Tuesday, 3 March 2015

New Maps of Hell

Kingsley Amis New Maps of Hell (1960)
The Trillion Year Spree of Brian Aldiss and that other guy seems to be the title which always comes up when anyone mentions they're after some sort of history of science-fiction. New Maps of Hell appears to have less of a reputation, and I had assumed this would be due to it being earlier - hence less up to date - and shorter; but no, it's probably because it's not a history of science-fiction so much as an analysis which inevitably incorporates a level of historical detail.

By history of science-fiction, I'm referring to the written form, having all but given up on other media - possibly excepting comic books - and having read this, I feel I have a better understanding of why I should have all but given up on other media. Amis himself, writing in 1960, didn't see much of a future for science-fiction as moving image, although he refers to the BBC's Quatermass as a positive development. Taking his mapping of the history of written science-fiction as logical and roughly reflective of the evolution of the genre, I'd suggest it could be argued that film and television have developed as something almost entirely separate and have as such become stuck at the Edgar Rice Burroughs stage, despite that brief evolutionary surge of early 1970s brainy films which was pretty much killed off by Star Wars.

Anyway, Amis may cover less ground than Aldiss, but I find this the more likeable text. It's a while since I read Trillion Year Spree, so my recall of some details may be off kilter, but the tone here seems significantly friendlier. As an author, Kingsley Amis had no horse in this particular race, and he writes with enthusiasm and nothing to prove, nor any axe to grind. He acknowledges certain works as being unreadable in such kindly, almost indulgent terms as to make Aldiss' slagging of John Wyndham sound like some glass-jawed pub bore endlessly droning on about all the fights he's won and just who should be glad of not yet having crossed his path. In addition, Amis lays down a convincing argument for Gulliver's Travels as the first science-fiction novel, which I personally regard as a better choice than Frankenstein as proposed by Aldiss.

Anyway, regardless - as I say this is an analysis of science-fiction as a genre rather than a history in conventional terms, presenting a snappy summation of its purpose, how it works, why it works, and why it sometimes falls on its arse whilst additionally acknowledging that sometimes it can be just ripping yarns of rockets and bug-eyed monsters. Amis clearly loved his subject, so there's no anthropological sneering, and he patently had no desire to get into fist-fights. The argument remains conversational whilst presenting something resembling academic rigour. I personally think he misses the joy of both van Vogt and Simak, and I suppose that's my only criticism, but this is otherwise a lovely read; and one that has convinced me I need to be on the lookout for more by Frederik Pohl.

No comments:

Post a Comment