science fiction from sir kingsley amis


Sir Kingsley Amis’ interest in genre fiction spanned most of his writing career—indeed, at the ceremony in which he was knighted, he told the Queen that he only read Dick Francis novels.  Invited to give a series of lectures at Princeton University as part of the 1959 Christian Gauss Seminars in Criticism, Amis chose science fiction as his subject matter. The lectures were then reworked and published as New Maps of Hell in 1960. Amis considered science fiction a viable means for social commentary of the kind which couldn’t be made in other forms of literature.

Amis also wrote his own speculative fiction, with novels like The Anti-Death League (1966), The Green Man (1971), The Alteration (1976)—described by Philip K. Dick as the best alternative history novel ever written, and Russian Hide-and-Seek (1980), a dystopic portrayal of a future Great Britain which has been conquered by Russia.

The following short story first appeared in The Spectator in 1960, ran in Fantasy & Science Fiction in July 1961, and was later collectd in Possible Tomorrows (1973) and other anthologies.

book cover of 

Possible Tomorrows 

by

Groff Conklin
 

 

 

“Something Strange”

By Kingsley Amis

 

 

Something strange happened every day. It might happen during the morning, while the two men were taking their readings and observations and the two women busy with the domestic routine: the big faces had come during the morning. Or, as with the little faces and the coloured fires, the strange thing would happen in the afternoon, in the middle of Bruno’s maintenance programme and Clovis’s transmission to Base, Lia’s rounds of the garden and Myri’s work on her story. The evening was often undisturbed, the night less often.                               

 

They all understood that ordinary temporal expressions had no meaning for people confined indefinitely, as they were, to a motionless steel sphere hanging in a region of space so empty that the light of the nearest star took some hundreds of years to reach them. The Standing Orders devised by Base, however, recommended that they adopt a twenty-four-hour unit of time, as was the rule on the Earth they had not seen for many months. The arrangement suited them well: their work, recreation and rest seemed to fall naturally into the periods provided. It was only the prospect of year after year of the same routine, stretching further into the future than they could see, that was a source of strain.

 

Bruno commented on this to Clovis after a morning spent repairing a fault in the spectrum analyser they used for investigating and classifying the nearer stars. They were sitting at the main observation port in the lounge, drinking the midday cocktail and waiting for the women to join them.

 

‘I’d say we stood up to it extremely well,’ Clovis said in answer to Bruno. ‘Perhaps too well.’

 

Bruno hunched his fat figure upright. ‘How do you mean?’

 

‘We may be hindering our chances of being relieved.’

 

‘Base has never said a word about our relief.’

 

‘Exactly. With half a million stations to staff, it’ll be a long time before they get round to one like this, where everything runs smoothly. You and I are a perfect team, and you have Lia and I have Myri, and they’re all right together – no real conflict at all. Hence ho reason for a relief.’

 

Myri had heard all this as she laid the table in the alcove. She wondered how Clovis could not know that Bruno wanted to have her instead of Lia, or perhaps as well as Lia. If Clovis did know, and was teasing Bruno, then that would be a silly thing to do, because Bruno was not a pleasant man. With his thick neck and pale fat face he would not be pleasant to be had by, either, quite unlike Clovis, who was no taller but whose straight, hard body and soft skin were always pleasant. He could not think as well as Bruno, but on the other hand many of the things Bruno thought were not pleasant. She poured herself a drink and went over to them.

 

Bruno had said something about its being a pity they could not fake their personnel report by inventing a few quarrels, and Clovis had immediately agreed that that was impossible. She kissed him and sat down at his side. ‘What do you think about the idea of being relieved?’ he asked her.

 

‘I never think about it.’

 

‘Quite right,’ Bruno said, grinning. ‘You’re doing very nicely here. Fairly nicely, anyway.’

 

‘What are you getting at?’ Clovis asked him with a different kind of grin.

 

‘It’s not a very complete life, is it? For any of us. I could do with a change, anyway. A different kind of job, something that isn’t testing and using and repairing apparatus. We do seem to have a lot of repairing to do, don’t we? That analyser breaks down almost every day. And yet -‘

 

His voice tailed off and he looked out of the port, as if to assure himself that all that lay beyond it was the familiar starscape of points and smudges of light. ‘And yet what?’ Clovis asked, irritably this time.

