Annihilation Factotum

The Work of Barrington J. Bayley

Rhys Hughes

Taking scissors to fiction, the tailor cuts and sews, patching up a worn genre. With language as sheer as sarsenet, he unpicks clichés, embroiders complex plot-devices, adds pockets of wit. The resulting garment is a jacket which is stylish, but which fits no market comfortably. For mass consumption, it is not gaudy enough. There is nothing technicolour about it: an amazing four-colour dreamcoat, it is slightly flared at the hip, too subtle for its own good. For the literati, it is not obviously heavy or warm enough. On the seriously hard catwalks of the SF show, it is likely to be overlooked in favour of Bearskin and the hides of other Gregs.

Undeterred by lack of commercial success and critical acclaim, Barrington Bayley quietly continues his work, creating a wardrobe as impressive as any in imaginative writing. He is the most underrated SF British writer since David Masson was forgotten in the 1960s. Ironically, he terms himself a ‘traditionalist’, though his name is generally linked to the radicals. Rather than switch from the slide-rule concerns of conventional SF to the left-bank affectations of the New Wave, he sought to extend one into the other. His engineers do not quite make it to the espresso machines, but they are competent in eschatology and Russian. Possibly only Ian Watson shares a similar methodology, but the writers are approaching the café from different directions, like the converging realities in Bayley’s Collision with Chronos.

Born in 1937, Bayley worked as a civil servant in the Ministry of War before joining the RAF. A brief stint as a reporter on a minor paper coincided with his first story submissions: his tale ‘Combat’s End’ was published in 1954. The early Bayley is unremarkable, his awkward prose rooted firmly in the conventions of space-opera, but lacking the grand sweep of the best practitioners in the field. In the ensuing decade, he nurtured his ambition and ability, careful to ensure neither outgrew the other. In 1959, he helped write Michael Moorock’s first story, ‘Peace On Earth’, a crude but well-meaning fantasy which reads like Van Vogt. A better collaboration came in 1963 with ‘Flux’, an unusual time-travel tale in which the future is revealed as existing in alternative presents. His career really began with ‘Double Time’, a rousing solo effort which demonstrated his interest in metaphysics. Other competent work followed, much of it published in New Worlds. Under Moorcock’s editorship, Bayley became one of the magazine’s regulars.

Never a prolific writer of short-fiction, he started turning his attention to novels. Space-opera was already in a vegetative state when he launched his debut, Star Virus (1964), a mildly exciting foray into a neurotic theme: the end of the Universe. It betrays a certain impatience, the complex plot held together as if by a shoelace, the story hampered by unsatisfying explanations for each new twist and curl. Bloated beyond its own limits, the novel should have some of the exuberance of a Bester or Harness, a foolish and charming vitality; but Bayley offers a rather dour experience. This is not necessarily bad: indeed, the tone of the book has proved more influential on succeeding writers than its callow attempt at mutating the ethics of the disaster-epic. Notably, the virus infected M. John Harrison, who carried off the form and fever to unimagined heights. Bayley also learned from the pandemic: he retreated into the laboratory and emerged with a stronger strain of apocalypse.

Annihilation Factor (1964), with its planet-devouring protagonist, a cosmic anomaly called ‘The Patch’, seems dated now. Even back then it was standard fare; but Bayley distinguishes himself by using the mechanics of destruction more as backdrop than focal point. Under the strain of living in the path of the ravenous entity, an interstellar empire comes apart at the seams. Bayley is nothing if not imperial in his imagined politics: he is inordinately fond of galaxy-spanning governments. They feature again and again in his books, becoming more refined—and bureaucratic—as his skills evolve. Often theocratic, always militaristic, such societies are a drain on a modern author’s resources, threatening to become outmoded or silly. Bayley manages to keep his functioning with Golden Age smoothness, using just a drop of lubricating parody.

The conclusion of Annihilation Factor is bleak; there are few happy endings in any of Bayley’s tales, another disincentive to the public. His optimism withered rapidly, after a stint of hack-work in juvenile comics. The cynicism which replaced it was streaked with humour. Two of his best short-stories, ‘Integrity’ (1964) and ‘All The King’s Men’ (1965), are unique satires, the comedy deriving wholly from the ideas rather than the language, plot or characters. Both illustrate the dangers of taking ideas to their extreme: in the first, a libertarian, committed to the ideals of freedom, liberates the cells of his own body. From this point on, Bayley proved himself to be a thought-experimenter rather than a simple writer, working from analogy and switching premises between disciplines. This can often result in stunning absurdity, especially when fiction is subjected to the analytical rigours of mathematics.

