Critical Mass

The outside world barely noticed, but it was a shock to the British sf community when we heard George Hay had died on 3 October 1997. As John Grant said, "He was one of those people you expect to be outlived by." Even now I half await one more of George's letters on the famous pterodactyl-headed notepaper, picked out on his ancient typewriter with a ribbon last changed in 1980, and outlining another amazing scheme to transform the world through science fiction.

Some of George Hay's story is told in the Encylopedia of SF: his birth in 1922, his unlikely full name Oswyn Robert Tregonwell Hay, his four now-forgotten 1950s sf novels, and his sterling efforts in editing sf anthologies. One was The Edward de Bono SF Collection (1976) – appropriately, as George was certainly a lateral thinker. The Encyclopedia fails to credit him with being a genuine, charming English eccentric, a socialist of the old-fashioned idealistic kind, and a man of weird erudition who like Borges had not only read everything but specialized in books nobody reads any more. He quoted cobwebbed philosophers like Korzybski (a major influence on A.E. van Vogt) and Ouspensky; he distinguished between Dianetics, which interested him in its early years, and Scientology, whose paranoid bureaucracy he couldn't stomach and which declared him a Suppressive Person.

What George did best was to promote sf as he saw it: partly as an invaluable educational tool, partly as a neglected natural resource from which ideas could be mined. (His Pulsar anthologies mixed sf stories with serious little essays – one by myself – about their concepts.) Tall and thin, bald on top but with a surrounding fall of grey-white hair like William Hartnell playing the first Dr Who, peering through thick glasses invariably mended with sticky tape, he would loom at people and weave strange spells of nagging energy and erudition.

(Overheard, 1982. George Hay: "Hello, Brian! I'm about to write you a very long letter." Brian Aldiss: "... Please don't, George.")

By nagging and sleight of hand, George wheedled the Science Fiction Foundation into existence at the North East London Polytechnic in 1971: an sf think tank intended to push his own personal agenda. Perhaps it would have become a lobby group, urging Parliament to pay attention to antigravity, relativistic paradoxes and ion drives. Instead there was a coup led by sf critic Peter Nicholls, which seized control of the SFF magazine Foundation and changed its direction: George had aimed for the stars and social revolution, but the critics preferred academic respectability. Nowadays, housed at the University of Liverpool, the SFF is a noted library and clearing-house for sf contacts – and Foundation still appears.

So the Foundation failed to become George's imagined pool of practical sf expertise, holding itself ready to be consulted by the Prime Minister in the event of an alien landing. The result was still fun for George, who stayed involved for the rest of his life: academic resistance gave him something to push against, leading to flights of enthusiastic rhetoric at SFF Council meetings. Listeners alternated between moans of "Oh, George ..." and the intermittent realization that he really had a point this time. It certainly helped keep the Foundation from getting too stuffy. There were rumours that, after studying Asimov's psychohistory, George secretly set up a Second Foundation at the other end of sf fandom, which one day would ...

Meanwhile, in that constant flow of ideas by which he lived, notions for exploiting sf were always bubbling up. Among British sf people, the words "George Hay Project" still generate ripples of fascination and alarm. For example, George was impressed by Katherine Maclean's 1950 story "Incommunicado", which imagined computer workers achieving rapport with their machines by unconsciously learning to understand the equipment's meeps and bleeps. In the 70s my pal Martin Hoare, then working for ICL, was grabbed by George and told to examine the possibilities. Nothing came of it ... but, as George would say, suppose it had? Darwin, in a spirit of experiment and with equal success, once played the trombone to his tulips.

I remember George's kindness to me circa 1977, when he was inspired to organize a semi-serious reconstruction of a forbidden book, "the unspeakable Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred", as invented by H.P. Lovecraft for his Cthulhu Mythos stories. For the "reconstruction", George recruited Colin Wilson, a Lovecraft buff with major critical clout; Robert Turner, a practising occultist who devised almost authentic Cthulhoid rituals and incantations; and obscure David Langford as the supposed cryptographic expert, because I had access to heavyweight computer power at the Ministry of Defence. The final volume also featured Angela Carter – now sadly missed – and L. Sprague de Camp. What a strange team; and what a testament to George's powers of persuasiveness.

