Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
—John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”
What’s it like when a favorite source of entertainment kicks off its boots, lies back, and gives up the ghost? These days it happens all the time on the web. Sparkly or snarky blogs exhaust themselves and vanish in a puff of electrons going dark. Immersive shooters and war games lose their fan base in a fit of fashion, and shrink or disappear. Solid TV series with insufficient market grab—the Canadian science fiction/time travel policier Continuum, say—are abruptly not renewed, and the truncated stories just fizzle. Magazines? (Huh? What are they? ask the kids, twiddling their thumbs on tiny keyboards.)
Ah, well, yes, magazines. Most of those printed on paper lost their previous ecological footing years ago, and now the remaining few limp along on sales ten or twenty times smaller than they commanded at their peak. In October 2015, Neil Clarke of the notable ezine Clarkesworld remarked mournfully: “Did you know that there are only three genre fiction magazines that completely support themselves from the revenue they generate? These are Analog, Asimov’s, and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, collectively known as the Big Three. Others, like Tor.com and Subterranean (now closed), are supported by the revenue of their parent companies.”
But circulation decline is not new, and in the past, too, it was caused largely by competition with new media and entertainments. More than half a century ago sales decline slowly sapped the lifeblood out of the British imaginative confection Science Fantasy. Its long-time editor John “Ted” Carnell abandoned his creations—not only bimonthly Science Fantasy, but also the more famous monthly New Worlds and its pulpy half-brother Science Fiction Adventures (gone by mid 1963). They were all shuttered, along with Nova Publications, by the middle of 1964, after decades of holding up the lamp for the whimsical, the space operatic, the strange and—rather too often, it has to be admitted—the lame and the halt. But at their peak, they were worth the investment of some pocket money every month or two for another portal into tomorrow, the sideways worlds, the uncanny past, and indeed the feverish—the charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam of perilous seas, in, you know, faery lands forlorn. (And let’s hear some noise for the late, great Mr. Keats!)
The febrile New Wave roared in a bit later, when Carnell closed the Nova office (after helping, in a rather baffled way, by earlier accepting non-traditional stories like “The Terminal Beach” by the audacious J.G. Ballard). Surprisingly, the somewhat sleazy paperback outfit Roberts & Vinter—She Sleeps to Conquer, Ripe for Rapture, and so on—showed interest in reviving the recently dead. Two new editors stepped forward to test the reins, to take the old warhorses for a canter. So in the mid-1960s, for a brief and intriguing span of years, the two main magazines returned to fitful life, in the guise of mass market paperbacks: New Worlds (under Mike Moorcock’s hand and eye) and Science Fantasy (ostensibly with editorial direction from an Italo-Slovene-English Oxford art dealer with an improbable name, Kyril Bonfiglioli, but actually driven this way and that much of the time by SF fan James Parkhill-Rathbone, US comic strip writer and SF jack of all trades Harry Harrison, and the irascible, talented writer/artist Keith Roberts).
John Boston traced these eddies in the ocean of story (to change the metaphor from warhorses to wavy seahorses) in three marvelous books I had the privileged of curating: first, Strange Highways (the history of Science Fantasy, from Summer 1950 to April 1964, plus the non-Carnell iterations from June 1964 to February 1967); second, Building New Worlds (1946-1950) and third, its companion or concluding volume, New Worlds: Before the New Wave (1960-64, including a full treatment of SF Adventures, 1958-1963).
In Strange Highways, Boston recalled one startling step in this transmutation from the Carnell epoch:
By general assessment, Bonfiglioli was a lazy and offhand helmsman, whose work was largely left to his assistants… especially after Bonfiglioli famously bought a Tintoretto at a country auction for 40 pounds and sold it for a thousand times (or perhaps 10,000 times) as much. Different versions of this tale exist. Kevin Jackson, in The Independent, reports: “In 1964, Bon heard rumors that a Resurrection by a certain well-known 16th-century Venetian master was up for sale at an absurdly low reserve price. He went to the auction... and bought it, as if on an absent-minded whim, for 40 quid. It was, as he had immediately seen, a genuine Tintoretto. He immediately sold it for £4,000—a not inconsiderable sum... back in the Sixties.” Brian Aldiss, who gets the painter wrong—he says it was “a Giorgione”—claims Bonfiglioli knew it was “worth a half million.”
