Hell's Cartographer

1995 was a bad year for sf and fantasy. We lost Roger Zelazny. We lost Michael Ende of Neverending Story fame. We lost John Brunner. Also gone are Ian Ballantine, who co-founded the major US sf/fantasy publisher Ballantine Books; editor Charles Monteith, moving spirit of the once-great Faber sf list; British sf author Christopher Hodder-Williams; and too many others who weren't so famous but still held the sf community together.

It was such a bad year that I kept remembering a certain borderline-sf novel that's haunted by the idea of passing through a lethal node of time, a zone ruled by death. This 1966 novel is called The Anti-Death League – and shortly after I'd quoted it to friends, its author Sir Kingsley Amis was dead too. Most unsettling. Statisticians know that deaths can be expected to come in clusters. Our emotions know the exact opposite.

Amis was a major British novelist by any standards (his Booker Prize for The Old Devils was richly deserved), and the usual media obituaries gave him a good send-off. Even the most snobbish eulogist could hardly ignore Amis's fondness for popular fiction, but some of them still managed to downplay his lifelong interests. He liked and wrote spy stories (including one James Bond novel), detective puzzles, supernatural horror and science fiction.

Even his 'respectable' comic novels were unsnobbish about sf. Characters reckon it's normal to read sf magazines. In his Ending Up, a blackly funny tale of senile delinquency, someone hunts for the perfect image of what it's like to visit appalling relatives: 'Do you know that SF story where the space pilots or something do six hours on and six months off because it's so shagging? Cordwainer Smith, that's right. I thought he was overdoing it rather until I turned up here today.'

Much earlier, in the 1950s, Amis was invited to give a series of critical lectures at Princeton University, USA. To general amazement he chose sf for his subject, and expanded the lectures into a witty little volume which was very nearly the first major book of sf criticism: New Maps of Hell. It's dated now (the introduction mentions Brian Aldiss as a really promising newcomer), but still highly enjoyable. Gollancz produced a British edition in 1961, and were inspired to publish many of the authors praised in its pages. Of course the Gollancz sf list is still well known, and it's all Amis's fault....

Another helping hand for sf was the meaty 1960s Spectrum anthology series, co-edited by Amis and Robert Conquest. Amis himself wrote a few short sf and fantasy stories, and two reasonably good sf novels. The Alteration follows the well-known alternative history tradition, with Britain under repressive Catholic rule. Russian Hide and Seek is a near-future dystopia (somewhat less plausible now than in 1980) showing Britain under repressive post-communist Russian rule. This earned Amis a terrific telling-off from Margaret Thatcher, who like so many important people was too dim to realize the difference between fiction and prophecy. 'Can't you do any better than that?' she shrieked. 'Get yourself another crystal ball!'

His best genre novel is surely The Green Man, a supernatural horror story which is also wickedly comic. The narrator is a typical Amis hero ... ageing, unheroic, caddish, highly entertaining, and over-fond of sex and booze. In fact he's on the edge of alcoholism, making him the perfect tool for the spirit of an ambitious and sadistic 17th-century magician who wants to make a come-back. When your memory's dodgy and you may at any moment see pink lizards crawling up the walls, who's going to believe your reports of horrid astral attacks? This leads to a light-hearted yet deeply chilling interview with God, who regards the whole thing as a bit of a game and expects the frazzled, hungover hero to deal all by himself with the magician and his repulsive woodland golem. Fine, creepy stuff.

In his later years, Amis was notoriously a curmudgeon – but there was nothing grumpy about the speed and enthusiasm with which he wrote a new appreciation of Robert Sheckley when I begged this favour for a convention souvenir book. He did often grumble about what had befallen sf in the hands of the dread academics whose attention he'd first attracted with New Maps of Hell. Maybe he was right.

Overall, Kingsley Amis was a seriously funny author who did much for sf and wrote many novels of all kinds that stand up to re-reading. It was a bad year.