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Genre Fiction: The Roaring Years coverMy first exposure to serious SF criticism—that is, actual essays, written at white-heat about something the writer was passionate about—was probably from Peter Nicholls. Memory fails to remind me when I first started subscribing to Foundation, but the two-parter essays on “Science Fiction and the Mainstream” in Foundation 3 (March 1973) and 5 (January 1974) are pieces I still remember well, and I was certainly at most of the 1976 lectures at the Institute of Contemporary Arts when Nicholls’s contribution “Science Fiction: The Monsters and the Critics” told a certain “Andrew Sawyer” that he had a lot to learn before he started playing with the big boys. The letter of comment in Foundation 10 (June 1976) mentioning the lecture also reveals that Foundation 9 had been in my hands. (That same issue of Foundation also contains letters from Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, and Michael Moorcock taking aggrieved issue with Nicholls’s essay on the SF of New Worlds magazine in Foundation 9. Another thing I obviously learned was that Foundation could be something of a battleground.)

Little did I know, of course, that I would end up writing SF criticism myself, let alone become a kind of successor to Nicholls when the SF Foundation’s (SFF) library moved to Liverpool. I met Peter only once, I think, although I certainly learned much from him—not least, of course, from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction which he left the SFF to complete and which remains, in its online third edition, the essential resource in the field. The Roaring Years is a long-awaited and welcome collection of material from the early days of Foundation up to “Big Dumb Objects and Cosmic Enigmas: The Love Affair between Space Fiction and the Transcendental,” originally a 1997 Science Fiction Research Association Conference speech but here presented in a revised version published in the New York Review of Science Fiction (2009). Most of the contents are presented as originally published. The “omissions” in the second “Science Fiction and the Mainstream” piece are from its original Foundation appearance as an edited chapter for the eventually abandoned book, Infinity, Eternity and the Pulp Magazines: the reason for the abandonment is explained in the retrospective essay from Foundation 50, “Foundation Garments, or The Administrator’s New Clothes.” Presumably the fuller version (with discussions of Gulliver’s Travels, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Frankenstein) is no longer available.

The contents, put together by David Langford with advice from John Clute (who provides a foreword) and Nicholls’s son Jack, are a grabbag of essays, reviews, fanwriting (especially convention reports), and for good measure an Encyclopedia entry (“Conceptual Breakthrough”) which shows Nicholls’s strength in putting together thematic surveys and shows just why the Encyclopedia was so important in establishing a baseline for the understanding of SF. Nicholls’s Leavisite determination that SF should be subject to criticism that emphasised literary standards and judgements of quality stands throughout. He quotes from classic literature (Yeats and Johnson, for instance, in his essay on New Worlds) and this assumption that of course a critic of science fiction will reference major literary figures who have nothing to do with SF is one of his strengths. (A riposte to that is that Nicholls’s touchstones are perhaps conventionally canonical figures, the usual suspects of Dead White Male belles lettres, is true; but my point is that he was challenging his audience, and the challenge to look beyond the comfort zone of popularity still remains.)

At the time of Nicholls’s early essays, there were few really good books of SF criticism, and of the few, some—such as Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s Voyages to the Moon (1948)—were specialist surveys of what Nicholls was to call “proto-SF.” In his 1973 review of Thomas Clareson’s still-important essay collection SF: The Other Side of Realism (1971), Nicholls notes with a faint air of gosh-wow astonishment that within the next few years up to thirteen books of SF criticism were to be published (one of which was to be Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree [1973]). Even then, he subjects the book to steely-eyed scrutiny. Clareson’s own essay, he argues, is flawed by the SF critic’s need to do two arguably contradictory things: “the uneasiness of his argument results from the old problem of trying to show the non-fan that the whole genre is fascinating, while simultaneously demonstrating to the fan that much of it is second-rate, and that the whole field is in need of critical standards.” Judith Merril’s “What Do You Mean: Science? Fiction?” is “one of the more enjoyable pieces in the collection, and in some ways one of the more useful,” but still “displays a number of the rather parochial attitudes that have delayed … the wider acceptance of science fiction as a mature art form.” Among these, he cites her understanding that “new ideas required new forms, that new modes of experience demanded new techniques of expression” and her mistaken assumption that this was a discovery limited to the SF field, thus cutting out those modernist literary experimentations made decades before when in SF “the height of daring was to print an interior monologue in italics, or to leave a wide space between paragraphs to show a time dislocation.” His harshest criticism, however, is directed at the banal solemnity of some of the more “academic” contributors to the collection. This ambivalence, even anxiety, about the critical “industry” runs through many of the essays here; once more, less a weakness than a positive strength.

