Non-Fiction Reviews

Explorations of the Marvellous

(1976) Peter Nicholls (ed.), Fontana, £1.00, pbk, 224pp, ISBN 0-006-35142-5


This review is in honour of the recent, late Peter Nicholls.  Leaving aside Peter's professional life-long contributions to the genre, this small volume is somewhat important for those with an interest in the interface between science and SF.  It provides a perspective on that interface as it stood in Britain (and arguably much of Western Europe as well as N. America.

Before going any further, you need to know what it was like over 40 years ago.  Back then things like the Star Trek communicator and Thunderbirds' Lady Penelope's make-up compact disguised video transmitter/receiver were literally the stuff of popular science fiction. Computers, artificial voice synthesis, the internet, genome editing, cloning, space probes reaching the gas giants, and even the notion that other stars might have planets, were all firmly in the realm of SF.  Furthermore, the commercial sci-fi of 1950s and '60s cinema and television did little to enhance the illusion that the juvenile genre of SF was also banal and infantile in nature.  Back then it was difficult for young scientists to openly admit that they were SF enthusiasts, though a few more established researchers could get away with it (cf. the astronomer Fred Hoyle or the biologist Jack Cohen possibly due to his being considered something of an eccentric, if not genius, very entertaining and thoughtful lecturer.)

Today, in the early 21st century we are in, what would be considered in the 20th century, a science fiction world. Not only can scientists be open about their interest in SF but SF has proven its economic value.  Look at any list of the top 20 or 50, box-office grossing films and the vast majority are science fiction and fantasy. Similarly, the top grossing television franchises, or the top computer games franchises.  Consider books: here SF/F/H accounts for between 7% and 12% of the commercial fiction market in the British Isles and N. America. Indeed the only reason this percentage range is so great is due to the problems of classifying SF and fantasy: books like 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale are often classified as 'literary' and not SF, not to mention sub-genre classification such as horror which can be mundane violent fiction (not SF/F) or fantastical (clearly SF/F).  Indeed the literary snobbishness that prevents works of SF from winning mainstream awards is not because some SF books lack quality writing, or lack economic value, but more due to mainstream awards judges having an arts background: name one Booker Award judge with a core science degree?  SF today is gaining ground in the credibility stakes; back in the 1970s this was far from being so.

And so we come to Peter Nicholls' Explorations of the Marvellous.  This volume is in fact the proceedings of a virtual symposium: 'virtual' because it was actually a series of separate lectures given on different days in London and sponsored by the Institute of Contemporary Arts.  These took place between January and March, 1975 and were convened by Peter Nicholls in his capacity as the (first) administrator of the SF Foundation which was then based at the NE London Polytechnic (it is now at Liverpool University).  This volume contains ten versions of the talks given. Actually that is not true: nine talks were given as Philip Dick dropped out due to ill health with Bob Sheckley standing in, but then Philip submitted the text of the talk he would have given.  The text, or essay variation, of each talk is preceded by a couple of pages of introduction by Nicholls. Peter Nicholls also provided a five-page introduction to the volume setting the scene.

Here then are the speakers.


Ursula K. le Guin talked about the importance of point of view in science fiction. To her Virginia Woolf gives one of the most useful lessons as to the most discerning fiction. The most telling SF, in le Guin's view, is that in which describes how an innocent little old lady (it could actually be any 'innocent', average Joe blog) is affected and/or perceives an exotic set of circumstances or events.  Le Guin decries stories that simply describe events or circumstances. "The invention [may be] superb, but [is] self enclosed and sterile.  And the more eccentric and childish side of science fiction fandom, the defensive, fanatic in-groups both feed upon and nourish this kind of triviality."  LeGuin's view is that the 'science' may be fascinating but the really important aspect is how the fiction portray's its relationship with an average, almost unnoticeable, person: Woolf's little old lady in a train carriage.


