From Our Archive: Meetings With Remarkable Men By Christopher Priest

This talk was first delivered at Novacon 9, in November 1979, and is reprinted from Vector 98, June 1980.

I have borrowed the title of my talk today from the Armenian mystic Gurdjieff, who wrote a semi-autobiographical account of his quest for knowledge and understanding. He sought out a number of philosophers and mystics, became their disciple, and absorbed their wisdom. I’m telling you this in the hope that it will set a high intellectual tone to this convention. In fact, it sets the intellectual tone of this talk exactly … because I’m bluffing. Not only have I not read Gurdjieff, but I haven’t even seen the film. However, it’s a good title, and it’s somewhere to begin.

When I first started to go to science fiction conventions I did so for very simple motives. I was a fan of science fiction. Or, to put it more accurately, I was a fan of certain writers who had published science fiction. When I went to Peterborough in 1964 I did so in the hope of meeting John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury, J G Ballard, Robert Sheckley, Brian Aldiss … even, if I was very lucky, H G Wells. I wanted to be a science fiction writer, and I hoped that by rubbing shoulders with people like this that some of their talent might rub off on me. I soon discovered that if you rub shoulders with science fiction writers the only thing that’s likely to rub off on you is dandruff.

When I first thought about what I should say to you today I felt a slight sense of panic. It might come as something of a surprise to some of you, but this is the first time that I have ever given a talk at a convention. I’ve often taken part in panels — usually the sort where we set out to talk about literature and end up arguing about money — but never before have I been given a whole hour of the convention’s time.

I started to go to sf conventions because I was a fan, and to a large extent I continue to come to cons for fannish reasons. They are above all fannish events, and any writer who comes along has to do so more or less on fannish terms. I’m proud of the fact that I have maintained fannish links for more than fifteen years, and it was this that gave me a clue as to what I might be able to talk about today. I saw myself as a sort of latter-day Gurdjieff, passing through the sf world for fifteen years, in contact with the great minds. Perhaps, I thought, I could give you a series of anecdotes about the remarkable men I have met over the years, passing on to you what grains of wisdom, or dandruff, I have picked up. So, with this in mind, I started making a list. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Brian Aldiss, John Wyndham, John W Campbell, Frederick Pohl, Rob Holdstock … all these I have met. And, because in these liberated times remarkable men should really be called remarkable people, Ursula Le Guin, Vonda McIntyre, Leigh Brackett, Anne McCaffrey, Judith Merrill. The list extended indefinitely, easily filling an hour of your time.

But then, the more I thought about it, none of my meetings with remarkable men were all that remarkable. I could have told you about how my father-figure, Harry Harrison, cuffed me about the ear and said, “Get out of the way, you fucking fan.” Or how the very first words ever spoken to me by Arthur C Clarke were, “What about the variable albedo?” … something which to this day is worrying me. I could tell you how I stood next to Harlan Ellison, and loomed over him. Come to that, I could tell you how Douglas Adams stood next to me, and loomed over us both.

A reader’s experience of science fiction is, in a sense, a meeting with remarkable minds. It was this that first surprised me when I encountered sf. Through their work, I met, for the first time, writers who could show me a different way of seeing things, who were way above the mundane things in life and were getting on with a kind of fiction that made me think for myself. Years later, I came across a passage in an essay by George Orwell, which describes this feeling exactly. Orwell was describing the effect on him of reading H G Wells as a boy:

It was a wonderful experience for a boy to discover H G Wells. There you were, in a world of pedants, clergymen and golfers, with your future employers exhorting you to “get on or get out”, your parents systematically warping your sexual life, and your dull-witted schoolmasters sniggering over their Latin tags; and here was this wonderful man who could tell you about the inhabitants of the planets and the bottom of the sea, and who knew that the future was not going to be what respectable people imagined.

Orwell always has the ability to pinpoint a feeling exactly, and this describes the effect science fiction as a whole can have on people who come to it with open minds. I myself came to it with the open mind of adolescence, as many of us do. The ideas of science fiction work on two levels. Firstly, there is the element of surprise or novelty, and secondly there is the less specific quality of making us think for ourselves, of applying a freshness of approach to our own lives.

