Living in the Past


Back in 1978, I remember watching a BBC television series called “Living in the Past”. In it, a group of volunteers spent a year living in a recreated Iron Age settlement. It was the first time I came across the phrase: experimental archaeology. (By this time I had long since read The Kon-Tiki Expedition and The Ra Expedition, but it would be some years later before I associated those adventures with experimental archaeology.)

I mention this only to suggest that there is nothing new in the idea of living in an Iron Age roundhouse. The various couples in the BBC series were not archaeologists themselves, but nor were they playing with the idea of being pre-Roman Britons. The programme showed it to be an often harsh and miserable existence. One family left part way through when their child fell ill, but everyone else stuck with it to the end. And if I remember rightly, there was a follow-up programme in which all of the participants insisted that they had learned from the experience.

Above all, it was not a game.

Which is where I start to have problems with Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. It is a highly-praised book, and I can understand and appreciate why that should be so. And yet I kept running up against doubts and questions.

ghost wall by sarah mossThe setting is an exercise in experimental archaeology that has been set up by a professor and three of his students. Also taking part in the exercise are a working class family, Dad, a bus driver who prides himself in being an enthusiastic and reputable amateur when it comes to ancient British history, his wife, and their daughter, Sylvie, who is the narrator. That’s rather too small a group to recreate Iron Age living, but it is just about acceptable for dramatic purposes.

The problem I have is that at no time do we get any notion of what the archaeologists are doing there. There is no aim to the experiment, and there has been no preparation for the experiment. When the students are sent out to forage for food, they have no notion of what foods might be found, or what might be edible and what poisonous. And the same goes for the professor, who has not prepared either his students or himself, and who seems to have no idea what he is doing from one moment to the next. As the supposed expert – he is, after all, teaching a course on experimental archaeology – it is as if he has suddenly found himself dumped in the Iron Age with no idea what to do next.

And because he is clearly not taking any of this seriously, neither do the students. They are all playing at the Iron Age, and by extension they are all playing at archaeology, even though for all four of them that is their chosen profession.

The only one taking any of this serious, and this is of course the point of the book, is Dad. Through him, of course, both Mum and Syl take it seriously, but only because they are terrified of Dad. And Dad is living in the past in more senses than one. He is the old-fashioned northern working class patriarch who rules his family by intimidation and violence. He is ready in an instant to thrash anyone who lapses from his strict and absolute rules. He is a monster, and far and away the most vividly drawn character in the novel. (But then, monsters do tend to leap off the page, don’t they?)

While the focus is on these three – horrific Dad, Mum cowed to inertia, and Syl more alert to what might trigger Dad’s violence than to anything else around her – the novel is chilly, sharp and powerful. But it needs the others. Or rather, it needs two of the others, the two male students are largely undifferentiated extras there to bulk out a scene as necessary. In the first place, it needs Molly, the careless, sybaritic student who gradually comes to realise what tortures, mental and physical, Syl is enduring. Molly is bright, mercurial, a flashing contrast to the dark, foreboding bulk of Dad.

But it also needs the Prof, because he is the one who enables the climactic expression of Dad’s violent and controlling nature. But the Prof is a non-entity, he has no character, at no point do we get any glimpse of why he is doing anything or what he thinks is going on at any point.

bog bodiesThe purpose of experimental archaeology, particularly of the living-in-the-Iron-Age type, is practical. How did they live? How did they do that? What was it like? But at no point does this particular exercise in Iron Age living consider such questions; Syl has learned hard lessons, and so knows how to gather burdock roots and bilberries for the group to eat, but even such essential practicalities seem of little interest to anyone else. But rather, Dad’s madness (is he mad? We are not told, but there is surely something not quite sane about him) quickly steers the professor and his male students towards that bugbear of archaeological interpretation: ritual. They construct a ghost wall, a wicker fence adorned with skulls to frighten away the enemy. And after that, Dad convinces them to take the next step, the sacrifice, the bog body, and nobody cries halt, nobody says that is not why we are here. And yet we have to take Dad’s domination over the Prof as a given, because we never see it in action. And because we never understand the Prof, we never understand why events might follow this path.

The only other book by Sarah Moss I have read is her first novel, Cold Earth, a book with which I was considerably less enamoured than most other people seem to have been. I like Ghost Wall much more than that, but it is still a novel that feels as if something is missing, a little extra depth, a little extra solidity.


Little and Black



My leisure reading this year, as an escape from the science fiction I’m contractually obliged to read, has been roughly split between spy fiction and historical fiction. Of the latter, two books stand out not because they are among the best of the bunch, although they are, but because there is a curious congruity between them.

One is set in the late-18th century, the other in the early-19th century. Each consists of a first person narrative by a child who is alienated from their society by reason of their person: one is female, of stunted growth and ugly; the other is black with a disfigured face. Each gains their eventual status by ability in art and interest in science.

The novels are both named for their narrators. Little by Edward Carey is the story of Anne Marie Grosholtz, born in poverty in Alsace in, as the first sentence of the novel tells us:

the same year that the five-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Minuet for Harpsichord, in the precise year when the British captured Pondicherry in India from the French, in the exact same year in which the melody for ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ was first published.

Little by Eadward CareyThat enjambment of oddly disconnected detail is typical of Carey’s distinctive style. I have read and enjoyed two of his novels before this, Observatory Mansions and Alva and Irva, and though this new novel doesn’t have the same perverse air of unreality the writing has much the same curious quality. In this instance, though, the novel cleaves close to historical reality. Little Marie, who never grows above five foot, goes while still a young child to work as a housekeeper for an eccentric doctor in Berne. She becomes interested in his work, and through her preternatural abilities as an artist starts to make a contribution to his work in the study of body parts. So much so that she goes with him when two visitors, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Louis-Sebastien Mercier, persuade him to go to Paris. She plays a part in helping Doctor Curtius in setting up a business displaying wax heads of famous Parisiens. For a while Marie is taken up by one of the minor princesses in the Royal Family and spends a year living in a cupboard at Versailles. Then comes the revolution; Marie barely survives, and after struggling to pull together what remains of her and Doctor Curtius’s business, she eventually leaves for London. There, at some point after the end of the novel, she will become Madame Tussaud.

It’s a marvellous novel, full of curious details, vivid characters, snappy lines, all helped out by Marie’s own line drawings as provided by the author himself. Although this is a fairly straightforward historical novel it still has an air, familiar from Carey’s other novels, of being situated at a slight angle to reality. Yet at the same time it conveys absolute conviction, you get a sense that the young Madame Tussaud must have been exactly like this.

The other novel, which seems to parallel Little, is Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. Like Carey, Edugyan has written a couple of novels before this, though in this case I haven’t read them. I get a feeling that I should.

Also in apparent parallel with Little, the blurb on the back of my copy of Washington Black says “Inspired by a true story”. This, however, is the only reference to such a “true story” anywhere in the book. There is no author’s note to provide context, no hint of such a story in the acknowledgements, none of the quoted reviews make any reference to such a source story; so I really don’t know what to make of this claim. I am inclined to doubt it, though that does nothing to gainsay the quality of the novel.

Washington Black by Esi EdugyanWashington Black is ten when the novel opens, which makes him a few years older than Marie, but he is even more disadvantaged: he is a slave on the Faith Plantation on Barbados. At the time, around 1830, slavery on the sugar plantations of the British West Indies was even harsher than in the southern states of the USA, and Faith Plantation has just been taken over by a new owner who is particularly harsh. But Edugyan doesn’t spend too much time spelling out the familiar iniquities of slavery. The new owner’s brother, a tall, thin man known as “Titch”, has also arrived. He has a sort of soft, liberal sensibility that makes him uncomfortable about slavery, though he doesn’t act on this discomfort. However, Titch is also a naturalist and would-be inventor, and his latest invention is a balloon-powered flying craft. Wash, small and light, would be an ideal assistant in his experiments. The fact that Wash is sharp, a quick learner, and has untapped artistic ability, cements the relationship, particularly when an accident with the gas being used for the balloon explodes and permanently disfigures Wash’s face.

When a visitor to the plantation commits suicide in Wash’s presence, Wash knows that as a slave he will get the blame regardless of what actually happened. So he and Titch escape aboard the flying craft, which almost immediately ditches in the middle of a storm. There begin a series of highly coloured picaresque adventures, aboard ships on illicit business, encountering the underground railroad in Virginia, being chased by a slave catcher, heading deep into the Arctic wastes where Titch wanders off alone into the snow. Edward Carey’s novel sticks pretty close to historical reality, but the way that the language is used suggests a heightened reality; Esi Edugyan writes a careful, factual prose, but the story she tells is full of the wild action, coincidences, chance meetings and extravagant settings of an early-19th century melodrama. In both cases, I find it fascinating that the style and the story seem at odds, yet work so well together.

At a later stage in the novel, Wash falls in with a noted naturalist and his beautiful daughter. Wash’s ability as an artist earns him the chance to illustrate the naturalist’s new book, and his interest in science helps him devise a way in which an exhibition of sea creatures can be staged in which the creatures are live rather than dead. It was at this point that I found myself wishing that, like Carey, Edugyan had found some way to include Wash’s drawings in the book.

Washington Black was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a worthy honour that I don’t begrudge it in the least; Little seems to have slipped by almost unnoticed, though I think it is at least as good a novel. Together, the two make for an intriguing and remarkably satisfying pairing.

Cloak and Dagger



There is a line that has appeared on the cover of just about every Helen MacInnes novel I have ever seen. It comes from a Newsweek review:

Helen MacInnes can hang her cloak and dagger right up there with Eric Ambler and Graham Greene.

I’m not so sure about Greene, I’ve not really read enough of his “entertainments” to know how valid the comparison might be. But Ambler!

There is a pattern that recurs in most, though not all, of the spy stories by both Ambler and MacInnes. The central character is an amateur, often a journalist or a writer of some sort, caught up unexpectedly in events way outside their normal experience. These events are usually triggered by a chance encounter, escalate at a rate that does not allow the protagonist time to get away, and despite being an amateur the protagonist proves to have reserves of ingenuity that makes him (always him) an effective player in a dangerous game. The drama plays out far from the protagonist’s familiar home territory, and there is usually a journey of some sort central to the action that keeps everyone off balance.