 

‘I was just thinking that we really ought to be thankful for having plenty to do. There’s the routine and the fruits and vegetables to look after, and Myri’s story…. How’s that going, by the way? Won’t you read us some of it? This evening, perhaps?’

 

‘Not until it’s finished, if you don’t mind.’

 

‘Oh, but I do mind. It’s part of our duty to entertain one another. And I’m very interested in it personally.’

 

‘Why?’

 

‘Because you’re an interesting girl. Bright brown eyes and a healthy glowing skin – how do you manage it after all this time in space? And you’ve more energy than any of us.’

 

Myri said nothing. Bruno was good at making remarks there was nothing to say to.

 

‘What’s it about, this story of yours?’ he pursued. ‘At least you can tell us that.’

 

‘I have told you. It’s about normal life. Life on Earth before there were any space stations, lots of different people doing different things, not this -‘

 

‘That’s normal life, is it, different people doing different things? I can’t wait to hear what the things are. Who’s the hero, Myri? Our dear Clovis?’

 

Myri put her hand on Clovis’s shoulder. ‘No more, please, Bruno. Let’s go back to your point about the routine. I couldn’t understand why you left out the most important part, the part that keeps us busiest of all.’

 

‘Ah, the strange happenings.’ Bruno dipped his head in a characteristic gesture, half laugh, half nervous tremor. ‘And the hours we spend discussing them. Oh yes. How could I have failed to mention all that?’

 

‘If you’ve got any sense you’ll go on not mentioning it,’ Clovis snapped. ‘We’re all fed up with the whole business.’

 

‘You may be, but I’m not. I want to discuss it. So does Myri, don’t you, Myri?’

 

‘I do think perhaps it’s time we made another attempt to find a pattern,’ Myri said. This was a case of Bruno not being pleasant but being right.

 

‘Oh, not again.’ Clovis bounded up and went over to the drinks table. ‘Ah, hallo, Lia,’ he said to the tall, thin, blonde woman who had just entered with a tray of cold dishes. ‘Let me get you a drink. Bruno and Myri are getting philosophical – looking for patterns. What do you think? I’ll tell you what I think. I think we’re doing enough already. I think patterns are Base’s job.’

 

‘We can make it ours, too,’ Bruno said. ‘You agree, Lia?’

 

‘Of course,’ Lia said in the deep voice that seemed to Myri to carry so much more firmness and individuality in its tone than any of its owner’s words or actions.

 

‘Very well. You can stay out of this if you like, Clovis. We start from the fact that what we see and hear need not be illusions, although they may be.’

 

‘At least that they’re illusions that any human being might have, they’re not special to us, as we know from Base’s reports of what happens to other stations.’

 

‘Correct, Myri. In any event, illusions or not, they are being directed at us by an intelligence and for a purpose.’

 

‘We don’t know that,’ Myri objected. ‘They may be natural phenomena, or the by-product of some intelligent activity not directed at us.’

 

‘Correct again, but let us reserve these less probable possibilities until later. Now, as a sample, consider the last week’s strange happenings. I’ll fetch the log so that there can be no dispute.’

 

‘I wish you’d stop it,’ Clovis said when Bruno had gone out to the apparatus room. ‘It’s a waste of time.’

 

‘Time’s the only thing we’re not short of.’

 

‘I’m not short of anything,’ he said, touching her thigh. ‘Come with me for a little while.’

 

‘Later.’

 

‘Lia always goes with Bruno when he asks her.’

 

‘Oh yes, but that’s my choice,’ Lia said. ‘She doesn’t want to now. Wait until she wants to.’

 

‘I don’t like waiting.’

 

‘Waiting can make it better.’

 

‘Here we are,’ Bruno said briskly, returning. ‘Right…. Monday. Within a few seconds the sphere became encased in a thick brownish damp substance that tests revealed to be both impermeable and infinitely thick. No action by the staff suggested itself. After three hours and eleven minutes the substance disappeared. It’s the infinitely thick thing that’s interesting. That must have been an illusion, or something would have happened’ to all the other stations at the same time, not to speak of the stars and planets. A total or partial illusion, then. Agreed?’

