The Guardian. Kingsley Amis illustration by David Smith

New means worse.

J.G. Ballard laments a lapsed fan

The Golden Age of Science Fiction, edited by Kingsley Amis (Hutchinson, £6.95 1981).

KINGSLEY AMIS’s stormy affair with science fiction becomes more and more perplexing. In 1960, New Maps of Hell was the most important and influential critical work on s-f that had yet been published, and to a large extent still remains so. Amis threw open the gates of the ghetto, and ushered in a new audience which he almost singlehandedly recruited from those intelligent readers of general fiction who until then had considered science fiction on a par with horror comics and pulp westerns.

What marked New Maps of Hell, like Amis's reviews of the time and the considerable influence he brought to bear on publishers and literary editors alike, were his generosity and enthusiasm. These, and enormous personal kindness.

Sadly, though, this was soon to change. By the mid-1960s those of us active in science fiction began to hear the first growls of disapproval, saw ourselves glared at across the conference room, felt our kidneys punched in a jocular but unmistakably menacing way.

For the past 15 years, in a stream of reviews, articles and interviews, Amis has vented an increasingly bilious contempt for almost everything science fiction has produced. As he writes in his introduction to this new anthology: "Science fiction has come from Chaucer to Finnegans Wake in less than fifty years… now you can take it anywhere, and it is still not worth talking." Yet Amis still returns again and again to spit into the poisoned well.

What have we done to deserve his hostility? To some extent Amis's distaste for science fiction can be put down to simple pique. Sharp observer though he was of 1940s and 1950s s-f, his prediction in New Maps of Hell that science fiction would become primarily a satirical and sociological medium proved totally wrong. In fact, American s-f veered away into interplanetary fantasy (Le Guin, Zelazny, Delaney), while the British writers began to explore the psychological realm of inner space.

Almost the only writer to turn to sociological satire was Amis himself, in The Alteration, and Russian Hide-and-Seek, bearing in mind the rather modest talent for s-f that Amis displayed in those works, and his restless genre-hopping, perhaps his dissatisfaction is secretly, dare I say it, with… ?

Whatever the root cause, Amis's contempt for post-1960 science fiction seems bound up with his growing hatred of almost everything else that has happened in the world since then. Deriding the s-f New Wave, he refers to its links with the "Sixties scene, along with pop music, hippie clothes, and hairdos, pornography, reefers." He tells us that the writers were visited by "restlessness and self-dissatisfaction, by the conscious quest for maturity and novelty, by the marsh-light of experimentalism."

Worse horrors waited in the wings. "In came shock tactics, tricks with typography, one-line chapters, strained metaphors, obscurities, obscenities, drugs, Oriental religions and left-wing politics." My God, I remember now, those hairdos, that music, those Oriental religions.

The perpetrators of all this are whipped unmercifully. Moorcock's fiction "gives rise to little more than incurious bewilderment." Aldiss, in Barefoot in the Head, "interlards an adventure story with stylistic oddities, bits of freak talk, poems, some of them ‘concrete'." As for Ballard, on whom no verdict can be harsh enough: "Solipsistic… mystification and outrage… physical disgust… stories with chapters subdivided into numbered paragraphs [not true]… has never been in the genre at all."

The readers are equally despised and patronised: "My remarks on the readership of the genre refer of course to its higher levels; the average is probably pretty low, especially today." To read this long-threatened postscript to New Maps of Hell is an unsettling experience. Apart from its sour tone, Amis is so ill-informed about the present state of science fiction, and seems to imagine that it is dominated by pretentious intellectuals imitating, Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor.

In fact, science fiction today (certainly in the United States, its main centre of activity) is entering the most commercial phase it has ever known. The New Wave, along with almost all the more intelligent magazines and anthologies, has long since been inundated bv a tsunami of planet fiction, sword-and-sorcery sensationalism, and Star Wars rip-offs, propelled by a reactionary s-f writers guild closely interlocked with the New York publishers.

What science fiction needs now is a clear, hard and positive voice like that of the Kingsley Amis of 1960. The accurate judgments he made then are evident in his choice of 1950s s-f in The Golden Age of Science Fiction, classics such as Pohl's The Tunnel under the World, Arthur C. Clarke's The Nine Billion Names of God, and H. Beam Piper's He Walked Around the Horses, a brilliant tale of a Napoleonic disappearance, told in the form of – what’s this? – chapters subdivided into numbered paragraphs. Kingsey…!