Ansible 48 Feature
Me and H.G. Wells and the Continuum
Novacon 16 Guest of Honour Speech
You may not know this, but I'm here as a stand-in for H.G. Wells. Originally the Novacon committee wanted him to be their Guest of Honour: you can imagine what a coup it would have been. But someone pointed out that he doesn't like travelling these days, in common with a few other well-known SF writers. Isaac Asimov hates planes, Ray Bradbury has a habit of missing boats, and Robert Heinlein, so I'm told, once demanded that his fare to the UK be paid in pints of blood. Wells has none of these particular problems, but he's had a long career and his old bones are a bit stiff these days. So, reluctantly, the invitation was never made, and you're stuck with me instead.
Actually Wells and I have a lot in common as writers.
Neither of us has ever won a Hugo or Nebula (or even been nominated for one), we're not members of SFWA, we don't subscribe to Locus, and Harlan Ellison hasn't waxed eloquent about us in any of his Dangerous Visions anthologies. Like me, Wells hasn't (as far as I know) ever visited Mongolia or met L. Ron Hubbard. Certainly neither of us has read Battlefield Earth. On the more positive side, if Wells is a household name, then so am I – the household in my case being Flat 2, 191 Anerley Road, Penge.
Of course there are differences between us, I have to admit. Wells was a genius in his way, and became internationally known, his books read by millions. I, by contrast, am not a genius in any way I can think of – and believe me, I've tried – while my books are known only to a few. You wouldn't call them a select few, either, if you knew them as well as I do. I'd guess that a lot of you here have never read a word of my stuff: and fair enough. There are lots of other books jostling for your attention, and the three novels I've published under my own name since 1980 have hardly been huge successes.
The first, Capella's Golden Eyes, was greeted politely enough by reviewers, and the word "promising", while not actually being bandied about, certainly hung in the air... as it almost always does with first novels. The reception was sufficiently favourable to convince me that I'd done the right thing in giving up my job to write full-time. If only I'd known.
In those days I was a particularly slow and painstaking writer. I'd begun a new novel by the time Capella appeared, but it was taking time to write and my money was rapidly running out. With the aid of a generous sponsor, I managed to get an Arts Council grant which let me finish the book at my own luxurious pace. This was The Insider, which actually got some good reviews when it appeared in hardback in 1981. But a year or so later the paperback was pulped soon after publication, thanks to a warehouse move. (Though I've always had a sneaking suspicion that Rog Peyton bombarded the publishers with hate-mail about the book's lousy cover so that they withdrew it out of shame.) By then I was again embarked on a new novel, and again running out of money, and this time there was no grant to bail me out.
My third novel, In Limbo, took three years to write, mainly because I had to keep breaking off to do other, more commercial stuff – things like novelizations – in order to pay the bills. My idealistic vision of bursting on the scene in a blaze of glory had faded in the face of harsh economic facts. In Limbo would have been a better novel if I'd been able to write it in a shorter, more concentrated period, but even so I poured everything I had into the book, and it's me doing my best. When it appeared as a paperback original in 1985, the title proved prophetic. It promptly vanished, after a total of two reviews in the non-specialist press. (One, a short paragraph in the Dublin Sunday Independent, was little more than a plot précis. A slightly longer and more condescending piece in the Yorkshire Arts Bulletin concluded that my last few pages "contain a foreseeably eidotropic denouement". I still haven't got a clue what this means.)
So much for three years' work... or that's the way I felt. Don't get me wrong: I'm not bitter about any of this. Well, not exactly. In Limbo wasn't written as a commercial book, and the audience for it was bound to be small. But there's a certain sense of anticlimax in seeing three years' work greeted by almost total lack of response. Some writers can get by without feedback; their faith in their abilities needs no support. Not me. I need to know whether my stuff is registering in any way. (I'm even prepared to accept minor criticisms, provided they're served up with lavish dollops of praise.) Of course the books survive, for readers interested in seeking them out: but how many will be, when they don't even know of their existence?
Back in 1980, things looked rosier. I had vague plans of doing a novel every couple of years and writing short stories in between. I would concentrate on high quality work, in hope of building up a loyal readership. I didn't want fame, just a fair measure of acknowledgement for my efforts, and enough money for survival.... Instead, since finishing In Limbo in 1983 I haven't written anything I would regard as ambitious work (bar a few shorts). I simply can't afford to.
