A View from Vector by Andrew M. Butler
[The following is one of a number of retrospective pieces commissioned for Vector 250.]
I've always had this tendency, as all-too frequent appalled silences in my presence attest, to be too frivolous about the serious and to take the trivial all-too seriously. I always feel out of step. On the other hand, it's an ideal qualification to write about science fiction, in a number of its forms, since we are still told it's all just squids in outer space, and not worth wrapping your fish and chips in. Somewhere along the line this seriousness led to me going to HUUSFFS – aka Who Suffers, the Hull University Union Science Fiction and Fantasy Society – on Monday nights and the Hull SF Group two Tuesdays a month, and trying to give various talks on science fiction.
(In another universe, I went to the club that also met on Monday nights in the room next door, and ended up in a different life entirely. That was my Jonbar Point.)
Before long I was working on the club's magazine, and writing reviews for Foundation and Vector, and contributing to Focus, before effectively abandoning writing any fiction, save annual reports, for another decade. I walked into a PhD on PKD, and started going to academic conferences. Perhaps the weirdest of these was one in Warwick on Virtual Futures, in about 1995, where I met Istvan Csiscery-Ronay for the first time. (He claims we met in 1992, when he gave a paper at Reading, but that can't have been me. Perhaps the twin from the other universe was passing through, but he'd long since given up on science fiction.) Istvan, part of the team that edits Science Fiction Studies, was excited about a number of British writers, including Gwyneth Jones, whom he got to meet that weekend, and Jeff Noon. He already had the sense that Something Was Going On, or his palate was already jaded by American sf.
It was not long after that that I became co-editor of features with Gary S. Dalkin, and one of the things we were keen to do was to take British sf seriously – we knew we were the British Association of Science Fiction rather than the Association of British Science Fiction, so to speak, but we were still aware of the nationality. I guess part of this was practical, since British authors were more getatable; this was pre-Blog, barely post-email. This didn't mean we'd give British writers an easy ride, but we would give them a ride.
I'm not sure where the idea came from, but by the time I went to my first International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in 2002, Istvan was already talking about Mark Bould and myself editing an issue of Science Fiction Studies on the British Science Fiction Boom. We'd been at the Science Fiction Foundation conference in Liverpool in 2001 where a guerrilla panel had talked about the state of the field, and this had talked of a Boom (not even my double was there). Hold up, said Mark and me, you say there's a Boom in British science fiction, but what about, say Harry Potter and Philip Pullman? And you'd want to talk about China Miéville, but he's one for the fantasy box. Istvan was certain there was a Boom, with the clarity which comes from being an ocean away, whereas I was aware that things appear larger in close up. The night of the ICFA banquet I scribbled on the back of an envelope about a dozen ideas about the Boom, trying to demonstrate that there wasn't a necessary and sufficient definition of the Boom – that it all depends on what you mean by British, science fiction and Boom. Istvan took the envelope and I never saw it again (perhaps one of my doubles still has it).
Most articles I write disappear into the void, and perhaps that is where they belong. A few things I've revisited because editors want second editions, or they've been reprinted. Occasionally I come across people for copies of the books with bits underlined or highlighted, and I wish to edge nervously away. But "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the British Boom", [pdf] the piece I came to write on the booms, has had a unique afterlife. We'd suggested that the special issue of SFS be sent to places like Vector, Interzone and Foundation for review, and Paul Brazier in Interzone gave it such a stinker that when Bruce Gillespie asked to print my piece in Steam Engine Time 4, I suggested that this be reprinted as well. Brazier called my piece "a farrago". To steal from Bernard Shaw, My dear fellow, I quite agree with you, but what are we two against the judges of the Pioneer Award who made it their article of the year on science fiction?
