#91 = Volume 30, Part 3 = November 2003
Andrew M. Butler
Thirteen Ways of Looking at the British Boom
1. “There certainly seems to be something of a boom. To a certain extent these things are always artefacts―there’s no objective criteria by which one can judge ‘boom-ness’ (boomitude? boomosity?―so the fact that everyone’s talking about it is to a certain extent definitional of the fact that something’s going on” (China Miéville in Butler, “Beyond” 7).
2. Mapping the Terrain. It is asserted that there is currently a boom within British science fiction―by editors, by critics, by authors, by readers, in the pages of this journal and in the publicity for some events at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London in May 2003. Let us assume that this is not a mass delusion, and there is indeed a boom. The Boom is thought of mostly as a British Science Fiction Boom, and to limit it to this genre is clearly within the parameters of a journal named Science Fiction Studies. But there is also a parallel boom within fantasy and horror, as well as within children’s fiction― dominated by the hype surrounding the publication of the fourth and fifth Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling and the fact that the third volume of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Amber Spyglass (2000), won the overall Whitbread Prize, the first children’s book to do so. We could no doubt make a case for other, less cognate, genres. What we also need to remember is the generic slippage and interchange that goes on within adult and children’s science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
It is impossible to draw a clear, stable boundary around these distinct and overlapping booms, to subsume them within a single movement, but that is what, with the clarity of hindsight and the demand for narrative convenience, we do with Romanticism and Modernism. What this article sets out to do is to survey the terrain from a variety of perspectives, in the hope that this will help to give some indication of the phenomenon’s scope and characteristics. The Boom contains cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, cyberpunk-flavored fiction, steampunk, splatterpunk, space opera, hard sf, soft sf, feminist sf, utopias, dystopias, anti-utopias, apocalypses, cozy catastrophes, uncomfortable catastrophes, Bildungsromans, New Wave-style writing, planetary romances, alternate histories, big dumb objects, comedies, tragedies, slipstream, horror, fantasy,and any combination of generic hybrids and cross-breeds. Hopefully a series of micronarratives about Boom writing and writers will avoid the dangers of prescription in an era when the macronarrative or metanarrative is no longer achievable or desirable.
It is worth first comparing the Boom with two other movements within science fiction. The British New Wave in science fiction is primarily associated with the Michael Moorcock era of New Worlds magazine from 1964 onwards, dissipating at some point in the 1970s―the experimental writings of J.G. Ballard, Moorcock, Barrington Bayley, Brian Aldiss, John Brunner, and visiting Americans Thomas M. Disch, John Sladek, Pamela Zoline, and Norman Spinrad. If Moorcock can be said to be its polemicist, its Ezra Pound figure, then Ballard was its resident T.S. Eliot―although arguably the New Wave had found its creed in Ballard’s 1962 guest editorial where he argued that “science fiction must jettison its present narrative forms and plots.... [I]t is inner space not outer, that needs to be explored. The only truly alien planet is Earth” (117). Langdon Jones’s The New SF: An Original Anthology of Modern Speculative Fiction (1969) can stand as its archetypal collection. New Worlds did continue to publish non-New Wave material, but writers such as Robert Presslie, Don Malcolm, and John Phillifent were more or less silenced. A movement can exclude as well as include; indeed, different hailers of the Boom have their own list of exclusions.
In the previous paragraph I specified British New Wave, because the application of the term to American writing has led to some confusion. Certainly Judith Merril, in her Best of SF anthologies, was looking to Britain for material, exposure to which may have led to a greater experimentation in form in US science fiction. There was a growing permissiveness that led to a greater willingness to explore sexual themes within sf. One product of this was Harlan Ellison’s groundbreaking anthology Dangerous Visions (1967), in which taboos (for the sf market) were broken. This, along with a growing divide between hard and soft science fiction, has led to a retrospective acknowledgment of an American New Wave, which could include “Aldiss, Ballard, Disch, Delany, Heinlein and on” (Brooke-Rose 99) or Joanna Russ, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Thomas M. Disch, and Samuel Delany (Pfeil).1 Broadly speaking the American New Wave seems to be a new kind of content, a paradigmatic New Wave, and the British one a new kind of structure, a syntagmatic New Wave. In turn it should be noted that British and American perceptions of the Boom are different.
The second movement is cyberpunk. It might be true that Bruce Bethke was the first to use the word cyberpunk―the title of a manuscript circulating in the early 1980s―and that it was Gardner Dozois who was the first to use the term to refer to a group of writers, but for the larger critical community it began with William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Meanwhile Bruce Sterling circulated a fanzine, Cheap Truth (1983-1986), edited as by Vincent Omniaveritas, which critiqued much existing sf and set out the grounds for cyberpunk―although it was not until issue 12 that cyberpunk was mentioned. In the final issue Omniaveritas declared cyberpunk to be dead, with Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (1986) as its tombstone. Indeed, many of the stories within the collection hardly conform to the concept of cyberpunk as it is now understood. In the years since, many other writers have been labeled as cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, or cyberpunk-flavored, irrespective of their connection to the original impulse. Here we have a model of how a movement can begin almost as a hobbyhorse, grow through association with a number of writers, and then explode beyond the control of its originators―and become increasingly difficult to define.
The Boom has no resident polemicist (although M. John Harrison, China Miéville, and others have found spaces to talk about it2), no key writer (although some would suggest Miéville), and no defining anthology or magazine (although Interzone could take some of the credit). Even such a thing as a starting point has yet to be agreed. Mark Bould has outlined a number of starting points between 1982 and 1995 (“Boom” 308-309) and each of these starting points would lead to a different conceptualization of the Boom. A writer like Mary Gentle found success with Ash (2000), winning among others the BSFA Award, which ought to put her smack inside the British Boom―although she’s been a highly regarded writer since the 1980s and was first published in 1977. Perhaps we should borrow Borges’s terminology and speak of precursors to the Boom, even of work precursive to the Boom. There are a number of writers―Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, M. John Harrison, and Christopher Priest, among others―who have been successful in the past and are now enjoying a renewed period of success or republication. There is also the problem as to whether the British Boom should only include British writers, or be expanded to include long-time resident writers from the United States (Pat Cadigan, Tricia Sullivan, Molly Brown) and Canada (John Clute, Geoff Ryman). While many of the writers within the Boom know each other, there are varying degrees of influence and social connection. Some of them do have lunch together on a weekly basis, but that is as much a sign of the bonds of friendship as the secret powerhouse of a movement.
