Hugo season is upon us and nominations for the 2023 Hugo Awards have opened, so it’s time for another Non-Fiction Spotlight. For more about the Non-Fiction Spotlight project, go here. To check out the spotlights I already posted, go here.
For more recommendations for SFF-related non-fiction, also check out this Facebook group set up by the always excellent Farah Mendlesohn, who is a champion (and author) of SFF-related non-fiction.
Today’s Non-Fiction Spotlight is a double spotlight for two different, but very worthy works of SFF-related non-fiction. Therefore, I am pleased to welcome Paul Kincaid, author of Brian W. Aldiss and Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood: A Critical Companion, to my blog today.
Tell us about your book.
Through one of those quirks of publishing, I had two books out in 2022. This was in part because the first was, I think, a little later than originally intended, and the second was short and written to a very tight deadline. The first, Brian W. Aldiss, is part of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series from Illinois University Press; the second, Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood: A Critical Companion is part of the New Canon series from Palgrave. Both, therefore, conform, at least partly, to the demands of their particular series.
Brian W. Aldiss is, as you might expect, a critical study of the science fiction of Brian Aldiss, mixed in with a little biography for context. It is, for instance, significant that the only novel he wrote in which the central character is in a lifelong, happy, monogamous marriage was Greybeard, which was written after the breakup of his first marriage and the beginning of his relationship with the woman who would become his second wife. It is also, noticeably, a novel about a world without children, and his own children from his first marriage had been taken away from him and he believed he would never see them again. As you might guess, I firmly believe that a thorough understanding of creative work must, as bedrock, include an understanding of the circumstances in which that work was created.
Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood: A Critical Companion, on the other hand, has a much narrower focus. It is all about the first volume in the Mythago sequence, examining the themes that can be detected in the work. It covers a lot of ground within a short space, ranging from the experiences of Holdstock’s grandfather in the First World War, to the nationalist leanings of interwar studies in folklore and folk music.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I suppose, like many people, I set out with ambitions to become a great novelist. But although I have had a handful of short stories published over the years, I have to admit that I am not a natural fiction writer. When I started writing non-fiction, however, I realised that this was something I could do. My first reviews were published in 1977, and I have been turning out reviews, essays, interviews and other stuff consistently ever since
My first book, as I suppose you might call it, was a 30,000-word history of British sf and fantasy, A Very British Genre, which was published as a chapbook by the BSFA to coincide with the British Worldcon in 1995. And there have been two collections of my essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction (2008) and Call and Response (2014), both published by Beccon. But it was when I found myself retired about ten years ago that the pace started picking up. I wrote the Modern Masters of Science Fiction volume on Iain M. Banks (2017), which won the BSFA Non-Fiction Award, and The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest (2020) for Gylphi, as well as the two books we’re talking about here.
What prompted you to write/edit this book?
The short answer is absence. An absence of critical work on Aldiss and an absence of critical work on Holdstock.
Before me, there had been three published books on Aldiss, in 1977, 1984 and 1986. But 1985 marked the exact mid-point between his first published book in 1955 and his last in 2015. In other words, none of the books about Aldiss covered more than half of his career. I found that hard to believe, given that he is one of the most important figures in post-war British science fiction. I felt there needed to be a new, up-to-date appraisal of his entire career, and since no-one else seemed to be interested in doing it, it seemed to fall to me.
Now there is a good reason why nobody else was picking up the gauntlet on Aldiss: he is very hard to write about. In fact, I would go further and say he is a nightmare; the look of pity on John Clute’s face when I told him what I was going to do really says it all. Yes, he wrote some of the best and most important novels in the history of British science fiction, but he also wrote some of the worst. One of the problems I have with all three of those earlier books about him is that they came close to being hagiographies. They took him at his word on everything, and they praised extravagantly books that I felt did not deserve such praise. So I had to negotiate a very tricky path, finding what felt to me like the right balance between praise and criticism, and trying to identify the truth from the myths that Aldiss himself would spin. It is, of course, up to others to decide how well or badly I achieved my aim, but I hope it is the sort of judicious assessment that Aldiss deserves.
As for Holdstock, there is one previous collection of essays, which strikes me as woefully inadequate for such a significant writer. I have long harboured an ambition to write a book on Holdstock much like my book on Priest. I suspect, for various reasons, that is never going to come to pass, so when I got a chance to at least write about Mythago Wood I leapt at the chance.