Let us take, for example, one novel by each that I happen to have read recently. Neither is among the best known examples of their work, but they are both typical of their author’s storytelling.

uncommon dangerEric Ambler’s Uncommon Danger (1937) was his second published novel (Ambler’s own preferred title, Background to Danger, is, I think, better). It is the story of Kenton, a freelance journalist, travelling around Europe in 1936. In Nuremberg he loses all his money playing poker dice and has to get a train to Vienna where he hopes to find an old acquaintance who might be persuaded to lend him more cash. But on the train he runs into Herr Sachs who claims to be a Jew escaping the Nazis, and persuades Kenton to smuggle an envelope of what he claims are bonds across the Austrian border in exchange for cash. But before Kenton can return the envelope Sachs is killed, and Kenton is framed for the murder. Kenton then finds himself caught in a spy game between a wily Russian agent and a ruthless representative of a British oil company.

snare of the hunterSnare of the Hunter (1974) is, on the other hand, a relatively late work by Helen MacInnes (her first novel had appeared in 1941, so she was a pretty close contemporary of Ambler). This is the story of David Mennery, an American music journalist, who, years before, had briefly befriended a Czech girl, Irina. Now Irina has escaped to the West, and because he once knew her David is recruited to help her on her journey across Austria and into Switzerland where she can be reunited with her father, a famous author in exile. But Irina’s escape has been facilitated by her ex-husband, a powerful figure in the Czech secret service who wants to use Irina as a way of getting to her father.

epitaph for a spyThough separated by nearly 40 years, there are familiar patterns in both works: David and Kenton play much the same role, with similar competence, and the drama is largely played out in the course of a journey. (There is no journey in another Ambler from the same time, Epitaph for a Spy, but the setting is a small hotel in the south of France and all of the characters are there at the mid-point of a journey.)

Of course there are differences between Ambler and MacInnes. For MacInnes the protagonist is always a hero figure, noble, bold, in the right; though she practically always includes a traitor among those close to the protagonist upon whom he must depend. For Ambler, on the other hand, the protagonist is not morally pure, he is an ambiguous figure who learns resolution only in the face of the danger he encounters. On the other hand, once he has worked out who he can trust, those characters remain trustworthy throughout the novel.

Both writers set their work in relatively exotic European locations; Ambler tending towards Eastern Europe and Turkey, MacInnes preferring glamorous places such as Paris, Saltzburg, Malaga and the Greek Islands. But the location was intimately tied to the romance of MacInnes’s work and she included lots of confident local knowledge in her often extensive scenic descriptions. Ambler didn’t really care that much for landscape, and his  scene setting could often be quite perfunctory. There is, for instance, no sense of France in Epitaph for a Spy.

The biggest difference between the two, though, is philosophical, or at least political. For MacInnes her early novels, written during and just after World War II, invariably featured Nazis as villains; but once the Cold War got started her villains were always of the left: any communist was bad, any fellow traveller was bad, anyone whose politics were left of centre was a fool who unwittingly aided bad people. Ambler was considerably less clear-cut in his choice of villains. In novels like The Mask of Dimitrios or Uncommon Danger the villain acts as an agent for big business, because it is business that shapes European politics more than anything else. Because international business is more corrupt and villainous even than the Nazis, the good guys tend to be on the left. I suspect that Uncommon Danger is one of very few British spy novels in which the Soviet spy is a hero. By the mid-Fifties, Ambler had become less comfortable with communism, and the Russians started to become the villains, but he was never as vehemently anti-left as MacInnes always was.

Ambler’s novels are shorter and tighter: he tends to get down to plot as quickly as possible, and spends little time on extraneous details that might decorate that plot. MacInnes is more expansive, her novels tend to be considerably longer than Ambler’s. She likes to take time setting the scene and situating her characters very precisely in their landscape, she also tells a romance as much as a drama. Nevertheless, MacInnes owes a clear debt to Ambler, both are exploring a common model of the cloak and dagger tale.



Pantglas means “The Green Hollow”. It is one of the names, along with Hafod Tanglwys and Bryn Golau, for that part of South Wales where the Taff is joined by its tributary, the Fan. It is best known as the mouth of the Fan, or Aberfan.

I had just turned fourteen at the time. During the summer, despite my growing dislike of football, I had watched England win the World Cup while we were on holiday in Newquay. Over the following years I watched with absolute fascination the developing Apollo programme that would, in less than three years, land a man on the moon. Both of these events have their tangential part to play in the story. But in between came those devastating black and white images. We didn’t yet have BBC2, so we didn’t yet have colour television, but that was probably just as well. The images from Aberfan deserved to be in black and white; I’m not sure they could be understood or fully appreciated any other way.


The coal tips that surrounded the village had been raised above groundwater that the National Coal Board consistently denied existed, though the villagers had played in those streams for generations. There had been reports that the spoil tips had been seen to move, but officially this hadn’t happened, and besides it would be far too expensive to move the tips, probably more expensive than the mine was worth. And the early part of that October had been wet, a lot of rain had fallen.

Just after nine o’clock on 21st October 1966, with a sound like thunder, the coal tips slid inexorably down the hillside and buried the local school, where the last school day before half term had just begun. 116 children died, along with many of their teachers and several others. They were buried alive under slag, under thick black mud, mud that couldn’t be dug out because as soon as one spadeful was lifted, another poured in to take its place. 

Fifty years on, the film of antlike figures, miners and army and civil servants and shopkeepers and farmers and anyone who happened to live within reach of Aberfan moving across a black landscape that seems monstrously inhuman is still vivid in my memory. I was the same age as some of those victims.

the green hollowI didn’t set out to buy a book about Aberfan. I’m not sure I really wanted to read a book about Aberfan. But I  love the novels and plays of Owen Sheers that I have read; I account him one of my favourite poets, yet I have never read a book of his poetry. So, in a bookshop in Caernarfon, I picked up what seemed to be his latest slim volume, The Green Hollow. It was only as I read it that I realised what it was I was reading, and by then it was impossible to put down.

It started out as a BBC drama-documentary to mark the 50th anniversary of the disaster. Here it is presented as a verse play, based on the testimonials of survivors and imaginative reconstructions of the words of some of the victims. 

The book is in three parts, ‘Children’, ‘Rescuers’ and ‘Survivors’. The first part follows a group of children and their parents as they wake that morning (something in the rhythm of the words at this point reminded me of the opening of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas) and set out for school. It’s a mixture of the usual (plans to go and see a film or watch a football match, the ordinariness of stopping in a sweetshop along the way) and the aspirational (dreams of being an astronaut). 

The second part is the testimony of those who worked, desperately, hopelessly, to rescue the children. The medical student who had been on his way to a family christening, the young journalist on his way to what initial reports said was an outhouse collapsing at a school, the bank clerk in his best suit, the mayor’s secretary who found herself drafted in to go door to door and ask if there were any children who weren’t home. In Wales at that time the practice was to draw the curtains when there had been a death in the family; at one point the journalist realised that every house in the street had their curtains closed. Perhaps the most affecting moment came when rescuers got into one more or less intact classroom and found the teacher, a one-time rugby star who had been drafted in only a few days before as a temporary replacement for a teacher who had had a heart attack, obviously trying to protect his huddled class of wide-eyed, wide-mouthed children. Every one of them was dead.

The final part is the testimony of residents of Aberfan in 2016, some survivors and some of their descendants. In some ways this is a feel-good story, the town pulled together and most of the surviving children did quite well for themselves. But the shadow, the hollow eyes, the ghosts never go away. The past is ever present. And along the way we learn that after the tribunal that blamed no-one, prosecuted no-one, forced no-one to resign, the National Coal Board inspected the remaining tips at Aberfan and declared they were safe and there was no need to remove them. It took the formation of a local committee, and the sort of direct action that included sacks of slurry on the Welsh Secretary’s doorstep, before the tips were eventually removed. In a development that seems particularly Welsh, once the committee had been successful the members formed themselves into a male voice choir. The choir is still going.

The Green Hollow is an odd book, falling somewhere between oral history and epic verse, but it is one of the most powerfully affecting things I have read for a very long time.

Barry Unsworth, Mooncranker’s Gift


I first encountered the work of Barry Unsworth when I read Stone Virgin. I cannot now remember why I picked it up, perhaps a review, but I loved the book. Something about the mood, the tone of voice, the atmosphere, captivated me. I went back and picked up his earlier, Booker-shortlisted Pascali’s Island, and then bought most (though I have recently learned, not all) of the books he published subsequently. These include his Booker Prize winner, Sacred Hunger, The Ruby in her Navel, which I happen to think is the very best thing he wrote, and, of course, his last novel, a sort-of sequel to Sacred Hunger, The Quality of Mercy. When he died, less that a year after that novel came out (on the same day that Ray Bradbury died, as it happens, prompting one American commentator to say that Bradbury invented the future, and Unsworth invented the past), I made a promise to myself that I would read, or in most cases re-read, all of his novels and write about them. Circumstances get in the way, but as we were preparing for our holiday this year, Maureen asked me to recommend something for her to read. I thought she would really enjoy The Ruby in her Navel, and while I was taking that off the shelf for her I thought that it was maybe time to pick up one of the Unsworth’s I’ve not previously read for myself. Which is how I came to read Mooncranker’s Gift.

mooncranker's giftMooncranker’s Gift was his fourth novel, which makes it the earliest of his books I have yet read, it was also a book or two before he turned to the historical novel, which is where he was at his absolute best. The contemporary novels of his that I have read have never quite hit the spot in the way that his historical writing did. On the other hand, Mooncranker’s Gift is largely set in Turkey, as is Pascali’s Island, and he is at least as good at evoking a foreign setting as he is at evoking an historical setting. If this suggests a certain ambivalence about the book, well that’s fair enough: there are moments of beauty and moments of dazzling writing that clearly herald his finest work; but at the same time there are clumsy moments that suggest a writer still awkwardly learning his craft.

There is also an uncertainty about what he is doing with the novel. It is, in part, a rather crude 1960s sex comedy (the novel was first published in 1973), and both the sex and the comedy require a sprightliness that is not really Unsworth’s natural style. But intimately interweaved with this is a meditative work on guilt, corruption, and the distinction between love and desire. This is something that Unsworth is considerably better at, and it is in these passages that you get a glimpse of the writer he would become. The trouble is that this thematic heart of the novel requires a much better story to bear it up.

Mooncranker is a one-time academic turned television personality who is now an alcoholic has-been making a living touring obscure parts of the world to deliver lectures on his past glories. He is a pathetic, self-obsessed figure who has practically no awareness of what is going on around him in the world. He is in Istanbul when young Farnaby encounters him. Farnaby is someone who has never quite worked out what he wants to do with his life and is currently living in Istanbul to research aspects of Turkish history in which he has no interest whatsoever. Farnaby had met Mooncranker ten years before, when Farnaby was just 13 years old and living with his aunt and uncle while his parents divorced. He had, at more or less the same time and with the same excessive enthusiasm, discovered religion and masturbation. 

