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L. Sprague de Camp; Prolific Sci-Fi Writer

November 13, 2000|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

L. Sprague de Camp, a prolific writer of fantasy and science fiction novels as well as short stories and biographies, has died.

De Camp died Nov. 6 in Plano, Texas, where he had lived since the late 1980s, of complications from a stroke. He was 92.

Credited with writing some 100 fantasy and science fiction novels in more than a half-century of work, his most popular work was probably "Lest Darkness Fall," a novel of time travel first published in 1941.

Born in New York City, he graduated from the California Institute of Technology in 1930 with a degree in aeronautical engineering. Three years later, he earned a master's degree in aeronautical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. He was a lieutenant commander in the Navy during World War II. In his post-college days, de Camp initially found work as an editor of technical manuals for appliances such as air conditioners. His life took a turn, however, when his first science fiction story was accepted by Astounding magazine in 1937. He readily switched his primary career, although he would sometimes fall back on his talents as a patent expert, publicity writer and educator to supplement his writing income.

"I found [writing] much more enjoyable than working," he told an interviewer some years ago. "I've found that writing helps me develop and investigate the aspects of life that have always fascinated me."

Writing in a clear, wry style that was described by one critic as "often closer to P.G. Wodehouse than J.R.R. Tolkien," de Camp won a series of awards from his peers in the science fiction and fantasy industry, including the Tolkien award for life work in fantasy in 1976, the Grand Master Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1979 and the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1984.

"The best fantasy is usually no more than light wine, the worst mere soda pop. . . ," renowned science fiction writer Robert Heinlein once said. "I would class de Camp's fiction as a very dry martini."

During the 1960s, de Camp happened upon the work of the science fiction writer Robert E. Howard, who created the Conan the Barbarian character. Howard, a suicide in 1936, at the age of 30, left a number of Conan manuscripts, which de Camp helped polish for publication. He wrote more Conan stories over the years and is generally credited with not only helping to restore Howard's reputation but also turning Conan into an industry.

Working in other fields, de Camp wrote biographies of H.P. Lovecraft; a well-regarded study of the historic Scopes trial over the teaching of evolution; and "The Evolution of Naval Weapons," a textbook published by the U.S. government. He also wrote scores of radio scripts for Voice of America, mostly on the subject of science fiction and fantasy.

De Camp's wife Catherine Cook de Camp, who edited and collaborated on much of his work, died in April.

He is survived by two sons, a brother, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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