Thus I'm in a state of quiet despair about my work – the work I'm not doing. Formula novels and novelizations pay the bills but don't satisfy the soul. You could argue that if I was really devoted to High Art, I'd sacrifice everything in pursuit of it; and you could be right. But I've always worked best when I've had emotional and financial peace of mind, and I know plenty of other writers who feel the same.
Recently someone was talking about a "Missing Generation" of British SF writers: a kind of post-New Wave generation who should have emerged in the late 70s and early 80s. In a sense this actually existed, and I was a typical example – at least in that I exemplify What Went Wrong with the whole generation. (I don't in fact believe in any of this generation stuff, but let's use the label for now.) Around 1980 a few people talked about a "Faber Group", meaning Rob Holdstock, Garry Kilworth and myself – all of whom published first SF novels with Faber circa 1976-1980 – and of course Chris Priest, who was presumably our mentor, being already established at Faber with a solid reputation.
Now this idea of groups is topical in the light of the current notion of "cyberpunk", which writers like Bruce Sterling and magazines like Interzone are doing their best to promote. The Faber Group theory – a much more modest affair – wasn't unreasonable in principle. Besides the dubious distinction of being published in what was then the only prestige hardback SF line apart from Gollancz, Chris, Rob, Garry and myself were all close friends who shared similar feelings about writing. Three of us even had the same literary agents. But we reacted to the Faber Group idea with cringing horror. None of us wanted to be lumped into any sort of group, because this implies a shared identity; and each of us was very jealous of the individuality of his writing.
Happily the notion never caught on – partly thanks to Faber, who soon stopped publishing SF so that we went our separate ways: Chris to Jonathan Cape, Rob and Garry to Gollancz, and myself relegated to the sloughs of original paperbacks. Equally important was the fact that we did absolutely nothing to encourage the idea of such a group. And in the end it's always a writer's work which speaks louder than critical generalizations:
Chris Priest went on to novels like The Affirmation and The Glamour, which owe very little to genre SF. Rob Holdstock discovered his perfect imaginative vehicle in a distinctive brand of fantasy typified by Mythago Wood. Garry Kilworth has been moving steadily away from SF, his latest novel Witchwater Country being a kind of pastoral with macabre overtones. And me? If Capella was a fairly conventional SF novel, The Insider was borderline, and In Limbo not SF at all.
So there's a sense in which all four of us have "deserted" SF – if you perceive SF as something whose traditions new writers should be committed to and should cherish and enlarge through their own work.
I can't speak for the others, but my move away from SF came about partly because of technical problems encountered in writing Capella's Golden Eyes, and more importantly because SF in the early 80s seemed increasingly bland and complacent – in addition to its perennial problem that so little of it is truly adult. Every time I came up with an SF idea, it struck me as either ridiculous or impossible to do justice to in a fresh, exciting way. I felt as stale as the stuff I was reading... and envied Wells the fact that when writing his scientific romances he'd never read Amazing or Asimov's or any of the endless streams of SF pouring from British and American presses over the last thirty years. I kept trying to clear my head of all the genre clutter in the hope of finding a completely fresh approach. However, I don't have any aptitude for "new ideas" in the science-fictional sense, and not surprisingly I failed in my aim. The result was silence.
Elsewhere I've argued against thinking in categories and seeing SF as separate from the rest of literature, so these attitudes might seem strange. Why try to work in a tradition that you don't really feel exists? Well, one of the attractions of the field is that it encourages a community spirit, very alluring to the isolated writer trying to plough his lonely furrow in the field of literature. And the fiction itself presents a constant challenge to the ambitious writer precisely because so much of it is badly done.
Thus I've been veering back towards SF just lately, though I'm not promising anything radical or dynamic, and certainly nothing that's meant to represent a rallying call for the field. Perish the thought. I'm all for diversity, for individuals writing about what obsesses them. My only provisos are vague and woolly ones about being serious and dedicated and not short-changing readers... though like many hard-pressed freelancers I haven't always lived up to these aims. Being serious, by the way, doesn't mean you can't have fun, and being dedicated doesn't mean you can't be entertaining: they simply mean that the fun and entertainment will be of a higher order.