“Banal solemnity” is never something that Nicholls himself could be accused of. He was later to attribute the grotesqueries of “Science Fiction: The Monsters and the Critics” [1] to a boil in a sensitive area. However, his ability to turn literary criticism into a performance piece is evident throughout. In “Monsters” he turned his borrowing of Tolkien’s famous subtitle for a study of Beowulf’s reception into a glitteringly accurate reflection of the demons haunting both SF and its associated scholarship, as he calls them forth to be exorcised.

Most depressingly familiar is one we all know and keep calling upon, the “Monster of Fulfilled Promise,” the writer who returns, over and over again, to the “originality” of their first book; nowadays, I guess we would expand the bloated monstrousness and refer to yet another trilogy set in the same franchised universe, summoned by us, the audience. “We want the same novelties, over and over again,” Nicholls writes [2]. But in his review of the Astounding/Analog Reader (Foundation 6, 1974), he evokes another side of his reaction to SF, in which the metaphor (perhaps more complex than many readers today might notice, now that the field is so widespread and generously available) aptly sums up much of the past and present readership: “I have been reading science fiction, obsessively, for more than twenty years, in much the same spirit that Edwardian gentlemen used to seek out ladies of the night, with alternating passion and fits of self-reproach.” In the same review is not only a summary of Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” which describes the flaws and achievement of that story more accurately than almost anyone since, but also a joke—“Speaking of that authentic Astounding flavour (quite different from the astounding Authentic flavour, incidentally)”—which most of his readers at the time, I suspect, would not have got (I certainly wouldn’t have), but which now speaks reassuring volumes to the fellow-obsessive.

These are examples of the “grab-bag” nature of the contents. Some of the reviews, from the Washington Post or elsewhere, are perfectly competent summaries, even useful for the scholar or student, but aimed at an audience where the inside knowledge (or joke) would not have been understood at all and where the energy and performance levels are toned down. Others—for example that of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore (Foundation 5, 1974)—show how he could focus upon wider context and dive deeply down into examining word choice within a couple of paragraphs. Entries for Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration (1968) or Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972) for the 1979 Survey of Science Fiction Literature send you straight to the books in exasperation about how you could have missed that. The convention reports—of, for example, the 1975 UK Eastercon (Wrinkled Shrew, 1975) or the 1979 Worldcon (Drilkjis 5, 1980)—are amusing (especially if you know some of the individuals involved) but sometimes overwritten, straining perhaps that bit too hard to reach the required tone of louche fannishness. There are memoir pieces (on Philip K. Dick: a speech delivered at the City Literary Institute in 1982 and later published in the fanzine Tappen) which are revealing both about the writer and Nicholls’s own troubled response to a man whom he admired tremendously as a writer but whose issues as a person he found difficult to cope with. And there are occasional pieces, such as the interview with Diana Wynne Jones (The Age, 1992) which are simply too short and superficial for what a critic like Nicholls could have done with a writer like her.

In summary, though, this is a collection which demands to be read, perhaps browsed at random repeatedly, but kept and referred to. Some might dismiss it as a collection of “historical” documents. Perhaps it is, but in browsing through these documents we see the territory of science fiction scholarship opened up and explored for us. While Peter Nicholls did not, of course “invent” SF scholarship and his writing sparked (as has been suggested above) dispute and disagreement, there is certainly one area where his example, as he knew full well, was significant. As an academically trained specialist in a field where most of the critical interest came from fans and practitioners, Nicholls was somewhat out of place among his contemporaries: many of those who knew about the genre wanted it returned posthaste to the gutter where it belonged, while those who didn’t know about it didn’t want to know about it, thank you very much. Unlike, say James Gunn or Thomas B. Clareson, his own roots weren’t really in fandom, and, according to “Foundation Garments …” to some he was a “fake fan” and to others he was “a willing tool in the secret if impotent struggle to make polytechnics more important than universities.” Caught up in the confusion of what the Science Fiction Foundation actually was or was for (I recognise the name of someone who, with the best will in the world and the noblest intentions, made my own life interesting for a while), he eventually seems to have decided, as declared in “The Academy and Science Fiction: Symbiosis or Parasitism” (1995), that fan scholarship was perhaps the “saner option” despite what he had earlier identified as the chummy complacency of the Monster of “Ghetto Criticism.” Writing about the minds—great minds all—behind the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, he concludes “[w]e are neither fans nor academics in the full sense; we are inside and outside at once; we exist in a state of quantum instability, neither waves nor particles.” Those of us who are Schrödinger’s critics owe much to Nicholls’s example.

