English and Drama blog

4 posts categorized "Science fiction"

11 October 2019

Beyond the Unfortunates

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by Laurence Byrne, Curator Printed Heritage Collections. The archive of B.S Johnson is available to consult in our Reading Rooms at Add MS 89001, as is the Eva Figes archive at Add MS 89050. All of the books listed here are available to consult, too. 

50 years ago, in 1969, B. S. Johnson published a novel about a sports writer assailed by memories of a deceased friend as he attempts to report on a football match. The Unfortunates was Johnson’s fourth novel and was not as well received as his previous work, getting a ‘fine clobbering’ in the press, according to Hugh Hebert’s sympathetic appraisal in the Guardian (13 March 1969). The novel comes in a box with 27 removable chapters of which only the first and last are marked – the reader must choose which in which order to read the 25 chapters in-between – and much of the criticism apparently centred on the novel’s formal experimentalism. Perhaps taking this criticism to heart, at some point, the first edition held by the Library had each chapter numbered in pencil by a librarian seeking to shelter readers from the novel’s aleatoric possibilities.


First edition of The Unfortunates (1969) by B.S Johnson with numbered annotations held at British Library shelfmark: Cup.900.b.8

Reprinted in 1999 with an introduction by Johnson’s biographer Jonathan Coe, the work found a more favourable audience. William Leith wrote: “In its way, this is brilliant - it is the best evocation of small- time misery I have ever read.” (The Daily Telegraph, 23 October 1999). Thanks to the efforts of supporters such as Coe, Johnson has since gone from being a largely forgotten (and out-of-print) author to occupying a central place in the history of British experimental (a term he regarded as ‘the dirtiest of words’) fiction, with The Unfortunates now regarded as a seminal achievement. In 2008, the British Library acquired a large archive of B. S. Johnson’s papers.

Although welcome, Johnson’s re-evaluation has been so comprehensive that his legacy now obscures somewhat the writers with whom he was once associated. Figures such as Christine Brooke-Rose, Alan Burns, Jeff Nutall, Stefan Themerson and Reyner Heppenstall are perhaps still amongst the better known experimental writers of the time, but during the late-1960s up until the mid-1970s a much wider range of authors than is commonly cited were producing novels which were experimental in different ways. *

Of course the definition of ‘experimental’ is of very much up-for-grabs, and many of the writers included here had a difficult relationship with the term. However, all of these works in some way foreground innovative techniques, both in terms of their form or narrative, and often both. Several of the authors mentioned contributed to the ‘group novel’ London Consequences [RF.2012.a.147] (which Johnson co-edited with Margaret Drabble). The fact that they were able to call on 18 contributors is further evidence that there was a keen interest in experimental writing in Britain during the period. Indeed, Drabble herself published arguably her most innovative work The Waterfall [Cup.410.g.596] in 1969.

London Consequencescover for London Consequences published by Greater London Arts Association for the Festivals of London 1972

Eva Figes contributed to London Consequences and is perhaps one of the authors (along with Drabble) who is most familiar to readers today. The BL acquired an archive of drafts and working papers relating to Figes’s fourteen novels in 2009. In the same year as The Unfortunates, Figes published Konek Landing [Nov.14015] a work which, like Johnson’s, utilises intertextuality and temporal confusion to represent the trauma of memory – like Figes herself, the protagonist Stefan Konek is a holocaust survivor.

Another notable contributor to the group novel was Wilson Harris. In his writing during this period – and particularly the 1970 novel Ascent to Omai [Nov.14851] – Harris continually works to destabilise novelistic convention in order to subvert what he the “novel of persuasion” – that is a form of literature which makes use of common sense and “fashionable judgements” to both reflect and maintain a particular fixed perspective on the world. In Ascent to Omai, Harris employs unexpected combinations of words and ideas in order to allow for binary judgements to be dissolved and new associations to occur.

The malleability of time and space in Harris’s work brings to mind the genre of science fiction, or slipstream. Indeed, during this period, Brian Aldiss (Barefoot in the head, 1969 [Nov.14184]) Angela Carter (Heroes and villains, 1969 [Nov.14699]) and Anna Kavan published works which consciously utilised innovative literary techniques within a science fiction framework. The setting for Kavan’s Ice [Nov.10580] is an apocalyptic world encroached upon by a monolithic ice-shelf. It is an intensely experimental work which seeks to question the inevitability of patriarchal violence through repeated shifts in narrative perspective, leaving the reader to question the ‘reality’ of what is being described to us.

