Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

A TRIBUTE TO SEAN TIMARCO BAGGALEY



It's been two years since my friend Sean Timarco Baggaley died at an unfairly early age in his 40s. His name might not ring a bell with you, although you'll see his name in the acknowledgements in my books: he was never one to promote himself. But he was a writer, an essayist, a game developer, a linguist, a software and web designer, and a musician.

He didn't just do many things. He excelled at all of them. You might recall my mentions in blogs and posts about "my techno-marvel buddy," "writer friend," and a dozen other descriptions without realising this was all the same guy. Sean was a true polymath – a genuine Renaissance man.

He was also one of the kindest, most fair-minded, and most generous people I've known. Kindness sounds such a small word, but it's a quality in short supply today, and Sean had it in spades. In all the years I knew him, I don't think I ever heard him slag anyone off or express a selfish thought. He was, quite simply, a nice guy.

It's taken me a long time to work out what I needed to say about him, and I understand why some cultures wait for the anniversary to commemorate those they've lost. You need that time to reach the point where the loss isn't about your grief but about the life and continuing influence of the person who's gone. Obituaries are usually a list of posts held and honours awarded that can be assembled in minutes without knowing or understanding the life that was lived, but they don't give many clues about the real measure of a person, which is the impact they've had on the lives of others. That doesn't have to be the result of a peace treaty or major scientific discovery. It's about leaving the world a better one than you found it by the way you treat others. And Sean did just that.

Looking back, I realise how little detail I knew about him. I knew that his mum was Italian, a language teacher, and his dad was from Northumberland. ("No, Karen, that's not Geordie," Sean would say. "Think of Vera. Northumberland.") I knew that he went to school in South London – we used to swap competitive horror stories about whose junior school was the roughest – and that he had a big "United Nations" family, as he called it. But even now, I don't know the names of the games he worked on, or what he'd wanted to be when he was a kid. Some topics we'd talk into the ground: others we simply didn't get around to, even in nearly twenty years.

It was only when I corresponded with his brother Anthony that I found out Sean had an even more interesting gaming pedigree than I'd thought. (Sean, being Sean, never bragged about his CV.) He started his games career with 2D Game Maker for the ZX Spectrum, then went on to write football games for D & H Games, designed a war-game simulator years before they took off everywhere else, and worked on one of the last titles that Atari UK produced, Rock and Roll Clams, now regarded as one of its definitive games. Sean, who really could turn his hand to anything, then went off to rejig the code for a Russian game and also translate it. Knowing that now, I wish we'd talked more about the detail of his time as a developer, but Sean was interested in the here and now, and if the past could be learned from then that was great, and he never seemed to look back.

I first met Sean at a writers' workshop in Torquay in 1998. He was very quiet, not at all arty or extrovert, but he turned out to be a genuinely funny guy with a deadpan sense of humour and an enviably easy writing style. (I found out some years later that he loved The Goon Show, the ancestor of Monty Python and other low-key, surreal comedy.) When we all gathered in the hotel bar in the evenings, he didn't tell jokes or laugh much. But the short stories he brought to the workshop – or at least the ones that I recall now – were comedy, not an easy thing to pull off in science fiction.

Sadly, this was in the days before it became routine to circulate workshop manuscripts for critique by e-mail, so despite a thorough search of my archived discs, I haven't been able to find any of that early material. I recall one story that I found particularly funny about the Financial Times' mainframe developing a crush on a library database, but apart from that fragment, the rest of the detail has been blurred by twenty years.

After the workshop, Sean and I stayed in touch. We were never in the same part of the world – eventually he moved to Italy, where his parents had settled – so it was friendship by e-mail, punctuated by long hiatuses that vanished instantly as if no time at all had passed between conversations. We'd catch up with work gossip, put the world to rights, and discuss everything from Spike Milligan to why the Mafia was actually pretty effective at getting things built. I'd normally end up nagging him about writing more and getting stuff published, because he had the talent and a unique imagination that I knew readers would love. But he never wrote a novel, or at least if he did, then he never told me or anyone else. Perhaps his heart wasn't in it. It's easy to assume that because someone can do something well, then they ought to do it, and you project your wishes onto them. But like many multi-talented people, Sean could do one thing as easily and brilliantly as the next, and he seemed to enjoy doing them all.

I suppose I thought of him as an IT guy who'd turned to writing. But as Sean often reminded me, he didn't have a programming background despite the jobs he'd done. While I understood what he meant, it was hard not to think of him as a technical expert when he taught me pretty much everything I now know about networks, encryption, vector graphics, and formatting e-books. In fact, every day I find myself using something that he taught me.

This was another talent he could easily have made into an outstanding career – he was a natural teacher. He was endlessly patient, encouraging, and could break down even the most complex subject into digestible concepts. If I was being particularly dense, he'd make little instructional animations with screenshots to walk me through a process. He understood how I needed to learn by breaking down the underlying concept first. He knew his stuff so thoroughly that he could deconstruct anything back to fundamentals.

