Rocketships, rayguns, robots and big band jazz..

This interview was done via mail during February of 1998. In a few of the questions Mr. Bayley refers to another interview, published by Geoff Rippington in his magazine ARENA in 1980, which may be included here at a later date if I can get the permission to do so.

The two quotes from STAR VIRUS were included in my list of questions, as I sent them, so I have included them here as well. "IZ" is the British magazine Interzone, edited by David Pringle. If there are any spelling errors, they're all mine.. Juha

You mentioned in the Interzone interview that you weren't very interested in school, spending your time thinking about spaceships. Did you know from early on that this is what you wish to do?

This is dealt with in Rippington's interview. I discovered science fiction magazines at the age of twelve and they very quickly became a dominating influence. By the time I was fourteen I had it in mind to become a science fiction writer.

I might have liked to become a scientist if I had the ability (which I don't), but only if I could make an original contribution!

"Suddenly Rodrone understood why the scene before his eyes held such a fascination for him, and why he returned again and again to worlds like this one. Lurid, offbeat and infernal, it offered the exaggerated symbolism of a painting rendered by a schizophrenic; and so drew him to that attractive realm of mental aberration where thoughts and actions could all be bizarre without feelings of shame..."

This opening paragraph of STAR VIRUS - your first novel - seems almost prophetical; has there been much of a change in what you aim to achieve ? And do you recall how intentional this opening was ?

First of all, the first version of STAR VIRUS was a 12,000 word novelette written some years earlier. I had heard that Ted Carnell, then editor of NEW WORLDS, needed a story of that length for the companion magazine SCIENCE FICTION ADVENTURES, by the following week. So I wrote it over a weekend and took it to his office on the Monday. Six months later I asked him about it. He said he had nothing of mine and didn't remember my giving it to him. Some weeks after that he gave the ms to Mike Moorcock to return to me, saying he had found it behind a radiator.

My method was one I often used then, and still do sometimes: sit in front of the typewriter, think of a scene or something happening, describe it, and see what occurs to you next. So the Hamlet-like character of Rodrone had already emerged when I came to expand it into a novel. I took John Brunner's advice and used the novelette as a middle section, so the opening is an attempt to foreshadow Rodrone and the universe he lives in.

It's true that I do have a conception, difficult to put into words, of what I want to achieve, but besides that I don't have a single aim. Apart from the originality some people find in my work -- that reputation does puzzle me sometimes -- I am also pretty derivative. Anyone who can write fiction has to be! In some of my novels I had a particular writer in mind as a model. STAR VIRUS tried to reproduce the glorious space opera I read in the pulps as a youth. In THE GARMENTS OF CAEAN I was attempting to emulate Jack Vance. In THE GRAND WHEEL I had two aims: to write an example of a pulp 'lead novel' and to follow in the footsteps of Philip Dick. In the latter I was too successful: the first outline I submitted reproduced the plot of THE GAME PLAYERS OF TITAN, which I hadn't read at the time. In the novel I have just finished, THE SINNERS OF ERSPIA, I was thinking of Philip Jose Farmer.

There seems to be a common theme in your works, in both short and long fiction; a severe, overwhelming transformation of society or an individual. Is this a conscious motif; would you perhaps wish to see such an event take place here, now?

The mechanics of all fiction depends on a small number of devices. One of them is where an individual or group struggles to deal with some situation in the course of which his outlook or character is transformed. Your question makes me wonder if I've relied on it too much.

Is the slightly eccentric scientist found in almost all of your work a partial self portrait, or is he perhaps modelled after some unsung masters of the arcane? From the Streall philosopher (and Rodrone himself) in THE STAR VIRUS to Droopstalk in "A Crab Must Try", he has been a significant figure.

"In an earlier age he might have been a university professor or an academician. Today he lived by the strength of his arm and the quickness of his wits, and his knowledge in all directions was patchy and bizarre. But tonight he had promised himself a treat. He laid aside the book, pushing the colorful Egyptian gods from his mind, and took down an advanced text on physics heavily larded with mathematics." (from THE STAR VIRUS)

I don't know if it's a self portrait; people sometimes do that without knowing it! I think my depiction of scientists is probably pretty accurate, of the talented ones at any rate. What did Shakespeare say about the poet, the lover and lunatic being all alike?

Among my notes for novels there is a scientist who discovers that the whole of spacetime is going to collapse in the next few months, but no one believes him. When he is proved right he becomes absolutely ecstatic.

