The Adventures of Little Martin in Tomorrowland

By Matthew Davis

An old Hollywood joke. A producer is waiting outside the test screening of his latest film. As the audience exits, he hears one man say, "God, what a crummy film!" The producer rushes over to him angrily saying, "Who the hell are you to say this was a crummy film?" The man replies, "Who the hell do you need to be?"

"One of us! Gooble gobble, gooble gobble! One of us! One of us!" —Freaks (Director: Tod Browning; Scriptwriter: Tod Robbins, 1932)

Amis family

Martin Amis (left) with his stepmother Elizabeth Jane Howard and his father Kinsley Amis. 1970s.

Within its own charmed circle of fans and writers, SF has always been convinced of its own worth. When presenting a face to the broader world, SF's self-confidence has been somewhat shakier, vulnerable to the slighting assessments of metropolitan critics. After many years of being consigned either to oblivion or automatic disdain, SF eventually accumulated sufficient literary and commercial clout that it could no longer be ignored, and was therefore accorded its own little occasional spot in the review pages of newspapers and journals. SF authors might be picked to review their peers, and recognised jobbing SF critics might get their turn on the rota, but many editors often chose to appoint their own in-house reviewers. The SF community has rarely been wholly satisfied with these in-house mediators to the general public, since they did not come from within the SF community. There is a world of difference between James Blish as "William Atheling, Jr," speaking home truths within the family circle of fanzines in 1950s and 1960s, for which he could be praised for his necessary honesty, and a Gerald Jonas, who despite doing yeoman-like work for decades in the New Yorker and the New York Times has never been accorded the same respect for presenting a considered and respectable face of SF to the general public. Functionaries tucked away in the further corners of the weekend reviews, most of these stalwarts never become significant name attractions in their own right, and even apart from appealing to the general public, they never become considered as part of the SF critical fraternity. Yet in the mid-1970s, one of contemporary English literature's soon-to-be foremost personalities spent his apprenticeship as the SF reviewer at one of Britain's most respected Sunday broadsheets.

Martin Amis has always been interested in SF. He confesses that until his mid-teens the only books he read were SF. His father, Kingsley Amis, was both the author of New Maps of Hell (1961), the first book of SF criticism by a mainstream author, and also the editor of the Spectrum series of SF anthologies (1962-1966). Martin Amis's second novel, Dead Babies (1975), is a kind of Thomas Love Peacock novel crammed with drugs, sex, and murder, tricked out in the typical social developments of a squalid near-future scenario. Einstein's Monsters (1987) is a collection of short stories ringing the changes on nuclear anxieties in assorted SF modes. Time's Arrow (1991) is a novel about time running backwards, a trope used by many SF authors. Amis's use aspires to greater moral ironies, becoming a horrific celebration of life through the reversal of the actions of its central character, a Nazi concentration camp doctor (expanding on a scene in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, in which the consequences of WWII are similarly played backwards). Several of his later short stories employ the typical "what-if scenarios" of SF satire: what if homosexuality were the social norm and heterosexuality a minority perversion ("Straight Fiction"); what if poets and screenwriters swapped prestige and earning potential ("Career Move"). More shame-makingly, he also wrote the screenplay for the omni-atrocious 1980 SF flick Saturn 3, an experience underpinning any criticism of Hollywood and the movie imagination in his works. "If I had to sum up the subject of literary fiction in a couple of words, I would say 'It's about the near future.' It is about the Zeitgeist and human evolution, particularly of consciousness, as well as furniture and surroundings. It's how the typical rhythms of the thought of human beings are developing" (Experience, 2002). Yet, since in all his collected reviews and public appearances Amis has never appeared to openly address SF, so SF has not openly addressed or accepted him.

Martin Amis began reviewing science fiction for the Observer in 1972 under the pseudonym "Henry Tilney." Amis was then a young writer barely a year out of university and had a minor post on the editorial staff of the Times Literary Supplement. "Henry Tilney," a name appropriated from the sophisticated novel-reading romantic interest in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, may have been adopted either to spare his blushes around his colleagues, or else to obscure the fact that Amis was sometimes writing several pieces for an individual issue of the Observer. By the mid-'70s, Amis had dropped the pseudonym, and he continued reviewing SF under his own name until 1977. The book and arts section of the Observer in the 1970s was under the esteemed editorship of Terence Kilmartin, who made it a respected arts-talk venue for regular contributors such as Philip Toynbee, Lorna Sage, Angela Carter, and Clive James, with the occasional incursion from such luminaries as Gore Vidal and Kenneth Tynan. The Observer art pages under Kilmartin had a reputation for lively, bright, intelligent, occasionally iconoclastic writing.

