Billion Year Spree – a retrospective


When I start a new piece my first consideration is theme. If it’s not SF, it’ll be short and I generally launch straight into it, knowing it’ll be out of the way in a day or two.

SF poses additional considerations, for example what, exactly, is it going to be about? Have I read anything similar or, if not, am I drawing from general wells of inspiration provided by works such as Billion Year Spree, Hell’s Cartographers, Visual Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, New Maps of Hell, Who’s Who in Science Fiction

Like many teenagers, my youth was marred by lack of money and even less wisdom. When I could I bought anything to do with SF, including the above. In his introductions to the Spectrum Collections, Robert Conquest makes the point that as the genre deals with areas outside the scope of conventional fiction, the literary conventions for normal fiction should not apply.  This poses the question: what is the legitimate purpose of the genre. The answer to that changes, depending on what’s in vogue – SF is no less prone to fashion that other genres.

To go back to ‘legitimate purpose’ I find it instructive to revisit those long ago surveys of the genre and I am currently dipping into Billion Year Spree

First UK paperback publication: Corgi SF Collector’s Library, 1975.

Cover to Corgi SF Collector's Library edition

Cover to Corgi SF Collector’s Library edition

Tolkien is contrasted with Peake, with an extract.  Peake says little, filling his character with the self-regard so prevalent in the literary outputs of yesteryear whereas Tolkien progresses the action and briefly dwells on resonance through dream. Tolkien is more direct whereas you feel Peake is close to breaking into a paean of all the words he knows on a theme… a sign of all too prevalent Thesaurus Gambit where the writer, given the challenge of An Exotic Market, throws in a great long list, presumably in the hope that this will convey Exotic. These are passages I just skim through. Nothing is happening, lists add little. Thesauruses are great writer resources but they make for dreary reader reads. This tendency isn’t confined to SF – attendees of Writing Groups can look away in embarrassment…   NOW!

The critique of Heinlein is hilarious – ‘an adroit way of dropping in a telling detail’ err Brian, that’s writing in the here and now. Dickens detailed characterisations, with high wordage levels splayed out over pages and pages have their market – most of which has long since passed beyond the pale. What’s more important: a meticulously detailed, tick box narrative, or action? This along with other examples caveats Spree significantly. Sniping at successful authors is a well worn path and bitching about success is second nature in Britain. It doesn’t belong in what purports to be a serious examination of the genre.

That’s not to say that Billion Year Spree has no value, it name-checks a vast array of books and in doing so, shows the flavours of yesteryear’s fiction.


Note on  Corgi SF Collector’s Library

The Library was limited to works published by Corgi so in an irony of ironies: no Philip K Dick, Ursula K Le Guin, J. G. Ballard or other luminaries of the time.


I also reviewed this on Goodreads

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About Terence Park

Collections: vinyl records, comic books, paperbacks; I've plenty of them all. I also do spreadsheets.
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