 

‘Go on.’

 

‘Tuesday. Metallic object of size comparable to that of the sphere approaching on collision course at 500 kilometres per second. No countermeasures available. Object appeared instantaneously at 35 million kilometres’ distance and disappeared instantaneously at 1500 kilometres’. What about that?’

 

‘We’ve had ones like that before,’ Lia put in. ‘Only this was the longest time it’s taken to approach and the nearest it’s come before disappearing.’

 

‘Incomprehensible or illusion,’ Myri suggested.

 

‘Yes, I think that’s the best we can do at the moment. Wednesday: a very trivial one, not worth discussing. A being apparently constructed entirely of bone approached the main port and made beckoning motions. Whoever’s doing this must be running out of ideas. Thursday. All bodies external to the sphere vanished to all instruments simultaneously, reappearing to all instruments simultaneously two hours later. That’s not a new one either, I seem to remember. Illusion? Good. Friday. Beings resembling terrestrial reptiles covered the sphere, fighting ceaselessly and eating portions of one another. Loud rustling and slithering’ sounds. The sounds at least must have been, an illusion, with no air out there, and I never heard of a reptile that didn’t breathe. The same sort of thing applies to yesterday’s performance. Human screams of pain and extreme astonishment approaching and receding. No visual or other accompaniment.’ He paused and looked round at them. ‘Well? Any uniformities suggest themselves?’

 

‘No,’ Clovis said, helping himself to salad, for they sat now at the lunch table. ‘And I defy any human brain to devise any. The whole thing’s arbitrary.’

 

‘On the contrary, the very next happening – today’s when it comes – might reveal an unmistakable pattern.’

 

‘The one to concentrate on,’ Myri said, ‘is the approaching object. Why did it vanish before striking the sphere?’

 

Bruno stared at her. ‘It had to, if it was an illusion.’

 

‘Not at all. Why couldn’t we have had an illusion of the sphere being struck? And supposing it wasn’t an illusion?’

 

‘Next time there’s an object, perhaps it will strike,’ Lia said.

 

Clovis laughed. ‘That’s a good one. What would happen if it did, I wonder? And it wasn’t an illusion?’

 

They all looked at Bruno for an answer. After a moment or two, he said: ‘I presume the sphere would shatter and we’d all be thrown into space. I simply can’t imagine what that would be like. We should be … Never to see one another again, or anybody or anything else, to be nothing more than a senseless lump floating in space for ever. The chances of -‘

 

‘It would be worth something to be rid of your conversation,’ Clovis said, amiable again now that Bruno was discomfited. ‘Let’s be practical for a change. How long will it take you to run off your analyses this afternoon? There’s a lot of stuff to go out to Base and I shan’t be able to give you a hand.’

 

‘An hour, perhaps, after I’ve run the final tests.’

 

‘Why run tests at all? She was lined up perfectly when we finished this morning.’

 

‘Fortunately.’

 

‘Fortunately indeed. One more variable and we might have found it impossible.’

 

‘Yes,’ Bruno said abstractedly. Then he got to his feet so abruptly that the other three started. ‘But we didn’t, did we? There wasn’t one more variable, was there? It didn’t quite happen, you see, the thing we couldn’t handle.’

 

Nobody spoke.

 

‘Excuse me, I must be by myself.’

 

‘If Bruno keeps this up,’ Clovis said to the two women, ‘Base will send up a relief sooner than we think.’

 

Myri tried to drive the thought of Bruno’s strange behaviour out of her. head when, half an hour later, she sat down to work on her story. The expression on his face as he left the table had been one she could not name. Excitement? Dislike? Surprise? That was the nearest – a kind of persistent surprise. Well, he was certain, being Bruno, to set about explaining it at dinner. She wished he were more pleasant, because he did think well.

 

Finally expelling the image of Bruno’s face, she began re-reading the page of manuscript she had been working on when the screams had interrupted her the previous afternoon. It was part of a difficult scene, one in which a woman met by chance a man who had been haVing her ten years earlier, with the complication that she was at the time in the company of the man who was currently having her. The scene was an eating alcove in a large city.