He had also discovered Miranda, a friend of the family who was a year or two older than he was. They partnered each other successfully at tennis, explored the grounds, and started hesitantly developing a relationship. Then Mooncranker appeared on the scene. Mooncranker also has his eye on Miranda, and for him young Farnaby is just a nuisance who is in the way. At one point Mooncranker gives Farnaby a crucifix, which turns out to be composed of sausage meat wrapped in white bandages, and which quickly begins to decay in the summer heat. I was, I confess, never entirely convinced of either the gift, which seemed particularly ludicrous, or of Mooncranker’s exact motives at this point. It is a significant moment that shapes Farnaby’s future, it is the moment that the entire plot hinges upon, and it made no sense to me. 

Be that as it may, the stinking, rotting crucifix is apparently enough to destroy Farnaby’s religious belief and allow Mooncranker to walk off with Miranda.

Now, ten years later, when Farnaby reluctantly meets Mooncranker at his uncle’s behest, he finds a broken figure so far gone with alcoholism that his memory has been largely destroyed. He has no notion who Farnaby is. He clearly needs hospital treatment, and Farnaby finds himself in the unwelcome position of having to get him into a hospital and keep him company there. In one of his more cogent moments, Mooncranker begs Farnaby to go and find his secretary who has recently left him. Farnaby is minded to turn the request down, until he learns that the secretary is Miranda.

She, it turns out, has gone to a spa hotel in the mountains of Anatolia. Farnaby follows her there, and a little later Mooncranker discharges himself from hospital and travels there also. What follows, pretty much the whole of the second half of the novel, is also the best part of the book. There is some bravura comic writing when the various residents of the hotel take to the pool in the twilight and snatches of disconnected conversations twist in and around each other for page after page. There’s a remarkable sense of place as various characters explore the mountains behind the hotel with their ruins of former civilisations. There is rather crude sex comedy as the various guests try to get laid with varying degrees of success. And there is a complex examination of belief and trust that suggests something of what Unsworth would become.

It is not, I suppose, a bad book; but it is not a place to start one’s reading of Barry Unsworth.

Theological Gothic



I read and enjoyed Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent when it came out a couple of years ago. But I’ve now had the chance to read her other two novels: After Me Comes the Flood, her first novel which came out in 2014; and Melmoth, the most recent novel, which came out in 2018. And as a result, I think I was maybe looking at the wrong things in The Essex Serpent.

essex serpentNo, not the wrong things; but there was an awful lot of stuff going on in that book, and I was distracted by the surface story of an independent woman just at that point when Victorian society was starting to see the modern coming at it. That is a good and important part of the book, but it disguised the underpinning that ties it to these other two novels.

Yes, she is recreating the Gothic, and yes, her own upbringing makes the religious aspects stand out. But it is the way these two things are put together that is what I find interesting, and that ties these three otherwise very different novels together.

after me comes the floodTake After Me Comes the Flood, a journeyman effort with a structure that isn’t entirely successful. It is the story of a lonely, middle-aged man who, in the depth of a heat wave, shuts up his shop and drives away to visit his brother. But along the way his car breaks down and he approaches an isolated country house only to find that the disparate group of people staying there seem to be expecting him. It turns out to be a coincidence (Perry likes coincidences in her plotting, Melmoth is full of them), they are waiting for someone with a very similar name that none of them have met before, but for a week the protagonist assumes a different personality. I have often said that first novels can often display, crudely and obviously, themes that will be developed more subtly in later works, and that is the case here. People going somewhere they are unknown in order to be someone else, even if only temporarily, crops up in both of Perry’s later novels.

The inhabitants of the house turn out to be people displaced from a local asylum when it closed down, and the family members and friends who look after them. In true Gothic mode, it is not always clear which is which. But the setting and the people turn out to be healing, at least for the protagonist.

But the most interesting character in the house is Elijah, a one-time priest who lost his faith. Now he is unable to go outside: because there is no God, there is no one to hold up the sky, and therefore if he ever ventures out he is terrified that the sky will fall on him. This is not madness so much as an extreme doubt, and despite this he is the most humane and sensible person in the house. He is also a complete innocent, who sees instantly that the visitor is not who everyone else takes him to be, but doesn’t see the need to say anything about it. He is, in other words, the most charming and engaging character in the book.

He also seems to me to be pivotal to what Perry is doing here. Despite what we know of her biography, it is not religion per se that matters in these books: it is belief. It does not matter what Elijah’s religion was before he lost his faith, what matters is the way that belief shapes his world regardless of where those beliefs came from. He stands helpless in the middle of a world that is only partly physical, and it is the other part, the unseen and unseeable that most affects his behaviour. Belief is crippling; religion is just a framework we construct to restrain those beliefs, but do away with the framework and belief floods back in its raw form. Read The Essex Serpent with this pattern in mind, and the figure of the rural vicar and the intrusion of the supernatural acquires a different aspect. Belief is the darkness that makes these novels Gothic.

MelmothSimilarly, in Melmoth, the idea of the witness, the lonely, black-clad woman always there at the edge of your sight who knows your sins and is waiting to take you away on her immortal journey, is a part of the unseeable that has a greater effect on behaviour than anything physical. She is a belief system cut loose from any religious affiliation: she is there among the people of Manila, among the Turks and Armenians at the time of the massacres, among the Jews of Nazi Europe, among the scientific rationalists of modern day Prague. She is a mental disease (more properly, a dis-ease) whose vector is childhood stories and faded documents; she is guilt personified as a shadow on a chair, a shape in the distance, a bird at the window.

The central character is Helen, an English translator living in Prague. Twenty years before she committed a crime and ever since then she has tormented herself with guilt, denying herself pleasures, friendships and ease. She lives an austere, hair-shirt existence. Inevitably, the structure of the novel demands that the revelation of this crime should come at the climax of the book; but Perry ignores that structural demand, so we find out what Helen did at about the three-quarter mark. Unsurprisingly, the guilt is worse than the crime.

Then someone hands her a file of documents about Melmoth (the novel references Charles Maturin, but changing the sex of the wanderer is the least of Perry’s changes in the character). Helen is ready to believe, and suddenly she conjures the woman in black and her attendant jackdaws wherever she turns, though she fails to notice that those who have passed on the documents have emerged undamaged from their own awareness of Melmoth. She is a story, but you don’t have to listen to stories; she is a belief, but you don’t have to believe. Melmoth is what is seen, not necessarily what is there.

Perry is an interesting writer. I think Melmoth goes as far beyond The Essex Serpent as that novel went beyond After Me Comes the Flood. So I wonder what she will do next. Though I also wonder how far she can follow this particular Gothic belief system.

2018: A Year in Books


It has been a stressful year. Stressful on a national level – watching your own government wilfully commit national suicide with Brexit is something that gets to you in a surprisingly visceral way; and stressful on a personal level – we had builders in to completely remake the kitchen, and though they were wonderfully considerate and did a brilliant job it still meant four months of being constantly on call, constantly aware of other people in the house, constantly living in a building site. Stressful, also, in that the book I’m currently writing on Christopher Priest is proving much more complex than anticipated, so I’m well behind schedule on it. So by Christmas I was exhausted, and looking back it was hard to think if anything good had actually happened during the year.

But of course it had. For a start, my monograph on Iain M. Banks won the BSFA Award, and was shortlisted for the Hugo and Locus Awards. And I signed a contract for a new book on Brian Aldiss, which I will be starting the moment that the Priest book is out of the way. And while the Priest book is proving more recalcitrant than I expected (or at least hoped), it is also proving very satisfying.

And somehow, in the middle of all that, I still managed to read more books than has been my norm of late. As is always the case when I list my reading at the end of each year, I’m only including those books I read carefully all the way through. Those I skimmed or dipped into or started and could not finish, for award reading or research or what have you, don’t make it onto the list. The titles in bold are those that particularly stood out for me, though I haven’t put any of the Priest titles in bold because, well, that would be redundant, wouldn’t it.

Anyway, this is my reading from 2018:

1: Assignment in Brittany by Helen MacInnes, which I wrote about here.

2: Indoctrinaire by Christopher Priest – the research begins …

3: Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler, which I wrote about here.

4: Fugue for a Darkening Island by Christopher Priest

5: Heartstone by C.J. Sansom, another of the excellent Shardlake novels.

6: The Space Machine by Christopher Priest

7: The Dreams of Bethany Melmoth by William Boyd; I wrote here about why I tend to find Boyd’s short stories so disappointing.

8: Loose Canon by Ian Shircore; not a particularly good book, but it’s about the ever-wonderful songwriting partnership of Pete Atkin and Clive James, and I wrote about it here.

9: The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt: a rather old-fashioned action-adventure story that still rather caught my attention. There are some nice little touches, the casual way it deals with issues of gender and what is normal, the aliens who are liars and tell no consistent story about anything, the “goldilocks” ship that suddenly turns up 500 years later on the edge of the solar system and with only one crew member in place. But too much else is formulaic for the book to really work as well as it should have done.

10: The Stargazer’s Embassy by Eleanor Lerman, which I reviewed at Strange Horizons.

11: Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich: I was enchanted by the novel. It really is beautifully written and vivid in the way it describes pregnancy being made progressively more horrible by means of government interference. A satire on the Republican interference on the (literal) female body politic, of course, but then an awful lot of the best sf is satire.

12: The Genius Plague by David Walton. This was the novel that won the Campbell Award this year. It wasn’t my top choice, though it did make my shortlist. I found it a slick, smooth thriller that goes down easily. The characters are attractive, the writing is unexceptional, the story is well-paced. The central conceit, about an Amazonian fungi forming a symbiotic relationship with the human brain, is maybe not totally convincing, but it provides for a vivid enough story. Though I must confess that I found the bits about the workings of the NSA more interesting than the science fictional bits.

13: Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald. A much better novel than its predecessor, but for me it’s still not McDonald at his absolute best.

14: Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown. It is a wonderfully detailed portrait of America in the grip of a dictatorship. Indeed, in some ways it feels like a companion piece to the Louise Erdrich. And yes, we’ve seen this sort of near-future political sf many times before, but it is written with a freshness and an attention to detail that I find both refreshing and convincing. The downside is that it is probably 100 pages longer than it needs to be, as if he is trying to put too much into the novel. And the central character, Sig, does seem to have an ability to get out of the tightest situation with the greatest of ease, which isn’t always convincing. But the sorts of situations he finds himself in, and in particular the way that there are not two sides but many sides in the conflict, and the different alliances are often uneasy and unwelcome, is something that I do find convincing.

