When I first discovered the Stories of Barrington J. Bayley secreted in hoarded copies of early-70's New Worlds he was something of a cult figure. A name to trade in rituals of credibility and literary one-upmanship. His titles like "Exit From City 5", "The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor" and "The Four Colour Problem" were the key admission words to an inner cognioscenti who knew that the vortex of his ideas could open up the readers skull, leaving the cerebral cortex staggeringly punchdrunk, shimmering like a mind-blown jellyfish. He kicked the concept-quotient into metaphysical overdrive and seemed to have the ability - like the robotician in his SOUL OF THE ROBOT novel - to remove an inspection plate from the back of your head to make adjustments to the exposed intellect. He treats science fiction as a conceptual game, and in the process has created some of the most perfectly crafted examples of the SF genre ever produced. Like the whole plethora of New Worlds spawned writers Bayley was classified as 'New Wave', yet to a degree unique to that, at best ungainly, bracketing, he operates within the traditional science fiction horizons, grabbing and refurbishing the hardware, giving it undreamed of ontological wings and additional conceptual dimensions. Fleshing out the genre's skeleton into a vital form of dizzying consciousness-expanding creative literature.
He was born in Birmingham on 8 April 1937, spending his childhood in the blitz when, according to an American blurb, 'the Luftwaffe made nightly attempts to prevent him from reaching school age'. Since then he's lived in Shropshire, London, Scotland, and Ireland, before settling in Shropshire with his wife and two children. He endured 'disastrous' jobs as a reporter, a civil servant, working in private industry and even tried his hand at coal mining. All the while he was writing. One of his earliest extant stories, "Aid to Nothing", was written when he was 16, but didn't surface in print until 1967. In the meantime another tale slunk into a 1956 Vargo Statten Magazine, marking the first appearance of his robotic protagonist Jasperodus, berifit of his later metaphysical protuberances. He also sold material to Authentic and Nebula. "The Seed of Evil" germinated around this period, a novelette with the scope of an Olaf Stapledon epic in miniature. It charts the pursuit across time of an immortal alien by Julian Ferrg who hopes to wrest from him the secret of his longevity. The hunt takes them beyond the extinction of the human race and into the dawning of its replacement species, Lupos Sapiens, the intelligent wolf. The story was first drafted when Bayley was 16 or 17, and was rewritten numerous times before it eventually reached print - in 1973! For Bayley it was a period 'bursting with ideas and images, but lacking the ability to make proper use of them'. There were 'mood pieces, short on plot, which tended to hang on some philosophical idea,' and 'awkward stories, clumsily constructed around intellectually top-heavy notions'.
A connection with Michael Moorcock, then emerging from his editorial wunderkind period with Tarzan Adventures, proved to be mutually beneficial. They collaborated on a short story called "Going Home", published as the work of Moorcock. It was a 'slight story' according to Mike Ashley (in SF Monthly) telling of 'a dead Earth of the far future to which two immortal humans return hoping to find an answer to an unasked question'. The story garnered Moorcock his first sale to an adult publication, Moorcock returned the favour by introducing Bayley to the field of juvenile writing. Further collaborations followed, there was a 'rambling, inchoate, highly colourful Space Opera' novel that never reached publication [until 1995, when Time Centre Times published "Duel Among the Wine Green Suns" under the pseudonym Simon Barclay -JL.], plus mounds of childrens features, stories, and picture- strips that did. Embryo science fiction readers of the early-60's might have read Bayley's "The Astounding Jason Hyde" in Valiant, while he recalls competing with the legendary Frank Pepper (creator/scripter of Captain Condor, Jet-Ace Logan and Dan Dare) for the "Zip Nolan" commission for Lion. As well as providing a source of income the work instilled the disciplines necessary for professional writing; the ability to work to deadlines, to wordage limitations, and to plot commercially acceptable products; to give form and structure to the earlier 'mood pieces' and 'top-heavy notions'. He also wrote straight science features, including what was probably the first accurate account of lasers comphrehensible to a 12-year old.
