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On Alpha Ralpha Boulevard

24 November, 2017 (16:17) | Books, Dead Water | By: Ian Burdon

Someone asked me what originally attracted me to science fiction. This is by way of a partial answer for them.

My introduction to SF (yes, I’m going to use that abbreviation: bite me) in writing, as opposed to TV, was almost certainly when my school friend Peter recommended Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. I guess we were 11 or 12 at the time, maybe 13. I can’t remember the full detail of my other reading then (it was 45+ years ago), but I certainly remember SF supplanting Arthur Ransome, Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming in my affections.

Foundation Trilogy in Panther. Art by Chris Foss

I guess I also read the usual Alistair MacLean thrillers that were around the house, as well as Tolkein and then Dennis Wheatley. But I was an avid user of our local library, and they had a decent SF section, which I plundered more or less at random. Most of it was pulp space opera, but there was a lot of it, for the most part in yellow-jacketed Gollancz hardback editions. I think that was when I first read Colin Kapp’s The Patterns of Chaos (Gollancz 1972) though my tattered old copy is a Panther paperback with a cover by, of course, the great Chris Foss.

I also read quite a lot of James Blish: the Cities In Flight series was one I enjoyed, especially the closing section of A Clash of Cymbals.

A turning point was Walter M Miller’s classic A Canticle For Leibowitz, which was qualitatively different in ways I recognised but couldn’t express at the time; the writing had a residual pulp quality, but it was much more speculative and interesting than the usual alien-bashing fare I’d got used to. In my 5th or 6th year at High School I wrote a short story that my English teacher praised, heavily “influenced” by Canticle (which I assume she hadn’t read).

At some point in my teens I discovered Brian Aldiss (The Dark Light Years I think, and Space, Time and Nathaniel) and some other British SF writers who were forging a different path. Christopher Priest was one, who I still buy in hardback when a new novel comes out. An Aldiss story from the early seventies that really got under my skin was Sober Noises of Morning in a Marginal Land, a story that still lurks in my mind. A For Andromeda (and its sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough), based on a 1960s TV series, was an often-read favourite too. Likewise I read and reread a collection of Fritz Leiber short stories, and always there was John Wyndham–The Kraken Wakes was and remains a fantastic short novel, as is The Chrysalids.

The Patterns of Chaos. Cover art by Chris Foss

I was heavily involved with the church at the time and read a lot of CS Lewis, who wrote 3 interesting SF novels, of which Perelandra, or Voyage to Venus, was probably the best, even though, as a po-faced piece on Wikipedia informs me, Lewis’s description of Perelandra as a world capable of supporting a floating Garden of Eden is not consistent with current knowledge of conditions on Venus. You don’t say.

And of course there was lots of SF of greater or lesser quality on TV. According to my mum I watched the first episode of Dr. Who, though I was 4 at the time; and 60s and early 70s TV could be downright weird. I fondly remember Timeslip (incidental music by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, and Cheryl Burford was an early TV crush of mine) and The Changes (theme and incidental music by Peter Howell of the Radiophonic Workshop) amongst others.

A lot of the SF I read in my teens hasn’t aged well; I loved Dune when I was 17, but rereading it in my 50s was a major disappointment, although it is an interesting reversal of the Hero’s Journey in that it is an anti-hero’s journey. Almost all of Heinlein I find unreadable now, though Starship Troopers remains a focused, tightly written novel that may, or may not, be intended as satire.

I still like pulpy space opera (EE “Doc” Smith is a reliable standby, reluctant genocides and all, if I’ve had flu and don’t have the energy to read anything else), but my preference is for the weirdly speculative. These days I don’t read in genre for its own sake, to the extent I ever did; my favourite of the novels I’ve read in the last couple of years, regardless of label, was Edna O’Brien’s A Pagan Place.

Whatever I read, a lot of it comes from writers who push the limits of narrative and craft in interesting and beguiling ways, some of whom get labelled as SF as a lazy shorthand. I’ve already mentioned Christopher Priest, but there’s also M John Harrison and Ian R MacLeod, amongst many others. But I see them on a continuum with other writers I like who are not above subtle weirdness, such as George Mackay Brown, probably my favourite author, and certainly my favourite Scottish author.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I think what appeals to me about all of the SF that stays with me, apart from the pulps, is either a certain obliqueness in literary form, or the use of scientific concepts as a core metaphor for something else, for explorations of uncertainty. I also tend to favour the notion of “speculative” or “slipstream” fiction over SF, because the latter is a much more tangled and baggage-laden label.

But in the end the label doesn’t matter too much, and I’d like to let my 11 or 12 year old self know that Asimov’s Foundation and Smith’s Skylark of Space, Chris Foss covers and all, were a gateway drug; that Hari Seldon and Richard Seaton were sprites who’d lead me along Alpha Ralpha Boulevard to uncertain inner worlds and a lifetime of reading.

Added: to correct gender balance in this reminiscence, I must add that two of my favourite writers of anything are Dorothy Dunnett and Muriel Spark. My teen self hadn’t discovered them yet, though. I did read Ursula LeGuin at the time, and Earthsea is something I come back to even now.

Comments

Comment from Malcolm Jeffrey
Time November 29, 2017 at 12:21 pm

Hi, Ian. Another excellent post, after which I again find myself wondering whether we were not separated at birth. :o)

I too have had a life immersed in Science Fiction and I have spent the last half an hour jotting down notes : if the following is disjointed, then I’m just riffing here.

