In the introduction to his 1960 survey of science fiction New Maps of Hell, Kingsley Amis proclaims that he has been "a devotee of science fiction ever since investigating, at the age of twelve or so, a bin in the neighborhood Woolworth's with the label YANK MAGAZINES: Interesting Reading." Amis's first encounter with science fiction, then, was not unusual for the period, and it is probably this early fascination with the pulps that explains why New Maps of Hell concentrates its attention almost exclusively on what Amis terms science fiction's "predominantly American tendency." Later in that same introduction, Amis advises readers, writers, and critics who "would perhaps have expected some estimate of the distinctively British contribution to science fiction" that such consideration "would not have fallen within the scope of the present book." In many ways, New Maps of Hell is a brave book, a fascinating attempt by a leading mainstream writer of the time who, although not, one senses, a hundred percent at ease with this unpredictable new genre, seems nonetheless doggedly devoted to it, fascinated by it, and intent on explaining it to others, even at the expense of risking his own reputation among the literati. I admire everything about this attitude, which seems entirely typical of Kingsley Amis's cussed independence of spirit and famous contrarianism.
And yet any reader, writer, or critic of science fiction encountering the book today would find it difficult to avoid remarking upon its problems. Of course, the emergence of the British New Wave and everything that would mean for science fiction as a whole was still a number of years in the future, but this fact alone cannot be said to account for Amis's somewhat retrograde, too-easily reductive attitude to science fiction. This point is most forcefully made by Amis himself. Here is what he has to say on the subject of characterization in science fiction in his chapter on Utopias:
A mariner out of Conrad or Melville would be no use to us in Lilliput or Brobdingnag, for the point at which specialization of character becomes a narrowing and a weakening is reached much sooner in science fiction than elsewhere. . . . Science fiction shows us human beings in their relations not with one another, but with a thing, a monster, an alien, a plague, or a form of society, and while it is true that society is a human thing, the aspects of it which engage these writers can be validly treated as impersonal. (pp. 127-8)
Whilst it would be inaccurate to accuse Amis of originating such familiar and frustrating arguments about what science fiction "can validly" be expected to do and how it should do it, it is nonetheless a shame to see him—a self-confessed fan—disseminating them so uncritically. Indeed, given that the book's 1960 publication date predicates the omission of the increasing number of modernizing influences that so radically altered the direction of SF during the middle years of that decade—Aldiss, Ballard, Delany, and Disch to name but four—these over-rehearsed misconstructions about the two-dimensionality of science fiction form just about the only aspect of New Maps of Hell that does not feel dated.
Given Amis's discomfiture around the literary merits or otherwise of science fiction, it could be argued that his own novels of the fantastic were for him a bold step into dangerous territory. The reissue of two of these in handsome NYRB Classics editions with personal and insightful introductions by William Gibson and Michael Dirda offers a new opportunity for a closer encounter with the speculative fiction of Kingsley Amis, and for this reader at least the encounter has proved fascinating and most worthwhile.
The Alteration (1976) presents us with what any science fiction reader would recognize as a classic dystopia. We find ourselves in a Britain ruled by a Catholic theocracy, where the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution never happened. The whole of Europe exists under a kind of papal dictatorship, where the word "scientist" is synonymous with "heretic" and where women exist in legal and philosophical subservience to their male counterparts. Only in the "New England" (aka the USA) has science progressed beyond its infancy. Ample evidence of how far Amis's alternate history has diverged from our own is offered early on:
Along the south wall ran Blake's still-brilliant frescoes depicting St Augustine's progress through England. Holman Hunt's oil painting of the martyrdom of St George was less celebrated for its merits than for the tale of the artist's journey to Palestine in the hope of securing authenticity for its setting, and one of the latest additions, the Ecce Homo mosaic by David Hockney, had attracted downright adverse criticism for its for its excessively traditionalist, almost archaizing style. . . . To few but the tone-deaf, the music must have been far more immediate than any or all of these objects, Mozart's Second Requiem (K878), the crown of his middle age and perhaps of all his choral work. Singers and musicians had just entered upon the Agnus Dei. . . . Throughout the huge congregation all were motionless, and remained so when the section came to a close and the choir was heard again. Some stayed still because they felt they should rather than from artistic or pious feeling. Two such were the aged representatives of the Holy Office, in their black vestments symbolically piped in scarlet, Monsignor Henricus and Monsignor Lavrentius, or to give them the familiar names by which they were known in their native Almaigne and Muscovy, Himmler and Beria. (pp. 2-3)
The proliferation of references and allusions here, artistic, musical, and political, gives a clear flavour of Amis's rather literal-minded but always knowing, always articulate and sardonic approach to the materials of dystopia, and offers a hint of why William Gibson maintains in his introduction that "you may need to do a bit of reading before you can fully enjoy The Alteration."
