Mistah Kurtz, He Dead
an earlier version of article was delivered as a talk at Intuition, the 1998 British National Science Fiction Convention, and was published in Steam Engine Time 1, April 2000
The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and Kurtz’s life was running swiftly, too, ebbing, ebbing out of his heart into the sea of inexorable time. The manager was very placid, he had no vital anxieties now, he took us both in with a comprehensive and satisfied glance: the ‘affair’ had come off as well as could be wished. ... The pilgrims looked upon me with disfavour. I was, so to speak, numbered with the dead. It is strange how I accepted this unforeseen partnership, this choice of nightmares forced upon me in the tenebrous land invaded by these mean and greedy phantoms. ...
Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. ... It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw in that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair. ... He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath –
‘The horror! The horror!’
I blew the candle out and left the cabin. The pilgrims were dining in the mess-room, and I took my place opposite the manager, who lifted his eyes to give me a questioning glance, which I successfully ignored. ... Suddenly the manager’s boy put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt –
‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead.’1
And so, British science fiction was born.
Well, not quite. Though it is sometimes hard to imagine how J.G. Ballard could exist without Joseph Conrad.
I am starting this talk about the character of British science fiction by quoting a Polish writer who never wrote science fiction (except for one curious collaboration) for one simple reason. What Conrad did in Heart of Darkness was establish a tone and a quality that have become inextricably linked with British sf.
By the time Conrad’s novella was published, right at the beginning of the twentieth century, British science fiction was already old. Even if we agree with Brian Aldiss that the very first science fiction novel was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,2 we’re going back nearly another century. If we start thinking of the robinsonades of the early eighteenth century, or the fanciful voyages to the Moon and the Sun of the seventeenthth century, of Thomas More’s Utopia, well, the centuries just pile up. But let’s face it; such ur- or proto-science fiction wasn’t that much different from the other literature going on around it. Even when we get indisputably into the history rather than the prehistory of sf, there’s nothing necessarily or distinctly British about any of it. The dark and gloomy Gothic imagination which inspired Mary Shelley was little different from the dark and gloomy Gothic imagination which inspired, say, Edgar Allen Poe or Nathaniel Hawthorne. The bright and vivacious adventures of Jules Verne were siblings to the bright and vivacious adventures of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Indeed, it is only when we come to H.G. Wells, right at the end of the nineteenth century, that science fiction itself starts to acquire any of the distinctive characteristics that separate it from fantasy, or even from what I suppose we might call mainstream fiction. And you wouldn’t necessarily brand Wells as a distinctly British sf writer. There’s too much about him of the excitement at the possibilities of the future, for instance, that would become characteristic of American science fiction. Too much of the urgent political underpinning that can be found in, say, Russian sf. No, Wells is just too important an ancestor of all science fiction to be rudely thrust into one narrow pigeonhole.
Nevertheless it is here, at the beginning of the twentieth century, that we first start to trace the split – or shall we be generous and say the parallel development – between what would become, in America, science fiction and what we, for a time at least, called scientific romance. It is this split that I want to examine in this talk, or rather, the British side of it. And here I suppose I must admit to rampant parochialism. After all, science fiction is not exclusively British or American. It is French and Russian and Chinese and Japanese and Romanian and heaven knows what else, and they have all developed in their own individual ways. These days we have access to a large body of Australian science fiction which, despite being in the English language, refuses to conform to the patterns of either British or American sf. Even so, David Hartwell, as sententious as ever, says in the introduction to his latest anthology: ‘American science fiction, in translation or in the original, dominated the discourse world-wide. It still does; even though there have been major writers in other languages who have made major contributions. American science fiction is still the dominant partner in all the dialogues.’3 Hartwell is wrong, of course, but if we substituted ‘English language’ for American, I think we would have to concede the point.