Such wishy-washy liberal attitudes are in stark contrast to so-called cyberpunk, whose writers (to judge by public pronouncements) are keen to promote themselves as a new breed, devoted to producing a new breed of SF, and doing so with a shared ideology. To my mind, this is suspect. Of course the idea of a new movement suits the spirit of the times; it's a good talking point; a good polemic always provides useful publicity; and for Interzone it's seemingly the radical cause which the magazine has been seeking ever since it started publication. Does cyberpunk actually exist, however?
The idea finds its most fluent and persuasive advocate in Bruce Sterling, who under his own name and that of Vincent Omniaveritas has produced some stimulating critiques of the genre and what needs to be done about it. He has a prospectus for modern SF, which he wishes to be carried out not only by himself but by others who are like-minded. He doesn't call it cyberpunk in public, though he has been known to mention the word in private. He talks of SF as pop culture, and of the need to create a native literature of the post-industrial society: technologically literate, global in its world-view, and (while well-written) above all about ideas.
Actually I think most of his notions are sound, though somewhat narrow. I've never been able to agree with critics who argue that only SF can deal with the modern epoch, or even that it has a monopoly on sense of wonder. This smacks of inverted snobbery – wanting to turn the ugly duckling of literature into a swan which can look down its beak at everything else. All really good writing fires the imagination, and you don't have to have SF trappings in a novel or story to show the impact of modern technology on humankind. The best novel I've read in the last six months is Martin Amis's Money, a determinedly unpleasant book which directly addresses the modern condition in the Western world – though probably not in a way that SF snobs would like. But let's not quibble. At least Sterling/Omniaveritas is stirring things up: SF has been needing a good kick in the pants for years. Yet if the cyberpunks are taking over in the USA, we seem to be lagging behind here. When Sterling recently visited Britain and attended the yearly Milford writers' conference, I gather he expressed some disappointment at the lack of exciting new British SF. Where were our cyberpunks? Nowhere to be found. Unfortunately there's really no such thing as cyberpunk in the US either, if what's meant is a concerted movement of writers working along the same radical lines. When Omniaveritas describes the new SF he wants to see, it's unsurprising to find him wanting precisely the kind of SF that Bruce Sterling writes. Writers' polemics, as Chris Priest has pointed out, are almost always autobiographical.
Three names commonly mentioned as cyberpunks are Rudy Rucker, William Gibson and Sterling himself. Rucker's been around since 1978 and has proved himself a very inventive writer though slapdash and throwaway in presentation. Gibson made a big impact with Neuromancer, it's true, and he's the writer most people think of when cyberpunk is mentioned. Sterling published his first novel in 1977, and his latest, Schismatrix, has been well received. But if you compare two novels like Neuromancer and Schismatrix you'll find they couldn't be more different. The first is an SF thriller, heavily influenced by the cinema; the second owes more to the visionary impetus and traditional narrative style of Arthur C. Clarke and even Olaf Stapledon. Where Gibson is deft and punchy, brilliant at bringing individual scenes alive, Sterling shows less stylistic flair but is far more radical in his ideas. Neuromancer is all about glittering surfaces, Schismatrix about awesome depths. (In fact Gibson's work, with its hi-tech gadgetry/jargon and its near future redolent of entropy and drug abuse, strikes me as rather like the old New Wave with brass knobs on.)
But now I'm being bitchy, and I don't mean to be, because I think both writers are talented: their reputations deserve to grow. The point is that marshalling them under one banner is misleading. I also think it significant that Gibson, the most prominent "cyberpunk", is said to be unhappy with the term, even if content to let it be used as a flag of convenience. John Shirley is another writer who's been attached to the "group", and in a recent Interzone interview we discover that "Shirley is most often associated with cyberpunk or punk SF, terms he initially despised, but has now come to accept".
This smacks to me of a bandwagon. "Hey, did you hear people have started calling us cyberpunks? I don't know what the hell it means, but it sounds good, so let's go along with it for the ride." And as a label, it's undoubtedly better than something like the Angry Young Science Fiction Men.
So again, let's not quibble. At least all these writers are passionately committed to SF; they identify themselves with it and are eager to see a new breed of it emerging. So why isn't the revolution also stirring here in Britain?
