Unique Aspects of British SF

Let us be quite frank – British SF is little but a web of lies, hoaxes, and in-jokes. Not for nothing is our most notorious fanzine called Maya, meaning illusion. This may come as a surprise to the foreigner who has never seen the fibreglass megaliths of Stonehenge being taken away to winter storage, who remains unaware that the Post Office Tower is shut up not for fear of terrorism but because the cardboard walls are set rippling like a Dr Who set when visitors tread too heavily. Such trickery is all a part of the British way of life and explains how (despite absurdly high inflation, unemployment, and rainfall) we cunningly lured the Romans, the Normans, and now the International Monetary Fund into shouldering all our responsibilities. Unfortunately this shifty attitude spilled over into literary life and led to Queen Elizabeth I taking great delight in writing under the name of Bacon, plus hackwork and porn as Jonson, Marlowe, and Shakespeare; mere centuries later H.G. Wells was to do the same, raking in the cash by mass-producing popular science as Jules Verne, only to die of heartbreak and chronic argonautitis when after many years the public still failed to realise that the Morlocks of The Time Machine were intended as a searing satire upon the Inland Revenue.

The publishers rather liked this idea of multiple pen-names; their evil little eyes lit up with the thought of the quantity discount obtainable by buying three million words from one writer instead of dealing with hundreds, all with delusions of being able to make a living. The result can no longer be concealed: throughout the 1950s all British SF was the work of one man. Robert Lionel Fanthorpe (for it was he) used to drive a truck and write approximately one novel a week; and each week, kindly Badger Books would slip him £25 for full world rights in perpetuity. Ah, the great pen-names of those days! Pel Torro, Karl Ziegfried, Leo Brett, John E. Muller, Bron Fane, George Hay, Ken Bulmer, E.C. Tubb! Many of the books later went into US reprints under the house name Robert Silverberg.... Nor did the fearful working conditions (a truck in motion could be very jerky) prevent the occasional masterpiece from emerging: John E. Muller's Beyond the Void is a stunning adaptation of The Tempest to the contemporary needs of R.L. Fanthorpe's bank balance, starring the scientist Rosper and his daughter Darmina, who live on this lonely asteroid with only a trusty robot (the Leira) and an alien mutant (Canbail) to serve them. Superbly adapted lines abound: "I still think he'll make the devitalising chamber, though every cubic foot of space tends to argue otherwise, and the whole of the void opens its great maw to swallow him."

Another book of that period, The Troglodytes by 'Nal Rafcam' has become a favourite of the Oxford SF Group through its innovative use of language: 'The echoing of the lesser explosion had left the commandos effete' ... 'The fall was too great. Death had supined' ... 'The period of strife and universal restoration was malingering' ...

In present times there does seem to be more than one British SF writer in operation; but very few of the ostensible writers you see everywhere – eating our food, living on the taxpayers' money, sleeping with our women, and other literary activities – can offer proof that they write things. Many of them cheat. John Brunner (whose suits are made by a firm called Future Shock) and Ian Watson merely kneel before a small altar and take dictation from a pillar of flame and smoke; Andrew Stephenson does it all by illicit relations with the largest electronic-calculator complex known to fandom; Rob Holdstock plagiarizes film-scripts and alleviates the boredom by page on page of in-jokes about his former friends (e.g. the Druid called Aandru who does strange things with a pocket abacus); Chris Priest too has fallen back on machinery (cf. "The Head and the Hand"), feeding strange mathematical paradoxes into a giant computer – no prizes for guessing what happened when he accidentally dropped The War of the Worlds into the hopper; Brian Stableford clips bits from old books to form encyclopaedia articles from which he can clip bits to form new books; Bob Shaw's method is more difficult to describe, but involves getting the Slow Glass inspiration by staring into a pint mug, the Orbitsville inspiration by noticing how vast a room looks when one is lying helpless on the floor, the Palace of Eternity inspiration by meditating in bed a few glasses later and feeling a sudden insight into the nature of a disembodied ego ... and so on.

Some works of British SF do not even exist. They are impostures which have never been exposed: for example, nobody has ever really read Star Maker, The Purple Cloud, Barefoot in the Head or The Atrocity Exhibition. The books can be bought, but after the first few pages they contain nothing but blocks of filler type (etaoin shrdlu, etaoin shrdlu, the poor man's mantra). The BSFA too was a mere phantasy, until – despite the Great Exposure of '74 – certain people took the whole thing seriously and forced it into shambling life. (Another hoax which went awry was "Peter Weston". Britons still can't understand how, on his TAFF trip and subsequently, US fandom was taken in. Surely the accent was a giveaway?) Moreover, many supposed British authors are figments (published by mistake) or jokes (published by Robert Hale). I saw someone claiming to be D.G. Compton at the '77 Milford meeting; he left in a sports car and knocked a large piece out of the side of the hotel as he did so. D.G. Compton wouldn't do that; he obviously doesn't exist. At the same meeting a publisher announced that he personally wrote best-sellers under Famous (but Illiterate) Names. Fanthorpe lives!

A typical example of the corruption and deceit to be found in British SF is given by an incident at a One Tun meeting. These gatherings occur in a pub of that name which, foreigners are misinformed may be reached via the London Underground. This is a cruel joke – most Underground stations are dummies designed to give an illusion of London Transport's prosperity, and have no access to the outside world save by train; Rent-a-Crowd hordes surge on and off to preserve the quality of our famous Rush Hour, and ... but I digress. One Tun meetings occur on the first Thursday of each month; why you ask, does "Brian Aldiss" in "his" book The Malacia Tapestry mention that the elders of Malacia meet on the first Thursday of the month? Aha.

On the evening in question, a petition was circulating: it demanded that the fascist BBC refrain from axing their newest Terry Nation SF programme, Blake's Seven, which might be pretty lousy but had vast potential and could easily reach the technical brilliance of Space: 1999 in another few hundred episodes. I was collecting people for namedropping purposes and found myself chatting with huge future celebrity Peter Nicholls, plus Hilary Bailey, the celebrated editor of New Worlds (which of course does not exist). The petition came round and it was the work of a moment for me to sign it "Kevin Smith". As I peered to see what I'd signed, Peter turned from caressing Hilary's soft flesh, balanced the paper on his stomach, and wrote down some colourless and futile name ("Michael Brown") whereupon Hilary rapidly added "David Langford", Before I could protest, Kevin himself appeared and was incensed to see his name taken in vain. He snatched the paper with an oath and vindictively wrote "Andrew Stephenson". After this things became a little confused; I think there were already one or two Arthur C. Clarkes when I signed, and it seems that by the end of the evening a scattering of Terry Nations had been added....

That's Britain for you. Listen, if you will, to "Rob Holdstock" babbling on about his many pseudonyms; let "Ken Bulmer" deny his furiously; learn the real truth from sober, factual articles by "Dave Langford". But don't believe a word of it – you have been warned.