To a Delightful Weekend in the Country: the New Generation of British SF

Jonathan McCalmont @ 04-02-2009

This month in Blasphemous Geometries, Jonathan McCalmont takes a look at the new generation of British science fiction writers.

They can be hard to spot – for one thing, they’re not explicitly marketed as such. And furthermore, instead of describing futures defined by ever-increasing complexity, they seem preoccupied with the very British pursuit of “getting away from it all”.

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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In the November 2003 issue of Science Fiction Studies, Roger Luckhurst wrote an article entitled “Cultural Governance, New Labour and the British SF Boom”. In the article, he describes the emergence of a new generation of British SF authors in the context of a series of cultural shifts that neatly coincided with the election of New Labour in 1997. With the once glorious political force that was New Labour now consuming itself in flames of incompetence, cowardice, corruption and authoritarianism, it seems an appropriate time to look ahead to the next cycle of boom and bust in British Science Fiction; to a generation of authors intent upon leaving it all behind.

In January 2008, Martin Lewis’ review of Matthew de Abaitua’s Red Men (2007) referenced my disgust at the decadent and vacuous rich people glorified by William Gibson’s Spook Country (2007). In his review of Everything is Sinister (2008) by David Llewellyn and The Heritage (2008) by Will Ashon, Lewis tied these three books together with Martin Martin’s On The Other Side (2008) by Mark Wernham. I then took it upon myself to expand the idea that these books were all thematically connected and named the trend Barleypunk in reference to the Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker sitcom Nathan Barley (2005).

What is perhaps most surprising about Barleypunk as an emerging sub-genre is that it seems to have sprung into existence entirely outside of the genre ghetto. Indeed, not only do Barleypunk novels tend to be put out by non-genre publishers, they also tend to be written by authors who are not a product of SF fandom. As yet, nobody has unearthed any short stories or novels that serve as precursors to the Barleypunk phenomenon. They appear to be a lot of novels conceived, commissioned and written entirely separately but published almost simultaneously.

Barleypunk is not a product of the gradual cut and thrust of genre debate; the slow evolutionary conversation between generations of genre authors that begins with incremental changes from story to story and ends with the emergence of whole new sub-genres of SF. Instead, its roots are in the low levels of SF that have been seeping out into mainstream culture since the appearance of the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. The non-genre publication of these works reflects the fact that, as with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), the iconography of genre is no longer the sole preserve of genre fans. In fact, it is a component part of the iconography of Western Civilisation, as discussed in a previous Blasphemous Geometries column. This new generation of British authors have grown up in a world suffused with genre and, when it comes time for them to critique the world they live in, it only makes sense that they should reach for the genre baggage that litters the landscape of popular culture.

The ‘outsider’ status of Barleypunk books is also shared by two of the most interesting and important works of SF to come out of Britain in 2008.

Though far from perfect, Nick Harkaway’s Gone-Away World (2008) [reviewed here] is brilliantly written and hugely ambitious in its deconstruction of the Golden Age staple of Great Men using Big Tech to Save The World. The world, Harkaway argues, might not be worth saving as the best bits of it might only exist in our memories, and besides the creation of a new world would free us from the baggage and limitations of the past and provide us with a blank slate; a whole new world we would be free to make the most of or hideously fuck up. While The Gone-Away World was published as a mainstream novel, Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008) [reviewed here] was released as a Young Adult novel. Much like Harkaway, Ness writes about a world that is in the process of being born. Perfectly paced and filled with wonderful characters and great SFnal ideas, Ness’ book is set on a planet where the audibility of men’s thoughts has lead to the institutions of the old world either falling apart or going bad.

All of these books and all of these authors suggest that the next British Boom, should there be one, will most likely not be born of our existing genre infrastructure. Indeed, the migration of SF from insular scene to being part of a cosmopolitan and multi-polar mainstream is also happening in America with authors such as Michael Chabon and Junot Diaz trumpeting their love of genre alongside their love of many other different cultural fields and milieux.

