"British SF in the 1970s belonged to Ian Watson," says David Pingle of Foundation. "Watson may not be the best writer in British science fiction, but he is probably the best thinker," enthuses Peter Nicholls of Encyclopaedia of SF fame. "There is no other writer in the field who provides such a bold challenge to the imagination," insists Brian Stableford. It was with fear and trembling that Extro [that is, its representative Langford] girded itself for this interview....
Ian Watson was born in North Shields in 1943, and twenty years later escaped our educational system with a degree in English from Balliol, Oxford. Subsequently he lectured on English in Tanzania (1965-7), meeting his most terrifying challenge teaching Future Studies at Birmingham Polytechnic (1970-6). Since then he's been a full-time author, though his career began in 1969 when his short SF story "Roof Garden Under Saturn" was published in New Worlds and his educational book Japan: A Cat's Eye View in Osaka. Fame and power came with his first SF novel The Embedding (1973), a runner-up for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and Nebula finalist. Its French translation L'Enchassement won the 1975 Prix Apollo. Then came The Jonah Kit (1975), whose paperback won the 1978 British SF Association (BSFA) award; The Woman Factory, a collaboration with his wife Judy though not their daughter Jessica (published only in French translation as Orgasmachine, 1976 – but see below!); The Martian Inca and Alien Embassy (1977); Miracle Visitors (1978); The Very Slow Time Machine (1979) – the title story of this, his only collection to date, reached the final Hugo ballot; God's World (1978); The Gardens of Delight (1980); and Under Heaven's Bridge, with Michael Bishop (1981). His latest novel is Deathhunter (Gollancz, 1981). Also there are two Watson-edited SF anthologies: Pictures at an Exhibition (Greystoke Mobray, 1981) and – co-edited with Michael Bishop – Changes (1982).
Ian Watson was British Guest of Honour at the 1981 British National SF convention (where his short "The World SF Convention of 2080" was a runner-up for the BSFA award), and is Features Editor of the respected critical magazine Foundation, British representative of the SF Writers of America, deviser of the forthcoming Channel 4 TV series Mindprobe (to which he's also contributing the first and other scripts), and active in local (Labour) politics. He lives in Moreton Pinkney, Northamptonshire, and talks very fast.
Your intrepid reporter approached Ian Watson at work, crouching 1,000 feet beneath Moreton Pinkney in the deep structure of the semantic mine where this skilled artisan hacks out his novels in an atmosphere of sweat and toil. Still weary from a long shift wielding his meta-cleaver at the reality interface, he brushed loose concepts from his soiled coverall before squatting to share a traditional chip butty with me. The typically proletarian surroundings suggested an obvious first question –
Langford: In his book of interviews, Dream Makers, Charles Platt describes you as an Oxford academic. I gather you objected rather forcibly to this? Indeed, within hours of his visiting you, you and Judy and Jessica quit Oxford forever, for the fair village of Moreton Pinkney untold miles away.
Watson: Charles was unloading his own hang-ups about Oxford and Cambridge onto my head. His hang-ups were about the "horrors of academia". The reason why we ended up hating Oxford was because of the privileged frivolity of the place, its narcissism and power, and its brain-twisting grip upon the arteries of British life and thought. The only reason I would like to go back to Oxford is to demolish those colleges stone by stone and distribute the building materials around the land. Apart from their intellectually numbing effect, and their social hegemony, the Oxford colleges came out in their true colours as rich exploiters towards the end of our stay. Which is why Judy and I were both arrested for criminal damage, shortly before Charles called.
Langford: Eh! You were arrested? I mean, I blew up a pillar box as one of many merry japes at Oxford, but ...
Watson: I don't know if you know this, but in that pillar box was the first letter I ever wrote to John Brunner. Only the charred fragments of the envelope were left; but the post office delivered them to John, and he sent them back to me. When I opened the envelope and burnt scraps of my own letter to him fell out, I thought, "My God, I've really offended him!" You nearly ruined a beautiful friendship with John Brunner.
Langford: I grovel utterly. But why were you arrested?