Now, the split. To a large extent this was due to what might be called an accident of birth. We all know the story of Hugo Gernsback sticking the occasional didactic tale into his gung-ho pulp magazines extolling the wonders of American technology. And that’s not too far from the truth. Science fiction emerged into its modern American form at a time, not long after the First World War, when the United States had become the world’s dominant economic power while politically it was entering one of its periodic isolationist phases. While American magazines did reprint stories by Wells and other British writers, and Wells in particular was a major influence on early American science fiction writers, the emphasis was on stories which reflected the traditional American virtues, much like the ones reflected in stories of the old West. Thus emerged, for example, the figure of the competent man as lone hero, who would not seriously be challenged as an iconic figure in American sf until the New Wave of the 1960s.
The British scientific romance emerged earlier, in popular magazines like Pearson’s or Blackwood’s which flourished in the latter part of the nineteenth century and on up to the various publishing crises of the early years of the twentieth century. The stories they published tended to be as garish and as simplistic as those in the American pulps, but they were not split along genre lines. The same magazine might well publish a ghost story and a detective story, a romance and a fantasy. On a popular level, a writer like Conan Doyle could write of Sherlock Holmes and of Professor Challenger, while The Just So Stories and ‘With the Night Mail’ could come with equal facility from the pen of Rudyard Kipling and be greeted with the same appreciation. And Henry James could seriously suggest to H.G. Wells that they collaborate on a novel about Mars. James and Wells may have fallen out later, the artist versus the populist foreshadowing the high-art/low-art split that would cast science fiction forever from literary respectability, but even exponents of high art would decry science fiction by writing it, as E.M. Forster did with ‘The Machine Stops’; and even this anti-sf was archetypal British science fiction in its fear of the consequence of change. This continuity between science fiction and the mainstream – even in the face of dismissal by the establishment – would be important later.
But first, let me go back for a moment. We’re all science fiction readers, we can cope with these time shifts. Early science fiction, the proto-true quill as it were, from, say, Thomas More’s Utopia to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, tended to be satires in which writers could safely question the foibles of contemporary society by casting some aspect of that society upon an alien shore. The sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were a time of European expansion into a world that was still largely empty (at least to our eyes), and these literal New Worlds that were being discovered and explored were also in some way a measure of our own humanity. Remember, John Donne could see sex as a ‘new-found land,’ while Sir Walter Raleigh thought Virginia might provide the setting for a genuine Utopia. The inner and outer worlds were mirrored; wild travellers’ tales and genuine exploration, political satire and the quest for El Dorado all merged into a fictional stew which produced fanciful stories such as Gulliver’s Travels and more sober works such as Robinson Crusoe. As long as there were plentiful blank areas on the map and warnings that ‘here be dragons,’ such unknown lands provided an appropriate and safely distant stage upon which to present dramas which questioned our certainties.
Such questioning was as characteristic of scientific endeavour as of political satire, and when Mary Shelley projected certain scientific questions of her age upon the Other of an artificial man she wasn’t so much starting a new genre as following along the same route as More and Swift and others. Frankenstein’s most immediate literary precursors were the Gothic novels, those expressions of literary Romanticism which saw wild landscapes as the model for the human condition. John Donne’s sexual ‘new-found land’ had become a storm-lashed country of rugged peaks and Arctic wastes wherein one might find oneself, away from the ordered and manicured landscapes of the eighteenth-century city or country estate.
Mary Shelley’s combination of the Gothic Otherness of wild landscapes with the scientific Otherness of the Creature did not immediately set a trend. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, the notion that the Other might reflect our own social role was being explored in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, while the notion of journeying to a strange land (in this case, the future) as a means of isolating and examining our place in the world was surfacing again in The Time Machine. These two strands, these two ways of presenting the Other, would come together in British science fiction through the unlikely medium of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Yes, you knew we’d have to get back to that eventually.
Heart of Darkness is an axis around which much of modern fiction, and particularly modern British science fiction, revolves. It was written as the last empty places on the map were being filled; it was indeed the last book that could be written about the strangeness lost in the secret places of our world without a venture into fancy. (When J.G. Ballard virtually rewrote Heart of Darkness as The Day of Creation he had to take the fantastic leap of creating a river from nowhere before he could get his story going.) And as these empty places were filled, Conrad replaced them with an emptiness in the heart of his characters. Alienation, the leitmotif of so much twentieth-century science fiction, was symbolised by the alien landscape of Conrad’s Africa, while Kurtz, that tenebrous character so talked about but so little known, is as directly alien to our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world as Mr Hyde or Frankenstein’s Creature.