15: The Smoke by Simon Ings. I didn’t think this was quite as good as Wolves, which is a pity. I reviewed it for Vector.

16: Grant by Ron Chernow: a massive biography that I wrote about here.

17: Science Fiction Rebels by Mike Ashley. The latest in his seemingly interminable and unfailingly pedestrian history of science fiction magazines, which I reviewed for Science Fiction Studies.

18: Inverted World by Christopher Priest: back to the research …

19: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I came late to this, but boy is it good!

20: An Infinite Summer by Christopher Priest

21: A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark. I continue my efforts to read at least one of Spark’s novels every year, and I wrote about this one here.

22: A Dream of Wessex by Christopher Priest

23: The Glamour by Christopher Priest

24: Shelter by Dave Hutchinson, which I reviewed for Locus.

25: Ghika Craxton Leigh Fermor edited by Evita Arapoglou. A catalogue to accompany a most wonderful exhibition of paintings by Nikos Ghika and John Craxton, along with bits and pieces by the inevitable Patrick Leigh Fermor. Craxton’s work in particular, most of which I’d never seen before, absolutely blew me away. I wrote about the exhibition here, and this is a model of how a good catalogue should be, detailed, informative and discursive.

26: The Quiet Woman by Christopher Priest

27: Cargo of Eagles by Margery Allingham, which I wrote about here.

28: The Prestige by Christopher Priest

29: The Mind Readers by Margery Allingham

30: The Beckoning Lady by Margery Allingham. More of her satisfying crime stories set in her fascinatingly contained little world.

31: The Extremes by Christopher Priest

32: The Book on the Edge of Forever by Christopher Priest

33: The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor edited by Ian Collins and Olivia Stewart, which I wrote about here.

34: Victorious Century by David Cannadine, which I wrote about here.

35: “IT” Came from Outer Space by Christopher Priest

36: Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? By Lev Parikian. Maureen pressed this book on me, and I’m glad she did. A funny, self-deprecating, revealing and at times moving account of a year spent bird watching, if only all nature writing could be this engaging.

37: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. Much as I like Kate Atkinson’s writing, I’d never tried any of her Jackson Brodie novels. I think I was put off by catching a bit of one of the TV adaptations once, and not liking it. But on the page, this one at least if every bit as good, and as convoluted, as you’d expect.

38: The Separation by Christopher Priest

39: Haven by Adam Roberts, a companion to Hutchinson’s Shelter, which I reviewed for Locus.

40: The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts, a better book, though I always think Roberts is at his very best when he lets his literary interests take flight (see later).

41: North From Rome by Helen MacInnes. One of her twisted little spy thrillers is perfect holiday reading.

42: Lamentation by C.J. Sansom, the last Shardlake until I can get hold of the one that has just been published; such good historical writing.

43: Austral by Paul McAuley. Better than his last couple of novels, but I still didn’t enjoy it as much as most people seem to have done, mostly because I found the back story far far more interesting than the plot being played out in the foreground.

44: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan. Another book I seem to have caught up with long after everyone else. The story of a peculiar home for children told in a crude and vivacious demotic, the sort of book you feel you need to read aloud just to capture the flavour of the words.

45: Unicorns, Almost by Owen Sheers. I love the work of the Welsh poet, novelist and playwright, and I wrote about this one-man play here.

46: White Tears by Hari Kunzru. All the time I was reading this I kept thinking that I’ve encountered the basic plot somewhere before: a couple of young white kids manufacture a blues record from something they taped in the street, ascribe it to a made-up name then find that name and their fictional recording are actually real. I still don’t know if I have met it before, and if so, where, but it nagged away. Meanwhile the white kids venturing into the segregated south is great stuff.

47: An American Story by Christopher Priest, which I reviewed for Locus.

48: Europe at Dawn by Dave Hutchinson. Is there anyone writing more politically relevant science fiction in Britain at the moment? I reviewed this for Locus.

49: Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship by Andy Friend, which I wrote about here, and I do wish there was an exhibition to accompany the book.

50: Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History by Joseph North, which I complained about here.

51: The Dream Archipelago by Christopher Priest

52: Christopher Priest by Nicholas Ruddick, more research.

53: Electric Eden by Rob Young, which I wrote about here.

54: The Affirmation by Christopher Priest

55: Holy Disorders by Edmund Crispin, I don’t think any of Crispin’s delicious little crime stories ever bear any connection with real life, but they always feel as if they should.

56: The Islanders by Christopher Priest

57: The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

58: Transcription by Kate Atkinson, which I wrote about here.

59: eXistenZ by John Luther Novak, more Priestly research.

60: The Gradual by Cristopher Priest

61: Prelude to Terror by Helen MacInnes, one of her later novels, that I’d not previously encountered.

62: The Written World by Martin Puchner. I’d meant to write about this here, but didn’t because I was so dissatisfied. It should be an interesting book, studies in the way that changes in writing and print technology and so forth have led to real-world changes. And there are, indeed, fascinating chapters on, for instance, “Ezra and the Creation of Holy Scripture” and on “Gutenberg, Luther, and the New Public of Print”. But other chapters have a flaccid journalistic style, he intrudes personally into too many of the stories (why does he need to go travelling around Sicily in order to write about Goethe?), and the chapter on Derek Walcott is embarrassingly self-indulgent.

63: Episodes by Christopher Priest. Priest let me see the manuscript of this forthcoming short story collection due, I suspect, sometime late in 2019.

64: Love is Blind by William Boyd. This is the sort of thing that Boyd does best, a story of a consumptive piano tuner at the start of the 20th century that takes us from Edinburgh to Paris to Russia and the Pacific. Confident storytelling, vivid characterization, and a remarkably solid sense of place, what more could you want.

65: The Black Prince by Adam Roberts. This is, by far and without doubt, the best book of the year. An unconventional and yet somehow true picture of the middle ages, a prismatic narrative structure stolen wholesale from John Dos Passos, a restless shifting between the real and the fantastic. This is the sort of literary pizzazz that shows Roberts at his absolute best!

66: Cloak of Darkness by Helen MacInnes, another of her late novels.

67: Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee. Reviewed for Science Fiction Studies. Everyone seems to be adoring this book because of the way it takes us back to the Golden Age of SF; what nobody seems to take on board is that it is all about how the so-called Golden Age was built on lies, and led by a bunch of deeply unpleasant men. It’s a great book, but it’s not what so many people seem to think they are reading.

68: Tell them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard. An exquisite little alternate history in which Michelangelo visits Constantinople during one of his periodic spats with the Pope, and is commissioned by the Sultan to design a bridge to cross the Golden Horn. The clash of cultures, in particular Michelangelo’s growing fascination with a sexually ambiguous singer while failing to notice that the poet who is his companion is falling in love with him, is all handled with wonderful delicacy.

69: The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler. How did it take me so long to discover Ambler? This is just about perfect as a tight little meditation on the crime story and real crime.

70: Arkady by Patrick Langley, which I’ll be reviewing for Strange Horizons.

71: Hell by Alasdair Gray. The first part of his “Englishing” of Dante’s Divine Comedy; typically robust, crude and engaging.

72: Murmur by Will Eaves. This is based on the final days of Alan Turing, but there are significant differences between Turing and the novel’s hero. The whole thing shifts constantly in a dreamlike way, so that the story recalls the protagonist’s schooldays or career or private life without ever distinguishing between what is real, what is misremembered, and what is pure dream. There is a spellbinding moment in which a visit to see his mother and brother turns imperceptibly into a variation on Snow White that is a masterclass in how to handle such ambiguous storytelling.

73: Science Fiction: A Literary History edited by Roger Luckhurst. The chapters by Arthur Evans on early science fiction and by Sheryl Vint on sf between the New Wave and the new century are particularly good. Others tend to vary in quality, one or two had me arguing vehemently with them.

SF before Genre


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I have just read, with great pleasure, the chapter on Early SF by Arthur Evans in Roger Luckhurst’s Science Fiction: A Literary History. It reminded me of this piece which I wrote a few years back for a book that, in the end, never happened. My contribution was way too long, but we hadn’t got around to the editing stage when the project collapsed, so this is my piece in all its wordy glory.


It is possible that the origin of science fiction is lost. It is known that, at some point during the second century CE a Greek writer, Antonius Diogenes, produced The Incredible Wonders Beyond Thule which apparently included a voyage to the Moon. That much is known, and no more; the work is lost, we know of it only from asides in the work of others. It would seem that the rather better known True History by Lucian of Samosata, which has survived, may have been a response to the work of Diogenes.

Whether either of these works, which both include a visit to the Moon, might count as a source for science fiction is open to interpretation. Where we place the point of origin for science fiction depends very much on how we define the term, and identifying Lucian’s True History as a starting point would necessitate defining science fiction as a form of myth[1]. Other than its placement on the Moon, the story told by Lucien and, presumably, by Diogenes, is indistinguishable from the encounters with gods and monsters in strange lands that had been a part of ancient literature since at least Homer’s Odyssey.

Nor did either of these works inspire anything in the way of a literary tradition. After Lucian it would be getting on for 1,400 years before we come to another work that could be claimed, with somewhat greater justification, as a point of origin for science fiction.

Utopia, published in 1516, was the work of a young lawyer who had already attracted attention in court circles, and whose whole life was devoted to a quest for order. Thomas More had grown up during the chaotic later stages of the Wars of the Roses and worked always to promote a safe and ordered society structured on hierarchical and strictly Catholic lines. He was a close friend of Desiderius Erasmus and an intimate of the leading humanists of the day, and wrote Utopia as a work of humanist political philosophy, at the heart of which was the notion that mankind was inherently rational and so would benefit materially and spiritually in a society organised rationally.

