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The Entropy Exhibition by Colin Greenland

Michael Moorcock and the British ‘New Wave’ in Science Fiction. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983, 256 p, including Preface, Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography and Index.

As its sub-title implies this is an account of the project Michael Moorcock started when he took over the British Science Fiction magazine New Worlds in 1964. This was to try to inject more literary qualities into SF which up to that point had been largely shunned by the ‘mainstream’ because of its pulp sensibilities as he did not see why SF should be separate from literature in general.

To that end Greenland gives us a history of New Worlds up to that point, considers the introduction of sex to SF stories (hitherto all but absent despite the prominence of the three Bs – Boobs, Babes and Bug-eyed Monsters – on cover illustrations,) the withdrawal from space fiction in favour of ‘inner’ space, questions of style, the salience of the concept of entropy to this mid-sixties endeavour, and offers us critiques of the contributions of the three most prominent figures of the British new wave, Brian W Aldiss, J G Ballard and Moorcock himself. (Though it receives a few mentions considerations of how the new wave played out in the US are beyond the remit of this book.)

Greenland is of the opinion that Aldiss’s books Report on Probability A and Barefoot in the Head are the quintessential new wave novels with Moorcock’s Karl Glogauer novels as exemplars of the new wave sensibility dealing as they do with “Time and identity: Moorcock’s two great themes, perhaps the great themes of all New Wave sf.”

Aldiss never really considered himself as part of a wave of any sort; he had in any case been prominent as a writer of SF before the 1960s.

Ballard was always something of an enigma. Whether he can be considered to “belong” to any movement other than his sui generis self is moot but he did contribute a guest editorial to New Worlds in May 1962 asking “Which Way to Inner Space?” an implicit call for a different approach to writing SF. Personally I have always seen in his writing – possibly due to his upbringing as an expatriate – an expression of English reserve taken to the extreme, elevated to an art form even. (His incarceration by the Japanese during World War 2 no doubt also contributed to his take on the world.) Greenland sees Ballard’s principal tool for the disorientating effect of his prose as “unyielding irony.”

The SF New Wave changed everything and nothing. After the 1960s experiment SF by and large returned to its ghetto and continued to be ignored by mainstream fiction. The attitude “if it’s SF it’s not good, if it’s good it’s not SF” still hung around.

Yes, literary qualities did become more common in the genre (and treatment of sex ceased to be shunned) and it is now possible for “proper” writers to dabble in its waters without expressions of horror – from either side – accompanying their efforts.

The Entropy Exhibition is by its nature (and origin as a dissertation for a D Phil) a critical endeavour and now stands as a historical document, and probably one only for those interested in the history of SF.


Pedant’s corner:- extra-terrestial (extra-terrestrial,) sf (I prefer SF,) Euripides’ (Euripides’s,) Capadocia (Cappadocia,) fridgw (fridge,) “the relationship between my characters don’t interest me much” (either ‘relationships’ or ‘doesn’t’,) “a compete new political and social history” (a complete new,) enormity (seems to be in the sense of ‘hugeness’ rather than ‘monstrousness’.) In the Notes; Hilary Baily (Bailey,) benefitted (benefited?)

This Fragile Earth by Susannah Wise

Gollancz, 2021, 356 p. Reviewed for ParSec 1.

In the 1950s and up to the mid-1960s British SF consisted mainly of stories of worldwide disaster – a subgenre which Brian Aldiss somewhat unkindly dubbed cosy catastrophes – whose most prolific contributors were the Johns, Wyndham and Christopher, but also to which, at a stretch, J G Ballard’s early novels could be assigned. While the disaster story never disappeared completely the vogue did ebb and British SF began to cleave the paper light years with the best of them.

In recent times SF writers more generally perhaps sensed the coming contagion. Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven helped to revive the concept of a fictional worldwide disaster and Caroline Hardaker’s Composite Creatures (also reviewed for ParSec 1) has elements of the form. In this book Susannah Wise inhabits that global catastrophe tradition full on – and in a British context.

It is an altered Britain though, which has a heavy Chinese influence. Six year-old Jed’s schoolteacher is a Miss Yue, a supermarket chain is called Lianhua, noodles and rambutan are common foods and a mysterious company called Shīluò zhì lurks in the background.

The common elements of the catastrophe novel are present: communication breakdown, food queues, barricaded roads, troops on the streets. Less usual ingredients here are that bees have gone extinct (though attempts have been made to restore them synthetically) with their pollination tasks in the meantime replaced by tiny drones; following on from beetle blight a rampant disease called Bovine Staph is apparently transmitted through rainwater and can affect humans; venturing outdoors requires UV goggles to be worn to protect against eye damage from sunlight; the currency is exclusively digital – Litecoin spent via Lite-cards.

Pre-disaster just about every service is accessed wirelessly or via AI robots such as BinX, DoctreX, MediX and WaitreX. GScopes, mediated by a system named GQOS, have replaced mobile phones. Roads are constructed from fibre-glass panelling and road signs are exclusively electronic. Agrico-bots roam the countryside.

Then one day the drones start to malfunction, the electricity goes off and everything shuts down. Viewpoint character Signy comes home to a fridge in meltdown, its food rotting. Despite the resultant lack of amenities her partner Matthew keeps saying things will be all right “tomorrow” but one night, while Signy and Jed hide in the loft, Matthew confronts burglars at their house and is killed. Signy sets off from London with Jed to try to reach her mother’s home in Northamptonshire – by bicycle. Along the way they meet the usual assortment of people who either help or steal from them but also uncover the importance of TrincXcode and its links to musical form.