To me, Mythago Wood is one of the most important and influential works in the history of 20th century fantasy, rivalled, I suspect, only by The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and Little Big by John Crowley. It is a relatively short book, and yet it is packed full of mysteries and ideas that have had a profound effect on the fantasy that came after. It is no surprise that the Best Novel Award from the British Fantasy Society is called the Robert Holdstock Award.
I don’t think I realised, when I set out to write a book-length study of this one novel, just how much there was to disinter. But it was one of the most satisfying things I have ever written.
Why should SFF fans in general and Hugo voters in particular read this book?
I suppose the arrogant part of me wants to answer: because they are such good books, readable, engaging and revealing.
But the real reason is that my subjects, Aldiss and Holdstock, are absolutely essential figures in the history of science fiction and fantasy. Literally, you cannot understand, you cannot appreciate, the development of our literature over the last half-century and more without Aldiss and Holdstock.
Among other things, Aldiss, along with J.G. Ballard, so shaped the British New Wave that it is conceivable that there wouldn’t have been a New Wave without him. Yet at the same time he was instrumental in celebrating space opera and hard sf, through the numerous anthologies he edited alone or with Harry Harrison, at a time when that older tradition of science fiction was under threat from the New Wave. And that odd combination of the new and the old led to him writing the first narrative history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree, which has had a profound effect on the way the character and development of science fiction has been seen ever since.
Holdstock, meanwhile, cast the way myth and imagination shape our interaction with the world around us in such a startling new light that it changed the way that fantasy is written, and has had an extraordinary influence on writers as varied as Graham Joyce and Lisa Goldstein.
Do you have any cool facts or tidbits that you unearthed during your research, but that did not make it into the final book?
I am parsimonious in things like that, all the tidbits I unearth I find a way of integrating into the book. Though it is in the way of things that some of these tidbits end up being more noticeable than others. Reviews of the Aldiss book by women, for instance, have tended to focus on what I call his priapic masculinity; which was certainly there, a reprehensible aspect of both his life and his fiction. But among other things I see this as a pointer to something that has attracted rather less attention. I think Aldiss saw himself as the new H.G. Wells, and not just in the innumerable times that he echoed or referenced Wells in his work. He saw parallels: they were both from the same sort of lower middle class background, their fathers were shopkeepers, they were about the same age when they first got published, they married twice but had numerous other sexual relationships (I suspect Aldiss thought that Margaret should be as tolerant of these liaisons as Jane, though reading between the lines of his autobiography there seem to have been a number of estrangements between them), and they each had a major if unexpected success with a work of history. To what extent Aldiss tried to intentionally shape these parallels I don’t know, but the echoes were certainly there.
There was one thing I discovered that surprised me. I had taken on trust the kudos that Aldiss accrued for saving New Worlds magazine by securing an Arts Council Grant. In fact, I learned, the literature panel of the Arts Council had only just been established at the time and they had no idea how they were going to support literature. As a result they simply handed out grants to any literary magazine that asked for one. Aldiss may have been the one to ask, but he was pushing at an open door.
As for the Holdstock book, well, research is a rabbit hole. Once you start asking questions you have no idea how far you will tumble down, or what other worlds you will find down there. Mythago Wood opens with a quotation from Ralph Vaughan Williams (who appears as a character in the second book, Lavondyss) about his discovery of folk music at the turn of the century. I wasn’t entirely sure what this quotation had to do with what followed in Mythago Wood, though I was vaguely aware that some of those on the folk music scene would go on, between the wars, to be associated with Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. I wondered if this might have any connection to Holdstock’s decision to set the novel in 1947. I began to research and uncovered more than I expected, though to be honest most of that research found its way directly into the book.
SFF-related non-fiction is somewhat sidelined by the big international genre awards, since the Nebulas have no non-fiction category and the Best Related Work Hugo category has become something of a grab bag of anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere. So why do you think SFF-related non-fiction is important?
I have twice been shortlisted for the Hugo Best Related Work award, so I should be rather well-disposed towards it. But I’m not. I’ve ranted about this on numerous occasions in the past, so I’ll keep it brief. The category is a farce, and becomes more farcical the wider they cast their net. A piece of music? Stick it in Best Related. A previous award ceremony? Stick it in Best Related. There is literally no way you can sensibly decide between the apples and orang utans that populate this stupid category, so in a very real sense it is no honour to be nominated.
