Thomas Hodgkin, Denis Bayle: a Life (Badger Books 2009)
[pp.321. £20.00. ISBN: 724381129524]
This is a novel with an interesting conceit, written by a newcomer to SF (although according to Hodgkin’s own author bio, he has published a number of mainstream novels). The book takes the form of a biography, complete with preface, scholarly apparatus, timeline and everything else. The subject of the story is a fictional Science Fiction author, the Denis Bayle of the title, but the point of the book is less to tell a life story (Hodgkin doesn’t give Bayle that interesting a life).
Rather Hodgkin uses this format as an excuse to offload a dozen imaginary novels, supposedly written by Bayle, and here summarised in so much detail that it would be a trivial business using these blueprints to actually write the fiction. In effect, then, what we have here is a collection of Imaginary Books, the sorts of things Borges or Lem have so brilliantly provided before. Hodgkin can’t bring Borgesian or Lemlike brilliance to this now venerable literary sub-genre; but he can innovate in another way, linking his accounts of imaginary books via the imaginary autobiography of a made-up SF author.
He tells Bayle’s story well, actually; not flashily but convincing. Born in New York to a French mother and American father in 1929, he was too young to serve in the second world war, but just the right age to experience the 1950s explosion of interest in SF. His first story appeared in Fables of Science and Wonder in 1948 (for Hodgkin has not only invented Bayle, and invented his dozen novels and two-dozen stories, he has also invented all the magazines in which he was published, all the editors he dealt with and so on: indeed, this reviewer found himself wondering why he could not simply have included John Campbell and the others as minor characters).” FSW,” Hodgkin says, “was the market leader throughout the early 1950s”. If you say so, mate. Bayle’s first story “Volcano Skyscraper” was “a superheated adventure novella, in which a huge chimney is being constructed atop an active volcano to harness and control the destructive forces of nature in the service of mankind. The frequent disasters, and the heroics of the construction crew, are vividly if rather gnashingly rendered”.
Throughout the 1950s Bayle worked in a Jersey company that manufactured alarm clocks (“it is perhaps strange,” says Hodgkin, “that so few of Bayle’s stories concern clocks”; which is something of a cheat, surely — Bayle only wrote so few clock stories because Hodgkin decided that he would write only a few clock stories, which means it can hardly strike him as strange in any genuine sense. But I am digressing). He married in 1954, and had two children. The elder of these died of polio at the age of seven. This death provoked an estrangement between Bayle and his wife, “neither of them able to deal with the grief, neither of them taking consolation in the other.” 1964, the year that Bayle became a professional writer, was also the year of his separation from his wife.
Thereafter he lived by himself in Queens, and later in Lower East Side, and devoted himself to his writing.” His writing, whilst always inventive and popular, was nevertheless touched with a flavour of melancholy, a sense of the separateness and isolation of the human condition. It is possible that this, in fact, endeared him to many SF fans, for whom, then as now, it is a familiar condition”.
But, as I say, the meat of this book is not really in its retelling Bayle’s life, except incidentally. The real purpose of Denis Bayle: a Life is to shoe-horn in a large number of imaginary books, fictional plot-lines, made-up sf premises. Whether these are ideas that Hodgkin is too idle to write up for himself, or ideas he has abandoned as unworkable, is not clear. I have always found the whole ‘imaginary review’ thing fairly annoying—some of these ideas are quite good, and sketching them out in this desultory manner precludes another writer from developing them properly. But that is by-the-bye.
One advantage Hodgkin’s format has over the more conventional ‘collection of reviews of imaginary books’ is that he need not pretend the reviewer’s reticence about twist-endings, plot spoilers and so on. Because he is supposed to be writing a ‘critical biography’ he is able to précis his novels in detail from start to finish, which makes for more satisfying reading.
