Welcome to the world of Barrington Bayley, an amazing man of ideas. The information about him on the nets is scarce and hard to locate, so what I have access to (on the nets and beyond), is presented on these pages.
"The most interesting SF writer of his generation..There is no one else to match him." - Michael Moorcock
If you don't know who he is, you might want to take a look at the lengthy introduction below. Briefly, he's an author of 13 published novels and several shorter pieces of science fiction. Visually dazzling, energetic and enigmatic; metaphysics weaved together with traditional themes.
"..he is a link between the fine old days of NEW WORLDS' trippy gedanken experiments in literary speculative fiction and the ideological gurus of the current radical SF fringe." - preface by Paul J. McAuley & Kim Newman
Lately he has been publishing only short fiction, mostly in the British magazine Interzone. One of his recent tales, "A Crab Must Try", won the 1997 BSFA award for the best short-story. He has just finished a new novel.
"His recent works, such as THE ROD OF LIGHT and THE ZEN GUN, are amazing pyrotechnic displays of invention and wit, worthy of a P.K. Dick but warmer, less alienated and dualistic." - in SEMIOTEXT(E) SF
What follows is a biographical sketch, outdated a bit by now [July, 1998]
"I have no personal philosophy as regards my work; I write according to my ability and interest. I regard myself as a genre SF writer - that is, as a traditionalist."
- Barrington J. Bayley
"A basic premise of all pulp fiction, from which magazine science fiction is derived, is that only the fear of imminent, violent death can make the human psyche function at its full intensity."
- Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder
His early years passed as he was educated in Shropshire, worked at various jobs; clerk, typist, coal miner, had a brief stint as a reporter for Wellington Journal and joined the Royal Air Force at the age of 18. By then the war may have been over, but the rebuilding and healing were still in progress. Some of these times can perhaps be seen, through a distorted lens, in "Tommy Atkins". He worked as a freelance writer for picture-strips and newspapers, publishing under various names. "I wrote my first submitted story longhand and got somebody to type it up, then bought a secondhand portable typewriter - I'd be fifteen or sixteen - and shortly afterwards started getting pieces in the British mags, but only itsy-bitsy ones."
Barrington John Bayley arrived to this world early in April 1937, in Birmingham, as Europe was going into a devastating war. "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 dreaming about spaceships."
His first published sf short-story was released the year before he joined RAF, in 1954. "Combat's End" came out in Vargo Statten Magazine, but it took almost ten years for him to gain a small reputation from the stories he sent to Michael Moorcock's literary sf magazine, New Worlds. He had been friends with Mike since late the 50's and they had collaborated in writing juveniles for some years. Still, the times favored experimentation, and Bayley joined them, joyfully examining metaphysics and alchemy disguised as space-opera. Already in these tales one can sense him laughing with the universe, playing around the old traditions and making them his own.
Throughout the 60s he wrote these stories, but it was only in 1970 that he published his first book, STAR VIRUS, as an Ace Double, after growing bored with the juvenile field. The story features a cynical captain in charge of his space freebooters. They capture a crystal ball constructed by mythical aliens, that contains a massive mystery which the captain begins obsessively to solve. It was an adrenaline emanating, cynical and vibrant rollercoaster ride at 120 pages, ending with the rallying cry: "Did you hear that, you trash? Do you know where we are going? Andromeda! Andromeda!", thus setting the tone of his whole career. And perhaps dooming his success in the eyes of those who didn't perceive the underlying philosophical themes. "At the time I was writing him I ... liked Rodrone, the main character of STAR VIRUS, but I don't know what I would think now." His next book, ANNIHILATION FACTOR (1972) was an expansion from a 1964 short story, "The Patch" (as by P.F. Woods in New Worlds). Here a mysterious space anomaly is rapidly consuming entire worlds as it passes across the intergalactic heavens, and two warring factions try to attract it to eat the other. An ambitious book which adds interesting social and political ideas, but lacks the drive of its predecessor. Already one can notice several recurring themes and characters in these two books; the old, slightly eccentric inventor/ scientist, for example, can be found in nearly all of his works.