This was charming and fantastical enough to make Bonfiglioli’s name one to conjure with even today, although the lazy man of leisure went on to make his own mark with a series of hilarious and beautifully written picaresque crime novels told by a louche fellow, Charlie Mortdecai, recognizably himself, with his man-servant or “thug” Jock Strapp, who chase criminals or perhaps enact crimes themselves: Don’t Point that Thing at Me, Something Nasty in the Woodshed and After You With the Pistol. By 2015, these delightful books had attained cinematic heft with Johnny Depp in the role of Mordecai.
Is this a suitable CV for a fresh helmsman at Science Fantasy? As it proved, Bonfiglioli’s tastes were more closely aligned with those of, say, P.G. Wodehouse rather than John Brunner or Ken Bulmer, let alone Moorcock or Antonin Artaud. For one mad moment, he toyed with changing the title to Caliban, but settled first on the somewhat vacant Impulse and then as the circulation keep draining toward a sunless sea changed it again to SF Impulse, presumably hoping to claw back some of the old guard readers.
Yet things might have gone in a more hyperliterary direction at the outset, as Boston reports:
For a brief moment it seemed that J.G. Ballard would become editor, and it is clear that he would have changed the magazine very drastically away from its science-fantasy roots… In the event, Ballard was furious, and gone, when he learned that two issues (or at least the covers and tables of contents) had been put in process by Keith Roberts… The publishers’ distributor went broke, and in February 1967, with its 93rd issue under its third title [SF Impulse], Science Fantasy was closed by Roberts & Vinter.
Wrapping up Strange Highways, Boston drew from his wizard’s hat a selection of the best or at least the most bedeviling stories from the Carnell years, as well as from the renewed Science Fantasy and its successor incarnations. So more recently, in a fit of nostalgia, Boston and I built two sturdy anthologies from the Carnell years of Science Fantasy, choosing stories from great names such as Brian W. Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Kenneth Bulmer, A. Bertram Chandler, Michael Moorcock, Thomas Burnett Swann, and E.C. Tubb, plus intriguing items by lesser known and sometimes frankly forgotten scribes: Jonathan Burke, Philip E. High, Martin Jordan, John Kippax, others. But these Science Fantasy selections—The Daymakers, and City of the Tiger—were bounded by the Carnell years.
What of the stories that came after, in the years of Kyril Bonfiglioli and Keith Roberts?
Well, here are names that fans of the scientific fantastic still conjure with—Aldiss, Ballard, Christopher Priest, Josephine Saxton, Stableford—and also Keith Roberts, dead at 65 in 2000, Thomas Swann, his brilliant lyricism stolen from us in 1976 when he was just 48, Chris Boyce, dead at 56 in 1999, glimmering at the edge of night, rescued here for a moment at least.
One of the writers in this memorial volume exclaimed when we asked for permission to reprint his story: “The mind boggles. Fifty years later (and more...).” Yes, so long ago, yet still these stories offer their sparks of pleasure and insight and wackiness. That writer went on: “I really loved Science Fantasy when I was in my early teens. Seems like only yesterday.” It does, and it can rekindle that emotion, possibly even in those younger readers for whom their teens are only yesterday.
And who are the story-tellers, and what stories do they tell?
John Rackham, frequent nom de plume of the British electrical engineer and nudist John T, Phillifent, published often with Carnell, and John W. Campbell at Analog, continuing in Science Fantasy with a certain perverse sexual pizzazz. “Bring Back a Life” combines mental time travel with an uneasy crypto-incest theme, familiar to science fiction readers from the work of Robert Heinlein, another devoted nudist.