Watson: The Oxford colleges are huge landlords. (You can walk all the way from Oxford to Hyde Park, or down to Southampton docks, without ever leaving Oxford-owned soil.) The property boom was on at the time, and St. J—'s college went crazy with greed because of the rise in central city house prices. The pressure was really on for the old tenants to get out – even if the houses just stood empty, while they coasted upward in value. The old street community was being wrecked, and replaced by rich middle-class property owners – which hardly helped the students or the academics of Oxford, whom the colleges nominally ought to have cared about. "Dons" were being forced to take out punitive mortgages in their middle years. A highly-regarded Professor next door to us was squeezed far out into the suburbs, while all the money he had spent on the house and garden vanished into the coffers of his own college.
In this way, the house next door to us got sold – to a small-time exploiter, who packed it with rowdies who kept people awake night after night, while he was living somewhere else. He also hired in people to bang and thump after working hours, "improving his property". Our whole end of the street was going mad with the unceasing disturbances. The surrounding ten households signed a petition to the owner calling on him to stop wrecking their living and working conditions. There were complaints to the Public Health, etcetera. Without result. I was losing sleep. I couldn't think to write.
A 84-year-old, one-eyed woman living over the road hobbled across one night waving her walking stick, threatening to push in a window, she was so distraught. We deterred her, and ... we did it for her. When the row started up one evening after daughter Jessie had gone to bed, and we were eating supper, we said "Okay, that's it," and in a co-ordinated 45-second operation Judy and I took out all his windows, front and back, with bricks and a hammer; and went back to get on with our supper.
Langford: That reminds me ... have another chip butty?
Watson: Thanks ... Soon police boots were pounding around the block, hunting the assailants. And eventually a couple of passing police knocked on our door, and said, "Do you happen to know anything about ..."
"Yes, we did it," said Judy and I.
The policeman staggered back, amazed.
"Then ... then ..." he gasped, "I arrest you for criminal damage."
So off we were hauled to the cop shop, and Jessie too, pulled out of bed by a sudden infusion of policemen, and even her Rupert Bear.
We explained what had been going on, and they said they'd lock us up for the night unless we promised not to go back and do it again. Judy refused, but I pointed out that since all the windows were already broken, we couldn't possibly do it again. So they phoned for a taxi for us.
Presently the case came up in court. We hadn't been in a court before, so we sat in on the previous case to observe procedure, then I defended us. We were let off with no fine and no court costs, and the police prosecuting officer came over afterwards and said, "I should like to congratulate you on your lucid presentation of the evidence, and, what's more, on having done the deed in the first place." But we did have to refund the damage. So I claimed it from the Inland Revenue as a tax-deductible business expense, since the disturbance had been interfering with work and lowering my income; and I had taken action to defend my business. While pointing out that there are grounds in law for disallowing this sort of thing, the Revenue agreed to accept it this time.
But Oxford was poison city now, because what had happened had direct economic roots in the behaviour of the colleges. What had always been latent, in happier times, now became manifest. When we left, the street was like a row of gaping teeth, about to be crowned with gold. It's educational, becoming a criminal. Immediately, one joins the majority of the population.
Langford: I know, I know. Later on, they got me for blowing up my college.... But if we could diverge wildly, onto the subject of writing? Let's try a few of the traditional questions – like, why do you write, and why write SF?
Watson: I reach a larger audience than by talking to people individually. So I can disseminate ideas more widely. In the past, maybe I would have been a travelling preacher, or a peripatetic philosopher.
Why SF? Because it's a thinking literature. (Or at least it can be.)
Langford: By "a thinking literature" do you imply that (as an "ideas" man) you find complex ideas can be put over without so much gift-wrapping, so. many concealing layers of metaphor, as would be necessary outside SF?
Watson: To answer with a metaphor: at the Annual Horticultural Show in Moreton Pinkney this year, one of the table flower arrangements was censured for having the "mechanics showing", if you squinted closely enough. I don't agree with this way of judging flower arrangements.