My task was to forge, in both senses, cryptographic links between the genuine alchemical tables of the legendary Dr Dee and arcane "translations" by Robert Turner. This essay on cryptanalysis was fun to write, and John Sladek – in his unfortunately perceptive Foundation review of The Necronomicon – generously called it "the computer rubbish", high praise compared to his comments about the rest of the book.

Although The Necronomicon was a joke, a literary game played with the deadpan earnestness of Sherlockologists, it persisted as a cult book – mainly in foreign editions – and, nearly twenty years later, still produces occasional cheering royalties. It was the first book in which I had a stake as co-author, with my name on the front; it persuaded me that I could survive in this writing business. If George had done nothing else in his crowded, energetic life, I'd still owe him a debt of gratitude for picking me to help with this sinister, eldritch, partly rugose and partly squamous (insert further Lovecraftian adjectives ad lib) volume. For some reason we never saw the hoped special edition bound in human skin.

Another project: George co-chaired the 1970 British national sf convention, "Scicon", and put his inimitable mark on the programming with such items as, to quote Rob Hansen's history of British fandom: "Dr John Clarke from Manchester University's Department of Psychology with 'A Map of Inner Space', which presented 'a scientific theory of mysticism'; Kit Pedlar on 'the need for a Scientific Ombudsman'; P.J. Hills of Surrey University with 'Teaching Systems, Present and Future – a Multiple Image Tape/Slide Presentation'; Tom Morgan on Scientology; 'Late Night Poetry' by Edward Lucie-Smith; and Keith Albern and Gerald Carter on 'Spaceship Earth'." Some attendees deplored the shortage of straight sf items; some liked the novelty; alas, thanks largely to the other co-chair, the event was an organizational disaster.

Further projects reflected George's perpetual urge to exploit new technology for literature's sake. In the 70s he was promoting the transfer of rare sf works to microfiche ... I still have fiche editions of that noted US fanzine The Alien Critic, courtesy of George's "Starlight Books". He was ahead of his time with schemes for printing one-off copies of books on demand at point-of-sale (a much more nearly practical technology today). When Prestel teletext emerged in Britain as a forerunner of the Web, George nagged for a Prestel sf news/reviews forum. He got his way, and then, being incapable of using computers, contrived to instal me as editor of Prestel's "Starlight" sf pages. I had fun publishing offbeat material like Alexei Sayle's seminal Foundation article on why he should have been the new Doctor Who. For users of mere telephones, George came up with Dial-a-Poem. As fax became a popular trend, he persuaded someone to distribute a magazine solely by fax – it was titled Reality*, and I duly contributed despite not then having a fax machine. Neither did George. Just as in a Philip K. Dick story, Reality didn't last long.

Beside urging reissues in new media, George worked tirelessly behind the scenes to encourage ordinary paper reprints of sf/fantasy classics. One was G.K. Chesterton's The Ball and the Cross, in 1984; my reward for reviewing it in Foundation (all in the family, again) was a commission to write a preface for Chesterton's fantastic play Magic when, unable to resist George's blandishments, the English Language Society reissued it in 1987.

Not all reprint plans succeeded. Once, ebullient as ever, George sent me to meet two awful Dutchmen who'd published a semi-literate volume proving that St Paul was really not St Paul but someone else, and who wanted me to compile a dictionary of sf terminology. My enthusiasm ebbed at the revelation that this would be serialized in very short instalments, each the appendix to one of countless "SF Rediscovery" reprints. Cautious enquiries about payment provoked a lengthy broken-English tirade, punctuated by flecks of spittle, about greedy authors obsessed with money.... "I'll get you for this, George," I thought as I sidled towards the exit. You can't win them all.

George himself relished the comedy of being (like Tom Stoppard's inventor of indoor rain) a man of ideas in an unsympathetic world. During his 1996 hospital stay, Christopher Priest cracked a bad-taste joke about medical staff thinking Mr Hay was delirious until they realized he was telling them about the SF Foundation. No one laughed louder and longer at that than George....

These reminiscences are hideously egotistic. Other people, elsewhere in his wide web of correspondence, saw other facets of George Hay and miss him for different reasons. For all the exasperation caused by his dottier ideas (his mind was wonderful to visit but you wouldn't want to live there), I'm still glad to have known him. Farewell, George.

* Afterthought: I now suspect that I misremembered the fax magazine title and that it was Realtime rather than Reality.