Without itself being science fiction, therefore, Heart of Darkness united the themes that were to become the dominant patterns of science fiction, particularly British science fiction, as it developed throughout the century. In New Maps of Hell, Kingsley Amis quotes Edmund Crispin: ‘Where an ordinary novel or short story resembles portraiture or at widest the domestic interior, science fiction offers the less cosy satisfaction of a landscape with figures.’4 In Heart of Darkness we see how the landscape and the figures are made to reflect each other. Though the figures may be small and lacking detail, we know exactly who and what they are because of the landscape through which they move. Kurtz has gone native, he and Africa are one. We learn all we need to know of his character from Marlow’s experiences on the journey up river, just as in Ballard’s The Crystal World, for example, the psychological depths of the explorer are displayed in the crystalline landscape, or, taking a more recent example, the rapid growth and decay of the tropical forest that has taken over London in Ronald Wright’s A Scientific Romance parallels the rapid growth and decay (from CJD) of the narrator.
In his survey of British science fiction, Ultimate Island, Nicholas Ruddick suggests that the island, real or metaphorical, is the device, the symbol, which best represents British science fiction. He illustrates this argument with examples that range from Shakespeare’s The Tempest to Golding’s Pincher Martin, from Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau to Ballard’s Concrete Island. Certainly, it is easy to think of many more ‘island’ stories in British sf, and the identification of the distinctive characteristic of our science fiction with our island state is almost too tempting. But at the same time, it is also easy to think of many characteristic works of British science fiction that have no island in them – Stapledon’s Last and First Men, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Roberts’ Pavane, Clarke’s 2001 – or American works that do feature islands – whether physically, as in Kim Stanley Robinson’s A Short Sharp Shock or Lucius Shepard’s Kalimantan, or metaphorically, as with the Golden Gate Bridge in William Gibson’s Virtual Light or the space station in more stories that I could possibly enumerate – for this notion to completely hold water.
Now, islands may feature largely in British science fiction because, as an island race, it is easy for us to imagine a massive flood as the instrument for transforming our world. That’s what happens, for instance, in S. Fowler Wright’s The Amphibians and Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex. However, I suspect the island is a significant feature of British science fiction because it is an isolated landscape in which to place isolated characters. In so far as setting and psychology resonate with each other in British sf, islands fit the character of most protagonists while keeping within a restricted area the action that has to be encompassed though other settings meet these requirements just as well – the forest, the lonely village, the wilderness, the ship or spaceship or space station – and occur within British sf with almost as much frequency.
In many ways the split – the separate development – of British and American sf was at its most extreme between the wars. In America the simplistic pulp stories of Gernsback’s magazines grew into the Campbellian Golden Age when many of the giants of the genre, people like Asimov and Heinlein, first came on the scene. John W. Campbell steered his writers, steered American science fiction, along very distinctive lines. American writers explored ideas, strange devices, newness itself. American sf focused on the relationship between the all-American hero, the competent man, and innovation.
During the 1930s, when some of the American magazines started to become available in this country, certain British writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Eric Frank Russell and John Wyndham began to write stories aimed squarely at this potential market. In the main, though, British scientific romance of the time was not following this path. Typically, British sf was concerned not so much with the new as with the effect of the new. Writers such as S. Fowler Wright, John Gloag and Aldous Huxley would spend less time than their American counterparts inspecting the wonderful machine and more time recounting life when the machine was working (or, more often, not). Their subject was not the relationship between the hero and the innovation, but the relationship between the ordinary person and the world after the innovation. When a British writer directly addressed ideas, it was not the idea made concrete and steel, as for instance in Heinlein’s ‘The Roads Must Roll,’ but the idea as a sequence of transformations, of changed men in relation to changing landscapes, as in Stapledon’s Last and First Men.
After the Second World War the split between the two English-language science fictions had already started to narrow. In America, new magazines like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and new writers like Frederik Pohl, Alfred Bester, Theodore Sturgeon and Edgar Pangborn, were moving away from their predecessors’ gung-ho love affair with technology and the future. If nothing else, the atomic bomb and the Cold War made it impossible to regard science and the future with unalloyed optimism.