Into this world comes Hubert Anvil, a ten-year-old chorister in possession of a voice that is affirmed by experts present at the Mozart performance to be the best in Christendom. He is also recognized by his music master, Morley, as a prodigious composer with an understanding of harmony and counterpoint well in advance of current musical fashions. In most other respects, Hubert is a normal schoolboy, curious about sex and happy to perpetrate minor misdemeanors against his masters. Chief among these is his and his friends' illicit enjoyment of science fiction, known in the world of The Alteration as Time Romance:
TR, or Time Romance, was a type of fiction that appealed to a type of mind. It had readers among schoolboys, collegiate, mechanics, inventors, scribes, merchantmen, members of convocation and even, it was whispered, those in holy orders. Though it was formally illegal, the authorities were wise enough to know that to suppress it altogether a disproportionate effort would be necessary, and contented themselves with occasional raids and confiscations. Its name was the subject of unending debate among its followers, many of whom would point to the number of stories and novels offered and accepted as TR, in which time itself played no significant part. (p. 24)
But Hubert is soon to lose his innocence, as well as his submissive and accepting attitude to his station in life. Church elders are proposing to have him surgically "altered" in order to preserve the miraculous purity of his voice. Hubert's father Tobias tentatively approves this plan, only to be opposed by his wife Margaret and his "personal confessor," Father Lyall. Those who argue for the alteration see a grand future for Hubert as a rich and famous artist living out a comfortable and pampered existence under the personal protectorate of the Pope himself. Those against seem more divided in their arguments: Master Morley suspects that the life of a celebrated virtuoso will leave Hubert little time or inclination to pursue a more important vocation as a composer. Margaret fears that castration will rob her son of his rightful future as a husband and father, that it will reduce him to the status of a carnival freak. Father Lyall, increasingly bitter over the way he has been sidelined professionally, sets himself in confrontation with both his master Tobias and his church superiors by beginning an affair with Margaret. Hubert himself, confused and frightened by the rapid disintegration of the known order of things, is finally forced to seek sanctuary outside his family.
The most effective aspect of Amis's dystopia lies in its understatement. What we have here is less Orwell's 1984 than Trollope's The Warden. We never get to see inside the dungeons of the Holy Office in The Alteration, nor are we made party to the terrors of any Inquisition. Instead there is afternoon tea on the lawn, a gently parochial way of life that one suspects has continued more or less unchanged for hundreds of years. If there is organized opposition to the persecution of scientists, we glimpse it only obliquely, and the alternative "heretical" life of the state of New England, with its racial segregation policies and punitive legal system, is not exactly portrayed in an enticing light. The debate surrounding Hubert's alteration is deliberately kept confined to the private sphere—as readers we are almost persuaded that this is a matter that concerns just one boy and one family, and the idea that the system itself might be at fault is brought to a greater strength through its slow percolation.
All this is fascinating, not least because it seems to run counter to Amis's assertion in New Maps of Hell that "the aspects of [society] that engage [science fiction] writers can be validly treated as impersonal." It would also seem to contradict his insistence later in the same paragraph that the character of Jane in John Wyndham's "Consider Her Ways" must as a typical SF protagonist "not be anything but an averagely sensitive, averagely romantic young woman of the twentieth century." Hubert Anvil is anything but average. He begins as a prodigy and moreover, the conclusion Amis chooses for his novel is a deliberate refusal to allow him to escape his extraordinary nature. It would seem that Amis's writerly instincts are—luckily for us—stronger and less tractable than his didactic ones. The Alteration presents itself as a prime example of a science fiction novel in which the characters can be whatever the writer wants them to be, and sure proof of a truth that should be obvious but that is evidently difficult for some mainstream critics to appreciate, that the literary value of a novel should be determined not by the genre to which it owes its allegiance, but by the ambition and skill and imaginative reach of its author.
