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: http://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/edisonade.

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.

folk rock


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basket of lightI grew up with folk-rock, that curious hybrid which took (so-called) traditional tunes and added rock instrumentation. For a decade or more throughout the 1970s, the most-played record I owned was Basket of Light by Pentangle, one of the first folk-rock outfits (though I’ve never been convinced that the term rightly applies to them, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee certainly came from the folk tradition, but what Danny Thompson and Terry Cox brought to the mix was more a jazz infusion than a rock sound). And then there liege and liefwas Leige and Lief by Fairport Convention, which certainly was folk rock, and Below the Salt by Steeleye Span, which always sounded to me like an outfit that wasn’t really convinced by what they were doing and thought the rock stuff was a little infra dig. Anyway, by the time they got to All Around My Hat and the abysmal Rocket Cottage, they had pretty much given up on being anything but a pop group.

There were others, of course. One of the things that first drew Maureen and I together was that I was the only other person she’d met who knew who Mr Fox were. But those three, Pentangle and Fairport in their pomp, with a little bit of Steeleye on the side, were the great triumvirate of folk rock. There were a couple of live albums by Fairport, Live at the LA Troubadour and Full House, that you don’t seem to get any more. There’s a version of Full House that has been released, but it’s not quite the same as the original; Simon Nicol’s version of “Matty Groves” is different, and the original was superior (in the original, Nicols sang: “Lord Arnold struck the very next blow, and Matty struck the floor”; the other version, more familiar but less dramatic, goes “Lord Arnold struck the very next blow, and Matty struck no more”). But those albums were ones I always listened to with amazement, even though it would be many years before I ever saw a Fairport line-up on stage.

north star grassman and the ravensI had grown up on the Beatles, (I was 11 when I watched their first ever appearance on British television), and my musical taste continued to be informed by what were then known as beat groups. So I never had any particular interest in or liking for the old finger-in-the-ear traditional singer, but when the folk song and the rock music merged, suddenly my ears pricked up. For a while my record collection held some real oddities (anyone remember Magna Carta, Fairfield Parlour, Amazing Blondel? No, me neither, not any longer.) but as the folk-rock wave of the 70s began to recede, my tastes began to shift back to the rockier side of things. Though with some variations: the astonishing and idiosyncratic songs on Sandy Denny’s The North Star Grassman and the Ravens and Sandy, certainly had a folk heritage, but they were hardly what I’d call folk songs, and the new direction they were opening up was one I was very interested in pursuing.

electric edenAll of which is a long-winded way of getting around to talking about Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young. I was drawn to the book because it is largely a history of British folk rock, and in so far as that is what the book is, it’s a good book. Unfortunately, Young tries to cast his net wider than that, and that bit is problematic.

He starts with a chapter about Vashti Bunyan, which is a mark against him right from the beginning. Really! Surely, she had the most anaemic singing voice ever recorded, and her album, Just Another Diamond Day, justifiably sold about 20 copies. But in the decades since then, she has somehow been transformed into an iconic figure in the history of British folk music. I don’t understand this, but Young is far from the only person to put her up on that pillar. This chapter does tell us some things about Young’s book. In the first place, when it comes to actually writing about music, Young is crap. But then, there are very few people who are able to write well about music, though not many of them reach for the sort of extravagant and laboured metaphors that Young employs. In the second place, Young is largely uncritical: if the song or album or group can be squeezed into his history, then it is by default good. Okay, as the book goes on there are a couple of albums which he doesn’t greet with unalloyed praise (Rocket Cottage, of course, being one), but this is not exactly a work of criticism. Thirdly, the book is only accidentally about folk music; the clue is in the sub-title, “Visionary Music”, though he never actually explains what visionary music is, and for much of the book he blurs the boundaries so that folk rock is inevitably equated with visionary music. So Vashti, setting off in her gypsy caravan for Donovan’s Scottish island, which he has already left, is of interest because she is visionary rather than because she is a folk singer.