I too tend to stick with SF as a description of the genre, and am aware of the genre snobbery and semantics you can get mired in with Fans, FakeFans, TrueFans etc. I don’t do cons or speak fanac, but I am aware of what a pint of sea water and a dog tag means, etc. and as far as I can see, being specific about whether you like SF, Sci Fi, Hard SF, Soft SF, Speculative Fiction or Science Fantasy etc is only important if you are speaking to other enthusiasts, to define terms of reference, and be specific about what you mean. In that respect it’s like only insisting on ratting on about the differences between COBOL, BASIC, C or Assembler if you were with other people who were the slightest bit interested – basic politeness. There certainly are SF enthusiasts who find the term Sci Fi as insulting, that it was stolen by mainstream media as a pejorative term and is unreclaimable.
Also, there are always people who only want to use subgenre terms because they want to bully you into agreeing with them that their preferred subgenre is the best : “I only like hard SF, it’s the factual maths – isn’t Fantasy all that girly stuff about wands and elves ?” Mind you, I am guilty myself of pedantry as a means of defense and, if confronted by some cretin who objects to me cycling because I don’t pay Road Tax, I have no objection to pointing out that a) there is no such wammal as Road Tax, b) it’s actually Vehicle Excise Duty, which is calculated on emissions, and as my bike doesn’t emit anything I don’t have to pay and c) if you mean paying for the road itself, I pay just as much Community Charge as you do. Anyway : ;o)

I do, however, wince when I see the Sci Fi Channel spell it SyFy. Could only be worse if there was a grocer’s apostrophe in there (or even a grocers’ apostrophe).

I’m with you about the artwork of Chris Foss – it has hooks in which remind me of the happy early days of those fantastic covers designed to draw you in and read me ! : other favourite cover artists are Chris Achilleos, Joe Staton, Frank Frazetta and Bruce Pennington, adorning the covers of the books of Gollancz, Orbit, Panther, Sphere, Bantam, Pan SF, and those weird looking, imported-from-the-US Ace Books which had odd fonts, a strange petrochemical smell and had 2 books in one, with the second book printed upside down, to be read from the back cover with the book inverted.

My early forays into SF were John Jakes’ “When the Star Kings Die”, Murray Leinster’s “Miners in The Sky”, Alan E Nourse’s “The Universe Between” and Neil R Jones’ Zoromes stories. Zelazny, Asimov, Paol Anderson, Heinlein, Kornbluth, Vonnegut, Frederik Pohl, Stanislaw Lem, Simak – I won’t say that they were all well-written but the concepts were unusual and attractive to me as a teenager. I’m writing this on Word, and I really like the way that almost all of those authors’ names have spellchecker wavy underlines, too – it was de rigeur for an SF author to have a weirdly-spelled name and it all added to the strangeness, even to the point of discussing SF books with your friends. You couldn’t even pronounce the author’s name, let alone explain the concepts ; finding someone to talk to who would *try* was like being accepted as a member of a secret club…

My first big experiences were doing H G Wells’ stories in English as I approached my O Levels and doing John Wyndham’s “The Chrysalids” for O Level : they both led me to a life-long love of Post-Apocalyptic fiction and Time Travel stories. “The Time Machine” has a powerful image of the very far future where the Time Traveller wakes up, aeons in the future, from having been slumped unconscious over his controls, to find the sun swollen red and grey creatures crawling slug-like from the oceans ; and “The Chrysalids” has the Fringes and the Badlands. From there, apocalyptically speaking, I progressed to “The Day Of The Triffids” and “The Kraken Wakes” (more of an apocalypse-in-transit, that one), discovered the ruins of Charn in C S Lewis’ “The Magician’s Nephew”, and then to “A Canticle For Liebowitz”, “On The Beach”, “Emergence”. “The Road”, “Year Of The Flood” and “I Am Legend”. Time travelling favourites are “A Sound Of Thunder”,”The End Of Eternity”, “Timescape”, “Tau Zero”, and more recently “The Chronoliths”, “Ghost Country” and the splendid “To Say Nothing Of The Dog”. One of my favourite films is “12 Monkeys”, which straddles both obsessions nicely.,

Favourite early authors beyond Wyndham and Wells were EE “Doc” Smith, Arthur C Clarke, Alfie Bester and Harlan Ellison, and I was a massive fan of Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg (“Tower Of Glass”, “Dying Inside”, “The World Inside”, “Born With The Dead”) and Ursula K LeGuin, Madeleine L’Engle and Margaret Attwood. Nowadays it’s Larry Niven (“Ringworld”, Known Space, “Mote In God’s Eye” and “Footfall” with Jerry Pournelle, what’s not to like ?), the sadly mourned Iain M Banks (“Use Of Weapons”, “Excession”, “Consider Phlebas”, “Surface Detail”) and China Miéville, although I have already told you privately that I think he could do with easing back out of that intellectual arse a bit.

There was also a shed-load of SF on telly in the 60s and 70s which all cemented my love for the genre. Dr Who, Quatermass, The Tomorrow People, Star Trek, Lost In Space, Time Tunnel, Land Of The Giants, Survivors, Probe / Search Control, and The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. For their effect on me as a child, though, I have to give the Award for Indoctrination to Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, for blessing me with Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90.

Live Long and Prosper !

Malcy

Comment from Malcolm Jeffrey
Time November 29, 2017 at 12:24 pm

p.s. *My* copy of “The Patterns Of Chaos” is a yellow Gollancz hardback one. :o)

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