I interviewed Rob Holdstock several times over the years, enough so that we had a running joke going. He would accuse me of always asking the same question, so I replied if he’d just answer it one time I wouldn’t need to ask it again. But, of course, he didn’t answer it. I’m not altogether sure he could.
The question was: why did you give up science fiction for fantasy?
There are slick answers to this. The success of Mythago Wood and its immediate sequels made it commercially stupid to go back to sf. Or you might argue that he never wholeheartedly wrote science fiction, considering the earthy, myth-laden character of his first two novels. But these are cheap, superficial answers to a deeper and more complex question, and both Rob and I recognised that such answers would have been unsatisfactory.
I realised, belatedly, that the essay I had in Vector this summer was an attempt on my part to answer the question. The essay argued that there is a particular view of time, a sinuous, riverine view, that runs through all his work. I think it is this conception of time that lies at the heart of his shift from sf to fantasy.
His first two novels, Eye Among the Blind (1976) and Earthwind (1977), were rich, complex, a little self-indulgent, and full of sometimes clumsy attempts to layer a long view of ancient time and mythology onto fairly standard science fictional tropes of alien worlds and far futures. Pretty much the same can be said about Necromancer (1978), his third novel, with horror substituting for sf. They were good journeyman novels (I particularly liked Necromancer), though I think the short stories he was writing at the time (collected in In the Valley of the Statues (1982)) were rather better, even if these stories did rather too often live up to another running joke, that he always wrote about men fucking the earth.
There were twists and turns in time evident, if only as asides, in those early novels and in a few of the stories. But then came his fourth novel, Where Time Winds Blow (1981), and time stopped being a device in his fiction and became the subject of it. This was, to my mind, the breakthrough novel, a work of genuine, paradigm-shifting science fiction, as breathtakingly original in its conception and as taut in its execution as, say, Christopher Priest’s Inverted World. It would, I am sure, have been the novel for which he is best remembered, if he hadn’t followed it with Mythago Wood (1984), but I’ll come to that in a moment. Science fiction has often written about time as a dimension, through which one can move forwards, backwards or sideways; but Where Time Winds Blow imagines time as a medium in which one is immersed, a flood sweeping through and around and across you, buffeting you in different directions at once. ‘Later,’ I wrote in that essay, ‘time would flow so sinuously that it affected the very landscape through which it passed, changing the ecology along its banks, leaving behind curious abandoned ox-bow lakes.’ Though characters move in time, they do not control it, they cannot determine direction or destination.
Where Time Winds Blow was far and away the best work of science fiction that Holdstock produced, it was also just about the last. He had written a novel that was audacious in its imagination and successful in its execution, and immediately turned away from the genre. Hence my question.
It surely wasn’t coincidence that in the same year he published Where Time Winds Blow, he also produced ‘Mythago Wood’, the original story from which the entire sequence grew. He had found a subject, and was exploring it in two works that are, in key ways, the same.
It may seem counter-intuitive, if not downright controversial, to aver that a novel set on an alien planet in the future and a novel set in rural England immediately after the Second World War are the same, but they are. Both equate time and identity. In both novels time has sculpted its own unique landscape (and landscape was always important in Holdstock’s work). In both novels, time is wild, non-linear, disordered and disordering, identified with all that is primitive and threatening: time is an object of primal fear. In both novels a man with psychic scars from the past must plunge into time, not to heal the scars but to accept them. In both novels the past that haunts the protagonist and the wilderness of time in which he must seek healing are separate: the past is as much outside the raging sweep of time as is the present (let me explain: the present is coherent, we understand it as part of a linear sequence from yesterday into tomorrow; the past is part of that same coherent, understandable sequence; but time as represented by the rift valley or Ryhope Wood is not coherent, is not susceptible to being understood. The journey in both novels takes us from a place where we think we know ourselves because we are established within a familiar, comforting sequence of linear time, into a place where time is not familiar but wild, is not comforting but raw, is not linear but disordered, and hence where that self-knowledge must be undermined.)
In that essay I suggested that this notion of time as a sinuous river which twists and turns upon itself through every single one of the novels Holdstock wrote after Where Time Winds Blow, was an extravagantly science fictional idea, which explains the dramatic impact that Holdstock’s work had upon fantasy. This was a way of perceiving the shape of the world that the genre had not known before. This is, I still believe, true; but it is only part of the story. Or rather, it only goes part of the way towards answering my question.
Science fiction is remarkably profuse in the way it uses time: time machines, future settings, parallel times, people coming unstuck in time or killing their own grandfather. Yet for all these tropes, sf is remarkably conservative about the nature of time. Whichever of these tropes you might pick, the master-plan of time is still strictly linear, there is still a steady flow from yesterday to tomorrow, from past to future, from beginning to end. The difference lies in where or how you access the line, not in the nature of the line itself. Were Holdstock to continue to explore his sinuous, non-linear time in science fiction, there would be nowhere else to go. Where Time Winds Blow is a one-off, it could be repeated but not advanced.
But the structure of time plays no part in the conception of fantasy. Most fantasy, in fact, is static in time. Each story has its conventional chronology, but with very rare exceptions (Merlin living backwards in The Once and Future King) the shape of time itself is not affected by the story. And this absence paradoxically opens up fantasy for Holdstock’s explorations of non-linear time. Which is exactly what he did in novel after novel. We remember the forests in his stories, we remember the crude mythic archetypes, we remember the conflation of different myths in the Merlin Codex, but look at what is happening to time in these stories. Not one of them has a conventional chronological structure, a conventional line of time. Different times, sometimes centuries apart, juxtapose each other, rub against each other, intertwine with each other.
So I think I know why Holdstock moved from science fiction into fantasy: because he found a perfect science fictional idea that could be most satisfactorily explored through the medium of fantasy.
First published at LiveJournal, 7 December 2009.