Published two years later, Passages (1969) [Nov.13283.] shares a number of similarities with Ice. Ann Quin’s third novel takes place in an unspecified country, apparently under the control of a violent military government, where the novel’s nameless protagonists (a man and a woman) seem to be searching for the woman’s missing brother. Quin’s writing is stark and elliptical and, like Kavan, the narrative often shifts perspective mid-paragraph – an experimental technique which conveys an intimate sense of disorientation and upheaval.

A similar sense of puzzlement pervades In Transit (1969) [Nov.14383], which finds the unreliable narrator trapped in an airport and in a state of uncertainty about their gender. Brigid Brophy employs a dense interior narrative, full of puns and language games (in several different languages) and formal experimentation – including multiple-choice sentences and pages divided into columns. The novel is an acerbic examination of the structures of both personal and political identity, where linguistic trickery works to disturb a number of assumptions and certainties on which these structures are founded.

In transit1Excerpts from In Transit (1969) by Bridgid Brophy, illustrating her textually experimental critique of conventional novelistc forms.

Beryl Gilroy’s Black Teacher (1976) [X.529/31034] is often considered a work of autobiographical writing. However, Sandra Courtman’s Discovering literature article argued that the work is “an experiment with an intermediary form – somewhere between fiction and autobiography, with a distinct non-linear structure.” Indeed, the narrator voice of the text moves between first and third-person at different moments, perhaps reflective of the way in which Gilroy’s own identity was formed and re-formed in the midst of the challenging circumstances she faced.

All of this is not to say that The Unfortunates does not deserve to be seen as a landmark of experimental writing in Britain, rather it is the case that Johnson was writing within a context in which experimental / innovative techniques were being more widely employed than ever before.

*Other works which for the sake of space could not be included were Bogies (1972), Rosalind Belben [Nov.18729]; Run, come see Jerusalem (1968), David Coxhead [Nov.12845]; Langrishe, go down (1996), Aidan Higgins [X.908/13486]; The Gasteropod (1968), Maggie Ross [Nov.12300]; All the usual hours of sleeping (1969) Penelope Shuttle [Nov.13304]; and Vacation (1972) Alan Sheridan [Nov.18928]

Further reading

Booth, Francis Amongst those left: the British experimental novel 1940-1980 (London: Dalkey Archive Press, 2019). [Shelfmark forthcoming]

Friedman, Ellen G., and Miriam Fuchs, eds. Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction. (London: Princeton University Press, 1989). [YH.1990.b.128]

Jordan, Julia, and Ryle, Martin, eds. B.S. Johnson and Post-War Literature: Possibilities of the Avant-Garde (London: Palgrave, 2014). [YC.2014.a.11127]

28 November 2013

Fifty Glorious Years! Doctor Who and the Invasion of Dusty Victorians

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Doctor Who and Henry James are rarely mentioned in the same sentence. Now, admittedly there are many excellent reasons as to why that should be the case. The author of The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove tended to move in rather different circles to those occupied by the splendid chap (all of them) who to this day travels through time and space in something that, on the outside at least, resembles a police box. I can't imagine, somehow, that James would have had too much time for alien invasions, time travel and mad scientists (let alone K9, the talking computer designed to look like a dog - a most un-Jamesian idea if ever there was one) but all the same, there is a link between the two and as Doctor Who celebrates its fiftieth anniversary perhaps now is as good a time as any to explore the debt the Doctor owes to Henry James, and indeed to a whole array of 19th- and 20th-century novelists.

Tardis 2

The TARDIS. There are probably dozens of Victorian novelists hiding behind it right now

