purely on accident. And after we screw up, we’re socially ostracized. Worst of all, you feel bitterness toward the people who tormented you… and bitterness for yourself.

We only ever wanted to be left alone. Why wouldn’t they leave us alone?

But Sybel’s story doesn’t end with her corruption and fall from grace. On the very precipice of her own death, she realizes her error and repents her sins. Redeemed by love, she recovers her freedom. Sybel found the Liralen- the angelic opposite of the Rommalb- only after she frees those bound by her cruelty. She regained her freedom by coming to terms with her own inner demons, turning the other cheek on her enemy, and becoming an ally in helping other people finding their freedoms.

When you’re a little neuroatypical boy or girl, it’s hard to accept that you will never completely be at ease. You will never be comfortable in social situations. There is no cure for what ails us, no training which will change the fundamental fact that we’re different. Sometimes bullies cause our failures, but in my personal experience most of my mistakes are my own fault. Part of becoming an adult is owning up to your failures and trying to do better.

We weirdos are driven to keep the world at arm’s length for self-defense. But sometimes to survive you must reach out and take the hand of people who want to help us, and offer them help in return. We must accept and give help, even if human contact is painful. We only have each other.

My apologies for spilling my blood and soul upon this page for you to read. I doubt any of you started reading this for a piece of my trauma.

I could keep going. I could talk about Brendan Vetch, or Morgan & Raederle, or Nyx, or Jonah Cle, or Nepenthe & Axis. Outsiders and loners all. They are well-meaning and good-hearted folks, but cut off from a society which distrusts, hounds and pursues them for immutable traits which make them different.

Patricia, may this prayer find you.

Your books mattered.

You put life in perspective. You distracted me for many lonely years. You gave me something to think about. You filled my heart with wonder. You helped this different kid understand what it means to be human.

Earnestly, thank you.

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