3. A (Partial) Census. Joan Aiken, Brian Aldiss, David Almond, Joe Ahearne, Chris Amies, Tom Arden, Neal Asher, Steve Aylett, Wilhelmina Baird, Cherith Baldry, J.G. Ballard, Iain M. Banks, James Barclay, Clive Barker, Paul Barnett/John Grant, Stephen Baxter, Malorie Blackman, Stephen Bowkett, Chaz Brenchley, Keith Brooke/Nick Gifford, Christopher Brookmyre, Eric Brown, Molly Brown, Eugene Byrne, Pat Cadigan, Richard Calder, Mark Chadbourn, Simon Clark, John Clute, Michael Cobley, Steve Cockayne, Storm Constantine, Louise Cooper, Paul Cornell, Gillian Cross, Peter Crowther, Russell T. Davies, Jack Deighton, Peter Dickinson, Eric Evans, Jasper Fforde, Christopher Fowler, Maggie Furey, Neil Gaiman, Stephen Gallagher, David S. Garnett/David Ferring, Mary Gentle, Debi Gliori, Muriel Gray, Colin Greenland, Nicola Griffith, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Peter F. Hamilton, M. John Harrison, Robert Holdstock, Tom Holland, Tom Holt, Lesley Howarth, Eva Ibbotson, Simon Ings, Brian Jacques, Robin Jarvis, Ben Jeapes, Diana Wynne Jones, Gwyneth Jones/Ann Halam, Graham Joyce, Peter Kalu, Garry Kilworth, William King, David Langford, Tanith Lee, Roger Levy, James Lovegrove/J.M.S. Lovegrove, Brian Lumley, Ian R. MacLeod, Ken MacLeod, Jan Mark, Graham Masterton, Paul McAuley, Geraldine McCaughrean, Ian McDonald, Juliet E. McKenna, Robin McKinley, John Meaney, China Miéville, Martin Millar/Martin Scott, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Simon Morden, Richard Morgan, Grant Morrison, Kim Newman/Jack Yeovil, William Nicholson, Jenny Nimmo, Jeff Noon, Daniel O’Mahoney, Darren O’Shaughnessy/Darren Shan, Stephen Palmer, K.J. Parker, Terry Pratchett, Christopher Priest, Philip Pullman, Robert Rankin, Philip Reeve, Alastair Reynolds, Chris Riddell, Philip Ridley, Adam Roberts/A.R.R. Roberts, Katherine Roberts, Justina Robson, J.K. Rowling, Nicholas Royle, Geoff Ryman, Jan Siegel, Alison Sinclair, Gus Smith, Michael Marshall Smith, Brian Stableford/Brian Craig/Francis Amery, Paul Stewart, Charles Stross, Tricia Sullivan/Valery Leith, Brian Talbot, Sue Thomas, Karen Traviss, Lisa Tuttle, Jo Walton, Ian Watson, John Whitbourn, Liz Williams, John Wilson, David Wingrove, Chris Wooding.
4. The Long Wave. The history of science fiction in Britain has been traced back to Frankenstein (Aldiss 1973), to Paradise Lost (Roberts, Science Fiction), and even to Utopia (Kincaid, “More,” although Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur  is the root fantastical text in Kincaid’s A Very British Genre, 7). None of these ur-texts was consciously written as science fiction. The various scientific romances of the last thirty years or so of the nineteenth century were often prompted by impulses which we would recognize as science fictional; H.G. Wells’s writings could stand as a definitive starting point were it not that this would seem a nationalistic move. The American domination of the genre coalesces in Amazing Stories in 1926, and some British writers did contribute to the sf pulp magazines―most notably John Wyndham, Eric Frank Russell, and Arthur C. Clarke―and tried to meet the demands of the US market. Only with the onset of the New Wave in the 1960s did British science fiction begin to make an impact upon the way that generic science fiction perceived itself, in the writings of Moorcock, Aldiss, and Ballard. The moment did not last, however, and after a brief period of success in the early 1970s, the market for British sf collapsed. Brian Stableford cites the 1978 special All-British issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction with its article by Brian Aldiss celebrating the wealth of professional British authors: “Ian Watson, Andrew Stephenson, Robert Holdstock, Chris Morgan, Mark Adlard, Bob Shaw and Philip Dunn ... Richard Cowper, Edmund Cooper, Christopher Priest, Duncan Lunan, Laurence James, Barrington Bayley, Michael Coney, D.G. Compton, Angus Wells and M. John Harrison” (21). But, as Stableford notes, most of them had already produced their best work or would disappear until the 1980s or later, having reinvented themselves as fantasists. Adlard has not published a novel since The Greenlander (1978), the first of a projected trilogy, Compton was only occasionally published after 1975, and few now will know the names of Morgan, Dunn, and Lunan as writers of fiction. The Holdstock and Priest anthology Stars of Albion coincided with the World Science Fiction Convention being held in Brighton in 1979, but it was the last gasp of the market. New Worlds was no more―there were four, irregular issues between 1978 and 1979―and since the only other British sf magazine, Science Fiction Monthly, and its replacement, SF Digest, had both closed in 1976, the only outlets for written British science fiction were the book and anthology markets and overseas sales.