Now it is when we come to that term, “folk singer”, that things become interesting. Leaving Vashti to wander off stage, never to return, Young now goes back in time to the early collectors, Cecil Sharp, the Child Ballads, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and so on. This is where the book becomes interesting, because you start to realize how problematic the whole thing is. The whole collecting thing was tied up with a strand of late-19th century nationalism that echoed similar movements in Europe, and therefore inevitably has a rather dubious right-wing vibe. It was also rather indiscriminate, the collectors picked up on anything that grizzled country folk liked to sing, whether traditional ballads or music hall songs or something they had extemporized themselves, but because of where they came from they were all deemed authentic. “Authentic” became a nonce-word that plagued folk music for decades after, everything was geared to digging back to find the most ancient and therefore most authentic version of every song. The truth is that there is nothing authentic about folk music: tunes are remembered and forgotten, lyrics get changed constantly, lines are misremembered and new lines are cobbled together, and one set of words could be put to a different tune then the words would be changed to fit the tune. But for the panjandrums of Cecil Sharp House, the songs were set in stone, their authenticity an earnest of their importance. By the 1950s, Ewan McColl (or Jimmy Miller from Salford, as he was originally) was so insistent on authenticity that singers at his folk club had to employ the accent of whichever region the song had been collected from. Folk music was associated with various popular, left-wing causes, the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass in the 1930s, the Aldermaston Marches in the 1960s, and yet the traditionalists were extraordinarily authoritarian.

bert janschThe guitar, for example, was not an authentic instrument, and so it didn’t start to creep into the folk music scene until the late-50s and 60s. But the young masters of the guitar who came on the scene around this time, Renbourn and Jansch, Davy Graham, and so forth, began to change the scene. They brought a more fluid, fluent style to the traditional songs they played; they began writing their own pieces in the style of their vamped-up traditional songs; and they were listening to other popular music around at the time. After all, if guitars aren’t common in your chosen area of music, who do you listen to for techniques and ideas? The folk guitarists who came on the scene in the early-60s brought influences from jazz, from classical music, and from rock ‘n’ roll; and in time they brought in electric guitars.

One of the things that comes across in the longest and best part of the book is how eclectic folk music became between the mid-60s and the mid-70s. Failing rock groups reinvented themselves as folk groups; most of the drummers who played in folk groups had originally started in rock bands. The folk musicians were listening to jazz and classical and rock; rock musicians were listening to folk; and from all of this new hybrids emerged. And thus were born Fairport and Pentangle and their ilk.

So far, so good. This is, of course, a partial account of British folk music during the period. There is no mention, for instance, of groups like The Spinners, The Dubliners or Planxty, though they were all very successful (The Spinners never seemed to be off British television screens throughout the 60s). No mention, either, of other performers who arose on the folk scene, like Al Stewart or Ralph McTell, even though these would go on to have very successful careers in ways that played very adroitly with the borders between folk and rock. And though there are nods to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon and Jackson C. Frank, the ways that the British folk scene interwove with the American folk revival of the 50s and 60s isn’t really developed. Nor, given the whole issue of authenticity that plagued folk music, is there any real discussion of whether folk musicians who wrote their own songs (which is the case with practically all of the performers I’ve mentioned so far, including the austere Ewan McColl) could be said to be part of the folk tradition. Can things like “Pentangling” by Pentangle or “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” by Sandy Denny really be considered folk songs? And if so, what is it that makes them folk?

But we come back, yet again, to that subtitle: “Visionary Music”. It is undefined; sometimes it means a songwriter who read William Blake, sometimes a song that refers to the landscape, sometimes a piece that pays homage to Aleister Crowley, sometimes it seems to be just a band that Rob Young happens to like. And over the course of the book, it transmutes into something called “acid folk” (don’t ask, I’ve no idea), or psychedelic folk (ditto); and by the end of the book he’s talking about obscure experimental musicians whose work, so far as I can see, bears no relationship to folk in any way. Which is another problem with the book, it is unfocussed, the subject drifts. It may be that those who like Ghost Box will find the final chapters of the book enthralling, but for me they have moved away from the area I was particularly interested in. Which to my mind makes the book over-long (660-odd pages) and rather bitty.

But the bits that I was interested in are very good indeed.

The Moon and the Other



I wrote this review sometime last year, but so far as I am able to tell it was never published. So I’ve decided to put it here:

the moon and the otherWe begin with the title. John Kessel has already written several stories featuring the matriarchal Society of Cousins on the moon, one of which, “Stories for Men”, went on to win the James Tiptree Award. That story took its title from a book that played a significant part within the story. It is perhaps no coincidence, therefore, that this novel-length work in the same setting (though some years later) also takes its title from a book featured within the story.

In this instance, the book within a book is something that was written after a mysterious youthful episode by one of the novel’s central characters. That book was called Lune et l’autre, and Kessel’s title here is a literal translation. But in the original French, Lune et l’autre is a pun, L’une et l’autre, which we might colloquially render as “one or the other”. In English, the pun is lost, but the spirit of the pun, the issue of choice that it represents, informs the whole book.