Edward de Bono made a name for himself in the 1960s through popularising the concept of lateral thinking. His talk was probably one of the most recycled with the talk being a variation of one he had given at the Royal Institution and the text in this volume was a version of an article that had appeared in the Italian edition of Scientific American.  As such it was largely a puff piece for lateral thinking.  The twist de Bono gave in his talk was that SF is allied to lateral thnking.  "Ordinary fiction helps us to know in greater depth and more detail. It strengthens our vision and sensitises our sensitivity, but does nothing to change the direction of our vision. Science fiction sets out to do that. So does lateral thinking."


John Taylor was (at the time this volume was published) a professor of mathematics at King's College London.  His talk probably – and it certainly seems so to myself – presented a scientist's common view of the time (the early-to-mid 1970s) of science fiction.  I say a common view, because (as I mentioned above) there were a very few scientists who were prepared to openly ally themselves to SF. (I mentioned Brits Fred Hoyle and Jack Cohen above, to which you could add others including, in the US, Carl Sagan.)  For him Science Fiction is a misnomer and that, instead, we should talk about 'science if' (S.IF): the stories that might arise 'if anti-gravity' had been discovered.  He notes that in SF the 'science' covers a broad range including to the breaking or the rules of science itself 9such as with time travel).  He also noted that science itself is subject to radical change, and gave the early 20th century example of Einsteinian relativity.  In the course of his talk he also addressed the issue of what we would no call para-science. (I might even call it pseudoscience as para-science gives the subject an air of respectability.) He was particularly fascinated by the possibility of ESP (extra sensory perception) and particularly Uri Geller who was wow-ing people at the time.  And he lamented – to the surprise of Peter Nicholls – that government funding for research was not being extended to ESP: he had tried to obtain a grant.  (Of which I note that others were doing a great job, like the magician Jams Randi, of debunking pseudoscience fraudsters.  Taylor's concluding remarks were that SF is a good way of sharing the kind of excitement scientists feel (which I would say would be 'sense-of-wonder' or 'sensawunda').  SF is also a good way of 'boggling your mind' so proofing it against future shock.


John Brunner gave, for a non-scientist, a very good survey of how SF differs from fake science including von Daniken. But he also pointed out that some science fact texts contained errors. (Which of course is true but in the course of his talk he gave one example where what he thought was an error was in fact a fact minus a small detail (which may, or may not, have been in the text John Brunner was citing. But this is by the by.)  He ended by quoting from J. B. S Haldane who, in essence, was saying that the universe is odder than we can imagine or even possibly imagine and that this is his (Haldane's) excuse for dreaming.  John Brunner offered this sentiment as his excuse for writing science fiction… but not an apology.

I have to say that I do sometimes get moved when reading the works, especially expressions of personal view, of some writers now gone. John is one of those I really miss.


Next up, Harry Harrison, another sadly missed and a writer who had an influence on a young school-kid me as to what I could do with three higher school level science qualifications: yes, SF really can encourage folk into science.

Harry also related to John Taylor's 'what if' idea of SF (see earlier above). He then went on to talk about parallel worlds and his work on The Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! (1972) and the historical science and technological reading Harry undertook researching that novel's premise.  And if this summary sounds boring, then let measure you that the write-up Harry provides this volume certainly isn't: both fascinating and entertaining


Fantasy writer, Alan Garner, gave a take on the science and SF relationship from the sister genre of fantasy within the super-genre of speculative fiction.  I have to confess I am not a huge devotee of fantasy and I am not entirely sure what Alan Garner was banging on about as he was in recounting his (painful) experiences adapting his novel The Owl Service for television (opening credits here).  In terms of the context of this series of lectures, his contrinbution was not so much about the relationship of science within fiction but the relationship of the author to presenting his work in a different, a technological, medium.  Yet in the context of this lecture series, he seemed to be saying that SF and fantasy concerns boundaries and that writers are navigators of these far-flung landscapes for readers…

Apparently, according to Peter Nicholls, the talk went down very well, possibly due to the personal obstacles the author had to overcome.  (I'll take Peter's word for it.)