Would you care to name some early influences; authors, magazines or some particular tales that pushed you towards this trade?

Well as I said, it was the magazine sf of the forties and fifties, a period which constituted an explosion of talent and inventiveness. Of the magazines, first and foremost of course was ASTOUNDING, after that STARTLING STORIES (which first published THE PARADOX MEN as FLIGHT INTO YESTERDAY), SUPER SCIENCE STORIES and THRILLING WONDER STORIES. Of the authors, I think van Vogt and Harness definitely made the deepest impact on me. Their stories had a sort of special intensity.

The first copy of ASTOUNDING (British Reprint Edition, of course) I ever bought had Jack Williamson's "With Folded Hands", a simply marvellous story. It probably wouldn't get published today because of its downbeat ending.

Are there any recent authors you enjoy, books that you'd recommend?
I haven't kept up with the field very well, so the best I can do is give you the answer I gave Geoff Rippington to the same question, though he seems to have omitted it from the article. I particularly admire John Varley's OPHIUCHI HOTLINE and Brian Stableford's WALKING SHADOW. Both these fully live up to the heritage of the 'golden age', as they call the period of the pulps, and are Stapledonesque in scope.

How do you go about creating a world, a new universe, even a new set of physical laws? Is it a detailed process with a great deal of notes and references, or is it just something you mull over in your head and transcribe to paper?

It's the latter. I haven't any particular method. It isn't hard to think up a future society; it sort of springs into existence as a suitable background for the story. Nor do you have to work very hard at it: a few deft touches and the reader's imagination fills the rest in.

I should add that I am slow at bringing things to fruition. A story or novel might sketchily have been conceived of, perhaps even some work done on it, decades before I actually come to write it. So some semi-conscious development could well have gone on during that time.

Is it just my imagination or was EMPIRE OF TWO WORLDS related to THE SOUL OF THE ROBOT?

I hadn't thought of that before as in my mind they are completely different stories, but I can see what you mean. Both characters come out of small beginnings to something more grandiose, and then get knocked down. But in the case of EMPIRE OF TWO WORLDS that's more or less the standard form of gangster story, isn't it?

One thing they do have in common relates to the above question. Both were conceived of in my teens but written in my thirties. EMPIRE OF TWO WORLDS was expanded from an unpublished short story written at that time.

Is there an underlying message(s) to your fiction; many of your works have oppressive, even fascist societies. How do you feel about politics today; is it (or has it been) subtly critiqued in your writings?

I don't set out to present a social message. Tyrannies make a more interesting, that is to say more dramatic, background for a story set in the future than a liberal democracy -- scan the field and you'll see how often sf authors have taken that option (THE PARADOX MEN is a good example). But there may be something in what you say. My own feeling about present-day political attitudes is one of bemusement at their blindness. I think they are based on sentimentality and ignorance. We have lived through a century in which large-scale horrors have been perpetrated, yet there is a sort of mass delusion concerning them. They are regarded as unique aberrations which are behind us forever. They are not unique and they are not behind us forever.

Mankind evolved as a primate living in small groups. From there he has gone on to construct systems of authority spanning the globe, within a very short time. I don't know if anyone has ever tried to work out just what that means in terms of human instinct, but it is a process quite beyond anyone's control. So it would be a serious mistake to suppose that our own traditional outlook of a society which guarantees personal liberty is going to be the ruling ideology in the long term. It is, after all, artificial to some extent, and may be impossible to maintain forever. Totalitarianism has been the dominating practise throughout most of history, and may be so in future.

Perhaps science fiction writers instinctively know this and perhaps that's why, despite mostly being Americans steeped in the idea of individualism, they depict autocratic futures.

To contradict my opening sentence, I did actually try to put this into one story in IZ, "Gnostic Endings". I also wrote an article describing how technology would force a new age of empires on the world, but I can't remember for who. [read the article here]

Is it a function of literature to critique, teach or preach, or mainly just to entertain? And how do you feel about your writings in this context? Is there a goal you aspire to achieve ?

My goal is to write good science fiction, the sort that blows your mind! I regard science fiction as the literature of the twentieth century, and the only one which future historians will bother to study as they try to understand our age.

Have your books been subject to much editing, and are there any other books besides GARMENTS OF CAEAN that have been published in different versions? What happened with GARMENTS? Was it deemed too offensive by Don Wollheim, or why was the American edition shortened?

