Previous Contents Next

There's a Pigeon in the Hole

Phlogiston Forty-Five, 1996

Categories can be useful, particularly when you are trying to find a specific book buried somewhere inside an enormous bookshop. Doubtless the shop will have an SF section (and they'll probably call it Sci-Fi, but we lost that battle many years ago). Maybe there will be a detective novel section, a history section, a humour section -- all there to aid you in your quest for the perfect book that presses all your buttons. However, convenient though this system is, I'm not sure that I fully approve of it. For one thing it blinds you to those authors whose works appear in more than one of the categories. There are more of these than you might at first think.

It was the recent death of Sir Kingsley Amis that got me musing along these lines. He was always one of my literary heroes. In common with everybody else I read Lucky Jim and marvelled at the subversive humour of it. Amis was one of the "angry young men" of the 1950s. A label he detested. The book still reads well today, although it no longer seems quite as subversive as once it did. The fashionable angers of the time have become more commonplace concerns or have disappeared entirely.

There are occasional references to science fiction in the book and I remember picking these out with glee when I first read it (Jim, as I recall, makes "Martian faces" in his mirror, for example). I also remember being quite delighted by a scatological joke in another early Amis novel. I think it was One Fat Englishman. The hero is out gallivanting with a scrumptious Portuguese girl whom he fancies like crazy. However he isn't getting very far since he speaks no Portuguese and she speaks no English. During the course of this monoglot semi-seduction he feels an enormous fart building up. Part of his mind refuses to worry about it -- after all, if he farts he'll be doing it in English and she won't understand!

Anyway, I was not at all surprised to find that Amis was a science fiction fan. He went on to publish one of the first critical works on the genre (New Maps of Hell) and in the 1960s, in collaboration with Robert Conquest he edited the Spectrum anthologies. These were quite powerful and influential anthologies (at least in Britain), somewhat on a par with the Best SF series edited by the pseudonymous Edmund Crispin (his real name was Bruce Montgomery and, interestingly, he was a good friend of Amis') and they did a lot to popularise the field in Britain where the SF magazines in which the stories were first published were very difficult to come across. Somehow it seems quite appropriate that the two most original and interesting science fiction anthologies of the British post-war era were both edited by people from outside the science fiction world.

Amis even wrote several science fiction novels, although they were seldom recognised as such by the literati. But however you define science fiction there is no doubt that The Alteration and Russian Hide and Seek are firmly inside the borders. I could even put together a good case for The Green Man (where God has a small, walk-on part), and The Anti-Death League, though I am willing to admit that the evidence is not quite as strong here.

The point, of course, is that Amis was a writer who recognised that categories existed, but who refused to let himself be bound by them. If he had an idea for a book he simply wrote the book without worrying too much about which shelf it might eventually be filed on. Many of his works are simply novels -- you and I might refer to them as "mainstream". But equally as many belong to one of the genre fictions if you care to make that distinction.

Some critics would consider all of his books to be simply the work of a member of the literary establishment and would look no further. When you gain a certain literary reputation, smaller sins like science fiction novels tend to be recognised but dismissed as irrelevant. This is far too narrow and parochial a judgement and Amis himself would have hated it. In Memoirs, his delightfully bitchy collection of autobiographical essays, he makes his feelings on this topic abundantly plain. Amis was above all that sort of thing (or below it, depending on your point of view). He was fully aware of the genre novels and of their place in the world, and he knew exactly how and why they generated the passions that they do. In an essay published in the collection What Became of Jane Austen? and other Questions he wrote:

The minor genres such as science fiction, jazz, the Western and the detective story can (I think) only be deeply appreciated and properly understood by the addict, the bulk consumer who was drawn to the stuff in late childhood for reasons he could not have explained then and would have a lot of trouble explaining now.

Amis himself was just such an addict as other essays in this and other books make abundantly clear. Consequently it comes as no real surprise to find that among his published works are detective stories, spy stories and SF stories. (I don't recall any Westerns or any jazz records, but I am willing to be corrected on this).

If this was peculiar to Kingsley Amis then I suppose we could simply dismiss him as a minor eccentric and move on to something else. But it turns out to be a surprisingly common phenomenon. It transcends artistic boundaries (not only the literati go slumming) and it seems to be almost exclusively a British trait. There are examples from other countries, but they are far fewer and far less significant. Let's take a closer look...

I think that at some point in our lives we have all been faced with trying to justify and explain our strange hobby to some doubting person or other.

("Why do you read this rubbish?"
"It isn't rubbish!
"Prove it.")

One defence that springs to mind is to try and list all the science fiction books that have been accepted by the mainstream. We point to Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and 1984 by George Orwell. We probably mention H. G. Wells and perhaps Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange and various others) and William Golding (The Lord of the Flies and several other SF related works). Depending on our audience we might go further back in time and discuss Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift and Tristram Shandy by Lawrence Sterne. Actually, I'm not sure if Tristram Shandy is science fiction, but whatever it is, it is undeniably odd and it has as good a claim to being science fiction, or at least fantasy, as it does to being anything else. How else would you describe a book where the narrator hasn't been born yet?

