The first thing you notice, of course, is the accentespecially if you're American. It's one of life's small unfairnesses that anything said in a British accent sounds more profound than the same thing said in, say, a Midwestern twang. Then, you notice the courtesy. He listens to people. And he responds graciously, even if the speaker has been haranguing him for seventeen minutes straight about a new method of absolutely efficient, absolutely free energy transfer. Third, you become aware of the poetry.
The poetry? Not the math, the physics? Not the hard SF?
The science and the science fiction are both there, of course. Charles Sheffield has been publishing stories since 1977, and scientific papers since 1962. He holds degrees in mathematics and theoretical physics from Cambridge University. He has served as president of the American Astronautical Society and president of the Science Fiction Writers of America.
His novels range over the entire galaxy, both spatially and temporally. He has given us a skyhook elevator (The Web Between the Worlds), shape-changing machinery (the Proteus books), intricate aliens (The Nimrod Hunt), a man determined to outrun time itself (Tomorrow and Tomorrow). Currently, he is writing, with Jerry Pournelle, a series of books for young adults: novels with teenage protagonists, the same quality of adventure that hooked an earlier generation on Heinlein's juveniles, and science more updated than Heinlein could have imagined.
But his first love is nonetheless poetry.
Not writing itquoting it. He quotes it to illustrate very unpoetical scientific points. He quotes it to underline observations on human behavior. He quotes it as chapter heads in his novels. He quotes it competitively, in spontaneous "poem-off's."
Judith Moffett said that Charles Sheffield was the only person who has ever beaten her at this intimidating pastime. He remembers enormous volumes of pre-twentieth-century British poetry. He remembers it accurately. And on those occasions when a line escapes him, he goes into a sort of strange trance while he reassembles, one by one, the scattered words, until he has the quote whole again. While this trance goes on (anywhere from two to twenty minutes) it's no good trying to have a conversation with Charles. He's not really there. He's off somewhere where iambs and dactyls have the weighty pull of black holes.
Special favorites are William Shakespeare and Rudyard Kipling. Anyone who enjoys Kipling is instantly in Charles's good graces. ("Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne,/He travels the fastest who travels alone.") Ask Gene Wolfe. Or, go ahead and try it for yourself. Quote a favorite bit of Kipling to Charles. Or Shakespeare ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds..."). Or Dryden. Or Houseman. Or Donne.
Then, afterwards, you two can talk about science or science fiction. He can do that, too.