Writer Thomas Disch talked of the embarrassments of science fiction.  Nicholls said that Disch's talk was refreshing if alarming. Simply, Disch says that SF is the source of its own faults: tautological reasoning if anything.  He points to the intellectual limitations of SF are all the more remarkable by virtue of the degree to which many of its readers and writers seem to regard their involvement with the genre as a badge of intellectual distinction.  That SF written for children and with child protagonists is limiting.  That hard SF focussing solely on the science is sterile.  That SF provides escapist fantasy for its readers.  That SF writers and readers are changing with a new generation, but what should the intergenerational relationship be?  SF he contends, bears the same relationship to fiction as scientology does to science. He then spends time pointing out the sadomasochistic puerility of Heinlein's Starship troopers.  He ended on the hope that it is the good books that survive the test of time and not the bad.

This contribution was one of those that seemed to deviate from the lecture series' theme exploring the relationship between SF and science.


Peter Nicholls himself gave a talk. Originally, he had hoped it would be the final talk of the lecture series in which he would tease out some of the threads running through the various talks and perhaps come to some conclusions. However he ended up giving a specialist talk of his own on criticism.  He began with examples as to how SF, and indeed this lecture series, had been criticised by some as not concerning meaningful literature and that SF was seen as a ghetto genre. This point, Peter Nicholls made painfully well.  It is a view still common in some circles today, but – believe me – was far more common back in the 1970s.  He then goes on to what is in effect the New Wave adherents criticism of SF.  He then took a pop at elitist critics such as possibly himself and John Clute. (Well, you can't say that the man is not democratic.)  He then had a go – and I have more than a little sympathy with him here – at fantasy masquerading as science fiction. (To my mind this is a great type of fiction if you happen to enjoy both SF and fantasy. On the other hand if you prefer one, and somewhat dislike much of the other, fantasy wearing the cloak of SF sucks.)  At the end of the day, Peter concluded that SF is actually healthy. First it creates a diverse range of new worlds and territory to explore.  Second, it has an ability to disturb and shock us out of complacency.  Third, it gives us the outsider's view – be it that of the Martian or time traveller – and so can be a tool for impartially examining ourselves.  Fourthly, SF can be escapist and this too can have benefits other than self indulgence.  And finally, SF's exotic nature enables artistic freedom.


Robert Sheckley is regarded by Peter Nicholls as 'one of the finest short-story writers in science fiction' and I am inclined to agree. (Though I may be biased: I have appeared in SF stories a couple of times myself albeit disguised, including – with an equally disguised Roberto Quaglia -- in Sheckley's short 'The Refuge Elsewhere' (2003) which was inspired by a science and SF cultural exchange week in Romania.)  Sheckley's talk was titled 'In search of the marvellous'.  And as with much of his writing, it included a fair dollop of wit.  It and the piece within this volume is a gem.  It includes the entreaty for scientists to look at themselves for they leave their discoveries for others to use. That perhaps the attraction of SF to some readers is the participation more meaningful that those in our mundane lives.  That SF provides the mystery in a world where for many God is dead (assuming that he/she/it was ever alinve). It included his own UFO encounter (that somehow he created himself).  Along the way he touches upon meditation, psychoactive pharmaceuticals, and taking refuge in paradoxes.  He claimed he doesn't know SF though, of course, he realises he writes it, and he explaine how, as he understands it, his creative process works.  He even asks the question as to why he was asked to give his talk as part of the series.  SF is a tool for testing and probing this world.


Phillip K. Dick, could not give his talk due to illness preventing intercontinental travel, but he did submit a written version for this volume of what he would have said.  It covered his fascination with androids and their potential to replace humans.  It was a review of the non-fiction works that underpinned a number of his novels: his background reading.  As such it was a fascinating unpackaging of his own work.


The series of lectures Peter arranged was an ambitious project. Not all fiction authors are good at non-fiction, or even public speaking. And not all the authors stuck to the brief. But what all did do was provided insights, if not insights to the SF science relationship then insights into the creative process and the genre's value.

And so, here we are, a third of a century on.  Both SF and science have markedly evolved. Perhaps now is the time for the Foundation to run another series of science and SF lectures together with proceedings?

Jonathan Cowie

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