Roof-Gardening Under Saturn

The Work of Ian Watson

Rhys Hughes

Ian Watson is our very own Borges, the man who can nurture bizarre ideas and train them to climb all over the genre’s walls and ceiling. There is no cleverer short-story writer working in SF today, and precious few novelists. Watson is one of those lucky surfers who rode the ’60s New Wave without being dashed on the rocks. But he is younger than his peers, and possessed of an enormous energy that makes them seem idle by comparison. He is the true professional, a writer for whom quantity and quality are not incompatible terms.

So prolific is Watson’s output that a detailed overview of his work is almost impossible in a single article. There are, however, certain categories into which sections of his oeuvre can be parcelled, if not neatly then at least conveniently. There are the horror tales, deadpan in execution; the metaphysical adventures, richly scented with Tantric symbolism; the forest of pure ideas, a resource rarely logged in genre fiction. One thing only can be stated simply: his imagination has always been good, but his prose has improved steadily.

Born in North Shields in 1943, his first published pieces were for gardening journals at age 13. Watson has a genuine love for exotic plants. Monstrous orchids often put out creepers into his fiction. But he is no affected decadent, musty as a Mirbeau, cluttering up his writing with ultra-violet prose. His work is clean, cunningly wrought but accessible. Pretentious it is not, and rarely languid or indolent.

Educated in Balliol, earning his English degree in 1963, he left the country to teach in Tanzania and Japan. These locations often figure in his stories. Combined with his predilection for female main characters, such rampant internationalism has kept his earliest work fresh. His first short-story, ‘Roof Garden Under Saturn’ (1969), was published in New Worlds at its most glorious period. It is engagingly naive, a fragile yarn. Only appearing in the magazine, it is ripe for collection. Apart from its decorative worth, it has surely the most evocative debut title in SF history.

After that, things become a little complicated. Various other short pieces followed ‘Roof Garden’ into New Worlds. ‘The Sex Machine’ (1970) was chased by ‘The Tarot Pack Megadeath’ (1970) in the penultimate issue of the magazine. These too remain uncollected. In the early ‘70’s Watson began to accelerate. Much of this stuff he obviously deems of little worth. His earliest anthologised story, the nightmarish ‘Thy Blood Like Milk’, dates from 1974 and can be found in The Very Slow Time Machine (1979), his first short-story collection.

This book demonstrates his range and power. The title story alone is too clever for its own good, a thought-experiment that loses its way into mystical abstraction. ‘Thy Blood Like Milk’ reads like a savage Zelazny, weaving cruel mythology and post-holocaust tribalism into an account of an irradiated future that is part social satire. Better still are the cooler miseries, black comedies in which the laughs and chills are one and the same. ‘My Soul Swims in a Goldfish Bowl’ and ‘The Girl who was Art’ have a fabular quality, but are fables without morals. ‘Programmed Love Story’ is in similar vein, the Japanese flavour making the piece more alien than those set on other worlds. Of these latter, ‘The Event Horizon’ rewards careful re-reading. Neatest of all, ‘Sitting on a Starwood Stool’, an account of regeneration, offers a cynical view of spirituality. The zen is not mightier than the sword.

One of Watson’s most enduring concerns is transcendence, its timing and the means by which it is acquired. Transcendence in this case means not only the gaining of higher perception but an insight into the actual mechanics of satori. His first novel, The Embedding (1973) is a highly acclaimed triple-plotted venture into the concept of language as method of raising consciousness. In form and content there was nothing remotely like this book anywhere in the field before its publication, and there has been very little since, with the possible exception of T.J. Bass’ neglected novels and Watson’s other books.

This is not to say that it is an entirely engrossing read. At this stage, Watson was trying to pin down his remarkable ideas with a prose not quite capable of the task. A truer match between ideas and language had to wait until Alien Embassy (1977) and thereafter. The early Watson is better represented by short pieces, of which there have always been plenty. Nonetheless his second novel, The Jonah Kit (1975), is another impressive attempt at combining the rational with the metaphysical. An oceanic romp involving the whales of the world and their efforts to construct a kind of gestalt computer, a ‘Thought Star’, The Jonah Kit delights with its improbable genius. Watson is perhaps the only living exponent of serious whimsy. Ecophiles should take note: the cetacean population escapes man’s inhumanity and seeks refuge in an alternative space-time continuum.