In considering the place and condition of SF reviewing over the years, it is worth remembering that much of the purpose of good book reviewing has been to attract advertising. Curiously, advertising from publishers has only been a secondary benefit of book review sections in newspapers. As recorded in George Orwell's 1936 "In Defence of the Novel," there have been periods in the past when newspapers and journals were absolutely crammed with publishers' advertising, but this influx usually corresponded with periods at papers when their reviewers were critically supine. By the 1970s, it was assumed that a review section was part of the necessary arts coverage of a good newspaper. It could be taken as one of the functions of reporting on all aspects of current affairs. As importantly, it was assumed that good arts coverage would attract an upmarket segment of the readership that advertisers wished to reach. Bright, lively arts commentary identified a paper as worth reading, and so signaled itself as appealing to advertising accounts. Editors are therefore always on the lookout for the young talent to fill their pages. The reviewer's duty to his editor and publisher is readability. Fairness to the author under review is solely a personal matter for the reviewer's conscience. When a reviewer becomes a star attraction, a Connolly, Kael, Tynan, or Amis, the best hope of the author under review is that the liveliness of response will go hand in hand with a heightened critical acumen.

A science fiction book reviewer will never rise to that level of journalistic fame and authority. That the SF constituency was not seen as participating in this glittering leisure market (which can be traced with great edification through the pages of the New Yorker) is why SF reviewing was usually a quarterly journalistic obligation suffering from all the worst faults of fiction reviewing. John Clute is only well-known to the sort of readers who would know his sort well. Amis's post as SF reviewer was only ever incidental work, a means of proving versatility in the engine rooms of 1970s literary journalism. The response of SF writers to Amis's comments would have indicated to his superiors, though, that here was a reviewer to watch—a writer capable of indicating the pleasures of SF who could also readily exercise a stinging insolence at the expense of substandard work and authors. Certainly, his valediction to SF-reviewing reveals a young man's slightly too-eager satisfaction in the cries of his gored oxes:

Although I have no idea how the fans will take my departure, I do have the comfort of knowing how it will be greeted by the practitioners. They never really liked me. Richard Cowper used to write in suggesting that I be made The Observer's Antarctic correspondent; Christopher Priest believes that he must have accidentally run over a sweetheart of mine in the distant past, and Michael Moorcock has offered to crack my head against that of the paper's literary editor if he ever lets me near a Moorcock again (8 May 1977).

Any author is gratified to know what one has written has drawn a response. Yet to elicit a response from the author under review is to confuse who the reviewer's actual audience is. A reviewer writing to the author under his review would be better served just writing a private letter. His audience is the readers of his newspaper.

The reviewer's purpose is to pay contemporary notice to noteworthy books, drawing the reader's attention. He is somewhere between diarist and restaurant critic, noting what is latest, and what will satisfy the current tastes. Unless allocated the issue's lead review, fiction reviewers of the 1970s operated on the same grab-bag approach that had applied for the last fifty years, where up to ten books were assessed in the same column. Today, given the excess of SF critical academic magazines and online venues, it is easy to forget that even a fixture like Theodore Sturgeon, when working as SF reviewer for the New York Times, National Review, or even the SF magazine Galaxy, would barely have time to gesture at a book before moving on to the next on the conveyor belt. SF now has access to the same expansive and in-depth criticism that would previously only have been found in the Times Literary Supplement, New York Review of Books, or subsidised little magazines and reviews. Even then, many readers do not want this level of criticism. Outside of academia, these are only minority publications. Stars, thumbs up, and gradings, with a little supportive but stylish chat, will often do the required job of suggesting which novel will be the most profitable use of the reader's leisure time. (Such reviews, Amis quipped, elevated the consumer magazine Which to the status of "an imaginary literary journal" (15 June 1984).) The book reviewer hopes to offer a knowledgeable but perforce surface reading, in which the bulk of the book at hand is necessarily transliterated by adumbration and metaphoric encapsulations. At best, he can suggest to the common reader in what good taste consists and incidentally educate through the pleasures of his colloquy. At its best, reviewing can offer an individualistic and humanistic street education for both reviewer and reader from the titles sufficient to each day. It builds a narrative of the books read and the response thereto, a succession of incidents from which a mosaic of sensibility is formed. What then is the story Martin Amis has to tell?

