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British SF Masterworks?

Over on his blog a week or so ago Ian Sales has with some help come up with a list of fifty British SF Masterworks.

The list is below. It has only one book (or series) per author and a “completely arbitrary cut off date of 1995” I suppose on the grounds that anything younger can not yet be called a masterwork.

It’s an interesting set of choices.

The ones in bold I have read.

1 Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)
2 The War of the Worlds, HG Wells (1897)
3 Last And First Men, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
4 Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)
5 Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell (1949)
6 The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951)
7 The Death of Grass, John Christopher (1956)

8 No Man Friday, Rex Gordon (1956)
9 On The Beach, Nevil Shute (1957)
10 A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (1962)
11 The Drowned World, JG Ballard (1962)
12 Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)

13 A Man of Double Deed, Leonard Daventry (1965)
14 The Time Before This, Nicholas Monsarrat (1966)
15 A Far Sunset, Edmund Cooper (1967)
16 The Revolt of Aphrodite [Tunc and Nunquam ], Lawrence Durrell (1968 – 1970)
17 Pavane, Keith Roberts (1968)
18 Stand On Zanzibar, John Brunner (1968)
19 Behold The Man, Michael Moorcock (1969)
20 Ninety-Eight Point Four, Christopher Hodder-Williams (1969)

21 Junk Day, Arthur Sellings (1970)
22 The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, DG Compton (1973)
23 Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C Clarke (1973)
24 Collision with Chronos, Barrington Bayley (1973)
25 Inverted World, Christopher Priest (1974)
26 The Centauri Device, M John Harrison (1974)

27 The Memoirs of a Survivor, Doris Lessing (1974)
28 Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975)
29 Orbitsville [Orbitsville, Orbitsville Departure, Orbitsville Judgement], Bob Shaw (1975 – 1990)
30 The Alteration, Kingsley Amis (1976)
31 The White Bird of Kinship [The Road to Corlay, A Dream of Kinship, A Tapestry of Time], Richard Cowper (1978 – 1982)
32 SS-GB, Len Deighton (1978)
33 Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981)

34 The Silver Metal Lover, Tanith Lee (1981)
35 Helliconia, Brian W Aldiss (1982 – 1985)
35 Orthe, Mary Gentle (1983 – 1987)
36 Chekhov’s Journey, Ian Watson (1983)

37 A Maggot, John Fowles (1985)
38 Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton (1986)
39 Wraeththu Chronicles [The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, The Bewitchments of Love and Hate, The Fulfilments of Fate and Desire], Storm Constantine (1987 – 1989)
40 Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
41 The Empire of Fear, Brian Stableford (1988)
42 Desolation Road, Ian McDonald (1988)
43 Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990)

44 Wulfsyarn, Phillip Mann (1990)
47 Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1990)
48 Vurt, Jeff Noon (1993)

49 Ammonite, Nicola Griffith (1993)
50 The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter (1995)

I’m sure I haven’t read Frankenstein in the original. I have however read Brian Aldiss’s Frankenstein Unbound but of course he’s in the list for the Helliconia trilogy.

I read Doris Lessing’s Shikasta soon after publication and could not get to grips with it at all. It seemed to me like the classic case of a mainstream writer attempting SF and not bringing it off. Among other things it was too didactic, too preachy, totally unengaging. As a consequence I did not persevere with her SF output; nor indeed the remainder of her oeuvre.

I’m not sure of A Man of Double Deed at no 13 nor A Far Sunset (15). I may have read these out of the library when I was a young thing.

One point of interest. The only two Scottish writers in the list seem to be Naomi Mitchison, for a book published in 1962, and Iain M Banks, 1990. (See my post on the dearth of Scottish SF till extremely recently.) Mitchison was of course more renowned for her non-SF.

The Garments of Caean by Barrington Bayley

Pan, 1989, 241p.

The Garments Of Caean cover

In the part of the galaxy known as the Tzist Arm, a human culture known as Caean has perfected the art of clothes making. The suits their sartorialists make change the behaviour of their wearers in all sorts of ways and influence those they meet. The government of the Ziode Cluster sees this as a form of attack but a black market exists for the products. A Caean freighter has crashed on an isolated planet and an expedition has been mounted to secure samples. One of its members, Peder Forbarth, gains for himself the ultimate expression of the sartorialists’ art, a Frachonard Suit. The novel mainly consists of the subsequent adventures into which Forbarth is drawn as a result of the influence of the suit and the material Prossim from which it is made.

The sartorialist concept is another typically bizarre piece of Bayley imagining, which, however, means the characterisation is made rudimentary by it. The notion barely stands up to a moment’s scrutiny yet somehow, in the novel, has a perverse logic of its own. Bayley can do that to your brain.

Not vintage stuff, then; but diverting.

The cover shown above is from the 1978 Fontana edition.

The Pillars Of Eternity by Barrington Bayley

Pan, 1989. 172p. (The cover shown is the Daw Edition.)

The Pillars Of Eternity

Joachim Boaz was a deformed orphan before the Colonnaders took him and reshaped his body with “silicon bones.” It was only after this radical surgery and to forget his past that he renamed himself after the two pillars of eternity at the ends of the universe, Joachim and Boaz. The enhancements mean he is susceptible to torments (and later, pleasures) to an intense degree and also that he is more or less incapable without his spaceship in close proximity.

