Friday 22 March 2013

Kingsley Amis: My Enemy's Enemy (1965, Penguin #2346) and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (Lewes Book Bargains)

A Friday Forgotten Book.

From one Penguin paperback edition of a Kingsley Amis book, to another – one which, like that copy of Lucky Jim, I again plucked from the dump bins outside Lewes secondhand bookshop A & Y Cumming (although rather more recently; just the other week as opposed to a couple of years ago):

Published in paperback by Penguin in 1965 under a Pop Art cover designed by Alan Aldridge (who became Penguin's art director that same year), My Enemy's Enemy was Amis's first collection of short stories, originally issued in hardback by Gollancz in 1962. All bar one of the stories had been published prior to appearing in this collection – mostly in the 1950s in the likes of The Spectator, Esquire and an anthology or three – and three of them form a sequence of sorts, all set within the ranks of the Royal Corps of Signals at the tail end of the Second World War: "My Enemy's Enemy", "Court of Inquiry" and the previously unpublished "I Spy Strangers".

It's these three tales that are the standouts of the collection; taken together they can be considered the equal of the best of Amis's novels, including my personal favourite, The Anti-Death League, for which they act as a kind of aperitif, tackling similar themes of prejudice, class and petty point-scoring in the British Army. (Amis served in the Royal Signals during the war; in 1975 he told Michael Barber of The Paris Review that "Court of Inquiry" was based on his own experiences.) "I Spy Strangers", where the politics of Westminster – and Europe – are played out in a mock parliament, is especially good, but for reasons to do with an ongoing situation at my place of work (don't ask), it was the title story that really struck home with me: a cautionary tale for anyone who's ever considered clambering up the greasy pole.

I wasn't quite so taken with the ensuing (unlinked) trio of tales of civilian life: "Moral Fibre", "Interesting Things" and "All the Blood Within Me"; of the three, I found the latter the most affecting, dealing as it does with regret, old age and the lies we tell ourselves (themes Amis would return to in later works). But perhaps most intriguing of all is the final story, "Something Strange", wherein Amis has a stab at writing science fiction. I've blogged about his interest in the genre before – he published a critical volume on SF (New Maps of Hell, 1960), edited a series of SF anthologies (Spectrum, with Robert Conquest), and some of his novels have elements of SF to them (alternate history tale The Alteration, for example). But "Something Strange" is one of the few – possibly only – pieces of "proper" science fiction Amis wrote, and while it pales in comparison to the better stories in My Enemy's Enemy, it's still not bad at all: a little stiff, and with a telegraphed "twist" that anyone familiar with, say, Ray Bradbury will see coming, but otherwise effective and thoughtful.

"Something Strange" had actually been published three times prior to appearing in My Enemy's Enemy: in 1960 in The Spectator; and in 1961 in Pick of Today's Short Stories 12, and here:

The November issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (Vol. II, No. 12, British edition). Which in fact is where I first read it: I found the copy seen here in, I think, the Lewes Antique Centre last year, and bought it expressly for Amis's tale. To my knowledge it was the only time Amis contributed fiction to the magazine (correct me if I'm wrong, SF fans); his story appeared alongside his friend Brian Aldiss's novelette "Undergrowth", which would become part of the full-length novel Hothouse the following year.


  1. I'm a science fiction fan, and I didn't even know about this. As I've mentioned before, I do recall mentions of Amis in various science fiction publications--but they wrote about him as a sort of distant cousin. He wasn't quite considered part of the club--but of course with such a distinguished member as Brian Aldiss to vouch for you, not hard to get published in The Magazine of SF & Fantasy, which as its name indicates, was pretty flexible in its genre standards. I remember reading Thomas Disch's "The Brave Little Toaster" in that same publication. Basically a children's fable written for adults.

    Amis was respected, I think, because he was coming over from the other side--the 'mainstream' authors who got some flak from the rather incestuous straight SF circles tended to be the ones who had started in the genre, then went legit, and then stopped showing up at conventions.

    Which begs the question--did Amis go to any SF conventions?

  2. All the Blood Within Me and Something Strange are two of the best short stories I've ever read. They both use the same trick - I suppose you could call it the "slow reveal".

    Love the cover - I thought "Ah, one of those 60s Alan Aldridge-style covers". Well spotted, me. It's by Alan Aldridge. With a Tom Wesselman nude in one corner.

  3. I don't know if Amis ever attended a con (I'd guess no, but not with any great confidence), but he was hardly seen as too much an Outsider by the mid '60s, when his and Robert Conquest's SPECTRUM anthology series began (where one or both of them wrote, close paraphrase: "SF's no good, they bellow till we're deaf, and if it's good, then it's not SF!), and NEW MAPS OF HELL was no longer controversial for suggesting Frederik Pohl was a first-rate writer. Amis's reference to his character reading ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION (nowadays ANALOG) magazine in LUCKY JIM had preceded that book, as well. F&SF, btw, reprinted that Amis story from THE SPECTATOR, members of one of my mailing lists were reminded yesterday, in a nice coincidence. But that was his only story in F&SF so far, though not his only fantasy or sf story...and Disney really messed over Thomas Disch through his inept agent. PSYCHO all over again.

  4. Ha! Sorry, my eye was caught by comments before I properly read your piece...redundancy not intended! But Amis wrote a fair amount of fantasy and sf...THE GREEN MAN, certainly...THE ALTERATION...

  5. Oh I know Amis wrote a fair bit of SF--partly because of Nick's valiant efforts here, of course.

    And I can't speak for how he was regarded by UK enthusiasts, but in the U.S., I do seem to recall him being regarded with something akin to--well--puzzlement. Like something along the lines of "What are we to make of this guy? Is he on the level or what?"

    Because again, in America, the road to literary respectability always led AWAY from the genre, and here's this writer who has achieved widespread critical acclaim AWAY from the genre deciding to come in and make it his own. What's up with that? It wasn't in any sense a hostile reaction--admiring even--but still--a puzzlement.

    We don't have an H.G. Wells, you know. Or an Olaf Stapledon (I have no idea what the critics thought of him). Our first really big name was Hugo Gernsback (who was actually from Luxembourg). A great publisher. A horrible horrible writer. The stuffy old critics had every reason to poke fun.

    Eventually, we produced some truly great writers in the genre (I mean great without any qualification whatsoever), and some of them did eventually win over the critics. It only took half a century or so.

    So were things different over there? Actually, judging by the quote Tod just produced, maybe not that much.