Amis reclining

Amis, 1970s.

Foremost, Amis insists on the experience and instincts of his youth. SF has always prided itself on its youthfulness, intended for a younger audience receptive to new concepts. With the New Wave of the later 1960s, science fiction established a mode aligning itself with and expressing the latest generation's deliberately alternative, hippyish concerns about social and aesthetic revolt. Amis writes as the New Wave's putative audience, but rather than being obsequiously flattered by their condescending attentions, he assesses them on their ability to meet the latest standards of street style. Like someone mortified by an older relative's taste in clothes and music, Amis strenuously disdains the New Wave and disavows its ever-so-slightly but oh-so-tellingly outmoded Zeitgeist. Michael Moorcock's über-Swinging London icon Jerry Cornelius earns a dry "Very Sixties." It is the difference between groovy The Grateful Dead and perverse Berlin-era David Bowie. Philip K. Dick, Thomas M. Disch, and Robert Heinlein are frequently lumped together as "aged hippy sages," interested in sex, drugs, and rapping, "the dope talk of mattressland" (8 Dec 1974). When he attacks them for writing SF "in the doped goofy manner of the hip California school, being oblique evocations of moonish marijuana moments" (17 March 1974), Amis is transferring an active prejudice against the cult of insipid good vibes offered by authors like Richard Brautigan and Vonnegut at his worst. He sees these established SF authors' "soppy hippy streak" (5 May 1974) as both a lapse in judgment and inept bandwagon following. Amis turns his chagrin on those older traditional writers who still write novels of planetary revolt against totalitarian dystopias, now hoping this will count as lip-service to a younger audience who can only find them old hat: "SF writers always go to pieces when dealing with idealistic, freedom-hungry youngsters" (28 May 1972). His objections to the New Wave are not merely motivated by cringes of social embarrassment, but also by his perception of its failed pretentions to greater artistic seriousness. "The Orbit anthologies have got the reputation of representing the genre at its most 'serious'—i.e. at its most floridly unintelligible and at its most seductive for writers rummaging around in search of a nice flexible framework to talk portentous nonsense in" (16 April 1972).

For a writer who, in his novels, adopts a deliberately disconcerting and almost confrontationally alienated, emphatic, and recombinative style (which in the poetry of his contemporary Craig Raine became famous as the "Martian School"), Amis insists on the virtue of clarity in the SF he reads. It is "a genre in which intelligibility is all" (16 Jul 1972). He goes a step further, asserting that "SF always tries to be realistic" (June 1972). On these grounds Amis is a conservative, opposed to experimental and avant-garde techniques for their own sake, which would preeningly confer some self-regarding literary prestige. "The SF story, though, must be a perfect miniature, a satisfying realisation of a single idea. Despite SF authors' penchant for tucking away their poetic rhapsodies and full-baked experiments in this form, directness and intelligibility are quite essential, which is why the short story is the heart of the genre" (20 May 1973). It is not surprising that Amis is ready with his praise for Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Amis was "impressed by the adaptability of Asimov's cool unfussy style," though comments like "although he may lack the wit and elegance of the true SF colossi, he dwarfs them all in terms of sheer inventive energy" (4 April 1976) is merely congratulatory blurbing. "Clarke's narrative skill leaves us with a sense of fulfilled expectation that is the reverse of obviousness" (12 Nov 1972) is a recognition of the actual craft of writing within SF's formats. For Amis, genre constraints are necessary: SF's subjects are aliens, not social alienation, and "'human interest' is a paltry substitute for the cosmic implications . . . . Vastness is the lord of non-terrestrial SF" (23 February 1975). A later review of Clarke defines how one can actually work within this territory of the scientifically sublime: "Without ever losing that tinge of the numinous, of the genuinely otherwordly, which makes SF what is is—or can be . . . he realises that while the SF writer may have almost infinite freedom of content he has correspondingly severe limitations of form. Within the genre, good ideas are flotsam unless lucidly deployed, characterization—which critics wrongheadedly reproach SF for skimping—is entirely functional; and, above all, 'fine writing' is not stylistic hubbub but the absence of it . . . noisiness is for beginners and staccato prose for non-starters . . . . Clarke has none of the callow artiness of his present company" (2 September 1973).