He sets off to the elusive planet Meirjain, which takes a complex orbit in and around the closely knit stars of the Brilliancy Cluster, where time gems allow the past or future to be observed. Unfortunately such gems are contraband.

It is a measure of Bayley’s eclecticism that these meanderings, which many an SF writer would have explored minutely and at great length, are not the main focus of the book.

There are, though, musings on the cyclical nature of the universe and on whether Joachim will suffer his torments over and over again, all in Bayley’s somewhat dry style – which involves a lot of info dumping and telling rather than showing.

It would almost be absurd to complain that this tends to be at the expense of characterisation as Bayley’s intent is more to expound ideas but it does make for a less engaging reading experience.

Unfortunately, there is, too, a degree of casual sexism which may have gone unremarked on first publication over thirty years ago but jars badly nowadays and, towards the end of the book, the least enticing sex scene I’ve ever read.

This is probably one for Bayley completists only.

The Rod Of Light by Barrington J Bayley

Methuen, 1985, 193 p

Rod of Light

On an Earth where robots are commonplace Jasperodus is the only such construct with consciousness – a fact which he* has to hide.

Free robots are hunted by the Borgor – a hegemony of robot-hating humans. After an encounter with the custodian of the last Temple of Zoroaster on Earth and a Borgor disruption of an architectural dig with which Jasperodus is involved he flees along with another robot, Cricus.

During their travels they meet various others of their kind including Dr Viss who imitates all things human – even down to eating, drinking and evacuation. This section contained a passably amusing never ending football game between teams of black and white robots (latest score: 49,543 – 51,038.)

With Cricus’s promptings Jasperodus is drawn into the quasi-religious orbit of Gargar, a robot who wishes to induce in all robots full consciousness, as opposed to mere awareness of self. He wishes to give them souls: the superior light as he calls it. This necessitates experimenting on human captives to extract their essences. Jasperodus views the project as dangerous and from this point on the book concentrates on his efforts to thwart Gargar; which necessitates his entering Borgor land to seek their help, with all the attendant dangers that entails.

And The Rod Of Light of the title? This is the mechanism – a tube containing coherence modulated light (which is thus conscious of itself ) – by which Gargar intends to decant full awareness into himself and other robots.

Partly due to the various discussions of the nature of consciousness the book is somewhat dry, a drawback which is reinforced by the absence of the normal invocations of sensory impressions that usually obtain with novels; all of which makes it difficult to warm to the protagonist. There are also diversions into Zoroastrian philosophy and a deal of telling rather than showing.

Apart from its brevity the book shows other signs of its age, then, but it is still worthwhile to experience Bayley’s take on what it means to be (not) human.

*I have used male personal pronouns throughout, even though robots cannot be said to be gendered, as this is what Bayley himself does. Perhaps this is why the constructs depicted here all seem to have masculine dispositions.

The Fall Of Chronopolis by Barrington Bayley

Fontana, 1980

(The cover above is from the 2001 reprint, not the Fontana edition which I read.)

Since his recent death I thought I’d take a look at some of Bayley’s work which I never got round to at the time.

In this one time travel has been discovered and is possible through the substratum (which members of the Time Service call the strat) between the 6 nodes which advance through historical time. As a result there are three kinds of time; nodal time, historical time and orthogonal time.

Chronopolis is the capital of the Chronotic Empire where travel to times between the nodes is strictly forbidden and requires a device known as an orthophase to stabilise the wearer’s presence between nodes. However members of the royal family can make such travel with impunity. (One such scion has ventured internodally to meet, seduce and bring back his future self to live with him. With characteristic wit Bayley names this identical pair Narcis1 and Narcis2.)

The Empire is heavily dominated by a church founded by the discoverer of time travel and relies for advice on an enigmatic machine oracle wherein previous Emperor’s memories are stored and which is called the Imperator. Could this possibly be where Douglas Adams got the idea for his Deep Thought?

There is also a war with the Hegemony, a culture at the furthest node. Their use of a time distorter device causes ripple effects through the Empire’s domains, wiping out entire histories and leaving no memory of them. The activities of an heretical sect, the Traumatics, feature strongly. Temporal paradoxes abound.

Oh, and the strat is a dangerous place, exposure leading to mental disturbance, and may harbour a devil of sorts.

This all utterly bonkers, of course, but it is a measure of Bayley’s ability that it does make a kind of sense when you’re reading it.

Unfortunately, this story is twenty years old and it shows. The characterisation is minimal. The book verges on being sexist since there are only three female characters (one of whom is a corpse, another is peripheral at best and the third seems to be there primarily for members of the Traumatics to abuse her and to provide a punchline at the end.) Many of the names are ridiculous. Mond Aton? Inpris Sorce? Absol Humbardt? San Hevatar?

It was however a pleasure to read an adult SF book that didn’t require a weightlifter’s muscles to do so.

191 pages of small print. That’s the way to do it.

Barrington J Bayley

Barrington J Bayley has died.*

He wrote some bizarre and entertaining stuff, sometimes even at the same time. His story “Love In Backspace” in New Worlds 4, 1994, is a perfect example.

He was one of the most undeservedly unsung SF authors of the 20th century. I well remember Angus McAllister singing his praises on a panel at some convention or other. It might have been one of the Glasgow Eastercons.

The Locus obituary is here.

*Thanks to Jim Steel for the link.

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