(Parenthetically, it is also worth noting that Lune et l’autre was the title given to a French collection of Kessel’s four previous stories of the Society of Cousins, so the repurposing of that title here has yet more layers to it: homage, wordplay, not to mention a nightmare for future bibliographers.)

But let us consider more carefully what the title tells us about this book. The moon, yes, has been a familiar setting for science fiction since the days of Johannes Kepler and Francis Godwin, but for practically all of that time the moon we have seen has been a single place, a unified polity; if there is a moonbase, a lunar society, then it is all under one central government. But of late, where we see the moon presented declaratively in a title, in Ian McDonald’s Luna, for example, the moon is far from unified. And that is also the case here. Aside from the Society of Cousins, at least half a dozen other independent, self-governing communities on the moon are mentioned. And though there is an over-arching Organization of Lunar States, these polities are far from unified in their background, beliefs or governance. The moon here in the title, as in McDonald’s diptych, signifies a place of division rather than unity.

If the moon provides the setting, however, it is the second element in the title that provides the plot. Because throughout the novel we are confronted with different understandings of what the other might be. In the quietus of the novel’s coda, the one and the other are seen to come together in a marriage, but that is a rare show of understanding and commonality in a novel in which the one and the other are perpetually at odds with each other. Indeed, one of the issues that confronts the reader is deciding what, in this context, the other might be. The other is, of course, the outsider, the rival, the threat, the one who is not like us, and the novel is crowded with contenders for that role. Indeed, one of the things that the novel insists upon is that everyone is the other to someone.

Thus, on one level, the Society of Cousins is the other. The Society started in California as a utopian movement, but has now been established on the moon for many decades. It is a society in which women, specifically a Council of Matrons, rule, while men are denied the vote. Sex is liberally available and men are valued members of society, they just have no say in its governance. But this social structure is anathema to the other lunar states, where men are in the ascendant, and which are dismissed by the Cousins as the patriarchy. So, to the other communities on the moon the Society of Cousins is looked on as the other, a curiosity, a disturbance in the status quo, perhaps a threat. The other states are not exactly uniform; the one we see most of, for instance, Persepolis, is a liberal Islamic democracy modelled on pre-Revolutionary Iran, but that religious strain is not found elsewhere. Nevertheless, these states are united in their dis-ease in the face of institutionalized female rule, and so one of the novel’s plot strands involves the establishment of a commission by the Organization of Lunar States ostensibly to examine the position of men in the Society of Cousins, really to provide an excuse for the OLS to take over the Society, and secretively to act as a cover under which enemies of the Cousins might smuggle in the means to launch an attack.

All of which might provide the most dramatic moments in the novel, but it is hardly the most important plot element. The Society of Cousins is, inevitably, far less utopian than it might have set out to be. It may be more peaceful than other states, but not by much, and at a cost of resentments and dissension that are now coming to the surface, and incidentally playing into the hands of the OLS. For instance, the distrust that the Cousins feel for everyone outside their literal bubble (the Society of Cousins is established within a dome, unlike some of the other lunar communities which are established underground) leads at one point to them removing every scientific paper published within the Society from all public channels, which in turn fuels the OLS suspicion that the Cousins have developed a secret weapon. There are reform movements that are becoming ever more radical in their rhetoric, causing the Matrons to become more determinedly conservative, while an extremist Spartacist movement is turning towards sabotage. The cross-currents of these political tensions produce a variety of others. The reformers demanding votes for men are largely women, who thus put themselves at odds with their own society. Men are automatically others within this society, but en masse they are divided between those who demand equality and those who are happy with the way things are.

These political tensions are personified on the individual level by the novel’s three central characters. Carey, the author of Lune et l’autre, is a one-time sports hero and a member of the leading families in the Society of Cousins (despite its self-image, this is still a society of hierarchies). In most respects he is happy with his place in society, except when it comes to his son. Social practice among the Cousins is for girls to leave the family home early to learn independence and authority, while boys are retained within the family and in a sense infantilised by continued mothering. Any child of a liaison is automatically the responsibility of the mother, fatherhood has no legal status. But Carey wants to be a father to his son, wants to take on the rights and responsibilities of that role, and his legal challenge over the issue becomes a catalyst for the reform movement, even though he resists all attempts to recruit him into the campaign.

