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Ian R Macleod

Old Maps of Hell

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I first came across New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis in 1969 as a thirteen year old on a summer holiday with my parents on Guernsey. Bookshops didn't really seem to exist then as they do now (at least for a suburban child like me) and I found it, as I found most paperbacks then, on a sunny carousel outside a newsagent's shop amid the Harold Robbins and Alistair MacLeans. I didn't realise that it was a work of criticism rather than fiction, but the cover said "Science Fiction" and bore an arresting scene of a flying saucer landing on an abandoned desert airstrip, and that, after all the usual change-counting and soul-searching, was enough for me. I remember being a little surprised when I read the book, but nevertheless enjoying it. It seemed to be full of interesting plot summaries which I could pinch for my own early attempts at writing, and strong arguments as to why SF should be taken seriously, which was then something that only myself and a couple of like-minded schoolmates seemed prepared to do.

 

For me, 1969 was a golden time for reading. My copy of A for Andromeda by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot, which I also found on a carousel in Guernsey (this one a beach shop) still has sand between its pages. Then there was Clarke's A Fall Of Moondust... Books, the places I bought them, the money I saved from walking home from school instead of taking the bus, the creases I desperately tried to avoid giving them, the many I borrowed from the library and surreptitiously annotated inside the back cover, were alive to me then in a way that they aren't now. I guess it's all about being thirteen. Still, I can't claim that New Maps of Hell made a particularly enormous impact on me, but its existence (and my subsequently finding out that Kingsley Amis was a Proper Writer People Had Heard Of) rather proved a point. SF wasn't just the trashy rubbish most people claimed it was. So I was surprised when, a few months later, I read this description of NMOH, in Judith Merril's The Best Of SF 5:

"...a recent volume of considerable arrogance, ill-considered opinion and unconsidering slovenliness of research..."

with a fair amount more on the same lines. So, who was right? And why should it matter now?

NMOH was published in 1960, as was Merril's reaction, although I only picked both books up at the end of that decade. Already, Amis was writing about a lost age. Re-reading NMOH now, I can certainly appreciate why Judith Merril found it so offensive. Amis's tone in NMOH is consistently patronising. He seems to imagine throughout that he is addressing The Intelligent Reader who, by definition (at least Amis's definition) will not have read any SF, nor have the faintest understanding of it. He spends a great deal of time reassuring his imagined audience that they have nothing to fear from SF, that the maidens displayed on the covers of the magazines are only rarely actually engulfed by the monsters embracing them on the cover, and then not usually in any sexual way, and that scenes of violence and horror belong almost entirely to SF's sister genre of fantasy (which Amis abhors, although he plainly has read little of it). Even the writers he likes, such as Pohl, Sheckley and Kuttner, he tends to praise so faintly that I ended up wondering just how much SF Amis had not only read, but also enjoyed. And as for the ones he doesn't – well, Mervyn Peake is "a bad fantasy writer of maverick status" and the well-established and undeniably excellent Jack Finny is (much to Merril's annoyance) a nameless author "who has yet to make his name". But all in all, NMOH remains fun to read. And Amis, being Amis, seems take far more pleasure in his examples illustrating the things which are wrong with SF than those by which he attempts attempt to prove the genre's nascent literary status. "I'm an associate professor at the university," explains the tall, handsome stranger the busty Holly Kendal meets shortly after having been menaced, in her abbreviated shorts and light cotton sweater, by a giant ant, in Legacy of Terror from the November 1958 issue of Amazing Stories. "English Lit's my racket, but I got me a degree in entomology, too. So when I picked up reports of king-sized spiders and stuff in the vicinity..." Lovely stuff. You can well imagine Amis and Philip Larkin upsetting their staid literary chums at the Garrick by chortling over a luridly-covered copies of their oh-so-naughty SF magazines. No wonder Judith Merril took exception, although, like most things, time and distance have lent NMOH a different perspective.

Amis compares SF to jazz, as another "popular" genre with some intellectual merit which he claims to admire (again, he's far better at being barbed than he is at being enthusiastic). And, tellingly, he comments that "among people of undergraduate age, I gather, a liking of science fiction raises hardly more eyebrows than acquiescence in the fact of Melville or Faulkner." In other words, SF was starting to become cool. And, even more interestingly, he concluded NMOH by describing SF as being on the lip of bringing into existence "a writer of real standing".