GARMENTS and THE SOUL OF THE ROBOT were first published by Doubleday, who without any consultation cut out the small amounts of sexual material they contained and one entire chapter from GARMENTS. They later explained they thought the book was too long and that that chapter did not advance the plot. I'm unaware of any editing from other publishers.

If I remember correctly, Wollheim had been offered a number of outlines and had contracted for one (it will have been COLLISION COURSE) thinking the others would still be available later. He was disappointed when GARMENTS and SOUL were snapped up by Doubleday.

Have your relationships with your publishers been fruitful, if we dismiss Allison & Busby?

Fruitful? It's not a word I would use. Publishers look on writers as farmers look on their cows.

What was Don Wollheim's significance in your career?

It was crucial. Wollheim was the same kind of sf fan that I am and published my stuff because he liked it even though it didn't sell marvellously well. While he was alive I always had a receptive outlet.

I never knew Don to suggest alterations as many editors and agents do. He either accepted a proposal as it stood or rejected it, sometimes for puzzling reasons.

Was the self-portrait in "This Way into the Wendy House" accurate?

It's a self-parody, though maybe more accurate than I would like! The story is largely autobiographical. The Bell Inn and the Wendy House are exactly as described, a short distance from my house. My meeting with Alan Davies is a word-for-word account, and he really did make his brave sojourn into the unknown, later conducting me there. So I mixed in all this with the legend of the Bell Inn's ghost, concocted some metaphysics and made the story a joke against the two of us and the district in which we live. Davies' disappearance at the end of the story also happened: he changed his drinking place just so as to get away from me, until I tracked him down and forced my friendship on him once more.

I gave him the story to read before submitting it and he was good enough not to object, though he didn't like being called a palimpsest.

This was the story I had to write three times, though luckily with the help of a typewritten rough draft. I lost the first version on a word processor I had acquired (a rubbishy old Amstrad), rewrote it from memory, then lost that as well. Realizing by now that it was the drive that was at fault and not the disks, I returned for the final version to my manual typewriter, which I have continued to use ever since.

How was it to receive the BSFA award for "A Crab Must Try"? Did you think it a special story when you finished it ? Has it prompted increased interest in your work?

I was pleased, of course, as it's the first award I've ever won in the English-speaking world (though I've won the Japanese Seiun Award twice, maybe three times, I'm not sure). No, I didn't think it was at all special. It was fun to write, but I nearly didn't submit it as I thought IZ would find it too slight. I never have been able to tell who will like what. IZ have turned down stories I was sure they would like. I haven't noticed any increased interest in my work, only that Pringle took a year and a half to reject the last two stories I sent him!

Any thoughts on the current status of the genre? Many 'mid-list' authors have experienced problems getting books published unless they are either huge trilogies or media tie-ins. Yet there is a large and enthusiastic underground; books original and creative are constantly published by small presses.

I haven't been able to place a book for ten years. Looking round, sf seems largely to have been swallowed up by three-decker fantasies mind-numbingly uniform in content. I'm told the current sf field is mostly constricted to cyberpunk and virtual reality, though I don't know if that's true. Being pretty much out of touch I don't know anything about the small presses.

Do you consciously write both traditional stories and the experimental (radical) ones? How do you feel about being "an ideological guru of the current fringe sf"?

Yes, that's quite deliberate. I fit the form to the content. As for the quote, I can't say I'm aware of it.

What is the most (and the least) succesful short-story and novel you have written so far, and why?

If by the most successful you mean the most enthusiastically commented on, then for novels it would be THE ZEN GUN and for stories "The Four Colour Problem". Least successful novel would definitely be THE FOREST OF PELDAIN. As for stories, I've written quite a lot of them, and there's bound to be some rubbish in there.

Would you care to tell us something of your current projects? Are there any (many?) finished or unfinished projects underway, and are there perhaps even publication dates set?

No, there are no dates set. As I said earlier I move slowly, ideas hanging around in my head for decades. I've a number of projected or unfinished novels. I've also a couple of nonfiction projects I've collected material for over many years -- an examination of the Tarot and a book on economics. But would anyone be taken seriously who writes on such disparate subjects?

There is (or seems to be) an interest towards music and arts in many of your works. Do you think the 'sense-of-wonder', almost exclusively a term associated with sf, found in other artforms is comparable to that in sf?