Wise’s writing is fine but in what is presumably a striving for immediacy she exhibits an over-fondness for verbless sentences. Like this one. Her characterisation is generally convincing enough but her portrayal of Jed is inconsistent. As indications of his youth he sometimes has to have words defined to him and he refers to “Mr Mack Wrecker” from the Peter Rabbit books but he also comes out with absurdly adult phrases supposedly remembered from Miss Yue. Things like, “Quantum field which allows the system to work out infinite possibilities,” and, “The system can work out in milliseconds every possible outcome that can happen from any action it takes in multiple universe models and make the best choice.” OK, the reader is getting the info dump but these sentences read as unlikely to come from the mouth of a six year-old, however tech savvy. There is also his memory from three years earlier of his grandfather telling him something “terrible and important,” to wit, “TrincX is the birth of true Artificial Intelligence – God’s daughter come to walk on Earth,” a warning now come true.

This central role of AIs in the background of the narrative has the effect of making the book’s resolution a literal deus ex machina, or, rather, dei ex machinae. Whether that makes it cosy or not is a fine judgement but it certainly leans towards it.

Pedant’s corner:- GQOS’ (GQOS’s,) “the Orkneys” (the locals prefer the designation Orkney, or, the Orkney Islands,) “more combustible that the old carbon boiler” (than,) gotten (in dialogue? In Britain?) Signy rushes out the front door with no mention of its mechanism previously not working due to the shutdown of communications, hummous (hummus.) “‘Danny!’.” (doesn’t need that full stop, the exclamation mark provides that function.) “It lay uncertain rays across” (It laid uncertain rays,) “‘I bought it from home.’” (brought it.) “‘It’s wasn’t Lau Chen was it?’” (‘It wasn’t’.)

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (i)

My contribution this week to Reader in the Wilderness’s Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times meme. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

These are some of my hardback SF and Fantasy books. I didn’t buy many hardbacks back in the day (except second hand) so most of these are fairly modern SF and some are review copies.

Science Fiction Hardbacks (i)

Above note some J G Ballard (his Empire of the Sun ought not really be shelved here but it keeps his books together,) Iain M Banks, Eric Brown, Alan Campbell, Ted Chiang, the wonderful Michael G Coney, the excellent Richard Cowper, Hal Duncan, and Matthew Fitt’s amazing But n Ben A-Go-Go, an SF novel written entirely in Scots.

The next shelf still has some of its adornments in front:-

Science Fiction Hardbacks (ii)

Stand-outs here are Mary Gentle, the all-but indescribable R A Lafferty, the sublime Ursula Le Guin, Stanisław Lem, Graham Dunstan Martin, Ian R MacLeod, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald.

You’ll also see the proof copy of a novel titled A Son of the Rock perched above the books at the right hand end on row 2.

Brian Aldiss

Earlier today I read the news that Brian Aldiss has died.

At times during my youth he was about the sole standard bearer for British SF (for which actually read English SF as Science Fiction from other parts of these islands was more or less invisible till years later.) Only John Wyndham and J G Ballard had anything like as high a profile and they were very different writers.

(Edited to add: I don’t know why it was that Arthur C Clarke slipped my mind when I originally wrote this. Maybe because his output was hard SF as compared to the others.)

As a result of Aldiss’s prominence I have a large number of his books. I think The Interpreter was the first SF book I bought as opposed to borrowing them from the local library.

The latest such purchase was bought for me for Christmas by the good lady because she liked the cover so much – and she read it before me!

I suppose there won’t be any more now.

I did meet him once; briefly, at one of the Liverpool Eastercons.

One of the greats. Arguably the last of the SF pioneers.

Brian Wilson Aldiss: 18/8/1925 – 19/8/2017. So it goes.

I’m on the Map!


Despite me not having a piece of fiction published for a few years – and only ever one novel – I’ve been included on this map of British SF and Fantasy writers. (If you click on the map it will lead you to its creator’s website, where copies can be purchased):-

Science Fiction and Fantasy Literary Map

I’m humbled by this. Imagine me being on the same map as Alasdair Gray, Iain (M) Banks, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald, Eric Brown, Arthur C Clarke, J G Ballard, George Orwell et al. Not to mention J Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon.)

J G Ballard

I discovered this morning that the sometime Science Fiction writer and chronicler of the late twentieth century, J G Ballard, whose semi-autobiographical novel The Kindness Of Women I wrote about a few weeks ago, has died. Eulogies are apparently all over the blogosphere.
His early experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese in wartime Shanghai flooded indelibly through his work; images of wrecks, ruin and abandonment abound. An air of the inevitability of decay hangs over nearly everything he wrote. (The word “already” is a Ballardian trademark.) Here it should be noted that as a road map of where as a civilisation we may be headed this aspect of his work may be all too predictive.

Yet to me his writing always seemed to be quintessentially English; it represented a kind of über Englishness in the way that possibly only an expatriate could express. His stories somehow embodied the stiff upper lip and also the “hanging-on in quiet desperation” that Roger Waters of Pink Floyd described as the English way. Yet they dissected alienation and elevated its description to an art from.

Having said all that it nevertheless remains true that pretty much all of his works plough a similar furrow. I know this will be sacrilege to his admirers but to read one Ballard novel is more or less to read them all. The crucial affect is of detachment, events are described matter-of-factly, as if they do not really impact on the character whose point of view we inhabit at the time.

His obsessions, Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedy assassination, car crashes, the nuclear bomb, urban blight, were those of an Englishman of a certain age. In that respect he was more a man of his time than he was one ahead of it.

He is undoubtedly, however, one of the major writers in English, and of world literature as a whole, of the second half of the twentieth century.

And the novels of his that were published as Science Fiction are indissolubly part of his canon, covering the same concerns, and equally as worthy, as those that were not.

J G Ballard: 15/11/1930-19/04/2009. So it goes.

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