The bit that hurt in Brazier's piece was he described me "having apparently made notes towards an essay, then finds that he can't make a coherent essay out of those notes but doesn't want to waste all that work so publishes the notes undigested." Well, there was much digestion which went on, and the whole was conceived as something to be written in sections, some of which would be contradictory. I was still agnostic if not atheistic as to the possibility of there being a single Boom. "It is impossible to draw a clear, stable boundary around these distinct and overlapping booms," I wrote. You might be able to say, yes, there's a boom in British genre sf, but then people would say what about horror, what about fantasy, what about children's literature, what about comics, what about movies, what about the older generation of writers who have come back into fashion, what about... But we had been told by the editors there was a Boom, and I had to work within that parameters. Certainly our call for papers allowed people to argue with there being a (single, unified) Boom.
To summarise for those lucky enough to have missed the piece, one section was a listing from Aiken to Wooding of (almost) all the people who were active in contemporary sf and fantasy, with some horror and children's writers, some people in comic and media, and there was a sense that the listing (I called it a partial census, in the sense of incomplete rather than biased, but the second sense would also fit). There's a section which traces the fluctuations of British science fiction from the early days to the 2000s (I'm nothing if not ambitious), a section on American perceptions of the scene and another on the Cool Britannia hysteria of the mid-1990s. There's a discussion of US fiction being written out and then on the remixing of genres which occurs in British fiction. The next three sections deal with pessimism, irony and also the relation of the mainstream to genre fiction. The final section suggests that there was a Boom because people were looking for one – people like Farah Mendlesohn, China Miéville, Cheryl Morgan, Mark Bould, Roger Luckhurst and Andy Sawyer had come along and were opening up spaces in which British genre fiction could be discussed and taken seriously, in addition to the many fine people who had been doing equivalent things for decades, in Vector, Foundation, at Mexicons and elsewhere. There was a new sense of momentum, demanding articles, reviews, polemics, papers and editorials to discuss it. Yes, to base that section on my experience is, as Brazier puts it, "self-referential". Or as the subtitle for the section had it, "An[drew]thropic".
What is curious about a number of the (negative) comments on the article is how often I got taken for task for not mentioning something. On the one hand this seems to lead into the book-length version of the article (and I'm going to try to forget I ever mentioned that), in that there's always that author that had that one story in an issue of Back Recluse, or that Radio 4 Afternoon Play, and I'd hoped to at least be least definitively incomplete. We were inevitably subject to chance when we sent off the call for papers – if there wasn't an article on X it would largely be because no one offered one (although we did reject material). On the other hand, sometimes these were things I had mentioned – see, look at that paragraph, I mention it there...
Being reviewed is an odd experience – I get it through course questionnaires at work as well as in publications – and perhaps should be taken as a cautionary one. I don't think I'm any less forgiving in my reviews than I used to be, and I certainly don't believe that you should only review things you like, but I do write fewer of them than I used to. I know a negative review can hurt. The odd thing about Paul Brazier's piece is that really – to borrow a phrase from Claire Brialey in a letter of comment Steam Engine Time 5 [pdf] – he violently agrees with me.
I stopped editing Vector after ten years in the chair. It's up to the next generation to define the magazine and shout for their next big thing, for a boom of their own. There was a point when I wondered if I should step down at V250, but that would have been too long and frankly I'd be dead by now. As it is, I've read very little science fiction since then, aside from vast quantities of Terry Pratchett. Reading seems to be defined by the next big project, and I've three of them on my plate before I can get back to the things I want to write (and therefore decide my reading). That makes it hard for me to say that the Boom, if it ever existed, is flourishing or withering.
But I suspect that we are still just damn close, too involved in it, for a Boom, rather than booms, to resolve itself into a movement like Romanticism or Modernism (and those two are contested anyway). Colin Greenland made a fair stab at resolving the nature of the New Wave in the late 1970s, but I think Rob Latham's more recent work will have a better sense of perspective. The continual death of cyberpunk suggests we won't understand that in the next five minutes. At the end of the day, all we can do is to try to offer an opinion, albeit a partial one (as if impartial is possible). We still need to have the conversation, but it will take another decade or more to complete.
This article first appeared in Vector 250. Back issues of Vector are available from