However, there is much more to emerging British SF than different business models. All the works of British SF I have mentioned in this column share a great sense of malaise at the state of late-stage Capitalism. Harkaway presents the consumerism encouraged by Big Business as a sterile and artificial environment; an unnatural aberration backed by sinister actors who want to hold back the future in favour of a fictionalised past that never existed. Ness’ rejection of the Old World is so complete that his New World wants to be clean even of the institutions and ideologies created as a reaction to the corruption of the Old World. Old World is most wittily described in Wernham’s Martin Martin’s On The Other Side as a place where the middle classes are idiots, working for idiots in a culture that encourages idiocy and, should you chose to opt out of that world, there are the working classes; miserable, poor, largely insane and cheered up only by the smug knowledge that at least they are not like those middle-class wankers.

Of course, this sense of malaise is nothing new. In his essay on the history of British SF, “Mistah Kurtz, He Dead”, Paul Kincaid suggests that the Ur-Text of British science fiction is not War of the Worlds (1898) or even Frankenstein (1818) but Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902). Conrad’s novella, despite the accusations of racism levelled at it, contains the germ of anti-colonialism and the realisation that as more of the map is filled in and humanity spreads itself further and further across the wilderness, it brings with it a germ of nihilism and moral decay that can only lead to intense alienation. Heart of Darkness is an ode to the perils of colonialism written at the height of the British Empire. Conrad’s story is an attempt to articulate a problem with the status quo that can only be expressed by the exploration of the alien landscape that was the African interior at the time. According to Kincaid, this sense of alienation from the status quo would come to colour not only the Cosy Catastrophism of John Wyndham‘s The Day of the Triffids (1951) but also that of JG Ballard‘s The Drowned World (1962) right down to his later tales of middle-class alienation and architectural despair such as Crash (1973), High Rise (1975), Cocaine Nights (1996) and Kingdom Come (2006). Indeed, the later Ballard’s increased visibility, mainstream publication and obsessions with middle-class angst make him the ultimate father figure for this new generation of writers. However, the Barleypunk writers and their post-genre contemporaries approach the issue of alienation from two quite different perspectives to authors of Ballard’s generation.

Firstly, where Ballard combined surrealism with angst to create a kind of critical hyper-realism, many of the new generation of authors use surrealism as a comedy device. Indeed, if you consider the works of Llewellyn and Ashon you will find that political debate has given way to mockery and satire. Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in Wernham’s Martin Martin’s On The Other Side, a book that feels like a grotesque parody of the later Ballard with broad social stereotypes replacing carefully constructed social realities and an indiscriminate mocking sneer replacing quiet rage.

This propensity for whimsy and comedy is a reflection of the state of political debate in Britain today. While America still believed in the power of politics and built The West Wing to honour that belief, Britain chose instead to use comedy to engage with its politicians, first through Jay and Lynn’s Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister and then through Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It. Political comedy is the ultimate expression of alienation from the status quo; it embodies the idea that the time for talk has passed and that the only option left to us is the mockery and finger pointing of parody.

Barleypunk is an expression of disgust at the state of things. It is an almost wordless scream of pain and frustration directed against a society that is suffering from a sickness for which there is no apparent cure. The Barleypunk novels obsess over popular culture because they are the fruit of a society that no longer believes in the power of politics to save the World.

Harkaway and Ness share the lack of hope felt by the Barleypunk authors. Their worlds are cultural and social but never political and yet they are filled with what look like political problems. However, where Barleypunk resorts to mockery, books such as The Gone-Away World and The Knife of Never Letting Go advocate flight.