By the time he'd moved to Italy, he was working as a freelance translator – he spoke several languages and seemed able to learn new ones in weeks – and regaled me with stories about needing to stock up with bottled water because there was arsenic in the local water supply (true) and how the local watermelons were so big that plans needed to be drawn up with other family members about dividing them into portions small enough to fit in the fridge. (Also true.) His translation work seemed equally fascinating: one day he'd be doing leaflets for cruise liners, and the next it would be a web page for a cosmetic surgeon who specialised in boob jobs. It was long hours and last-minute deadline work, and I know he often worked all night. Perhaps that stress and erratic working pattern affected his health, but he never lost his temper, pitied himself, or even had a truly bad word to say about even the most infuriating client. He could curse software eloquently, but it was always done with humour.

He also did translation work for comics publishers, and in a way, some of my Fall of G.I. Joe series also bears his hallmark. Part of the story was set in Italy, so I asked for his advice on how to make place names sound authentically Italian and what Italian political protesters would really write on their placards. There was very little that Sean didn't have some knowledge about, but if he didn't have it, then he delighted in finding out. He was one of the few people I know who didn't mind if he was proven wrong, and seemed only to be pleased that he now had an opportunity to discover something. He just wanted to know the facts.

Another of Sean's talents was combining opposites. He could see both the big picture and the small detail, and he had an artist's eye as well as a rational, mathematical one. I always sought his approval on design and layout issues. When he read the manuscript of one of my novels, I waited nervously for feedback, because if there was anything amiss – concept, continuity glitches, a missing comma, a layout that wasn't quite right – he'd spot it. When a designer let me down a week before publication and I had to start over, Sean stepped in, sorted out the tricky technical stuff, and also taught me how to do it myself in case it happened again. The book wouldn't have made the launch date without him. He didn't think he'd done anything remarkable, but it more than saved my neck. He'd equipped me with the necessary knowledge to ensure I was never stuck like that again. Did I give as much back to him as he gave to me? I have no idea. But I can't imagine that I did.

One of the items I came across while searching my hard drives was the lengthy e-mail exchange that we'd had about a cover, and it's something I'll always treasure. He thought the back cover should have had blurbs rather than a synopsis, so he mocked up a version with invented quotes from critics just to demonstrate a different layout. The quotes were hilarious: some weren't suitable for work, as they say, but they made me laugh my head off. I hadn't finished writing the book when he passed away, so he never got the chance to read it. But it's dedicated to him.

In many ways, Sean was the epitome of the minority report. One of his friends described him as a "contrarian," but it was never the argumentative variety of the trait. Sean's thinking was more the what-if kind, devil's advocacy to test what was real in the world, and I never knew him go along with the crowd. He questioned everything, a quality that the journalist in me admired. One of the last long-running discussions we had in the early summer of 2016 was about the impending EU referendum. I looked to Sean as being better informed on the topic than most because he had a foot in both camps, being British and Italian, and he wasn't party-political in any way. Then I found that he'd actually blogged about the topic, a series of short essays on the relationship between Britain and the EU and our history with Europe generally. I'd thought of Sean as a fiction writer and an explainer of complex things, but never as a political commentator, and – inevitably – he was very good at it.

But his name wasn't anywhere on the blog. When I mailed him to tell him it was a good read but that he hadn't actually identified himself, it turned out that it wasn't a deliberate attempt at anonymity during a contentious vote: he just hadn't thought about it. And that was Sean all over. He never pushed himself forward, and things were never about him. He was the antithesis of the Me Generation. What if someone from the media read it and wanted to commission him to write stuff, I asked? People got talent-spotted that way, so he needed to promote himself a bit more, or at least meet me halfway and put a name and contact e-mail on the blog. Sean just shrugged (he really could shrug by e-mail) and said okay. But he really wasn't bothered about recognition. I think he just wanted to explore a situation by writing about it and dismiss some factual inaccuracies, because errors bothered him. It didn't seem to cross his mind that he had yet another talent that people might want to pay him for. The essays are still all online here, and still worth reading in the aftermath of the referendum: http://thehalfbaker.wordpress.com

The very last conversation I had with him was, untypically, via Twitter. It was one of our off-the-wall debates, this time about the physics of making tea using a Japanese poured coffee filter. (Our conversations were always wide-ranging , to say the least.) I couldn't work out why tea made with a pourer had a stronger, more distinctive taste than brewing it in a teapot. Logic told me that a few seconds of contact with boiling water would extract less of whatever gave teas their flavours than immersing the leaves for minutes. Sean came up with theories about why that might not have been the critical factor and we batted them around without reaching a conclusion. Then the conversation trailed off and went quiet.

That wasn't unusual when he was in the middle of a translation job. I thought nothing of the radio silence until his family contacted me to say that he'd collapsed suddenly at home in Italy and died shortly after reaching hospital. Nobody, Sean included, had realised that he was ill. He was buried at the family plot just outside Rome. Even writing those words now seems unreal, an impossible thing to have happened to a relatively young man who had so much still to do.

Two years on, there's rarely a day that goes by when I don't see something interesting or funny that makes me wish Sean was still around so that I could tell him about it and get his inimitable reaction. I miss him: I miss his genius, and his humour, and his wisdom, and his friendship. I regret that he never wrote the novels that I knew he had in him, and that a wider audience never got to know him. But his legacy remains. I can read his messages, laugh again at the funny stuff, rely on the things that he taught me, and remind myself that he never wasted time on hating or envying anybody. That's his daily gift to me. It was a privilege to know him, and I'm proud to have called him a friend.