That the book was intended to be at least partly satirical is indicated by several things within the text. The work is structured on the same lines as Erasmus’s own satire, In Praise of Folly (1509), beginning with a colloquy, a discussion in which More is introduced by his friend Peter Gilles to the traveller Raphael Hythloday. Hythloday’s stories include a savage attack on the church hierarchy in England as well as the first remarks about the land of Utopia, but we are signalled to discount his tales because his name means “purveyor of nonsense”. Yet against this satirical edge to the book, the second part is a long and detailed account of life in Utopia that is surely meant to be attractive and convincing. Everybody works, but far fewer hours each day than anyone in More’s England would have experienced; there is no poverty, no war, no famine; health provision is a hundred years in advance of what was then available in England; religious tolerance (for everyone except atheists) would have ended one of the major causes of internal strife. Daily life is communal, on the model of the monasteries, with everyone’s work being performed joyously because it brings collective happiness, harmony and order. There is an emphasis on the dignity of everyone, whatever their status in society, and, from an author who was unusual in Tudor society for the education he gave to his daughters, women had status as much as men. No matter how much nonsense Hythloday spouts, there is no doubt that this is an earthly paradise; one, moreover, that is not dependent on the second coming of Christ, or set in the fanciful realm of Cockaigne, but achievable here and now by human ingenuity. Despite the comedy of More’s picture of Utopia, from the punning title that merges “no-place” and “good-place” to place names such as “waterless river” or “phantom city”, he was at pains to stress the reality and accessibility of the state. Hythloday, for example, is identified as one of the 24 men that Amerigo Vespucci reported he had left at Cape Frio in his widely-read Four Voyages of 1507.

It is this insistence that the world can be remade by human endeavour, and that this new world is not fanciful but somewhere familiar that can be reached here and now, that encourages me to think of Utopia as science fiction. Certainly it had a tremendous influence on literature and politics throughout Europe, and the utopian thought that has been a distinct and important strand of science fiction to the present day had its origins here. Written in Latin, the common language of scholars at the time, and widely distributed among humanists, Utopia quickly established itself as a model for all works advocating a better world. These took many forms; there was the religious utopia (Christianopolis by Johann Valentin Andreae, 1619; Civitas Solis by Tommaso Campanella, 1623), the medical utopia (a tale of Taerg Niatirb incorporated into A Godlie Regiment against the Fever Pestilence by William Bullein, 1574), and the political utopia (The Law of Freedom in a Platform by Gerrard Winstanley, 1652). The fact that More made no effort to institute any of the ideas presented in Utopia when he became Lord Chancellor in 1529 suggests that he did not regard the work as a political blueprint. But with Winstanley and others, such as the educational reformer Samuel Hartlib, that is exactly what later utopias would become, eventually being incorporated into actual political systems such as that of Karl Marx. In science fictional terms, however, the most influential development in utopian literature was probably the scientific utopia, most notably New Atlantis by Francis Bacon, published posthumously in 1627.

There is disagreement on when New Atlantis was written; Brian Stableford[2], for instance, dates it as c. 1617, others put it even earlier, yet the fact that it contains a reference to the cause of his own fall from grace in 1621 suggests that it was at least being revised immediately before Bacon’s death. Certainly New Atlantis was incomplete (a continuation of the book was published anonymously by “R.H. Esquire” in 1660, turning it into a pro-Royalist tract), but it reflects the novel scientific ideas of experiment and theory that Bacon had espoused throughout his career. Salomon’s House, the institution devoted to the study of nature and the invention of technology that is at the heart of New Atlantis, had a major impact on scientific thinking during the 17th century, and was the model for the Royal Society when it was formed by Bishop John Wilkins in 1660.

The 17th century was a time of great scientific excitement, inspired by the major discoveries and theories of the latter part of the 16th century such as the Copernican Revolution, Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood, Gilbert’s work on magnetism, as well as the continuing explorations of the New World. These ideas found their way in to the literature of the time, in parallel to and often incorporating utopian thought. Thus another possible point of origin for science fiction, as espoused for instance by Adam Roberts[3], is the beginning of the 17th century. Roberts, curiously, specifies the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno in 1600, Bruno having advocated the notion that there are many worlds in the universe, each with their own life form; though a more reasonable suggestion might be 1634 when Johannes Kepler’s Somnium was published.

The first drawing of the moon seen through a telescope was produced by Thomas Harriott in 1609, followed by the more detailed drawing by Galileo that appeared in Siderius Nuncius (1610). These established the notion that the moon was a landscape that might bear mountains and valleys, seas, forests and cities. The first literary work that was set upon the moon as a landscape was probably Ben Jonson’s masque, News of the New World Discovered in the Moon, first performed in 1620, though this was primarily used to extol King James I for staying out of the Thirty Years War then beginning in Europe. Even before Jonson’s masque was written, Kepler had been circulating the manuscript of Somnium to certain friends, although it wasn’t published until four years after his death in 1630. Somnium recounted a dream in which demons transport the dreamer to the moon which is used as an allegorical vehicle to explain Kepler’s own astronomical views and discoveries.

Probably of more interest in science fictional terms is another posthumous work, The Man in the Moon by Francis Godwin (1638). Again it is impossible to say exactly when this was written, though references to Queen Elizabeth in the text suggest that a draft at least may have been written as early as the 1580s, when Godwin may have heard Bruno teaching in Oxford. The Man in the Moon is a picaresque adventure in which the antihero, Domingo Gonsales, is trapped on the island of St Helena. In an effort to escape, he makes a carriage for himself which he harnesses to a flock of wild geese, but the geese, in keeping with a popular belief at the time, fly not to other land but to the moon. Godwin’s description of the journey to the moon displays an acute awareness of Copernican science, including, at the mid-point of the voyage, a period of weightlessness.

This is the first voyage to the moon by mechanical means in the history of science fiction, and as such it proved incredibly influential. In the same year that Godwin’s book appeared, John Wilkins had published a scholarly essay, Discovery of a World in the Moon (1638), detailed what was then known about the moon. Inspired by Godwin’s book, Wilkins republished his essay two years later with an additional chapter exploring the different ways that men might travel to the moon, the first scientific treatise about journeying to another world. Godwin’s book would remain pretty well constantly in print for the next couple of centuries, and led directly to stage plays such as Emperor of the Moon by Aphra Behn (1687) and The World in the Moon by Elkanah Settle (1697), and Thomas D’Urfey’s comic opera, Wonders in the Sun (1706), which was presented as a sequel to the novel. The major influence, however, would be felt in France. Cyrano de Bergerac incorporated Domingo Gonsales into his own L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune (1657) and its sequel, Les États et Empires du Soleil (1662). In a nod to Godwin, Cyrano also devised extravagant means of travelling into space, including the use of firecrackers and evaporating dew. In fact, so popular was Godwin’s anonymously published The Man in the Moon in France that by the time it became a major influence on Jules Verne, it was commonly assumed that the author was French.

Two other threads that would come to play an integral part in the warp and weft of science fiction over the coming centuries also saw their origin in the middle years of the 17th century. I.F. Clarke has identified as the first fictional vision of the future a pamphlet by the puritan firebrand Francis Cheynell that first appeared in May 1644.[4] Aulicus his Dream, of the Kings Sudden Coming to London was a propaganda piece warning of the terrors that would unfold should King Charles win the Civil War. It is not a work of future fiction that significantly explores the changes wrought by the passage of time. But Clarke misses a far more notable work of future fiction that appeared only four years later. Nova Solyma (1648) by Samuel Gott, a Presbyterian MP excluded from Parliament in Pride’s Purge, is a romantic adventure set some 50 years in the future. Although the story features pirates and bandits, kidnappings and mistaken identity, duels and cross-dressing and two heroes falling for what appears to be the same girl, it is also set in a Jerusalem from which the Turks have been ejected, where the Jews have converted to Christianity, and the Second Coming is at hand. At the time, it was a common belief among Britain’s Puritans that the conversion of the Jews was imminent and that this would herald the heaven on Earth of Christ’s return, an event that was confidently predicted for any time between 1650 and 1695. Setting his story in the future, therefore, is a natural choice for a writer trying to lay out the reality of these predictions. Nevertheless, Nova Solyma is the first substantial work of fiction to present a future that is noticeably different from the present.

Nova Solyma was hardly an inspirational work; it would be many years before writers again set their fiction in the future, and even the fact that Gott was the author was forgotten: when the book was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century it was initially ascribed to John Milton. The other key work of science fiction from this period fared somewhat better, though it would not be until the rise of feminist criticism late in the 20th century that its worth was appreciated, earlier male critics having tended to dismiss it as unreadable if they mentioned it at all.

Margaret Cavendish was one of the first women writers to publish openly under her own name, and is certainly the first woman to have written a significant work of science fiction. Part of the entourage of Queen Henrietta Maria who had fled to France just ahead of the Parliamentarian fleet during the Civil War, she spent well over a decade in exile. In Paris she met and married the Marquess (later Duke) of Newcastle, and through her brother-in-law, the scientist Charles Cavendish, was introduced into a circle that included Thomas Hobbes, John Evelyn and Rene Descartes. She was particularly drawn to the atomist ideas of Epicurus which were just then becoming widely known in Europe, ideas which she incorporated into her essays and poems. Indeed it is possible that her collection, Poems and Fancies, published in 1653 formed the first atomist theory of nature to appear in England, preceding the work of William Charleton by at least a year.[5] Returning to England on the Restoration of 1660 she tried to parlay her interest in science into membership of the new Royal Society, but she was antagonistic towards the experimental method of Robert Hooke, arguing that you needed a combination of observation and reason to properly understand what was going on beneath the surface of things. She was especially critical of Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), and though she was a guest of the Royal Society on occasion, she was never invited to join. Nevertheless her sense of what goes on beneath the surface informed The Blazing World (1666) which she wrote as a reaction to Micrographia.

The story, originally published as an appendix to Observations on Experimental Philosophy, tells of a lady who discovers another world joined to this one at the North Pole. She then journeys into the interior of that other world (it is a “blazing world” because of the jewels that stud it) where she becomes the Empress. At one point, while engaged in putting down a revolt against her rule, the Empress enters into communication with the Duchess of Newcastle in our world, so that Margaret Cavendish thus becomes a character in her own novel. The trope of another world joined to this one at the poles, while not unknown, is not exactly common in science fiction and what there is probably owes little to Cavendish. However, stories set in the interior of the Earth would become particularly common during the next century, and Cavendish does seem to be a starting point for this trope. While the recursive self-reference of the book might even mark it out as a distant ancestor of postmodernism.

During the latter part of the 17th century and throughout the 18th century, two strands of fantastic literature became popular, both of which would feed into but be transformed by the science fiction of the late 19th century. The first and far and away the most important of these was the extraordinary voyage. We have already seem precursors of this in Utopia, New Atlantis and The Man in the Moon, but now such stories multiplied. In Britain in particular, where they were especially common, they often involved remote islands, as in The Isle of Pines (1668) by Henry Neville, in which a man and four women are shipwrecked and breed so many children that they divide into four warring tribes. This was an inspiration for the most famous work of the type, Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe, not itself science fiction but in its description of a competent man able to turn the most unpromising of circumstances to his own advantage, it became the model for much of the science fiction that would follow.

