OCTOBER 27, 2013
IT MAY SEEM strange that many of the best science fiction writers are also the genre’s best critics. After all, facility in an art, even a verbal art, only very rarely correlates with critical fluency. Analysis and performance often stand at odds. And yet our most talented SF writers — Brian W. Aldiss, Stanislaw Lem, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Adam Roberts, among others — have also written the best analyses of the genre.
One reason for this confluence may be the generally low regard in which Anglophone critics have held science fiction. Though readers have always loved the genre, systematic studies were once surprisingly rare. By necessity, SF writers filled in the gaps themselves, composing their own histories, theorizing their own artistic practice, and becoming astute critics of their chosen genre.
The second, more important explanation is that science fiction is inherently a cognitive genre. As the structuralist critic Darko Suvin once wrote, science fiction can be defined as “the literature of cognitive estrangement.” It takes a familiar world and rigorously alters it by introducing an innovation that Suvin calls a novum. On this view, the genre’s many pleasures are fundamentally intellectual. We revel in discovering how an initial deviation from what Suvin calls a “zero world” (the empirical world) can lead to astonishing but appropriate extrapolated situations. Finding the right novum isn’t easy. So to be a good writer in the genre, you might need first to develop a sophisticated theory of science fiction.
To the pantheon of serious SF writer-critics, we should add Kingsley Amis. Amis’s work as a critic of the genre is better known than his actual science fiction. Throughout the 1960s, he co-edited five volumes of the SF anthology series Spectrum with the Soviet historian Robert Conquest and wrote regular science fiction reviews for the Observer. In 1960, he published a foundational analysis of the genre called New Maps of Hell, based on lectures delivered at Princeton during the 1958-1959 academic year. It’s a slim book, but packed with wit and insight. Amis’s tone is conversational and almost satiric. He defends the genre, but often seems as if he were confessing in a twelve-step recovery program. He repeatedly describes science fiction as a sort of virtuous addiction. He’s surprised at finding, on the letters pages of major SF magazines, “a genuinely critical attitude, however crude its bases and arguments.” He wants to validate the genre, but his attitude is always conflicted.
Amis didn’t consider himself to be a science fiction writer, though he experimented in the genres that he loved. He even wrote a James Bond novel, Colonial Sun (1968), under the pseudonym Robert Markham. Evincing skepticism about these genre romps, David Lodge wrote that Amis was “finding a way to enjoy the forbidden fruit of romance without fully committing himself to the enterprise.” This is a cynical interpretation of Amis’s literary experiments, but one that merits consideration. We might well be tempted to imagine that he professed love for science fiction out of his characteristic contrarian impulse, the same drive that led him to reject modernism, to embrace the left as a young man, and to embrace conservatism during Labour’s ascendency. In an introduction to Spectrum 5, Amis and his co-editor Conquest defended the genre as a harbor against the “well-policed province of today’s or yesterday’s literary ideologies.” Perhaps Amis promoted science fiction precisely because the literary-ideology police held it in such low esteem.
The recent republication of The Green Man and The Alteration by NYRB Classics should, one hopes, put to rest such suspicions. Kingsley Amis is the real deal, a science fiction writer of great power and imagination. These books deserve to be recognized as the classics they are.
It may be surprising to learn that Amis’s 1969 novel The Green Man is a ghost story. After all, Amis disliked fantasy. “While science fiction […] maintains a respect for fact or presumptive fact,” he wrote in New Maps of Hell, “fantasy makes a point of flouting these.” But close inspection instantly dispels any easy description of The Green Man as a fantasy novel. Amis has written a very peculiar ghost story, one almost naturalistic in its approach to world-building, rigorously committed to explicating rationally every seemingly fantastic phenomena. As Amis told Clive James, hinting at his method, The Green Man was inspired by the question, “What happens when the man who sees ghosts is an alcoholic?”
What happens is this: The ghosts, which are real enough within the novel’s world, become the least scary part of the story. They’re almost pedestrian in their motives. Far more frightening is our narrator, the fifty-three-year-old Maurice Allington, proprietor of a haunted inn called The Green Man, a building that has existed since the Middle Ages. Despite the success of his business, Maurice is a neurotic personal failure who seems to be on the cusp of having a nervous breakdown. He’s a man who, as his grown son Nick tells him, has “got death on the winkle.” It’s “a sort of hobby,” his son suggests. Maurice’s second marriage is a failure; he drinks far more than is advisable; he’s distant from his TV-addicted thirteen-year-old daughter, Amy; as a result of his alcoholism, he experiences a strange “jactitation” and “hypnagogic” hallucinations when he’s about to fall asleep.
