Westworld – Speculative Fiction in the Southwest

7 Mar

Tom Sykes explores the fecund roots and bright future of speculative fiction in the Southwest.

The South West has produced some of the finest writers in the English literary canon – from John Gay to Thomas Hardy, Arthur Quiller Couch to William Golding. Other greats, amongst them Poet Laureates and Booker Prize winners, have been influenced by the culture and geography of the region.

There are plenty of books and articles on ‘the literary Southwest’  but most ignore speculative fiction – an umbrella term that includes science fiction, fantasy and other fantastic genres. A pity, as several key figures in SpecFic (as it’s known) have close connections to the South West. Some, such as Arthur C Clarke and JK Rowling, were born and raised here. Others, like Angela Carter and JRR Tolkien, came from elsewhere to draw inspiration from our urban communities, ancient woodlands, and picturesque hills. Today, Bristol is home to a number of gifted writers in the mode; it has a vibrant fan scene and one of the largest conventions in the UK.

Best known for co-writing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C Clarke had a rare double talent. He was not only one of the ‘Big Three’ of twentieth-century science fiction but an able physicist whose research into satellite technology earned him a prize from the Franklin Institute in 1963. Born in Minehead in 1917, Clarke fell in love with both science and science fiction while a pupil at Huish’s Grammar School, Taunton. The young Clarke experimented with cameras, radios and rockets and devoured tales of space travel and alien invasion. According to the critic Andy Sawyer, ‘by the time he left Huish’s in 1936 for London and the Civil Service, he had contacted both SF fandom and the British Interplanetary Society’.

As a writer who spent only a brief time in the fantasy ghetto before leaping to global stardom, JK Rowling needs no introduction. It’s worth noting, however, that she was born in the Gloucestershire village of Yate and grew up in nearby Tutshill and Winterbourne. Aldus Dumbledore, a central character in the Harry Potter stories, was based on her real-life headmaster at St Michael’s Primary School in Winterbourne. Furthermore, the grounds of Hogwarts School were modelled on the Forest of Dean, a part of the world that fascinated Rowling throughout her childhood. In a 2009 interview she said, ‘I’m very drawn to the Forest … it used to be a place of shelter and safety to us.’

The godfather of Rowling’s genre, JRR Tolkien, was also a fan of the Forest. In the 1910s he made regular trips into Puzzlewood, a mile south of Coleford. There is definitely something of Middle Earth about this magical place of gnarled vines, moss-crested boulders and rickety rope bridges. Puzzlewood’s SpecFic pedigree was given a further boost when episodes of Doctor Who and Merlin were recently filmed there.

Although widely regarded as literary fiction, the novels of Angela Carter have strongly fantastic underpinnings. In 1965, Carter won a place at Bristol University and moved to Clifton, a once-plush Georgian suburb that had been half-destroyed by German bombs. In Shadow Dance, the first book in what Marc O’Day has termed her ‘Bristol Trilogy’, a rag-and-bones man scours ‘the deserted, condemned old houses which the city planned shortly to demolish’ while juvenile delinquents run amok due to the trauma of war.

It was something of a vogue for SpecFic writers of the 1960s to draw on the bleak, devastated landscapes of their youth as a metaphor for social upheaval and cultural crisis. The two best-known examples are JG Ballard, who spent his early teens in a Japanese internment camp and Michael Moorcock, who, as a toddler, played in the ruins of Blitz-torn London. As for Carter, the scholar Sarah Gamble explains, ‘it was her move to Bristol which motivated an enduring interest in the changing faces of ‘Englishness’, for as a symbol of decayed imperialism, Bristol could hardly be bettered’. After travelling in the Far East, Carter returned to the Southwest in 1972. She settled in Bath, a city she said was ‘writhing in the last gasp of flower power’. She was escaping from ‘a series of serio-comic mishaps involving a psychopath, the police and my father’s sudden desire to know where I was’. The psychopath in question was an ex-boyfriend who’d thrown a typewriter at her…

Terry Pratchett settled in the region in the early ’70s, long before he became Britain’s second most-read author. Oddly enough, the South West has come to imitate his fiction rather than the other way round.