Mira is another at odds with her own society, in her case her rather formless resentments have their origin in her sense of guilt over the death of her younger brother some years before. She makes angry, polemical videos, issued under the nom de guerre of Looker, which are appropriated by the reform movement even though she herself resists any active engagement with the movement. She is an on-again, off-again lover of Carey, but testifies against him in his fatherhood hearing. None of the characters in the novel are one-dimensional mouthpieces for a singly position or perception, but even in these terms Mira is a mass of contradictions. She is other to those closest to her, and other to herself, but this does make her far and away the most interesting character in the book.

The final member of the triumvirate is Erno. Once a member of a radical movement in the Society of Cousins, he was involved in a terrorist act that unwittingly killed his own mother, and as a consequence he was exiled. Since then he has drifted from state to state, taking on a variety of menial roles, living hand to mouth, and moving on usually just one step ahead of the law. Then, in Persephone, an accident that severs his hand also gives him an opportunity to marry into the richest family on the moon, and to establish his own successful biotechnology business. As an outcast he is perpetually the other, and his experience of the patriarchy from the bottom has made him increasingly sympathetic to the Cousins. When he unexpectedly finds himself on the OLS commission to investigate the Society of Cousins, he is in an awkward position somewhere between his fellow commissioners who have made their minds up even before they arrive at the Society, and the Cousins who still regard him with hostility because of his earlier crimes.

This is an extraordinarily subtle novel. Characters act wrong-headedly for the best of reasons, or act sensibly for the worst of reasons. Our sympathies are directed towards the Society of Cousins only because its innumerable faults and flaws are clearly displayed. No individual or group acts according to a simple, straightforward motivation. Those whose desires and actions place them most firmly on one side or another, actually want nothing to do with either side. Violence does not work, except that violence may be the only way to end an impasse. It is a novel filled with contradictions, because it is a novel about the other, and everyone is the other.

A History of Literary Criticism


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Okay, the first thing I need to say is that I am an amateur at literary criticism. I did not study English Literature (or English Language, come to that) beyond O-Level. Everything I have picked up about it is self-taught, with all the randomness and happenstance that implies. My reading on the subject has been undirected, so there are major figures in academic literary theory (Leavis, Fish, Deleuze) that I have not read at all, and others (Kermode, Eagleton, Barthes, Jameson) where I have read at best one or two works. This is not special pleading: I am comfortable with literary criticism in practical terms, if not always in theoretical terms. I practiced close reading before I actually encountered the term; and when I first heard about Historicism, or perhaps New Historicism, I thought that chimed with my own approach to the subject, until I realized that my approach seemed to be diametrically opposed to theirs (I look at the history as a way of understanding the literature that emerged from it; Historicists, at least as interpreted by Joseph North, look to the literature as a way of understanding the history).

literary criticismAnway, I’ve been reading Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History by Joseph North in the hope that it might help to fill in some of the immense chasms in my knowledge of the subject. (I must, for example, read up more on Historicism/New Historicism, if only to see if North is correct in his interpretation.) I was, in the end, disappointed, frustrated and excited by the book.

Let’s start with the disappointments: the sub-title is, to say the least, misleading. That it is short (217 pages) does not equate with it being concise; it is more polemical than political; and though it is arranged in roughly chronological order, it is not exactly a history. As a general rule, histories become fuzzier as they come closer to the present: distance tends to make it easier to shape the narrative and arrive at an analysis. North’s narrative becomes longer, more detailed and sharper the closer it comes to the present. The more historical aspects of the book, in other words, serve mostly as a setting for the polemical arguments about the state of academic literary studies over the last ten or twenty years.

North is a polemicist, he has a particular argument to make; in outline, he argues that in each stage of its history, literary criticism as practiced in Anglo-American universities has started on the left and moved steadily to the right. I don’t really know if he is right or wrong in this (in most instances, I only have North’s word to go on), but the polemical argument overwhelms the history. His chapter on “The Historicist/Contextualist Paradigm”, for instance, consists of him laying out what he sees as wrong with the positions of certain key Historicists and Contextualists, without ever actually laying out in clear terms what those positions are or how they were arrived at. (My interpretation of North’s interpretation of the Historicist position, for example, is entirely gleaned from reading between the lines; you won’t find a statement to that effect actually in the lines.) Now he may be right in his critique, but without providing, if you’ll pardon the term, an historical context for the position, it is hard to see how accurate or effective a critique it is.

