Holy Cows

I first read The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth in 1962. I was 19. I had been influenced by Kingsley Amis’s description of it in New Maps of Hell (‘many claims to being the best science-fiction novel so far’). I bought the then-current paperback edition published by Digit Books and read it in a sitting. I can remember almost nothing about it now, except that I agreed with Mr Amis. Following his instruction I considered it then, as I consider it now, to be one of the ‘best’. Years later, when I was sometimes called upon to give talks to groups of general readers (i.e. not dedicated science fiction fans) I would take along my Digit paperback, and use it to illustrate the familiar argument that what you see on the cover of a book does not necessarily tell you anything about what’s inside. I would show the cover and invite people in the audience to guess what the novel might be about. The painting shows a large machine, shaped rather like a spaceship, and with a propeller whizzing at the front, bursting upwards out of the ground, knocking over a man who happened to be standing there moments before. Various wrong guesses from the audience always followed – I remember, for instance, the fairly typical reaction from one grumpy chap who was clearly not enjoying my talk, ‘Some stupid bloody thing about people flying around in spaceships and being attacked by pirates.’ When I explained that the novel was a satire on American advertising, that the ‘space’ in the title was a reference to advertising space, and that the story dealt with a copywriter who had to mount a fraudulent campaign to sell property on a bogus version of the planet Venus … the point was presumably made. (50 years)

In the same year I read (for the first and only time) George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, again partly from a recommendation in Amis’s book, but mainly because a few years earlier a BBC TV dramatization of the novel had caused a sensation in the press and among viewers. I had been too young to watch it then and I was curious. Although I have always meant to read the novel again I have not done so, although I have over the years referred to it. I see it as Orwell’s supreme novel, an unquestioned classic, but overall I consider his non-fiction to be his best work. This high regard is both for the timeliness of his thinking, a genuine and fulfilling insight into those turbulent years surrounding and during the second world war, and for the clarity, precision and sheer beauty of his writing style. (50 years)

1965: Penguin Books published Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle in their science fiction package. I read it and ever since have considered it to be exceptional within Dick’s oeuvre, in that as well as the ingenious idea it contains some excellent writing. I have not read it since, and no longer even own a copy. Is the writing still excellent? I know that these days it is close to heresy to question Dick’s wonderfulness, but because so many of his other books reveal hasty passages of scrappy writing and a tendency to fall back on hack-writing techniques, I can’t help wondering if High Castle is a true exception to his norm. Still, I remember it well, and by this time I was 22 and clearly knew a thing or two. (47 years)

By 1967 I was regularly reading manuscripts for the publishers Gollancz. One day I received a phone call from them, wondering why I had not yet reported on the manuscript they had sent me three weeks earlier. (For my part I was wondering why there had been such a long gap.) When I went to the Post Office sorting depot I was handed a large, bedraggled and torn package, with sheets of paper falling out of all sides, and various loose sheets attached to the outside with a large elastic band. It was the top-copy original manuscript of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, now regarded as a classic of the genre. By some miracle none of the pages had been lost, although several were crumpled and dirty. I read it as soon and as quickly as I could, and reported positively on it – Gollancz did not publish it, as it happens. Although I knew John Brunner personally and considered him a friend, I always kept my thoughts to myself about his books. He wrote terrible potboilers and a lot of them too. Stand on Zanzibar was different: it was glib and clever, like so many of John’s other novels, but it was also ambitious in scope, innovative in form and uniquely amongst his books to that date it contained genuine passion. It was a breakthrough for him. (45 years)

We move forward fifteen years. By 1982 I had started acting as an agent for a small number of hand-picked American writers who until that date had not had anything published in Britain. One of them was William Gibson. He sent me, rather diffidently under the circumstances, the typewritten manuscript of a novel called Neuromancer. As soon as I read it I recognized it for what it was, even though it was not entirely to my own taste. I realized my opinion was irrelevant, and sent it to Malcolm Edwards at Gollancz. He immediately bought it. I am still no great fan of cyberpunk, but it was in its time radical and different. Neuromancer was the first and best of that sub-genre. (30 years)

For better or worse I have come to be seen as a John Wyndham specialist, and have been commissioned to write several speeches and essays about him and his work. This has meant fairly regular re-readings of his novels. These I continue to like, but with substantial reservations. Wyndham was one of the first SF novelists I discovered, when I was 16, long before even The Space Merchants. Until I had been able to read more widely, and understand where Wyndham’s work was best placed, he was my favourite SF writer. Of his four main novels the one I continue to like most is The Kraken Wakes, but I happen to think that The Day of the Triffids is in fact a better written novel. It has certainly grown into its status as a modern classic. I last re-read it in 2005 and it remained as effective as I remembered. Incidentally, I disagree with Brian Aldiss’s familiar and often quoted put-down of Wyndham, that he wrote ‘cosy catastrophes’. I believe the sobriquet is wilfully misleading and takes no account of the time and place when Wyndham was writing his best-known work. There is something steely and uncompromising inside most of Wyndham’s work, which an attentive reading will discover. (7 years)

John Fowles died towards the end of 2005. My own response to the unhappy news was to read, for at least the third time, his best and most lasting novel, The Magus. Although not at all a science fiction novel, and barely even fantasy, it is of huge importance to the genre because of the influence it has had, not only on so many writers, myself included, but also on film-makers. I think it has become fashionable to denigrate The Magus, partly because of what Fowles himself often said about it (he seemed to be the only person in the world who thought the ‘god-game’ was worth playing), partly because of some of the second-rate novels with which he followed it, and also partly because of the execrable film that was made of it in 1968, starring Michael Caine. However, back in the mid-1960s The Magus came over as a startling and fresh and technically dazzling novel. I was certainly dazzled by it for a long time. The writing in the first third of the novel has always seemed to me among the finest descriptive passages I have ever read – the forensic last part constitutes probably the most intricate and challenging thriller-writing of the century. My last reading of the novel was the 1977 revision, which until then I had not liked as much as the original. (7 years)