The interesting thing about all these examples is that in every case the writer was not writing SF for the love of it, he was writing SF for the sake of the story, the message and the theme (or the sub-text if that is your literary bent). Indeed, several of our favourite mainstream colleagues couldn't have even known that they were writing science fiction since the term and the genre did not exist when they were putting their words on to dead trees. Anyway, it's irrelevant. None of these writers (and half a dozen more that I could name) felt that they were doing anything out of the ordinary when they wrote their books. They merely wrote what the story required. (I once heard Gene Wolfe comment that what he wrote was just stuff. What happened to it after it went to the publisher was their business and had nothing to do with him). In other words the literary boundaries that you and I may force on to our reading are often meaningless to the writers who produce it. Sometimes I suspect that the tail is wagging the dog.

I doubt if Wells saw any real distinction between the scientific romances of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds and the sociological commentary of Kipps and The History of Mr Polly. Amis and Wells represent perhaps the two extremes in their approaches. Wells probably didn't even recognise that different categories of fiction existed at all, at least not to the extent that we do today. Literary categories were much more fluid in his time. Amis recognised their existence but felt little interest in such artificial distinctions. Both approaches lead to the same end result, of course. The writer simply writes the book that he writes without any feeling of slumming at all. Under this rubric, the only thing that separates the genre writer from the mainstream is that the mainstream writer has a far greater spread and the genre specialist can thus be considered to be far too narrow-minded for his own good. Now there's a thought to play with -- the SF writer as a conservative literary reactionary! (Do I hear you cry "Anathema!"?)

You can see the phenomenon much more clearly when you examine that peculiarly British genre, the detective story. Currently, under the guidance of Ruth Rendell and P. D. James it is becoming almost respectable (and I note, in passing, that P. D. James has also written an excellent SF novel called The Children of Men), but it was not always so. Once it was just another genre category. Enormous fun, but no more than that.

Not that it stopped anybody, of course. The British literary establishment took that genre to their hearts and quite deliberately wrote in it (as opposed to writing books that just happened to be of the genre because of their subject matter). Cecil Day Lewis may have been the poet laureate, but it didn't stop him churning out detective novels under the pseudonym of Nicholas Blake. The Oxford don J. I. M. Stewart wrote erudite novels under his own name and detective novels as Michael Innes. Colin Watson wrote a loving history of the English crime novel called Snobbery with Violence and some of the names he mentions might surprise you.

Even in our own narrow field, the genre has its crossovers (if I may be allowed a neologism). There are those who claim that the American writer Fredric Brown was a much better crime writer than he was an SF writer. Certainly he wrote far more of it; though his work was more American in its approach and often lacked the quite rigid structural requirements that the British authors imposed on themselves. Jack Vance has written several crime/mystery novels and won an Edgar (the crime equivalent of the SF Hugo award) for his novel The Man in the Cage. Even Asimov flirted with it. See, for example, A Whiff of Death and Authorised Murder (aka Murder at the ABA). John Sladek paid homage to the genre with Invisible Green and while sticking closely to the formula, managed to have a lot of irreverent fun as well. But such examples of crossovers between genres, while interesting, are not really germane to the thesis since with the possible exception of Asimov the writers are not mainstream artists. They are simply genre writers exchanging one genre for another which is not at all the same thing, as I'm sure you'd agree.

Oddly, this rather catholic attitude to literary discrimination is almost exclusively British. It is interesting to note that all of the mainstream authors whose names I invoked in an attempt to defend SF are British. I would be very hard pressed to name any American writers of equivalent stature. Mark Twain, perhaps Kurt Vonnegut (though he is somewhat of a special case being more of a science fiction writer who was adopted by the mainstream). Perhaps categorisations are perceived of as being more important on the other side of the pond?

America is not without mainstream writers of merit -- far from it. But the Faulkners, the Salingers, the Scott-Fitzgeralds, the Updikes etc. all seem more rigidly bound to their artistic model than their British equivalents. (Though both Faulkner and Scott-Fitzgerald worked in Hollywood and wrote screenplays). John Barth's monumentally unreadable Giles, Goat Boy is sometimes claimed by SF purists looking desperately for mainstream respectability, but I remain unconvinced. It seems to me to be more of an early example of the sort of ‘magical realism' that we associate with the South Americans (Gabrial García Márquez et al) than it is an example of fantasy or SF. Perversely, the thing that commonly strikes me about magical realism is how unreal it all seems; it feels fuzzy and out of focus and there is a curious distancing effect which makes the books extremely difficult to read. I will never know whether or not Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses is sacrilegious since I simply cannot struggle through the opaque descriptive language of the beginning. Perhaps I am all the poorer for that -- but I doubt it.

The lack of a categorical distinction manifests itself in other British arts as well. I remember feeling vaguely shocked when Sir Ralph Richardson played the Supreme Being in the film Time Bandits. I don't know why I should have been. After all, Sir Laurence Olivier was in Boys from Brazil and Sir John Gielgud was in Arthur and its sequel. But, snobbishly, one can't help feeling that it is something of a come down for them. That's an utterly ridiculous thing to say, of course and by saying it I am falling into exactly the same trap as those who accuse Kingsley Amis of slumming when he writes SF. Actually I would be willing to bet that Ralph Richardson enjoyed himself enormously. Maybe they gave him a motor bike to drive to work on. He liked motor bikes -- the heavier, faster and meaner they were, the better he liked them. Some of his theatre performances were thought to be quite stiff by critics who were unaware that he'd broken his ribs again in yet another motor bike accident.