In Britain, meanwhile, the pre-war generation whose imaginations had been fired by American sf magazines had now come to maturity, and Arthur C. Clarke in particular was establishing himself as one of the greats of the genre, fully on a par, in tone as well as in talent, with his American counterparts. Yet this was the time, more than any other, when British science fiction was branded as distinctly different from American, a literature usually classed as downbeat and pessimistic. And it is the fault of one man.
John Wyndham, using various bits of his interminable name to create a variety of pseudonyms, had started writing before the war. He sold his first story to Hugo Gernsback in 1931, and during that decade his work was primarily adventure fiction that fitted easily into the American style. After the war, however, he changed to the John Wyndham form of his name, and changed his writing style. His first major work after the war, the book that made his name and established the style with which he became synonymous, was The Day of the Triffids. Other British writers – John Christopher, John Lymington, John Blackburn, Charles Eric Maine – followed his format during the 1950s and early 1960s, and what Brian Aldiss called the ‘cosy catastrophe’5 became fixed in everybody’s minds as being what British science fiction was all about.
These were, typically, stories in which some part of Britain was devastated by a catastrophe, usually of a bizarre sort (an attack by giant plants?). There were innumerable deaths, an odyssey through the devastated landscape, and in the end some small group of survivors would re-establish a sort of middle-class normality in a world that had been wiped clean by the catastrophe. They were clearly stories about loss of power, they were also conservative in the way they clung to old-fashioned traditions and standards, and they were very, very English. They were, the common view would have it, about the loss of Empire, and they were very depressing.
Because the ‘cosy catastrophe’ is so important in the way people perceive British science fiction, even today, I want to spend a little time looking at the circumstances in which it arose.
Britain’s commercial and political empire, particularly during the age of Victorian expansion, attracted many of our brightest young people into colonial service (as well as a fair number of younger sons and the less naturally gifted, who were parcelled out to those distant corners of the empire where they might do least harm). Those who stayed at home, meanwhile, were often involved in trade or directly benefited in other ways from these international contacts. But the high casualty rate of the First World War, and the resultant shortage of manpower, meant that local peoples became more involved in their own government, business and commerce. Then the Second World War brought about a major change in the world order.
The First World War had left America the dominant economic power in the world; the Second World War left it the dominant political and, above all, military power. With the development of the atomic bomb the arms race that had been the most prominent characteristic of the pre-war balance of power entered a new phase. Now there was only one state in a position to challenge American might, the Soviet Union, and as one war ended a new, cold one began. All at once, Britain’s standing on the world stage was not so certain as it had been before. And as the superpowers locked horns and began to extend their influence across the globe, so the extent of British influence began to decline. Those in the Far East and India who had begun to taste political and economic freedom during the inter-war years now wanted full control of their countries. Our picture of the world no longer showed the wealth and benevolence of British rule, but rather the terrorist atrocities of the Stern Gang in Palestine, the Mau Mau in Kenya and EOKA in Cyprus. Even our dominions, those great English-speaking lands of Australia, New Zealand and Canada for which we felt such a paternal affection that the waves of post-war emigration from Britain to these warm and wealthy countries did not really feel like leaving home, seemed to need the mother country less and less, while South Africa was embarking upon the political experiment of apartheid and was, in effect, turning its back upon the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, troops who returned from liberating Belsen (like Mervyn Peake) had horror stories to tell, as did the soldiers and civilians (like J.G. Ballard) who survived Japanese captivity in the Far East. The world, we were learning, didn’t really want us, and anyway it was full of far worse things than anyone might possibly have imagined before the war. And things weren’t much better at home. As the war ended in Europe (indeed, while it was still going on in the Far East) we elected a Labour government whose radical platform promised a break with the past. The masses were going to benefit from the brave new world we had fought for. But despite moves whose scale captured the public imagination – the establishment of the National Health Service, the nationalisation of the coal industry – the new government’s reforming zeal soon ran out of steam The economy, still recovering from the war and dependent on foreign (specifically, American) aid, wasn’t strong enough to sustain these changes. Meanwhile, the first years of peace brought only shortages, flu epidemics and exceptionally hard winters. The wartime sacrifice of rationing would not finally disappear until the mid-1950s and bomb sites would remain a feature of the urban landscape until well into the 1960s.
