Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

‘The Very Slow Time Machine’ by Ian Watson

with 14 comments

It is hard to make a time travel story which isn’t redundant but Watson has succeed here. The case the editors make for considering Watson as a hard SF writer is pretty iffy though:

He is a generational contemporary of Gregory Benford and holds a similar position in the U.K. to Benford’s in the American field, as a writer who brought new levels of literary technique and characterization to hard sf. But Watson has never committed himself as exclusively to hard sf as has Benford.

Even with their hedging this is pretty bonkers. Watson is nothing like Benford, he is much more like someone like James Morrow; the editors are right when they say he is as interested in metaphysics as physics and there is a warm pessimism and wit to this work.

Quality: ****
Hardness: ***

It is worth noting that the introduction opens with some extremely fulsome praise: “Ian Watson is the finest young hard science fiction writer and one of the most acute and perceptive sf critics to emerge in England during the last two decades.” That was written in 1994 but quite a lot has changed in the last 15 years. I don’t think any of Watson’s work is in print apart from his Games Workshop tie-in novels and Orgasmachine, his 1976 novel that has just been published in English for the first time by Newcon Press. Equally, Watson continues to review for Vector – I’m just waiting for the right book to send you, Ian – but his criticism doesn’t have much of a profile. What happened?

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Written by Martin

18 June 2010 at 10:34

14 Responses

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  1. Even in 1994 I think Watson had become fairly obscure, one of those writers who failed to move with the times or was left behind as science fiction moved on. (I tend to think of him as a seventies writer.) It happens more often than you’d like, as decent selling writers no longer find an audience, don’t get new contracts or their inspiration dries up for a couple of years and before you know it everything they’ve written is out of print.

    Martin Wisse

    18 June 2010 at 14:03

  2. What happened?

    Wasn’t Ian Watson sitting six feet to your right during the BSFA AGM last Saturday? Perhaps you could have put the question directly to him.

    Adam Roberts

    21 June 2010 at 13:24

  3. It’s not a very polite opening gambit, is it? “I’ve noticed your career appears to be on the skids, why is that?” Besides, I’m not sure he is best placed to answer the question of why his critical reception has changed so much (if indeed is has and Hartwell/Cramer aren’t overstating the case as Martin suggests).

    Martin

    21 June 2010 at 13:46

  4. “It’s not a very polite opening gambit, is it? “I’ve noticed your career appears to be on the skids, why is that?””

    You’re right, of course. Conceivably this was also the reason you didn’t come over to say hello to me.

    Ian is an interesting, though very far from unique, case in genre, I’d say: a very good writer who’s never got the recognition he deserves. Part of me wants to answer the question ‘why?’ by talking about his refusal to pander to commercial lowest-common-denominators, but I don’t know how useful or indeed true such talk is. Another part of me wants to say: how many writers active (or even big) in the 70s who are still alive & working today have kept their reputation alive? Aldiss? Stapleford?

    John Sutherland wrote a book about postwar bestsellers, and the main thing I took away from reading it was how fantastically shortlived commercial literary success is. His examples from the 1970s (if memory serves) were a case in point: writers who were huge in their day, like Hammond Innes or James Herriot, are often not even in print today.

    Adam Roberts

    21 June 2010 at 20:48

  5. Please don’t tell me that James Herriot is out of print. I will cry.

    (I realize this is not the substance of the conversation, but my inner 14 year old is horrified.)

    Abigail

    22 June 2010 at 09:45

  6. Yes, you are right and I certainly shouldn’t be surprised that popular or acclaimed writers fade from view. I can’t imagine bestsellers like, for example, Neal Asher and Peter F Hamilton standing the test of time. (Like Abigail, I’m a bit shocked James Heriot is out of print though.)

