BARRINGTON J. BAYLEY
interview by Andy Robertson & David Pringle

This interview is copyright 1990 Interzone, and may not be reproduced without their permission.
Originally published in Interzone #35, available here with the kind permission of David Pringle.

This was transcribed by hand, so all the typos you find are mine.. Juha


You are a science-fiction writer with a notable interest in gadgetry as well as matters philosophical. So why don't you use a word processor? Distrustful of computers?

They cost too much.

I expect I'll get one sooner or later. Everybody tells me how good they are, and eventually some hands-on time will probably convince me. Though to my list of defensive excuses - don't want to stare at a green screen all day, don't trust magnetic storage etc - is added to my horror on being told that the model I would probably buy has resident Logo. I'll explain in a moment.

Obviously wp's save a lot of time if you know more or less what you're doing. Trouble is, I often don't know what I'm doing and apply brute force to get something readable, writing version after version, revising and revising, finally patching it together from a good bit here and a good bit there, or simply going back to the original which turns out to be the best one. I like to have all those messed-up sheets, to be able to see what I had before I changed it. Would I have bothered to save/print all that chaos?

You can imagine some nifty features for a wp, e.g. a check for word repetitions would be more useful than the standard spellcheck (most writers can spell already). Or am I suggesting something Dave Langford has already done?

Distrustful of computers? No, just terrified. In the early eighties I got the bug like a lot of people, and after absorbing all my energies in Basic for quite a long time (you know how it goes: "I'll just try out this idea, it will only take five minutes..." and you're still working on it twelve hours later), I started to learn Z80 assembly. I grasped about the main registers and so forth and was about to continue when a voice seemed to speak inside my head saying, "Bayley, what do you think you're doing? Is there some aim to all this? Sure, it will be great to be able to write some machine-code subroutines for your programs. After that there's Forth to get to grips with, and Pascal with its natty use of variable, and of course we must delve into a list language, probably Logo with its terrific graphics. But the real reason you've got hooked by this thing is that it's full of fascinating problems that are also solvable with little effort, unlike many of the problems you face in life. Let's face it, you've got yourself a hobby, and you're not a hobby-type person really, are you?"

I put the book down and I swear I haven't opened it since, and I've hardly gone near a computer since, either.

I had cured myself of micromania.

Your fiction has long been noted for its original and fantastic ideas. What aspects of your background lead you to such ideas? Did you, for example, have any scientific training?

Not unless you count GCE O level in General Science. I recall showing an interest in science from an early age, but when it came to formal education I proved to be a dunce. I was too busy daydreaming about spaceships.

Science fiction itself is the formative background you are looking for. Ideas are, after all, its lifeblood. It puzzles me a little to have this reputation in a field which teems with ideas coming from all quarters. Recently someone spoke to me about "your dotty brand of science fiction." Perhaps that's what people mean.

I can only point out that "ideas" never pop out of nowhere, but are always generated out of other "ideas." Inventiveness is really a matter of spending time "pondering."

I do tend to think in the abstract and this can be a disadvantage. There are two kinds of "idea" that an sf writer can get. One is "story idea," and that's fine, you can make a start, you can get going with it. The other is abstract idea, a notion, a thought, without any story context. Finding one can, for me, be very difficult, which possibly confesses my deficiencies as a writer. So it lies around for years until it's too late because someone else has used it.

"Ideas" are ten a penny. It's doing something with them that counts. I saw the head of the Sony Corporation being interviewed on tv. The [British] interviewer came out with the usual "But you Japs are no good at getting ideas, are you?" sort of thing, and the reply was to the effect, "Ideas aren't what count. Anyone can have an idea. Bringing them to fruition is what counts, and we are very good at that."

Your novels, THE GRAND WHEEL (1977), STAR WINDS (1978), THE PILLARS OF ETERNITY (1982), and so on, often feature "ancient sciences" - alchemy, mystic religions, the Tarot, classical philosophy, etc. - as opposed to modern science. Why should this be?

Well, it seemed like a good idea, er... I never thought to be asked why. One reason is, these bodies of thought are evocative in that respect. After all, medievalism in sf is practically a tradition.

