Fragment(s): Angela Carter on Science Fiction

 

I still have not reviewed one of my favorite novels (tied with Christopher Priest’s 1981 masterpiece The Affirmation) that I read in 2016: Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972). I have an excuse—I successfully defended my PhD earlier this month and am currently revising the 300+ page dissertation for final submission later this summer! And, I must confess, the fear that I won’t be able to do The Infernal Desire Machines justice envelopes me….

On May 7th Angela Carter Online [an indispensable resource for anyone who wants to learn more about her life and works] posted a previously unpublished 1979 interview with Carter conducted by David Pringle for a New Worlds volume that never came together: “The conversation focuses mostly on the topic of science fiction, and includes discussions of the seminal publication New Worlds, writers such as J. G. Ballard, John Wyndham and Michael Moorcock, and whether or not Carter would consider some of her own writing as science-fiction.”

The New Worlds volume would have explored various authors’ views on SF and the magazine itself—a shame it never came to fruition! This post forms a loose series (experimental 70s UK SF/literature) with my similar discussion of Emma Tennant’s relationship with SF.

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I have parsed out a few passages that I would love to discuss in the comments. Check out the full interview for needed context and digressions. I have skipped most of her discussion of Heroes & Villains (1969) as I haven’t read it yet.

Her early influences

Her earliest SF readers included John Wyndham. She points out that he was unescapable as he was serialized in major newspapers: “I’d read science fiction on and off since I was about – God knows, I suppose about 10 or 11. John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids was serialised in, I think, The Daily Express – somewhere like that – I remember reading it as a serial. It was ages before I realised the limitations of the genre. “

Carter narrows in on by far the best writer to grace the pages of New Worlds: Pringle asks, “So which writers appealed to you in the pages of New Worlds?” Carter responds: “J. G. Ballard. But I’d already read his books. My first husband was a chemist who was a bit of a science fiction buff… Indeed, I bought the first Ballards in hardback. This is all a bit hazy in my memory, but I thought they were wonderful. Truly.” She describes his writing as “virtually intolerable, he really has this gritty feeling of the freeway, and it’s very English as well, although it’s got this particular American overlay.”

Carter describes discovering Ballard and his ilk as “this lode, this seam of intensely imaginative and very exciting fiction.” Grouped with him include Brian W. Aldiss and especially Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration (1968).

She describes how she was classified as a “straight” novelist although Heroes & Villains (1969) was reviewed in science fiction publications and even appeared on syllabi in SF classes. She points out what I find most fascinating—Picador press’ fantastic selection of “imaginative” novels in the late 60s and into the 70s that bucked the standard trends. Picador published Peter Currell Brown’s Smallcreep’s Day (1965), Russell Hoban’s The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz (1973), various novels by Pynchon, Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974), Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship (1976), etc.

“If you look at the first Picador list, though it’s very interesting because it’s, like, the spirit of ’68. The first dozen or so novels that Picador published are very weighted towards, you know, imaginative fiction as opposed to the naturalistic novel which was the mainstream of English fiction at the time.”

And, as with Emma Tennant, Ballard spurs her to write post-apocalyptical SF: “No, I suppose I felt that although I was very excited and stimulated by this, and perhaps I wouldn’t have embarked on a post-apocalyptic novel if it hadn’t been for Ballard – although there was a lot of it in the air at the time!”

On The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1969)

“From the social science angle, from, you know, the nature of perceptions, and, you know, what Hoffman’s about is obviously the nature of, the social nature of, reality. […] it’s pure speculation, it’s a what-if novel really. This whole thing about the social sciences – it presents a set of different societies, I mean, different social groups that are organised in completely different ways, and that…you know, the hero travels through them.”

On The Infernal Desire Machines as science fiction romance: “romance isn’t a term like that, it isn’t about libidinal gratification, it’s about the impossibility of the satisfaction of desire – which is what Hoffman is about, and any romance worth its salt is about the destruction of its own object by desire.”

On The Passion of New Eve (1977) and New Worlds 

“Yes – New Eve was in fact calculated to give offence. That’s my feminist novel – though none of my sisters liked the book. But it is my feminist statement. That’s sort of bio-SF, isn’t it? Metabiological…”

Pringle points out that that’s a New Worlds novel if there ever was one! She echoes his view: “Yes, indeed. You’re right, I’m sure. Partly because it’s set in this fictive America. One of the things about the New Worlds  group, loosely, was that they had this – well, I have as well…I mean, we were all brought up on this image of America. After all…the future place…”

Michael Moorcock as creator of the necessary literary environment

“You know, that is just what he was doing, just by creating…an environment where it was possible for many, many more adventurous and peculiar things to flourish – though, in fact, New Worlds, of course, Bananas [Emma Tennant’s magazine] was very much the heir of New Worlds. You see, what they were was the avant-garde, and nobody seems to have grasped this.”

She points out that many of the “literary” avant-garde authors such as B.S. Johnson, Alan Burns, and Ann Quin were aware of avant-garde SF of the day: in perhaps, “a weird peripheral way.”

