Previous Contents Next

wot I red on my hols by alan robson (tractatus libellus)

Metathinking – An Essay About Essays...

The Jonbar Point is a brand new book by Brian Aldiss. However the two essays collected in the book are both very old. They last saw the light of day, very briefly, more than fifty years ago...

In 1964, Brian Aldiss, in collaboration with his friend and colleague Harry Harrison, began to publish a magazine of SF criticism called SF Horizons. Aldiss and Harrison only managed to put together two issues before the magazine folded, never to be seen on the news stands again. The essays collected in The Jonbar Point are taken from those two issues. Aldiss never included the essays in any of his later collections, probably because of their length – each of them runs to more than 12,000 words. Over the years the essays have gained quite a reputation for themselves because that small handful of people who actually saw SF Horizons kept claiming that the essays were insightful and cleverly constructed, that they defined (and perhaps even redefined) the position of science fiction in the literary arena. But nobody really knew, because SF Horizons vanished long ago and copies of it are almost impossible to find.

So what’s my verdict now that I’ve finally had a chance to read them? Are the essays worthy of their inflated reputation? Not surprisingly, the answer is both yes, and no.

The first essay is called "Judgement at Jonbar". It is an exhaustive analysis of The Legion of Time, a novel written by Jack Williamson which was published in America in 1938. Twenty three years later, in 1961,  Digit Books published it in the UK. Perhaps it paddled very slowly across the Atlantic Ocean, stopping for the occasional bit of rest and recreation along the way... It was probably the Digit edition that Aldiss worked from.

Even in 1964, Williamson’s novel was generally regarded as old and unimportant and time has not been kind to it. Today it is even older and even less important so you might legitimately ask whether there is any point in reading Aldiss’ essay at all. Surely both the novel and the essay define a day that has come and gone? In and of itself, that is a perfectly true statement, but it isn’t the point. Aldiss examines the novel in detail, highlighting both its weaknesses and its strengths. The result is a tour de force of structural analysis, full of lessons that exemplify how a science fiction novel should (and should not) be put together. If you read the essay for the general principles it examines and defines rather than taking it as a simple examination of a very old and not very good novel, then there are timeless and valuable lessons to be learned from it.

The second essay has the rather clumsy title "British Science Fiction Now – Studies of Three Writers". It examines the works of Lan Wright, Donald Malcolm and J. G. Ballard. All were being regularly published in the British SF magazine New Worlds. At that time the magazine was edited by John Carnell and it was a fairly conservative publication. Aldiss’ essay and the writers it discusses pre-date (though only just) the magazine’s reincarnation as a vehicle for the SF new wave under the editorship of Michael Moorcock. Moorcock had only just taken over the editorial reins and he was still feeling his way when Aldiss’ essay was written. His revolution had yet to happen, though the writing was clearly on the wall.

You can easily be forgiven if you have never heard of Lan Wright and Donald Malcolm. They were minor writers even back then, and they are totally forgotten now. But the same is not true of J. G. Ballard. He went on to become a powerful and influential voice in the British literary scene. However his career was only just beginning when Aldiss wrote this essay and in those days Ballard was just another writer, one among many who published their stories in New Worlds.

What makes this essay so insightful is that Aldiss recognises and defines the flaws that bound Lan Wright and Donald Malcolm into their role as (let’s be kind) second-rate writers and he also defines the virtues that later propelled Ballard right out of SF and into the literary mainstream (though interestingly Ballard never forgot his SF roots and all the later novels that brought him such fame, fortune and respect show its influence). I think it is to Aldiss’ credit that even in the early days of Ballard’s career Aldiss could identify and analyse Ballard’s strength as a writer and he could predict the likely shape of his future career. It is this analysis which makes the essay well worth reading today long after both Lan Wright and Donald Malcolm have faded into obscurity.

Apart from Ballard himself, time has dimmed the importance and the reputations of the writers and the stories that Aldiss uses to illustrate the arguments he develops in both these essays. That makes them harder to come to grips with than once they were. Back in 1964, Aldiss could be sure that his intended audience would all be familiar with his examples. That assumption is no longer valid. It is still worth persevering with the essays – their truths are just as true now as ever they were. But their content does make them more than a little time bound.

Slow Pint Glass marks the end of the project by Ansible Editions to bring all of Bob Shaw’s fan writing back into print. Like the other books (The Enchanted Duplicator, Serious Scientific Talks and The Full Glass Bushel) it is available as a free download from:

Most of the collection is made up of side-splittingly funny essays, much as you might expect from Bob Shaw. But we also get a chance to see some of Bob Shaw’s more serious thoughts about the SF field that he knew and loved so well. For example, the collection includes a beautiful hatchet-job review of Barry Malzberg’s 1972 novel Beyond Apollo. When that novel was first published it won countless prizes, and it was grotesquely over-praised and over-hyped. Bob Shaw clearly did not admire the book at all and I suspect that Malzberg must have winced all the way to the bank under the lash of Shaw’s stinging and irrefutable criticism. Time, I think, has proved that Bob Shaw’s verdict on Malzberg’s novel was the correct one. These days you seldom, if ever, hear any mention of it at all.