Interesting also is The Alteration's engagement with contemporary realworld SF. Written a decade and a half after the publication of New Maps of Hell, The Alteration has a more far-reaching and stylistically exciting range of works to draw on for its core inspiration, and makes specific reference to Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Keith Roberts's Pavane (1968), renamed in The Alteration as Galliard. A comparison between The Alteration and Pavane is particularly appropriate. Both novels deal with Catholic dictatorships as the centerpiece of a counterfactual history of Western Europe, but whilst their premises may appear similar, their manner of approach could not be more different. Pavane, one of the key masterworks of British science fiction, is structured as a series of linked short stories. Told from the point of view of a range of characters, these stories offer differently angled glimpses into the lives of ordinary citizens of Pavane's theocratic dystopia. Reading it is a lived experience—a danced experience almost (a pavane is a courtly dance, a stately progression), and Roberts's vigorous, muscular prose resonates in the mind and heart long after the final pages have been turned. The Alteration, by contrast, is not so much a lived experience but a lucid critique (to appropriate Trollope again) of the way we might have lived now. It is a didactic book, an analytical book, a fiercely clever book, and above all a superbly written book, but it is never entirely immersive. It is almost as if Amis, practicing in an unfamiliar medium, is afraid to let go, to make mistakes. The one area where we see Amis more liberated is in his depictions and metaphorical explorations of the musical art. Here, his clear knowledge of and love for the subject burst through like gusts of fresh air to breathe life into a novel which, without them, might have finally proved too stiff and too cautious to be judged wholly satisfactory in literary terms:
There were two melodies that necessarily involved the same harmonic structure, but they would not fit within it together, and each resisted alteration to make it conform with its fellow. Both in turn proved impossible to drive out. Hubert frowned and sweated and began to feel the passing of time. What he had so nearly grasped was on the point of slipping away from him when the third melody appeared and, in the act of doing so, revealed itself as the air on which the other two were variations. . . . Should he write out the whole piece and win Master Morley's praise for his apparent diligence, or produce only half and save himself thought for the next half-week? (p. 38)
If the counterfactualism of The Alteration was something of an experiment for Amis, his 1969 novel The Green Man shows him firmly on home turf as comic novelist and social realist. Here, in his story of the functioning alcoholic landlord of a Suffolk public house called The Green Man, Amis seems at once more at home and more relaxed, more ready to let rip. That Amis achieves this within a narrative where the rowdy customers our hero has to deal with are not the usual predictable bunch of local yokels, but ghosts from the fifteenth century, makes The Green Man all the more remarkable. This is a masterpiece of speculative fiction at the highest level, with little in the English ghost story canon to to rival it, at least at novel length, until the appearance of Nicola Barker's Darkmans (2007) almost forty years later.
In The Green Man we meet Maurice Allington, an irascible and opinionated narrator who seems to be having a bit of a mid-life crisis. His wife Margaret—who left him for another man—has recently been killed in a road accident, leaving him with teenage daughter Amy and new wife Joyce as the owner and proprietor of the Green Man restaurant and pub. For someone as fond of the sauce as Maurice, this might seem to be an unwise choice of career. Having reached a stage of life where death suddenly seems uncommonly close for comfort, he sets about recapturing something of his bygone youth—firstly by trying to spice up his sex life, secondly by delving into the mysteries of "self mastery" as laid down in an ancient document by the inn's resident ghost, the erstwhile Cambridge scholar and necromancer Thomas Underhill.