You will note, also, my remark about “Anglo-American universities”. The focus of the book is that narrow. Every critic dealt with at all substantially is either British or American (there may be a Canadian in there, but I’m not aware of any Australians; but they are anyway all anglophone). A couple of non-anglophone theorists (Foucault, Derrida) are mentioned in passing, others (Jakobson, Barthes) are not mentioned at all; which means that the so-called “Theory Wars” do not put in an appearance, structuralism and deconstruction play no part in this story of literary criticism. Though to be fair, Marxism hardly appears; I think the word “Marxism” only occurs in quotations from somebody else. And when I read about Historicism, the name that keeps cropping up is Stanley Fish, but he is entirely absent from North’s index. My knowledge of the history of literary criticism is partial, full of holes, but I struggle to fit what I do know into the story being told here.

But that is because, as I have suggested, that this is less a history than a polemic. North believes that I.A. Richards was the greatest thing that ever happened to literary criticism, but his immediate successors misinterpreted his arguments or took his ideas in inappropriate directions; and their successors did the same, and so on. Every generation or so, someone tries to come up with a radical new paradigm, usually something that can be aligned with contemporary political thinking, Keynesianism with the New Criticism, neo-liberalism with the Historicists/Contextualists, and so on. But these radical shifts in the paradigm then suffer the same processes of misinterpretation and misdirection, and they are anyway never radical enough to go back to Richards. And right now the most interesting critical thinkers (Isobel Armstrong, Eve Sedgwick, D.A. Miller) are showing discontent with the current paradigm without quite getting their acts together enough to establish a new paradigm.

I don’t know the work of Armstrong, Sedgwick or Miller, or the others he quotes here, so I don’t know if North’s selective quotations really provide an accurate impression of their work. Because North’s notion of concision is to assume that his readers are already intimately familiar with every writer he quotes, and therefore do not need a precis of their work or any sense of their context. Similarly, in what he tells us is meant to be a popular work, he litters his sentences with often impenetrable jargon. So what was meant to be a concise work turns into a long, hard slog.

As I said, this “Concise Political History” is actually none of these things. And yet, there is an excitement in reading someone so madly, and maddeningly, committed to an idea; there’s an excitement in seeing literary criticism (or at least a particular subset of literary criticism) provoking such political enthusiasm; and there’s an excitement in discovering so many new (to me) thinkers whose work might, in time, inform my own. Above all the experience of reading this book, the disagreements, the hesitations, the doubts, has forced me to think more closely and in a different way about the subject, and that in itself is perhaps the most exciting thing of all.

Eric and Tirzah and Helen and Diana


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ravilious & coI like the watercolours of Eric Ravilious, there is something both precise and haunting about them. So I was happy to come across Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship by Andy Friend while we were on holiday in Wales. It purports to be a group biography of a bunch of artists who came together at the Royal College of Art just after the First World War under the inspired leadership of Sir William Rothenstein and the teaching of Paul Nash. The core group consisted of Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, Enid Marx, Douglas Percy Bliss, Percy Horton, Peggy Angus and Helen Binyon, with others, notably Tirzah Garwood (who became Tirzah Ravilous), Thomas Hennell, Cecilia Dunbar Kilburn, Diana Low (with Helen Binyon, one of Ravilious’s mistresses), and of course John Nash, taking an increasingly prominent part in the narrative. But in fact it doesn’t really work as a group biography, because they weren’t really a group. They were a very talented generation of artists who came of age at roughly the same time in the fervid post-war world, and who all to some extent fell under the influence of the Nash brothers. They were also to benefit from Rothenstein’s profound belief that commercial art and design were at least as important as fine art, and also from his energetic promotion of their art, putting them forward for murals, posters, book designs and the like. In fact, come to think of it, Rothenstein was the glue that held the group together, and should in some ways have been the central figure in the story, so it is sad that he disappears for the bulk of the book. But then, others that we might expect to be important in a group biography also disappear for much of the time, notably Freedman, Bliss and Horton. Yet this is only to be expected, given that it is obvious that Friend is only really interested in Ravilious, and those who disappear from Ravilious’s immediate circle simply disappear from the narrative. Or mostly; Enid Marx hardly remained close to Ravilious, but Friend keeps switching the story back to her, as if he suspects there might be a more interesting life to pursue here, if only he knew how to do it.

eric ravilious by phyllis bliss

Portrait of Eric Ravilious by Phyllis Bliss

tirzah-garwood by phyllis bliss

Portrait of Tirzah Garwood by Phyllis Bliss

What we have, then, is a biography of Eric Ravilious, with an occasional sideways glance at whoever is in his immediate circle at any particular time. Which is a pity, since some of these were curiously interesting characters. Thomas Hennell, for instance, spent time in a mental hospital, then wrote an extraordinary book about the experience, was encouraged by friends (including Ravilious) to develop his talents as an artist, became a war artist in World War II, notable for his work in France and the Low Countries after D-Day, then went to the Far East “where he was murdered on 5 November 1945 while sketching during civil disturbances in Surabaya,” a throwaway remark that demands a much fuller story.