So, for example, his account of Bayle’s novel The Plate (1970), reveals not only premise but twist. An exploratory craft of the Humanity Trust crashed on an uncharted object. Five of its seven-strong crew survive, and explore the new world. They encounter a range of wonders, strange aliens, weird beasts, all detailed by Hodgkin, and they come to understand that they have not landed on a globe, but on an enormous flat plate. Clearly, then, it must be an artefact, like McAuley’s flat world Confluence. As they trek over the landscapes of this Plate, however, they begin to sense something oddly familiar about the landscape. One of the crew becomes obsessed with mapping the territory, a painstaking process since they are without orbital aid. The conclusion to the novel — ‘the build-up is artfully handled’ Hodgkin tells us, which of course we have to take on trust — reveals that the seas of this 9000 square kilometer plate are the indentations made by raising up the landmasses on the other side of the structure, and that the mountains are the reverse indentations of the obverse seas. The weird sense of familiarity that had grown on the crew is explained at the end with the understanding that the crew have been trekking through the reverse of the map of Earth’s Europe: that, in other words, the Plate’s seas take the shape of the European landmass, and its mountains fill the spaces that are taken by sea in our maps. This changes everything: “not unlike the moment as the end of the movie Planet of the Apes: a film Bayle had admired, and an effect he wished to recreate.” What had been taken to be an alien artefact reveals a close affinity to the Earth. Hodgkin thinks this novel “powerful and original”, but to me it sounded like a retread of Niven’s Ringworld — which, we remember, also featured relief-stamped maps of the terrain of Mars, the Earth and other such worlds.
A better conception, I thought, was Bayle’s Troposphere (1975). In this novel aliens invade the earth but occupy not the ground (as in Wells’s War of the Worlds), nor the ocean (as in Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes), but instead the sky, specifically that portion of the atmosphere beneath the stratosphere from which the book takes its title (“the troposphere extends from the ground to a height that varies from nine kilometers at the poles to seventeen kilometers at the equator” says Hodgkin, although it is not clear whether he is speaking himself or quoting from Bayle’s supposed novel). I liked the sound of this novel, and rather wished it were real so I could buy it and read it properly. The appearance of the invasion fleet first casts human society into terror, which mutates into relieved disregard when it becomes clear that the aliens have no interest in what happens at sea-level.
After months of upheaval life on earth settles easily back into its old rhythms, inconvenienced only by the aggression with which the invaders treat any sufficiently high-flying aircraft or rockets (“destruction is assured above 1100m”). Years pass; communication is attempted many times but always ignored. The aliens are observed as they construct a complex flying-and-floating culture in the high sky. Airlines go bust. Shipping companies grow rich. People speculate about the origins and long-term intentions of the aliens. Doomsayers insist that mankind will be destroyed soon, but as years pass without incident people become complacent. Governments continue a kind of cold war against the invaders for many years, picking off occasional targets from the ground. But total war is too difficult and too expensive to wage against such an enemy, and it becomes the general belief we will simply have to share our world with the invaders. “Eventually we will learn to speak to one another,” says one character. “We must be patient.”
According to Hodgkin, “this premise is powerfully rendered”, although the few quotation he concocts don’t really demonstrate the power. But:
Bayle was instructed by his publisher that the first draft of Troposphere lacked drama, and therefore saleability. He rewrote the book, turning the second half into catastrophe-thriller. After nine years of relatively quiet occupation, the invaders begin to seed the lower stratosphere with “something — organic, or technological –“, ground-based intelligence is not sure what. It proliferates, blocking out an increasing percentage of sunlight. Famine and catastrophe for humanity looms. At the last mankind must rouse itself. The story centres on three researchers at the United States Invader Studies Institute [their motto is USIST–RESIST!], racing against the clock to try and find a way to “settle ET’s hash”.
Such a method is found, and put – successfully – into practice (Hodgkin tells us all the details of this conclusion, but as a reviewer I hold back from such spoilers). Suffice to say that it makes use of the differential between troposphere height at equatorial and polar locations. “However ingenious this conclusion,” opines Hodgkin in his persona as critic-biographer, “however exciting the final chapters, it cannot be denied that the later draft lacks the distant, stilly, bleak beauty of the earlier. Bayle’s genius was not in potboiler plotting, but in finding fictional expression for his acute sense of alienation. He motto might have been: every man is indeed an island.”
The novels of the 1960s and 1970s ring changes upon the main fashions in American SF from those decades. Some sound more interesting (such as Troposphere); most of them sounding tired and conventional. The Perils of Certain Spacemen, supposedly from 1977, sounds like regular space opera, although on a larger than usual scale. The Explorers (1984) is a sort of alternate history based on the theory of the aquatic ape, the idea that proto hominids spent a portion of their evolution in the seas (hence our love for swimming and our streamlined hairlessness) — Bayle imagines the present-day earth populated by homo aquans, the descendents of these apes, instead of homo sapiens. His novel relates the explorations of ‘InLand’ by people who live in the sea and have traditionally only ventured a little way in at the coast. The Washington Review called this novel “a roller-coaster of a book, big, moving, wholly engrossing” (for Hodgkin makes up reviews and reactions as well as making up the original books). But this is exactly the problem: a two-page summary of this storyline can hardly be “big, moving, wholly engrossing”. At most it can be intriguing, and leave the reader wishing that he or she could read the whole book.