If there are two central facets that make The Green Man a novel of rare quality, one is its riotous juxtaposition of horror and farce, the other is the inimitable voice of its narrator. Dryly acerbic, wittily erudite, sweepingly intolerant of all men's foibles including his own, Maurice Allington is a superb comic creation, all the more so in the way he is consistently able to gain his readers' sympathies in spite of his (very many) personal failings. With his terminal weakness for alcohol and unpredictable temperament, many have suggested that Maurice is Kingsley Amis's own closest fictional counterpart, an impression heightened by Maurice's ironical and determined contempt for the modern novel. In a passage near the end of the book, Maurice tries to distract himself from the impending arrival of Underhill's ghost by reading a novel that, from his description of it, sounds uncannily like the work of Kingsley Amis's son and fellow writer Martin Amis:
To the endemic unreality of all fictions, the author had added contributions of his own: an inability to leave even the most utilitarian sentence unadorned by some verbal frill or knob or curlicue, recalling those savage cultures whose sacred objects and buildings are decorated in every square inch, a rooted habit of proceeding by way of violent and perfunctory transitions from one slackly observed scene to the next; and an unwanted method of characterization whereby, having portrayed a person as one sort of cliché, he presently revealed him as a predictable different sort of cliché. Oh well, what had I expected. The thing was a novel. (p. 189)
That this wry and amusing set of observations immediately precedes the major supernatural episode of the novel is typical of Amis, who is able to glide seamlessly from the driest put-down to scenes of genuine pathos and, occasionally, terror. In an earlier scene we observe a Maurice in the warm glow of post-coital satisfaction (he has just seduced Diana Maybury, the wife of the local doctor and the woman he intends as the "third wheel" in his ultimately hilariously unsatisfactory "orgy project"), running slap-bang into a supernatural manifestation of hideous malignancy. There is no attempt by Amis to construct an architecture of terror in the way so many "how to" essays on horror writing insist that we must. Amis—through Maurice—simply tells it like it is, and the effect is devastating:
Immediately I felt very frightened indeed. At first—if it makes any sense to say so—this did not alarm me. I am well acquainted with causeless fear, with the apparently random onset of all the standard symptoms, from accelerated pulse and breathing to tingling at the base of the neck and rear part of the scalp, sudden profuse sweating and a strong desire to cry out. Then, as my heart went into a prolonged stumbling tremor, the concomitants of fear, in themselves no more than very disagreeable, seemed to bring fear itself. I halted on the path. For a few seconds I wondered if I were really about to die, but soon after that I became certain that whatever was going to happen was outside me. What it might be, or where, I could not imagine. (p. 72)
What Amis shows us most of all in The Green Man is that the best horror fiction does not necessarily set out to be horror fiction. Horror, rather than being an effect one strives artificially to produce, should arise naturally out of the story, revealed to us through the feelings and actions and inner worlds of the characters who populate it. In its demonstration of such sound accounting, The Green Man is not just a damn fine ghost story, it is a masterclass in the writing of horror fiction. In its exploitation of particularly English archetypes—the John Dee/Aleister Crowley-type dark magus, the mouldering document in a Cambridge library, the manifestation of pagan spirits in bucolic surroundings—the novel reveals both a grudging love for such (M. R.) Jamesian tropes and a healthy and articulate desire to subvert them. And if I felt disappointed by Amis's resorting to the outmoded method of Christian exorcism to despatch his ghoul at the end, the spectacle of the social-climbing provincial vicar, more interested in hob-nobbing with the aristocracy than in dispelling ghosts, shaking his head in disbelief before sprinkling holy water in a paroxysm of annoyance, was certainly funny enough to justify his use of such a trope:
"Oh come on. You mean you've actually been seeing ghosts? Really . . . You don't suppose a lot of religious mumbo jumbo could have the slightest effect, do you? On anything?"
"I don't know. I’d like to give it a trial. It would be a great favor to me if you'd just run through the service, Rector."
I was fully prepared to tell him in the plainest terms that no exorcism meant no invitation to the party, but he was ahead of me. No doubt the course of his career had trained him to recognize a quid pro quo as soon as he set eyes on one, or rather overtrained him, because he would never get any kind of quo from me. With the irritation his face was so well constructed to express, he asked, "When?" (p. 208)
NYRB Classics editions include among their number such classics of speculative fiction as Adolfo Bioy Casares's The Invention of Morel, Daphne Du Maurier's Don't Look Now, Alan Garner's Red Shift, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's Memories of the Future, Jan Morris's Hav, Christopher Priest's The Inverted World, and Robert Sheckley's story collection The Store of the Worlds. Adding these two novels by Kingsley Amis to that list makes perfect sense. In his treatment of speculative themes, Kingsley Amis shows himself to be simultaneously well clued up and deliciously irreverent, therefore blessed with precisely those qualities required to produce literature of lasting excellence.
One reads Kingsley Amis above all for his writing, for the robust elegance and surly plasticity of his sentences, for his throwaway erudition, for the acidic remark beautifully turned. Amis's prime concern as a writer is with literary values—a watertight sentence structure, consistency and verisimilitude in matters of characterization, the resonant evocation of a sense of place, and it follows from this that Amis's essays in genre are anything but generic. If that fact leads some so-called SF aficionados to dismiss Amis's speculative writing as an aberrant irrelevance, that is their loss. I would argue the contrary, that these uniquely original works should be required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the history of SF, and those with a passion for British speculative fiction in particular should read or reread them immediately.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in Best Horror of the Year #2, Year's Best SF #28, and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012. Her story cycle The Silver Wind was published by Eibonvale Press in 2011, and her most recent book, Stardust, will be available from PS Publishing in 2013. Nina's website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.