Yet the 'literary intention tremors' that dogged his adult-orientated work continued. While E. J. 'Ted' Carnell was editing New Worlds and its two sister magazines he appeared in them spasmodically under the by-line P. F. Woods, some of the tales later appeared in the BEST STORIES FROM NEW WORLDS anthologies. One of the Woods pieces "Farewell, Dear Brother" concerned a journey to Celenthenis, the planet of cold, shielded from all heat energy by the Montgomery Nebula. Bayley's forming penchant for abstraction took the temperature of the world to its theoretical laboratory extreme, where 'every atom and molecule of the whole planet is frozen immobile. No chemical change. No energy exchange. Nothing. It's a world without time.' Less a literary device, more a physics abstraction. But the story is well developed, the brother of the title 'printed' into a massive electrical charge eternally fused into the planet. Another by-line, John Diamond, resulted in the sale of a story called "Consolidation" to Nebula, the unique Glasgow magazine edited by Peter Hamilton. The story featured a stagnant Terran society confident in the protection of a ring of virile colonies. It was shocked from its contented lethargy and revitalized by an attack from space, the raiders turning out to be those same ex-colonists. To Bayley the tale represents an attempt to produce more commercially acceptable material. Efforts he now disowns as disasterous.
The balance between idea and vehicle was still wrong, resulting in a fervour of creativity, a flow of images piling up, but finding no satisfactory outlet. A quest for form that did, however, produce a gem in "Ship of Disaster". Sympathetically illustrated by Jim Cawthorn it was totally unlike anything else Bayley had attempted before, or since. A Tolkienesque fantasy of Elves 'rejected by Earth'. But, such one-off successes excepted, the personal and artistic imbalance inducted compromised sales, breeding cynicism about publishing standards and the integrity of writing in general. Although his dismissal of such early work as "Consolidation" has some justification it is also true that many of his ideas were too advanced for the simplistic Space Opera that the market was greedy for at the time. His occasionally didactic approach and attitude to science fiction - which was to become common currency during the New Wave explosion of the late-60's - must have been received with blank incomprehension by the staunchly Campbellian puppet-masters of the U.K. publishing scene. This double interface of incompatability becomes only apparent in retrospect, to Bayley it was a problem that persisted throughout his third decade until he all but abandoned writing, feeling that 'the whole of literature was a useless and self-deluding endeavour, and that all writers were victims of a kind of mental illness'.
The impasse seemed intractable. Bayley disengaged himself from his scripting commitments and for a year or two did nothing but study until the money ran out. The palliative was William Burroughs, the spiritual guru and spectral architect of the New Wave. While living in Dublin Bayley read THE NAKED LUNCH, one of the most uncompromisingly experimental novels of the century. The effect was a slap in the mind, by example as well as by technique. The first piece he regurgitated under its pervasive influence was "The Four Colour Problem", a densely worded mindbuster, part thesis, part cut-up comment, interacting and cohabiting the page in perfect artistic cohesion. The Burroughs influence is overwhelming, with repetitive motifs of 'pulse trains', 'social ovens', 'a blazing bomber plunging down bottomless pits', Vietnam, the Ohio State and Kennedy killings, DNA, and the Four Colour problem itself linked by sharp jagged vignettes of fragmented military and vorticed political satire in a continually unfolding juxtaposition of imagery. There is explication on forms of addiction, geometric diagrams, and even a Doctor Benway figure in Bayley's Professor Gottram, compounded by Burroughs ubiquitous sex-energy references. Written in a manic high pitch of tension, and illustrated by for New Worlds by the late Mal Dean, it remains his most personally satisfying text ever.
Significantly - although undoubtedly previous editorial regimes would have shoved the rejection slips with proverbial barge poles - the axis was shifting. Moorcock was now at the New Worlds helm, setting the controls for the heart of the sun. "The Four Colour Problem" became one of the incendiary devices in his broadside assault on sterility and lack of vision. The period also produced another 'watershed' story, "All the Kings Men", which he was convinced was unsaleable. He sat on it for a couple of years, then showed it to Moorcock who announced it the best story he'd ever read. He backed up the verdict by publishing it no less than three times. The theme dominating the story is that of alieness, not the Marxist but the Cartesian division between consciousness and the virtual world of the senses. A division personified by an extra- terrestrial King of Britain who finds the human mentality unintelligible, despite his basically benevolent motivations. A later story "The Infinite Searchlight" continued the polarisation of phenomena positing a deliberate imposition of sentience onto inanimate matter with the brain acting as a radio receiver picking up transmitted consciousness. The tale ends with the transmitter being accidentally switched off.