Of equal importance was Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift. Swift was a savage satirist who turned his fire upon a wide variety of targets in this book. It is now, perhaps, best known for the first two voyages in which Gulliver encounters the tiny people of Lilliput and the giants of Brobdingnag, though in science fiction terms the third voyage, which introduces us to the savants of the flying island of Laputa (a satire on the Royal Society), and the fourth voyage, an encounter with the other in which humans are shown to be brutish in contrast to the civilised Houyhnhnms, are of greater interest.

While such adventures would continue to find wonders in the remote parts of the world right up to the novels of Jules Verne, a number of writers would pick up on the work of Godwin and Cyrano and send their travellers outward to other worlds. Examples include Voyage au monde de Descartes (1692) by Gabriel Daniel, Cosmotheoros (1698) by Christian Huygens and Iter Lunare (1703) by David Russen. These works often used the cosmic voyage as a way to present or examine philosophical ideas. The most successful example of this is Micromégas (1752) by Voltaire, in which a 23-mile-high philosopher from Sirius is exiled to our solar system, where on Saturn he encounters a scientist only one-twentieth his size, the two travel on to Earth where they decide the tiny humans are too small to be intelligent.

In parallel with these outward voyages, another strand of science fiction was going inwards. Almost at the same time that Margaret Cavendish was describing one journey to the centre of a world, the Jesuit philosopher Athanasius Kircher wrote a treatise, Mundus Subterraneus (1665), which suggested that the interior of the Earth consisted of a sequence of interconnected cavities. At this time it was problematic for Catholic writers to present other worlds. Church doctrine had not only put the work of Copernicus on the list of banned books and burned Bruno at the stake for advocating the idea of an infinite universe, it also held that the Earth was unique because no other world could have known Christ. To imagine another planet with anything resembling a civilization was therefore to risk the interest of the Inquisition. If they could not turn their imaginations outwards, however, writers in Catholic Europe were happy to turn inwards where a hollow Earth meant that the world they envisaged was definitively within a world that had known Christ. The 18th century, therefore, saw a rash of such stories, including the anonymous Relation d’un voyage du Pôle Arctique au Pôle Antarctique par le centre du monde (1721), Fieux de Mouhy’s Lamékis ou Les voyages extraordinaires d’un Egyptian dans la terre intérieure (1735-38), or Giacomo Casanova’s huge, sprawling and incoherent utopia, L’Icosameron (1788). However, the idea of a hollow Earth quickly spread throughout Europe, and before Jules Verne completed the sequence with the best and most celebrated example of the form, Le voyage au centre de la terre (1864), the more significant hollow Earth stories came from northern Europe or America.

The first of these, which was published throughout Europe and which helped to establish the author, Ludvig Holberg, as the best-known Scandinavian writer before Ibsen, was The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground (1741). Modelled on the outlandish encounters in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Klim meets intelligent trees on a planet within the hollow Earth, then on the underside of the Earth’s crust travels from a realm of mercurial apes to one of warring birds to yet another of subhuman humans. A mixture of utopia, satire and outright fantasy, The Journey of Niels Klim made more of the hollow Earth setting than any of Holberg’s predecessors. Another variant on the theme came in The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (1750) by Robert Paltock, another work which took Gulliver’s Travels along with Robinson Crusoe (1719) as its starting point. Wilkins undergoes a variety of picaresque adventures before being shipwrecked on an inaccessible island, where he encounters and eventually marries a flying woman, and is later transported to the subterranean world of her people in the polar regions where he brings the benefits of true religion and decent clothing.

The poles seemed to be a popular location for gateways to the underworld. In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Unparalleled Adventure of one Hans Pfall” (1835), for instance, the traveller glimpses what appears to be a hole at the North Pole, while in his more substantial The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) a colourful tale of shipwreck, mutiny and cannibalism ends abruptly at the South Pole as Pym and a companion approach an entranceway guarded by shrouded human figures.

Around the middle of the 18th century there was a renewal of interest in fictions about the future, though in most cases the social and technological status was unchanged from the year of composition, the only difference being in one usually political issue that the author wished to raise. In Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733) by Samuel Madden it was a warning about the power of the Jesuits; in the anonymous The Reign of King George VI, 1900-1925 (1763) it was how a wise monarch is superior to a weak parliament; and in L’an deux mille quatre cent quarante (1771) by Louis-Sébastien Mercier it was how much better the world would be if the Enlightenment ideas of Rousseau were followed.

Yet even as this new strand of future fiction was gathering pace, another literary development was beginning that would, temporarily at least, have a more profound effect upon the development of science fiction. Starting in 1764 with the publication of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, gothic fiction was a popular, backward-looking form of literature that emphasised the baleful influence of the past, the gloomy, the mysterious, the supernatural. The aesthetics of the gothic tied it to contemporary ideas of the sublime, as defined by Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, which in turn linked it to the romantic poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge. It was an aesthetic of wild places, of overwhelming scale, of mankind made small by their surroundings, all of which fed in to yet another starting point for science fiction.[6]

Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley began in a dream, and in a contest to write a new ghost story, a contest that also produced John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819). The sense of dread that runs through Frankenstein, the settings amid alpine peaks or arctic wastes, all situate the novel squarely within the romantic tradition (and explain why it is also one of the ancestral texts of modern horror fiction). What marks the novel out, however, is its awareness of science. Around the end of the 18th century science had begun to enjoy the sort of popular interest it hadn’t had since the middle of the 17th century, an interest reflected in the poems of Erasmus Darwin and the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby. The radicals, in whose circles Mary Shelley had moved all of her life, held it as an article of faith that they should keep themselves informed of the latest scientific ideas, and experiments (as in Wright’s “An Experiment on a bird in an Air Pump”) were staged as popular entertainments. One such public entertainment occurred in 1803, when Giovanni Aldini demonstrated Galvani’s ideas of animal electricity on the body of a newly-executed criminal at Newgate, forcing an eye to open and a fist to clench. Galvanism was the guiding principle behind Frankenstein, in which the young student animates a creature made of corpses but then abandons it, so that his creation subsequently becomes his nemesis.

The novel was an immediate critical and popular success, more importantly it was quickly adapted for the stage. The earliest of these adaptations was perhaps Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake (1823), but variations on the story, often melodramatic and with only tenuous connections to the original, became a theatrical mainstay, leading up to the innumerable cinematic versions throughout the 20th century. It is probably these more than the novel itself that fixed the story in the popular imagination, so that even today the name is invariably invoked whenever someone wants to alert the public to what might be seen as the unwanted meddling of science, as in the use of Frankenstein Foods to describe genetically modified crops. Of all the works of science fiction, it is perhaps only More’s Utopia and Karel Čapek’s Robot (R.U.R., 1920) that have entered the language to the same extent.

Regardless of whether the source was the original novel or its many theatrical offspring, the inspiration of Frankenstein flowed through subsequent science fiction. One relatively early example is The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827) by Mary Webb, but two of the most important variations on a theme of Frankenstein came late in the 19th century. Long before the ideas of Sigmund Freud had become widely known, they both located the monster within the self. In Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson (which also drew inspiration from the psychological doubling that runs through The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) by Stevenson’s fellow-Scot, James Hogg) tells of a man of science, Jeckyll, who concocts a potion that suppresses the civilised part of his character and unleashes the violence of Hyde. A parallel story is told in The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells (1897), in which Griffin renders himself invisible and, freed from the watchful eyes of others, finds he is also freed from civilised restraint and embarks on a terroristic rampage. The Frankenstein theme would continue in 20th century science fiction, though there the creature would more often be transformed into the other of an alien or, following Čapek, a robot.

Frankenstein was Mary Shelley’s first novel; her third, The Last Man (1826), also set in train a popular theme, particularly in British science fiction. Shelley wasn’t the first to touch on this theme. Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville had published his prose-poem, Le Dernier Homme, in 1805, presenting a vision of the Earth ending in sterility. But though a poor translation of Cousin de Grainville’s book had appeared in Britain in 1806, without the author’s name, it would be Shelley’s novel that had the greater effect. It is worth noting that two of the authors who picked up on the theme, Richard Jeffries with After London (1885) and W.H. Hudson with A Crystal Age (1887), were naturalists who seemed to view the collapse of civilisation with some approval, an attitude that may have contributed to the way the theme would be transformed into one of the characteristic modes of British scientific romance, the so-called “cosy catastrophe”.

The popular interest in science, that provided the context in which Frankenstein was written, continued throughout the 19th century, a great age of technological innovation and development. It was in 1833, for instance, that the word “scientist” was coined by William Whewell; in 1851, thousands flocked to London’s Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition, a monumental display of new technologies and the consumer goods they produced; and in the same year, 1851, William Wilson coined the term “science-fiction” in A Little Earnest Book Upon a Great Old Subject. Wilson’s “science-fiction” bears little resemblance to what we might understand by the term today, it was closer to a lyrical form of popular science (one of the works that gave Wilson the idea was The Poetry of Science (1848) by Robert Hunt), and the term disappeared from view almost immediately until it was reinvented in the late-1920s. But the fact that there was such a term is suggestive of the extent to which the ideas of science interpenetrated the literary and artistic milieu of the time.

Sir Humphrey Davy, who had done much to popularise scientific experiments as entertainment at the Royal Institution, presented a cosmological vision based on current knowledge in his posthumously published Consolations in Travel (1830). There is a similarly poetic view of the cosmos as revealed by astronomy in Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka (1848). Poe was, of course, one of the three forebears of “scientifiction” singled out by Hugo Gernsback in his editorial for the first issue of Amazing Stories (April 1926),[7] and much of his work did include scientific elements. “The Facts in the case of M. Valdemar” (1845), for example, about a mesmerist who puts a man into a trance at the moment of death, was presented as a factual scientific paper. But Poe was far from alone in his use of science. In “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844), Nathaniel Hawthorne imagined a chemist whose experiments with poisons rendered his daughter deadly to all who approached her; in “The Diamond Lens” (1858), Fitz-James O’Brien invented a microscope so powerful it revealed a beautiful woman in the world inside a drop of water; in The Brick Moon (1869), Edward Everett Hale created an artificial satellite in orbit about the Earth; in Lumen (1887), Camille Flammarion used his knowledge about evolutionary theory and astronomy to write convincingly about other worlds.