Well, in my teens my mental energy exploded in all directions, and I began to take a keen interest in music, art and poetry, as well as science. I became an avid fan of Schoenberg, 'the first man to breathe the air of other planets', as he has been called, and also of Duke Ellington. In art, I was particularly taken by Modigliani. There is something of a sense of wonder in 20th century artforms in general, in terms of a search for 'strangeness', but mostly one has to say it's only properly conveyed through the transmission of ideas.

My youthful enthusiasms did not survive the rigours of life, however, so I am no expert in any of these fields

If you agreed above, could you divulge some of your preferred sources for that sense-of-wonder found in other artforms? Are you an avid listener of music, or do you perhaps play an instrument?

Schoenberg, as I said above -- stuff like the Five Orchestral Pieces. One musical form that I do privately associate with sf is jazz, particularly the big band powerhouse variety. This is because they are both creations of the 20th century mind and its turning towards the future, not the past. Rocketships, rayguns, robots and big band jazz -- future historians will see these as all in the same package.

I do listen to music quite a lot. I mess around on the guitar when I can find the time, but I can't claim to play it properly.

Do you watch tv or films; are there any series' you follow or do you prefer 'non-fiction'? Any particular directors whose work you enjoy?

Yes, I enjoy watching Star Trek! Otherwise I don't watch tv much, except occasionally for historical or scientific programmes. Even this is basically laziness: if you want to know about these things it's much more time- efficient to read about them. I prefer the films of the forties and fifties to the current ones. They are far better scripted and have a more studied sense of photography. (The incidental music is generally better, too; Schoenberg is responsible for that.)

Has there been any interest in filming any of your works?

Stanley Kubrick sent someone asking for a copy of THE SOUL OF THE ROBOT once; Brian Aldiss had recommended it. That's as far as it's gone.

Which magazines do you follow regularly, if any?

I see issues of IZ which have my stories in them. That's about it.

Any thoughts on the passing of William Burroughs last year?

I describe in the Geoff Rippington's interview the debt I owe to William Burroughs. He once said that he didn't read anything except science fiction. I think I'll re-read NOVA EXPRESS soon.

Have you felt the need to climb the Wrekin yet, considering the rather unique and distressing weather patterns emerging recently?

Are they? The weather is always changing, and so is the climate. My attitude remains the same: everything said about it is 98% speculation. We are more in danger from natural disasters than manmade ones, and if we are really going to address the latter, maybe we should make provision for the former as well.

The 'Gaia-ists' say Earth's atmosphere is reaching the limit of its ability to cope with the sun's slowly increasing radiation as the carbon dioxide level can't fall much more. If that's the case then we've evolved just in time to put sunshades in space. Nature mystics might seize on that.

Does the recent public interest in space exploration, missions to Mars, possible discovery of water in the Moon and such, interest or inspire you? Any thoughts about the human future in space? Or here on Earth, for that matter? Is there a future?

There's an established tradition here: sf writers have always described an explosive investment of human activity in the solar system in the next couple of hundred years. So far it's beginning to look as though things will proceed rather slowly, and perhaps not on any great scale. Of course, what sf writers failed to predict is the scale of minituarisation of electronics, enabling robot devices to be despatched instead. Even if this had been realized, it could not have overcome the romanticism of people travelling to other worlds, not just machines.

This romanticism certainly will make people want to go and have a look for themselves, but any extensive development will depend purely on economics. The enthusiasm for colonising inhospitable worlds sometimes expressed by sf fans, apparently agog to devote their lives to it, is spurious. No one is clamouring to colonise Antarctica, and that would be a lot easier than the moon or Mars.

Earlier sf writers also ignored the role politics has played in space exploration. Only governments have enough money to do it. Look how long it is since the last manned moon landings. I hope to see a manned mission to Mars in my lifetime (that is, during the next two decades, if I last that long) and maybe there'll be a larger and more permanent orbiting station, but I doubt there'll be much more.

On the other hand the advances in astronomy are exciting. Planets detected around other stars, a greatly increased knowledge of the solar system, and so forth, are immediate returns.

Of course there's a future. I've always felt the gloom-and-doom strain in science fiction to be an aberration. Science fiction is essentially optimistic and heroic. Disasters are there to be overcome!

But -- the future may well be quite different from anything we expect.

interview copyright 1998 by Barrington Bayley
questions by Juha Lindroos
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