Langford: Your fans will all be aware that at that very show, you were awarded the Winifred Jackson Memorial Perpetual Challenge Cup for the Best Front Flower Garden: yet another coming amendment to your Encyclopaedia of SF entry! But, SF ... actually your first book Japan: A Cat's Eye View wasn't SF, was it? I also had the impression you'd written some odd things to keep the, er, thoat from the door – when we first met in the early 70s, you remarked with a curled lip that a certain Priest who shall remain nameless had written soft-porn potboilers, but aristocratic Watson wouldn't lower himself to write less than hard porn.
Watson: I didn't write A Cat's Eye View to keep the wolf from the door. I was being well-paid by the Japanese Ministry of Education at the time. The project was suggested by a Japanese educational publisher. Their Government had actually paid (!) to fly our tabby cat out to Tokyo with us – and a Japanese classic of daily life in the Meiji Era (just after Japan was forcibly opened to the West) is I am a Cat, by Natsume Soseki: contemporary life seen through a cat's eyes. So I decided to write a 1960s version of Tokyo life, seen through a British cat's eyes. The book has gone on selling ever since.
I wrote another one for the same publisher in 1977: Japan Tomorrow – an SF storybook for the same high school market, about alternative futures for Japan.
Langford: Now let's hear the bit our readers are waiting for.
Watson: Hard Porn, ah.... In a toyshop in Tokyo called Kiddyland, which catered to the American army, we picked up almost all of the innovative Essex House novels – innovative in the sense that they were an attempt to produce speculative, intelligent, artistic, satirical, socially critical pornography. (So of course the series was squashed, as soon as the controlling company realised what was going on – subversion through sex.) This was pornography as attack, not as wank-fantasy. As is my The Woman Factory, a novel of woman's liberation. A contract is being signed right now, with Playboy Paperbacks, for a new and improved edition, with a totally rewritten storyline. In the retrospect of 10 years, the book could do with rewriting. This will be the first English language edition.
And if I might say so, The Woman Factory is one of the reasons why I don't have a literary agent. Arriving back in the UK, and believing that all real writers have agents, though knowing that this novel was a dead cert for Olympia Press, I got an agent (who shall be nameless) to market it. (He did, incidentally, occupy the floor beneath Olympia Press, in Soho.) About a year later when I wanted to know what had happened, he revealed that he had submitted it unsuccessfully ... well, not exactly to the Society for the Propagation of Christian knowledge and to Oxford University Press, but almost. Had he popped upstairs with it, to Olympia? Not likely. So I sent the book myself to Olympia, they said "Great!" and zoomed it straight over to the New York office – and a couple of weeks later we saw a newspaper article about how Olympia Press had just gone bankrupt.
Your remark about my aristocratic mien is interesting, since this can only be a product of inner grace. The only aristocrats I resemble are Swinburne and Toulouse-Lautrec, both of whom were dwarfs. (As am I, due to my Northern working class origin.) À la lanterne, les aristos!
Langford: Turning again, with an immense effort, back to SF.... One of the impressive things about your first novel The Embedding is the display of expertise in numerous areas – the traditional spaceflight and alien contact, yes, but also politics and anthropology and underdeveloped countries and, especially, linguistics. Was all this part of your existing intellectual furniture, or was some swotted up for the novel?
Watson: The politics "began" after I left the gilded pleasaunce of Oxford University life for the socialist Republic of Tanzania. The possibility of writing something meaningful began then too – since my greatest dream in Oxford as a student had been to write decadent beauteous prose: a mixture of Beardsley, Huysmans, Walter Pater and Ronald Firbank – though the necessity of writing SF only became fully apparent when we got to Japan. I began writing SF, deep in future shock at the Japanese 21st century landscape of high-tech toys and eco-horror, as a survival mechanism. The anthropology and linguistics came largely when I was teaching future studies back in Birmingham, in the company of a psychologist and semiotics fellow, and a social anthropologist. I was self-taught, since Oxford didn't teach me any language theory, but only Lit. Crit. and the history of sound changes from Anglo-Saxon onwards, and how to translate Middle English texts about nuns' underwear. The Embedding grew out of my own discovery of the "soft" sciences at the time, plus the political impetus of having lived in a developing country in the third world.