In 1981 a group of fans, critics, and writers based in Leeds―David Pringle, Simon Ounsley, Alan Dorey, and Graham James―decided to take the profits of the Yorcon II convention to set up a new magazine. Meanwhile in London, Malcolm Edwards pitched the idea for a new magazine to the BSFA (then chaired by Alan Dorey) and brought John Clute, Colin Greenland, and Roz Kaveney in as associate editors. The BSFA plan having come to nothing, the eight banded together to set up a quarterly magazine which they eventually called Interzone (see the articles by Pringle and Terran for more on this). Inevitably, it suffered comparisons to New Worlds; in part it was championing former New Wave writers such as Aldiss and Ballard, as well as John Sladek and Thomas Disch. Many of the stories it published in the early days had the downbeat endings that were typical of much if not the bulk of British science fiction since the Second World War. The Interzone editorial collective dwindled until Pringle became the main editor, but the magazine went from strength to strength, going bimonthly in 1988 and monthly in 1990. Other professional magazines have emerged: among others, Extro (which published three issues in Northern Ireland in 1982), Back Brain Recluse (edited by Chris Reed from 1984 and linked to the small press scene), The Gate (1989-1991), SF Nexus (1993-1994) which merged with Interzone, Amaranth, Spectrum (paid for by editor Paul Fraser), Odyssey, and 3SF (published in 2002-2003 by Ben Jeapes’s Big Engine small press). Interzone is the only paper-based sf magazine, however, to keep a regular schedule over a sustained period of time in Britain.
S.M.―later Stephen―Baxter, Keith Brooke, Eric Brown, Molly Brown, Eugene Byrne, Richard Calder, Nicola Griffith, Peter F. Hamilton, Simon Ings, Graham Joyce, Paul McAuley, Ian MacLeod, Ian McDonald, Kim Newman, Alastair Reynolds, and Charles Stross are among the British writers who carved out their sf writing careers in that magazine, leading to what The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction called “a second new wave of UK SF” (Clute and Nicholls 622). Their writing was diverse in scope, yet within an identifiably British mode: for example, Baxter wrote hard sf within his Xeelee sequence and has been compared to Clarke; McAuley has tried his hand over the years at hard sf, steampunk, and technothrillers; and Newman and Byrne mapped out alternate histories rooted in British popular culture. As if giving this new generation of writers a regular market was not enough, Pringle branched out into editing role-playing game tie-ins with the Warhammer series of novels and anthologies, giving Kim Newman, David Garnett, Brian Stableford, and Ian Watson opportunities to write novels in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and giving many others of the Interzone generation another market for short stories (Baxter, “Freedom”).
After this generation of short-story writers began to publish novels, they were joined by a series of writers who had not first appeared in Interzone, though in some cases not for the want of trying. Iain M. Banks had begun as an enfant terrible with the publication of his controversial The Wasp Factory (1984), and followed it up with the sf-tinged Walking on Glass (1985) and The Bridge (1986), before publishing his space opera Consider Phlebas (1987). Jeff Noon―previously known only for winning the Mobil Playwriting prize at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre in 1985 with his Falklands play Woundings―wrote a novel called Vurt (1993) which launched a new Manchester-based publisher called Ringpull and became a cult hit. He followed this up with Pollen (1995) but it was not enough to save the publisher from bankruptcy. Ken MacLeod, a friend of Iain M. Banks since childhood, launched his first novel The Star Fraction (1995) at the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow, a convention which saw Pringle’s Interzone finally winning a Hugo and Noon winning the John W. Campbell Award. Since then both Jon Courtenay Grimwood and China Miéville have begun having novels published without a visible track record of short stories.
From its nadir in 1977 and 1978, British science fiction has spent two decades rebuilding itself and finally is being taken notice of again. It is worth quoting Brian Stableford here:
The writers ... felt that science fiction had been labouring too long under artificial constraints, held back by the walls of the “pulp ghetto” and subjected to the unreasonable contempt of literary critics. They were longing to break free, to carry the cause of science fiction forward to a position of honour and prestige that it had been unjustly denied. They [had] ... the conviction that the tide had turned, and that the battle―although not yet won―was theirs for the taking.... [It] looked as if the last barriers to the progress of the genre had been removed―and the one thing no one could imagine was that new ones would be raised against it. (21)
This passage has much of the same rhetoric of the current generation of writers considered to be part of the Boom. Stableford is talking about the perspective of the New Wave writers in 1970, however, looking forward with boundless optimism. By 1975 that optimism was misplaced, and there is no guarantee that the current Boom will continue indefinitely.
5. British British vs. US British Boom. One thing that has become clear to me in discussing the state of British science fiction at various locations on both sides of the Atlantic is that there are two different perceptions of the Boom in terms of the market place. At a discussion panel at the ICFA in 2002 I noted that two writers had blazed a trail for best-selling science fiction and fantasy prior to the contemporary Boom, Terry Pratchett in The Colour of Magic (1983) and Iain M. Banks. But Pratchett has been through a whole series of different American publishers, suggesting that he has not sold consistently, and Banks’s name seems not to have broken as much in the States as it has in the UK. It almost feels that the leg-up apparently given to Ken MacLeod by Banks in the UK has been reversed in the United States; MacLeod’s Fall Revolution quartet may have been published in a different order but it has now all been published, and first US editions of the Engines of Light trilogy have followed swiftly upon the British. In Britain, MacLeod has been perceived as part of a self-identified wave of Marxist or left-wing writers that also includes Gwyneth Jones, Adam Roberts, and Miéville, but in the USA it is his libertarian interests that seem to have caught attention.