And that is a shame. Literally so: it shames science fiction! These are the pre-eminent awards for science fiction, and yet they cannot find a way to genuinely honour writing specifically about the subject supposedly being awarded. The BSFA Awards have a specific Best Non-Fiction category, and there are the various academic awards from the Science Fiction Research Association, but there should be a major award for science fiction non-fiction. We are the poorer without it.
Yet this is all at a time when non-fiction about science fiction has never been healthier. Just as science fiction is opening itself up to a wider world and to a greater range of human experience, so non-fiction is exploring further and deeper. Yes there are the usual collections of essays and single author studies (of the type that I have written), but there are also examinations of the Anthropocene, of cultural issues, of the way our literature responds to historical events or political realities. There is wonderful stuff out there which, collectively, shows us how our literature belongs in and shapes the very world we inhabit. It deserves our attention, because it explains our literature to us.
Are there any other great SFF-related non-fiction works or indeed anything else (books, stories, essays, writers, magazines, films, TV shows, etc…) you’d like to recommend?
From my last answer, you might guess that the answer to this is definitively “yes”. In fact, because last year was so personally catastrophic for me, I haven’t read anywhere near as much as I would like. But I could point you, for instance, towards Mark Bould’s amusing and idiosyncratic study of The Anthropocene Unconscious; Brian Attebery’s elegant Fantasy: How It Works (despite his inexplicable overlooking of Robert Holdstock); Mike Ashley’s five-volume history of the sf magazines reached its climax with The Rise of the Cyberzines, I have major problems with these books as history, but as a data set they are invaluable; and there is an intriguing examination of the science fiction of Bob Shaw and James White from an Irish perspective in Space for Peace by Richard Howard.
Looking ahead, this year brings a memoir from M. John Harrison, a collection of reviews from Niall Harrison, but above all there is A Traveller in Time: the Critical Practice of Maureen Kincaid Speller edited by Nina Allen coming from Luna Press. Okay, I know I’m prejudiced, I know I am still devastated by Maureen’s death last September, but I still reckon this long-overdue collection of her work is going to be one of the essential non-fiction books of 2023.
Where can people buy your book?
Though personally I prefer to shop at uk.bookshop.org: Brian W. Aldiss.
Where can people find you?
My website is here: www.paulkincaid.co.uk
My intermittent blog is: ttdlabyrinth.wordpress.com
On social media I am mostly to be found at Facebook: paul kincaid-critic
On Mastodon I am: @email@example.com
On Twitter (for now) I am: @pkincaid_critic
Thank you, Paul, for stopping and answering my questions. Do check out Brian W. Aldiss and Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood: A Critical Companion to learn more about two crucial writers of our genre.
About Brian W. Aldiss:
Brian W. Aldiss wrote classic science fiction novels like Report on Probability A and Hothouse. Billion Year Spree, his groundbreaking study of the field, defined the very meaning of SF and delineated its history. Yet Aldiss’s discomfort with being a guiding spirit of the British New Wave and his pursuit of mainstream success characterized a lifelong ambivalence toward the genre.
Paul Kincaid explores the many contradictions that underlay the distinctive qualities of Aldiss’s writing. Wartime experiences in Asia and the alienation that arose upon his return to the cold austerity of postwar Britain inspired themes and imagery that Aldiss drew upon throughout his career. He wrote of prolific nature overwhelming humanity, believed war was madness even though it provided him with the happiest period of his life, and found parallels in the static lives of Indian peasants and hidebound English society. As Kincaid shows, contradictions created tensions that fueled the metaphorical underpinnings of Aldiss’s work and shaped not only his long career but the evolution of postwar British science fiction.
About Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood: A Critical Companion:
This book is a detailed examination of one of the most important works of fantasy literature from the twentieth century. It goes through Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock considering how it engages with war on a personal and family level, how it plays with ideas of time as something fluid and disturbing, and how it presents mythology as something crude and dangerous. The book places Mythago Wood in the context of Holdstock’s other works, noting in part how complex ideas of time have been a consistent element in his fiction. The book also briefly examines how the themes laid out in Mythago Wood are carried through into later books in the sequence as well as the Merlin Codex
About Paul Kincaid:
Paul Kincaid is a Clareson Award-winning critic. His previous volume for Modern Masters of Science Fiction, Iain M. Banks, won a BSFA Award. His other books include What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction and The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest.
Did you publish a work of SFF-related longform non-fiction in 2022 or are you publishing one in 2023 and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.