Mary Whitehouse famously disagreed but the golden age of Doctor Who was often at its best when it doffed a cap to the great works of Gothic fiction. The Tom Baker era for example, when the programme's ratings were at their highest, rummaged cheerfully through assorted dark cupboards positively stuffed with literary Gothic horrors. The Brain of Morbius (1976) for instance was a variation on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, complete with a brilliant but wayward scientist and a monster cobbled together from spare parts. The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977) cheerfully mixed Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera with Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu books while adding a dash of Sherlock Holmes. Tom Baker even wore a deerstalker in the story and the programme featured a giant rat (which, for all we know, may have had links with Sumatra - and if that means nothing to you then please read Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire' immediately). The Masque of Mandragora (1976) gave a cheery wink to Edgar Allan Poe's  'The Masque of the Red Death', even down to the macabre dance at the end while Planet of Evil (1975) reworked Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and added a dash of antimatter misbehaviour for good measure. The Hand of Fear (1976) meanwhile borrowed from W.F. Harvey's story 'The Beast with Five Fingers'. It was all brilliantly Gothic stuff and to their credit the show's producers, directors, cast and script-writers took their ideas from the original novels and ran with them in dazzling and inventive new directions. Mary Whitehouse, rest her soul, may not have been punching the air with enthusiasm but the rest of the country lapped it up.

So where, you may ask, does Henry James fit into all this? Well, since its reboot in 2005 Doctor Who has continued to borrow from and reinvent classic tales of the supernatural. The Crimson Horror (2013), with its setting in Victorian Yorkshire and its weird, creepy red parasite comes across like the bizarre literary lovechild of Elizabeth Gaskell and Bram Stoker. Charles Dickens himself (well, sort of ...) appeared in The Unquiet Dead (2005) and the great man's A Christmas Carol loomed large behind the 2010 Christmas special titled ... umm ... A Christmas Carol (the literary heritage of that one was, admittedly, not obscure). The following year witnessed a bit of borrowing from C.S. Lewis for The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe and then, best of all to my mind, we had the 2012 Christmas special - The Snowmen. Ah yes, now that's the one that owes a great deal to Henry James.

Henry James

Henry James, perhaps pondering whether to introduce killer snowmen with sharp teeth into 'The Turn of the Screw'

Henry James's 1898 novella 'The Turn of the Screw' tells of a governess; her two wards - Flora and Miles - and the ghosts of her predecessors Peter Quint and Miss Jessel who, while they certainly exist within the governess's mind may not exist anywhere else. The parents of the children are both dead and their uncle, around whom the governess weaves romantic fancies, is remote and distant. In The Snowmen we have a governess (definitely one with a bit of mystery about her), looking after two children haunted by nightmares in which her predecessor returns from the dead. The children's mother is also dead and their father, in a neat 21st-century twist, weaves romantic notions around the governess ('Such wisdom in one so very, very pretty ... I mean young ...'). All of this, as with the Henry James novella, takes place in Victorian England in an isolated mansion. Then there are the murderous snowmen ... Okay, so these do not appear in the Henry James version but the nods and winks to the past continue. Matt Smith's Doctor even claims to be Sherlock Holmes at one point while the investigative trio of Madam Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax owe more to Arthur Conan Doyle (as Richard E. Grant's character actually observes) than to Henry James. All of which goes to show how the influence of Victorian literature, and Gothic Victorian literature in particular, is frequently present throughout Doctor Who. To my mind the show is all the better for it so long may it last. Indeed, here's to the next 50 Gothic-flavoured glorious years.

20 September 2013

Scientists Behaving Badly

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In his current television series, Science Britannica, Professor Brian Cox argues that real-life scientists receive something of a bad press. They are, he argues, regarded with undue suspicion by the public, frequently seen as either dabblers meddling with forces they don't understand or else as out-and-out madmen trying to play God. He does, undeniably, have a point although I fear it will ever be thus. Cox cites the example of the Italian physicist Giovanni Aldini whose work on galvanism and its medical applications stands in a direct line with the development of today's defibrillator devices. Aldini, however, is now best remembered (and even that possibly erroneously) as the inspiration for a much more famous scientist - the less than ethically rigorous Victor Frankenstein. Aldini may have made dead limbs twitch under the application of an electric current but Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein made an entire stitched-together body come to life only to somewhat irresponsibly abandon his creation at the first sign of trouble, allowing it to engage in a murderous rampage across the countryside. Here, perhaps, is the beginning of a whole new level of scientist-bashing. Scientists may receive a bad press at the hands of the general public who misunderstand their aims and methods but in the hands of the literary establishment they quite frequently receive nothing less than a glossy makeover into the realms of nightmare. The trouble is, as a literary device, when it comes to providing a potential for villany and chaos on an epic scale the mad scientist is terrifically hard to beat.

