Thursday, January 15, 2015

Perhaps Neglected Short Fiction: Collected Short Stories, by Kingsley Amis

Collected Short Stories, by Kingsley Amis

a review by Rich Horton

Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) is one of my personal favorite writers. He's best known for his many novels, mostly comic novels set in contemporary Britain, including of course his first novel, and still most famous, Lucky Jim; his Booker Prize winner, The Old Devils; Ending Up; The Alteration, The Green Man; Take a Girl Like You; and many more. In addition to novels he wrote a fair amount of reviews and criticism and some poetry. (He was one of the Movement poets, a group of poets in the UK in the 50s who pushed for more natural imagery and emotion, and somewhat more traditional forms: others included most notably Philip Larkin (the best of the Movement poets and probably Amis' best friend), but also Elizabeth Jennings, Robert Conquest (another great friend of Amis and best known as a Sovietologist), Donald Davie, and one or two more.) Amis was an SF fan, and he is famous within the genre for writing one of the earliest academic studies of genre SF: New Maps of Hell. He also wrote several SF or Fantasy novels: most obviously The Alteration (an alternate history set in a Catholic-dominated world) and The Green Man (a ghost story in which God is a character); but also Russian Hide-and-Seek (set in 21st Century England under Russian rule), The Anti-Death League (near future to its time of writing, tangentially about the development of a secret weapon), and Colonel Sun (as by Robert Markham, a James Bond novel). (Ending Up is also set in the future, but it's not precisely easy to notice that.

Amis also wrote a fairly small quantity of short stories, no more than a couple of dozen in about 40 years of active writing. His imagination was clearly a novelist's imagination. I had previously read his collection Mr. Barrett's Secret, which I believe included most or all of his post-1980 stories. I have just finished his Collected Short Stories, which was published in 1980, and includes everything Amis felt worthy of preservation at that time. (It subsumes a previous collection, My Enemy's Enemy.) Amis in his introduction somewhat sardonically mentions that he felt his story "The Sacred Rhino of Uganda", written when he was a schoolboy, was "uncharacteristic" -- it's not clear to me, though, whether there were other stories written and published during his adulthood that he also declined to collect.

Interestingly, the great bulk of Amis's short stories seem to be genre pieces. Most or perhaps all of the stories in Mr. Barrett's Secret qualify, as I recall. (Not necessarily as SF: the title story is historical fiction (about Elizabeth Barrett's father) and another story is a spy story.) In Collected Short Stories, the first six are pretty standard contemporary mainstream fiction, but the remaining 10 are all genre pieces: several SF stories, a vampire story, an odd thriller about strange goings-on in Crete in 1898 that may not be precisely SF, fantasy, or a spy story but combines them all in a curious fashion, a "weird tale", and a Holmes pastiche.

The three opening pieces are linked stories about a Signals unit in the British Army, in the days just after the end of World War II. Amis is rather cynical about the quality of officers. The first two stories. "My Enemy's Enemy" and "Court of Inquiry", put a somewhat sympathetic main character in a sticky moral situation and watch him fail. The third, "I Spy Strangers", is set against the post-war election that gave a huge majority to Labor: a somewhat foolish Tory officer is shown gobsmacked by this.

"Moral Fibre" appears perhaps to feature the protagonist of Amis's second novel, That Uncertain Feeling, though he denies in his introduction that the story is an outtake from a draft of the novel. A pushy social worker tries to set a sluttish lower class girl straight (she has a baby at the age of 16 or so and quickly turns to prostitution), but the social worker's insensitive actions only make things worse. "All the Blood Within Me" is a subtly devastating look at the relationship between three people: a man and his wife, and their old friend who has always hopelessly loved the wife. At the occasion of the woman's funeral, we meet the old friend, and he reminisces on his idealized view of their old friendship and his perception of their characters -- only to have his views challenged in a short conversation with the couple's daughter. "Dear Illusion" is a rather intriguing story, in which Amis gets in his whacks against pretentious meaningless contemporary poetry (i.e. everything the Movement was against). A journalist interviews a celebrated poet about his methods, and learns that he (the poet) isn't really sure he's any good. The poet threatens to quit, but instead produces one last book, to great acclaim. The journalist gets one more interview, after reading the book in horror: the poet admits to have written these last poems more or less randomly, in an attempt to see if his readers can be trusted -- of course, they can't. Part of this is Amis's rather Blimpish anti-Modernism, and rather crude in that way, but his portrayal of the poet, seen through the eyes of the journalist, manages to be quite moving.

