Thursday, 21 April 2011

Ian Watson, The Very Slow Time Machine (1979)

Google search on this title (surely Watson's most famous short story) and the top hit is this Everything Is Nice post, wherein Martin Lewis praises the piece as a time-travel story that, unusually for the sub-genre, 'isn't redundant'. Then he wonders what happened to Watson; and various people pitch-in (myself included) in the comments, airing various theories. The upshot: Watson is a very good writer who's not as well known as he ought to be.

Anyway: this is his first-published collection of short fiction. I picked it up, along with the novel Miracle Visitors (1978), second hand, though for more than the 27p (see the Woolworth's sticker on the front there? Remember Woolworths?) at which it was originally retailed. I enjoyed reading it very much, although the stories have a strange, rather abrupt, jejune quality to them. Actually, no: jejune is too pejorative a term. I'm trying to put my finger on a particular quality, or flavour, this collection has. Many of these pieces read as ideas or images oriented in the direction of stories, surprisingly potent and memorable but without conventional follow-through. A couple of the pieces have the shape of more standard-issue stories; which is to say, characters, narrative, premise, build-up, climax and so on. But, oddly, those are the less satisfying ones (the Aztec-sacrifice-in-dystopian-urban-future yarn 'Thy Blood Like Milk'; the love-story-in-spaceship-orbiting-black-hole stroll, 'The Event Horizon'). Not that they're bad, exactly; but that SFF is hardly undersupplied with such fare, and that Watson's particular, often extraordinary imagination works at its best less linearly, less kinetically, than this. On the cover, there, is a Guardian blurb praising Watson for his 'fiendish ingeniousness'. I value ingeniousness in a writer very much, and don't mind a spot of fiendishness either; and Watson certainly blends both very neatly.

Some examples. 'Our Loves So Truly Meridional' (which first appeared in Science Fiction Monthly, 1974) is set after the mysterious appearance on Earth of 'the glassy Catastrophe Barriers' which divide the whole planet into areas as 'neat as the segments of an orange' along the meridional lines. The story itself is set in that portion that runs from south to north pole including a good quantity of eastern Africa, and bits of Europe and England ('sliced through Greenwich, with the East End of London included in our powerful Conglomeration as a useless backwater town.' Since the barriers are translucent ('not actual glass. Though it looks like glass and feels like it. Some forcefield they say') it is possible to 'read signs held up by the other side' and 'speak in sign language'. Accordingly, our narrator (Obi Nzekwu, a teacher from Eastern Nigeria) knows about the rest of England:
London itself in total decay, and the rest of the country a surly dicatatorship obsessed with tilling the land. What else do they have in their segment? A few French fields, most of Spain, the poverty of Morocco, Mali, the Sahara ... along with a knob of Brazil.
It's a splendid concept, ingeniously batty and fun to inhabit imaginatively (better than some of the premises upon which whole novels are based today, I'd say). But Watson, if you'll excuse my French, pisses it away in a ten-page squib about a trek to the north pole. 'The Girl Who Was Art' (Ambit, 1976) imagines a dozen or more brilliant performance art notions for its central character, Tadanori Yokoo, several of which would still make a splash on the avant garde art scene today, were some enterprising performance artist to give them a go (my favorite: The Gratitude of Aeschylus, in which the performer is naked except for a sealed diving helmet on her head and a breathing tube running between her legs: 'the spectator sees the pipe as entering my vagina, is supposed to believe I'm breathing out of my own womb -- the ultimate self-sufficiency', although in fact it is taped to the small of her back). But there's no story here; just a few vignettes, and a grouse about passing artistic fads. The Floydily titled 'My Soul Swims In A Goldfish Bowl' (1978) is another neat idea: a man with a persistent cough eventually hawks up something 'rotund, the size of a thumbnail ... phlegm alive.' This living, vermiform creature is, it seems, the narrator's soul; and he keeps it in a bowl of water. There's no story, though (his wife comments on events in a detached manner; at a dinner party one of his friends tries to feed it an olive); and the result is an impressive fragment, like Oxymandias's legs. It stays in the mind, though it goes nowhere. But then maybe that's the point: a sytlish offset fragmentariness as governing aesthetic. We might want to argue that that suits SF particularly well.

