New Maps of Hell (Kingsley Amis).

Granting a year or so between writing and publication, it’s been almost exactly a half-century since Kingsley Amis conducted his 1960 survey of science-fiction, New Maps of Hell. I wish Amis had revisited the subject later in his life; I’d be interested to see him assess his own prophetic powers from the vantage point of 1970 or so, by which time the genre had already gone a long way to correcting at least one of the deficiencies he’d identified.

That deficiency is in the area of sex. As Amis points out,

Amid the most elaborate technological innovations, the most outrĂ© political or economic shifts, involving changes in the general conduct of life as extreme as the gulf dividing us from the Middle Ages, man and woman, husband and wife, lover and mistress go on doing their stuff in the mid-twentieth century way with a kind of brutish imperturbability… The sentimental consensus that this is perhaps the only part of human nature that can never be changed…is a disappointing trait in science-fiction writers, who as a rule are almost over-excitable in their readiness to see as variables what are normally taken to be constants… Though it may go against the grain to admit it, science-fiction writers are evidently satisfied with the sexual status quo.

Just think of all those sci-fi stories from the 1950s with their alien diplomats, flying cars, and rocketships to Venus, and mom still bustling contentedly about the home (perhaps in a jumpsuit instead of a dress), giving orders to the robot butler and dialling up dinner on the auto-range, while dad jetpacks off to the office to earn his paycheque. As Amis hints, there is something stunted in the psychology of (nearly all male) writers who could extrapolate from current social trends such vivid consumerist and conformist dystopias, not to mention summon up extraterrestrials and cosmic cataclysms of the profoundest weirdness, yet fail to foresee how in the very immediate future birth control and Betty Friedan would radically remould the relations between sexes.

But Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land came out just one year after New Maps of Hell, and by the end of the 1960s Heinlein and other writers were fully exploring the sexual revolution. This is what makes Amis’ vantage point so interesting – he’s hovering right on the rim of the old sci-fi cosmos, that quaint place of housewives with their robot butlers, while the new cosmos, more sophisticated (that is, more grown-up in its attitudes toward sex, not necessarily better written), has yet to show up on his viewscreen. Or so I would argue. Would the Amis of 1970 still say that the genre had not yet “come of age”? Would he still describe it as having “thrown up a large number of interesting and competent figures without producing anybody of first-rate importance”?

Even if New Maps of Hell weren’t a fascinating time capsule, even if it weren’t written with the typical Amis dry wit (of which more below), it would still be worthwhile as an introduction to a lot of authors I hadn’t heard of, or knew only by name. I’ve already placed an order on Abebooks. I’m particularly awaiting a collection of short stories by Katherine MacLean, a largely forgotten female pioneer in the field, who (judging from the brief excerpts Amis provides) appears to have been a progenitor of the great James Tiptree Jr., aka Alice Sheldon.

***

Just because I find it amusing, here is Amis’ synopsis of Damon Knight’s famous short story “The Country of the Kind”:

[A] practising artist…[is] apparently the only one left in a world built on universal benevolence and unbreakable social graciousness, a world that is hellish because without conflict. The artist, when not engaged on impromptu sculpture, goes round breaking into people’s houses and pouring hot soup over their furniture, a gesture again unjustified and justified. By a nice symbolical touch, he has been operated on at the authorities’ direction and given an intolerable smell which cuts him off from all human intercourse. Some readers will not be able to avoid seeing in all this a comparatively sober account of the behaviour of their own arty friends…

M.

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