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The Jonbar Point by Brian Aldiss

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Christopher Priest

These two essays reveal Brian Aldiss in his prime. They were first published more than half a century ago in SF Horizons, a short-lived critical magazine edited and published by Aldiss and Harry Harrison. At this point in his career Aldiss had established a formidable reputation for his fiction. He was still under 40 years of age. His novels then included Non-Stop, Hothouse and Greybeard, and he had already written and published dozens of short stories. In 1958 he received a unique plaque from the 16th World Science Fiction Convention, naming him the most promising new author of the year; Hothouse won a Hugo Award in 1962; a story, “The Saliva Tree”, was awarded a Nebula in 1965 for best novella of the year.

The two sole issues of SF Horizons appeared in 1964 and 1965, but these essays, both given prominent position in the magazine, were never included later in any of Aldiss’s several books of critical writing. They are therefore not widely known outside the long-ago readership of the magazine, even though because of the quality of the arguments they have had a lasting underground influence on SF criticism. The naming of the “Jonbar Point” – the event or moment in which the course of history might be changed – was first adumbrated here.

Both essays should certainly be read more widely – they reverberate with ideas, insights and fine critical analysis. Quite apart from anything else, they are energetically written from a position of caring knowledge, and are hugely enjoyable to read.

Why did Aldiss never collect them?

Their length probably counted against them: they are both in the region of 12,000 words in length. And I wonder if Aldiss had second thoughts about some of what he had written?

The first essay, “Judgement at Jonbar”, is an exhilarating and insightful analysis of a fast-moving extravaganza, The Legion of Time by Jack Williamson. This is a short novel written originally in the late 1930s, a three-part serial in Astounding Science-Fiction. Astounding was of course an American pulp magazine, perhaps the most important of the time. The edition of Legion which Brian Aldiss was reading was a British paperback from Digit Books, published in 1961, copyrighted in 1952.

It was the sort of science fiction that Aldiss, in other moods, saw as something to which he was rather in opposition, or was working to encourage others to evolve away from. His critical writing was usually concerned with supporting modern science fiction, the unparalleled diversity he saw within the field, the opportunities he knew it could present to ambitious and serious writers. Jack Williamson, a hard-working and successful writer, was of the old school: his books were intelligent but aimed commercially at a popular audience. In the mid-1960s the New Wave revolution was questioning many of the conservative values represented by the pulp tradition. Aldiss himself was a prominent and articulate contributor to that debate.

However, those readers who were not prejudiced against or ill-informed about the huge and diverse body of SF literature – presumably most of the readers of SF Horizons – could understand and enjoy the context of Aldiss’s “Judgement at Jonbar”. It’s a sympathetic, almost enthusiastic, enquiry into the older commercial wing of the genre. But maybe, when he was putting together essay collections aimed at general book readers, Brian Aldiss did not want to give a sense of permanence to this side of his interests.

It was his own decision, but it means this extraordinary essay has been lost to sight for all these years.

It is, as far as I know, the only time an author with a genuine reputation as a serious writer has written at length to illustrate the imaginative engines that drive speculative fiction. Most serious or analytical criticism focuses on the “high end” of science fiction, the novels and stories that are written under modernist or other literary influence, or which aspire to acceptance outside the genre. Jack Williamson had no such pretension: he was a journeyman writer producing sf stories for sf readers. Aldiss looks closely at The Legion of Time on those terms, and his approach is friendly, intrigued, almost comradely.

The result is enlightening and revelatory: we learn what are the weaknesses of this kind of pulp writing, but, much more interestingly, what are its greatest strengths. I believe it to be a key essay in the field of science fiction criticism.

The second essay is rather more problematical, while remaining an entertaining piece of polemical criticism.

“British Science Fiction Now – Studies of Three Writers” is a detailed examination of three of Brian Aldiss’s contemporaries: Lan Wright, Donald Malcolm and J.G. Ballard. All were being regularly published, for the most part in the same British science fiction magazines printing Aldiss’s work. All three were young or youngish, and at the time were active in writing science fiction. Wright and Ballard had had paperback books published in the USA. None of them had yet achieved a breakthrough into wider or mainstream acceptance. At the beginning of the essay, Brian Aldiss drily explains his motive:

“... the main body of English work is composed by a number of lesser names whose work receives no critical attention ... yet whose voices together comprise the rather undistinguished murmur that we must also take into account when we speak of British science fiction.”