EMPIRE OF TWO WORLDS (also 1972), which followed this, is perhaps his weakest book. It is essentially a story of one man's growth to sentience, in many ways a blueprint for the far more succesful story of Jasperodus, the robot. Alongside this we meet a host of fantastic races and people in the tomorrow of our Earth, as our unsympathetic hero wreaks havoc over whatever there is worth saving and protecting, under the spell of his mentor. Interesting and colorful with sparkling moments, but Bayley's writing was not quite yet up to portraying his ideas. But from this point onwards, his craft matured in a quantum leap and it is hard not to be surprised by the dazzle of the following books, especially in comparison with these:
COLLISION COURSE (or COLLISION WITH CHRONOS, 1973) and THE FALL OF CHRONOPOLIS (1974) were his first masterpieces; both swimming in a sea of ideas, speculations on the nature of time and sociological studies disguised in the jeweled garments of space opera. This is not a series, except in the thematic sense - both spring partly forth from the speculations of J.W. Dunne, whose esoteric works Bayley credits as inspiration.
COLLISION COURSE has a group of Aryan supremacist archeologists discover an ancient ruin which seems to be getting younger day by day. As the scientists start to wonder about this, a discovery is made that time apparently moves in waves through the galaxy and that their time is on a collision course with another. Both of these societies begin to prepare for a war, while a third, peculiar nation is doing pioneering work in the field of time-manipulation.
FALL OF CHRONOPOLIS could be well described as a time-opera, with it's two warring empires engaged in "Reality Wars", manipulating time with their enormous time-fleets. The one our 'heroes' live in is a theocratic society, who refuse to accept that what they are doing may have catastrophic effects on their reality. They are led in their crusade by fanatically religious leaders. The book neatly packs the life and death of an empire into a 150 page novel, filled with grand gestures, fascinating ideas - especially scientific and social theories - and thrilling battles. Cynical and excitingly inventive drama.
Bayley continued writing his short stories and novels, curiously escaping greater attention. Perhaps this was due to his originality of concepts, his combination of philosophy and space-opera; Borges with E.E. 'Doc' Smith.. I don't know. But you might remember that Phil Dick, whose work has several similarities with Bayley's, never was much more than a curiosity for the sf buyers before Blade Runner hit the movie screens, after his early death. Both authors were already years ahead of their time; I doubt if Iain Banks, for example, would have written his 'Culture' novels as such, without Bayley's inspiration. He is more a writers writer, with fans like Ian Watson, Brian Stableford, Mike Moorcock, Bruce Sterling and Brian Aldiss.
His own literary influences range from sf stalvarts like Stapledon and Wells to Balzac and Wm. Burroughs. For more recent authors, respect with the authors mentioned above is mutual. As intimated by the novels and the stories, he enjoys abstract thought before the overtly logical and philosophy and the occult sciences make for excellent fodder from which to draw ideas and concepts. "Inventiveness is really a matter of spending time 'pondering'." But, he continued to sell modest amount of books, gaining small but enthusiastic following. THE SOUL OF THE ROBOT (1976) features, Jasperodus, an artificial construct who believes he has a soul. As he awakes, and as the book begins, his first act is escaping from his loving parents into the wild unknown. He finds work, he finds the truth (..) about robot souls, learns emotions; love and hate and self-loathing. He is a servant, he is a worker, he finds sex and booze (or at least the robot equivalent of these) and he rules a nation. This existential fable is very much in the philosophical mold which had peeked out of the previous works, but is in full bloom here. There is a gentleness here, woven with cynicism and comedy. A work of playful metaphysical exuberance. Quite wonderful. "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.. 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." THE GARMENTS OF CAEAN (1976), in a way, returned to the more 'familiar' milieu of Bayley's, as a spy ship explores the distant relatives of the late, great nation of Soviets. They have adapted to living in outer space as the biological parts of giant cybernetic machines, fighting an endless battle against a race of cyborgs. Meanwhile a bankrupt sartorian joins forces with a group of space pirates to hijack a shipment of Caean garments. Caean is the fashion center of the universe, and everybody who wears their highly valuable clothes understands the phrase 'clothes make a man'. But there is more to the clothes that you can see with the 'naked eye'. Blend all this with a race pent on ruling the universe and some hilarious and distressing psychological ideas packed, as usual, in a tight wrap, and you have another riveting piece of BJB's enthralling originality.