I don’t want to emphasize the importance of the ideas too much, because there is much more to science fiction than just novelty. I think ideas are misunderstood in some quarters, and given the wrong sort of importance. Science fiction is undoubtedly the literature of ideas, or speculative notions, but an idea in a story cannot exist outside the words that contain it. It therefore seems obvious to me that we should be at least as interested in the words as we are in the ideas.

This amounts to taking a more literary approach to sf, but I have found to my cost over the years that the very mention of the word “literary” seems to indicate some kind of mischief on my behalf. There is an anti-literature mood in science fiction, one that is shared by many readers, critics and even some of the writers. Literature is a dirty word: it is taken to mean “arty” or “boring” or “pretentious”. Science fiction is fresh and exciting; literature would only muck it up. Literature is posh, literature is for the academics and poseurs. Science fiction is fun, and literature isn’t.

This perverse attitude is especially ironic, because it seems to me that the best science fiction has the twin merits of being popular and widely read, and yet also deeply serious. Some of the most popular sf books in recent years have been serious novels, capable of being judged by the highest literary standards. You have only to look as far as the novels of, say, Ursula Le Guin to see this.

So in recent years I’ve become a bit of a literature bore, or so it seems. I have said, until even I am bored with hearing me say it, that a science fiction novel should be a novel first and science fiction second. That it should be recognised as an art and not a craft. That it should make demands on a reader and not pander to laziness. That it should not seek to compete with television or comics or films, but that it should be first and foremost a literature experience. That it should be peopled with characters who not only live for the plot but are living. That there should be a celebration of language and metaphor and style. In short, that a novel, whether it is science fiction or anything else, is literature above all else.

Yet in the science fiction world this kind of sentiment is seen as heresy. You have probably heard Heinlein’s remark that writers are competing for the readers’ beer-money. When this was quoted in an SFWA publication by Poul Anderson, underlining the entertainment value of science fiction, Stanislaw Lem was moved to reply. Writing in Frankfurter Allgemeine, he said:

If in the past all authors had accepted the suggestions of the two Americans (Heinlein and Anderson) we would have no literature worth mentioning. We would have none of the literary heritage of which we are so proud if every author worried about publishers, critics, censors, readers, public opinion, sales potential, and the like. My rebuttal to Anderson’s thesis, then, is that marketing prospects or official approval or similar concerns have no business intruding in that narrow gap between the author’s eye and the blank piece of paper. That the muse cannot be pursued over a bottle of beer goes without saying. In short, honest literature can never conform to external pressures of exigencies. To do so would be its death.

You would think that this was a civilised and reasonable reply, yet for these very words Stanislaw Lem was booted through the door. SFWA, the organisation that represents the world’s leading science fiction writers, chucked him out. You would think that a writer in the Eastern bloc would have troubles enough with the writers’ union, and yet here was a writers’ organisation in a free and democratic country acting in exactly the same way. Of course, it’s not fair to tar every member of SFWA with the same brush, but out of a membership of nearly four hundred, fewer than ten registered a protest.

Nor is this attitude just a collective phenomenon. It crops up all over the place, in articles in fanzines, in interviews with writers, in criticism. Boiled down to its essence, it says: “We are but entertainers, and entertainment is a humble trade. Therefore our sights are set low.” I believe that entertainment is a high art, and should be treated as such. Everyone at the convention today is here because we believe that science fiction is a stimulating, radical and entertaining form of literature, yet by their very words the Poul Andersons and Robert A Heinleins are asking you to settle for less.

If you have the misfortune to read Analog you will have been exposed to the so-called wisdom of certain reviewers, whom I am tempted to call Loser del Ray-Gun and Creepy-Crawly Crusoe. These men, both of whom are said to have written science fiction, are leading spokesmen for the anti-literature school. Month after month they have stated their theory of sf. That it is first and foremost entertainment, that it should be well crafted, that it should have a comprehensible plot, that it should not make undue demands on the reader … and, as an afterthought, that it should have what they call ‘characterisation’ and ‘good writing’, as if these can be added later. In short, that sf should be lowbrow entertainment, pitched at the same sort of level as television films.

Perhaps it doesn’t sound so very different from my own statement just now, with the elements coming in a different order. Well, that is the difference. It’s a question of priorities. Ray-Gun and Crusoe appeal to the lowest common denominator of readership. I happen to believe that the readership of science fiction is intelligent and diverse.