In 2002, the Somerset town of Wincanton, not far from Pratchett’s home in Rowbotham, decided to twin itself with Ankh-Morpok, one of the locations of his hugely popular Discworld series. Things got even stranger when a new property development in the town named some of its streets after those created by Pratchett in the novels The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic. As Pratchett said at the time, ‘it makes my head spin to think of the books becoming a little closer to reality’. But also: ‘Personally, I’d pay good money to live somewhere called Treacle Mine Road!’

Lewis Carroll (the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) has influenced many a SpecFic writer, Terry Pratchett included. According to David Carroll’s A Literary Tour of Gloucestershire and Bristol, Dodgson often visited his friend Henry Liddell at Leckhampton Hill, south of Cheltenham. Dodgson loved to tell Liddell’s children, amongst them an eleven-year-old called Alice, tall tales that two years later would form the basis of Alice in Wonderland. It was while strolling around the hill in Easter 1863 that the character of the Red Queen (the antagonist of Through the Looking-Glass) suddenly came to him.

Various locations in the Southwest, from Cadbury Castle in Somerset to Camelford in Cornwall, claim to be the site of Camelot, and a sub-genre of SpecFic devoted to Arthurian legend has evolved over the years, highlights being T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles.

It’s not possible to write about speculative fiction in the South West without mention of Keith Roberts, author of the classic alternate history Pavane, who spent his latter years in Salisbury; Dianna Wynne Jones, long-time Bristol resident and winner of the Edward Wagner Award for a lifetime contribution to fantasy; Cornwall-born Nick Harkaway whose apocalyptic adventure The Gone-Away World earned him a £300,000 advance; Britain’s number one genre critic and vampire novelist Kim Newman, who spent his formative years in Aller, Somerset; Sidewise Award winner and co-founder of Venue magazine Eugene Byrne; Wiltshire-based fantast Sarah Singleton; Devon denizen HM Gordon, author of This One’s a Lemon and Joe Abercrombie, Bath’s master of the sword and sorcery bloodbath.

What of contemporary Bristol? In 2009, the Future Bristol anthology brought together the cream of local talent: Arthur C Clarke Award nominee Liz Williams, Doctor Who novelist Nick Walters and Gareth L Powell, author of the The Recollection. Editor Colin Harvey told me that he kept the concept behind the book simple. ‘All I actually said to the contributors was that I’d be interested to see stories that reflect Bristol. So one of the stories was openly about slavery and another impinged on it. Somebody else picked up on trams as the thing they wanted to write about.’ The SS Great Britain, the Clifton Suspension Bridge and even Brunel himself make cameos in the book.

Harvey, whose latest novel is Damage Time, is a co-founder of BristolCon, one of the top four SpecFic conventions in the UK. He is keen to dispel the prejudices that outsiders may have about such events.

‘I don’t think anyone at BristolCon had fancy dress on last year. I think one person turned up as a Goth, but they were a Goth anyway!’

Joanne Hall, another contributor to Future Bristol, has always been inspired by the regional capital. ‘I love the fact that you can turn a random corner off a twentieth -century street and find a square or a lane that seems really old and weird and lost. Those breathtaking moments sometimes end up in stories.’ She is positive about the local scene. ‘Bristol has two SF groups, and there are a lot of people, not just writing but doing art, blogging, podcasting, publishing ‘zines and generally rolling their sleeves up and getting involved.’

Published by local indie press Heartsown, the Haadri cycle of science fiction novels are directly influenced by the geography of Bristol. According to their author Joules Taylor, ‘the city of Brigstow is based on Bristol. More specifically, the landscape of Clifton Downs and the Avon Gorge feature largely in several of the upcoming books.’ The (allegedly) haunted Black Castle pub on Bath Road ‘sparked a major plot arc within the series’ and Taylor even arranged a Haadri-themed event  there.

For over a century the South West has occupied a special place in SpecFic, and today’s stars are set to burn even brighter in the future.

First published in the Bristol Review of Books, summer 2011.

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