The stories now flowed in perfect conceptual balance and found a ready, even voracious market. A story called "The Exploration of Space" used sentient chess pieces as metaphors to explore the nature of 'space' (another preoccupation from "All the Kings Men"), which was to recur obsessively. The term 'space' used not in its E. E. "Doc" Smith sense, but as a physicist might abstract the term. An idea of the interrelationship of mass under pressure to the space it occupies producing a story ("The Radius Riders") proving that the Earth is at least eleven light years across! A disasterous discovery for the Terranauts who become its victim. The story's incidental idea of 'Subearthers' whose greater density allows them free movement through solid rock is related directly - by a Russian Doll principle - to "The Ship that Sailed the Ocean of Space". The title quite literally describing a ship existing in some other, more tenuous, dimension, only its keel extending down into the abyss of what we understand as the universe. To its crew we are the Subearthers. Into the realm of even greater tenuity "Exit from City 5" proffered the idea of a self-perpetuating society escaping the extinction of the entire sidereal universe by going beyond into the total void of theoretical nothingness. By a simple inversion of this spatial condition Bayley produced a universe of solid rock flecked with inhabited air-pocket 'planets' in "Me and my Antronoscope". The problem afflicting this society being that of procuring 'fresh emptiness'.
Some of the best stories from this period have been collected into two anthologies, KNIGHTS OF THE LIMITS and a selection by John Clute called THE SEED OF EVIL. For me his most accomplished piece is "The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor", illustrated for New Worlds by the excellent Dave Britton. Its polyglot cross-cultural references and its wide-ranging economic and social eclectisism are rapacious, equalled only by its breath-taking inventive vision recalled through a set of his best realised characters and inter-character relationships. There is the sensualist artist Corngold and his submissive mistress living in a 'habitat' on the shores of a 'matterless lake' where 'even such elementary characteristics as direction, distance and dimension' are missing, because they are 'lent to space... by the signposts of matter'. And there is Naylor himself with his Thespitron of random dramatic output with unlimited repertoire, his problem with absolute identity, and his habitat propelled at C186 by the Harkham Velocitator, galaxies viewed like a blurring of sleet from his window. The whole enterprise is propelled - at a similar velocity - by Bayley's most compulsively fluid plotting. The juxtaposition in which Britain has assumed leadership of expansion into the universe through a reversion to the Victorian back-yard inventor (like Wells' Cavor), and the American conceptual contribution of media-derived Hollywood pastiche is conveyed with an intuitive feel for the tactile possibilities of key-words or adjective clusters; while there are sufficient spin-off ideas to fuel several competent novels.
Bayley is associated with the New Wave, both in its creation and its promotion - it was he and Moorcock who got the reluctant Carnell to accept Ballard's ground- breaking "The Terminal Beach" - but he does not share the New Wave's Art Deco aspirations, or its pretention to rococo decadence. His work is more firmly an evolution of science fiction tradition than an attempt to reject or disguise the SF skeleton with elaborate mytheopoetic artifice or baroques of metaphysical mainstream meanderings. My critique of Bayley's best work as being the 'most perfectly crafted examples of science fiction' rest not on personal bias, but on rigid definition. Genres can be traps. There are times when they can be limiting and should be jettisoned. But they can also be devices for deft manipulation, to provide reference points for evaluation. Bayley's germinal point - as is obvious from his thumb-nail 'philosophical fables' and unpublished sketches circulated in manuscript form - is scientific abstraction, often of a mathematical nature. Complex ideas of the 'six-based number spiral and the concept of the hyper-one', borrowed from the maths of W. G. Davies, fueled the incandescent "The Bees of Knowledge". There are minutely detailed investigations of the possibilities of 'space' as a set of finite dimensions, or of times relationship to physical phenomena. Ideas viewed tangentially, then pursued steadily, but logically, to their most extreme points of conjecture. The clinically structured idea is then 'fleshed' with narrative form, an assemblage of characters, plot, and continuity erected to provide the abstraction with momentum. Hence the strict, definitive fusion of Science and Fiction. The more complete and fully realised the equilibrium of components, the more succesfully the story functions. And despite an inevitable overspill into excess on both sides of the demarkation there are sufficient items in such perfect balance that the claim can be logically, not emotionally, legitimised.