As I move about the sf world, both as a sort of fan who comes to these conventions, and as a writer working in the field, I see more and more evidence that these insulting attitudes are taking over. I believe, for instance, that my views on the literature nature of science fiction are actually rather moderate, well-meaning and conventional. It doesn’t seem to me that to say a form of literature should be treated as literature is at all revolutionary or extreme. You would think that it speaks for itself. Yet such is the consensus these days that the very act of stating the obvious is one that is treated as dangerous extremism. Because the consensus is an extremist viewpoint, anyone who opposes it looks like a different sort of extremist.

Nor is it just a theoretical debate. Such attitudes are filtering down and taking different forms. The present commercial success of science fiction is bringing with it a set of attitudes which are close cousins to the entertainment-or-literature argument. Some of you might have been present at Skycon last year, when Rob Holdstock and I got involve in a public argument with James Baen of Ace Books. A lady in the audience asked the panel how she should go about getting her work published. Rob and I said something soggy and organic, such as “write for yourself”, whereas Baen said didactically that the only way was to “write for market”. In conversation with him afterwards it became clear that the very fact that a writer is being paid means he must put market considerations first … and later we were told that there was no market for what he called ‘British misery’. This presumably would include miserable British books like FrankensteinThe War of the Worlds and The Day of the Triffids. This points up the commercial silliness of such an attitude, because any publisher could probably retire on the sales of those three books alone.

Then there are the critics, who divide into camps of such extremism that neither side knows where the other lot are.

Doctor Johnson once said: “Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense.” So it is … but whether we like it or not, sf needs responsible criticism.

Writing is an art, and criticism is the natural companion to art. It defines and shapes it, it interprets it, it sets standards, it provides an overview of what individual writers are doing, it provides a context of intelligent debate. Original work can survive without it, and can of course be appreciated without it, but responsible criticism enhances art.

Science fiction critics are usually one of two sorts. There are those who have discovered that sf is literature, and have promptly gone barmy. These are the academics, who come to science fiction from the comfortable security of a chair at a university. There are a few good academic critics, but most of the criticism I have seen from academics has been pompous and narcissistic, apparently written with no love of literature, just a desire to impress.

The other lot are the crowd-pleasers, the likes of Loser del Ray-Gun and Creepy-Crawly Crusoe, who shy away from criticism and call themselves ‘reviewers’. They claim to know what the common reader enjoys, and from this position of arrogance and ignorance parade their subjective opinions with all the certainty of the closed mind.

Neither kind of critic is worth a damn. They say nothing to the writer or the reader, and neither is able to join a larger debate.

Of course, there are a few exceptions. There are some perceptive critics in fandom, who are not showing off, who are not trying to agree with anybody and who write with honesty and insight. And the British magazine Foundation has a well-earned reputation for clear, unpretentious criticism. But this simply isn’t enough to form a body of critical work. There should be a sufficient amount of sf criticism that there is disagreement amongst informed critics, that there is a continuity of debate.

At this point I was intending to turn away from the critics and have something to say about the responsibility of the writers. However, on the principle that dog shouldn’t eat dog (except in private, when you can have fun) I won’t say too much.

It is the writers whom one would think remain blameless, whatever venality there might be elsewhere in the science fiction industry. The trouble is, and I’ll say more on this in a moment, with the increasing success of sf in the marketplace the temptations laid before writers are the greater. At one time the hidden strength of sf as a genre was that although it was sold in the same way as the other categories, like Westerns, etc., it actually consisted of a large number of autonomous novels … just like general literature. An autonomous novel is one that stands alone. It explains itself, it does not require the reader to know something about it in advance, it contains its own self-explanatory universe.

Today, it seems that more and more so-called sf novels are going the way of the down-market bestseller, and are parts of a larger whole. We see an increasing dependence on sf jargon. We get film-scripts turned into a bastard form called a novelisation. (I once saw an Ace book which was a ‘novelisation’ of The Island of Doctor Moreau, as if H G Wells’ novel had died of old age, or something.) We get sequels and series and trilogies and future histories. We’re getting novellettes published in book form and padded out with cartoon illustrations. We’re getting comic-book versions of stories and novels. We even got a comic-book version of Battlestar Galactica, as if something you can’t watch has to be turned into something you can’t read. The trend is towards pre-digested pabulum, baby-food for the mind. The Dark Ages are almost upon us.