Always a safe bet for a title, Watson’s third novel, The Martian Inca (1977) is less exultant. Indeed, there is a rather depressing conclusion to this story of a viral activator in the soil of the red planet. Strangely, Watson is not afraid to venture into outer-space, a realm whose borders have been largely closed to ‘inner-space’ authors. Watson is a convincing psycho-raconteur, intrigued by mythology, ecology and ethology. Yet he thinks nothing of escaping Earth’s gravity for a jaunt or three. A refreshing heretic, he has been known to venture into the chills between stars, galaxies and universes.

In this respect, he is surely the perfect bridge between the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ camps of SF. If Delany and Bear ever had a love-child (after suitable surgery and coaching in Tantra) then it would develop into a thing not unlike Watson. But he rarely seeks to belittle the reader with his erudition. The Martian Inca can be read for the ‘story’ as well as for the astonishing ideas. This is less true of his first two novels. It is not important: Watson returned to the format of The Embedding with greater narrative skill in the dazzling Miracle Visitors (1978). Before this tour de force came the transitionary work which made his name as a character writer as well as an intellectual experimenter.

Alien Embassy (1977) is the sympathetic story of Lila Makindi in a future threatened by a sinister alien entity known as the ‘Starbeast’. The Earth government, reluctant to inform the people of their danger, has set up BARDO, an organisation to recruit adepts capable of weaving a protective net around Earth. Lila, who becomes a flier for BARDO, soon realises that her new job is not quite what it seems. A complex plot and chilling dénouement make this a typical Watson novel. The sheer quality of the writing, however, lifts the work into some other stratosphere. Few better SF novels were published in the ’70s. It ranks with Moorcock’s ‘Dancers at the End of Time’ sequence and Aldiss’ The Eighty-Minute Hour as perfect fusions of stunning ideas and shimmering prose. Indeed, Alien Embassy can be seen as the epitome of Watson’s first period.

Miracle Visitors is a match for Alien Embassy, although none of the main characters are as engaging as Lila. With his initial enthusiasm for the mechanics of transcendence beginning to be tempered by an humanistic concern for the consequences of such change, Watson’s auctorial depth is as great as his width. This book is often lauded as worthy of Philip K. Dick at his finest. There is truth in the comparison. But Watson has a more academic approach to his material and stronger integrity of prose. Miracle Visitors bravely takes the UFO experience as a starting point, examining the phenomenon in terms of post-Jungian psychology. There are a number of malleable realities: the deadpan scene which details a trip to the moon in a Ford Thunderbird proves the case that SF is the truest literary form of the 20th Century, able to deal with issues that mainstream methods can barely dream about. The relationship of a man to the contents of his own head has never been handled with such bravura.

A sort of companion book to Miracle Visitors, the lesser God’s World (1979) was absurdly marketed as his “first novel of outer space.” Again a female main character, Amy Dove, sets the scene for some highly amusing religious quackery: a planet orbiting the star 82 Eridani is home to a culture partly in, and partly out of, Heaven. This year also saw publication of a peculiar article (one among many) entitled ‘Some Sufist Insights into the Nature of Inexplicable Events’. It is a pity Watson does not look the dervish part; perhaps it is enough to spin tales and make reader’s heads whirl.

Despite these wondrous growths, Watson did not hit his real stride until the ’80s. Short stories continued to fill magazines and original anthologies; articles and non-fiction books for children (the former primarily about SF, the latter about Japan) were published at an ever accelerating pace; schemes for increasingly ambitious novels were drawn up. In 1981, Watson edited Pictures at an Exhibition, an obscure set of tales by competent and incompetent authors based on paintings, published in Cardiff. This was perhaps a sort of coda to the artistic license of his first true fantasy novel, The Gardens of Delight (1980). Anyone who has lingered over Hieronymus Bosch’s gruesome allegory will applaud the rationale behind this tale. An unprecedented malfunction ensures that a spaceship lands inside the infamous painting.