It was a phase, I expect. I'd delved into some of this stuff and found it fun to write around. Also I'd taken the trouble to derive a system of ideas from the Tarot (like millions before me) and used bits of that. The write-up is one of my unfinished projects.

How seriously do you take these "ancient sciences"? Not in the sense of literal belief, perhaps, but do you think they might contain valuable insights? Or is your interest purely artistic?

Of course there are insights. What the modern age has is method and professionalism; it doesn't have a monopoly in quality of thought. Let's start with the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, who it can be argued started the process leading to science in the modern sense. It's common to give credit to the atomists for correctly deducing the particulate nature of matter (and that was not a lucky guess but a triumph of dialectical thought, reconciling the arguments of Heracleitus and Parmenides). But what interest me more are the Pythagoreans, whose attempts to understand nature are apt to be regarded as eccentric and mystical, as in their doctrine of the octave. Yet that doctrine introduced into western thought the idea that matter follows the principles of proportionality and periodicity. Proportionality is a typically Greek thing, of course, but periodicity is a less obvious concept to find, except in relation to time, two and a half thousand years ago. And, accidentally or not, it is surprisingly correct as we know from the periodic table. Mind you, not a lot is known about what the Pythagoreans actually did teach. I suspect that their doctrine that "all is number" is interpreted in too Platonic a way. It's quite a thought that all the variety for structure and substance in the material world, which we see in a qualitative way, depends on fairly simple numerical relationships within the atom. That may be the Pythagorean conception. So like atomic theory, these ideas have been lurking all this time, waiting for the exact sciences to confirm them.

Mostly the "occult sciences" - alchemy, Cabbala etc. - use Pythagorean notions in their theoretical foundation but are fanciful constructions, interesting for their colour and their speculative imagination. It makes you realize what the science fiction writers were doing before there was any science fiction - they were writing the Gnostic myths and The Book of the Concealed Mystery, lovely stuff about failed attempts to make universes before this one, and so forth.

Are you particularly fond of any of your characters? (We're thinking of Jasperodus in THE SOUL OF THE ROBOT [1974], who, so far as we know, is the only character you've devoted a sequel to.)

Yes, that's right, I felt interested in Jasperodus. In that case the novel evolved out of the character, rare for me - mostly, in the good old sf manner, my characters are concocted to set off the scenery. That's not the reason for the sequel, though. I was persuaded into that by someone who thought he was worth making into a series.

Long after I had written it I realized that THE SOUL OF THE ROBOT repeats the story of the Little Gingerbread Man, who comes out of the oven, runs out of the door looking for adventure, and in four gulps ceases to exist. Children are appalled when they hear that story for the first time. It's far more shocking than the murder of the heroine in Psycho.

At the time I was writing him I also liked Rodrone, the main character of STAR VIRUS, but I don't know what I would think now.

Will there be any more novels about Jasperodus, after THE ROD OF LIGHT (1985)?

There might be. I contracted for two sequels - with Allison & Busby - but the contract went down the tube. If I come up with a good theme for a third book I'll do it. Is there anybody apart from me who hasn't done trilogies? But my instinct on finishing a book is to forget it and think about something different.

Sorry to ask such a leading question - but do you think that modern sf suffers from tunnel vision and a lack of imagination?

My reading of current output is so limited that you could probably answer that better - my own short answer would be no. The same rule appertains as it always has everywhere - 90% of everything is rubbish (or is it 99%?) - but present writers have produced, for instance, John Varley's OPHIUCHI HOTLINE and Brian Stableford's WALKING SHADOW, both as good as anything that's been done in the genre and Stapledonesque in scope. Then there's Ian Watson's stunning GARDENS OF DELIGHT (admittedly all this goes back as few years), Bruce Sterling who gets better and better, and I could go on and on. If I look at the field today I'm reminded of the old Cockney saying, "There ain't half been some clever bastards."