It was a time, in other words, when Britain’s position as a world power was in decline, when wealth (and food) no longer flowed in from possessions around the world, when the economy lay in all-too-visible ruins wherever we looked, when old certainties and securities were being undermined. By 1951, when the Labour government had been voted out of office and Winston Churchill, with a Tory government made up largely of the same people who had run the country during the war, was back in power, people looking forward could see only uncertainty, while those who looked back found disruption. We were not yet able to eat all we might wish, fruits such as bananas were still considered exotic, and even fashion had to replace the generous cut of pre-war clothing with the dowdier New Look of post-war austerity. The Ealing Comedies of this period, such as Passport to Pimlico and The Titfield Thunderbolt, perfectly captured the mood: a nervous preservation of the past in the face of powers that thought only in terms of restrictions and cuts. So strong was this need to hold on to the familiar and the safe that, despite humiliations such as the Suez Crisis, scandals, accusations of mismanagement (which grew so vociferous they led to Macmillan’s famous ‘Night of the Long Knives’) and a continuing policy of cuts and restrictions that continued right up to Dr Beeching’s famous axing of many branch railway lines, the Conservative government comfortably held on to power for thirteen years.
It is against this background that the rise in popularity of the British catastrophe story must be seen. Remember: as I’ve said, the main focus of the scientific romance – and whatever else it was, the cosy catastrophe was just an extension of scientific romances such as Richard Jefferies’s After London, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, S. Fowler Wright’s The Amphibians – was not the change, the novelty, what I believe Darko Suvin christened the ‘novum,’ but the aftereffect, the consequence of change. And people were seeing consequences of change all around them. The disrupted landscapes of The Day of the Triffids or The Kraken Wakes or The Death of Grass were transparent analogies for the way Britain actually was. The cosy catastrophe was not a story about loss of empire so much as a way of coming to terms with war, victory and reduced circumstances.
As the 1950s wore on, however, Britain experienced a pale, delayed, but nevertheless welcome echo of America’s boom in consumer spending. We got televisions, which showed a lot of imported American programmes and gave us a taste of what the future might be. Harold Macmillan told us we’d never had it so good; and he was right. For decades to come cynical writers would still find reason enough to write disaster stories – Ballard’s The Drowned World, Roberts’ The Furies, Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island, Cowper’s The Twilight of Briareus – which were, a natural mode of expression for the British approach to science fiction but the age of the cosy catastrophe was over within a decade of its birth. By the early l960s America had men in space, even though the assassination of President Kennedy had been a blow to their optimism and esteem (and the American propensity for paranoia turned from the Red Menace to the conspiracy theory). In Britain we had a new Labour government, the ‘white heat of the technological revolution,’ near-enough full employment, more money than we’d ever had before, the rise of a wealthy, informed and active youth, and the Beatles. For a while, with our pop stars and fashion designers and photographers and other exponents of style, it seemed that Britain led the world once more. We couldn’t go on writing the same science fiction, because it no longer reflected the world that was Britain. But, despite the success of writers like Arthur C. Clarke, we couldn’t start writing American science fiction either. After all, the certainties that had underpinned American sf at its boldest no longer seemed so certain following the demise of Kennedy’s Camelot, the increasing violence associated with the civil rights movement and involvement in the Vietnam War. The solution, in retrospect, is probably slightly less surprising than it must have seemed at the time. But only slightly.