Reading through The Roaring Years, and thinking about post-Nicholls SF criticism, this instability returns. So who are “We” now? In a world where, on the one hand, university presses churn out handbooks and series in which the subject-matter and scope range far, far beyond those confronted by those early groundbreaking essays included here, and on the other where perfectly competent but otherwise undistinguished pieces of fanwriting get nominated for major awards, it’s hard to argue with Peter Nicholls about the sheer anxiety of writing about SF, even as one finds oneself taking issue with some of his judgements on individual books. Certainly my own notes on the book are full of disagreements; but then, in later pieces, he takes issue with himself about some of the earlier verdicts.

There are so many areas where you wish, in the end, that Peter Nicholls could have expanded upon what he gives us here. A listing of favourite writers (New York Review of SF, 1996) finds him confronting himself about how few of them have turned out to be women: a piece on the astonishing writer Philippa Pearce, for example, turns out to be a short summary of her work for the Washington Post (1987) [3]. He never, perhaps fortunately, gave us the study of how “writers in New Worlds mutilated and maimed their female characters in story after story” that he was “saving … for the safety of my retirement.” A number of his later pieces turn to film or books about film, but while he is an acute observer of the strengths and weaknesses of these books, these pieces tend not to have the heft and passion of those in which he is tearing into the question of how and why we read sf. One wishes he could have completed and published Infinity, Eternity and the Pulp Magazines, although much of it must surely have appeared, and probably with far greater impact, in the Encyclopedia.

In the end, this book is, as I have said above, welcome. This was all a long time ago, but while some of these arguments and assessments are affected by time’s relentless passing, they are never out of date in the bloodless fashion implied by that phrase. Within this volume are some of the essential pathways into understanding just what this strange thing (or set of things) we call “science fiction” is, and why we should care. In his introduction (2012) Nicholls writes, “It was enough that I should have been a good journalist and recorded events, a transparent person holding up a mirror.” It was more than enough. It was vital work that he was doing, and Genre Fiction: The Roaring Years is a reaffirmation of its importance.


[1] “I imagine myself to be confronted with the body of science fiction. It is strapped to a bed, uttering hoarse, obscene cries, clearly possessed by demons, while its mother and auntie look on helplessly. These two respectable ladies, Mrs. Myth and her younger sister, affectionately known as Auntie Fantasy, cannot understand why the child, well brought up and known for his candour and innocence, should so unexpectedly have taken to levitation, the vomiting of filth, the babbling of idiocies, and all the other phenomena so familiar to myself, the exorcist.” [return]

[2] I realise only now that this line is the origin of my standard lecture-joke about SF (sometimes fantasy) being that form of literature which we read because it is entirely unlike anything else we have ever read, but of which, when we have read it, we want something exactly the same. [return]

[3] Indeed, most of the writers mentioned in this review have been male: on several occasions, Nicholls notes female writers, such as Josephine Saxton, in tones of great admiration, but he so rarely wrote at length about them. [return]


Editors: Reviews Department

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Andy Sawyer is a retired librarian, researcher, critic, and reviewer of SF. From 1993-2018 he was librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool Library, where he also taught courses on SF, and was reviews editor of Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction. He was guest curator of the British Library Exhibition “Out of This World: Science Fiction but Not as You Know It” (May 20-Sep 25, 2011), and an advisor to the “Into the Unknown” exhibition at the Barbican Centre London (June3-Sept 1, 2017). He was the 2008 recipient of the Science Fiction Research Association’s Clareson Award for services to science fiction. He is currently researching science fiction of the 1950s, the life and work of Jane Webb Loudon, and how to play “Science Fiction/Double Feature” on the ukulele.
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