"Something Strange" is a rather good straight SF story, about a group of four people inhabiting a space station in a remote area of the galaxy. They deal with interpersonal issues (who's sleeping with whom, etc.) and also with strange, unexplainable, manifestations outside the station. At the end things are revealed (not too surprisingly) to be very different than they think. This appeared in the Spectator in 1960, but I could easily imagine it in New Worlds of that time, or even in Galaxy (though it's a very British story in flavour). (No doubt Amis was paid better, and received more prestigious notice, for placing the story with the Spectator, to be sure.)

There are three slight, humourous, SF stories about the future of drinking, "The 2003 Claret", "The Friends of Plonk", and "Too Much Trouble". In each story a man is sent forward in time, and after gathering data on the general state of future society he manages to end up in a drinking establishment, learning horrible things in each case about the future degradation of drink. Slight and faintly amusing stuff, but pretty minor, with jokes on the level of the acronymic names of the time travelling equipment: TIOPEPE, TIAMARIA, TAITTINGERS.

"Hemingway in Space" is just what the title might lead one to expect: a parodic recasting of a Hemingway story (in this case "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber") as SF (i.e. the hunt occurs with blasters in the orbit of Mars).

"Who or What Was It?" is a pretty neat story, a piece of metafiction in which Amis and his then wife Elizabeth Jane Howard are portrayed as visiting an inn that coincidentally bears considerable resemblance to the title inn of his novel The Green Man. The Amis character in the story decides that he is fated to reenact an encounter from the novel (in which the protagonist faces a terrifying monster made of foliage, a "green man"), with curious results that lead to a very nice closing stinger.

"The Darkwater Hall Mystery" is a Holmes pastiche, though Holmes does not really figure in it. Watson orders Holmes to take a couple of weeks of rest, and in the great man's absence he consents to substitute for him and investigate a threat on the life of a baronet at his country home. The real interest in the story, of course, is the portrayal of the various characters: Watson, the baronet and his beautiful wife, the baronet's dissolute and bitter twin brother, another guest, an Army veteran, who is besotted with the wife. The "mystery" is (quite on purpose) almost trivial. Not a particularly great story, but interesting. "The House on the Headland" is the Cretan story, in which a pair of British spies, keeping on eye on Crete as the Turks leave, investigate strange goings on at the title house, which turn out to have little indeed to do with international affairs.

"To See the Sun" is a long (19,000 words) story that first appeared in this volume. It tells of an Englishman coming to a mysterious castle in Dacia, investigating the vampire legend. He is a skeptic, but he falls instantly for the beautiful lady of the castle -- who of course is in fact a vampire. Things work out not quite as we might expect. The story is probably a bit long, but otherwise it's really a pretty solid vampire story, very much in the basic vampire tradition. (I.e. it's not a sendup, but a sincere piece of vampire fiction.)

Finally, "Mason's Life" is a short-short that originally appeared in the Sunday Times, though I read it years ago in a volume of the Aldiss/Harrison Best SF of the Year series. It's slight, but not bad, about a man in a bar confronted by another man, who insists that he must be a figment of that man's dream. Leading to a quite predictable resolution.

One certainly comes away from this volume convinced that Amis was first and best a novelist, but on the whole it is still pretty enjoyable reading, and occasionally quite good indeed.

No comments:

Post a Comment