Langford: So that's what you brought from outside the SF genre: what about influences from inside, if any?
Watson: While I was lying about on Oxford lawns reading Ernest Dowson with one hand, with the other I was schizophrenically clutching van Vogt. But SF seemed a bit like masturbation, a furtive pleasure which must be kept secret. I only got my head together about SF in Tokyo, where it was a tool for survival – though I had been reading the genre since I was eleven or twelve. I tend to have been influenced by the genre as a whole, rather than by a short list of books and authors.
Langford: But if you had to draw up a shortlist of authors you admire ...?
Watson: As of now: Michael Bishop, Barrington Bayley, Philip Dick (middle period), John Brunner, for example. My very favourite book is David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, and indeed I wanted (and it's still my ambition) to write the sequel to this. I wrote two chapters of the sequel, but Gollancz deterred me from continuing – and they own the copyright. To me, my chapters seemed like Lindsay reborn; though not, alas, to Gollancz. I was told that my idea of Lindsay wasn't their idea of Lindsay. Lindsay is atmospheric; I am philosophical, said they. Actually, this shows a thorough misunderstanding of Lindsay; and as far as I'm concerned, what I wrote is still Lindsay Reborn. This is a project that I will take up again one day, such as when Arcturus goes into public domain in about 1990....
Langford: Watson and Lindsay ... the mind boggles. But this yoking together of wildly different elements is familiar from your early novels. We've mentioned The Embedding; in The Jonah Kit there's whale communication plus mind transfer plus extremely far-out cosmology; and of course the unlikely connection shows up right in the title of The Martian Inca. Any profound comments?
Watson: It wasn't a deliberate trick. It's just the way I think. Possibly, as regards narrative interweaving, I was influenced by Graham Greene; possibly, by the structure of Wagner's music dramas with their leitmotifs. I read a lot of Greene, and listened to a lot of Wagner, once.
Langford: Let's have a look at the Themes of your work to date, your Message for Mankind, all that stuff. The obvious theme is the examination of reality, starting with mere different ways of looking at it in the earlier books, through a kind of transition period in Alien Embassy (various official realities for various levels of enlightenment), to the sequence starting with Miracle Visitors where the ground gets treacherous underfoot and objective reality becomes more and more dubious. In Visitors people can't grasp the "higher reality" of strange phenomena like UFOs without becoming part of it and thus strange, non-objective phenomena themselves. Later, in God's World and Gardens of Delight, whole realities have to be created from scratch by an act of imagination before they can be explored.... I remember you saying those last two were essentially mirror images of each other because – but you put these things much more beautifully than I could hope to.
Watson: You're right about the "transition period" in my books, though I myself would tend to say that Miracle Visitors marks the transition. The books up to then had been about the nature of reality, consciousness and perception, yes, but they were in a sense "innocent" books. They proceeded quite spontaneously (albeit plotted in advance). I, the author, was safely outside the reality problems confronting the characters. By which I mean that I was involved in my characters' destinies, but my own destiny wasn't in danger. Whereas in Miracle Visitors (which the themes of the earlier books led to) I myself was embroiled, as author, in the problem of "the reality of reality". And if I hadn't solved it, by completing the book, I feared that I wouldn't be able to write anything honestly again. In a sense, this is a problem that confronts any author who begins to worry about the nature of the reality that he or she is creating in a book. One answer is to begin writing "meta-texts"; fiction about fiction, meta-literature. But in my case the problem of the reality, and explicability, of the universe itself. So, as you say, in GW and The Gardens of Delight, the whole caboodle has to be created from scratch – hauled up by its own bootstraps. (Just as physical existence itself is hauled up, perhaps, by its own bootstraps.) GW and Gardens are mirror images in the sense that, in the former, the journey to an objective alien world is presented as a journey through imaginative space, the physical starship journey being also a journey through the imagination – whereas, in the latter, the creators (who are also the inhabitants) of the alien Boschworld have to imagine (and create) a human starship arriving there, in order to understand their own reality.