In short, he’s a pretty typical Kingsley Amis narrator, who just happens to live in a world where ghosts are real. At first uninterested in the specters haunting his establishment — it’s hard to tell whether or not he believes in them — Maurice devotes much of his considerable drunken intelligence trying to convince his wife, Joyce, to get involved in a threesome with another woman, Diana. He’s a pathetic, often hilarious case.
After his father dies suddenly, early in the novel, Maurice begins finally to suspect that his inn really is haunted, and investigates his suspicions with increased seriousness. The ghost of the seventeenth-century necromancer Dr. Thomas Underhill, we learn, roams Maurice’s establishment. The environs around the inn, meanwhile, host a mythical “wood creature” known as the Green Man, which Underhill can summon, and which almost kills Amy. Amy turns out to be the key to the hauntings. In a conversation with Underhill near the novel’s end, Maurice concludes, “You just waited until Amy was the age you liked, and then you set to work to arouse my curiosity. And in your present form you couldn’t do to her what you did to those other poor kids, so you tried to kill her instead . . . Some purpose.” Underhill’s actions are motivated by little more than lust, a drab motivation indeed. No wonder then, when faced with these supernatural manifestations, Maurice rarely evinces earnest terror. The novel’s true terror — an existential terror — comes in Maurice’s bizarre encounter with God.
God visits Maurice as a man of “about twenty-eight years old, with a squarish, clean-shaven, humorous, not very trustworthy face, unabundant eyebrows and eyelashes, and good teeth.” Even in this visitation, Amis remains a clear-eyed (or, let’s be honest, slightly inebriated) rationalist. The Green Man envisages a peculiarly science fictional God. After Maurice offers Him a drink, the Supreme Deity is relieved, explaining, “I was going to warn you against making the mistake of supposing that I come from inside your mind.” Maurice coolly concludes, “I suppose I couldn’t get into the passage because all molecular motion outside this room has stopped.” The conversation continues in this manner, grounding this peculiar heavenly visitation in one technical explanation or another. With proper science fictional verve, Amis cares deeply about the mechanics of divine manifestation. At its most fantastic, The Green Man insists on its facticity. Even God’s reasons for visiting Maurice are carefully thought through. He explains that he’s visiting Maurice because he’s a “good security risk.” No one would ever mistake Maurice for a “saint or a mystic or anything,” and this encounter will be easy to discount as an alcoholic hallucination. God’s ultimate motivation is to maintain “the general impression that human life ends with the grave.” Dr. Underhill’s hauntings threaten to reveal the truth, an intolerable circumstance for Amis’s cruel God.
The creator of the universe makes every effort to conceal his own existence. His occasional visits to the earth reflect a self-indulgent impulse, a wish to “be down on the board among the pieces, just for two or three moves, to get the feel of it, without at the same time stopping running the game.” God’s omnipotence is rule-bound, following a careful, logical progression, which Amis outlines at length. Existence comes to resemble “an art and a work of art rolled into one.” Reality is not only an artwork for Amis, but also specifically a work of science fiction.
This picture of God not only gives rise to a bit of metafictional cleverness on Amis’s part but also exposes The Green Man’s core horror. For while Amis’s God acknowledges the reality of an afterlife, what he can’t promise Maurice is that the afterlife itself is eternal. “The answer is that I don’t know,” He admits. “I’ll have to see. I mean that. Do you know, it’s about the only absolutely fascinating, first-class, full-sized problem I’ve never started to go into?” The novel ends with a strange and hilarious exorcism, which eliminates the menacing Underhill, though it’s hard to banish the disturbing implications of Maurice’s encounter with God. Whatever threat particular ghosts or monsters pose, Amis’s true concern is with the unavoidability of death, and the impossibility of guarding reality against annihilation. If God did exist, Amis argues, even He might be destructible.
