Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Voices of Time by J G Ballard

First published in New Worlds #99, October 1960.

Interestingly, J G Ballard reviewed The Golden Age of Science fiction for the Guardian. He mentions the stories in passing, praising the selection rather faintly as one of ‘accurate judgements’, but he’s not unjustifiably annoyed at some of Amis’s comments in the introduction. Ballard quotes the same section as I did in my note about The Old Hundredth.
The perpetrators of all this are whipped unmercifully. Moorcock's fiction "gives rise to little more than incurious bewilderment." Aldiss, in Barefoot in the Head, "interlards an adventure story with stylistic oddities, bits of freak talk, poems, some of them ‘concrete'." As for Ballard, on whom no verdict can be harsh enough: "Solipsistic… mystification and outrage… physical disgust… stories with chapters subdivided into numbered paragraphs [not true]… has never been in the genre at all."
According to Ballard the old man is out of touch; saying his hatred of modern SF is bound up with his hatred of modern life in general. He’s just a bitter old critic who backed the wrong horse.
To some extent Amis's distaste for science fiction can be put down to simple pique. Sharp observer though he was of 1940s and 1950s s-f, his prediction in New Maps of Hell that science fiction would become primarily a satirical and sociological medium proved totally wrong. In fact, American s-f veered away into interplanetary fantasy (Le Guin, Zelazny, Delaney), while the British writers began to explore the psychological realm of inner space.
However, it’s a long race and sometimes it has a surprise finish. Coming in on the inside straight was a dark horse that I think proves Amis right: cyberpunk.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Lou Reed has died

This is the first proper record I ever owned, not counting Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds and 'Rasputin' by Boney M. It was a present on my eleventh birthday from my brother Alistair.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Rise of the Robots: reading log, third quarter 2013

Once more the clock of the year arrives at quarter to midnight... well, practically ten-to now, but I’m doing the best I can here. It’s been a busy quarter covering the summer holiday period, although I know I make that excuse every time. My holidays were particularly great this year and I’ve been enjoying the Indian summer culminating in an amazing, albeit fleeting, literal trip to India for work.

So once again I find myself being thankful for all the gifts that life has brought while working hard to squander, ruin or debase them. Oh well, mustn’t grumble!

In the meantime, I distract myself with writing – the writing by others and writing of my own. In this reading report I’ll mainly be talking about Comixology, the gradual failure of my anti-gadget resolve and a bit more about – perhaps my final word on – the death of science fiction.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut

First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1961.

I’m a big Vonnegut fan. Like a lot of people I went on a massive Vonnegut kick when I was in my late teens and early 20s, and The Breakfast of Champions remains one of my favourite books ever.

This story is definitely vintage Vonnegut. It’s got the characteristic sarky and exasperated Vonnegut tone (that’s so appealing to late adolescents), the distinctive character names (United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers) and a colourfully absurd climax. Plus it’s short – what’s not to like about short?

However, I’ve always felt a bit strange about this story. My enjoyment is more than somewhat hampered by a lingering suspicion that the whole thing is horribly right wing.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

A Work of Art by James Blish

James Blish
First published in Science Fiction Stories, 1956.

I wonder sometimes if certain genres encourage certain sorts of structures in fiction. For example, horror stories seem naturally inclined towards the shock ending, a farce heads inevitably to a state of twisting plots and confusions, detective stories depend on short scenes and gradual revelations, and romances build sexual tension to bursting point then bathe in the afterglow of the big wedding or prom night.

Science fiction is no different. I think the substance of science fiction encourages certain structural elements. Most of these revolve around the need to get the most interesting element of the story – it’s science fictional idea – out into the open as soon as possible. As opposed to the shock ending, you might call this a shock opening.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Old Hundredth by Brian Aldiss

First published in New Worlds, November 1960.
Amis is largely dismissive of the New Wave. Moorcock’s Cornelius novels ‘give rise to little more than incurious bewilderment if read with any close attention.’ J G Ballard’s own sense of his limitations has led him to write novels like Crash and Concrete Island ‘the one takes physical disgust about as far as I have ever seen in print, the other is a kind of urban non-escape story overcrowded with realistic detail. Thomas Disch has ‘real but unorganised talent’, John Sladek is ‘an experimentaliser in a mode sometimes compared with Kurt Vonnegut’, and Norman Spinrad is ‘notable for his use of four letter words’.

I don’t agree with Amis’s assessment of these writers, but on the other hand I do think he gets the deleterious effect of the New Wave pretty much right.
‘SF’ itself, a time-sanctioned abbreviation, came to stand for, not ‘science fiction’ but ‘speculative fiction’, a phrase signifying either a boldly liberating adventurism or a fairly frank admission that anything went.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Tunnel Under the World by Frederick Pohl

Amazingly, this story is available free as an ebook from Project Gutenberg!

Frederick Pohl died this year back in August. It’s a great loss to the SF world and of course to his family, but we can can take some comfort from the fact that he had a long and productive life as a writer, and lately memoirist.

This is a great example this terrific writer in his prime. It’s classic SF of the late Golden Age, where you can sense post-war doubts beginning to show through the fa├žade of apparent normality. Stories from this era are steeped in discontent with the modern commodified world and distrust of its rulers. Nothing’s ever quite as it seems and things are always worse than you imagine.