Langford: The "transition period" also seems to mark a division between books dealing with social and political reality, and later ones where this emphasis vanishes in favour of metaphysics – more and more abstract....
Watson: This isn't really true, because the books form an evolutionary sequence (or at least I hope so!). It would have been quite possible to dish up another third world/consciousness novel – but this would have been just repetition; it wouldn't have been an honest exploration of the themes inherent in the earlier books. It would have been the mere production of a "politically correct" commodity. By taking my themes off Earth for a while, into the outer space "laboratory", I've worked my way round ("by a commodius vicus of recirculation", as James Joyce put it) back to the triple theme of the nature of reality, power and its misuse, and utopia/dystopia, in Deathhunter. Also, the flip-side of political commitment and criticism of abuses is, in fact, the yearning for Utopia. (Politics may be the art of the possible, but Socialism is at heart the striving for utopia.) Insofar as GW and Gardens represent two very different, and not necessarily trustworthy, utopias, they are part of the earlier progression, the search for the earthly paradise.
Langford: Those two in particular also contain fairly complicated expositions of "God" and the universe, which take up a good many words. Do you think this is why some critics accuse you of being arid, of simply lecturing?
Watson: Well, I've been accused of that – but on the other hand I've also been praised for precisely the opposite. I think it all depends on the level of ambition of the reader, or critic. There's also such a thing as fixed ideas among critics and reviewers. For example, in a Thrust interview with J. G. Ballard, when they happen to discuss my books in passing ... now, where is it?
(He searches through his tool kit, tossing thanatoscopes and eschatometers out onto the ground.)
Oh yes, here we are. The interviewer says to Ballard: "So you're still, to put it crudely, an 'ideas' man rather than a 'style' man? Some people have faulted Watson as a literary stylist." And Ballard answers, in puzzlement: "He's got a good style, hasn't he? He's a good descriptive writer ... He can set a scene. I think he's got a good style ..." The point being, that Jim Ballard didn't know till then that I was supposed to have an "arid" style, or lack of it. He'd just been reading the book themselves. No one had told him. No one had injected this bit of critical colouring into his appreciation. So maybe it isn't true at all.
Langford: But how does a "fashionable" judgement like that become fashionable?
Watson: Well, I've spoken out in favour of "ideas-fiction", and have written several polemical essays about SF as a "didactic" literature: it's assumed that I'm simply making a virtue of my own "faults", and it's assumed furthermore that my characters must be different from the warm, breathing persona one is conned into accepting into one's bosom, elsewhere. People associate ideas with dryness, and oppose this in a simple binary way to warm human emotion, characterisation, well-crafted style. This is as simple-minded as a traffic light switching from red to green.
Langford: I'd wondered about a connection between the considerable ambition and complexity of God's World, and what I'd heard about its taking a long time to sell in paperback.
Watson: GW sold British paperback rights very quickly, for the highest advance to date, or since. (The recession started shortly afterwards.) It didn't sell at all in America. No doubt one of the reasons for that is that GW is a somewhat up-market book. But I was also messed around incredibly for ages by a certain Big Name Editor over there; and if a novel hasn't sold after a while in America, there's a certain tendency to regard it as having gone stale or sour. Like yesterday's doughnut.
Langford: Is GW your favourite book; have you a favourite book amongst your own? Also, though here it may be Fifth Amendment time, I wonder whether you have a least favourite Watson book ...?
Watson: Which is my favourite finger? Which is my least favourite? I would rather rephrase this: which book am I most emotionally connected with, still? (Though even this is false, as it suggests that I have divorced myself from the others.) But ... well, Miracle Visitors was the most dangerous book to write. Not merely because UFOs started manifesting themselves closer and closer to Oxford, as though they were homing in on me, but because of what I said earlier.
My least favourite book is a pretentious novel I wrote in Oxford as a student, called The Infant Gladiator. It strove mightily for effect, but I was merely writing. (Oscar Wilde, to his Aunt: "My dear, one doesn't write about things. One merely writes.")