More on New Worlds: “I think it’s extraordinary. I think this is all part of this general proposition, that the magazine [New Worlds] and what it represented was kind of the popular front of the avant-garde. And in many respects didn’t realise it was – it didn’t realise its role as such, they just felt, they just thought, presumably, they just felt they were doing something new and exciting, and proselytising a bit…

And on Moorcock’s prodigious productivity: “you know, and every time he sneezes he doesn’t sneeze five paperback books. I know it’s all hard work, but what can you call it, but a force of nature?”

(Graham Percy’s cover for the 1970 edition of Heroes & Villains (1969), Angela Carter)

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13 thoughts on “Fragment(s): Angela Carter on Science Fiction”

  1. Quite a good article about one of the exponents of Magic Realism.Her situation reminds me of Anna Kavan,who seemed to unconsciously write science/speculative fiction during a period of perhaps social changes,outside of the genre,even though their individual stuff is really quite different to each other.Kavan’s “Ice” is more cerebral and perhaps visionary,while Carter’s stuff however is more eclectic and involved in the complex process of storytelling,that I think’s evident above in her obvious awareness and enthusiasm for the written genre.

    1. Thanks for the comment Richard.

      I think the Carter interview suggests she is not at all “unconsciously writ[ing] science/speculative fiction.” If anything, the exact opposite — she is very conscious of the texts that inspired her, both within and outside, and the limitations of genre and how she can work within them and challenge them. And not even clearly “outside of genre” but more in line with the avant-garde fiction (genre included) espoused by New Worlds and especially by Ballard. If I’m completely misreading the larger interview, then definitely indicate which sections support your claim!

      1. No,she has a very strong knowledge of SF tropes and themes,and “the limitations of genre and how she can work within them and challenge them”,that’s evident in “Heroes and Villains” I think.She did it by staying remote from the confines of the written genre though,which was what I was alluding to,as well as Anna Kavan.

        Thanks for your reply.

      2. I guess I see her as very distinct from Anna Kavan (and I might be wrong of course). Aldiss had to convince Kavan that Ice (1967) was indeed SF and she admitted (if I remember correctly) that she hadn’t read any SF — she is distinct from Carter who seems way more willing, at least in that interview, to acknowledge her SF influences and differences. She also admits that she read and was inspired by New Worlds in the 60s! So no, I don’t seem them as similar in their approach to genre.

      3. Yes I agree,but both gained mainstream recognition by writing outside of the SF genre.In Brain Aldiss’s essay for Anna Kavan,”Kafka’s Sister”, collected in “The Detached Retina”,he says “Ice” is not sci-fi,and only magnally science fiction,existing as it does in that fertile area-increasingly fertile as the century diminishes-where unreality prevails and life stratagies are not those of the false everyday world we have constructed between ourselves and what Kavan calls “no-times”.

        Perhaps that says it all.

  2. Shifting to reception –> my original comments concerned Carter’s conception of SF and how it influenced her work…. Hence my distinction between Carter and Kavan’s authorial intention.

    Depends on where. In the interview Carter discusses how she was perceived in the US (at least before 1979) — primarily as a writer of fantasy! Just look at the cover for The Infernal Desire Machines I posted above (renamed in the US as The War of Dreams — very fantasy).

    We need to be clear about authorial intention, the work itself, and how readers received the book. Else we end up with generalizations that aren’t that analytical or useful.

    1. I assume that in the USA then,they still knew very little about Angela Carter,otherwise the’d have known she was an author of Magic Realism,which is non-generic,and had never even written within the science fiction genre,let alone fantasy.I think the fantasy label is very misleading,even more so than science fiction.

      In the same essay on Kavan,Brian Aldiss writes that he arranged with Larry Ashmead at Doubleday,for American publication of “Ice”,which of course they accepted.He goes on to say,that it was followed by a paperback edition published by Popular Library,carrying the blurb,”Sci-Fi at it’s Best”.I think that’s the cover you have on at least two of your posts.

      1. Richard, “she was an author of Magic Realism” — perhaps sometimes, like the stories in The Bloody Chamber. But the interview makes clear that she saw some of her own work as distinctly SF — The Passion of New Eve and The Infernal Desire Machines.

        I get the sense you didn’t really read the full interview as these arguments are not related clearly to her own words or her own conception of her work (and yes, perhaps we can call it as readers “magical realism”). She never discusses “magical realism” in this particular interview (it only covers some of her more SF works)…

        The link: https://angelacarteronline.com/2017/05/07/exclusive-new-interview-with-angela-carter/

      2. Thanks for the link.

        Yes,it’s alright Joachim,I can quite see what you mean.I was probably a bit vague,but all I was trying to say was,that she was being misrepresented as a writer of generic fantasy if that was what they thought of her.Having read “Heroes and Villains”,I am well aware of how deeply she was attracted to the riches embedded within the SF genre.She was truly gothic too,as is much of science fiction.

      3. To be clear, I am not arguing about classifying some of her work as “magical realism.” Rather, the interview makes very apparent that she did not consider many of her works “magical realism.” Of course, again, we’re at the authorial intention vs analytical reflection after the fact.

  3. This is fascinating. Remember when you asked me the other day what vintage SF authors I most look forward to reading after I’m done with my current project? Angela Carter, for sure.

    1. I doubt you’ll be disappointed! (I’ve only read The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman so far).

      It was intense, intelligent, in turns raucous and reflective…

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