This 1988 Freedom interview with the well-known science fiction and fantasy author by Paul Morrison touches on his views about censorship, anarchism and the direction of sci-fi as he saw it at the time.
Paul Morrison: How do you see the development of your work from your early period through “Sword and Sorcery”; sci-fi, to the Colonel Pyatt novels; your nonfiction and your present work?
Your first question … is a bit of a big one really. In a way although my technique’s developed my interests have remained fairly much the same. The first novel I ever wrote was in fact the search for a novel called “The Hungry Dreamers* set in Soho and thankfully lost. I think a little bit of it appeared in a fanzine in the early ’60s and I was writing all different kinds of fiction from a very early age just as I was reading all different kinds of fiction.
I was never particularly obsessed with one kind of fiction. I read social novels, plays, classics, Frank Richards’ boys stories, P. G. Wodehouse, a vast amount of popular thrillers and the like, and B F Benson for instance, the David Blaize books and the Mapp & Lucia books and so on. I read a lot of comedy and although Edgar Rice Burroughs, ‘Sword and Sorcery’ and fantasy were a great enthusiasm they didn’t make up more than a relatively small percentage of what I read.
I still have not read a great deal of the so-called classic SF stories. I find most of it unreadable as a matter of fact. I find most SF unreadable, I find most ‘Sword and Sorcery’ unreadable, just as I find most detective stories unreadable. As I have said elsewhere I am inclined to enjoy individual authors who work in a particular genre not a genre itself.
I have used fantasy and science fiction to experiment a little bit, to practice if you like before doing something slightly ambitious like the Jerry Cornelius books, the “Colonel Pyatt” novels are a sort of extension of the Cornelius books. What non-fiction I have done has been largely at the request of editors or publishers. I don’t regard myself as a very good non-fiction writer.
Present work — Mother London — is a social novel essentially , although it employs techniques that I developed in the Cornelius books and there are obvious sort of echoes of the Cornelius books in Mother London. You ask me how I see the development of my work and I can only say I don’t really see it developing in any linear way, just as I have grown more technically skilled I have been able to tackle certain ideas I have had for a long time.
What would you like to say about your time as editor of New Worlds magazine, particularly in regard to the direction and innovations you helped guide it through?
Its hard to talk about New Worlds because it was a sort of a nightmare. It went on for years, the magazine was constantly beleagured. I spent most of my time trying to keep it alive, just physically, financially, alive.
I believed in it obviously and I think that what we were doing was interesting. It was a period of considerable innovation which began with people like Ballard and myself in the late ’50s, although it didn’t really find any expression until the early ’60s I don’t think there has been a period like it since. What I have seen of new work — much of which I like — it seems to me not to have that same willingness to jump in with both feet or run it up the flagpole and see what comes down, or whatever you call it, those days — much more optimistic sense that if we tried something out it was worth going all the way.
Nowadays things like cyper punk, that particular movement is consolidating various other popular forms and producing a sort of amalgam of hard-boiled detective story and the near future SF story sort of thing Philip K Dick did so well. I think we encouraged people to go as far as they possibly could, we were willing to back them in that way. I am not sure there is much that is willing to do that these days.
How do you see the general direction of sci-fi today? Has it changed for the better or worse in your estimation?
I don’t know whether it has changed for the better or worse. I like the little bit of what I read, but I don’t read very much, so really I am not the best person to ask what it’s like today. I like some of
the so called cyber punk writers – again I don’t see their work as being hugely innovative — again only in terms of a genre. I think what we were trying to do in New Worlds was break out of genre — trying to make new conventions — I think a lot of the late ’70s and ’80s has been a period of consolidation, nostalgia,looking backwards — which you see pretty much in all forms of creative stuff at the moment.
I don’t think much sci-fi was ever very good and I don’t think much is good nowadays but what is good, is as good as it ever was.
In your time as editor you came up against several attempts at suppression .. and censorship — how did you view this then? How do you view the situation now as regards censorship in Britain?
I am totally opposed to censorship which seems to be. at odds in some people’s minds with my total opposition to pornography. I believe that many kinds of pornography are used as propaganda in maintaining the status quo as it exists now between men and women; l believe that men are essentially a power elite who control and define the lives of women and as a believer in women’s rights and the eventual triumph of the women’s movement I can only continue to work against that and what I do is to try to find means of fighting pornography without censorship to make people^particularly men, aware of what pornography as we commonly understand the word does to maintain that very unfair situation. That doesn’t stop me fighting against the obscene publications Act which I do politically. I am against it. I have written against it. I have worked against it. It doesn’t stop my going for the Freedom of Information Act which I’d be very glad to see go through.
Most of my life I have been involved with attempts to improve the situation of writers and part of that improvement in my view is to try to abolish censorship particularly literary censorship, political censorship, any kind really. I think that we are going through a period in the world in general that you could call reactionary. I think we’re in danger of an increased amount of censorship and I am currently trying to fight that along with a lot of other people who have for one reason or another apparently been identified as pro-censorship. People who are simply not pro-censorship but are as profoundly against censorship as I am, people like Philip Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon. There’s a lot of nonsense been talked about that which I won’t bore you with any further.
I know you have a keen interest in anarchism and the feminist movement, would you like to tell me a bit about your views?
I began political life as an anarchist — in those days I suppose it was a much more naive belief. I then went through a period of trying to express myself politically through more conventional political parties and eventually realised they are all so damn corrupt I might as well be an idealistic anarchist and humanist and maintain my own political position by that means. That also fits in better with my support for the feminist movement.
I believe that the women’s movement is the most important political movement of this century, possibly of the millennium. I think that the kind of political writing you find in the women’s movement has a very serious bearing on all our lives, particularly to do with how power is used, maintained and of course abused, so that for me the feminist movement is absolutely central to the improvement of society.
I would also like to ask you about what you are doing now. I know you had a book published very recently.
I have had a book published recently — that’s usually true, sometimes more than one — the book is Mother London which I think is probably going to be my — in many ways I think it’s the closest — most personal book I have ever written. It deals mostly with what I feel — deals best with what I feel about — much more of asocial novel than anything I have ever written recently with the exception I believe of
the Pyatt books. It’s set in the real world. It’s set in a real London. It’s a fairly complex book, it’s a non-linear book. I have had to come up with a rather more complicated form than I used in the Cornelius books but still rather similar.
The reason for doing that is one is anxious to avoid cliche, conventional interpretation of the subject matter, the work that one’s doing and so one looks for a form which will with luck avoid that or help people to avoid it. Whether it will or not I don’t know …
In the summer I am planning to write an Elric novel which I began last year. A sort of summer holiday for me I suppose. I am also hoping to write a book about living in Morocco but have not yet found a publisher who is willing to commission the book so I will be able to afford to live in Morocco … for the length of time it would take!
I’ve got a collection of short stories I am working on at the moment which will also include non-fiction — mainly political non-fiction.
I’m not doing any music at the moment. Although there is a chance that some of the music Pete Pably and I did for ‘Gloriana’ and The Entropy Tango’ will actually be appearing in the next few months since there’s an independent record producer who has asked if he could put some of it out. Pete is going through our tapes trying to find stuff that’s remotely usable and discovering a lot of it isn’t. I think that’s it as far as forthcoming * work is concerned.