All the ills of science fiction are caused by two distinct things, of which by far the more disagreeable is the pulp tradition, an article of faith held high and holy by virtually every science fiction writer or commentator you come across.

The fallacies of the pulp tradition are so obvious that I’m genuinely surprised that they survive. The tradition goes like this: science fiction was invented in 1926 with the inception of Amazing Stories, and after a few ropey years it started getting better, and then we had the Golden Age, and since then everything’s been just mind-bogglingly good. Thus we progress from Bob Shaw’s favourite writer, Captain S P Meek, to my favourite writer, Larry Niven.

Important figures in the pulp tradition are Hugo Gernsback, who started it all, and John W Campbell, who improved sf standards no end. In my view, Hugo Gernsback was a menace, and John W Campbell is utterly irrelevant.

The advocates of the pulp tradition simply cannot see beyond the ends of their noses. Science fiction has existed in British and European literature for about a hundred years. It existed as a natural part of all literature. Writers outside the science fiction category, both major and minor, have turned to the speculative themes of sf as a means of saying something. They did this before Gernsback came along, they did it all through Campbell’s so-called Golden Age, and they continue to do it now. After fifty years, pulp science fiction has improved itself to the point where the half-dozen or so best sf writers can compete with writers outside. This is my principal indictment of the pulp tradition: it put the clock back and created something worse. Gernsback and his imitators siphoned off speculative literature into crass, commercial magazines, and made it into trash. After fifty years, we’re just recovering. The ignorance of pundits like Loser del Ray-Gun is the ignorance of the pulp tradition itself. Ray-Gun would say that Larry Niven is a better writer than Captain S P Meek, but I would counter that by saying: “Is Captain S P Meek therefore better than H G Wells?” … or indeed, “Is Larry Niven better than H G Wells?”

You could argue that all of us here today, including myself, are indirect products of the pulp tradition. This I do not and cannot deny. All this is made possible by Hugo Gernsback, etc. But think of it this way. The science fiction world today is like a colony. It is as if a number of people from, say, Britain were transported fifty years ago to a penal colony on Corsica. After half a century, the population has increased immeasurably, they have a few traditions and folk-heroes, and they think of themselves as Corsicans. The regime that put them there has long gone. What I’m saying is: “Hey, we’re British really. Let’s go home to Birmingham.”

The other besetting ill of science fiction is, paradoxically, its present success. If you doubt this success, all you have to do is walk around the book-room here and see the truly staggering amount of stuff that is being published. Or you could go to the movies and see one of the two or three biggest box-office successes in the history of the cinema. You could read Locus, and see the sort of money that some sf writers make these days (but not all). Science fiction imagery is being used to sell everything from hi-fi equipment to instant mashed potato. To quote at least two hundred of the pup tradition believers: “We must be doing something right.”

I often wonder if we are. As far as I can see, the present boom in science fiction is an artificial one. It is principally a publishing boom. Although there are undoubtedly more people reading sf these days, and there are certainly more people writing it, the bulge is in the middle, where the publishers are. Too much stuff is coming out, and it’s coming out faster than it could conceivably be written, or even read. Just take Britain, for example, where the activity is considerably lower than it is in the states, or even in France or Japan. Here we have twelve paperback publishers with science fiction lists. If each publisher brings out only one book per month (and in fact they bring out rather more), then in any one year we would have 144 new titles on the shelves. How many people can or want to read nearly three novels a week? And can you remember any year when there were more than about half a dozen new sf titles worth reading?

In practice, of course, most of the new books that come out aren’t new at all. A very large proportion of all apparently new books are reprints or reissues. Much of the remainder is taken up with the stuff I talked about earlier: the film tie-ins, the series, the sequels. Only a very small proportion, about ten per cent, is new work, autonomously conceived, available for the first time. So the excess fat in the publishing boom does not necessarily reflect an equivalent boom in creative work.

You could say that a large market makes room for everyone, for a variety of tastes. Readers can select from a wide range of material. A lot of stuff is coming back into print, and some of it deservedly. And even if a hundred bad novels are published in a year, surely all of them are vindicated by the hundred-and-first, which might be the new Left Hand of DarknessLord of the Rings or Dune?