After so many short stories the next stage, logically, was novels. A New Worlds novelette called "Star Virus" attracted favourable comment. Bayley met William Burroughs at a party, and the venerable beat complemented certain passages. John Brunner was also highly vocal in urging Bayley to expand the piece to novel-length. A contract with Don Wollheim of DAW books reduced options into commitments, and Bayley settled down and became a novelist. The re- alignment inevitably required a period of adjustment. The stated intention was to write standard space opera, and after adapting two New Worlds novelettes into Ace doubles, STAR VIRUS and ANNIHILATION FACTOR, he produced EMPIRE OF TWO WORLDS which again raided the past. The first half of the novel was expanded from an unpublished story from the 'draught' period, although he pruned it of a peculiar abbreviated style of dialect he'd invented just for the story. It used a 'gangster' motif with dialogue redollent of such 40's movie jargon as "case the joint". It is more affectionate tribute than expedient attempts at literary gate-crashing of the movie market. EMPIRE OF TWO WORLDS pictured the human race divided between three worlds, the gentle artistic Rheatt of Earth; the barbaric E. R. Burroughs-Martian Rotrox of the moon (which orbits a mere 80,000 miles from its primary); and the mobster-ruled Mound cities of Killibol, a dark world in another galaxy. It was the last of the transitional novels and was followed by a fistfull of the decades most impressive works.
The first was COLLISION COURSE, (retitled for U.K. publication, and hereafter referred to as COLLISION WITH CHRONOS) which appeared in America published by DAW in 1973. Its obvious precendents would be Brian Aldiss' AN AGE and Philip K. Dick's COUNTER-CLOCK WORLD which both advocate the idea of temporal reversion, the time-flow progressing backwards from future into past. With typical Bayleyesque thoroughness he took this tour de force of a concept and used it as step one. His conjecture saw time advancing in both directions simultaneously - and the two streams colliding in a temporal apocalypse. Further to that he suggested the idea of time as a highly localised wave phenomena, ripples moving at different speeds, in different directions and cycles in different areas of the galaxy. A temporary disturbance producing life as an incidental side effect , trapped inescapably by its limitations. This ideological core provided a lift-off point for Bayley's second foray into temporal conundrum, THE FALL OF CHRONOPOLIS, an even more fully realised narrative. It also pictures time as being "composed of a wave structure". But this time the scenario is an Earth where "the nodes of the wave travel at intervals of approximately one hundred and seventy years". The Empire of Chronopolis spans seven such nodes which form "the seven continents or provinces of the Empire, while the intervening periods comprise a series of hinterlands". The nodes are connected by regular commercial Timeliners and by mercantile trade. Bayley delights in the potential complexity of the situation, piling concept on concept into a staggering theoretical pyramid which sees time, like recording tape, regularly overdubbed, looped, spliced, phased, edited, or wiped clean. But for the protagonist there is no escape from its illogic, for consciousness is constantly recycled through the same lifetime (as in the short-story "Life Trap"). In the novel, prior to the Ixian Chronotic Empire lies the 'stop barrier' predating the evolution of technology, while futurewards lies the enemy Hegemonics who raid the Empire, disrupting its history. Vast timeships of both forces patrol the Strat (the temporal substratum of potential unrealised time) like warring spaceships in some garish Space Opera. Bayley is not only formulating the principles of time-drives powering such craft, but also outlining the distortion effects of 'speed' through time, in the physical altering of proportions.