The book also includes a rather acrimonious discussion that Bob had with Richard Lupoff, an American critic who claimed to have found textual evidence in one of Bob Shaw’s novels which proved that Shaw’s marriage was on the rocks. Not only was this claim arrant nonsense (anybody who had ever met Bob and Sadie could have told him that), such personal observations, whether true or false, have absolutely no place in a book review. Bob, quite naturally, took exception to it and responded to the criticism. Somewhat reluctantly, Lupoff eventually (sort of) withdrew his claim…

But mostly the essays in Slow Pint Glass are all sweetness and light, because Bob himself was all sweetness and light. He was the gentlest, kindest, nicest and funniest man I have ever known. I greatly miss our long conversations. They often went on well into the small hours and sometimes even longer. We saw the sun rise together more than once. Bob died in 1996 and I still miss him. Slow Pint Glass contains 167,000 of Bob Shaw’s finest words. Reading it felt just like having him back here with me again. Tonight I will raise my own pint glass to his memory.

Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Neil Gaiman was first published in 1988 when Adams himself was still very much alive and still had several more writing projects in his future. The book was a combined biography and literary analysis of Adams’ work to date. It has had several editions since then and several other people have contributed to it. Each edition has added new information to Adams’ biography and more depth to the examination of his literary output. The latest edition dates from 2019 and, as always, it contains a lot of new material.

There is no doubt that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels were (and still are) massively important and extraordinarily clever literary works. I use the phrase "literary works" quite deliberately because the Guide itself has been published in every medium available to it – I don’t think it has ever appeared as cuneiform characters carved on stone tablets (though I would not be at all surprised to find that it has), but it has certainly popped up everywhere else. It started life as a radio series, then it appeared as a stage show and on several LP records. It has been published as a book, it has been a TV series, a feature film and a computer game. And in every incarnation bits of it have been omitted, added, twisted, rearranged and modified. Trying to keep track of all the variant texts is a bibliographic nightmare, but Neil Gaiman and his associates have done their very best and the end result is probably as definitive as it can possibly be. Until the next edition appears…

Even in its first incarnation Gaiman’s book made it quite clear that Douglas Adams was, shall we say, a rather unreliable person. He is often quoted as saying: "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by." He was notoriously late with everything he worked on, and in the days when he was writing radio scripts he sometimes delivered his material mere minutes before it was due to be broadcast! I can’t imagine how the cast and crew ever managed to cope with it. The nervous tension must have been very ulcer-inducing.

On one famous occasion he was so late delivering the manuscript of his novel So Long and Thanks for all the Fish that the publisher actually locked Adams in a hotel room and refused to let him out again until the book was finished. Presumably they fed him through the keyhole… That kind of behaviour can’t have been good for anybody. It is completely unprofessional and I find it very hard to understand why anyone would ever have wanted to employ Douglas Adams or commission work from him or even work with him in a collaboration. And yet people did, they queued up to do so and despite the fact that Adams’ personality appeared to consist largely of neuroses and defects, they stuck by him and praised him and often came back to him for more of the same. Very, very odd…

If you are at all interested in Douglas Adams’ life and work (and who isn’t?) Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Neil Gaiman is essential reading.

Until a couple of weeks ago I’d never heard the name Caitlin Moran. Then, quite by chance, I stumbled across an interview with her on the radio. She was introduced as a journalist, author and broadcaster. To begin with I only listened to the interview with half an ear, but it wasn’t long before her witticisms forced me to listen more closely and I ended up being quite enthralled by the things that she said. Moran grew up in a cramped council house in Wolverhampton fighting with her parents and her siblings. She described that rather combative environment as being somewhat akin to the violence depicted in The Hunger Games. Clearly she was something of an SF fan on the side. Naturally I had to go looking for her books, and I found this in one of her essays:

To those who still deludedly think they prefer Star Wars over Ghostbusters, all I need to do is ask you this: You don’t really want to be a Jedi, do you? In a greige cowl, getting off with your sister, without a single gag across three films? I think if you thought about it a little while longer, you’d realize that you’d far rather be a Ghostbuster: a nerd in New York with an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on your back, and a one-in-four chance of being Bill Murray.

When I first read this paragraph, I was puzzled. Greige? What is that all about? I looked it up in a dictionary and discovered, rather to my surprise, that it really is a word. Greige defines a colour that is mid way between beige and grey. Clearly it is the world’s most boring colour, just perfect for the world’s most boring Jedi. So at one and the same time I managed to confirm that Caitlin Moran has impeccable SF credentials, and that she is just as funny in print as she was on the radio. As an added bonus, I learned a brand new word as well. What’s not to like?

As a child, Caitlin Moran was a voracious reader but she only read books written by women because she found it easy to identify with what she found in them. I don’t think she’s continued with that rather biased and one-sided view of the world, but it certainly shaped her as a feminist. I’ve heard other people express similar sentiments – there’s a well known SF/Fantasy author who proclaims very stridently that she’s never read a book written by a man and she never will. She’s a profoundly irritating person because she has no trace whatsoever of a sense of humour and I find it annoying to be on the other end of her somewhat pointed lectures, whether in person or in print. However I am more than happy to accept Caitlin Moran’s similar declarations because she does it with such wit, style and grace that I simply can’t help myself. I enjoy her view of the world and I’m very willing to go along with her for the ride.

Moranifesto is a collection of essays that define Caitlin Moran’s views on life, the universe and everything. You really have to admire someone who can come up with a book title that is such a clever pun. And then I found that she’d done it again with Moranthology. Who could resist? Certainly not me. I’ve turned into a moranomaniac.

Brian W. Aldiss The Jonbar Point Ansible Editions
Bob Shaw Slow Pint Glass Ansible Editions
Neil Gaiman Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Open Road
Caitlin Moran Moranifesto Ebury Press
Caitlin Moran Moranthology Ebury Press
Previous Contents Next