Despite the way that sf had been cast into the outer darkness by the literary establishment, British science fiction had never quite lost contact with the mainstream. Mainstream writers would continue to write books that belonged within science fiction, as George Orwell did with Nineteen Eighty-Four, William Golding with Lord of the Flies, Lawrence Durrell with Tunc and Numquam, Anthony Burgess with A Clockwork Orange and so on. Science fiction writers would write mainstream works, as Brian Aldiss has done ever since his first book, The Brightfount Diaries. And sf would occasionally be deemed worthy of academic study – it took only twenty years for The Day of the Triffids to make the school curriculum. At the same time, in the 1960s rebellious youth had to be rebellious in its choice of literature, and there was an upswing in the literary avant-garde. The trial of Penguin Books over Lady Chatterley’s Lover early in the decade, and the string of obscenity trials that followed, had the effect of liberalising British fiction. Taboos were being broken all over the place, while writers who did away with traditional narrative structure, such as Henry Miller and William Burroughs, enjoyed a vogue – though this was, in part at least, because they tended to deal explicitly with sex, drugs and violence, the taboo subjects that were to be flaunted throughout the period.
Science fiction proved peculiarly fertile ground for such literary experiments. Since it was despised by the establishment, it was already part of, or at least close to, the underground. And it was easy to fit speculation about sexual possibilities or drug fantasies into the wide-open subject matter of the genre. So the new generation of British sf writers took the literary techniques of the mainstream – most notably the stream-of-consciousness and unreliable narrators of Modernism, techniques which had no place in the straightforward narratives that had been a feature of virtually all science fiction to this date – mixed in the avant-garde subject matter of the new underground, and the New Wave was formed.
It has to be said that the New Wave, as I am talking about it now, was an almost exclusively British phenomenon. Though a few American writers, notably Thomas M. Disch, John Sladek and Norman Spinrad, came to Britain and were a part of the experiment, practically all the work that defines the character of the British New Wave was by British writers. In particular, I’m thinking of Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories, Brian Aldiss’s Acid-Head War stories, J.G. Ballard’s condensed novels, John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and the early work of M. John Harrison, Christopher Priest and Josephine Saxton.
The new generation of American writers was similarly looking for a new way of writing science fiction that was more in keeping with the mood and attitude of the times. The older sf, with its positive view of the future and its implicit belief in America’s role in that future, was inherently conservative. The new writers coming up were anything but. Some Americans did champion the British New Wave in the face of the horrified reaction of the old guard, in particular Judith Merril, whose anthology, England Swings SF, probably did as much as any other publication, including Moorcock’s New Worlds, to define the shape and characteristics of the British New Wave. But when American writers did pick up on the New Wave it was in a very different form than on this side of the Atlantic. The combination of literary technique and avant-garde subject matter was ditched in favour of a more straightforward iconoclasm. The American New Wave was more overtly revolutionary than its British counterpart; taboos were shattered by attacking them head on and the glory was in the demolition, not in the manner of its achievement.
The New Wave made a far bigger splash than, perhaps, it warranted. Certainly, the whole movement had run its course by the end of the decade, a far shorter lifespan even than the cosy catastrophe of the previous decade. Yet it did nothing to change the image of British science fiction, probably because British sf, for all its literary experimentalism, was still concerned with exploring the aftereffects of change, while the Americans, with their delight in smashing icons, were still concentrating on the point of change. The British New Wave continued to be far less enamoured of the future than the American New Wave. Nevertheless, I think the New Waves on each side of the Atlantic became confused, so it becomes difficult to see that this was the last time that British science fiction had a distinctive character all its own.
The 1970s were a pretty dismal decade for British science fiction. New Worlds staggered on as a ‘Quarterly’ that managed only ten issues over six years, and although it contained good stories there was little of the daring of its earlier incarnation. Some of the writers who had emerged during the 1960s were producing some of their best work – Roberts’ The Chalk Giants, Priest’s Inverted World, Cowper’s The Road to Corlay – but few new writers were coming up. Those that did emerge during the decade – Garry Kilworth, Ian Watson, Robert Holdstock – were too few to form a distinctive group and were mostly seen in terms of continuing what had gone before.
At the same time, two events were set to change the nature and the perception of science fiction. The first occurred during the mid-1960s with the appearance of Star Trek which did so poorly at first that it was cancelled early, but which went on to be shown continually all around the world. Then, at the end of the 1970s, came Star Wars. Even as representatives of American science fiction at its most gung-ho, these two were clearly old-fashioned when they appeared but they reached a massive audience normally resistant to science fiction, they were a formative taste of science fiction for many of the writers on both sides of the Atlantic who have appeared over the last couple of decades, and they were the first step in a homogenisation of science fiction that has continued ever since.