Many of the familiar strands of science fiction were clearly coming together at this time. It is significant, for instance, that the most important science fiction writer in the second half of the 19th century always insisted on the scientific accuracy of his work. However, the best and most lasting of the works of Jules Verne, the second of Gernsback’s triumvirate, took the form of what he termed “voyages extraordinaires”, in which the scrupulously researched technological aspects took second place to the vivid exotica of the journey. These highly colourful adventures took his heroes to a world underground (Voyage au centre de la terre, 1864); to the moon, aboard a space ship fired from a cannon in Florida (De la terre à la lune, 1865, and Autour de la lune, 1870); aboard an extraordinary submarine (Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, 1869-70); off on a comet that has struck the Earth a glancing blow (Hector Servadac, 1877); and aboard a massive flying vessel (Robur-le-conquérant, 1886). Those stories that were confined to one location or that concentrated on the technology more than the colour, such as his account of a war between the dystopian and utopian effects of technology (Les cinq cents millions de la Bégum, 1879) or the posthumously published novel of invisibility (Le secret de Wilhelm Storitz, 1910), are noticeably less successful works.

Verne had his rivals, of which the most interesting was probably the Belgian writer Joseph Henri Honoré Boex, who wrote under the pseudonym J.-H. Rosny aîné. Rosny wrote a very varied range of science fiction, whose freewheeling invention and sometimes cavalier approach to scientific plausibility made his work closer to that of Wells than to Verne. In Les Xipéhuz (1887) primitive men find themselves confronting enigmatic aliens; in Un autre monde (1895) a strange child in contemporary Holland sees a parallel world; and in La morte de la terre (1910) the last human civilisation gives way to a machine future. Like his German contemporary Kurd Lasswitz (Auf zwei Planeten, 1897), Rosny was a vigorous and engaging writer but his work was neither as widely translated nor as widely known as that of Verne. In fact Verne would not have a serious rival in contemporary science fiction until the emergence of H.G. Wells at the end of the century.

Meanwhile, even as Verne’s career was gathering pace, political events in the real world were having a profound effect upon science fiction. For half a century after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, while European armies had seen plenty of action elsewhere in the world, there had been no serious conflict in Europe itself, and an easy balance of power had developed between Britain and France. But both the peace and the balance of power were disturbed during the 1860s when Prussian wars against first Denmark then Austria led to the establishment of a new German Confederation, with Prussia as a new European power. This shift in the European status quo became particularly alarming in 1871, when Prussia invaded and defeated France. It was in direct response to these events that a new strand of alarmist fiction began to appear, first in Britain with The Invasion of England (1870) by Alfred Bate Richards and, more famously, “The Battle of Dorking” (1871) by George T. Chesney. Such stories would become a common feature in British newspapers right up to the outbreak of the First World War, indeed the constant drumbeat of dread and military unpreparedness that they sounded may have contributed to the febrile atmosphere that led to war. There were certainly stories that newspapers found their circulation increased in those towns that were named as part of the invasion route. But such future war stories, while popular in Britain (The Invasion of 1910 by William Le Queux, 1906; The Swoop! Or, How Clarence Saved England by P.G. Wodehouse, 1909; When William Came by Saki, 1913), also spread to France (La guerre au vingtième siècle by Albert Robida, 1887), to America (The Battle of the Swash by Samuel Barton, 1888), and even to Germany (the anonymous Der Ruhm; or, The Wreck of German Unity, 1871). Such was the interest and fervent invention tied up in these stories throughout the half-century between the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War that they mutated very quickly. M.P. Shiel’s The Yellow Danger (1898) located its threat in the Orient and initiated a rash of “yellow peril” stories. The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903) was the hinge point that saw the future war story transmogrify into the spy story. And, most famously, H.G. Wells undermined the assumptions of cultural superiority found in so many of these future war stories by making London, the centre of Empire, crumble before alien invasion in The War of the Worlds (1898).

Wells, the third member of Gernsback’s triumvirate, was unquestionably the most influential of all the writers of science fiction before the genre. However, as the way that The War of the Worlds responds to earlier future war stories suggests, it would be wrong to present him as arising out of nowhere. He was, in fact, part of a tradition of scientific romance that was already well established when he arrived on the scene. The logical and mathematical games of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Edwin Abbott’s Flatland (1884) had paved the way by showing a popular taste for complex ideas presented as light fiction. H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) was a highly successful example of the sort of colonialist fiction that Wells would react against. The Angel of the Revolution (1893) by George Griffith portrayed future aerial warfare, while The British Barbarians (1895) featured a time travelling anthropologist from the future casting a satirical eye on Victorian society. All of these fed into the work of H.G. Wells, but what came out was startling in its originality and vigor.

His first novel, The Time Machine (1895), was a harbinger of what was to come. Time travel stories before this point, such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1888) by Mark Twain, had tended to rely on magic or dream or some other sleight of hand to whisk their protagonist into another era; Wells was the first to treat time as a dimension that could be crossed by a machine. (In fact the Spanish writer Enrique Gaspar had devised a time ship in his novel El Anachronópete (1887), but the novel seems to have been little known even in his native Spain and had no influence on subsequent science fiction.) The seeming pastoral utopia visited by the time traveller that hides a canker born in Victorian class divisions is a direct response to the pseudo-medieval utopia envisaged by William Morris in News from Nowhere (1890), which was itself a response to the socialist utopia of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888) which had inspired a host of Bellamy Societies across the USA. And at the end of the novel, when the time traveller goes forward to see a dying sun hanging over a lifeless beach, Wells made explicit the evolutionary ideas he had learned from T.H. Huxley at the Normal School of Science.

The Time Machine was followed over the next few years by The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) in which a vivisectionist attempts to transform animals into humans; The Invisible Man (1897) with its cinematic devices in which invisibility turns a man into a monster; The War of the Worlds (1898) which built on the idea of Mars as an older civilisation propounded by Percival Lowell for a tale of alien invasion; and The First Men in the Moon (1901) in which explorers find a dystopian hive mind society below the surface of the moon. Wells would continue to write occasional works of science fiction throughout his long and prolific career, some of which (The Food of the Gods, 1904; The War in the Air, 1908; The Shape of Things to Come, 1933; Star Begotten, 1937) are worthy of note, but after those five early novels he would never again display the same invention and power. In those five novels, however, he effectively laid out the template for 20th century science fiction.

All of the strands of science fiction we have traced through this chapter, from More’s utopian ideals to Bacon’s scientific invention, Godwin’s voyage to another world, Shelley’s man-made creature, and more, all came together in Wells and established the vocabulary of ideas and approaches that science fiction would employ thereafter. But one final strand needs to be considered. In 1868, Edward S. Ellis, the prolific author of Western dime novels, wrote The Steam Man of the Prairies in which a boy-inventor creates a man-shaped steam engine as a vehicle for adventures in the West. This paved the way for a series of highly coloured, quickly written, melodramatic dime novels by various hands that usually featured boy inventors like Tom Edison Jr or Frank Reade. These have been christened “Edisonades” by John Clute[8], and one of the more notable examples was Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898), a rapid response to Wells’s The War of the Worlds by Garrett P. Serviss. Cheap, crude and popular, dime novels such as these were the precursor of the pulp magazines in which science fiction as a genre would be born.


[1] Though Alexei and Cory Panshin, who do define science fiction as “the literature of mythic imagination” – The World Beyond the Hill (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1989), p1 – still locate its origins in the 17th century.

[2] Brian Stableford, “Science fiction before the genre” in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p15.

[3] “Science fiction was reborn in one year, 1600, the year that the Catholic Inquisition burned Giordano Bruno the Nolan at the stake for arguing in favour of the notion that the universe was infinite and contained innumerable worlds.” Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p36.

[4] I.F. Clarke, The Pattern of Expectation, 1644-2001 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1979), p15.

[5] Katie Whitaker, Mad Madge: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Royalist, Writer and Romantic (London: Chatto & Windus, 2003), p160.

[6] Brian Aldiss’s definition of science fiction as “characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould” – Brian Aldiss, Billion Year Spree (1973; London: Corgi, 1975), p8 – effectively excludes any earlier work from consideration.

[7] Scientifiction is “the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision,” quoted in Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint, The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), p6.

[8] See the online SF Encyclopedia:

A Question of Time


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Some time ago, I was invited to write an essay for a Chinese anthology of time travel stories. I was happy to do so, not least because the 2,000 words I wrote earned more than any other piece of writing I have ever done, more even than my Iain Banks book. Today a copy of the anthology, with a title that seems to translate as Time Non-Exist, arrived. I cannot read any of it, though I have found my article because my name is printed in roman letters after it. Because of that, I know I’m in there with Dave Langford, Gary Wolfe, James Gunn, Robert Silverberg and others. For those of you, like me, who cannot read Chinese, this is what I wrote.

It began with a question from the editor: Is it difficult to write about time in science fiction? Which time-themed science fiction story(s) impressed you most lately? Ever since The Time Machine in 1895, countless writers have touched upon time or time travel in their writing. Do you feel the ideas about time have been exhausted? In other words, is ‘time’ done as a long-lasting theme in science fiction narrative?

This is what I answered:

Let me start with a question you haven’t asked: why do people write about time?

Practically all fiction revolves around two fundamental issues: identity and death. Who are we? What are we doing here? How do we make sense of life given the overwhelming fact of death? And so on. You can understand everything, from a murder mystery to a love story, as nibbling away at the edges of these big questions.

The machinery that links these two issues is time. It is time that brought us to this point, and time that hurries us on towards death. Time provides the context within which all fiction happens, within which all fiction must be understood.

What is unique and exciting about science fiction is that it provides a variety of mechanisms for taking us outside time, for providing perspectives on the fundamental issues of fiction that are not available to other fiction writers. These mechanisms include, among others, setting stories in the future (whether it is the day after tomorrow or unimaginable millennia from now), immortality (which undercuts the notion of death, but then rewrites our relationship with time), alternate histories (which question the fixity of time), and of course time travel. With time travel, those two basic questions of all fiction – how did we get to this point? and what happens next? – both become answerable.

Time, therefore, is the foundation upon which all science fiction is built. So, to answer your last question first, is ‘time’ done as a long lasting theme in science fiction? No. Because if time were done, then science fiction would necessarily be done also.

Is it difficult to write about time? Yes, and it should be. Partly because worthwhile fiction is not something to be carelessly dashed off. But mostly because the author is required to externalise something that for most of us is subjective. We are aware of the passage of time when we cross off a date on a calendar, but in truth Wednesday does not feel that much different from Tuesday; on the day I turn 65 and begin to draw a pension I feel no different from the day before when I was only 64 and not a pensioner. We notice time in retrospect, the sudden awareness of how our children have grown or how our partner’s hair has turned grey, but in our ordinary day-to-day lives, time is something that impinges only slowly, obliquely. But in fiction, the changes wrought by time have to become immediate and visible.