He wasn't wrong. Just ahead lay Aldiss, Ballard, Delany, Ellison and all the rest. Amis was still a youngish man when he wrote NMOH, and he must have felt a certain I-told-you-so satisfaction to witness this sea-change. He certainly remained a friend and supporter of the genre throughout his life, but I do rather wonder if he didn't rather regret loosing the monster-engulfed maidens. At the core of NMOH is a sense that SF can and should never be "proper fiction." Amis certainly expresses pious hopes in that direction; that, for example, there will be less "hieratic self-importance" amongst its practitioners – surely a case, if ever there was one, of the pot calling the kettle black. But he can't quite raise the same enthusiasm for the idea of young writers springing up who will get rid of "the cliquish jargon" than he summons for the subsequent gleeful list of the foibles of the "cranks who seem intent on giving SF a bad name" (including, amongst others, for those of you who are interested, John W. Campbell, A. E. van Vogt and L. Ron Hubbard). Although he was too wise and canny a critic to just come right out and admit it, I suspect that in his heart Amis liked his SF down and dirty and disreputable. And why not? And who cares? After all, SF has changed beyond all recognition. Or has it?

Yes, I would argue, but also no. For example, Amis acknowledges that many SF novels are over-padded and less satisfactory than the short stories which often spawn them. He also points out that genre writers are expected to produce far too many books much too quickly if they are to be remotely commercially successful. Then, whilst he doesn't complain about the lack of proper characterisation in SF, he simply accepts it as an inherent limitation. He also takes it as read that the prose of even the best SF authors cannot be compared with that of the better mainstream fiction writers. Similarly, he cites authors like Golding and Updike as authors prepared to mix some SF elements into some of their work, but shows no real desire to see any genuine crossover. Amis, as I have said, likes his SF to be in its ghetto of lurid covers and dodgy adverts for X-ray specs, where he can dip into it when he's in the mood without too many unwanted distractions or surprises. Although he argues with some cogency that SF can cast some arresting light on the real world, he doesn't want serious intellectual argument out of it. Least of all does he expect the main readership of SF to have any real familiarity with literature outside the genre, or for readers outside it to care much about what's going on within. If he did, NMOH would have been an even bigger and more pompous irrelevance than Judith Merril suggested. For Amis, SF, above all, is a special, different pleasure, almost an addiction, which hooks those readers who love it – who are predominantly male and technically inclined – in adolescence, or not at all.

I don't intend to argue that the differences between modern SF and the writers of what is now often called the Golden Age aren't enormous. But I am prepared to bet that most frequent readers of SF will have found themselves justifying the genre against similar criticisms to those I've listed in the previous paragraph far more recently than 1960. The elements which Amis identifies: guilty pleasure; the separateness; the poor public perception; a perceived weakness in terms of style, characterisation and serious argument, all still continue to haunt SF. When Amis wrote NMOH, the genre wasn't cool, although, under the brief guise of "speculative fiction" it was about to become so. But then SF (at least the written kind) isn't cool now, either. The covers these days might be less lurid, and the magazines which were then its staple have now become its conscience and avant-garde, but SF, at least in written form, is still about as far from general acceptance as it ever was. True, it now receives proper study, and there are specialist critical journals. But look beyond them and you'll search long and hard for any serious discussion. People outside the genre (in itself a telling phrase) who should know far better (writers and publishing professionals included) dismiss written SF without every having really read any of it. And for those inside the genre – well, even now, you can still assume that the core audience consists of people who don't read much else. It's as if, despite it being clear that SF has demonstrably progressed much further as a genre in the 40 years since NMOH than so-called mainstream fiction has, there's some pole-to-pole repulsion which somehow keeps the books and the readerships apart

Even the most occasional reader of decent modern SF will understand that the genre is much, much bigger in scope, ambition and genuine literary talent than the common perception of the genre which still remains. But, just like Kingsley Amis, maybe us more avid readers do still like SF's reading-by-torchlight-under-the-blankets element of guilty pleasure, and those damsel-engulfing aliens, and the sense of pure escape, far more than we'd ever be prepared to admit. If SF ever does become cool again and expand outside the tight confines of its genre, we will have to be prepared to share that guilty pleasure with a wider audience, and probably face loosing it in the process.

 

© Ian R Macleod first published in Interzone 2003

 

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