Six and a Half Things You Didn't Know About Brian Stableford

This is the trouble about living down the road from a practically famous author: crazed convention organizers expect you to know and reveal all his most embarrassing inner secrets. I'm not actually sure whether Brian Stableford has embarrassing secrets, since unlike like eighty or ninety SF hacks you and I could both mention, he seems completely lacking in pretensions about the awesome literary inwardness of his works.

Autobiographical comments from that direction tend to run more along the lines of "Oh, that book only took a week or two to write, I was a bit young then and did it in the school holidays." Or: "My editor told me to jot down the plots of the Odyssey and Iliad with lots of SF names and spaceships, and it would sell as a trilogy ... it did too, people thumping each other with swords all over the galaxy." Or: "Of course my novels aren't all cynical and sarcastic. In one of them, if I remember correctly, the hero very nearly got the girl."

Brian, indeed, says wittier and more cutting things about himself than I ever could, and to earnest seekers after truth I recommend his long autobiographical piece in the 50th issue of Foundation (Autumn 1990), explaining in depth how he founded a science-fictional career on myopia, sarcasm and flour beetles.

Inside knowledge? Brian as collaborator is slightly unnerving: I've worked with him on non-fiction masterpieces (The Science in Science Fiction, The Third Millennium) and find he tends to dash off 30,000 words of polished final copy while I'm still staring at the terrible blank expanse under the heading "Chapter One". Brian as critic can be utterly devastating ("This stroppy little man," expostulated a certain Mr Aldiss), but after wielding his awesome knowledge of unreadable 19th-century SF and carving a swathe through today's fantasy grot, he often comes up praising some rare and unexpected gem. One of his non-sarky reviews helped boost Robert Irwin's fine The Arabian Nightmare from small-press obscurity to a major hardback release.

Older pictures of Brian show him sinisterly bearded; he gave all that up some years ago, which must have added to his charms, as in May 1987 he married the lovely Jane. Then, while she fondly stayed in Reading, Brian dashed off for a non-honeymoon at a futurological conference in Tokyo. Such is the hectic life of a writer / critic / biologist / futurologist / sociologist.... Drafting a piece about him in March for a 1991 Swedish con where he was to be guest, I wanted to check some of the more hideously offensive and libellous remarks with their subject -- no good, though, he was globetrotting again and was last sighted at the International Conference on the Fantastic in Florida.

Brian the Public Speaker has also evolved before my stupefied gaze. Many years ago he nervously and mumblingly addressed the local SF group with what appeared to be bits of his old Encyclopedia of SF articles, but it was hard to decipher enough to be sure. By the mid-eighties he'd obviously been practising on helpless guinea-pig audiences at Reading University lectures: at a Cymrucon he held the audience spellbound with a hilarious forty-minute talk, impromptu, on SF as exemplified by the life and philosophy of Wittgenstein. I would say nice things about his later speech at one Beccon, but that was the time I got up too early for my single day's conventioneering, drove for countless exhausted miles, collapsed into the front row, and went to sleep. They told me later that Brian's comments on this snoring figure comprised a tour de force of protracted abuse without hesitation, deviation or repetition. Wish I'd, as it were, been there.

Brian the Radio Personality is one persona with which I've shared the odd microphone, trying to plug books like The Third Millennium. It usually went something like this....

INTERVIEWER: I really enjoyed this marvellous book the, um, Third Million. And one of the things I particularly wanted to ask you about was, er, [opens book at random] this picture, this very imaginative picture of, er, [squints at caption] a 27th century electronic ... sexual ... stimulation ... device?

BRIAN: I want to start by saying we had nothing to do with the pictures. Disregard the pictures. Other hands inserted them without our knowledge.

ME: And the captions too. Ask about anything but the pictures and captions. And tables. And maps.

BRIAN: And do remember that this is a book of speculation, not prediction. It's an imaginative history of the future.

ME: With a bit of wishful thinking about the gloomy bits.

BRIAN: Because you can't have World War III in 1995 or whenever if you want lots more interesting future history all the way from 2000 to 3000.... [You can tell this was pre-Gulf War.]

INTERVIEWER: Oh yes. So, on what grounds do you make this very daring prediction of [inserts hastily selected random sentence from book here], and do you really expect us to believe it will come true...?

[The authors groan, in stereo.]

The best part of these radio ventures was chatting in the pub afterwards about the number of active brain cells possessed by the interviewer, the millions of terrible review copies we'd recently read (Brian: "I didn't actually read XXXX, I only had to synopsize it for this reference book, not review it...."), and the unspeakable horror of the literary life.

Which brings us back to Brian the Skiffy Author, for whom I had a lot of fondness before ever meeting the man himself. Besides any books mentioned above (ahem), seek out Man in a Cage (his most ambitious and hardest to find), The Walking Shadow (that was the one whose first British printing sold out in an incredible seven weeks -- after which the publishers, piqued by the public's failure to buy at a more restrained rate, declined to reprint), the six Grainger/Hooded Swan books beginning with Halcyon Drift(whose cynical, non-violent hero has a lot of the author in him), the enjoyable "younger readers" fantasy The Last Days of the Edge of the World, and his major recent novels The Empire of Fear (the ultimate Scientific Romance about vampires) and The Werewolves of London. Oh, and he's just edited one of the oddest theme anthologies ever, Tales of the Wandering Jew, tracing the fictional adventures of that unfortunate chap from 18th and 19th century classics through to the latest SF/fantasy treatments by, well, various hands including St*blef*rd and L*ngf*rd. His new story collection Sexual Chemistry consists largely of a cycle of "Third Millennial" SF related to that book's future history, and thanks to the title was shelved in our local Blackwell's under popular science.

He's also publishing fantasies under the pseudonym "Brian Craig", for Games Workshop's series of books set in their shared world of the dreadful Warhammer game. The stories are moderate fun and I don't understand why Brian seemed a trifle upset when I warned readers in a review that the cover illustration of Plague Daemon (second in that sequence) was so vile, pustular, loathsome and diseased that you could probably catch gangrene and leprosy merely by touching the book.

Along with John Clute and Peter Nicholls, Brian is additionally working on the mammoth second edition of the Encyclopedia of SF. Like the other editors who toiled so long and hard on the first edition of 1979, he is waiting with keen interest to learn whether, yet again, Peter Nicholls's name will be the only one appearing on the jacket.

How can I conclude except by saying that Brian is the most cruelly misrepresented author in British SF? Half the fanzines and a goodly percentage of reference books perpetuate this terrible injustice, by spelling his name "Stapleford". Yes, historians of the future are easily confused and Olaf Stabledon has a lot to answer for.


Footnote

That was the 1991 revision of this piece. Further good stuff by Brian includes The Angel of Pain and The Carnival of Destruction (completing the Werewolves of London trilogy), The Hunger and Ecstasy of Vampires and its sequel The Black Blood of the Dead, and the vast -- all right, slightly over-vast -- Genesys trilogy whose fantasy quest trappings conceal some thoughtful and far-out biological speculation. [1997]