I'm not sure exactly what you mean by tunnel vision. With tunnel vision you see only what's ahead and not what's beside you, right? Maybe we should have more of it. Some areas of science fiction have been overtaken by progress, particularly by the explosive proliferation of computers, and some stuff being done now has a contemporary, even topical feel. And it might get more like that. Furthermore, mainstream literature is going to have to come to terms with the increasing intrusion of high-tech into ordinary life. Just imagine when the human genome is mapped and seeming miracles suddenly become possible - replacement organs grown to order, disease eradicated, the human organism enhanced, maybe immortality... Or when machine consciousness makes its appearance. Maybe the river of sf will disappear into the swamp of general fiction. What then will be the role of imaginative vision? If the genre continues maybe it will have to concentrate on alternative realities, metaphysical speculation, or something of that sort.

So maybe the implication that sf has lost imaginative drive should be held over for a few decades, when everything has been said or done, and there are no new ideas under the sun or beyond it. Sadly a review of past cultures, with their cycles of fresh thought and fin de siecle decline, tells us that this will probably happen. Or perhaps psychological conditioning, clever drugs, brain-assist implants, or whatever, will rocket us into an eternity of ever-fresh thinking. Where will it end? (Maybe future sf will all be written by super-intelligent machine consciousnesses)

Many of your recent short-stories, say from "Escapist Literature" (Interzone 13) onwards, seems to be more concerned with strong emotional states than with "ideas" in the normal science-fictional sense. Why is this? Has your writing in fact undergone a change?

I've wondered that myself. It's true that as I enter middle age I find my attention dwelling more in the area of feeling and less in conceptual thought. You don't think it could be the onset of maturity, do you? My God, I hope not.

They're not necessarily recent stories. Since my mid-twenties I've had similar "feeling" stories in mind, but they are far more difficult for me to write. Simple though they may seem at the finish, there has sometimes been a lot of hammering at the forge before I've got the effect I want, and unsatisfactory drafts - or simply notes for stories - might lie in the file for years or decades, taken out and given another trial every now and then. The first few drafts of "Tommy Atkins," for example, could have been exercises in how not to write a story, full of wordy lectures.

Do you see yourself as a British writer, carrying on a specifically British tradition of sf?

No, I don't think in terms of national traditions or tendencies. My early exposure to sf was all American, anyway. I've read reviewers who say my short stuff follows a British line of descent, but it was news to me. I'm not really interested in that sort of demarcation.

How involved were you with New Worlds magazine during the period of Michael Moorcock's editorship in the 1960s, and to what extent did the whole "New Wave" thing affect your writing?

Hardly at all. I lived practically round the corner from Mike, but at that stage in my life I wasn't mixing much. Mike's place always seemed to be full of people and I felt my crowd phobia coming on. As for the New Wave, I think it pretty much passed me by, like the sexual revolution I kept hearing we were having around that time.

Which, if any, of the following sf writers have particularly impressed you, and why: H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, Ursula K. Le Guin?

Anyone who can write good science fiction impresses me. Wells and Stapledon are still the giants. Their vision was new and that still shows; there's a transcendence to it. Even now I think FIRST MEN IN THE MOON as the best narrative description of an alien society. What it must have been like to read when it was first published...

After that, Dick for his quirky thinking.

Are there any other writers (not just sf people) you particularly admire or who have influenced your work?

Literature as such is a peripheral interest with me and so I'm not well read, not at all. I'd like to be, but there's so much of it! When I go into a bookshop, particularly a secondhand one stuffed with 19th-century volumes slowly turning to dust, I get a suffocating feeling and sometimes start to choke with horror. So many billions of written words! Where did mankind find the energy for all that application, that mental toil, that persistence, that human observation, that sheer ability? How could one ever cope with it all?

Besides, I find reading hard work. So I've read a bit of this and a bit of that. The most powerful novelist I know is Balzac, who I prefer to Tolstoy who I gather usually runs off with the Best Novelist Ever prize. I suppose Tolstoy's literary skill is unsurpassable, but I'm just knocked out by Balzac's force of expression, and his penetration into human character which has been termed diabolical. Above all he lacks the gloss of Christian sentimentality which is perhaps Tolstoy's chief demerit. The novel to have moved me most is probably Balzac's EUGENIE GRANDET, which carries both of Balzac's recurring themes - obsession (in the form of the miser, old man Grandet), and the theme of an innocent soul helpless in a corrupt world. I find it interesting to compare this book with Tolstoy's ANNA KARENINA. Both are masterpieces and have the same elementary theme, but in every other way are opposite. One can't help but love and feel sorry for Eugenie, for whom only one thing happens in her whole monotonous life, but Anna is an uninteresting woman of whom there are at least twenty in every street.