Put simply, I think it's because we have a fundamentally different attitude towards SF. It's always been more marginal here, at least in a genre sense, with writers tending to work much more as individuals and not generally feeling as if they're adding to some distinct corpus of literature with a real social position. They remain resistant to SF's community spirit, some of them writing it almost by accident and not seeing it as a special kind of literature at all. Such writers convey a strong flavour of their native country and attitudes. Richard Cowper, D.G. Compton, Keith Roberts and Chris Priest are among those who are happier closer to home. Their work is often firmly rooted in British landscapes, in internal rather than external experience, the tone meditative and restrained rather than brash and action-oriented. Almost they seem to be fastidiously declaring their uninterest in competing with the scale and swagger of American SF.
Of course there are exceptions aplenty. Some British writers make an effort to satisfy genre expectations (and the need to earn a living) by angling their material towards the American market. One could mention Bob Shaw and John Brunner here. Others, like Eric Frank Russell, became more American than the Americans themselves, while a few like Arthur C. Clarke have always been internationalists. Brian Aldiss has long practised what he preaches when arguing for less parochialism in British SF, for it to take on the grander themes and wider horizons beloved of Americans. Even that arch-individual J.G. Ballard has claimed that SF is the most important literature of our time and implies, with and without irony, that it should possess some kind of missionary zeal. Similarly, Ian Watson has argued the case for taking SF out of literature and using it as "a tool to help us think". Many of Ian's arguments, first elaborated ten years ago, foreshadow strongly what writers like Sterling are saying today.
One interesting thing about Aldiss, Ballard and Watson is that all three have spent significant periods living overseas in exotic places, Aldiss in the Far East, Ballard in China, Watson in Japan and East Africa. (Compare Sterling's years in India, and Clarke's in Sri Lanka.) Obviously the experience of culture shock can bring later commitment to SF as a vital medium with global rather than nationalistic perspectives.
Looking at SF in the large, it can be argued that the American product is as parochial or as nationalistic in subtle ways as anything produced here, but I'm concentrating on the more serious kinds of SF. Ambitious US writers have tended to range far more widely in setting and theme than their British counterparts, a reflection of differing national characters. We Brits are as a national more insular, lacking the frequent open-mindedness of Americans, their generosity, their sense of scale and scope. We're more obsessed with private concerns. If it was Wells who created the template for modern SF, then it's American writers and editors who created the genre and took its wide-eyed view of the universe to their hearts.
Why there and not here? Well, the USA is the most technologically advanced nation on Earth, with new ideas and life-styles impinging most rapidly on people there. Is it any wonder that SF, custom-built to deal with the impact of social and technological change, found its ideal home there? But there's more to it than that. A country's literature is profoundly influenced by its geography and history. Simplistically, America remains a big open place with plenty of wilderness where presumably it's still possible to feel something of the pioneer spirit. The "log cabin" syndrome still survives: a feeling that it really is possible to go out into the wilds and set up home, against all the odds. Nowadays, of course, it's easier to do this by the power of the pen or word processor rather than the six-gun. Instead of building a real log cabin, create a paper spaceship which can fly you to the other end of the universe... and there you can really show your pioneering spirit.
Here in Britain we're a bit disdainful of that sort of thing. There's no wilderness here to speak of, and certainly no pioneering spirit. If we have a particular historical syndrome dominating our present literature, it's the "End of Empire" theme. America has yet to experience this, apart from a small echo of it following the withdrawal from Viet Nam: it'll be interesting to see what happens to their SF when American political and economic power does finally begin to wane. (Though perhaps none of us will be around to see it.) It also occurs to me that the echo of Viet Nam already has begun to influence American SF: Sterling's call for a more global outlook reflects a new humility in the realization that the USA cannot really expect to dominate the planet for ever and ever.
Meanwhile, on this tight little isle, we're still churning out stuff about the British in India. SF hasn't escaped the "end of empire" syndrome, either: almost every well-known British SF writer has done a disaster novel of some description, or one whose background shows Britain invaded or slowly falling apart. Off the top of my head I can think of Wyndham – obviously – Aldiss, Ballard, Christopher, Cowper, Roberts, Priest.... Even Orwell and Amis have had a go. And yes, I've done one myself with The Insider.
Such books appeal to the masochistic side of the British character, but unless they have something else to offer, American editors tend to greet them with as much enthusiasm as if you'd dropped a long-dead kipper in their laps. I've never managed to sell The Insider in the US, though I did get it published in Germany, a country with a historical tradition more similar to our own.
"Too British" is the common American verdict on "British gloom", as if this were explanation enough. Many of us here have a love-hate relationship with the American SF market, as represented by its editors. We want to write our own stuff, but we're very conscious that without American sales we're going to struggle financially.