The American DAW edition has been heavily censored, all the references to sex have been edited out as is one very strange and comic chapter dealing with a prankster crime lord, so if possible, get the British one. The difference between these two versions is significant.
The next year gave us THE GRAND WHEEL. The old plot here is about a John Doe who has to gamble with Aliens, and the stake is the fate of the Earth. Of course, with Bayley, it's a bit more complicated. Perhaps the most phildickian book he has done, this features strange galactic races and politics, a young boy who can sense probabilities, an obsessed man willing to risk everything he has for the contol of Earth and games. Games that bend reality. Games, which are the heart of this book. Strange, wonderful games and theories which make me confuse parts of this with Dick's GAME-PLAYERS OF TITAN. But the visual and philosophical imagery is all Bayley; you thought Murphy's Law is bad ? Wait till you see the excesses of Bad Luck here.. This is an entertaining novel, and not quite as outrageosly extravagant as some of the others.
Imagine a ship sailing the ocean of space, not a spaceship, but a schooner, a galleon or a windjammer. The huge sails opening up and embracing the solar winds which fiercely bellow in the ether. A group of sailors steal the last shreds of this precious material by which they now sail in the atmosphere, in order to make a trip to Mars in search of an Alchemical Treasure. STAR WINDS (1978) is an exciting journey across the wide wonders; by the eddies and monsters that lurk there in space. We sail there, to Mars and far, far beyond to the vast Galactic Empires and interstellar wars, searching the fabled Philosopher's Stone. Unique and wonderfilled.
THE KNIGHTS OF THE LIMITS (1978) and THE SEED OF EVIL (1979) are collections of BJB's short-stories. The first one consists of his key works from the New Worlds period, while the second collects some of the earlier tales. THE KNIGHTS OF THE LIMITS probably is the best way to meet the man; the stories are ideas crystallized into these imaginary universes. The ideas are wild and original, yet executed in a manner that touches not only the mind, but the spirit. They make you amazed at this world we live in, and show how our imagination, as awesome as it is, cannot even begin to understand the wonders that are all around us. Philosophy and theory, yes, not dry but exciting.
After a few years of silence came THE PILLARS OF ETERNITY (1982). This is, without hesitation, among the 10 most enjoyable novels I've ever had the pleasure to read. The complex story centers on a shell of man, Joachim Boaz. Born deformed, now fitted with a cybernetic armor and dependent of his conscious spacecraft, he cannot escape the torment in his mind caused by transcendental suffering years ago. Fractured and desperate, he understands that his torment will last forever since it has been scientifically proven that time goes in cycles, eternally repeating itself. The only chance for Boaz to evade this repeated tragedy, is nothing less than to derail the universe from it's tracks. A mythical wandering planet Meirjain carries outlawed time-jewels which may be the means to accomplish this. Elsewhere, a new sexual fashion has sprung: kill your partner who can be reborn in a clone; a new height in ecstasy.This is also a love story between a suicidal hedonist and a hypersensitive man who denies pleasure. A staggering package of wonder and beauty, tragedy and invention.
THE ZEN GUN (1983) followed briefly. If possible, this may be even more complex book of no less extravagant exuberance. A genetically engineered ape finds the ultimate weapon of the title, capable of shattering worlds from the distance of several lightyears. The safety catch is that it can only be used by an enlightened zen-master, who naturally wouldn't use it. At the same time an empire of pigs patrol the universe, where some alarming space anomalies have been discovered. Some have disliked this novel due to the excessive pseudoscientific speculation. Some love it because of that; it is by no means scientifically correct, which is quite true of almost everything Bayley has written, and the speculation is a major part of this book. It is also astonishingly inventive and very hilarious.