It is likely that a large number of the names I have listed in section 3 remain unpublished in the USA, but equally many British writers have been able to sell in New York what has not sold in London. Ian McDonald, Manchester-born but based in Northern Ireland and first published by Extro in 1982, sold his story collection Empire Dreams (1988) and his first novel Desolation Road (1988) to American publishers, prior to any British publication. Equally, Ian R. MacLeod was able to enter the US book market well before the British one. His story “Through” was published in the July/August 1989 issue of Interzone, but his first books were Voyages by Starlight (1997), a collection of stories mostly from Asimov’s and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the novel The Great Wheel (1997). It was not until Summer 2003 that The Light Ages marked his novel debut in Britain.
There is clearly a complex interplay between the British and United States markets, with either side at various times appearing to the other country to dominate the genre. The perception from British writers and readers during the 1980s and early 1990s was that they could not sell their work in the US because they were perceived as being too British; ironically this was at a time when steampunks such as Blaylock and Jeter could set novels in Victorian London. Not only did Gibson’s novels include near-future settings, but also several of them were first published in book form in Britain. Bruce Sterling, the cyberpunk subgenre’s best polemicist, clearly saw British writers Ballard and John Brunner as forebears, and wrote columns for Interzone. It might even be argued that the downbeat endings of Neuromancer (1984) and other cyberpunk novels owe something to British sensibilities. At a panel I chaired on British science fiction in the 1980s and 1990s at the 1999 Eastercon, a member of the audience stated that “we, from the American side of the Atlantic, look on Britain as being a hothouse of cyberpunk” (Butler, Brown, and Billinger 13; see also Cobley).
6. Cool Britannia? Perhaps American eyes were also looking across the water because of the fuss about Cool Britannia.
The British New Wave seemed focused on and drew imagery from Swinging London, although many of the successful bands and musicians of the period had emanated from Liverpool. Perhaps by coincidence, the Boom emerged during a renewed period of optimism about the cultural significance of Britain. This time the musical powerhouse was Manchester, propelled by a cross-fertilization of psychedelia in the forms of acid house and rave, as well as the guitar-based lad bands such as The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses of the Manchester/Madchester indie music scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Rivalries emerged between the music scenes of Manchester, Sheffield, Hull, and Bristol, among other late-industrial cities, and the ultra-hip Camden, London. The Manchester band Oasis―centered on the Gallagher brothers―went head to head on chart success with the southern art school mockney Blur and came out on top. Oasis looked back to the chords and tunes of The Beatles and the Liverpool scene whereas Blur drew lyrically on predecessors such as The Kinks. Both had a sense of Englishness about them, as did Pulp, but an Englishness that was capable of being read ironically. Their vast audiences were being eyed by a Labour party trying to pull itself together after their defeat by the gray man John Major of the Conservative party who on any rational level was surely unelectable. (See Roger Luckhurst’s article elsewhere in this issue for more on Cool Britannia and New Labour.)
Jeff Noon’s position in Manchester surely helped him in the mid-1990s, in a period when publishing houses outside of London appeared to be thriving. Vurt could have been plotted on an A to Z map of Manchester: to a soundtrack of pounding bass, it focused on the broken glass and dog excrement surrounding the tenements in Hulme and the Moss Side crescents which had seen riots in the 1980s, and had become the province of the squatter, the dealer, the student, and the infirm. Within a few years of the publication of Vurt, urban renewal came to the area and the crescents and tenements were demolished to make way for prettier low-rise flats. Whether the battle against glass and dog excrement will be won remains to be seen. The novel also featured the club scene that had been dominated by the Hacienda in Manchester.
The sense of place in Noon was duplicated by other novelists who lived outside London. Before Peter Hamilton turned to his monumental space-opera trilogy, he had set the Quantum Murder trilogy (1993-95) in a near-future Rutland―a county that had been disappeared in the reorganization of local government in 1974 and reappeared in a further reorganization in 1997. Nicola Griffith’s Slow River (1995), written in the United States, recreated her previous home of Hull and the landmarks, including the Polar Bear pub, of the Avenues/Spring Bank area of the city. Stephen Palmer’s Memory Seed (1996) disguised Angelsey and north-east Wales as a post-apocalyptic city.
Meanwhile there was the shared experience of the final defeat of the much-hated Conservative government in the landslide Labour victory of 1997. For weeks conversations were dominated by the question: “Were you up for Portillo?”―referring to the unseating by the openly gay Labour candidate Stephen Twigg of arch-Conservative MP, Michael Portillo, widely assumed to be a closeted gay. The pleasure taken in the defeat of specific Conservatives blinded many to the ironic possibilities inherent in Labour’s choice of “Things Can Only Get Better” as their victory anthem. After a brief early period of radicalism in the form of the introduction of a minimum wage (compromised as it was) and other reforms, New Labour seemed to progress to putting Conservative-type policies into practice. Portillo, in the meantime, seems to have reinvented himself as more caring and now seems to be to the left of the Blairite Twigg. New Labour quickly became a political party more interested in big business than in unions, and in being tougher than their Conservative predecessors.
While some British sf writers may have been carried along by the publicity of Cool Britannia, and, with some exceptions, the default position of contemporary British sf writers is on the left, it is difficult to think of a British sf writer sympathetic to the Blairite cause. Blair’s love affairs with celebrities, including Oasis and other pop stars, must in part be Gwyneth Jones’s inspiration for her near-future fantasy Bold as Love (2001) and its sequels, in which pop stars of a more sixties vintage share political power. China Miéville stood as a Socialist Alliance candidate in Kensington and Chelsea and was hailed by the London Evening Standard (not known for its leftist tendencies) as the sexiest man in British politics (Renton 25).
7. Eclipse. Nature abhors a vacuum. It seemed clearest in the announcement of the shortlist for the Hugo Awards in May 2001: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin, Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling, Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson, and The Sky Road by Ken MacLeod. Rather than being a shortlist dominated by American science fiction, it featured one American writer. The rest of the list included two Canadians and two British writers, the eventual winner being J.K. Rowling―the first British recipient of the award since Arthur C. Clarke in 1980, indeed the third British recipient after Clarke (who also won in 1974) and Brunner in 1969. Rowling's win was followed by another British winner, Neil Gaiman, for American Gods and this year by Canadian Robert Sawyer. Generic American science fiction would appear to be in some kind of trouble.
Cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk still dominated the 1990s sf scene in America, and a series of writers were being compared to both William Gibson and Quentin Tarantino. No new movement seems to have come along to replace it, and many of the big writers of the 1980s seem to have been diverted into sequels to books by other writers and media tie-ins. Gibson is mapping a trajectory for the mainstream and Neal Stephenson’s output is slowing. The philosophizing that underlay Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (1992) expanded through the rest of the trilogy, and dominated Antarctica (1997); what many had first perceived as hard sf had become much more cerebral and politicized. For whatever reason the genre seemed to be losing its buzz.
Pages of magazines, pages in journals, slots at conferences still have to be filled, and so editors, critics, and academics were casting around for new writers to interview or write about. At first the smart money was on Australian science fiction, boosted by the 1999 Melbourne Worldcon, the anthologies Dreaming Downunder (1998) and Centaurus: The Best of Australian Science Fiction (1999), the non-fiction The MUP Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (1998), and Strange Constellations: A History of Australian Science Fiction (1999). Janeen Webb, co-editor of Dreaming Downunder, wrote that: “Whether we have somehow arrived in the much discussed new Golden Age or are undergoing an entirely different occurrence remains to be seen, but we are certainly experiencing one of those spikes in literary output that occur when conditions are right” (114). Greg Egan, Sean McMullen, and Stephen Dedman were the three names to watch. Instead, as it turned out, the eclipse of American genre sf allowed British talent to shine through, marked, for example, by Charles N. Brown’s assertion in conversation that only British writers were being interviewed for Locus.3
8. Remix. To some extent a genre is always parodic of itself. Just as parodies and pastiches depend on the reproduction and recognition of particular codes and conventions, so does writing within a given genre. The codes of genre science fiction, whilst they may look back to Shelley, Poe, Verne, and Wells, were largely formulated in American pulp-fiction magazines, within the period during which America emerged from the isolationism of the 1920s to become one of the world superpowers in the aftermath of the Second World War. One man, with his wits, and his bare hands if necessary, can bring down an empire and save the world. Except in those short-lived marketplaces that have existed within Britain and the Commonwealth, there is a sense that British writers have had to parody American formulae to make their way in the marketplace—during the period in which the British lost an empire.
Some authors have foregrounded this parodic intent in their writings. Ian McDonald clearly drew on Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) for Desolation Road (1988), as well as elements of Gabriel García Márquez, and his Hearts, Hands and Voices (1992) drew on works by Geoff Ryman, most notably The Child Garden (1989) and The Unconquered Country (1986). McDonald’s Sacrifice of Fools (1996), set in Northern Ireland, mixes the police procedural with the sexual politics of Gwyneth Jones’s Aleutian trilogy (1991-97), which in itself formed a dialogue with Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). McDonald’s remix aesthetic, which draws to some extent on music culture of the 1980s, puts little store in originality, but more in the skillful blending of the individual elements. Adam Roberts, a self-acknowledged fan of McDonald, is the author of four novels to date: Salt (2000), which owes debts to Dune (1965) and Le Guin, On (2001), which echoes Christopher Priest’s Inverted World (1974), and Polystom (2003), which echoes Bob Shaw’s Ragged Astronauts trilogy (1986-89), as well as having virtues of their own.
But perhaps where British science fiction has become most systematically parodic and revisionary is in its revival of the subgenre of space opera which had been more or less relegated to the sidelines as contaminated by media sf―Star Wars, Star Trek,and so forth. Iain M. Banks’s Consider Phlebas had the sort of galaxy-spanning plot that we had perhaps thought was no longer possible. As Ken MacLeod writes in his introduction to the German edition: “Space opera―the colourful, violent, galaxy-spanning space opera so many of us had read when younger, and which Brian Aldiss has called ‘widescreen baroque,’ was evidently back with a bang. And moreover, it was up-to-date, well-written, fast, and cool” (“Phlebas” 2). But the novel, which introduced the left-of-center, post-scarcity, utopian empire known as the Culture, is deceptive. The mercenary hero, Bora Horza Gobuchal, is actually fighting for the wrong side, against the Culture, but is brought in from the cold by the end of the book, if only in the name of a spaceship. Having established the peaceful, utopian, game-playing tendencies of the Culture―usually viewed from the outside―Banks then increasingly undercuts this in his portrayals of the processes by which other civilizations join the Culture. Sure, it is a utopia that these civilizations join, but the dice are loaded so that it seems in these civilization’s interests that they do join―and in later volumes the Culture’s dirty tricks are more exposed. What begins as a left-wing, anti-imperialist utopia ends up in self-critique.
By then there was also Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty (1990), a caper novel which featured Tabitha Jute and her spaceship, Alice, who owes a debt to McCaffery’s “The Ship Who Sang” (1961) as well as to Lewis Carroll. Jute is persuaded to transport a troupe of players from Plenty to Titan and is caught up in intrigue and criminal deeds among the canals of Mars and the steaming jungles of Venus, which are inspired more by Edgar Rice Burroughs than by New Scientist or Nature. As Rachel Pollack wrote in her review, “the writer must play with or work against what has gone before” (Pollack 102). Having won both the Arthur C. Clarke and British Science Fiction Association Awards for this novel, Greenland eventually bowed to popular pressure and brought back Jute in Seasons of Plenty (1995) and Mother of Plenty (1998). More successful was Harm’s Way (1993), a steampunk tale where ships sail the solar winds around the system.