Amis’s pop-theological vision comes with a literary corollary. Realism as a mode or genre can only capture a narrow part of this destructible reality. In a moment bordering on metafiction, Maurice comments on his literary tastes:
I have no novelists, finding theirs a puny and piffling art, one that, even at its best, can render truthfully no more than a few minor parts of the total world it pretends to take as its field of reference. A man has only to feel some emotion, any emotion, anything differentiated at all, and spend a minute speculating how this would be rendered in a novel — not just the average novel, but the work of a Stendhal or Proust — to grasp the pitiful inadequacy of all prose fiction to the task it sets itself.
Amis obviously doesn’t entirely share Maurice’s literary opinions. And yet, Maurice’s view seems less easy to dismiss if we understand this passage not as a commentary on “all prose fiction” but traditional realism’s (and modernism’s) failure. Later, Maurice grouses, “Father, Joyce, Underhill, Margaret, the wood creature, Amy Diana: a novelist would represent all these as somehow related, somehow all part of some single puzzle which some one key would somehow unlock. As it were.”
Conventional fictions fail in two ways. On the one hand, they’re unable to represent a “total world” in their “field of reference.” On the other hand, they too quickly propose singular explanations for unrelated phenomena. They’re bad at grasping contingency. Genre fiction, and science fiction in particular, gave Amis a seductive alternative to realism and modernism. Science fiction is, as he wrote in his introduction to Spectrum 5, “a natural and liberating complement to the novel of character.” Only science fiction can give us a glimpse of totality and contingency. A ghost story about the incapacity of realism or modernism to address death, The Green Man deploys the resources of science fiction to disclose, however fleetingly, the precariousness and destructibility of existence. Now that’s a ghost story.
Amis’s 1976 alternate history novel, The Alteration, is another brilliant metafictional analysis of science fiction. In this case, Amis uses SF conventions to interrogate what he saw as the genre’s limitations. Throughout New Maps of Hell, Amis repeatedly laments that science fiction is nearly asexual. It “unshackles the libido but seldom, often appearing to go out of its way to be chaste,” he writes. Indeed, for all its imagination, “the nature and direction of sexual interest in science fiction is almost oppressively normal.” An attempt to correct this tendency, The Alteration might justly be viewed as belonging to the New Wave’s historical unshackling of the genre’s libido, just as much as any work by Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany, or Joanna Russ. Amis finds in human sexual development a potent metaphor for thinking critically about the nature and significance of SF.
Amis’s novel constructs an alternate version of 1976, in which the Reformation never happened. The ascendant Catholic Church represses science and technology, and Europe continues to live in a state of arrested development. Only New England is free of popish influence. Hubert Anvil is a ten-year-old chorister whose voice is so beautiful that Rome decides he ought to become a castrato, to be forcibly frozen in pre-pubescence to ensure that his divinely gifted talents will not be lost. The novel’s plot turns on the attempt to prevent Hubert from being altered.
Much of the fun of the book comes from Amis’s impish world-building, an effort far more elaborate than what is on offer in The Green Man. Though Amis’s alternate world deviated from our world many hundreds of years before the time of the story, many figures from our timeline make cameos in altered form. We learn about Monseigneur Jean Paul Sartre’s “new commentary on De Existentiae Natura”; William de Kooning’s “large, colorful and popular” paintings of Adam and Eve; and Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle. With the last of these alter-historical cameos, Amis’s metafiction becomes truly dizzying.
In our reality, of course, The Man in the High Castle (1962) is an alternate history novel that imagines a version of World War II in which the Axis powers have occupied the United States. Within this alternate reality, a novelist named Hawthorne Abendsen has written (yet another) alternate history, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which the United States entered World War II and defeated Germany and Japan. Near the end of Dick’s novel, we receive evidence that something more mystical is afoot. In his passing reference, Amis takes Dick’s already complicated, intertwined set of alternate histories, and he adds another vertiginous layer to them.
In the world of The Alteration, Dick’s classic novel has again been written, but with a difference. In the alternate history one finds in Amis’s version of Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, “[i]nvention has been set free a long time before. Sickness is almost conquered: nobody dies of consumption or the plague. The deserts have been made fertile. The inventors are actually called scientists, and they use electricity . . . They send messages all over the Earth with it. They use it to light whole cities and even to keep folk warm. There are electric flying-machines that move at two hundred miles an hour.” In other words, Amis’s Dick has written an alternate history about something like our world.
