Fission Fragments 2

That vile and sneering term sci-fi has again been polluting the airwaves, on A Better Read, the programme which shows TV's reverence for literature by appearing at 9.05 on Sunday mornings. The guilty lips were those of a person called Bill Grundy: "You don't like me saying that, do you?" he gloated as Chris Priest and Bob Shaw winced under the repeated lash of sci-fi. (He also condemned SF on the grounds of garish cover art, which is a good deal less logical than condemning TV as a whole on the grounds of Bill Grundy,) Allow me to outline a response to such boorishness. With the air of one correcting an idiot child you must earnestly explain that – as it happens – the word fiction is pronounced with a short I. After some thought, your loathsome adversary will no doubt retort, "Don't be silly. Everybody knows what sci-fi means." This point you humbly concede, adding that after all it's merely an oversensitive minority group which objects to the term: such silly prejudice doesn't frighten plain and forthright TV front-men, who are not afraid to use plain words disliked by minorities, like sci-fi or coon or n*gg*r. Three cheers for free speech, Mr. Grundy.

Rinsing our mouths with organic solvent (70-proof for choice), let's proceed to the Real Thing – science fiction – SF, which in this column at least is pronounced esseff. Other pronunciations currently favoured are recession, ruin and bankruptcy, since SF and publishing in general seem in a bad way. The monstrously swollen SF boom reached its peak in America last year, with more than 100 titles being published each month, ominous rumblings set in towards the end of the year. Why? Although publishers convinced that SF = Big Money can easily flood the market with books, it's not at all easy to maintain any semblance of quality. 1978-79 saw an incredible amount of shoddiness, with any seemingly popular trend (space opera, giant meteorites, black holes, bad grammar) milked to the point of sterility; with old bad books by Name authors reissued by the score, always with new covers and not infrequently with new titles; with short books printed in huge type and eked out with mediocre illustrations while big books which ought to have been short are padded to 300 or 500 pages because "Big Books Sell".

The crash had to come; let's hope it isn't so disastrous that those all-powerful and Mekonlike beings, the accountants, don't say forever after "Ah, SF doesn't sell." US publishers are now retrenching rapidly; three UK paperback houses have already sagged, if rumours are true. Penguin are cutting back by 20% overall and axing their entire SF line – a line already enfeebled by their failure to renew options on many fine books, so that Ballard's first four novels will now appear elsewhere while Blish's Black Easter and The Day After Judgment join his other works at Arrow (they'll be published as a single volume).

An odd result of the axing is that Jack Chalker's "Well World" trilogy will be published up to the first half of the third book only. (Penguin are less eager for Big Books than the original US publishers, Del Rey, so they're splitting books 2 and 3 into two volumes apiece.) I have nothing good to say about the books themselves, but this – if true – is appallingly bad practice. Eyre Methuen are also cutting back on their Magnum SF line, but no exciting details have emerged. Hamlyn Paperbacks have cancelled their SF with incredible swiftness, as from the publication of the Kuttner collection Clash by Night: Kuttner enthusiasts lose out heavily here, since Hamlyn own rights to all the Kuttners' other books but do not care to publish them – meanwhile, nobody else can. The Hamlyn line stood out (if that's the word I'm groping for) for its great lack of publicity and its awful covers, enabling them (despite some good titles) to achieve astonishingly poor sales, boom or no boom.

The education cuts, rather than the collapsing SF boom, are responsible for the coming demise of Britain's only academic institution devoted to SF: the Science Fiction Foundation at the North East London Polytechnic. The Foundation gave SF an aura of academic respectability (anyone muttering sci-fi in its vicinity would shortly find the complete works of Stanislaw Lem rammed up his nostril) and provided somewhere for learned men and others to discover that SF is not all Perry Rhodan and Space: 1999. Its major achievement is the magazine Foundation, arguably the best critical journal of SF in the world – which, it seems, will survive the crash. The Foundation was also indirectly responsible for the Granada Encyclopaedia of SF, a monumental work despite a thin scattering of errors. But when Malcolm Edwards, the current Administrator, leaves in April he will not be replaced. What happens to the magnificent reference library is anyone's guess ...

Not all is stagnation and decay. After the shaky start mentioned last time, the newly-formed Virgin Books is steaming ahead and should publish several things this year – including the first unexpurgated English versions (French versions have appeared) of Philip Jose Farmer's The Mad Goblin and Lord of the Trees: the Ace editions, shortly to be reprinted, are very heavily censored. Gosh. Gollancz also seem immune to pessimism and are producing no fewer than eight hardbacks in June, including Pohl's sequel to Gateway, Niven's sequel to Ringworld and Silverberg's sequel to his so-called departure from the SF field, a long SF novel called Lord Valentine's Castle.

And the British SF Association is booming, with a vast membership and four regular magazines: Vector, mainly critical but with articles by and interviews with the famous; Matrix, a chatty newsletter; Focus, for intending writers; and Paperback Inferno, reviewing all UK paperback SF in the manner of the Firemen in Fahrenheit 451. SAE for membership details to the Chairman at 20 Hermitage Woods Crescent, St. John's, Woking, Surrey, GU21 1UE.