This is an un-British way of conducting literature: we like ideas to wear a human face. Bayley is not really interested in psychology, emotion or character interaction. His heroes are the twists of logic which snatch each strand of plot in mid-write and weave them into something quite new. Bayley sometimes resembles a pulp Borges or soapy Lem—longer paragraphs and arty dialogue might have elevated him, if not into the gravitational fields of these masters, at least within radio-range of their spheres. But he seems reluctant to abandon his space-opera libretto, with its Doc Smith banter. In the early ’60s, Bayley, Moorcock and J.G. Ballard held meetings to plot the overthrow of ‘cardigan-and-chocolate-biscuits’ SF, exemplified by the likes of Wyndham and Arthur C. Clarke. Bayley was the only one to attempt the coup by using an even less credible form. His penchant for analytical reasoning knits uneasily with his wide-screen baroque sensibilities; this skewed tailoring explains his minority appeal.

Bayley’s third novel was a long time coming. Empire of Two Worlds did not appear until 1972. Something of a disappointment when compared to his precise shorter work of the time, it is still an engrossing story, though completely overshadowed by its successor, the remarkable Collision Course (1973). Toying with the time theories of J.W. Dunne, this latter novel, a merciless thriller, is the most original exploration of chrono-paradox in modern SF. Clichés are ground to dust by the dynamic—overworked effects such as looped causality find no refuge here. The basis of the plot, that two separate ‘presents’ are moving toward each other from different times and that the meeting of realities will be disastrous, is presented with a detachment which adds to the menace. Bayley’s novels had finally attained the standard of his short-stories. Collision Course (published in Britain as Collision with Chronos) is not Bayley’s best novel—two finer efforts were to come—but it is more than worth seeking out, if only for the way it sidesteps every convention of its material.

Meanwhile, his shorter work was dealing with even more bizarre ideas and was threatening to push the genre over the edge of its own spectrum. He was gathering velocity for his superlative collection, The Knights of the Limits (1978). Such pieces as ‘Exit From City 5’ (1971), ‘Me And My Antronoscope’ (1973), ‘The Bees of Knowledge’ (1975) and ‘The Cabinet Of Oliver Naylor’ (1976), are fabrics woven from pure thought—the premise of each tale fulfils the functions usually reserved for the mechanics of fiction: the characters, plot-devices, prose style. Bayley’s best work is beyond these concerns. He does not need to crank a dynamic by artificial means; once generated, the idea starts a chain-reaction which gives birth to the story. No further toil is required from the author: the gravity of the primary notion either pulls the standard trappings around it or else swallows them whole. Bayley seems to have written these tales by knocking two protons together and standing back to watch.

His masterpiece in this respect is ‘The Four-Colour Problem’ (1971), a tale which at first glance resembles a dissertation on geometry. There are a number of mathematical lectures embedded in the text, but these are never too technical for digestion. To further soften their impact, Bayley adopts a darkly comic tone which owes much to William Burroughs. The plot involves the amazing discovery that geography is ‘wrong’ and that between political borders lie weird new countries. The explanation for this state of affairs is highly ingenious and concerns the real four-colour problem. Cartographers have long known that just four colours are required to fill in any map so that no colour borders itself—but mathematics yields only a proof for five colours. Bayley’s response is that there must exist maps which really do require five colours and that our globe is one of these. The ‘missing’ countries exist in dimensions tangential to our own. During the course of the tale, efforts are made to probe these interstices, with unexpected and darkly humorous consequences.

Two other stories of note, less clever and more accessible, are ‘The Exploration Of Space’ and ‘Man In Transit’ (both 1972). The former begins with the opium-eating narrator lectured by a chessboard piece; the lesson concerns non-Euclidian space. Combining romantic and logical aesthetics, this Coleridge-in-Flatland whimsy is a knight’s tour-de-force. The latter is the relatively simple account of an orphan adopted by an airline. This odd tale is closer to Ballard with its implied landscapes of turbulence, stewardesses and plastic food-trays.

Bayley’s next novel, The Fall of Chronopolis (1974), is possibly the ultimate time-travel story, sweeping the corners of the sub-genre for the few dusty paradoxes missed by previous writers. Unlike Collision Course, there is no attempt to take the theme off at a wild tangent. The Fall of Chronopolis roasts all the chestnuts in a monumental hearth; causal loops abound, sub-plots are allowed to swallow their own tales, futures impinge on presents and pasts cavort with elsewheres. Bayley, however, employs a wealth of such devices, meshing them together so tightly that, while they may not seem fresh, they still startle. There are no loose ends; if there were any, a single tug would unravel the entire narrative. The Chronotic Empire straddles the centuries like a beached whale, its agents phasing between levels of orthogonal time to fight a sub-temporal adversary. The book remains faithful to its pulp paradigms (‘With a hollow booming sound the Third Time Fleet materialised on the windswept plain’) without quite permitting the sets to dominate the script.