Perhaps if British science fiction had been more vibrant at this time it might have found preserving its distinctive voice easier. But it wasn’t vibrant at all; it was, at best, marking time. Even America wasn’t immune to the malaise of the decade – the most distinctive new writer to emerge in America during this period was John Varley, whose early stories and novels resolutely turned the clock back to Heinleinian days of yore. There was nothing to put against the defining image of science fiction presented by Star Trek and Star Wars.
Only in the 1980s did written sf on both sides of the Atlantic bestir itself from the inertia of the previous decade. In America we got cyberpunk which wasn’t as new as some people have suggested, and those who proclaim it ‘postmodern science fiction’ tend to overlook the overt references to Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, John Brunner, J.G. Ballard and a host of other writers you will find throughout the movement. Nevertheless, it was innovative, it did bring new life into the genre. Of course, one of the ways writers and commentators did this was by being noisy about it, especially, in the early days, Bruce Sterling in his Vincent Omniaveritas guise. Quieter, but in their way almost as important, were – are – the writers who were briefly but unsatisfactorily called the humanists. Gene Wolfe begat Kim Stanley Robinson who begat Karen Joy Fowler, and so on. Where Gibson and Sterling and their ilk learned their science fiction from the flashy American past and their literature in equal measure from Dashiel Hammett and Thomas Pynchon; the ‘humanists’ (if I have to use the term) learned their science fiction from both British and American sources, and their literature from across the American mainstream. The growing homogenisation, the closure of the split I’ve talked about, wasn’t all a movement from here to there; some of them, remember, were moving towards here.
As cyberpunk was stirring American sf, here in Britain we got Interzone which, truth to tell, has made a pretty decent fist of doing the same thing over here. Though that isn’t the same thing as establishing a distinctive British voice, which New Worlds had done earlier. When it started, Interzone tried too hard to be a reincarnation of New Worlds, forgetting that the times and the mood had changed. Thatcher’s Britain was no place to recreate a literature of Labour government, social revolution, and student protest. By the time that false start had faded away, cyberpunk had become the way to tell science fiction, and what we got were far more American writers than had been usual in any previous British magazine, and far too many British writers producing pale imitations of what the Americans were doing. These were not necessarily bad stories, and Interzone was not necessarily a bad magazine, but it could not in this way provide a focus for creating or sustaining a distinctively British science fiction.
Perhaps there was no need for such a focus. Certainly, it has to be a good thing if we can point to Iain M. Banks and destroy the myth that British sf is depressing; if we can point to Stephen Baxter and destroy the myth that it is all about loss of empire. But I, for one, would be a little regretful if British science fiction entirely lost its distinctive character, if there was nothing about what we wrote here that marked it out as different from the science fiction written in Nebraska or New Orleans, or Novosibirsk come to that.
But it isn’t all gone. In the last fifteen years or so we have had a flowering of British science fiction that has been unprecedented. And the science fiction we see today still has something almost indefinably British about it. Iain M. Banks’s fiction may be wide-screen baroque in a way that nobody used to do as well as the Americans, but there is an underlying political sensibility that would have stuck in the craw of just about every member of John W. Campbell’s stable. Gwyneth Jones writes about alien invasion in a way that is informed by the British colonial experience; in her work science fiction and loss of empire really do go together. We may not have the cosy catastrophe any more, but we do have writers who make use of the landscape as Wyndham and his confrères did, such as Jeff Noon playing with cyberpunk tropes in the rain-lashed streets of Manchester. In fact the one consistent thing we do see, in Paul McAuley’s Fairyland or Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships or any of the prominent British science fiction novels of the last decade or so, is that the concern is still that very British concern with the aftereffect, not the event, with the ordinary person not the hero. And when we see Ian McDonald, in Chaga, following J.G. Ballard’s footsteps into the heart of Africa, we can conclude:
Mistah Kurtz – he not quite dead yet!