As subsequent followers of Amis's work know, he has always been strongly attracted to two older writers with historic links to SF: J. G. Ballard and William Burroughs. Their explorations of bad sex and bad behavior in stylized modern decadent milieus inform Amis's own fictional vision of the twentieth century. Indeed, Amis has confessed to lifting a paragraph from Ballard's The Drowned World in an early novel. Ballard was one of the key writers of the English New Wave, and Burroughs's works were also claimed by New Wave propagandists. Though he never published in the New Worlds anthologies of the 1970s, fans of Amis might find much that would be familiar in those collections. Amis repays Ballard and Burroughs through regular critical attention to their individualized revulsion and deliberated provocation of society's mores, both as writers possessed of their own personal visions and also as "science fiction writers." Their fundamental appeal to Amis, though, is as psychological phenomena, refuting the virtues that Amis has claimed as SF's strengths: "Some critics are confused by [Burroughs]'s lack of realism and get depressed because they feel that the world is a rather more decent and wholesome place than he would have us believe—an ironist's version of nature without nurture, like Swift's yahoos—filthy, treacherous, dreamy, vicious, and lustful" (June 1972). While he admires Ballard's and Burroughs's associations with SF, he finds those works less expressive of their true essence than their "mainstream" novels freed from the scaffolding of genre intelligibility: "science fiction in a sense that the recent novels are not, and Ballard is far more relaxed and accessible when his unnerving ideas are held within the confines of the genre. If the prose is less haunting than we know it can be, that's because Ballard's best writing is obsessive and uncompromising, and the present collection is neither . . . . The short stories have always been the work of a SF pro rather than a glazed fantasist" (5 Dec 1976).

Amis prefers Burroughs and Ballard when they slip the constraints of factual reality, and instead cross over into nightmarish imagistic realms dependent upon the writer's creative reserves but where narrative and plot are a secondary concern. "The more superbly an author throws away the crutches of verisimilitude, the more heavily he must lean on his own style and wit, the glazed monotony of [the work's] descriptions and the deadpan singlemindedness of its attitudes merely transmit the chilling isolation of the psychopath" (Jul 1973). He praises them to the extent that they are devoted to explicating their disconcerting and squalid visions. They are unselfconsciously oblivious to the needs of the casual reader, as their works are devoid of normal humanity; shocking imagery is the priority. Of Burroughs: "the stories furnish him with a spectral rhetoric of shifting contours, transient shadow, phantom whispers and alien flesh, bulked out as always with the stylistic aberrations that have made Burroughs so revered and so reviled" (8 March 1974). "[Ballard's] raison is his awesome visual imagination and his complementary verbal intensity, it needs some grand perversity to give it the altitude which good writing alone can sustain" (New Review, May 1974). Their style is not artificial, but inherent to the way they see the world. They are extreme examples of style as psychopathology, their dedication to their vision raises them above the lazy middle of writers. An innate, obsessive attraction to perversity, impervious to irony, lends their novels an energy discharged in precise, intense images, allowing the two authors to blithely avoid the traps of the traditional novel, of dull obligatory humdrum scene-filling. That he has extolled Ballard and Burroughs on various occasions as writers for readers who care more for good writing than for fiction may unintentionally highlight a criticism that some commentators have applied persistently to Amis's own novels.

Amis publicity photo

A current publicity photo of Amis, from Random House Australia.

Amis's attraction to perceptions of a world rioting in chaos and decay is often most effectively corralled within the strictures of satire. Satire offers a means of exercising irony and style over a vision of the world where all is incompetence, ruthlessness, catastrophe, and violence. It is a mode where mastery of observation inflates the commonplace hypocrisies into sudden self-destroying explosions of style, which are then attempted again at the next opportunity on the page, a succession of inspirations about the nature of the world. "The funniest SF novels tend to be among the most serious; the jokes are not asides or extras but cunning details" (28 January 1973). Furthermore, it has no place for the sentimental and mawkish quagmire that invariably bogs down the sincere, serious, and compassionate sort of SF novelist. "Wryness, sentimentality and 'warmth' rust the engines of SF" (8 February 1976). Sentiment deprives the writer of necessary tension: "niceness, like happiness, writes white" (7 September 1986). Vonnegut at this time made a stark example of a once-sharp satirist now stuck in his sappy good intentions. In his fiction, Amis deliberately rebuts all goodness, instead depicting a world grotesquely fantasized and shot through with cruel comedy. If there are finer virtues, they are only implicit by their comprehensive absence, which (it can be argued) is the true totalizing satiric method. "In fiction, nasty societies tend to be funnier, scarier and more thought-provoking than nice ones" (13 June 1976). Similarly, his father's New Maps of Hell outlined the propensity of contemporary SF writers for pointed social satire, and these are the authors whom Amis can also most happily and regularly recommend. In his column, Amis finds opportunities to address or refer to Pohl and Kornbluth, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Sheckley, and Ron Goulart. At a time early in the column when Amis is still trying to allot each book under review the same space, having just explained the central idea of Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants he has room only to call it "possibly the best SF novel extant" (12 Nov 1972) but offer no further grounds for defense. When furnished with the occasion of a reprint and the will to deprive his other subjects of their tittle of space, then Amis can rise to the heights of reviewerese praise surely intended for the cover of the next paperback edition of Sheckley's The Status Civilisation (but this placement was not to be):