Produced in the same year (1974) SOUL OF THE ROBOT switches the emphasis to robotics, resurrecting Jasperodus, the robot hero of his 1956 story "Fugitive". In the short story, set in the year 3368, the robot destroyed the city-state of Birmingham in much the same way that he was to engineer the sack of Tansiann, capital city of Earth's Second Empire. Over the twenty year gestation period Jasperodus has acquired ambitions above his station and wants to sniff out the roads to freedom. With the novel Bayley drags robotics a long way from the Ptolomian-cosy universe of Asimov's neatly defined laws - through a Copernican revolution and out the other side into bleak existentialism. His is a terrain in which robots have nightmares, are troubled by their guilt-feeling of inadequacy, suffer from Marxist alienation, and Freudian penis envy. We get 'robot as black' (moving from plantation to Kansas or Detroit, to become hooked on booze or junk - robots sell parts of their brain to buy 'shots'), robot as proletariat (Jasperodus expounds "I believe the root cause of poverty lies in the private ownership of the land"), robot as the exact incarnation of the 'ghost in the machine', or Pascal's 'thinking reed'. Bayley is a writer of ideas, and it is inevitably the ideas that remain, and the issue here is predominantly that of Free Will. Bayley pointing out that this dilemma troubling Jasperodus throughout the novel is not one unique to a robot, but one that must remain universal to all forms of sentient life. Yet, although such questions always lie just beneath the novel's surface, they are never allowed to interfere with the pace of the action as Jasperodus contrives the downfall of monarchs, attempts to get high on alien psychedelics, acquires a detatchable penis, engineers a robot insurrection, is involved in court intrigues and the rise and fall of an empire, is taken apart and reassembled, and searches for his roots. Perhaps Bayley's most accomplished novel, it is similarly aware of a degree of absurdity and the basic black humour of its situation. "The robot has mettle" puns King Zhorm at one point!
His second novel for Doubleday, THE GARMENTS OF CAEAN, followed two years later, and was fattened out by about 10,000 words for its 1977 U.K. publication. The theme is again that of internal/external relationships, the question of Free Will, and alieness. The Caeanics, a 'nation' made up of hundreds of planets in the Tzist Arm, are human exoskeletals, their consciousness focussed not inwards but on externals. They are, to use Bayley's term, 'clothes robots'. "Body image is self image" states one of his characters, implying that the human mind is malleable, reacting to its environment - and hence its most immediate environment, its physical form. "The evolution of his physical form beyond the status of the hairless ape could not be left to blind biological forces" continues the argument. "It had to be done by conscious art. In a word, it was to be accomplished by means of raiment". Stated in these terms the issue sounds like a mildly interesting, if not vaguely self-indulgent and dilettante cultural experiment. It is only when the full implication of Caeanic culture becomes obvious, its startling origins, and the insiduous influence of the devious Prossim, that the Caeanic philosophy assumes menace. Placed in a different body, Bayley asks, does human consciousness remain the same, or does it adopt new psychological outlooks to match the form? It is an extension of the idea suggested by the short story "Maladjustment" in which a man is psychologically altered to enjoy his exile on a hostile planet. The writing is economical and concise, the vocabulary wide; the style perfectly balanced between the extremes of the imaginatively credible and the outrageous; and the plot is, on the whole, well-constructed, plot and sub-plot merging together in pleasing symmetry. He can take Cyborgs and Metalloids (a culture from which Caeanic philosophy evolved) cruising naked on open space-rafts - a concept as bizarre and mind- boggling as the most outrageous fantasy - yet raise it all to a level of literacy that such ideas have seldom before enjoyed or deserved. Or again, a passage that recalls the full crass overstatement of a 1940's Horror pulp -"she stopped and stood stock still, a petrified snarl of fear on her face, staring at the apparition: Caster's suit now worn by a body of flies. The head, hands and feet were each composed of a black fuzzy mass. The legs, even though they floated a foot above the floor, persisted in striding slowly in walking fashion as the monster came slowly towards her...". Built into the internal logic of the passages concept, and also into the deliberately artless form from which it derives its archetype, is a strong overtone of the surreal, in the most specific application of the term. A later passage is as idiosyncratically surreal, with all the intrinsic humour that the particular discipline implies. Like the imaginary landscape of a surrealist painting Bayley wrote: "suits. Hundreds, thousands of suits, accompanied by matching undergarments and accessories, were growing all over the plain." Bayley's approach to THE GARMENTS OF CAEAN is almost a dialectical one. The reconciliation of internal stylistic contradictions. He takes his thesis from various and diverse elements of science fiction (and other) traditions; he provides the antithesis of intellectual and literary integrity fused with his own restless freshness of vision; and emerges with a synthesis in the form of the third in a trilogy of brilliant novels.