THE FOREST OF PELDAIN (1985) is the only novel of Bayley's I haven't read, published a few months before his last, and it deals with a pseudo-intelligent mass of vegetation and is labeled a fantasy.
ROD OF LIGHT (1985) is a sequel to SOUL OF THE ROBOT, and a fine one at that. The existential philosophies of Jasperodus are put to a test when another robot decides to 'relieve' humans of their souls, for the robots to have. Will Jasperodus allow his kin to run amok with the humans who have, true, used and humiliated him, hated him with passion and frequently tried to kill him. Or will he save his creators from the clutches of this evil robot and his cult, his religion and his madness. This is an amusing and fascinating continuation and expansion of the earlier book.
Allison & Busby contracted BJB for a third book featuring Jasperodus, but was forced instead to take them to court for unpaid royalties, uncontractual remaindering and other charges. The house went bankrupt before the case was dealt with, leaving no possibilities of claiming the money he was owed. Luckily a great amount of support was found from the sf community, including an auction at the 1987 Worldcon to allay his costs. There were rumours later, in Ansible, about the third book, but nothing has appeared yet.
After this Bayley has published several short-stories, mostly in Interzone, some of them quite brilliant. Noteworthy titles appearing elsewhere are "Love in Backspace" (NEW WORLDS 4 ed. by David Garnett), which some reviewer called quite appropriately 'polymorphously entertaining' and "Cling to the Curvature!", the final, astonishing peak from the seminal SF collection of the eighties, SEMIOTEXTE SF, edited by Robert Anton Wilson, Rudy Rucker and Peter Lamborn Wilson. The tales published in Interzone range from good to exceptional; "Ur-Plant", "Quiddity Wars", "A Crab Must Try" and "Tommy Atkins" are among his finest. BJB won the 1997 British Science Fiction Association Award for the best short-story, with "A Crab Must Try" (Interzone), which is just one indication that he has lost none of his inventiveness during his almost 45 year career. The winner in novel category was Iain Banks' EXCESSION, who shares many of the qualities BJB is known for. Truth be told, it seems to me that his creativity shows no signs of diminishing, quite the opposite, and his control over the medium is growing. I can only hope he will be recognized by the masses as he is with his peers. He has recently been searching for a publisher to a collection of all his short work.
Most of this piece has concentrated on BJB's virtues, but there are naturally some idiosycracies, flaws, in his prose. One of the more recognized ones is his concentration on the intricasies of plot to the disadvantage of characterization. The people inhabiting his books are sometimes far too briefly described. This is especially true with his usually trivial female characters, most of the time mere props. There are exceptions, like in PILLARS OF ETERNITY, but they are rare. This could be explained away by the fact that very often the societies described in his books are tyrannies and theocracies, which often leave military men and priests to idiotically rule the destinies of them all. This has been changing with his more recent work. "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." Also, Bayley's habit of inventing his own sciences or extrapolating on current or ancient ones has been a major flaw for some, but this can also be considered as a major point of appeal. This is Science FICTION, and the originality of his concepts cannot be denied. Disliked, yes, so: approach with caution and an open mind.
Why hasn't Bayley published any novels in the last 12 years ? I don't know, but I amuse myself by thinking that he has polished his craft so far that what we think of as short-stories are compressed novels. The amount of ideas found on a tale such as "Quiddity Wars", could quite easily have been turned into a 300-pager by a lesser artist. But now, packed tightly, they hold only what is essential. Polished, they shine.
"Did you hear that, you trash? Do you know where we are going? Andromeda! Andromeda!"
copyright 1997 by Juha Lindroos
except for the quotations which are from the 1990 Interzone interview with BJB.