It is hard to convey the sheer brio with which Sheckley's black-comic vision is sustained. Individual squibs such as the 'Torture of the Month Club,' the hero's arrest for 'non-drug addiction,' the poison emporia, the Assassins' Guilds, and so on, might sound like pat or obvious dystopiana. But given Mr Sheckley's Utopian prose—both mordant and beguiling—there isn't the slightest sense of strain, even during the risky return to Earth (another dystopia) in the final chapters. The Status Civilisation makes you laugh as much as you wince; it rivals Pohl and The Space Merchants as a tour de force of delightful perversity (13 June 1976).

Amis in 1985

Amis, photographed by Jerry Bauer, 1985.

Vonnegut's back catalogue is largely used as a measuring stick for the successes and failures of all other comic and satirical SF writers. His past virtues of "gazing at the fantastic with icy, imperturbable literalness" (16 April 1972) are incidentally praised, but his current status as a sentimental campus favourite is used to beat the faults of the generality of comic SF writers as "garrulous wisecrackers" (16 Nov 1975). "For a while Kurt Vonnegut had an enviable gift, one far rarer than his SF inventiveness and his farmyard philosophising: he had an infallible ear for America; he let the idiots and lunatics who peopled his books speak directly through him, and he had the verbal quirkiness to bring their verbal banality to life" (7 November 1976). This is to rehearse some of the matter of Amis's eulogies of Saul Bellow, his "greatest American author." Where the young Amis feels that Vonnegut has led himself astray is in succumbing to the fascination with relevancy that is always threatening to deform SF. Amis particularly dislikes fiction and satire that take the form of "the hectoring admonitions of the may-happen-too-soon, fiction-uncomfortably-close-to-fact school" (16 April 1972). "Futuristic satire seems to be the best formula for the would-be humorist, provided that the satire is kept non-militant and stays off current trends" (28 January 1973). Embarrassingly, for the future author of Einstein's Monsters, anxiety about nuclear warfare is dismissed in the cool, tough tones of youth as "sniping at barndoor-sized moral targets" (15 July 1973). Thirteen years later, when Amis made a belated but ostentatious arrival at the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) panic party, it would take of lot of chewing to eat those words: "Bad satirists of the Sixties and Seventies told us that the world was going to get like this. Now the world has got like this. And the madness has to be dumbfoundingly complete: no one can snap out of it. In all addictions the drug-high soon feels like normality, even as the dosage is steadily increased" (13 April 1986).

Happily, during his period as SF critic for the Observer, Amis had found Vonnegut's natural successor. The most persistently reviewed and praised author during Amis's term was Ron Goulart. A steady stream of books published in this period means numerous instances for Amis to hail Goulart as the inheritor of Vonnegut's mantle, for his "superb poise" (16 April 1972), for being "blessed with an angelic style . . . he can never write a bad sentence" (28 January 1973), and for a "vision as genuinely comic as his style" (16 November 1975). If only to confirm that this was no coincidence, when Amis was literary editor of the New Statesman, he devoted the arts section of one issue to coverage of many different aspects of science fiction, and again he chose to review Goulart as the new Vonnegut: "Critics are always saying of Goulart's work, and of SF in general, that it is basically admonitory in design. It is not. Goulart remains an obtrusive reminder that SF, like any other form, is equally dependent on the irresponsible play of ideas, words and wit . . . most comic SF novelists do not write comedies at all (unfunny things happen and people merely say funny things about them) . . . the most valuable property [Goulart and Vonnegut] share is something very fundamental—a satiric ear for America, refined and intensified in the free-fall of SF" (New Statesman, 14 April 1978). Goulart's helter-skelter narratives—near-future simulations of a fractured California at its mostest—are barely strung together by investigators trailing underground and multinational organizations through a welter of disposable synthetic mass culture and comic-strip-lurid mechanized personalities. "All Goulart's imaginative verve goes into the incidental furniture of his projected world" sounds much like an analysis of how Amis's attention works in his most Amis-ian novels. A précis of Amis's Yellow Dog, set in an alternate near future ruled by King Henry IX, where the journalist Clint Smoker spins in the orbit of a cliché gangster called Joseph Andrews, bulked out with a subplot about a coffin in an airplane for smokers called CigAir, sounds much like a novel by Goulart transposed into the Amis-world of pain, pornography, insanity, and an ever-spreading trans-Atlantic moral squalor.

