Billion Year Spree – further thoughts


Just finished The Neried. About myths, legends and homelessness; set in Blackpool.
My next piece is proper SF Core. Set in the core of the Milky Way, in the Galactic Bar. Explores the issues of lots of aliens living together —gender, sexuality, politics, alien civilisation. ETA: unknown – it’s set 30 Galactic Years in the past 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 maps the growth in understanding of Western Man, suggesting future paths
e.g. step into knowledge – add what’s watching, add constraints…

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 TV Sound-bite, The 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, 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 both – 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 seriously damaged 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 (Spree)

Billion Year Spree contents

Billion Year Spree contents (scanned)

Much of Aldiss’s Spree considers what came before SF.

“What did writers of the past write about? Come on, dad, you’re old, you know the answer.”

I was little more than a kid when I got my copy but the reality is the average kid isn’t going to ask that kind of question. Yet this is of more than academic interest because it’s a sign of our long ago preoccupations – our worldview and how we saw the universe. SF is our way of exploring beyond this small Earth; it’s a ‘no-limits’ genre. What content were pre-SF authors 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?). The chapter titles give a flavour of 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

There are a total of 11 chapters so, 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. This is probably wise given the obscurity of the early works considered (my sampling of these includes reading  James Edgar Rice Burroughs, James Branch Cabell, E.R. Eddison, Lord Dunsany, Franz Kafka, William Hope Hodgson, William Morris, H.G. Wells)

It’s here where a long suppressed exasperation with Spree bubbles over. 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. In 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 go on to slam successful authors on style. The lesson here is success means a negative critique. This is just petulant nonsense. It would have been more even-handed, and given that style lessons are on offer, useful to show  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 and Tolkein’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. Ace Books commissioned a work to celebrate the first lunar landing. In noting this, what does Spree dwells 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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