One of the things that distinguishes the science fiction novel is its ability to hold up a distorting mirror to society (and it is a major reason why Swift, Huxley and Orwell chose to write their great works in the way that they did). Perhaps this is the reason why mainstream writers are so often attracted to it. When it works (which it does surprisingly often) the result is often memorable. Perhaps the best recent example of this is Margaret Attwood's The Handmaid's Tale which I felt was a tour de force. However when the experiment fails to work the results are generally dire. The most notorious example of this to my mind being Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos series which I found (dare I say it?) embarrassingly naive. In fairness I have to point out that some critics do not agree with me. John Clute, for example, has praised the series highly.

Often when the mainstream writer goes slumming it is the vocabulary of the field that lets them down. Samuel Delany has remarked that SF can be characterised by the special sense that it gives to the meanings of words. He points out that in a contemporary mainstream work the phrase "He turned on his left side" is quite innocuous and probably refers to somebody turning over in bed. However in an SF setting the words take on a whole new significance that they never had before. Is the character a robot who leaves his right side turned off? These word games are not unusual in English, of course. It's one of the characteristics that makes the language so much fun to use. The canonical example is the extraordinary number of different ways that you can parse "Time flies like an arrow." But it is definitely an extra stumbling block when attempting to write SF. Paul Theroux (better known as a travel writer) has stumbled here on occasion.

Even though the evidence suggests that in Britain at least, the walls we build between categories are flimsier than they are elsewhere, it still remains a rare thing for a writer to be well respected in both the genre and the mainstream worlds. However in the 1990s one writer has managed quite successfully to make a huge reputation for himself in both areas. Not surprisingly he is British (or to be more accurate, Scottish) and his name is Iain Banks on his mainstream novels and Iain M. Banks on his SF. The ‘M' stands for ‘Menzies'.

His first published book was The Wasp Factory in 1984. It took the literary world by storm. Stanley Reynolds, writing in Punch claimed that it was a minor masterpiece and the Financial Times reviewed it as "...a story of quite exceptional quality...". It is certainly surreal and grotesque and the ending of the book has always appeared to me to be rather like the punch line of a shaggy dog story. For that reason I have always felt it was his weakest book.

In 1985 he published Walking on Glass. Again this was accepted by the mainstream critics as simply another book. Slightly weird perhaps, but in the words of the literary critic of the Observer "Inexorably powerful... sinister manipulations and magnetic ambiguities". I don't know what that means, but it sounds impressive. The point though is that while you can't describe the book as science fiction (if it is anything, it is a paranoid nightmare mingled with a coming of age story) there is absolutely no doubt that it was written by a science fiction fan. The novel is full of references to the field and the knowledgeable person will have enormous fun playing ‘spot the SF trope' as they devour the book. It was obviously going to be only a matter of time before he wrote something that belonged fairly and squarely in the field proper.

His third novel was a very surreal Kafka-esque nightmare called The Bridge. Again there were quite a lot of SF references and a side-splittingly hilarious demolition of the cliché barbarian hero. This sword-wielding Conan look-alike has a broad Glaswegian accent and appears to have been born in the Gorbles. All three of these novels established Banks' mainstream reputation and led Fay Weldon to call him "... the great white hope of contemporary British Literature."

With his fourth novel, Consider Phlebas, he stopped messing about. This was simon-pure science fiction and was marketed as such. In this and several other novels and short stories Banks explored the universe of ‘the Culture'. Unusually for the type of space opera that Banks was writing in these books the Culture is not an interstellar empire and neither is it a large corporation nor an amorphous power hungry organisation. Rather it is a loose, but complex socialist commune-writ-large and as such is probably unique in the genre.

If you want to know more about Banks, and if you have access to the internet, you will find Culture Shock -- The unofficial Iain M Banks information site at

This site contains (among other things) links to a Banks bibliography, notes on some unpublished stories and a link to a paper by Iain Banks himself which discusses the political, economic and social ideas behind the universe in which he sets most of his science fiction. It is called A Few Notes on the Culture and will be found at

Banks has published fourteen books to date. Of these six are firmly SF and most of the rest contain overt or covert SF references. (Canal Dreams for example, is firmly a mainstream book and yet it is set in the year 2000). Banks, it seems, cares little for pigeonholes. He just writes books.

In confirmation of this, in an interview with the BBC at the 1995 World Convention in Glasgow, Banks was asked why he distinguished between his genre and non-genre writings by putting different names on them. His reply was that he rather wished he hadn't and in retrospect it was probably a mistake -- though perhaps it was too late to change it now. In one sense, that begs the question, but it does illustrate the lack of distinction that Banks' consciously makes between the categories that others slot his books into.

But that just makes him the latest in a very long and very distinguished line.

Previous Contents Next