He describes what he sees as a recent lack of impetus in American sf writing, which had “supplied the drive in the field ever since early Gernsback days”. Because British writers were again making a positive contribution at a time when publishers were actively seeking suitable science fiction, things were changing. He mentions the fact that the magazines New Worlds SF and Science Fantasy had been sold by Nova Publications and now had a different publisher. The new editors, Michael Moorcock and Kyril Bonfiglioli, were being allowed to pay their contributors “on merit rather than wordage”.

Aldiss describes himself as someone eager to be thought of as one of the British writers who was in debt to E.J. Carnell and Nova for supporting his early work, but he adds that after many years as editor “[Carnell’s] interests lay elsewhere, and he let less interesting writers have too great a say”. All three of the writers Aldiss discusses here contributed Guest Editorials to New Worlds, and Aldiss refers to these articles with “a view to stimulating other readers to examine their work more closely”.

I first came across New Worlds at the beginning of 1963, when I spotted J.G. Ballard’s name on a copy being sold on a newsstand at a London Underground station. It was still then being edited by Carnell. I had discovered Ballard’s work a few months earlier, and considered him to be a great writer – I bought the copy without a moment’s hesitation. I read his story immediately as I travelled home on the train from work: it was “The Subliminal Man”.

Later, I read the other stories in the same issue. I bought New Worlds regularly after that, and when I realized the magazine had published several earlier stories by Ballard I began looking for and buying back issues. I read most of them cover to cover, hoping that some of the other writers, most of whose names were unknown to me, would turn out to be in the same inspirational league as Ballard.

It soon became clear that the outstanding contributors to the Carnell-edited New Worlds were J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss himself. The others, the ones with the mostly unknown names, were followers or imitators. I was surprised and disappointed by their efforts. Story after story turned out to be poorly written, bereft of imagination and originality, lacking any sense of style or even having an unusual idea. Many of the stories dealt with teams of astronauts or scientists landing on an alien planet and discovering a mystery or an anomaly, which they would then go on to solve, or be threatened by, or undergo transformation because of it. Dialogue was all exposition, or banter. The mysteries were uninvolving. The prose was stale, the effect was dull.

Among those other writers, and by no means the worst or best of them, were Lan Wright and Donald Malcolm, the first two subjects of this long essay. While reading those issues of New Worlds I failed to see the connection between these extremes. How could these second-raters have their stories bought and published by the same magazine that was publishing Aldiss and Ballard?

Leaving his own work out of the argument, Aldiss tackles this question, not by making invidious comparisons but by treating each writer’s work with the same degree of attention to detail.

Lan Wright and Donald Malcolm come out of the examination much less well than J.G. Ballard. Perhaps it was obvious to Aldiss from the outset that this would be the likely outcome, but the brief he set himself (“lesser names ... whose voices together”) seems justifiable. It’s worth reminding ourselves that Brian Aldiss’s section on Ballard was probably the first critical examination of a writer now regarded as one of the most important British authors of the twentieth century.

Unpleasant though it must have been for the first two writers to read this long essay, it is none the less a fine piece of technical criticism, written from a committed and informed point of view, a love of the craft of writing, all confounded by the arrogance of one of the subjects and the ineptitude of the other. It seems clear that this is not a view Lan Wright and Donald Malcolm would likely have shared.

A note on the text. The two essays here are reprinted exactly as first published in SF Horizons, the only silent changes being tiny textual corrections where seen as necessary.

Brian Aldiss’s use of the word “anthropoid” to describe large ants has been left as is, following its use in The Legion of Time, although it’s probable that Jack Williamson really meant “arthropod”.

Aldiss made other contributions to SF Horizons, notably two short articles under his occasional pseudonym “C.C. Shackleton”. These are much more light-hearted in tone, identifiably Aldissian but not at the same level of engagement as the two essays here. Although tempted to include the Shackletons, I felt the attractions of the main articles would be more starkly apparent if they appeared by themselves.

I close by saying that I have read almost all of Brian Aldiss’s non-fiction work over the years, sometimes as it appeared in newspapers and fanzines, but also in his several collections in book form. The quality of his writing was always of the highest. It was the sort of thing which made you want to quote aloud choice phrases or paragraphs to whoever might be sitting near by. Many of his essays were witty, persuasive and highly articulate descriptions of, or defences of, the unfashionable task of writing science fiction. No one ever expressed these sentiments better. It was an argument he pursued throughout his career.

The two essays here are as good as anything he ever wrote on the subject, and it is a huge pleasure to see them in print again.

Christopher Priest

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