Balzac showed philosophical interests and had he lived in modern society might well have done some superb science fiction. I love the bit in the first chapter of THE QUEST OF THE ABSOLUTE where a scientist bitterly complains at someone interrupting his work. "In another few minutes I might have decompressed oxygen!"

I've also been inspired and refreshed, practically rescued from literary despair, in fact, by William Burroughs.

How did you get started as an sf writer? We know you published a short story in collaboration with Mike Moorcock (as "Michael Barrington") in 1959, but what were you doing before that, and how did you meet Mike?

I never did get started, I seem always to have been toddling along on unsteady two-year-old legs, plopping down and reverting to all fours every now and then (and no, I'm not talking about booze). I wrote my first submitted story longhand and got somebody to type it up, then bought a second-hand portable typewriter - I'd be fifteen or sixteen - and shortly afterwards started getting pieces in the British mags, but only itsy-bitsy ones.

It was a marvellous typewriter, an American machine (I forget the make) and really fast. I did everything on it for the next twenty years, until my infant son, in a precocious act of literary criticism, battered it into uselessness with a poker.

Mike Ashley lists my first published story as "Combat's End" in the Vargo Statten Magazine, 1954. My own memory of the time is vague.

I met Mike Moorcock in the Globe, London's sf venue at the time, where we used to meet every Thursday. I think it was Thursday. I'd be twenty or twenty-one, and he a bit younger, and he might still have been editing the Tarzan comic. I'd not long before finished national service. Later we did some collaborating.

If you were writing sf from the 1950s, why was it such a long time before your first novel, THE STAR VIRUS, appeared in 1970?

I'm a slow, halting person, as I have intimated. Things can take a long time with me. Up to the age of eighteen I was keen but didn't have much idea how to proceed. The longest story I tackled (unpublished) was ten or twelve thousand words. Looking at Ashley's bibliography, I see a story in New Worlds in 1967, "Aid to Nothing," that was actually written in 1953 or 1954. I'll bet it shows, too.

Then call-up meant a two-year hiatus. I can see now how bad a thing that was. When I came out I settled in London and tried to apply myself. It was dreadful. In the interim my writing ideas had become eccentric and forced. No understanding of plot, pace, dialogue or even sentence construction, and often relying on incomprehensible notions - utterly unreadable. Though one of the first stories I did fell out quite well, by accident probably - "All the King's Men" - and another later got turned into the novel EMPIRE OF TWO WORLDS. Still, I plugged haphazardly on, moronically refusing to believe I couldn't write despite the world's attempts to give me reality testing. Meantime I worked at unenjoyable jobs or else starved. I applied for a job at the BBC, but realized I had come to the wrong place when I was asked if I had sung in the school choir. The interviewer openly sneered at my social origins. This was the fifties, remember.

Then Mike Moorcock introduced me to the freelance juvenile field. For a while we worked in partnership, but the Moorcock powerhouse was something up with which there was no way I could keep (see, sentence construction). Writing boys' stories was an instructive experience. I soon had to learn that there was such a thing as plot, with its amazing (to me) rules such as that (in that genre) the hero must seem to win by his own efforts - not somebody else's. I continued with that for some years, making a comfortable living, before I got browned off with it and stopped. I decided to write some science fiction novels instead, and by that time it was 1970. And look, now it's 1990, and where has all the time gone?

Tell us something about the once-famous financial difficulties you had with the publishers Allison & Busby. What happened there, and how did it affect your career?

Yes, well. It's simple really. A&B didn't bother to render accounts, let alone pay earnings. This was doubly annoying because I had given them control over some translation rights, and I was getting offers which I was passing on, in other words, I was shovelling money into A&B's pocket and getting none of it myself. You can imagine what that's like when you're trying to bring up a family and you're next to broke.

