A Revealing Failure by the Critics
Abstract and Keywords
Following on again from the previous chapter, this chapter focuses on the responses of mainstream reviewers to the two alternate histories written by Kingsley Amis, The Alteration (1976), and Russian Hide and Seek (1981). When these appeared, Amis was such an established author that responses were required in journals which normally ignored science fiction. As a result, some fifty critics with little or no knowledge of the genre were obliged to write mass-media reviews. The results are embarrassingly bad. Many failed to understand the books even on the simplest level: what happens in them. Unfamiliarity with the conventions of the genre caused often complete failure to appreciate the individual works. Science fiction proved to be hard reading indeed: too hard for some. The sophistication of the genre requires equally sophisticated reading.
I ended the preceding piece with a strong feeling that there was more to be said about the sheer difficulty of reading sf in general, and ‘alternate history’ in particular, and Kingsley Amis’s two sf novels gave me the opportunity to draw this out. Just for once, sf got reviewed by the mainstream, and the results – it took me a long time to trace them all – were abysmal. The mainstream reviewers very nearly literally didn’t know where to start. I should say that I have been a very steady writer of reviews for more than thirty years, ever since I was signed up by the Literary Editor of the Guardian in the urinal after delivering Kingsley Amis’s award-presentation speech, as mentioned above (p. 131). I know that reviews for academic journals and reviews for the daily and weekly newspapers are very different animals. For the former, you have years to work in, and often some idea of what professional opinion has started to say. With the latter, you have a deadline measured in days from book arriving to copy being printed; you often know nothing about work or author; you may have several to review at once; there may be an editorial agenda you have to keep an eye on, and – this is the big difference – however dull the book is, you have to make the review sound interesting! People are paying money to read this! So I can easily sympathise with reviewers getting things wrong, staging a controversy, barking up the wrong tree, etc.; it happens all the time. But the responses to Kingers’s sf had an extra element of utter and often angry bewilderment, which I thought told us something about sf as well.
There is a clue in one of the great authorial put-downs, which I did not have the good fortune to hear, but which I have been told about. Apparently, some critic, or maybe a creative-writing teacher, was handing out the usual spiel about how your story had to have characters, how they had to be alive, how they had to come alive from the first moment, etc. At which a sepulchral voice from the audience – Avram Davidson’s – boomed out the first words of Dickens’s famous ‘A (p.142) Christmas Carol’: ‘Marley was dead, stone-dead. To begin with’. So, do stories really have to be based on interesting individual characters? Bert Smallways, centrepiece of Wells’s The War in the Air (1908), is deliberately uninteresting, dead average or worse, as his name suggests. The Time Traveller, in The Time Machine (1895), doesn’t even get a name. And there are no characters in Wells’s 1903 ‘The Land Ironclads’, which I picked as lead story for my 1992 Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories, just a dumb-cluck reporter. The story is about things – and, admittedly, the type of person who makes things. Wells’s reporter is all set to write a piece dehumanising these, which he intends to call ‘Mankind versus Ironmongery’. But, as Wells wrote in the last sarcastic words of his complex and sympathy-shifting story, the half-dozen unimpressive young tank-crewmen standing round at the end in their un-heroic ‘blue pyjamas’, ‘had also in their eyes and carriage something not altogether degraded below the level of a man’. See further my discussion of the ‘fabril’ concept above (pp. 41–2).
Anyway, even John Carey decided to play this card in his review of The Alteration. Carey is a former colleague, even more critical of the literary intelligentsia than I am, and I have every respect for his opinion. But he took the easy route in saying Amis’s novel was good for the usual reasons (interesting characters, flesh and blood, etc.), whereas I think it is good because of its provocative scenario and very deft handling of the built-in sf expectations, of which mainstream reviewers were not aware. Most of the other reviews were just shameful. Sometimes it was because the reviewers just didn’t know enough to start, like the poor fool who didn’t know the meaning of his own phrase deus ex machina – don’t try Latin on people like Amis, he got a proper education long ago. Sometimes they just didn’t catch on to the clues provided, like Amis’s jokes about other alternate history titles, or the references to Shakespeare and Huxley and Orwell, etc. But most of the time it was the old problem: sf sits loose to its writers’ and readers’ habitus, it is prepared to see ‘this world’ as temporary, optional or just plain accidental, and this comes over to many as dreadfully threatening, especially – and here I am being personal – to people who feel they have done OK in this world but might not do so well under different ground rules.
Anyway, Amis’s works are very literary indeed in some ways – he taught English at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and you can’t say fairer than that – but he took the broad view of literature, writing not just sf but other genres like ghost story (The Green Man), detective story (The Riverside Villas Murders), James Bond story (Colonel Sun), etc. They really should not have tried to teach him his business. Another thing he was good at was avoiding the all too traditional sf cop-out ending. And, finally, though (p.143) his memoirs were received with trepidation by all, for he had a wicked tongue and no scruples, careful use of the index indicates that he never had a bad word for anyone within sf: he was a trufan from way back. It is a pity, accordingly, that The Alteration has never quite established itself among sf readers, while Russian Hide and Seek has vanished off the radar screens. Get ’em and read ’em.
Finally, since this functions as a reinforcing coda to the piece above, I have been able to cut out some of the plot summary required in the original independent version.