Of course Science and the Humanities do have previous. Like two children squabbling over the same toy they rarely manage to play nicely together. C.P. Snow's famous 1959 lecture 'The Two Cultures' argued that science teaching had been unfairly and dangerously neglected due to an exaggerated emphasis on the arts and humanities. Ideally the two disciplines would be granted an equal weight but somehow an air of distrust always lurks between the two as though they are on opposite sides, rather than two components of a balanced whole. Nowhere was this more obvious than during the Victorian fin de siècle. Scientists such as T.H. Huxley were hugely respected in real life but in the pages of fiction readers were presented with one misbehaving lunatic in a laboratory after another. Famous examples include Dr Moreau, conducting experiments into accelerated evolution on his island via means of vivisection; Dr Jekyll, unleashing the beast within as he explores the darker implications of evolutionary theory; Dr Griffin, conducting a murderous spree as his experiments into invisibility leave him isolated and insane and Dr Ledsmar from Harold Frederic's brilliant The Damnation of Theron Ware, living in his isolated house up on the hill, experimenting upon his collection of lizards and dosing his Chinese manservant with vast doses of opium merely to observe the effects. Amoral, arrogant and brilliantly twisted Dr Ledsmar is a horror. He is also terrifically good fun to read about. The well-behaved considerate scientist acting responsibly under an impeccable moral and ethical code would, on the other hand, be something of a bore.


(Above: A scientist - if he's late-Victorian and in a novel chances are that whatever he's up to it isn't going to end well).

The 1880s and 1890s witnessed the conclusions - both good and ill - of Darwinism being thought through together with their possible implications for religion, humankind's place in Nature, evolution and degeneration. Fears about the heat death of the universe haunted the final pages of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine while up and down the county debate raged about the need and usefulness of animal vivisection experiments. Science was achieving brilliant things in medicine, communications and engineering but it was also unveiling some depressing possibilities for humankind. Respect for the scientist, and fear of what may be unleashed as a result of scientific research went hand in hand. Literature held a mirror to the potentially dark side of scientific endeavour. I suspect, for better or worse, it will always be so. Misbehaving scientists simply make for brilliant and cautionary stories .

04 July 2013

Ken Campbell is alive and you are dead

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On 31 August 2013 it will be five years since the death of writer, performer, director and general one-off theatre legend Ken Campbell.

In the Guardian's obituary, theatre critic Michael Coveney described Campbell as 'a perennial reminder of the rough-house origins of the best of British theatre, from Shakespeare, music hall and Joan Littlewood to the fringe before it became fashionable, tame and subsidized.'

The multifarious products of Ken Campbell's profoundly anarchistic theatrical imagination included his 24-hour long production of Neil Oram's The Warp at the ICA in 1979 - decreed by no less an authority than the Guinness Book of Records to be the world's longest play - and his production of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - performed inside a hovercraft - also at the ICA, later that same year. In the later part of his career he was perhaps best-known for his solo shows of fantastical monologues detailing all manner of odd experiences and arcane knowledge.

In 1977, the opening attraction of the National Theatre's new Cottesloe space was the full-cast stage adaptation by the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool - co-founded by Campbell with Chris Langham the previous year - of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's Illuminatus! trilogy. The British Library made an audio recording of the full 9-hour show and continued, throughout the 1980s and 90s to record Campbell's (usually solo) shows at the National. These included Furtive Nudist, Pigspurt, Jamais Vu, Violin Time, The Pidgin Macbeth and The History of Comedy: Part One: Ventriloquism.

Campbell was happy to have his shows recorded for posterity, his only stipulation being that he was not informed of the date the recording would be happening.  


As well as unique live recordings, the Library has tried to acquire any commercially circulated recordings of Campbell: from the CD 'Wol Wantok' (King Mob, 1999), in which Campbell advanced the case for Pidgin English as a new world language, to the DVD edition of G. F. Newman's TV series Law and Order, in which Campbell had a rare straight acting role, as a crooked lawyer. He later described his performance in Law and Order as an example of 'tie-acting' (the actor tucks in his chin and mumbles into his tie).

The Library does not have any unique audio documentation of The Warp but it does have a copy of the video version (on six videotapes) purchased from writer Neil Oram a few years back. This is still available to purchase from Neil here, now in DVD format.

If you would like to hear (or view) any of the material mentioned in this blog post you can do so free of charge at the British Library. You will need a British Library Reader's Card however and you may need to book an appointment.   

 Listen to Ken Campbell introducing his Pidgin Macbeth in 1998 (excerpt)