The history of SF is largely American. The majority of SF magazines are American, and their reviews are of the latest American SF books for American SF tastes. Amis, however, is reviewing for an English newspaper such SF books as happen to have been recently published in England. In these days of Amazon.com, any SF book can be reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic within weeks. Since Amis can only review American SF when it is published in England, there is sometimes an extended delay before American writers reach him, which incidentally shows up some surprising areas of ignorance. In the mid to late 1970s Amis can regularly find himself approving as new the "inspired" novels which won Silverberg acclaim at the turn of the decade in America. Barry Malzberg's Beyond Apollo (1972) can be hailed as "a dazzling American debut" (18 August 1974), Norman Spinrad (nine years Amis's senior) is a "much fancied young writer" (13 June 1976), and even Goulart's After Things Fell Apart was published four years before Amis's review of it. October 1976 finds him reviewing in one column English editions of Harlan Ellison's "The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World" (1968), "Again, Dangerous Visions" (1972), and Robert Silverberg's "The Feast of St Dionysus" (stories from the turn of the decade). Whether those three books count as SF for the ages or not, it is the equivalent of suddenly finding a contemporary report from the Boer War in today's newspaper. It highlights the problems of attempting to stay au courant with a form of genre publishing that insists always on the latest thing, when there are practical barriers to any realist hopes of internationalism.

Amis, of course, is on firmer ground when reviewing the contemporary English SF scene as published in its homeland. Amis works in that interim period after the heyday of New Worlds but just before Star Wars and The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy—a period whose aesthetic of the future might possibly be best represented in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. The established authors are Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss. Bob Shaw, Richard Cowper, Brian Stableford, Christopher Priest, and Ian Watson are all at different stages on their way to becoming SF fixtures. Also tucked away in many columns are those shelf-fillers that usually trip from the printing press directly down the memory hole (although Dick Morland's Albion! Albion!, about a future England ruled by competing tribes of football hooligans, sounds as though it might aspire to the exploitative zeal of the 2000 AD comic at its best). Amis is most effusive about Bob Shaw: "easily the most accomplished of the younger British stable, he has one insuperable advantage over his contemporaries: he can write." He has "assurance and dash" (20 May 1973), revealing his characters in action, rather than merely observing them. Orbitsville is "mindbogglingly and brilliantly realized . . . the action is resolved with a series of quite stunning exactitudes," its aspirations to Arthur C. Clarke-style "austerity and grandeur" perhaps unnecessarily offset by Shaw's "down to earth" qualities (23 February 1975). Amis's treatments of Shaw's novels are largely given over to describing the central ideas and scenario, but this can be taken as testimony to how interesting and exciting Amis finds them. Amis's recurring concern is that Shaw's ambition does not give way to haste and hack work. That Harry Harrison writes the "utterly conventional pop SF novel right down to the unkempt prose ('he had the ability of being able to'), the awful sex ('the waves of the music broke over them') and the toiling toughie dialogue" (8 October 1976) does not discount against Amis's enjoyment. A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! and The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World show how smart-alecism can rise into irony, and the cheery, joking "gadfly" Harrison's chief virtue is that "he never bores." That Amis pointedly alerts his audience to Brian Aldiss's "literary" intentions in separate reviews of Frankenstein Unbound and The Eighty Minute Hour automatically signals Amis's disapproval. Amis demonstrates how Aldiss has led himself astray with puns, inept solecisms, and badly judged appeals to high and low tastes, yet Amis can still conclude, "I personally find it hard to read a page of Aldiss without finding something to enjoy" (5 May 1974).