Space opera is also the starting point for Alastair Reynolds’s novels, beginning with Revelation Space (2000). Dan Sylveste is a tough archaeologist and scientist, risking the lives of his team in his exploration of an extinct civilization on the colony world Resurgam. It is not long before his past and local politics catch up with him, but it is clear that the previous species died out for a reason. It might be that he will not have time to investigate this as both an assassin with an anonymous client and the crew of a spaceship, Nostalgia for Infinity, with its half-dead captain, are on his trail―always assuming that whatever caused the extinction of a space-faring species will not happen again. As Paul Billinger notes in his review, “the most sympathetic character is a professional killer” (30), and no one is entirely who they seem: Sylveste is a modified clone of his lost father, has various other copies of his father, and has lied about his experience with the revelation space of the title; the triumvirate deputizing on Nostalgia for Infinity have their own motives; the assassin, press-ganged by one of the triumvirate, is not letting on her true profession. As in Banks’s space opera, it is no longer possible to identify heroes and villains with any certainty.
9. The “Can’t Do” Spirit. If the United States has been going through a period of expanding influence over the last century, with each new problem just a challenge to be solved, then Britain is very much a country that is declining, that can only see the problem. There is a “can’t do” spirit that infuses much of British society, largely from our experience of declining public services (which seem strong across Europe). Britain is in a unique position with three different international structures: we are the junior power in the special relationship with the United States; we are the often despised begetter of a Commonwealth of Nations (who delight in defeating us at cricket); and we are the odd one out in the European Union, resisting integration, clinging to our pounds and ounces decades after we agreed to go metric in the 1960s and to our decimalized pounds (while missing shillings). There is something in the British character that loves a loser―Scott, who did not get to the South Pole first, Eddie the Eagle, the world’s worst ski jumper, and numerous others. There are also the internal divisions―the distinct countries of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, each with its own north-south, east-west, or other divides. In a fractured country yet to relocate its role, pessimism is the only course to take.
(The fractured-ness reflects the multicultural nature of Britain, an attempt to represent the diversity of personal identity. John Meaney, for example, attempts to imagine diversity among alien species rather than imagining them all as a monolithic Other; there are nationalities, different cultures, subgroups, factions, and so forth. That being said, Peter Kalu is probably the only Black British sf writer, and the list of Boom writers is also rather chappist―most of the female writers are part of the children’s market. The male writers are at least attempting to portray female characters, including a series of lesbian lead characters such as Greenland’s Tabitha Jute, Malise Arnim in Simon Ings’s Hot Head , and the central characters of Geoff Ryman’s The Child Garden. There is a nod towards Islam in several books, including Hot Head, and to the new Europe in Ings’s Headlong , Paul McAuley’s Fairyland , and Gwyneth Jones’s Kairos [1988/1995].)
In Ings’s work there is a portrayal of life after the cyberpunk future. In Hot Head this is a future in which the machines have gone out of control and chips have been banned. In Headlong, Christopher and Joanne Yale have been made redundant, and their chips have been removed. After they both begin to suffer from Epistemic Appetite Imbalance, Joanne dies and Christopher sets out to investigate, keeping one step ahead of European Union agents. The novel, told in retrospect from somewhere in Leeds, is suffused with a nostalgia for the posthuman. Technology is not bad―you cannot live without it―but it is unlikely to make life any easier.
Stephen Baxter’s “alt.space” stories show show the tension between hope and pessimism at work. He is clearly sorry that the Apollo moon missions ended and that human exploration did not continue further into the solar system. In various short stories, as well as in Voyage (1996) and Titan (1997), he imagines futures (and pasts) where the program continues, where humanity makes it to Mars and even to Titan. If only for dramatic reasons, these are hardly triumphant missions; Baxter imagines a future where more money went into space missions but more disasters also occurred. Baxter’s feelings seem ambivalent: “though in some ways Voyage for me was an exercise in wish-fulfillment, I found I could no longer believe whole-heartedly that throwing humans at Mars regardless would necessarily be a Good Thing” (Baxter, “alt.space” 19). From the stories as a whole a curious feeling of nostalgia emerges―for failures that never happened, for lost opportunities for things to go wrong. In Titan there is an utterly convincing portrayal of the harshness of space, the dangers of exploration and, penultimately, an almost Stapledonian sweep of a universe without humanity. Alas, for many of us, Baxter finds a happy ending―which for me is more interesting for its failure than its success.
There’s curious and not entirely convincing eucatastrophic closure to Roger Levy’s first novel, Reckless Sleep (2000), which might almost owe a debt to Brazil (1985). The world is literally falling apart, thanks to a series of nuclear explosions on undersea faultlines; London is partially ruined and covered in ash. There had been the hope of a colony, Dirangasept, but the colonists had been attacked by unidentified alien inhabitants, and the Far Warriors who had been sent to operate remote-control war robots have been defeated. The Far Warriors, suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, thanks to too much VR remote control of the druids, are now more or less blamed for the debacle. Veteran and poet Jon Sciler gets a job testing a new VR environment at the same time that Chrye, a psyche student studying the effects of using VR, starts to interview him for her project. Sciler discovers that his fellow veterans, also VR testers, are being killed one by one.
This future is unremittingly grim, and the outlook bleak. The new VR should be a great new hope for escape from Earth, but seems to be another chance for Armageddon; indeed it might be infected by the telepathic aliens unwittingly brought back from Dirangasept by the Far Warriors. The novel even offers up the possibility that Dirangasept is itself purely a simulacrum, and that the aliens were simply monsters from the id. VR is no solution to real world problems. As Steve Jeffery wrote in his review: “Levy’s debut is assured but tries perhaps too hard ... to be too many things at once: sf thriller, fantasy, dystopia and romance” (Jeffery 28). This intergenrification is typical, however, of the British Boom.