Langford: Chris Priest and you have had rousing arguments on approaches to SF: to summarise with all my characteristic crudity, it seemed to be Watson the Didactic vs. Priest the Aesthetic. "Neither precedes the other, but aesthetics, rendered sufficiently high, can trounce didacticism any time!" said Chris in Foundation 10. Now, five years after that stage of the debate, how do the positions look to you?
Watson: Well, we did start that off, as co-editors at the time, to get a rousing debate going. The Didact versus Aesthete business really conceals an underlying political bias, which came to the fore when my dear, misguided mate Chris proclaimed at the Leeds convention, during the debate on whether SF should support causes, that Britain is an occupied country (occupied by America) and that we couldn't, and shouldn't, try to do anything to change this, even if we all get blasted into radioactive dust as a result. This is the bankruptcy of the supposedly autonomous aesthetic stance. No wonder he likes the band Status Quo!
Langford: Ouch. I hope that's just a snide comment on poor old Chris rather than a suggestion that didactic writers such as the later Heinlein stand to the left of the mere aesthetes....
Watson: You've got me there, squire. Cunning devil, aren't you?
Langford: No comment. A word more on actual writing, now – your settings, for example. Although you've got a nice line in Third World locales, I'm surprised we don't see more use of your experiences of science-fictional Tokyo?
Watson: I have used Japan a fair bit, in The Jonah Kit and then in Under Heaven's Bridge with Mike Bishop. But I don't really write autobiography, you see, I'd just as soon steep myself in a country I've never been to, and then invent it. "Imagination is not memory," said William Blake; and if we can't invent unvisited countries on our own globe, say I, then how on Earth are we going to invent alien planets?
Langford: Let me have a tiny pinch of salt for my chip butty before I ask about Watson Characters.... The Encyclopaedia of SF, here a mere mouthpiece of Peter Nicholls, would have it that your characters are mostly afflicted with anomie to the point where they become indistinguishable. How do you plead?
Watson: Actually, most people are indistinguishable from each other, most of the time. They are in a ground state, and tend to collapse back constantly into the ground state, from their brief moments of high existence. Constant high existence, and wildly differentiated individuality, is a consoling artistic fiction ... of novels, films, plays. A theme of my books is the self-reprogramming of human consciousness, to escape from this ground state.
Langford: Speaking of differentiated individuality, I must say that literary collaboration has fascinated me ever since I first shared a bottle of plonk: how did the Bishop/Watson novel Under Heaven's Bridge come about? The aliens in it are pure Bishop (from Catacomb Years and A Little Knowledge); their cybernetic God is pure Watson. I had visions of it starting with a phone call: "Hey, Ian, can you do me some metaphysics?" or "Hey, Mike, can I borrow some aliens till next Thursday?"
Watson: I was fascinated by Mike's alien Cygnusians in CY and ALK and wrote – we write to each other frequently – asking if he was going to do a story set on their home world, since they certainly deserved it. He said he wasn't planning such, but why didn't I do it, or why didn't we both do it together?
So I nipped out and did some research on 61 Cygni (separation of the binary stars, spectral classes, etc.) and discovered to my dismay that we couldn't use 61 Cygni after all. So I invented the Gemini system instead, and wrote sections of the tale (which was going to be a novella at this stage) and mailed them to Mike. Looking at the sections I wrote, in retrospect, it doesn't really seem to me as though I wrote them at all – as I was doing my best to think in Bishopese at the time. I'd say we can both do that for each other. Though we've never met, or even spoken on the phone, we can become a two-headed entity; so it isn't all that easy to dissect out who did what.
Anyway, Mike expanded what I'd written, altering and mutating it; and I added in extra chapters (such as the Prologue, or Chapter 20 for example, where the Kybers try to scale the platform to escape; Mike thought this had surfaced from my unconscious memory of news footage of the last US troops scrambling for the last helicopter out of Saigon, and I think he might have been right. I arrived at the 2nd French SF Congress in Angouleme, after two days out of touch, to find everyone in the hotel lounge staring at the TV screen, just as the last helicopter was lifting off). We both polished the text, and it was all done, pretty speedily and without problems or disagreements. The book grew outwards organically from a centre, rather than being written chapter by chapter, turn by turn.