Writing about time, in other words, requires attention to detail, and an awareness of the processes of change. If you are setting a story 500 years in the future, it might help to consider how much the world has changed over the last 500 years, and then work out how such change might manifest going forward. If you are sending your heroine back to an earlier age, then it is incumbent upon you to know what foods she might eat, what clothes she might wear, what buildings would or would not be standing, and even how the language would have changed in the interim. A modern day Englishman transported to Shakespeare’s London would have great difficulty making himself understood; a modern day American transported to the time of the Civil War would find that religious attitudes and transcendentalist philosophy had engendered a very different attitude towards everyday occurrences like death. Movement in time entails far more than simply slotting in a different highly coloured backdrop and leaving everything else the same. The difference is everything, and everything is different.

When Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” sleeps through just 20 years, he awakes to find a world that is changed utterly. It is worth noting that when H.G. Wells invented a machine for travelling at will through time, he spent no time on the mechanism itself, we don’t even have any clear idea what the time machine looked like, and other than a brief lecture on the then novel idea of time as a dimension, the philosophy behind it all doesn’t get much of a mention either. The story of The Time Machine is not about travelling through time, but about the changes wrought by time. The Victorian upper class, the 1% if you like, have descended into the feeble, childlike Eloi; the Victorian underclass have descended into the brutal, chthonic Morlocks; while over and above these petty human concerns, entropy sweeps all before it towards the desolate terminal beach.

Naturally, when science fiction writers took up the time machine that Wells had invented for them, the vast majority chose to send their protagonists into the past rather than the future. After all, it can be fun to take a different look at what the history books have told us, and those same history books give us enough research material to get at least the basics right. Not that such colourful adventures in time needed a time machine; well before Wells’s novel, Mark Twain had already given us A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, which set the tone for a certain kind of romp in the more imaginative portions of the past. But these are less stories about time than ways of separating a character from their familiar environment, whether in the past or the future, and then mining this situation for comic or dramatic effect. In truth, the history in such stories is usually no more accurate than the science, but they are generally entertaining and continue to be popular. Just in the last few years, for instance, we’ve seen such variations on a theme as Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt, The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke, and The Time Train by Eric M. Bosarge. These are not necessarily great works of literature, or even great time travel stories (though I would recommend the Jeschke), but at the very least they indicate a continuing vitality in the most familiar strand of time travel narrative.

Speaking personally, however, I feel that simply depositing someone in a different time, past or future, and then seeing what the culture clash will produce, is hardly the most satisfying way of exploring the possibilities and peculiarities of time. I find it far more interesting when authors use the freedom to move in time as a way of exploring more technical and philosophical questions. Though these tend to come in waves and then fade from view, perhaps because there are only so many ways you can ask the same question. Thus there was a time when the most interesting time travel stories revolved around paradoxes, most familiarly the grandfather paradox (what would happen if you went back in time and killed your grandfather before your father was born?). Probably the most complex and interesting such story was “By His Bootstraps” by Robert Heinlein, but after that what more is there to say? You do occasionally come across a story of time travel paradox even today, but they mostly feel overly familiar and derivative. After that there was a vogue for stories that examined the morality of changing the past, often introducing the idea of a time police (as in, for example, Times Without Number by John Brunner) whose role is to preserve the true timeline. Before long the idea of the time police was dropped and writers became more cavalier about changing the past, as in Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South or John Kessel’s Corrupting Dr Nice, but even these have become less common.

During the 1960s and 70s, when alienation became one of the dominant moods of new wave science fiction, we started to get stories in which time travel cut people off from their society and their sense of identity, as in Philip K. Dick’s “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts” or Christopher Priest’s “Palely Loitering”. Avoid time travel, Ian Watson told us in what may be his masterpiece, “The Very Slow Time Machine”, because that way lies madness. Watson’s story also points us to another brief fashion in time travel, which located it in the laboratory just as we started to pay attention to some of the interesting properties displayed by tachyons. The best such story is undoubtedly Timescape by Gregory Benford.

More recently the aspect of time that seems to be inspiring the most interesting work, particularly and curiously among writers not normally associated with science fiction, is a variation on alternate history in which the central character relives their life repeatedly, sometimes learning from the experience, sometimes not. This has resulted in extravagant works such as The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, or in more restrained but psychologically acute works like Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, and 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster. It is hard to imagine that time could be exhausted as a subject for fiction when it can produce work as astute and as satisfying as Life After Life.

It may be, because Auster’s novel is rather more pedestrian than Atkinson’s, that this particular strand of time narrative has run its course. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be other forms of literary experimentation with time coming our way in the future. And, of course, there are still some of the other approaches to time that still have life and novelty in them.

Thus, when you ask which time-themed sf story has impressed me most recently, the novel that immediately sprang to mind is The Gradual  by Christopher Priest, which in many ways returns to the equation of time travel with alienation that we saw in post-new wave science fiction. In fact it is not immediately obvious that The Gradual is a time travel story. It returns us, as so much of Priest’s recent work has done, to the Dream Archipelago, a world of islands that encapsulate nightmare and desire. To one musician living in a repressive northern society, the sun-blessed islands embody everything he desires, and when he has a chance to tour the islands everything seems to live up to his dreams. Until he returns home and finds, like Rip Van Winkle before him, that a stay of a few weeks among the islands has meant the passage of years on the mainland. Time moves differently in dreams, and to recover his equilibrium, to reconnect with his sense of self and with his family (in the person of his long-missing brother), he must follow a complex sequence of spiralling movements dictated by the wooden stave that he carries and that perhaps resemble the stave markers on the music he writes.

There is nothing conventional in The Gradual as a time travel story (though it is worth noting that time, in one form or another, has been a key element in everything that Priest has written this century). But then, time travel shouldn’t be conventional. Time is what shapes our lives, what carries us to our deaths, what provides the context for our understanding of each day that passes and each story that we read. There are as many ways of approaching time as there are lives on this planet, and we all constantly make anew our understanding of time. So there will always be new time narratives. The subject will be exhausted only when science fiction itself is exhausted.



I finished Kate Atkinson’s new novel, Transcription, last night, and I’m trying to work out why I like her work so much. I only discovered her work with Life After Life, and that and its sequel, A God in Ruins, feel as though they belong to one side of the trajectory of her career. But that’s not really the case, because the Jackson Brodie detective novels like Case Histories don’t really feel as though they belong on the same trajectory as, for instance, Human Croquet. Except they do, and the sudden shift into spy fiction with Transcription is part of the same pattern. It’s not a case of trying to make every novel different from the last; there were, after all, four Jackson Brodie novels, and Life After Life and A God in Ruins form an intricate and intriguing dyptych. I think the thing that makes her work so interesting is that she goes where the story takes her, but where it takes her isn’t all about story.

case historiesLet me try and explain. Case Histories is a crime story, how could it not be with a detective as the central character; multiple crimes form the thread from which the novel depends, and the progression towards a resolution of these stories is what keeps us turning the page. But crime and detection are not central to the novel, but rather stands at an oblique angle to the intersecting lives and fascinating characters caught in the drama. It is a novel that steps willingly and knowingly into genre (she does not cheat, she does not belittle, she does not treat genre disdainfully as something that she doesn’t have to treat seriously), but it is also a novel of character, a novel of social satire, a mainstream novel. Both the genre story and the mainstream perspectives are complex and satisfying, but in different ways; it treads the divide between the two with a confidence that gives full measure to both.

life after lifeLife After Life is not science fiction. But the demands of story mean that she can only tell the story using a science fictional device, which she does with the same confidence and seriousness that she treated the crime genre in the Jackson Brodie novels.

TranscriptionAnd the same is true of Transcription. It is a spy story, that is the line upon which everything in the novel hangs. And it gives full worth as a spy story, with secrets and betrayals, and half-understood hints, and a twist at the end that I did not see coming but that is perfectly in keeping with everything we have read to that point. And yet our attention is firmly upon characters who are deftly and vividly drawn, and glimpses of life in wartime London and at the postwar BBC that are startlingly effective. You read for the spy story and get social realism as a bonus, or you read for the social realism and get a gripping spy story to hold your attention. It is the way her fiction operates as both genre and non-genre writing at exactly the same time that is the central joy in reading her work.

There’s a lovely moment in Kate Atkinson’s “Author’s Note” at the end of the novel which illustrates what I mean about going where the story takes her. She describes how the idea for the novel was generated by the release of MI5 documents to the National Archives concerning a World War II agent known as “Jack King” who posed as a Gestapo agent in order to infiltrate fascist circles in Britain and as a result neutralized virtually every fifth columnist in the country. “Jack King” was later revealed to be an apparently insignificant bank clerk called Eric Roberts. That, and Atkinson’s fellow feeling for the “girl” who would have typed out the hundreds of pages of transcriptions of Jack King’s meetings with would-be German spies, was the core of the novel. Then Atkinson adds: “I hadn’t intended to have the BBC in the novel at all, least of all Schools Broadcasting, but … somehow the ‘two great monoliths’ seemed to belong shoulder to shoulder on the same pages.” (331-32) This actually signals a profound shift in the story, because the incidents that drive the novel are all within the wartime MI5; but the focus and the revelations are all within the postwar BBC.

Transcription is the story of Juliet Armstrong, a seemingly naive young woman who is recruited by the security services at the start of World War II and finds herself transcribing the meetings with unknowing fascist sympathizers conducted by “Godfrey Toby”. She has a crush on her immediate boss, Perry Gibbons, without realizing he’s homosexual; she has doubts about “Mr Toby” when she sees him meeting with a sinister-looking figure; she is given the additional task of infiltrating a fascist group around a socialite called Mrs Scaife which results in mass arrests but causes the death of Mrs Scaife’s maid who had helped her; and the machiavellian figure at the top of the MI5 section she works for proves to be a Kim Philby figure. After the war, she is working as a producer for BBC Schools Programmes when she runs into Mr Toby again, only he doesn’t seem to recognize her. Then she starts to receive threatening letters, MI5 puts pressure on her to use her flat as a safe house, and the Czech refugee she houses goes missing. And as things start to fall apart, her wartime experiences are suddenly cast in a very different light.

Okay, that’s enough. There’s a good story here whose twists and turns deserve to be unravelled at the slow pace Kate Atkinson employs. Besides, the real pleasure of the novel stems from the rich array of characters whose lives intersect with Juliet’s, both in MI5 and at the BBC.