The younger generation of English SF writers ultimately fails to make the grade. "As the stock of original SF ideas dwindles one might expect its authors to show more nerve in their quest for material. In Britain, at least, the tendency has been to regress, to lean with a kind of token obliquity on existing frameworks. Christopher Priest's Inverted World, for instance, might just as well have been called Christopher Robin Visits the Fifth Dimension" (18 August 1974). "It is not so much that Mr Priest is boring as that he is interested in boring things: he couldn't drink a cup of coffee without telling you the approximate radius of the saucer" (4 April 1976). And when Priest says in a foreword that his stories explore characters under stress, Amis replies that they "explore the kind of stress that only a foul-minded SF writer would care to put people under" (23 February 1975). Brian Stableford is pitied as a younger, potentially lively author bound to contracts demanding a neverending series. However, the argument of his final column is probably written more with Ian Watson in mind:

The valediction I want to offer is more at the expense of SF publishing—or publishing in general—than of the poor writers themselves, who are en masse as talented and under-rewarded as most kinds of writers are. The economic pressure of SF book production is a snorting, towering BEM [bug-eyed monster], and its tentacles fondle even the noble star-ship trooper. This is what happens: a promising first novel comes in; you read it with excitement, wondering vaguely what the second will be like; within what seems to be about a quarter of an hour, the second is glistening on your desk; you read it with reserved admiration; then, slap, comes the third; you read it with growing unease; then comes the fourth—and you read it if you can. The way things are, most SF authors have to write more than a book a year to go on being SF authors. They spin short stories into novellas, novellas into novels. They write faster and faster, and with less and less energy. They turn into hacks before your eyes (8 May 1977).

Amis had exuberantly praised Watson's The Embedding and The Jonah Kit, declaring himself a fan of Watson's "strolls along the higher intellectual ridges of the genre" (13 February 1977). As with his reviews of Bob Shaw, he devoted a larger than usual space to explicating the plot and its themes. However, the barely excusable faults of a first novel in pacing, clarity, and characterization were in greater evidence in the second, and come The Martian Inca, Watson's errors, clichés, and tired clumsiness "effusively call attention to its own awkwardness" (13 February 1977). Amis repeatedly demands to know, where are the editors who should be looking after Watson and his like? Amis always ensures his assessments of Priest and Watson are confirmed with examples of inept and ungrammatical writing (which he rarely is able to make space for when reviewing other SF authors), but it is worth considering whether his focus on failed particulars is Amis's small way of making psychic space for himself regarding potential coevals as he did with the New Wave. Watson writes of the "apathy and despair of a sick anxious planet" facing its own collapse, Priest explores the slightly numbed aesthetic of a deteriorating England, and Amis's own aesthetic is of the "I have seen the future and it doesn't work" variety. For all Watson's ambitions, it is by Amis's writerly standards that he is judged to have failed, and correspondingly Bob Shaw to have succeeded.

Amis in Paris

Amis, photographed in Paris, 1979, by his fiancée Angela Gorgas.