A collaboration with Michael Bishop yielded Under Heaven’s Bridge (1981). The same year also brought Deathhunter, a more sprightly piece of writing. The Bishop collaboration worked because the two authors concentrated on issues common to both. Deathhunter heralded the second major phase of Watson’s career: the light touch. There is comedy here, and not the entirely dark humour of stories such as ‘Nightmares’ or ‘The Call of the Wild: The Dog-Flea Version’, written around the same time. Deathhunter takes the all too familiar set-up of a future utopia based on euthanasia and subverts it with sardonic rigour. Were it not for the fact that his next novel is even more suitable for the purpose, this one would make the best introduction to his work.

The novel in question, Chekhov’s Journey (1983) left critics both exasperated and exhilarated. Was it really possible to be so prolific and so good? Chekhov’s Journey is a fine reconstruction of 19th Century Russia, samovars and all, and at the same time a mad frolic. A Soviet actor, hypnotised into talent by his film-crew, is responsible for a warping of history. The real Chekhov’s Siberian voyage transmutes into an investigation of the Tunguska explosion. Comedy and science mesh perfectly, making this one of Watson’s slickest books.

His second short-story collection, Sunstroke (1982), contains two brilliant stories, ‘Returning Home’ and ‘The Milk of Knowledge’, and is a fascinating development on the contents of The Very Slow Time Machine. The ideas are barmier than ever, but the strangeness of the pieces is no longer even a partial point. The stories in Sunstroke are relevant to the present in terms of social and political commentary as well as an examination of meaning and transformation. Watson was even toying with Classical ideas on change. An overt expression of this came with a sly wink to the Roman poet Ovid in his next novel.

Converts (1984) is both a modern fable of metamorphosis and an anti-dogmatic satire. Fiddling with DNA produces some beastly results, in the form of a drug that enables people to become the creatures of their dreams. In Slow Birds (1985), his third story collection, the Roman philosopher Lucretius is the focus of some equally improbable and delightful events—the tale ‘Ghost Lecturer’ is one of his best. Slow Birds is a doubly rich cornucopia of themes and forms. The title story, nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula award, is set in a village-green world into which graffiti-covered cruise missiles materialise. Other highlights include ‘The Width of the World’ and ‘White Socks’, chilling whimsy and whimsical horror respectively.

A tangent in Watson’s career occurred about this time with a set of novels that were firmly in the exotic adventure tradition. The ‘Yaleen’ trilogy, with its endearing and spirited narrator, consists of The Book of the River (1984), The Book of the Stars (1985) and The Book of Being (1985). These novels are much looser than anything he had written before and slightly easier on the brain. Yaleen is a character that seems to have escaped Watson’s precise machinations. The scene is set on a world permanently divided by a great river into two sections. On one side, a male-dominated tyranny grumbles along; on the other, a water-loving culture of civilised river-women show how it should be done. The river that separates them, the alien creature that prevents communication across the water, is gradually explored and its nature charted. Those already versed in Watson’s work may find these a little slow, a little too uncluttered, but the individual volumes are still prow and oars above most bookshelf fantasies.

A reasonable guess as to the rationale of this trilogy is that it was an attempt to gain wide readership. There comes a time when the highly-acclaimed genius wishes to be on sale at airports. But his next novel, Queenmagic, Kingmagic (1986), was a return to complexity, partly based on chess and recalling Barrington Bayley’s own fancy on the theme, ‘The Exploration of Space’. The disappointments came in the following two years. The Power (1987) and Meat (1988) are pure horror, complete with absurd covers, but not grand enough to appeal to the folk who made Koontz and King rich. Watson is unable to compete on their terms. His hectoring of that market was ineffective and thankfully brief. A doctoral thesis is due on why modern horror really is an American speciality. Wooden houses are one essential ingredient, no less than wooden horses when invading a real Troy.