Two further novels complete the canon. THE GRAND WHEEL takes the science of randomness as its theme, offering a mathematical formula defining luck, which (as in the P.F. Woods story "Reactionary") is limited by the laws of conservation! All that is known, understandable and predictable sailing like a wafer-thin ship on the vastness of non-causation and irrationality, "the gulf pure randomness that underlies all existence". Cheyne Scarne is a gambler down on his luck, washed up on Io, moon of Jupiter. He finds himself addicted to a personalised narcotic, and caught up in three major areas of conflict; a split dividing the human-colonised worlds between the inflexible 'Legitimacy' and the mafioso 'Grand Wheel'; the Legitimacy's war against the conquering alien Hadranics; and the Grand Wheel's attempt to enter a Galactic gaming syndicate by gambling off half the human race. Bayley's ideas are conveyed rapidly through a compulsive plot-mix of action.
The latest DAW novel, STAR WINDS, started out under the title 'Galactic Alchemist', returning to motifs lighted on briefly in EMPIRE OF TWO WORLDS. The earlier novel introduces Alks (Alchemists), a discipline developed in the later novel into a complex consistant alternative technology which can even explain nuclear fission. The amount of researched detail, and the utilisation of the information to bolster the tale is impressive. In 1972 Bayley had written of an 'egg' made of Tincture, the prima materia of existence which provides an extra- dimensional bridge between Killibol and the Earth. In STAR WINDS the material is again used, this time as the objective in an alchemical quest. The novel is delineated into two sections, the first and by far the most satisfying section dealing with an evocative voyage from Earth to Mars in a 'sailing' ship that sails the ocean of space riding the solar winds. While writing the chapter dealing with the Martian landing Bayley recalls that the "American Mars lander was sending back excellent colour tv pictures, weather reports and soil analyses of the Martian surface. My first thought was "this really is it. Science Fiction isn't special anymore". And incredibly, that overshadowed the interest I felt in what actually was a very exciting event." As if in response to this depression the second section of the novel loses some of its hermetic concision. The initial quest for a supply of sail-cloth, is forgotten. The Martian location is anti-climatically ignored in favour of a less unique Galactic vista, and although the novel remains competent, with some exciting and inventive passages, it never quite delivers the promise of the first chapters.
Unlike certain U.K.-based writers attempting to breach more lucrative markets, Bayley does not adopt an American orientation in terminology, in standards of literacy, or in concepts. He stands very much in the Wells-Stapledon-Aldiss lineage. Such writers were aware that one of the precepts of art is to change or alter perceptions, and, as one of the most directly accesible forms of contemporary art, that particular branch of experimental writing known as Science Fiction is at its most valid when attempting this process of consciousness-alteration. THE GARMENTS OF CAEAN and "The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor", in the tradition of THE TIME MACHINE and LAST AND FIRST MEN, manage to achieve this. It seems to me that in this way Bayley is both eclectic and dynamically original. He is the conscious inheritor not only of the tools of the Science Fiction tradition, but the spirit of awe and revelation with which the tradition was born. His style draws on SF convention more directly than any other New Wave experimental writer, yet uses those exact conventions in such a way that they come up refurbished and new. He can restore faith in devalued ’sense of wonder’ using implements that, in the hands of less competent writers, remain as dry as the seas of Mars. Barrington J. Bayley treats writing as a conceptual game. To the reader who merely wants good knockabout entertainment it may appear that he occasionally gets bored with the tedious necessity of plot continuity, and therefore hurries passages - to more speedily reach the next unfolding section of ideas. But the decade of the 1970’s, and more specifically those years straddling the middle of the decade that saw the publication of ’The Radius Riders’, THE FALL OF CHRONOPOLIS, ’The Bees of Knowledge’, ’Exit from City 5’, and SOUL OF THE ROBOT, has produced a unique wealth of material seldom equalled in science fiction.
(c) Andy Darlington, 1980-1998.
Originally published in Arena #10 (1980)