According to the excellent cultural and architectural critic Jonathan Meades, there was a time when Britain believed in progress through technology. In the years following the Second World War, Britain’s architecture broke with the traditional and embraced the modernism of ‘Big Tech’. The aesthetics of ‘Big Tech’ are those of the Technocracy Movement and the Golden Age of SF. As with all ideologies it starts from a Year Zero. In SFnal terms, this Year Zero is best expressed by Olaf Stapledon who said in his Last and First Men (1930) “great are the stars, and man is of no account to them”. This Year Zero is the point at which man realises how utterly insignificant he is. How tiny. How ridiculous. However, as with Descartes‘ decision to sink all of human knowledge into a pit of scepticism, the Year Zero of technocracy is not an end, but a beginning. Big Dumb Objects such as Larry Niven’s Ring, Iain M. Banks’ Excession or the artificial black hole in Baxter’s XeeLee cycle frequently dwarf entire star systems and their sensawunda comes from both how small they make us feel and how huge our potential is made to look. Big Dumb Objects are inspiring because they take nature and bring it to heel. They present mankind not as a part of the environment but as a god.

However, sometime in the third quarter of the 20th Century, Britain lost that belief in progress and started to retreat from Big Tech. This retreat took the form of movement from the urban to the rural, from the industrial to the artisanal and from the harsh truths of science to the comforting fog of traditional beliefs.. It came as no surprise when, in 2004, the British people voted for Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings (1955) as their favourite book. Tolkien demonises the industrialisation of Isengaard just as easily as he praises the rural idyll of The Shire, a place closely modelled on the county of Worcestershire, the place that also gave the world Edward Elgar, that most quintessentially English of classical composers.

However, this is not to say that Harkaway and Ness are merely twee reactionaries. In truth they are neither. Harkaway’s novel explicitly features a piece of Big Tech while Ness’ planet is populated by people who turned their backs on the advanced technology that allowed them to build their new settlement. However, both cases make a very strong case for technology as a part of building a new world. Indeed, both books are all about new worlds, not preserving the old ones. Instead, Harkaway and Ness both advocate a disengagement from our society and the existing models of what the future might look like.

The currently dominant paradigm in matters relating to our future predicts a world that is increasingly complex, increasingly cluttered and increasingly chaotic due to over-crowding, resource depletion and environmental degradation. Where once Science Fiction was inspired by the infinite horizons of the American plains and the Manifest Destiny of the New World, it is now all about the walls closing in. However, this is exactly the future that Harkaway and Ness are reacting against.

We can, tentatively, identify the new generation of British SF authors with that most British of activities; the weekend in the country. The need to get away from the clutter and the complexity of the modern world in order to find a new space free from the entanglements of the past and the present. However, the irony is that it is this precise desire that prompted so many settlers to leave Britain for America in the first place.

Could we be seeing, in the new British SF, a renewed interest in that most final frontiers? A Manifest Destiny born not from dreams of Empire but from watching A Place in the Sun? Ultimately it is too soon to tell (and besides which, Ness is an American who only lives in Britain) but the next generation of British SF authors are out there, and soon they will reduce talk of the British Boom to little more than a historical anecdote in this kind of half-arsed column. The future is out there – and apparently it’s only half an hour’s drive from a place that does absolutely fantastic pub lunches!

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

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2 Responses to “To a Delightful Weekend in the Country: the New Generation of British SF”

  1. Martin Wisse says:

    As yet, nobody has unearthed any short stories or novels that serve as precursors to the Barleypunk phenomenon.

    Let me attempt to suggest one possible precursor, partially based in what you say about Gibson in that link to your definition of Barleypunk: his books featured enough brand names and referenced enough forms of music and art to make his works exude a distinctive whiff of verisimilitude. While Cyberpunk was ostensibly a reaction to the hypercommercialisation that began in the 1980s, Gibson wrote about the process having absorbed its mores and values

    Rereading Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius Quartet I was struck with the way he uses brandnames to establish mood and verisimilitude as well with how Moorcock is both rejecting and seduced by sixties/seventies consumer culture. Cornelius does his best to create chaos and end the old world, but is at the same time careful to keep his creature comforts.

    It is of course not quite the same, but it has the kind of frustration with modern society and nostalgia for a simpler, more honest past while still fascinated with the gadgets and artifacts of modern life.

  2. Jonathan M says:

    That’s a very good point Martin.

    I don’t remember the Cornelius I’ve read well enough to respond to you in any kind of detail (tbh I didn’t enjoy it all that much) but that certainly bears some excavation on my part.

    *tip of the hat*