Sunday, May 17, 2020

Hell's Cartographers

This book passed under my radar for a long time, but I'm glad to have finally discovered it. I guess I never made a connection with what is referenced in the title, and thought the book was merely another anthology of stories. But the title references one of the first books on science fiction, New Maps of Hell (1960) by Kingsley Amis. By 1975, when Hell's Cartographers, edited by Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison, came out, Amis's book was receding from memory.

Yet the subtitle of the book (in small typeface on the cover) is more descriptive:  "Some Personal Histories of Science Fiction Writers."  And that's what the book is: personal histories by Robert Silverberg, Alfred Bester, Harry Harrison, Damon Knight, Frederik Pohl, and Brian Aldiss. Each writer also contributed a short piece to an appendix entitled "How We Work" covering their own writing habits.

I've read books by all six writers before reading this volume, and even had some (small) associations with two of them. Of the six, only Robert Silverberg is still alive, forty-five years later, and he was the youngest contributor when the book originally came out. Silverberg's essay is arguably the most interesting in the book, for his writing career, in the period covered, changed and evolved more than that of most of the other writers. Yet each author has worthwhile things to say, and it is quite interesting to encounter autobiographical reflections by a writer like Bester--from whom I don't think I've previously read anything but fiction. Aldiss, Harrison, Knight and Pohl have each written autobiographies of one sort or another.

There are some good moments throughout the book, and I'll share a few here.

Robert Silverberg noted: "I wrote my strangest, most individual book, Son of Man, a dream-fantasy of the far future, with overtones of Stapledon and Lindsay's Voyage of [sic] Arcturus and a dollop of psychedelia that was altogether my own contribution." (p. 39).

Alfred Bester recalled attending meetings of science fiction authors in a London pub in the mid-1950s.  This would have been at the White Horse or the Globe.  Bester recalled:  "John Wyndham and Arthur Clarke came to those gatherings. I thought Arthur rather strange, very much like John Campbell, utterly devoid of a sense of humour and I'm always ill-at-ease with humourless people" (p. 68).

Brian Aldiss's comments on the state of science fiction writing forty-five years ago are still applicable today though there has been a good deal of books on "new and darker ages" in the decades since: 
“Most of the science fiction being written is disappointing and not merely on literary grounds; so many of its basic assumptions are fossils of thought. The philosophy and politics behind the average sf novel are naive; the writer takes for granted that technology is unqualifiedly good, that the Western way of life is unqualifiedly good, that both can sustain themselves forever, out into galaxy beyond galaxy. This is mere power-fantasy. As I have often argued, we are at the end of the Renaissance period. New and darker ages are coming. We have used up most of our resources and most of our time, Now nemesis must overtake hubris” (p. 201). 
There's much to reflect upon in this book. 


  1. Thanks for reminding people of "Hell's Cartographers," which I now want to dig out and reread. I discovered it in the late 1970s when I was trying to learn as much as I could about sf's history, but haven't looked at the book since. At the time, Bester was my particular hero, but the Aldiss passage you quote makes him sound positively prescient. I'm glad I once got to talk to him for 10 minutes at a cocktail party in Florida at the International Conference for the Arts. Sigh. I wonder when we'll again be able to talk, drink and hobnob at an sf or fantasy con. --md

    1. The book was a nice surprise to me, as I said, because I'd never known what it was and thus never had looked at a copy. I never got to meet Aldiss. he was at the one ICFA conference that I attended (2004?), but I found it rather offputting the way that the Old Guard were always shuffling off quickly to the private floor of the hotel (for which you needed an elevator key to obtain access), away from the lowly regular attendees, to smoke and drink amongst themselves. That, together with the fact that it was by a large factor the single-most expensive conference I've ever attended, dampened my enthusiasm to the point that I never attended again.