So: Amis’s alternate version of Dick’s actual alternative history novel (which itself contains an alternate history revealing to Dick’s fictional characters actual reality) turns out to be a story about our actuality. Got that? No wonder (the real) Philip K. Dick claimed The Alteration was “one of the best — possibly the best — alternate world novels in existence.” (Though contemporary critics mostly didn’t like the book when it first appeared, it won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for 1976.)
As if this multivalent reference to Dick’s most acclaimed novel weren’t enough, Hubert and his friends on several occasions have informed conversations about science fiction. Like Amis, they’re young addicts. Science fiction and alternate history appear in Amis’s novel as TR and CW. TR stands for Time Romance, “a type of fiction that appealed to a type of mind” obsessed with science, invention, and possible futures. CW or Counterfeit World stories, by contrast, are “a class of tale set more or less at the present date, but portraying the results of some momentous change in historical fact.” Fearing technology and scientific knowledge, the church bans both genres.
The Alteration is frequently described as a dystopia. It’s true that the Vatican’s dominion over Europe is highly unpleasant in Amis’s novel, but most dystopias operate by forecasting terrible futures based on present-day tendencies. This certainly isn’t the case with The Alteration, though it might be taken as an attack against British nostalgia for medievalism (which is also a subject of Jim’s classic “Merrie England” lecture in Amis’s first and most famous novel, Lucky Jim). Frankly, there’s little political insight or wisdom to be found in the book. The Catholic Church might be more fruitfully read as figure for literary realism, the very “novel of character” that failed to represent all sides of life. Viewing the Church this way gives a hint as to why Amis associates castratos with alternate history.
Yes, there’s the obvious pun on the word “alteration” — both history and Hubert’s sex organs suffer from alteration. One can also, without much difficulty, argue that Hubert’s threatened alteration is the specific sort of cruelty one might expect of the novel’s alternate Vatican — and the sentimental, sexually dysfunctional medievalism with which Amis associates it. (Amis reportedly was inspired to write The Alteration after listening to a 1909 recording of the Italian soprano castrati Alessandro Moreschi.) Though unsettling anti-Catholic and heteronormative shadows hover over The Alteration, Hubert’s situation also serves as an ingenious allegory for science fiction’s cognitive power. Explaining the future to someone who has not been there is, Amis wants to show, somewhat like explaining mature sexual desire to a ten-year-old boy or a castrato.
This reading explains why the novel features so many long conversations in which characters try to convey to Hubert what alteration will rob from him. Hubert has an especially pointed discussion with his brother Anthony on this question. Anthony laments that explaining the significance of sex to human life to Hubert is like trying to “explain the colour red to a blind man.” The best he can do is to compare sexual desire to “kissing a girl while it feels like playing with yourself but it’s like . . . wonderful ice-cream.” This is the sort of peculiar sensation that, I think, only science fiction has the means to help us feel.
The Alteration ends in a fashion that is, if possible, even more fatalistic than The Green Man. Hubert manages to escape Rome’s grasp, only to suffer a divine intervention too cruel — and grimly funny — to spoil. Like The Green Man, The Alteration struggles with God’s callous indifference to human suffering. It rigorously dramatizes a world of divine malice. When the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko asked him, “You atheist?,” Amis famously said, “Well yes, but it’s more that I hate Him.”
NYRB Classics has performed a great service putting Amis’s novels back into print. In addition to The Green Man and The Alteration, many of his other books are only available to American readers through the series. One hopes the reissue of these two genre novels will reawaken our sense of his oeuvre’s true richness, and will help put Amis where he belongs: in the canon of major SF writer-critics. Doing this wouldn’t only be a way to honor Amis’s literary and critical achievement. It might also, in time, help further erode the ghost of “yesterday’s literary ideologies,” which, though mostly in the grave today — science fiction is more accepted than ever before — still haunt how we think and write about the genre. Amis’s science fiction offers us a powerful talisman with which we might exorcise such prejudicial specters, and is itself a masterful example of what the genre can do at its best.
 Amis adored Margaret Thatcher, and once tried to give her a copy of his now out-of-print novel about a Russian takeover of Britain, Russian Hide-and-Seek. Thatcher didn’t approve: “Can’t you do any better than that?” she reportedly said. “Get yourself another crystal ball.”