The BSFA also runs the only professional SF award in Britain. Now it's easily argued that there are too damned many awards for SF and fantasy: even the Hugos, oldest and most respectable, are somewhat devalued. Once upon a time the label "Hugo Award Winner" – or, more often, "!!!!HUGO AWARD WINNER!!!!" – on a book wasn't a bad indication of quality within; these days, desperate publishers tend to go further and put HUGO WINNING AUTHOR on every book of every author who long ago picked up the award for a short story in a year of poor competition. (Though a Hugo was never a guarantee of excellence: here's James Blish on the subject of a book which only last year was purchased for reprint at no little cost: "Is there a soul now alive who remembers They'd Rather Be Right which in 1956 drew the second Hugo ever awarded a piece of fiction? Unfortunately, I do, and I wish I didn't." That was in 1970.) The Hugos have also suffered through the very hugeness of world conventions, whose members vote on them – since a "silent majority" of people who haven't read more than a few of the nominated works will nevertheless happily vote for big name authors whether or not their current offerings are worthwhile.

The Nebula awards, voted on by the Science Fiction Writers of America, started well but have deteriorated (through lack of interest and frenzied internal logrolling, or so the story goes) to the point where it's said that being a prominent member of SFWA and getting your friends to plug your story in SFWA publications are much more important factors in Nebula-winning than any rubbish about good writing. And there's a plethora of lesser awards like the "Gandalf" fantasy award which until this year was run along with the Hugos, so that although the Hugo novel award is for SF and fantasy, the presence of a Gandalf novel category on the same ballot drew away fantasy novels' votes to the lesser award. Thus Michael Moorcock's fine Gloriana appeared on the Gandalf but not the Hugo shortlist – and was withdrawn by the author, who didn't care for even that much association with Tolkien ...

We can only hope that the BSFA awards won't go downhill in the same way; let's show these foreigners how to do it. Voting is open to BSFA members and attendees of the annual Easter SF Convention (which this year is, or was, depending on Ad Astra's schedule, being held at the Albany Hotel in Glasgow): the shortlisted items are as follows.

NOVEL: The Unlimited Dream Company (Ballard; Cape), The Fountains of Paradise (Clarke; Gollancz), On Wings of Song (Disch; Gollancz), Blind Voices (Reamy; Sidgwick & Jackson), AKA: A Cosmic Fable (Swigart; Magnum).

SHORT FICTION: 'Camps' (Dann; F&SF), 'Sex Pirates of the Blood Asteroid' (Langford; Aries, Penthouse), 'Prose Bowl' (Malzberg & Pronzini; F&SF), 'Crossing into Cambodia' (Moorcock; Twenty Houses of the Zodiac), 'Palely Loitering' (Priest; F&SF, An Infinite Summer).

MEDIA: Alien, The China Syndrome, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (record), Dr. Who, Quatermass.

ARTIST: Jim Burns, Chris Foss, John Harris, Peter Lord, Tony Roberts, Patrick Woodroffe.

It seems that BSFA members (whose nominations produced this shortlist) are less influenced than Americans by the lowest-common-denominator fiction so often found in Analog, Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine and Omni, which between them accounted for seven out of fifteen short-fiction nominations in last year's Hugos. (The presence of British rubbish like the Langford story is no doubt because Langford is on the BSFA committee. Disgusting, I call it.) Next time around I'll tell you the results; perhaps publishers will take note of this pointer to British tastes; some of them do seem to be sitting in England aiming for an American market and then wondering why sales are poor...

In brief: Harlan Ellison has announced loudly (how else?) that he's working on a guaranteed blockbuster which, he promises, will in two years be at the top of the best-seller lists. Make a note in your diaries for 1982, everyone. R.L. Fanthorpe has pointed out that, despite my comments last time, he will not be reprinting all 170 of the awful books he wrote for Badger (mysteriously printed as 'Bagber' last issue, in case you were wondering): just some of them. Omni fiction editor Robert Sheckley has announced that the fact of Omni's being owned by Penthouse makes no difference; he still isn't allowed to buy stories containing nasty things like s*x. Christopher Priest has resigned from SFWA and written a long, vitriolic article for Vector saying why. Analog magazine has been sold to Davis Publications, the perpetrators of Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, who say (with the confidence of Soviet psychiatrists): "Analog has finally found a home where it will be treated properly." And – though I may be stabbed to the heart by an editorial blue pencil before I finish this sentence – preliminary results from a BSFA poll indicate that despite a year and more of Ad Astra, the favourite magazine of British SF fans is New Scientist.

Send comments, queries and requests for specific coverage to me c/o AD ASTRA. I'm also collecting amazing 'scientific' howlers for a book – things like the celebrated astronomer Newcomb saying "Aerial flight is one of that class of problems with which man will never be able to cope." (1903). Send suitable items and achieve undying fame on the acknowledgements page – perhaps also in a future "Fission Fragments".