Before this book I knew about the work of Ravilious and the Nash brothers, and I had heard of Edward Bawden, but the other names meant nothing to me. It may be because they specialized in areas other than fine arts, of course. Enid Marx went into fabric design, and those of us of a certain age probably know her work without knowing it, because she designed the fabrics used in London Underground trains certainly into the 1960s and I think beyond. Barnett Freedman made his name in designing posters, again often for London Underground. Helen Binyon, with her twin sister Margaret, wrote a series of children’s books, and also specialized in puppetry. Douglas Percy Bliss, who, interestingly, worked in camouflage design during the war (another story I’d love to hear more of), went on to be head of the Glasgow School of Art, while Percy Horton was Ruskin Master of Drawing at Oxford University. Illustrious careers all, but not ones likely to have swum into my purview.

tirzah garwood barcombe mill interior

Barcombe Mill Interior by Tirzah Garwood

Of the others, though: how had I not come across Tirzah Garwood? There is a watercolour she did in 1927, “Barcombe Mill Interior”, that is, I think, the equal to any her husband produced, and far superior to the work he was doing at that time. And there were superb woodcuts, every bit the equal of those Ravilious was doing. I find it interesting that some of the most exciting art shown in this book is in the form of

island eric ravilious

Island by Eric Ravilious, which to my mind shows the influence of Paul Nash very clearly.

woodcuts, a form that most of the featured artists took up though they tend not to celebrated elsewhere as much as their paintings were (I don’t remember any woodcuts by Paul Nash in the book about him I read a little while ago, but there are some lovely examples included here.) Of course, Tirzah Garwood, like several other women in this book, had the disadvantage of being female and therefore not getting the attention from the art world that her work deserved. She largely stopped producing art when she married Ravilious, except for paper marbling that she took up at that time; she returned to art only after Ravilious was killed in 1942, with a series of late paintings with an almost fairytale feel, before dying of cancer in 1951.

john nash nocturne bristol docks

Nocturne, Bristol Docks by John Nash


Paddle-Steamers-by-Night-Eric Ravilious

Paddle Steamers at Night by Eric Ravilious

then there is Ravilious. There is a remarkably generous selection of his work shown throughout the book, alongside pieces by the rest of the group. What they show, without Friend ever really spelling it out in his text, is how much Ravilious owed to Paul Nash in both his woodcuts and his watercolours. Though later I suspect that John Nash became a somewhat bigger influence on the watercolours, (the two images from Bristol Docks were painted at the same time, the two men sitting side by side), especially when the two men started going on painting trips together. Both, for instance, have an interest in heavy machinery, ships at anchor, abandoned farm machinery and so on. But Friend doesn’t exactly dwell on things like influence or technique, none of the technicalities of the work, although the work that all of these artists chose to pursue was highly technical in nature. The

helen binyon ste cecile cafe

The Ste Cecile Cafe by Helen Binyon

incredibly light and airy copper engravings produced by Helen Binyon set against the darker and heavier copper engraving,


Redcliffe Road by Edward Bawden

“Redcliffe Road”, by Edward Bawden, look like two different media, and a sentence on how their techniques differed would have been very welcome. And there were technical issues with a mural Ravilious painted that meant it had to be retouched not long after it was finished, but we don’t learn in detail what those issues were. Instead, Friend pays more attention to the various sexual infidelities of his cast. This seems to have been the archetypal, often lampooned, artistic milieu of easy virtue. Ravilious was married to Tirzah, but had long-lasting affairs first with Helen Binyon then with Diana Low, neither of which had any enduring effect on the marriage, and the two women remained close friends with Tirzah


The Westbury Horse by Eric Ravilious

throughout. Meanwhile Diana’s husband welcomed Ravilious as a friend and seems to have been happy to invite Ravilious to stay knowing the affair was going on. A curious menage, therefore, but to me rather less interesting than the art. Or maybe that’s just the way Friend writes about it. One of the things I’ve noticed in so many of the art books I’ve been reading over the last few years is how poorly they are written. There’s a flatness of tone even when describing the most glorious of pictures. And the facts of the life, or lives in this case, are recounted in a sort of dull monotone. This is not a book you would read for the pleasure of reading, but oh the pictures.