    I’m particularly interested in this case though because it doesn’t seem that long since Watson was publishing. Before posting this I hadn’t really grouped him as a Seventies author. I guess the comparison to Stableford is apposite; Aldiss, obviously, has hammered his mark on the genre in a way Watson and Stableford haven’t. Is it simply that tastes change? That they didn’t have a single book that was a must read? That they came just slightly too early to benefit from the British boom?

    Conceivably this was also the reason you didn’t come over to say hello to me.

    No, that is just because I am rude. In my defence, lecture theatres aren’t conducive to mingling.

    Martin

    22 June 2010 at 11:15

  7. No, that is just because I am rude. In my defence, lecture theatres aren’t conducive to mingling.

    Of course, I could have come say hello to you. But, as you know, I’m painfully shy. It’s an affliction.

    Adam Roberts

    22 June 2010 at 13:09

  8. (Like Abigail, I’m a bit shocked James Heriot is out of print though.)

    He’s not! You know, I don’t think I’ve ever actually read any of his books. I know his name purely throught the BBC series.

    Another part of me wants to say: how many writers active (or even big) in the 70s who are still alive & working today have kept their reputation alive?

    Are the parameters here specifically British, and specifically genre? If so: Priest and Harrison’s stock has probably increased, if anything; Moorcock; Jones and Gentle started out in the late Seventies, too. After that I start to run out of names.

    “No, that is just because I am rude.” / But, as you know, I’m painfully shy.

    OK, you two have just got to stop now.

    Niall

    23 June 2010 at 12:38

  9. So yeah, Harrison & Priest and Watson & Stableford where born around the same time and started publishing at around the same time. They’ve all had publishing woes as their careers have progressed but the reputations of the former have been made but not the later (despite acclaim for them in the very recent past). Is this just to do with having a book out from a major publisher this century and hence keeping the profile high? Or is it the other way round?

    Its not something I want to dwell on particularly because there are myriad factors but I continue to be slightly surprised by the speed with which things can change (as evidenced by that H&C quote just 15 years ago).

    Martin

    23 June 2010 at 13:22

  10. Hmm. Well your link, Niall, is to a 1993 paperback edition; not sure if that counts as ‘in print’.

    The Sutherland title I was thinking of was Reading the decades: fifty years of the nation’s bestselling books. It doesn’t have a Googlebooks preview I’m afraid; but my memory of reading it was the repeated shock of ‘oh yes, I remember Wilbur Smith/Hammond Innes/Alistair MacLean/Harold Robbins/insert-name-here, he was huge in the 1970s and … where is he now?’

    Adam Roberts

    23 June 2010 at 20:26

  11. Well OK then, here is a 2010 Herriot edition.

    Niall

    23 June 2010 at 21:04

  12. I must say, Harrison: coming up with actual evidence that supports your position and contradicts mine … well, it strikes me that you’re really not playing fair.

    Adam Roberts

    23 June 2010 at 21:40

  13. Stableford has always been a plug away writer; consistently doing his own thing but if you’re not a fan it’s hard to notice him. He did have a bit of a resurge in the late nineties/early naughties though, writing far future stories revolving around immortality.

    I feel somewhat the same about Watson, a good writer but who never quite caught fire and iirc somewhat better as a short story writer when the field had already moved to novels as the dominant form.

    Both Priest and Harrison (M. John) are interesting as they were both critically acclaimed and fairly popular when they first got going, then slowly dropped into semi-obscurity while moving on from sf to more slipstream fiction, which in turn led to a rediscovery by the literary mainstream and finally a reappreciation within the genre as well…

    And then there’s also somebody like Keith Roberts, likely to be remembered –if at all– for one novel, Pavane while being a fairly succesful writer for much longer…

    Martin Wisse

    24 June 2010 at 18:23

  14. [...] Its Tracks!’ by John T. Sladek ‘The Hungry Guinea Pig’ by Miles J. Breuer, M.D. ‘The Very Slow Time Machine’ by Ian Watson ‘The Beautiful And The Sublime’ by Bruce Sterling ‘The Author of the Acacia [...]


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