All these factors – historical, geographical, economic – combine to make British SF a marginal affair, and that's why I think it's unlikely that a distinct "British movement" committed to SF will ever emerge. (The original New Worlds "new wave" was actually an anti-SF movement in many ways, and even then American writers like Disch and Sladek were always heavily involved.) What tradition exists here tends to be one of UK writers doing their own thing against the odds, or making efforts to give their material a transatlantic flavour. We haven't the market potential to support a home-grown SF industry which could exist without reference to the US product... the notion doesn't even enter heads except as a vague occasional yearning.
I don't want to sound too gloomy. (Think of our continental cousins in France, Germany, the Netherlands and so on, who have an even bigger problem: overcoming the hegemony of the English language.) New SF writers are emerging here and finding success on both sides of the Atlantic: Mary Gentle is a recentish example. Feminist SF also seems vigorous in Britain and America, and it's still an area with a lot of potential. Perhaps John Clute is also on to something when he writes in Interzone than Brian Aldiss's Helliconia books have "established for British SF in the 1980s an adult model for writing large-scale epic narrative".
There are certainly signs that British SF is becoming a bit more cosmopolitan, more prepared to tackle a larger canvas. Gwyneth Jones travels widely in her SF; Garry Kilworth and Ian Watson have been taking us to exotic little corners of the globe for years. And I've heard rumours that Iain Banks is writing something akin to space opera....
Overall, I still find myself unable to sort out my feelings on SF. I veer between enthusiasm and despair. In a sense, every SF writer in the world is labouring in the shadow of H.G. Wells. None has achieved his mastery of the form, his originality and invention. Of course Wells had the advantage when he was writing that practically the whole field was there for the making. And make it he did.
I don't know whether modern SF will be able to solve the problem that the longer it goes on, the harder it is to find something fresh to write about. In these moods I'm a kindred spirit with Lee Montgomerie, who muses (again in Interzone): "Sometimes I think time is wearing out for SF, locked in a desperate energy crisis. So much of its conceptual fuel has already been burned up, exhausted, reprocessed into advertising, comic books, claptrap movies and video games.... Sometimes I think SF is already dead, long since expired from cognitive anaemia in the early flush of youth, and that the literature we have now is just its ghost, endlessly and pointlessly revisiting its old haunts, saying nothing."
All too often I have similar feelings; but the optimism doggedly endemic to the field strikes back. Maybe we've simply yet to discover – as Aldiss and Wingrove suggest in Trillion Year Spree – new metaphors to embody the ideas of modern science in fiction. Or maybe SF has simply emerged at last from a playful childhood where everything seems new and wonderful, into a belated adulthood which entails returning to its roots to confront all its myths and dreams with a new maturity. Prognostications about SF's future have tended to be gloomy ever since I started reading SF criticism, yet still it lumbers on in its promiscuous, punch-drunk way. Even lost sheep keep coming back into the fold.
Fired by the feeling that British SF has been in the doldrums of late, Rob Holdstock and I recently took up an idea of David Garnett's for doing an anthology of new British short stories, published to coincide with Conspiracy. The result is called Other Edens – out from Unwin next August.
Now if I were Harlan Ellison, I'd be telling you that this is a revolutionary, state-of-the-art anthology the like of which you've never seen, which shows British SF as vital and alive and radical and innovatory and altogether incredible and unbelievable. But with typical British restraint I'll simply say that Rob and I think it's a good solid collection of stories which coincidentally tends to support my view that British SF is very much a collection of individuals who, left to their own devices, write stories not quite like anyone else's at all. And if that seems like a modest claim – I disagree. It's the most radical thing of all.
This speech has gone on far too long in my opinion, and probably yours as well. I've been generalizing wildly in places; you can probably think of lots of examples to disprove what I've been saying. (I can think of a few myself.) All my musings and misgivings about "cyberpunk" could be regarded as jealousy that I was never part of a vigorous, thrusting new group with dynamic ideas. My complaints about American editors could be seen as sour grapes growing from the feeling that my own stuff's been neglected. Or I could just be indulging in my own bit of polemic as an aid to self-publicity. It's all part of the game, isn't it? I'm off now to see H.G. Wells. We have a few things to talk about, though mostly he does the talking and I listen. But I've got some bad news for him: Rog Peyton thinks his covers are lousy. Still, he's in good company on that score.