Langford: Onward to your newest book, Deathhunter, which grew from your (damn good, I thought) short "A Cage For Death" -
Watson: The story in Omni, yes. Actually, the novel has some of the same scenes, but otherwise a different setting entirely; and characters are shifted around and renamed. Deathhunter is an expansion of the idea, rather than of the text of the story. Chapter One of Deathhunter is by no means "A Cage For Death", in the way that "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" is Chapter One of Dreamsnake.
Langford: I suppose the novel and short-story forms are so different that the odds are against such an approach working.
Watson: Well, exactly. If a short story works successfully as a story, then simply making it into chapter one of a novel verbatim by no means guarantees a successful novel. If anything, the opposite is likely!
Langford: Just been reading proofs of Deathhunter (got my chip butty wrapped in them, actually): I liked the way an almost conventional and vaguely satirical narrative suddenly starts throwing up disorienting shocks, beginning with the onstage appearance of Death itself (from "Cage") and then topping even that several times. An accessible book, especially since the point of death, and after, must be where metaphysics becomes important to everyone. An "innocent", spontaneous book, or another which dragged you into its questions?
Watson: Midway between the two, I'd say. Deathhunter grew from a short story which ended with a massive question mark: what on earth happens next? So initially, this was a narrative, story-telling challenge, rather than a metaphysical question mark. The novel really grew out of the image, of the death-creature caged – rather than any pre-existing theory about death. But then, the solving of the problem required relocating the action of the story, into a society much more occupied with their own theory of death. Out of which the narrative of the novel could then evolve. Then spontaneous narrative took over, since the ending of the book – the last two chapters – came as a complete double surprise to me.
Langford: Me too. Now, all I know of the novel after Deathhunter is that you've mentioned a "comic" approach ... that right?
Watson: Yes, that's the book we're talking about. It's a slapstick comedy, concerning the theme of the superhuman. Maybe there's too much slap and not enough stick? But it was the book that I felt like writing at the time. Now I'm in the preliminary stages of a wholly new SF novel, about which all I'm prepared to say is that it is set in 19th century Russia. I'm back from off-world, with a vengeance.
Langford: But your latest book is in fact your first attempt at editing an anthology, Pictures at an Exhibition. This, as I know too well, has the most warped approaches of any original anthology I've met: what sparked it off?
Watson: This is published by Lionel Fanthorpe's Greystoke Mobray publishing venture. Until I met Lionel my kneejerk reaction was, "God, that foul hack!" Fifteen seconds after meeting him, I realised he's a wonderful human being. He was wanting to publish an original anthology ... We batted ideas around, and as I'd just written Gardens, set in a Bosch painting, I thought of all the other paintings that it would be interesting to enter; hence the original idea. But they needed a framework, and this emerged from the fertile brain of Roger Campbell, a member of the Norwich SF Group. And a very ingenious framework it is indeed. By a marvellous synergy, all the stories by different hands fit this framework, and dovetail into each other wonderfully, even though they're all quite independent of each other at the same time. Mike Bishop explores the ambiguous world of Magritte, Chris Morgan the heroic landscape of Frazetta. And of course you've done Dürer, Dave. But as to the framework which Explains All, I'm not giving the game away!
Langford: What about the anthology Changes, with Mike, I mean Michael, Bishop?
Watson: It's part original and part reprint, and should appear from Ace Books in the summer of 1982. It's about sudden metamorphosis. We've got original stories from Richard Cowper, Tom Disch and Ursula Le Guin already in; we have promises from George R.R. Martin and Chris Priest. Harlan Ellison read a story over the phone to my co-editor, but unfortunately Mike doesn't have a speakwriter attached to his phone, and we haven't been able to extract the words in written form....
Langford: Um. Speaking of metamorphosis, haven't I heard that word or one very similar mentioned in connection with your "slapstick" book?