I don’t argue against this. What I see is the danger of over-extension, of science fiction growing so fat that it collapses in a heap of blubber. We can take a lesson, in miniature, from the recent past.

A few years ago I read a letter published in the SFWA Bulletin that contained the following sentence: “I am now the largest market in the world for sf short stories.” The writer of the letter was Roger Elwood, announcing the fact that he was signing up more than thirty new anthologies with publishers, and that he was looking for short stories to fill them. It was not long before this first batch of anthologies had grown to a number that some estimates put at more than eighty. What Mr Elwood did was to boldly go where no sf had gone before … in other words, to many publishers who had never done any sf. A majority of sf writers proclaimed that this was nothing but for the good, because it meant a larger market. Then many writers, possibly the same ones, rushed in to fill these new markets. The consequences of all this are well known. It was an artificially expanded market. Any publisher who brought out an Elwood anthology was competing with 79 or more similar books, and each Elwood anthology had the distinct disadvantage of being distinctively mediocre. Many of them sold as well as bacon sandwiches in Tel Aviv. Not only did the Elwood anthologies put themselves out of the market, but in the process they practically annihilated what existing market there was for anyone else’s anthology. Nowadays, it is a publishing truism that science fiction anthologies do not sell. The market for short stories is now somewhat smaller than it was a few years ago, because people were greedy.

I got a tell-tale warning pain in my elbow when I heard about Mr Elwood’s anthologies, and I feel it throbbing again whenever I hear complacent noises about the present boom. The lesson from Roger Elwood is that an expansion of the commercial market will be short-lived, and that it doesn’t create a parallel boom in creativity. Indeed, the signs are that the market is full of padding these days. On the other hand, good writing and honest, ambitious work will create its own market, will bring about a natural expansion of the market.

Anyway, having had my grumbles, I should like to finish on a positive note. It is a great pleasure to be made the guest of honour at a convention, if only because it gives me the unique opportunity to speak candidly and subjectively about my own outlook. This is what you have been hearing, and I’m not speaking for anyone except myself. You should always remember that criticism is a form of autobiography … I’m not trying to separate myself from the things I have been describing. I am in, and of, the science fiction world.

I’d like to close, therefore, with what I suppose will be seen as a personal statement. Much of what I have said will sound as if I am intending to turn my back on sf in the future, and I’d like to correct this view. I see absolutely nothing wrong with science fiction as literature. The novel I’m writing at the moment is what we would all recognise as sf … the two or three ideas I have for the novels that will follow are all sf. I’d go so far as to say that the science fiction type of novel, the speculative novel, has more life in it, more potential, than most of the other forms of novel I have read in the last few years.

The only thing wrong with science fiction is the ‘science fiction’ label, and all the misbegotten attitudes that have arisen around it. We are all aware of the close-minded attitudes from people outside the sf world who have not read the stuff … we know that their dislike of science fiction is based on ignorance and prejudice. My point is that there are similar attitudes within the field, just as ignorant, just as prejudiced, yet they are mostly invisible to us because they appear to be on our side. These internal ignorant attitudes will eventually destroy the freedom of creative writers, unless they are exposed for what they are.

Science fiction writers are blessed with many valuable things. They have an active, intelligent and open-minded readership. They have a successful commercial framework within which to work. The ‘science fiction’ label conceals a multitude of sins, but it also provides a liberal framework within which to write. New writers are still being actively encouraged. There is room for the experimental story, for the avant-garde, for the work you can’t easily pin a label on. All this is valuable and, as far as I know, unique in modern publishing. I say to the remarkable men and women who are my colleagues: write up to the level of your audience. Make life difficult for them. Give them autonomous, demanding novels. Stimulate them and entertain them. Don’t listen to the Loser del Rey-Guns of the world, don’t settle for the imaginatively second-hand, for the easy sequel to your first success. You’re not writing for beer-money, you’re writing for minds. Put your language first; language is the test of reality, the medium of ideas.

Thank you.

Christopher Priest‘s novels have won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the World Fantasy Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, and the BSFA Best Novel Award. Another of his Guest of Honour speeches, this time from the 2005 Worldcon, can be found here.

 

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