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  • Out of the Gernsbackian Slime:Christopher Priest's Abandonment of Science Fiction

"People in the science-fiction world talk about George Orwell or Aldous Huxley or Olaf Stapledon as though they're 'outsiders' who once wrote a little science fiction. But actually those are the people who wrote the real stuff; all the Heinlein stuff is a pure confection, all air, like the stuff you put on top of apple pie. So I feel, now, that nobody is writing real science fiction. All we have is a caricature of what it might have been."

—Christopher Priest (Interview with Charles Platt 32)

The continuing and apparently insoluble problem of providing a commonly accepted definition of science fiction is usually dismissed by readers of the genre with a shrug that signifies, "let the critics wrangle; we know what we mean by sf." The implications of the problematics of definition, however, are not purely academic. Christopher Priest, long considered the best of the younger British sf writers, has anticipated in his writings a crisis in the genre to which ironically his career seems at present to have fallen victim. I will not concern myself here with Priest's fiction [End Page 43] (at present largely the province of a handful of capable European critics1). Instead, by tracing the development of Priest's critical thinking about the genre, I will offer some suggestions as to how the crisis has arisen, what implications it has for the sf field, and (briefly) what lies on the other side of it. But first, what is this crisis?

Priest is the author of seven novels, two short story collections, and many occasional pieces of criticism and journalism. He has won sf awards in the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia,2 and his fiction has been translated into a dozen languages. He has been active in the field of sf as a fan, an editor, an academic, and as a council member of the SF Foundation. Two of his novels, Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972; U.S. title, Darkening Island) and Inverted World (1974), have attained the status of classics of modern sf (Magill 1:480-483; 3:1045-1049). Priest's wideranging achievement in a comparatively short time (he began his professional career in 19683) has made him the heir apparent to Brian Aldiss as the central figure in British sf. Yet to list these credentials is to be aware of the unfamiliarity of Priest to most North American readers. This unfamiliarity is hardly surprising: only his latest novel, The Glamour (1985), is in print on this continent, whereas The Affirmation (1981) was Priest's first major work not to find a paperback publisher here. If the names of Priest's British contemporaries—Ian Watson, Keith Roberts, Robert Holdstock, Gary Kilworth, Josephine Saxton, Richard Cowper, D. G. Compton, and David Masson—are equally unfamiliar, then here is another manifestation of the crisis that has affected Priest's career. Before dealing with that career, let us turn to the root of the problem.

The primary cause of the crisis is the term "science fiction" itself. The entry on "Definitions of SF" in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, as magnificently comprehensive as the rest of this reference work, nevertheless seems to undermine its own authority, a fact the editors seem all too aware of. "'Science fiction,'" begin Stableford and Nicholls, "is a label applied to a publishing category and its application is subject to the whims of editors and publishers" (159). If this "label" is at the disposal not of writers or readers but of the agents of the marketplace, then it is a marketing device, not a literary one. If it is not a literary term (such as a genre, subgenre, or a mode), then one wonders what possible relevance it has to writers of sf who have literary ambitions or for that matter to the majority of students of literature who focus for better or worse on text before context.

Of course, Stableford and Nicholls go on to show how writers and [End Page 44] critics have attempted to appropriate "science fiction" for their own ends. Writers such as...


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