10. Irony. Key to British science fiction must be a sense of irony. There is something in the British psyche that sees things doubled, and that refuses to let any addressee know which version is meant. Politeness is a key sign of contempt, insults a sign that you have been taken into the British heart.4 John Wyndham’s novels were long thought to be cosy catastrophes, but in fact they are more bleak than Wyndham’s readers initially perceived (Wymer 1992). We simply misread him and missed the irony. Perhaps irony is particularly prevalent in British science fiction: if we assume that the scope of the genre has been shaped within a US market context, it has been influenced by a whole series of ideologies such as the American Dream, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and has developed a range of narrative tropes and devices which engage in, mediate, and resist these ideologies. Clearly a British writer does not unproblematically “inhabit” the US national identity, but rather ends up using the tropes and devices of the latter despite the ideological mismatch. This is particularly true of Baxter’s “alt.space” stories.
Paul Kincaid and Colin Greenland, talking about the other British writers who emerged at the time of the British New Wave, both identified a “voice” that was common to the works of Keith Roberts, D.G. Compton, Richard Cowper, Michael Coney, and Christopher Priest, among others. Greenland identified it as “ironic.... It’s informed with a sense of literary tradition, not simply spinning out words and racking up pages. It feels the tensions and connotations of language, so it’s richer in history, and mood, and atmosphere, and the shades of character. Time and memory are every bit as important as space and action” (Butler, Greenland, and Kincaid 23). That same voice seems still to be at work in Boom writing, although the relationship to the tradition has become even more problematic. In a novel like Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s neoAddix (1997) there is an acknowledgment of earlier cyberpunk and its forebears in its protagonist’s name―Alex Gibson―and there is another (albeit pointless) tip of the hat to the closing line of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953).5
Boom science fiction should not be taken at face value. In the few happy endings something more sinister must be taken into account―characters may have achieved but at a cost. In the bleak endings many ironies come together, including the consequences of the characters’ actions. But perhaps the bleakness itself needs to be ironized as a pose, a nod to the depression of Douglas Adams’s Marvin the Paranoid Android, and before him to Eeyore in Winnie-the-Pooh. Quite often―and this can be a problem as well as a strength―the resolutions do not resolve anything.
11. The Mainstream. Since the actual readership within science fiction in Britain is rather small, and new fans of science fiction seem more interested in films, tv, and comics than the written word, British science fiction is dependent on the mainstream. In a sense there is a tradition of British mainstream writers being allowed their one generic dalliance―think Conrad and Ford’s The Inheritors (1902), Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909), and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Sometimes it is less happy―think E.P. Thompson’s overly long The Sykaos Papers (1988), or P.D. James’s The Children of the Moon (1992) which could not be science fiction because it was well written and was not about Martians. Martin Amis scores points for dealing with the nuclear bomb in Einstein’s Monsters (1987) but loses them again for claiming this is the first fiction about the bomb―and for his allegation in a documentary that sf readers are a bit like trainspotters. Ian McEwan, Will Self, David Mitchell, and Louis de Bernières have all used fantastical elements in their works, to some success. And, in the theater, where plays on quantum physics, probability, chaos theory, and so on by Alan Ayckbourn, Tom Stoppard, and others have been acceptable for years.
The mainstream media in Britain is beginning to take science fiction more seriously, although there is still a slight sneer in some presenter’s voices on BBC Radio 4. Pat Cadigan, Paul McAuley, Kim Newman, China Miéville, and others are increasingly being called on to review films for radio, but not as often as are the mainstream writers of their generation. The Independent and The Guardian both review science fiction frequently, even allowing the coverage to spill over beyond the monthly round-up of five or six novels into a five-hundred-word review. The Guardian not only reported on Christopher Priest’s win of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, but gave him space to discuss his inspiration for The Separation (2002). The Independent, The Guardian, and The Times all carry obituaries when British sf writers die.
Not all is rosy though. In 1983 the British Book Councilcompiled a list of twenty young British writers who were promising―including Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, and the already veteran Christopher Priest. Two lists later and the broadsheet newspapers wondered what had happened to the 1983 generation; indeed, where was Christopher Priest now? (This was symptomatic of the publicity his publisher had lavished on his latest book.) Meanwhile on the 2003 list, China Miéville was specifically excluded because of his status as a genre writer (Jack 11). The barricades have been drawn back, but not that far.
12. “[T]hese moments are cyclical. We’re lucky enough to be in a time when sf is loud and proud and exciting. It won’t last forever. It’s fun milking it while it lasts....” (China Miéville in Butler, “Beyond” 7).
13. An[drew]thropic Principle. On the one hand, I perhaps flatter myself. I do not wish to claim that I am single-handedly responsible for the Boom, but I have been in the right places a number of times, and have helped to provide a space for discourse about the Boom, as well as adding my own voice to the discussions. In 1995, the year of the Glasgow Worldcon and various British Hugo wins, I became co-features editor of Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, first published in 1958. While Gary Dalkin, my co-editor, and I were both into media (for which read film and some comics or tv, not necessarily sf), we both took the decision that the field was being destroyed by tie-in books (wookie books) and that we would rail against them at any opportunity―in editorials, in articles, and in responses to letters of comment. At the same time, we took every opportunity we could to promote interesting novels by British writers, in a sense wanting to put the British back into the BSFA. In the run up to the BSFA’s fortieth anniversary and the 200th issue of Vector in 1998, we held a poll to establish the most popular British sf novels and the results were published in the 201st issue. At the following year’s Eastercon I ran several panels on the history of British science fiction which discussed the results of the poll.6
A coincidence of connections led Mark Bould and myself to the launch of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000), followed by Bould’s interview of Miéville for Vector and an invitation to hear him speak at Marxism 2000 on the subject of Marxism and fantasy. In an editorial for Vector I commented on the Marxism 2000 event and added: “With writers like Miéville, MacLeod, Meaney and many more, sf in Britain at the end of the century seems to be revolutionary: clearly in a tradition, but still finding new ways to tell new (and old) stories. Could this be another Golden Age? Or am I being just too utopian?” (Butler, “Revolution” 3). By the end of June the following year, critics such as Gary Wolfe and John Clute and authors such as M. John Harrison were talking of a Boom, and this eventually lead to the guerrilla panel at 2001: A Celebration of British Science Fiction.