Watson: Yes, Metamorphoses (as in Ovid's) is the title of the slapstick book. Whose fate is unpredictable.
Langford: Does that (in conjunction with the fact that your anthologies are first appearing from other publishers) imply that not all your future novels may be issued, as traditional, by Gollancz?
Watson: [Mouth crammed with chip butty, he failed to answer.]
Langford: We've heard from Watson the Novelist, the Didact and the Editor – after standing as Helmdon's Labour candidate in the May council elections (and getting a respectable third of the vote, too), what does Watson the Politician have to say?
Watson: I would like to see a socialist government in Britain. Michael Foot has proved to be a disappointment; he has waffled, and betrayed the cause of unilateral nuclear disarmament to which he was committed. Conceivably Tony Benn may betray his principles too, once he is in a position of real power – though I sincerely hope not. But if so, there will be others who will put into practice what they have preached.
Langford: But what about your own campaign?
Watson: Heroic stuff. Judy and I canvassed 29 villages, in blizzards and freezing rain and other manifestations of the British spring. Apart from help from some leafleteers, there were only us two. But instead of sitting back laughing, the Tories pulled out all the stops: setting up committee rooms, laying on transport to take sick, mummified and senile voters to the booths. The turn-out was very high, so I think we probably got the maximum possible Labour vote in this political Blue Hole; but the Tories likewise whipped up a huge turn-out....
Langford: Less earth-shaking but more science-fictional, you recently became UK rep of the SF Writers of America. Do you think we mere "overseas members" can have a worthwhile influence on the often US-chauvinist SFWA?
Watson: SFWA is a slightly disorganised organisation at times. I may be the British Rep, but I've been missed out of the Membership Directory, and my new computer mailing label altogether omits the name of the place where I live. Which makes it miraculous that the mail still arrives, pencilled with queries and speculations by the post office. But SFWA is getting itself sorted out. And of course overseas members can have an influence – in proportion to the number who join. If everyone who is eligible in Britain, Europe, etc, joins ... then it'll become a different kind of organisation; and all to the good. Eligibility does not at present depend on publishing in America, or even in the English language. Merely on professional publication.
Langford: What do you think of the SF market today?
Watson: The British market is still on its knees because of that crippling element, Blue Thatcherite. The situation in America seems reasonably healthy. Some publishers are axing, but others are expanding. Some magazines go under, but others are emerging, or being reborn. Galaxy could well be refinanced again soon, for example. Omni is spinning off a new SF magazine.
Langford: Meanwhile, do you ever find that shadow of market requirements failing between the idea and the reality – the ideal and the finished novel? (Or between the novel and the large advance?)
Watson: What large advance? ... On the whole, I write what I want to write. Subsequent editorial suggestions are often quite helpful ones – helpful to the work itself. To a reasonable extent, one can create one's audience, though admittedly there are a lot of adverse market pressures around. Well, there are also quite a lot of markets, too. For instance, right now the Germans are getting fed up to the teeth with horror and with dumb SF. As one zone sinks, so another rises.
Langford: I hope that's true. As for being fed up to the teeth, what's your favourite way to make chip butties?
Watson: I use oven-cook chips, myself. Incidentally, there's a good pub in Daventry (near Moreton Pinkney) that sells chip butties.
Langford: Last question. I'm afraid I'm going to say it. They all say it. There is no escape from it. OK, I'll say it now. Do you plan to carry on writing SF?
Langford: Thank you, Ian Watson.
"David Pingle" is not a typo. At that time Ian Watson was for some reason annoyed with David Pringle (now best known as editor of Interzone) and insisted that if he was to be mentioned at all, his name should be misspelled.
For readers of the US reprint, I provided a gloss on chip butties: "The chip butty is supposed to be ever such a working-class delicacy, asymptotically approaching the idea of a foodstuff made from pure starch. A butty is a sandwich; the chips within are the traditional British staple which Americans mysteriously call French fries. Only masters of our Chipshop Guild can achieve the special pale-greenish translucency which is the glory of the British chip. Disgustibus non disputandum."