It’s easy to make ghosts



Right now I don’t know who wrote that line. It could even have been me. I remember it as a line in Unicorns, Almost, the one-man play that Owen Sheers wrote about Keith Douglas. But going back through the play, I can’t find it. Did I make it up? No, it’s too perfect, it captures the mood and the rhythm of the play too neatly to be a figment of my imagination. So Sheers wrote it. But the play draws heavily on Douglas’s poems, memoir and letters, so it could come from Douglas originally.

It’s a line about war, of course. Specifically about the hot, messy war in the Libyan desert from Alamein onwards. The war where Douglas, left behind in Egypt, stole a truck and drove out to the front to rejoin his unit, and found himself commanding a tank. It was still a boy’s own war at that stage, romantic, exciting. It wouldn’t stay that way: the “sudden expanses of desert flowers” that Douglas spoke about later weren’t necessarily botanical.

Douglas died in France three days after D-Day, he was 24. The times had made those few years an extraordinary lifetime.

I’ve known the name, Keith Douglas, for practically as long as I can remember. The only truly great war poet of World War II. But though I have known the name, I haven’t read more than an occasional poem or two in an anthology. The poems that Sheers includes in this play amount to the most thorough grounding in the work that I have ever had. I feel I must remedy that.

Sheers, I am much more familiar with. I’ve seen him on television a few times, wonderful programmes about poetry. But I first encountered him not as a poet but as a novelist. His novel, Resistance, is to my mind one of the very best alternate histories about Hitler winning the Second World War. The whole novel is restricted, claustrophobically, to one narrow and remote Welsh valley. The men folk have all disappeared, supposedly off to join the resistance, but by now probably dead. The women are left to tend the farms, raise the flocks, throughout the harsh winter, with the fumbling help of the German troops stationed there. It’s a story of humanity and antagonism and circumstance, and it is beautifully written. Those same Welsh valleys recur in White Ravens, his second novel which is a retelling of one of the stories from the mabinogi; and there’s war in that, too. It seems that war is one of his subjects. I’ve not read any of his other plays, but I know that his verse-drama, Pink Mist, for instance, is about the Afghan war. But for Sheers it is always the squaddies’ war, war from the ground up, the simple humanity of trying to stay alive and function as a human being in such circumstances. As such, they do not present as war stories, and, as in this play, the work can be extraordinarily moving.

Take the opening of this play. Douglas begins by telling us: “The most impressive thing about the dead is their silence.” Then he goes on to describe them like “Theatrical dummies holding impossible poses. Until the gases inside them heated up, of course. Then they’d go wriggling off, crawling at a queer angle to the scenery.” Matter-of-fact, grotesque and vivid, all at once. Whether that is pure Douglas or pure Sheers I do not know, and do not care. But Douglas (through Sheers) is constantly at a queer angle to the scenery. Throughout the play, you are taken aback by sudden unexpected perceptions of the war. The noise in a tank is so great that looking out on the battle outside is like watching a silent movie; the way that “the clothes on a dead body often have an instinct for decency, wrapping themselves around the places where arms, legs or heads should be.”

It’s not a long play. 64 pages of text, I’m not sure how long a performance would take. But it seems, like Douglas’s short life, to be packed with more than can be logically fitted into the space. The play ends with one of Douglas’s poems:

Remember me when I am dead
and simplify me when I am dead.

This may be memory, but it is far from simplification.

histories, his stories


The union of England and Wales with Scotland that had been carried in 1707 had created a polity virtually coterminus with the island of Great Britain, but in 1800, the national boundaries of the United Kingdom were redefined and extended to encompass the neighbouring landmass of Ireland.

victorious centuryWhen I read the opening words of David Cannadine’s Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800-1906, I found myself oddly unsettled, and it took me a long time to understand why. I remember reading a lot of histories like this when I first got interested in history back in the 1960s and 70s. In those days, this patrician tone was par for the course in anything that was meant to be taken seriously as history. I’m used to this somewhat laboured style, it wasn’t unfamiliar to me. And yet it felt wrong.

It was only as I got half-way down the first page (and half-way down the first paragraph) that I came upon this sentence:

This Act of Union was driven through in Ireland itself by the Lord Lieutenant (or Viceroy), the Marquis Cornwallis, and in Britain by the First Lord of the Treasury (and de facto prime minister), William Pitt the Younger.

