Tuesday 29 January 2013

Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest: Science Fiction, Spectrum (Gollancz, 1961) and The Egyptologists (Cape, 1965)

I touched on Kingsley Amis's experiments with genre in the previous post, on 1966's The Anti-Death League – the genre in that instance being (largely) spy fiction. But The Anti-Death League also boasts elements of science fiction in its genetic make-up, a genre Amis was a leading exponent of. He wrote a key critical text on SF – 1960's New Maps of Hell – and the following year, in collaboration with his friend, the diplomat, historian and poet Robert Conquest, published this:

Spectrum, issued in hardback in 1961 by Victor Gollancz under one of the publisher's iconic yellow dust jackets, and bought by me in first edition back in November 2011 at the same Bloomsbury Book Fair – and indeed from the same dealer – as the similarly jacketed first of Anthony Price's October Men (which will give you an indication of how long some of the multitudinous books on my "to be blogged about" shelves have been awaiting my blogging attention). It's an anthology of SF tales by the likes of Frederik Pohl, Clifford D. Simak and Robert Heinlein, selected by Amis and Conquest, and with an introduction – obliquely referencing New Maps of Hell – which starts off as a robust rebuttal of ill-informed criticisms of science fiction – drawing the analogy that "a useful qualification for reviewing a book on Georgian cutlery is the ability to tell a knife from a fork" – only to turn into almost an apology for its inadequacies, especially as regards characterization (or lack thereof). Although as my learned friend Olman argues in his review, that perceived deficiency is, by and large, borne out by the stories themselves.

Amis and Conquest would go on to edit a further four Spectrum anthologies for Gollancz throughout the 1960s. But they also collaborated on a novel:

The Egyptologists, published in hardback by Jonathan Cape in 1965, bought by me in first in Hall's Bookshop, Tunbridge Wells either last year or the year before – or maybe even the year before that; I genuinely can't remember (see above re: the length of time it takes me to to get round to blogging about some of these bloody books). The situationist-style jacket design is by Jan Pienkowski, who also designed the Richard Chopping-referencing wrapper for Amis's The James Bond Dossier (Cape, 1965), not to mention, while we're on the subjects of Fleming and Cape, the dust jacket of John Pearson's The Life of Ian Fleming (1966). Kirkus describes The Egyptologists as a "long legpull" and "nonsense", but there's a more favourable – and lengthier – review over at Mystery*File.

Next in the series of posts on Kingsley Amis, I'll probably have a posthumously published work of linguistic pitfalls and pronunciation...


  1. Fascinating--now you look at somebody like Kurt Vonnegut, who started out with "Player Piano", an unqualified mainstream SF novel, and then spent the rest of his career running away from being labeled a science fiction author.

    Or you could talk about Nigel Kneale, author of many an influential teleplay for British television, who was primarily influenced by British ghost story writers like M.R. James, and repeatedly expressed his utter contempt for science fiction, even though he's remembered almost entirely for Professor Bernard Quatermass, a rocket scientist (literally) who has to keep fending off alien invasions of earth.

    And here we have a writer who established himself in 'serious mainstream fiction', and then decided what the hey, genre stuff is more fun. An interesting mind there, clearly.

    I grew up fairly well immersed in the science fiction world, and people rarely if ever talked about Kingsley Amis in that world. Maybe they thought he was slumming. Maybe they were wrong.

  2. Spectrum 1 is actually a really good science fiction anthology, with a couple of stories (The Homing Instinct of Joe Vargo, Inanimate Objection) that you just can't find anywhere else. The quality dips sharply on Spectrum 2 though, and by the third volume, their stated intent, to present stories that were not normally available in the UK seems to run aground.