For a long time I did nothing about it because I had contracted for the two sequels to THE SOUL OF THE ROBOT and had got blocked on the first one, and was embarrassed at not delivering. Eventually I finished it, and, honour satisfied, asked for accounts. Then the fun began. It quickly became obvious there were not going to be any accounts or any payment, though to my amazement A&B typeset the sequel as though nothing had happened, probably thinking, we may as well shaft that Bayley idiot one more time with one more book, and a first edition to boot. I made it clear they could not publish without first fulfilling their contracts, and that was the end of direct correspondence between us.

Taking it through the court, of course, took a long time. First thing was, I needed the right kind of lawyer and I found that literary solicitors won't take legal aid cases, but I got help there and was steered to someone very effective. So we sued, and then when we got the accounts we sued again, because they revealed that about 2,800 hardcover copies had been remaindered for 25p apiece without my being told (by contract I should have been offered them first). The High Court made poor old A&B pay over the money owed, with interest, but they went insolvent before costs could be extracted so I was stuck with those, just under 2,000.

We went ahead with the remaindering case on principle, even though the official receiver had made it plain there would be no money for anyone but the taxman. It was great - it brought a tear to my jaundiced eye to see how ready people were to help. Dave Tate and Mike Moorcock gave evidence, and there were sworn affidavits from Rog Peyton and Mike Butterworth, all saying how much I could have made if I had been allowed to buy the books. The recorder stopped totting up the damages when he reached the maximum the county court was empowered to award - 5,000. A symbolic victory, of course. I'm not certain if that was the first case to be brought over uncontractual remaindering, but there certainly can't have been many, and it may have set some kind of precedent.

That wasn't the end of the support I found coming to me. An auction was got up at the 1987 worldcon to allay my costs. I was almost too bewildered by that to feel gratitude, as well as a bit embarrassed, naturally - ask Malcolm Edwards about my blushes when I next saw him! Quite a few people were involved in that; I never did see a list of contributors. It made me realize what a positive force the sf community is.

If they've a mind to publishers can get away with quite a lot, since the cards are stacked against the author who is in a position of trust and often lacks the means or the will to take action if he thinks he is being cheated. So if a publisher is in financial difficulties there is a great temptation not to pay the author or even tell him what he's owed. Anyway the world's lousy with passable writers, there are always more where he came from.

A&B owed authors 135,456 according to the official receiver's report.

What do you think of the state of the world today? Daft question, we know, but we're thinking in particular of the recntly-fashionable concern for the environment, the depletion of the ozone layer, etc. Are there any Bayley "fixes" for humankind's predicament?

What do you think I am, some kind of futurologist technocrat? I was with some people recently who talked of global disaster in forty years if something isn't done. As there are no examples of succesful long or medium term prediction of weather or climate, I don't know how seriously to take these warnings. Personally I shan't start to worry until I have to climb the Wrekin to escape the rising sea water. (It's a big hill near my home.)

To take the large view, any self-caused environmental difficulties for mankind only add to those thrown at us by nature. Earth's climate is not steady-state.

Assuming the air-raid siren is sounding for good reason, an environmental crisis is likely to force the pace of some interesting developments. I'm enough of an old-fashioned technophile to think that physical problems are capable of solution. The first step is reliable prediction. The recent stuff about chaotic attractors has demonstrated how difficult it is to predict the behaviour of multi-term systems. But I'm sure that with enough computing power, and a proper understanding of the forces involved, it can be done. Once that's mastered it may not be all that much of a trick to do just about anything with the Earth habitat that you want. A number of means suggest themselves for controlling the overall planetary temperature: choose the easiest. So long as civilization survives, that kind of variability will be a thing of the past: the Earth will have a thermostat on it, adjustable at will.

Then we start arguing about who is to have the nicest weather.

That's the crux of it, really: the social issue. A while ago I wrote an article predicting that the 21st century would become an imperial age, because the increasing availability of devastating weapons would allow small states to destroy large ones, and that would have to be curbed. It's rather like living in a big house full of people, some of them lunatic, some psychopathic, but everybody with a machine gun. The machine guns would have to be taken away from those who are a danger to others. The impact of economic activity on the environment - or even local attempts at weather control - could become a similar consideration, and force political order on a planetary scale.

And now I'm tired, and I'd like to go and lie down and get some sleep. Thank you.

interview copyright Interzone 1990

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