In contrast, The Soul of the Robot (1974) is a slighter work, with a much less dense pattern of ideas and a thinner prose texture. Most of the themes raised in this novel and its sequel, The Rod of Light (1985), have been dealt with more thoroughly by Sladek. Bayley was possibly gearing up for his most engrossing novel, The Garments of Caean (1976), a colourful, dandified and frilly epic with poisoned lining and a dénouement as abrupt as sharpened lapels. An array of flawed characters pin the plot in place, or are sewn onto the front of the tale like mismatched buttons. Dozens of SF standards cling to the hem of the book—the fashionable hero acquires a sentient suit, which gains control of his mind and eventually turns him into a ‘clothes-robot’ intent on carrying out the instructions of a weedy intelligence located on the edge of the galaxy. Peder Forbarth, sartorial cynic, manages to save the universe from one crisis only to precipitate a second, because of an unreasoning attachment to style. Caeanic society, a civilisation based on the Art of Attire, is suitably decadent, though not malicious, and—in a precarious twist—is shown to have evolved from an eccentric colony of Russian pseudorobots indulging in an eternal war with Japanese cyborgs. Absurd and magnificent, The Garments of Caean is Bayley at the peak of his considerable powers.

Having swept through a stellar Saville Row, Bayley turned his sights on Monte Carlo to produce an entertaining gambling novel, The Grand Wheel (1977). The wheel of the title has nothing to do with roulette, but is an arcane organisation which enjoys a galactic monopoly on games of chance. Not that chance stands much of a hope against Cheyne Scarne, professor of randomatics—the science of predicting random patterns. With its complex and elaborate card-games (Kabala is ‘so abstruse only a handful of people had succeeded in mastering it’) and the opportunity for outsiders to play their way into the Grand Wheel’s esoteric ranks, the cosmos seems up for grabs, but these stakes turn out to be a little too high. As backdrop to the hero’s hazardous flutters, the syndicate’s casino-temples infuse the script with a decor both seedy and elegant.

Increasingly offbeat, Bayley’s following novels, Star Winds (1978) and the Nietzschean thought-experiment The Pillars of Eternity (1982), are stiffer but still amazing expansions of ideas hinted at in earlier work. Harnessing the power of etheric travel, a ship sails off toward the horizon of the universe. Eternal Recurrence rears its monstrous and beautiful head again. Better, perhaps, to seek out The Knights of the Limits and The Seed of Evil (1979), the most intense story collections of the 1970s. Though the later volume contains the earlier and weaker tales, even these dazzle and delight. After ‘Double Time’, Bayley wrote very few unsuccessful pieces; a quick glance through back-issues of New Worlds should demonstrate that his short fiction adds as much to the magazine’s legend as the more fêted productions of Brian Aldiss or Thomas Disch. Without ‘Farewell, Dear Brother’ (1964), ‘Reactionary’ (1965) and ‘Aid To Nothing’ (1967), the New Wave may well have broken on mainstream shores. He preserved the science in a fiction which, under the emotional onslaught of such psycho-realists as Langdon Jones and Giles Gordon, came near to exchanging it for disembodied maturity.

Of Bayley’s later novels, The Zen Gun (1983) is the most bizarre and enjoyable. So many ideas are played off against each other that there is hardly any room for the reader to breathe. The problem with cramming this much invention into a single book is that the conceits tend to reduce the believability of the story, making the fiction more and more transparent. To counter this, the sub-plots need to strengthen each other by mirroring and magnifying themes. Bayley copes admirably, his cluttered style is cut with too much precision to snag on the brambles of nightschool technique. Besides, disdain for multiple ideas and simultaneous narrative is purely an English phenomenon, a misapplication of Occam’s Razor. If Bayley were Brazilian or Polish, we would all be reading him.

It is a pity that after The Zen Gun, Bayley seems to have slackened off; his armillary fantasy, The Forests of Peldain (1985), reads like an imitation of Jack Vance, but is not a sustainable effort. Short-stories continue to come from his unique imagination; at the start of the 1990s, examples of his work found their way into the small-press, notably ‘The Phobeya’ (1991), a collaboration with Sean Bayley. But it is difficult to predict where his reputation is headed. Despite extensive championing by the likes of Michael Moorcock and Andy Darlington, his unwillingness to betray space-opera keeps him from the attention of those biodegradable thirty-something readers who fawn over Ballard. The fact that the real four-colour problem has recently been solved does not help his best tale attain its rightful place in the anthologies. Our countries do not border undiscovered lands after all; but perhaps between our familiar literary heroes a master is waiting to be rediscovered.

This profile was first published in The Zone magazine (Issue #6, Winter 1997-98).

Copyright © 1997 by Rhys Hughes.