 

‘Go away,’ Volsci said, ‘or I’ll hit you.’

 

Norbu smiled in a not-pleasant way. What good would that do? Irmy likes me better than she likes you. You are more pleasant, no doubt, but she likes me better. She remembers me having her ten years ago more clearly than she remembers you having her last night. I am good at thinking, which is better than any amount of being pleasant.’

 

‘She’s having her meal with me,’ Volsci said, pointing to the cold food and drinks in front of them. ‘Aren’t you, Irmy?’

 

‘Yes, Irmy,’ Norbu said. ‘You must choose. If you can’t let both of us have you, you must say which of us you like better.’

 

Irmy looked from one man to the other. There was so much difference between them that she could hardly begin to choose: The one more pleasant, the other better at thinking, the one slim, the other plump. She decided being pleasant was better. It was more important and more significant – better in every way that made a real difference. She said: ‘I’ll have Volsci.’

 

Norbu looked surprised and sorry. ‘I think you’re wrong.’

 

You might as well go now,’ Volsci said. ‘Ila will be waiting.’

 

Yes,’ Norbu said. He looked extremely sorry now.

 

Irmy felt quite sorry too. ‘Good-bye, Norbu,’ she said.

 

Myri smiled to herself. It was good, even better than she had remembered – there was no point in being modest inside one’s own mind. She must be a real writer in spite of Bruno’s scoffing, or how could she have invented these characters, who were so utterly unlike anybody she knew, and then put them into a situation that was so completely outside her experience? The only thing she was not sure about was whether she might not have overplayed the part about feeling or dwelt on it at too great length. Perhaps extremely sorry was a little heavy; she replaced it by sorrier than before. Excellent: now there was just the right touch of restraint in the middle of all the feeling. She decided she could finish off the scene in a few lines.

 

‘Probably see you at some cocktail hour,’ Volsci said, she wrote, then looked up with a frown as the buzzer sounded at her door. She crossed her tiny wedge-shaped room – its rear wall was part of the outer wall of the sphere, but it had no port – threw the lock and found Bruno on the threshold. He was breathing fast, as if he had been hurrying or lifting a heavy weight, and she saw with distaste that there were drops of sweat on his thick skin. He pushed past her and sat down on her bed, his mouth open.

 

‘What is it?’ she asked, displeased. The afternoon was a private time unless some other arrangement were made at lunch.

 

‘I don’t know what it is. I think I must be ill.’

 

‘Ill? But you can’t be. Only people on Earth get ill. Nobody on a station is ever ill: Base told us that. Illness is caused by -‘

 

‘I don’t think I believe some of the things that Base says.’

 

‘But who can we believe if we don’t believe Base?’

 

Bruno evidently did not hear her question. He said: ‘I had to come to you – Lia’s no good for this. Please let me stay with you, I’ve got so much to say.’

 

‘It’s no use, Bruno. Clovis is the one who has me. I thought you understood that I didn’t -‘

 

‘That’s not what I mean,’ he said impatiently. ‘Where I need you is in thinking. Though that’s connected with the other, the having. I don’t expect you to see that. I’ve only just begun to see it myself.’                                                 

 

Myri could make nothing of this last part. ‘Thinking? Thinking about what?’

 

He bit his lip and shut his eyes for a moment. ‘Listen to this,’ he said. ‘It was the analyser that set my mind going. Almost every other day it breaks down. And the computer, the counters, the repellers, the scanners and the rest of them – they’re always breaking down too, and so are their power supplies. But not the purifier or the fluid-reconstitutor or the fruit and vegetable growers or the heaters or the main power source. Why not?’                                                             

 

‘Well, they’re less complicated. How can a fruit grower go wrong? A chemical tank and a water tank is all there is to it. You ask Lia about that.’

 

‘All right. Try answering this, then. The strange happenings. If they’re illusions, why are they always outside the sphere? Why are there never any inside?’

 

‘Perhaps there are,’ Myri said.

 

‘Don’t. I don’t want that. I shouldn’t like that. I want everything in here to be real. Are you real? I must believe you are.’

[The story concludes in the post immediately below].

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