In 2006, the publisher Peter Owen brought out a re-issue of one of the gems in the Owen backlist: Ice by Anna Kavan. I had first read this in the early 1970s, when it was in a Picador paperback with an amazingly appropriate cover using a detail from (I believe) a painting by de Chirico. I have always loved the book, seeing it as a core slipstream text, one that will enchant as many readers as it might infuriate others. I was pleased to be invited to write an Introduction to the new edition, if for no other reason than it gave me a chance to re-read this short and almost perfect novel. (6 years)

I first read Keith Roberts’s Pavane when it appeared as a series of long stories in the magazine Impulse. I was mystified and enthralled by the stories and read them again as soon as they were published together as a novel (1968). Pavane is one of those rare novels which is not only beautifully written but also compellingly told. It is a novel set in the then present day (the late 1960s) in a world where Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated, and a repressive Papal-dominated kingdom was set up in Britain under the Spanish. The details of the resulting low-technology society, the subtlety of the observations and the apt choice of significant characters are all to be marvelled at. I remember Michael Moorcock belittling the novel when it was published (probably because he and Keith Roberts did not like each other) – he said disparagingly that it was no better than the sort of stuff John Brunner turned out every week. This must constitute one of the most lead-bottomed literary judgements ever. I re-read Pavane for pleasure in 2007, and it was even better than I had remembered. (5 years)

Finally, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. I read this around the same time as everyone else who took an interest in such things: not long after it was published in 1969. It seemed then to be a remarkable and innovative novel – it won several prizes, and since then has remained a well-regarded and perennially popular novel. I had always remembered it in the most favourable way, feeling that it was a work of traditional science fiction that one could rely on to mount the best sort of argument in support of the genre. Some of the descriptive writing is vivid and appropriate, the characterization of the alien beings is totally plausible and sympathetic, and the idea, in its day, was suitably radical and startling. I re-read Left Hand in 2008, more out of curiosity than anything, in effect to see if it really was as good as I remembered. I discovered that it held up well, that it was a much shorter book than I expected, that the descriptive writing was still superb, but that the sexual chemistry that had seemed so unusual and alien four decades earlier was synoptic in a way I had not recalled. Overall, the novel felt more ordinary than I wanted it to be – it no longer seemed to be the paradigm shift it had once been, but this, I suspect, is a result of its own influence. It broke new ground and a generation of writers took strength and confidence from it. It remains a work of classic status, in my view. (4 years)

The point of all this:

The number of years noted at the end of each description is of course a rough estimate of the time since I last read any of these books. I have revisited these titles because throughout most of November Nina was encouraging me to take part in the Locus “All-Centuries” poll, and vote for the “best” novels and short stories from the 20th and 21st centuries.

In their publicity, Locus did not explain what they meant by “Best”, which immediately raised the usual questions of definition: best written?, best selling?, best loved?, and so on. Never mind that. I was resisting because I generally find these popularity polls a bit meaningless, rather like those internet polls you sometimes see: Do you believe in God? Vote now: Y/N. In the world of books such a poll has an extra quality of absurdity in a genre of fiction where there are so many sacred cows, so many false or misleading literary values, so much reader-nostalgia for the stuff they read when first discovering science fiction or fantasy.

Nina’s best argument in favour of making me think up my own submission was that unless a large number of people with a variety of interests actually voted for the work they believed in, those cows would remain sacred, and the familiar hegemony of the Heinlein-Asimov-Clarke-Bradbury school would stay unchallenged.

Well, I finally gave in, while suspecting that there aren’t enough votes in the world to dislodge Robert A. Heinlein or Frank Herbert from their dominant position as immovable greats. Using the “memory-jogger” lists that Locus provided (which were in fact pretty good, as the net they threw was quite a wide one) I came up with about fourteen titles from the 20th century that I could argue were the “best”. After some thought I dropped four of them. I wanted, for instance, to include something by H. G. Wells, but in reality his best scientific romances were all published in the 19th century, and it felt like special pleading to put in something like The First Men in the Moon (1901) just because it was by Wells.

Then I looked again at the 10 titles that remained, and the doubts about the whole enterprise returned in force. I was and am painfully aware of how long it was since I had read most of them. Now that I have looked into my recollections of the reading of each title, I realize how unreliable my judgement must be. Not only is my reading of (e.g.) The Space Merchants half a century old, it comes from a literary culture that has disappeared, and even the corporate America that was being satirized is no more. This is the same flawed argument that makes some people cling to their liking for the Heinlein juveniles or the Asimov robot stories they read when they were 14. I was 16 when I read the most long-distance of all these books, but at least I have re-read some of them in relatively recent times, so feel I can argue for or against them with some confidence.

I have listed the books in the chronology of my most recent reading – this is not the same as the order as I would put them in for preference. In fact, now I look at the list I think that I would reverse it entirely: but with Pavane above Left Hand, and The Space Merchants below Nineteen Eighty-Four.

However, I know that my false values, my nostalgia, my sacred cows, are just as unreliable as everyone else’s. I never sent in my list. Locus will be announcing the thrilling results later this month.