Indeed, it is one of the flaws of Hodgkin’s approach that these longer novels receive such detailed summary. These summaries are too crammed and too hurried to give the satisfaction of short stories; and they are too shrunken to give the satisfaction of novels. They fall, alas, between the too stools; reading them is somehow unsatisfactory. Better are the Bayle short stories that Hodgkin summarises: less is lost in such a transformation. In “Avalanche Pregnancy” (Quasar, Nov. 1965, collected in The Rafts on the River, 1970) a humanoid alien has sex with a human woman. The alien physiology is such that ‘he’ becomes pregnant with the evacuation of his seed; it so happens that she is also impregnated by the encounter.” The two pregnancies,” says Hodgkin, “develop together, and the tension and indeed competition between the two parties is very subtly delineated”.
In “The Foam Spaceships” (Utopian Science Fiction, June 1969—Hodgkin calls it “the Star Award winning story”, the Star Awards being his fictional version of the Hugos) mankind is given the true technology of interstellar spaceflight, based on a kind of quantum foam, by a seemingly benign race of aliens; we use it and spread rapidly through the galaxy. But there is a price to pay: for those who use it are changed by the technology, their cells turning into foam, their corporeality dissolving into a kind of not-quite-solid, not-quite-fluid state. Who would use such technology given that it exacts such a heavy price? Everybody, according to this story: “the puritanical solids who remained in the prison of earth were looked on with pity rather than contempt; for everybody else, for the majority, any price would be worth paying to travel the stars.” “The Picture of Dorian Greebo” (1962), despite its awful title, is an especially interesting conception: Wilde’s Dorian Gray revolves around a portrait in the protagonist’s attic that ages in his place. In Bayle’s retelling space explorers find an artefact on the moon placed by aliens; tests reveal that is anti-entropic, and in fact that this artefact is becoming younger minute by minute. They discover that this object’s youth-ing and human aging are connected, and indeed that an alien race is rejuvenating itself via this device at our expense. The 1975 story “Tour de Lune” (collected in Forward-view Mirror 1978) concerns pedal-powered spacecraft racing to the moon. Bayle also has an arresting way with a first sentence. This from “XRose” (1971): “As I pissed I thought how strange it was that I would never again urinate.”
Hodgkin’s ingenuity and his fecund imagination are certainly well displayed by this book. But I hope I am not being only puritanical if I say that it is, somehow, vulgar. I can’t shake the sense that the point of all this is only to display Hodgkin’s undeniably impressive creativity, and nothing else. The book, supposedly about Denis Bayle, is actually an elongated boast by Thomas Hodgkin — look how clever I am! Look how careless I can be with ideas for stories! Other writers hoard their conceptions, but I scatter them left and right. It is an impression not helped by the melancholy end Hodgkin inflicts upon poor old Bayle.
His fiction, once popular, now passes from fashion. His 1991 Midwich Prime, a retelling of Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos from the point of view of the alien children, is rejected by his publisher, ostensibly for reasons of copyright, but in fact because Bayle novels simply aren’t selling. “You need to write more popular stuff,” he is told, but he doesn’t understand why popular stuff is popular. Cyberpunk baffles him, his mind still running along the clockwork devices inside 1950s alarm clocks. He writes a long novel, provisionally entitled Marigold, his first attempt at Heroic Fantasy, figuring that Fantasy sells better than SF (not the first SF author to do this, of course). But this book becomes a folly in its grandeur, swelling to three thousand, four thousand pages: “it is a hybrid,” Hodgkin tells us, “of Tolkien and Proust, a sort of A La Recherche de Middle-Earth Perdu.” He works obsessively over and over this manuscript, filling out lengthy descriptions of every detail of his fantasy world; but the project was not yet half finished at his death. “His body lay undiscovered in his apartment for three days,” says Hodgkin, which seemed to me a low blow: gratuitously nasty on behalf of Hodgkin-as-God.
Had Hodgkin used this format as an opportunity to comment, satirically or otherwise, upon the world of SF over the last half-century I think the book would have been more successful. But his invented world-of-SF is only there as the backdrop to the invented novels, and those are only partially successful. We admire Hodgkin’s inventiveness, but leave the feast unsatisfied. Imaginary books, I’m afraid, are simply not as filling as real books.