This, I realized, was the first appearance by a person in this particular history. But these weren’t people, they were positions: title comes before name, and in the case of Cornwallis, there are three titles (Lord Lieutenant, Viceroy, and Marquis) but only a surname. Nothing humanizes these figures who are shaping the destinies of two countries. Indeed, nothing does humanize them: Cornwallis isn’t given a christian name anywhere in this chapter; neither man is described, neither man’s character is explained, we aren’t even given their ages (in the case of Pitt, “the Younger” is made to seem part of his surname rather than an attribute of age).

And this, I realized, was what I found unsettling about the book. History books these days don’t start like that. They start dramatically: “On the morning in 1783, when William Pitt the Younger walked into 10 Downing Street for the first time as prime minister, he was just 24 years old.” Or they start descriptively: “Cornwallis was a beaten man, forever scarred by the events at Yorktown nearly 20 years before, but he had made a glittering success in his latest role as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.” Or they start in media res: “George III was having none of it. Pitt’s idea of a Union with Ireland was all well and good, he said, but Catholic emancipation was out of the question.”

History books nowadays begin in many ways, but two things are consistent: they are written to tell a story, and they almost invariably begin with people.

But not this book. This is an old-fashioned political history of Britain between the Act of Union with Ireland in 1800 and the election of the Liberal government of Campbell Bannerman in 1906. It is replete with names, hundreds of them, cabinet ministers, statesmen, campaigners and the like. But they are never more than names: if they ascend to the aristocracy (as so many of those in political office do) then they are only referred to by their title. No one is described (I think there’s a passing reference to Disraeli’s looks, but you could hardly avoid that, could you?), there is no attempt to get under the skin of any of them, to investigate motives, no moment in this very dramatic century is actually dramatized (I don’t think I have ever seen the Peterloo massacre dealt with so dispassionately).

Something of the quality of the book is displayed in the last chapter, when the publication of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells prompts Cannadine to a rare flight of fancy. For 30 pages he imagines what a visitor from 1800 would have made of the world of 1900. It is an interesting imaginative exercise, summarizing all that had changed over the course of the century. But for Cannadine, the very first thing his time travellers would notice was that “Britain’s position in the world was familiar, yet not quite the same.” Really? I would have thought that the very first things they would notice would be the clothes, the crowds, the smells, the monstrosities of trains and horse-drawn omnibuses and motor vehicles. The material things that represent all the ways that life had changed for ordinary people over the century. All of these things would open up discussion of population growth, urbanization, the development of new dyes, advances in technology and so forth. But no, “In the light of the many continental coalitions through which they had lived in the 1800s, the time travellers might not be surprised to learn that Britain had recently renewed its European commitment after a long period of detachment from direct involvement in continental affairs; but they might have been taken aback to discover that the recent military alliance had not been with Germany but with France.”

Don’t get me wrong, this is a fascinating book in many ways. There is a lot of rich detail. It is mostly political history: there is more detail about acts of parliament that succeed or fail, than there is social history about the way people live, and there is more social history than there is cultural history. But there is some cultural history, often presented in interesting juxtapositions: for instance, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is presented as part of the wave of popular unrest that included the Peterloo massacre. (Though it may be indicative of something that the very few errors that I spotted all tended to be associated with social rather than political history; for instance, unless things have changed dramatically over the last century and a half, New Lanark is not actually near Manchester.) It is worth noting, though, that Cannadine will provide some explanation of social and cultural changes, as if these aren’t his natural territory and he has to tread carefully; but when it comes to political structures, he often assumes that he doesn’t need to explain anything. Throughout the century, the person who is prime minister is chosen by the monarch regardless of the political make-up of parliament. Because of her antipathy towards Gladstone, Victoria seems to have several times tried to name Disraeli as prime minister even though the conservatives were not in the majority in the house. And this practice continued into the 20th century: Campbell Bannerman became prime minister in December 1905, before the election of 1906 that brought the Liberals a crushing victory. Now I don’t understand how this works, and I would have relished an explanation, but Cannadine doesn’t seem to feel that is necessary.

It is also, perhaps inevitably given its focus, a very masculine book. You can probably count on the fingers of two hands the women who are mentioned in the first 500 pages of the book. Even Victoria doesn’t get that much of a look in. We are told several times that she didn’t like Gladstone, but we’re not told that much else about her. Then, in the last few pages of the book, he launches into an account of the rise of the New Woman and suffragism in the latter part of the century, and all at once he multiplies by several times the number of women named.

I had to check: Victorious Century was first published in 2017. In many ways, it feels much older.