Farewell, Yoji Kondo

Yoji presenting the Heinlein Medal at Balticon 47, with Michael Flynn.

Yoji Kondo, scientist, science fiction author, mentor and friend to me for the past 36 years, has died. Like my father, who died in May, Yoji’s last years were spent amidst diminishing brain function as dementia claimed one of the greatest intellects I’ve ever known.

Yoji introduced me (indirectly) to the works of Robert Heinlein. I say indirectly because, in the beginning, I was just a punk kid who wanted to date his daughter Beatrice, and he was a respected scientist, an Aikido master, if I’m not mistaken the one of the two or three highest ranked practitioners of Aikido in the United States, and a friend to people like Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, the grandmasters of a field I desperately wanted to pursue. I didn’t speak much in his presence. I was intimidated.

But Beatrice wanted me to read Heinlein’s works, which I never had. She supplied me with venerable paperback editions from Yoji’s personal collection. The first Heinleins I read—The Star Beast, and Podkayne of Mars—were his. He had no idea, either, that the punk kid had been handed books from his library. I was warned not to crease the covers.

As I amassed my own Heinlein collection, became a huge fan, and spent more time in the Kondo household, Yoji discovered that I wanted to write science fiction, and that I shared his love for the genre. He was beginning his own fiction-writing career, under the name Eric Kotani. We began to talk more and more. He invited me to meet Heinlein in 1984, at a private reception the Grandmaster was hosting in Annapolis. Alas, I had another engagement. “I’ll see him next time he comes to town.”

Heinlein never came to town again. He died three years later.

Shortly after that, Renee and I were visiting Yoji, his wife Ursula and Beatrice one evening. I think we had gotten together to watch a movie. Yoji produced a bottle of J & B Scotch Whisky. “Robert Heinlein and I bought this the last time he was in D.C., testifying to Congress,” he explained. “We couldn’t find a bar we liked, so we bought this and had a drink in his hotel room. He gave me the bottle.”

In what I could only interpret as a variation on the water-sharing ceremony from Stranger in a Strange Land, Yoji poured me a shot from the bottle. He explained that he only offered it to people that he thought Robert would have offered it to. “Robert Heinlein just brought you a drink.”

For once, I didn’t know what to say.

In 1993, I started to run my own science fiction convention, Farpoint. Yoji was one of the first guests I booked to speak. Another guest was then-Star Trek editor at Pocket Books, John Ordover. I had been trying to sell John a novel for a while. I never managed to, but he and I got along well. When he saw Yoji’s name on the list, he asked, “Do you think he would write a Star Trek novel?” So I arranged for John and Yoji to have a drink in the bar. Death of a Neutron Star, Yoji’s Star Trek: Voyager novel, was born that day. I don’t think Yoji enjoyed writing Star Trek. With all of its need to follow the rules of a non-existent world, it can be frustrating.

Perhaps in return for that introduction, Yoji took me to a Writers of the Future dinner, where I met Jack Williamson and Kelly Freas. I didn’t sell a book, but I did share whisky with Kelly from his flask (sensing a theme here?), and had the honor of being scolded by Jack Williamson because I hadn’t been writing for a while. Because of that encounter with Jack, The Arbiter Chronicles was born, and Yoji was gracious as ever in acting as my scientific advisor during its development.

When Yoji was assembling the Heinlein tribute book Requiem, I was still a librarian. He called me often for research assistance. I didn’t wind up credited, but I did earn a contributor’s copy.

Yoji was a fixture in Baltimore SF fandom, and a fascinating speaker at conventions. But beyond local fandom, he was known to millions of readers, having been immortalized by Robert Heinlein as the character Tiger Kondo, in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. Tiger Kondo owned a private club called The Spaceman’s Widow, and was said to teach “all sorts of kill-quick in his spare time.”

Mr. Kondo was small, apparently of Japanese ancestry, very polite, and had muscles as sleek as a jaguar-he moved like one. Even without Dr. Schultz’s tip I would have known that I did not want to encounter Tiger Kondo in a dark alley unless he was there to protect me.

We never find out what happened to Tiger Kondo after he helped the book’s heroes escape. I prefer to think he just vanished one day, last seen explaining the finer points of zero G hand-to-hand combat to a group of blokes in black hats who had accosted a young woman with nefarious intent. Reports from witnesses would be conflicting, with some insisting that Kondo was variously stabbed, shot, or pushed out an airlock, and others testifying for the record that a flier of unrecognized design, crewed by “an army of redheads,” had “appeared out of nowhere” and carried Kondo away.

Lazarus Long, after all, always comes back for his friends and allies. I like to think that’s what happened for Yoji, too, that he was just carried away by friends from another universe, gone to fight evil with the Time Corps.

When my time comes, my friend, I hope to meet you on Tellus Tertius. Perhaps you can persuade Tamara to swing me an invitation to stay at the house in Boondock, in time for the next convention of the Interuniversal Society For Eschatological Pantheistic Multiple-Ego Solipsism. Be sure to have Dora call us ten minutes before our panel begins. You pick the topic this time, okay?

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