Billion Year Spree – further thoughts


Just finished The Neried. About myths, legends and homelessness; set in Blackpool.
Just started Core. Set in the core of the Milky Way, in the Galactic Bar. Explores aliens —lots of aliens —sexuality and that kind of thing. ETA: unknown (but as it’s set 30 Galactic Years back I should be, maybe, using something different than ETA as that implies future 🙂 🙂 ); length: unknown —I’ll see how things hang after a few trial chapters.


Back to Billion Year Spree

From a world of ignorance and savagery to light
From a universe in which no one knows anything to one in which Godly awareness and foreknowledge is just the first step. Check your bearings.

The development of SF is in some ways analogous to the growth in understanding of Western Man.

The first step.
└─> Outside your field of view a gift
– to bring us into their power
– or to make us something stunted / locked / harmless

Worth exploring and probably, in the long run, relevant. So…

Do we really understand the consequences of no longer being unique, of this universe being the the hunting ground of creatures much older than us, who have survived? …or do we prefer pleasant fantasies – Earth Strikes Back, Earth Wins Again, Human Federation Goes Forth and Promulgates (a TV soundbite) Motto of Peace and Prosperity…


Screw the philosophy, this is about content.


My younger self listened with interest to the blandishments of the likes of Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock and New Wave Science Fiction in general. At that time it was clear that they were on a serious endeavour and my reactions were most of the contributors to that long ago project couldn’t write – never mind they’d slung random words together that were variously offensive, experimental and sometimes offensive and experimental – little of it interested me.
With the virtue of hindsight I see that that long ago movement had a point – it’s also pretty obvious than many of the (enthusiastic) participants made horrendous mistakes which in turn had a seriously negative impact on British SF¹… you can learn from the past, you can’t unpick the consequences, but still I’m drawn to those long ago prophets of change, so back to Billion Year Spree.

Billion Year Spree contents

Billion Year Spree contents (scanned)

Much of Spree (i.e. Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree) considers what came before SF. “What did writers of the past write about? Come on, dad, you’re old, you know the answer.” In reality I don’t see the average kid asking that kind of question even though I was little more than one when I got my copy. Yet this is of more than academic interest because it’s a sign of our long ago preoccupations. What content pre-SF authors were delivering? Each chapter in Spree dwells on a particular theme – from now’s perspective, I lump them all as fantasists (it’s pre-SF innit?) but to give a flavour, here’s the chapter titles for that early stuff:

1 The Origins of the Species: Mary Shelley
2 A Clear-Sighted, Sickly Literature: Edgar Allan Poe
3 Pilgrim Fathers: Lucian and All That
4 The Gas-Enlightened Race: Victorian Visions
5 The Man Who Could Work Miracles: H.G. Wells
6 The Flight from Urban Culture: Wells’ Coevals
7 To Barsoom and Beyond: ERB and the Weirdies
8 In the Name of the Zeitgeist: Mainly the Thirties

Yep – it took 8 chapters to get going  – The last three chapters go on to deal with Campbell’s Astounding, the 50s, and the 60s and constitute 45% of the book by page count. Given the obscurity and unremarkable nature of the early works considered, this is probably wise.

I’ve always wondered why significant inputs of contemporary works were neglected, e.g. Heinlein, Zelazny, Norton – these authors were huge in the marketplace. A serious literary appraisal can’t fail to notice what is going on; favourites are being played. There’s an implied irritation with American authors; whether conscious or not, it shows through. In addition the decision to ignore success is at best wilfully perverse. As a contrast consider how Spree glosses over the troubles of Moorcock’s New Worlds. The causes of those troubles were well-known then and self-inflicted; Moorcock and his self-appointed literatii set out to give offence. Why gloss over this given it had significant commercial repercussions? New Worlds magazine, Moorcock and others paid the price…
Those last three chapters could have been more even-handed, and useful to would-be authors by showing what’s required to be successful; e.g. Heinlein’s books sold well –they were right up there, even getting onto the New York Times best seller list —he had a proper agent/publisher deal. As a result of this his works were better reads on many levels. A poster boy for success in the world of SF writing. Yet there is a drip, drip of venom directed at Heinlein. An anodyne reading of this might be:

Watch out

Billion Year Spree is on a Crusade: No Prisoners……

Peer through the venom and there’s no justification leaving you to wonder whether the real substance is misplaced literary jealousy. Contrast that to the authors lauded by Spree… Dick, Moorcock, Ballard… a cornucopia of self-destructive, maladjusteds, (but you have to look in other places get a ringside seat).
As in fiction, the most plausible explanation is the one that makes sense: jealousy at success (a very British character trait) and intellectual snobbery. I’ll go with: my point of view is perfect, stop bothering me…  most do.

This —a partial survey of then prominent writers, glossing over success when it could analyse what works, offering generalisations and (in Heinlein’s case) nit-picks, as justification —becomes a central flaw to Spree.

Ragged-trousered evangelist come art critic asserts that success isn’t important.

Hmm. Try telling that to the wives and families of failing businesses. A failed publisher employs no one, least of all, authors. For failed publishing ventures refer to New Worlds.

New Worlds 8

New Worlds 8, Editor Hilary Bailey
Sphere Books, 50p, 1975 edition
Cover artist: Patrick Woodruffe

Interesting fodder for the eternal question: Where next in SF?

A motto for the human race:  our point of view is perfect, stop bothering us, could yet explain the need to the genre to rethink itself. Take the reaction to Ace Books celebration of the first lunar landing. What does Spree dwell on? We’re worried about going into space because we’ve a nasty streak:

WE HAVE THE BOMB!!!

Oh my goodness; if anything is out there it’s unlikely ‘the bomb’ would give cause for concern. One might as well say: “Wee’s reeli bad peepuls and that’s our history ‘cos we jes’ worked it out and it’ll get writ real large in space ‘cos we’re all there is… ‘cos we’re definutli da pinnerkill of civilisashional attaynment.”

Worthy of a brief chuckle.

…to be continued (with a brief peek at Timarchy)


¹ i.e. the demise of New Worlds Magazine, the then preeminent forum for British SF

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About Terence Park

Collections: vinyl records, comic books, paperbacks; I've plenty of them all. I also do spreadsheets.
This entry was posted in History, Opinion, Philosophy, Review, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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