Evil Water (1987) was Watson’s fourth short-story collection, and perhaps his weakest. Many of the tales are slightly disappointing, the endings not delivering the promise of the virtuoso beginnings. This is agonisingly true of the first, ‘Cold Light’, with its photon-eating bird creature and only marginally less so with the title story, an indolent yarn of witchcraft in a village straight out of The Archers. The most successful pieces are the shorter ones: ‘The Great Atlantic Swimming Race’, ‘The Wire Around the War’, both now utterly outdated, and ‘The People of the Precipice’, a daft but poignant political parable.

The excellent novel, The Fire Worm (1988), on the other hand, is an enthralling read from start to finish. Raymond Lully, medieval alchemist and obscurist’s folk-hero, creates a magical salamander: nothing less than the Lambton Worm. Here, alchemical method replicates an illusory reality, whereas in the novel Whores of Babylon (1988), it is virtual reality programming that recreates the past. The city of Babylon is generated anew in America, like some Boolean Las Vegas. In true Dick fashion, the characters begin to suspect they are also computer models, a discovery that rather upsets them.

With Salvage Rites (1989), his fifth story collection, and The Flies of Memory (1990), his umpteenth novel, Watson broke out of the cynical ’80s into the neo-New-Age of the Millennium’s death rattle. It was a good time for review. Both the stories of Salvage Rites and the core of The Flies of Memory bounce all over the themes raised in his previous books. In the latter, an expedition to Mars uncovers bizarre truths about insectoid aliens who have been “remembering” the cities of Earth—a subtle euphemism for stealing them. Some amusing observations about tourists are made—this is not a book to take on holiday. Watson somehow contrives to sound like a cross between Ray Bradbury and Rudy Rucker. Another love-child exposé?

A strong candidate for his best short-story collection is Stalin’s Teardrops (1991). What makes this one special is the cold anger that bubbles through some of the pieces. ‘The Eye of the Ayatollah’ is an odd and disturbing development on the Rushdie affair. The superlative ‘The Pharaoh and the Mademoiselle’ is a delectable experiment, written with great care and irony. Some of the brash verve of early stories like ‘Our Loves So Truly Meridional’ has returned, varnished with finer feeling. Torn from his head during his funeral procession, the Koran-thumper’s eye (pickled, but not in alcohol) will continue to serve a holy purpose fixed to a satellite in space, sweeping the planet for heretics. In fact it ends up in the socket of an assassin. Though years erode it, Watson’s message is always admirable: My Stories So Truly Topical.

1993 saw the first part of a projected two-volume saga. Lucky’s Harvest, the first book of Mana, is vast and worthwhile, a fantasy based on the great Finnish epic, The Kalevala. With Celtic, Saxon and Norse myth exhausted, Suomi is the last northern refuge. Lucky is the main character and an apt description of the book—Watson holds it in one coherent piece, an unenviable task when dealing with most myth-cycles. But he has written better novels. Buy Alien Embassy, Chekhov’s Journey and The Fire Worm; borrow Lucky’s Harvest from a library.

It is probably not even worth opening the Warhammer 40,000 series of books, despite the many passages of typical Watson they contain. Too rushed to be successful, they leave few impressions. Harlequin (1994) is superior to Inquisitor (1993); the far-future setting is unconvincing. His collection, The Coming of Vertumnus (1994), swept these mistakes away. The title story, one of the best published by Interzone, relates the florid account of a global Art attack. ‘Swimming With the Salmon’, ‘The Bible in Blood’, ‘Happy Hour’ and ‘Virtually Lucid Lucy’ are the other succulent fruits. It is time a thoughtful publisher brought out a Best of anthology before such a project becomes unwieldy. One of the finest SF short-story collections ever is still possible.

It remains to be seen what other delights Watson is planting. It is a safe bet there will be many, and that most of them will be among the best examples of SF in this age. Brief treatments such as this one are destined to be outdated even as they are written, requiring additional passages dealing with additional books. An author who can dash off novels faster than most of his colleagues can complete short-stories is always going to be a headache for the reviewer, critic and biographer. But it is a headache that few of them should want to complain about.


This profile was first published in The Zone magazine (Issue #3, Autumn 1995).

Copyright © 1995 by Rhys Hughes.