Amis is famously Nabokovian in his prescription that "there is only one school of writing—talent." As a reader and reviewer, his special concern is to determine the resiliency, precision, craft, and quality of the reviewed writer's prose and his formative sensibility. Amis treats SF in general with respect, though not always all SF writers with the same consideration. Richard Cowper's careless composition, "silly jokes and asides, dialogue crawling with italics and exclamations, hilarious mispunctuation, well-wrought phrases like 'rapidly rapping out,' set-piece descriptions, and—worst—endless chuckling sexual repartee" (2 September 1973) are the practical results of the author's chasing after "winsomeness, of desperate eagerness to charm, the pursuit of loveability" (13 June 1976). If Amis argues that Ballard at his best is not necessarily a SF writer, then it has already been demonstrated that it does not stem from a reflexive "if it's good, then it can't be SF." To paraphrase Vonnegut, he never mistakes the SF drawer for a public urinal. What pained the SF fraternity was Amis's exercise of metropolitan literary manners, since his idea of entertaining writing could be fierce. As Jonathan Raban notes, there is an off-the-peg standard issue accent for the smart English reviewer: smartyboots, mocking, alternating between a donnish high-Augustan pose and come-off-it-mate low slang. "More cock from Moorcock," and, "The overwhelming question prompted by The Best of John W. Campbell is: what can the worst of him have been like?" are the base temptations really one ought to resist. When it is over-reliant on suburban, middle-class bathos, one ends up reading that Chris Bryce's Catchworld "returns us to straight celestial soap-opry like the sort of SF written by apocalyptic accountants from Penge" (16 Nov 1975), and that "Mr Coney's fictions are undermined by a curiously soft parochialism: reading him, you feel; either that he's taken The Archers [a BBC Radio soap opera] to Pluto, or alternatively that the future of the universe were being decided in Hounslow High Street [a London shopping district]" (8 February 1976). Amis's concern with the actual words on the page, the fundamentals of grammar and expression, and his belief in writing as writing, can expose SF writers to unexpected standards of criticism. "[Clifford] Simak repeats words and phrases so regularly and fluently that many paragraphs resemble sophisticated experiments in concrete poetry" (16 April 1972). "The book [Stanislaw Lem's The Invincible] is bloated with the reiterative detail of someone under the mistaken impression that he is writing well" (11 November 1973). Furthermore, since Amis only has a limited space, it is hard for him to include the telling quote. Instead, he is reduced to brief rebarbative rhetoric to carry his arguments, thereby appearing to confirm any prejudices about mainstream critic's offhand contempt for SF (although David Langford wins annual awards from SF fans for much the same). "You can tell when John Rackham is being dramatic or humorous because the sentence ends with a !" It is both a strength and weakness of this kind of capsule reviewing that the reviewer is compelled to freight heavy loads of judgment in a few impressionistic summary adjectives. "Mr Malzberg's prose is so agile and ironically self-aware that the novel's elusiveness proves to be its strength . . . The Sheep Look Up [by John Brunner] is a massive, chaotic, jangling hotch-potch" (18 August 1974).

If asked to what group he belongs, Amis would likely not claim allegiance to either the university or SF. However, to determinedly review SF at this time is to assert certain implicit decisions about one's chosen place in the cultural hierarchy. In this period, just prior to the encampment of continental philosophy, though a "History Man" or two could be found on campuses, English departments still remained the fiefdom of F. R. Leavis's disciples. The Leavisian study of literature was a cloistered virtue, where certain canonized texts were prized for their worth in facilitating the correct "criticism of life." The "literary racket" of "higher journalism" was condemned out of hand by Leavisians for false metropolitan values, corrupt and compromised taste spun from social relations, and the indecent infliction or promotion of substandard schlock. Given these academic assumptions, reviewing for the newspapers means contending with accusations of being a "worthless" person. However, it can also be seen as demonstrating a commitment to the life of contemporary culture, which will as likely be found in the streets as the college quad. Participating in the real world, literature therefore deserves to be talked about with all the personal yet informed consideration and even reckless spontaneity of conversation at its best. Human interest supersedes academic concerns, for both books and journalism are created from the same need to make a living from observing the world. SF is now being accorded the compliment of being worthy of the same attention. It is not merely a childish diversion. Even if one were ignorant beforehand, it is possible to see Amis make of SF a world of definable proportions and qualities. As Amis attempts no categorizations or histories of SF in his column, SF writers are instead expected to live up Amis's expectations of writing. To say a book was a better one of its type, be it planetary adventure, historical novel, or even interior monologue, is only incidental to saying whether it is a good book, for the only real, demonstrable proof of quality is a personal vision realized in crafted prose of distinct metaphorical intensity. It is probably easier for SF writers to sustain the hurt of SF being dismissed en masse (and indeed this dismissal probably contributes to a bumptious sense of community pride) than it is to have the finger jabbed directly for individual failings. All writer-critics are necessarily cranky, as they intentionally or not use the book under review to explicate the prejudices and practices that underlie their own works. Whether writing reviews or fiction, Amis has the need to sustain a certain distance, with a firmly exercised control determining when an occasional approach for warm approbation or intense, repulsed examination is required (note the recurrent use of "glazed" or "icy" gazes to describe writers approvingly). As in Amis's fiction, it is a matter of clubbability, apprehending gradations of superiority and weakness, to whom sympathies are offered and withheld, and how clinical or fanciful his observation can afford to be. While ensconced as the Observer's SF reviewer, other than an occasional specific enthusiasm, the only drum Amis bangs is for writing, not SF.


A recent university circular revealed that Martin Amis is now employed in the same department from which Matthew S. S. Davis received his diploma so many years ago. Round / Like a Circle in a spiral / Like a wheel within a wheel / Never ending or beginning / On an ever spinning reel . . .