Then there's the celebrated title story -- a time machine appears 'at exactly midday 1 December 1985 in an unoccupied space at the National Physical Laboratory' (the device is pictured on the cover, there, under the 27p sticker). Its sole occupant, travelling backwards in time one hour per hour, is crazy and disshevelled in 1985 and grows less so as the years go on. This is a lovely notion, and the story itself is a pretty gripping read, because Watson is able not only to hold off the explanation of what this strange device is and means, but also to pay off the mystery in a striking, not unsatisfying way. But it's not really a story; it is [spoiler] a cool idea about a unusual time machine, linked to a completely different but also cool notion about a strange messianic traveller/visitor. The thing is this: saying 'it's not really a story' is not intended as dispraise, though. Any fool can write a story, after all. Watson, despite appearing to write conventional SF shorts, actually does something uniquely angular and creatively-dislocating with the form. Deceptive, clever, thought-provoking. Fiendishly ingenious, even.

John Clute and Peter Nicholls, in the SFE, talk of 'his sometimes difficult fiction' (that's good! 'difficult fiction' is good!):
As a whole, his work engages vociferously in battles against oppression – cognitive or political – while at the same time presenting a sense that reality, so far as humanity is concerned, is subjective and partial, created too narrowly through our perception of it. The generation of fuller realities – though incessantly adumbrated by methods ranging from drugs through linguistic disciplines, focused meditation, radical changes in education from childhood up, and a kind of enhanced awareness of other perceptual possibilities – is never complete, never fully successful. Humans are too little, and too much, for reality. Watson is perhaps the most impressive synthesizer in modern sf; and (it may be) the least deluded.
There's plenty of evidence of the battle against oppression, something which perhaps had slightly more bite in the 1970s than it does in a 21st-century where it is more of the ideological default (Watson's unrestrained approach to sexual explicitness may also have figured more effectively in the 70s than today). But I'm not sure this entry quite captures what is so distinctive about Watson's writing; the likeable perversity, an imaginative oddness and metaphorical perceptiveness. The smarts.


Gareth Rees said...

I was bowled over when I read this collection back in the early 1980s. It's the oddness of the concepts, but also the deliberate resistance to conventional narrative, to pat explanation or resolution.

I wondered if your own On was inspired or influenced by Watson's "The People on the Precipice" (collected in Evil Water).

Adam Roberts said...

I haven't read "People On The Precipice", so would have to say no. It wouldn't surprise me if Ian anticipated me, though.

Gareth Rees said...

I think you'll enjoy "The People on the Precipice"—it goes in very different directions from On.

What makes Watson distinctive, I think, is that he combines science fictional tropes with the sensibility of horror. The archetypal science fiction story has a trajectory towards explanation and normalisation, whereas Watson aims, not precisely at terror (though he has written straight-horror novels like Meat), but at disquiet and unsettlement.

Gavin Brown said...

Re: Watson's obscurity. During the 90s he gave up writing to care for his wife, who was terminally ill. Since then he's written mainly poetry.

Some of Watson's work is available via print-on-demand, see and

G (a Watson fan of many years, thanks primarily to the WH40k books he wrote).

PeteY said...

Gavin, thanks for the info. I had wondered what had happened to him. He also recently published a themed set of shorts in collaboration with Roberto Quaglia, called The Beloved of my Beloved Guardian review

Gareth Rees said...

I also wondered if your Yellow Blue Tibia was influenced by Watson's Miracle Visitors, but now I see that can't be the case.

Both novels have alleged alien visitors for which the supposed "explanations" are deeply unsatisfactory, so that the reader gets more and more unsure about what, if anything, is "really" going on. (Stanislaw Lem's His Master's Voice is a third take on this theme.)

Adam Roberts said...

Reading Miracle Visitors (which I'm doing now) is a stiking experience, Gareth, in the light of YBT. It's a good job I hadn't read it earlier, or I probably wouldn't have written my novel.

Piet said...

The title story remains one of my all time favourite short SF pieces. I was so taken with it that I bought two Watson collections back in the 80s, without finding the same reading pleasure in any of his other stories.

But Ian Watson is still writing and still enjoying some success. He won the BSFA Short fiction award just last year for "The Beloved Time of their Lives".

JP said...

Two stories into this collection, and if 'Thy Blood Like Milk' is 'less satisfying' I can but quiver at the thought of the delights ahead.