Not that the feeling was unanimous. After presenting a paper at the conference (on science in a number of British plays), Nicholas Ruddick argued that current sf was banal (without actually using the word) and that literary values were in decline; as I wrote in an editorial: “If Miéville, MacLeod, Meaney, Grimwood and Robson had been in the room, let alone a slightly older generation of Baxter, Greenland and Jones, then I would have been able to refute it thus” (Butler, “Foresight” 3).7 Although noting the buzz about British sf being at the cutting edge, I still sound a warning, skeptical note:
[T]he image of Colin Welland at the Oscars, shouting, “The British are coming!” does loom rather large at this point.
(And then a more science fictional image, of Kevin McCarthy stopping cars, and screaming “They’re coming! They’re coming!...”) (Butler, “Foresight” 3).
By the time I wrote the following editorial, I had spent three weeks in Melbourne―where both Ash and Perdido Street Station were hot reads―and I had been to the Hugo Awards Ceremony where Rowling won:
There’s a sense, which we’ve been trumpeting for a couple of years now, that we are in a boom time for British science fiction; in the last eighteen months or so we’ve had a couple of novels which have been respected by gratifyingly large audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, and both seem to be making inroads Down Under in Australia. (Butler, “Hugos” 3)
The Boom was off and running.
In film, the British did not come, as Goldcrest, the producers of Chariots of Fire,went belly-up after a series of poor choices―such as editing out Mark Bould’s performance from Revolution. Some British directors, actors, and writers are enjoying Oscar success, but largely in American films. Is the Boom doomed? Entropy, after all, is a favored metaphor of British sf―and everything must pass. With so many writers active, can the market sustain them all? How many more will the American publishers take on? Meanwhile, Tor has set up a British imprint, publishing American authors, and this is likely to offer the existing sf imprints―Gollancz, Headline, Earthlight, HarperCollinsVoyager, Penguin, and Little, Brown―a run for their money. As some of these are connected to US companies, could these face a US resurgence? Tor is piggy-backing off Pan Macmillan―home to Miéville, among others―so for how long can the two remain distinct? Worried voices are already beginning to mutter. Paul Kincaid has noted in the pages of this journal that “the pool of British publishers is growing smaller, and looking at the current economic climate, I suspect that advances will be falling, if they haven’t fallen already.... I do wonder whether we have the infrastructure to support the renaissance we seem to be engendering” (Kincaid, “Golden” 531). Indeed as I was working on a late draft of this article the news came through that the Earthlight imprint―home to Byrne, Calder, Cobley, Grimwood, Holdstock, Whitbourn, and others―is to be absorbed into Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books imprint. While the books will continue to be published, for now, it seems unlikely that they will get the kind of specialist attention that editors John Jarrold and then Darren Nash were able to give. It is too early yet to tell whether this is the beginning of the end of the Boom.
It is perhaps very British to expect it all to fall―but there is some part of us that is forever Eeyore.
1. For a questioning of Pfeil’s position, see my “Modelling Sf: Fred Pfeil’s Embarrassment.”
2. Among other spaces, the Boom was discussed as a piece of guerrilla programming by Harrison, Miéville, and others at the 2001: A Celebration of British Science Fiction conference (June 28-July 1, 2001), endorsed by the organisers (Farah Mendlesohn, Andy Sawyer, and myself); by John Clute, Brian Aldiss, Ellen Datlow, Gary Wolfe, China Miéville, Farah Mendlesohn, and myself at a panel at the 2002 ICFA; by Paul Kincaid and myself at The Goldfish Factor (the Science Fiction Foundation/British Science Fiction Association joint AGM event) in April 2003; and at the ICA in May 2003 in events organized by Miéville and Harrison. Gary S. Dalkin and myself often turned to the topic of the state of British sf in our editorials for Vector from 1995 to the present. There have no doubt been other moments. To many of these people―as well as to Mark Bould and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay , Jr. who patiently watched me scribble on the backs of envelopes―I clearly owe a debt.
3. This was over breakfast at ICFA 2002. In 2002 there were six interviews with British writers: Miéville and Siegel (March), Baxter (April), Joyce (May), McAuley (June), and Gaiman (September), which clearly showed the period in spring and summer to be dominated by British writers. There were, however, six interviews with British writers also in 1995 (counting Pat Cadigan) and again in 1998.
4. This is not just an English phenomenon; there is also a divided consciousness at work in the Welsh, the Northern Irish, and the Scots, as writers from those countries are subsumed into metropolitan London life or as the apparently English claim authenticity from “provincial” roots. For two examinations of a Scottish dividedness, see Middleton’s “The Works of Iain M. Banks” and my “Strange Case of Mr Banks.”
5. I am not making a nonsensical claim that writers from Britain are ironic and writers from the USA are always sincere―a list including Twain, Bierce, Vonnegut, Michael Moore, and the Coens would refute this; rather, I am suggesting that the dominant mode of narrative voice in British sf is ironic.
6. Each voter was given five votes which would be weighted according to their ranking. The top ten were: 9th: Coney, Hello Summer, Goodbye (1975) and Brunner, The Sheep Look Up (1972); 8th: Roberts, Pavane (1968); 7th: Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) and Tolkien, Lord of the Rings (1954-1955); 5th: Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids (1951); 4th: Baxter, The Time Ships (1993); 3rd: Brunner, Stand On Zanzibar (1968); 2nd: Clarke, Childhood’s End (1953); and 1st: Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). The most popular writer was Arthur C. Clarke. See my “The Best of British.”
7. Contrast this statement a year later from Miéville on the Boom: “Generally, good to excellent ‘literary’ quality” (Butler, “Beyond Consolation” 7).
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