Thomas Burnett Swann’s “Vashti” takes us back even farther in time, to a mythologized Persia and Mesopotamia. Here is Vashti, the gloriously beautiful but perhaps demonic wife of Xerxes, with her unusual wound, and the brilliant dwarf with the Greek name Ianiskos. Swann’s writing is limpid as ever, and his imagination shot with delicate but tangy/Tanguy colors—one of the great gifts from Science Fantasy, for which Carnell must be thanked.
Josephine Saxton’s first story, “The Wall,” published when she was 30, launched a career that later generations would see as exemplary in its feminism. There’s an unnerving tale connected to this story: “Bonfiglioli is important to me because I naively sent off my story to the address in the magazine, which was actually a warehouse, not the office, and Bonfig did not find it until six months later, on the floor behind the door, during which time I had moved house and thought that my story was not acceptable. His letter was mailed on to me.” Saxton was once described by my friend Cherry Wilder as resembling the Queen of the Night from Mozart’s Magic Flute. Her fiction was no less darkly passionate.
Brian Stableford, writing with a school chum, sold “Beyond Time’s Aegis” when they were both perhaps 17. He was a prodigy then and remains one, producing millions of well-turned words annually in translations from the French, critical essays, and fiction of his own.
The brilliant Brian W. Aldiss, who turned 90 recently, investigates age and its potential cure in “The Circulation of the Blood,” another tale tinged with uncommon sexual dealings well known to Freud.
J.G. Ballard, equally brilliant, wrote a sequence of what he presented as compressed novels: assemblages of memes, icons, posters, fragments speaking, he hoped, directly to the unconscious. “You and Me and the Continuum” is one of the key examples of this program, later abandoned for more accessible and successful narrative. But these jagged pieces, collected in The Atrocity Exhibition, retain the power to gaze back at us, like the fabled Nietzschean abyss, and challenge our easy acceptance of the commonplace.
Christopher Priest, another of the youthful talents of the 1960s who found an early home in Science Fantasy (by this time in the guise of Impulse), sounded in “The Run” the theme of nuclear doom that hung over the 1950s and well into the 1960s, the equivalent for those decades of the millenarian dread pervading our our crackpot post-9/11 times. The story is remarkable as well, it’s worth noting, for a glimpse of youthful fury and justified, despairing resentment seen more recently in the Occupy movement.
Key editor and artist of the post-Carnell magazine, Keith Roberts, created what one can only hope is a lasting masterpiece in the sequence of stories that finally would be shaped into the fix-up novel Pavane, sprung from the murder of Queen Elziabeth I in 1588, a critical divergence from our history into one where the Pope holds global command of the Church Militant. “Corfe Gate” is the superb payoff of this allo-trajectory, here presented in its uncut original magazine text (with a future-history inner frame that positions the “steampunk” 1960s of its alternative reality). This is masterful fiction that simply steps beyond ordinary genre conventions.
Robert Wells tells another psychopompic tale of a world after the planetary disaster everyone was waiting to ruin their lives (as we do now, under the ever-increasing heat shock of global climate change, a factor not foreseen by many in the 1960s). “Stop Seventeen” is a pause in the flight through darkness and menacing wild dog packs, but more than that—a kind of Ouroboros waiting room to the life review reportedly a feature of near death experience.
Chris Boyce, who died abruptly at work in 1999 while talking with a colleague, produced terrifying comic visions of life and art in a future where minds and personalities can be rewritten. “Mantis” is a breakneck canivalesque gallop through every rotten impulse and fantasy of science that a clever writer could pour onto paper. It probably needs a large TRIGGER WARNING stamped across every page.
Here, then, are ten tales devoted to happiness, dread and mystery, along with a tincture of scorching irony, something old, something true, something beautiful and haunting, and more than one zany escapade. If reading is a kind of directed dreaming, with our eyes open while viewing imagined people and scenery, what happens when perchance we wake? I think if we’re doing it right, we carry the magic into our daily lives. After all, as Prince Hamlet didn’t quite say, who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, the pangs of despised love, the law's delay, the insolence of office and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes, when you can just… wake up? Enough of bearing the damned fardels, all that grunting and sweating under a weary life! Just enjoy the impulse!