Amis, Kingsley

Tagged: Author | Critic

(1922-1995) UK author, poet and critic; father of Martin Amis. He took his MA at Oxford, and was a lecturer in English at Swansea 1949-1961 and Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, 1961-1963. Though best known for such social comedies as his first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), which won him the sobriquet "Angry Young Man" (a journalistic catch-phrase of the 1950s, applied to several very different authors including Colin Wilson), he was also closely connected with sf throughout his professional life. As a Visiting Fellow in Creative Writing at Princeton University, he delivered a series of six lectures on sf in 1959, forming part of the inaugural Christian Gauss Seminars in Criticism; the choice of subject might have seemed surprising but was in fact suggested by his superior at Princeton, as Amis later recorded. Revised, these lectures were published as New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction (1960), which was certainly the most publicly influential critical work on sf up to that time, although not the most scholarly. It strongly emphasized the Satire and Dystopia elements of sf, and introduced the term Comic Inferno. Amis, himself a satirist and debunker of note, saw sf as an ideal medium for satirical and sociological extrapolation; hitherto, most writing on sf had regarded it as primarily a literature of Technology. As a survey the book was one-sided and by no means thorough, but it was witty, perceptive and quietly revolutionary.

Amis went on to edit the memorable Spectrum series of Anthologies with Robert Conquest (like his friend a novelist, poet, conservative political commentator and sf fan), beginning with Spectrum (anth 1961; vt Spectrum 1; a Science Fiction Anthology 1964) and ending with Spectrum V: A Science Fiction Anthology (anth 1966). These, too, were influential in popularizing sf in the UK and to some extent in rendering it respectable. The fifth and last of these volumes is selected almost entirely from the 1950s Astounding, a reflection, perhaps, of Kingsley Amis's increasing conservatism about Hard SF (and in his politics), which went along with a dislike for stories of the New Wave, also evident in The Golden Age of Science Fiction (anth 1981) edited by Amis solo – although this does include J G Ballard's "The Voices of Time" (October 1960 New Worlds). Amis and Brian Aldiss interviewed C S Lewis, initially for Time magazine, but the interview was declined and was first printed in the Spring 1964 issue of SF Horizons. Some further genre reviews and commentary appear in What Became of Jane Austen? and Other Questions (coll 1970) and The Amis Collection: Selected Non-Fiction 1954-1990 (coll 1990).

As a writer, too, Amis was influenced by sf. He wrote several short sf stories including "Something Strange" (25 November 1960 The Spectator), a minor tour de force about appearance and reality and about psychological conditioning (see Psychology). This is collected in My Enemy's Enemy (coll 1962), and with other short sf is included in Collected Short Stories (coll 1980; exp 1987) and Complete Stories (coll 2011). Even non-sf novels, such as the comic The Egyptologists (1965) with Robert Conquest, contain sf references, often quietly indicating that the genre is routinely read by intelligent characters. The Anti-Death League (1966) is an extravagant spy thriller featuring miniaturized nuclear Weapons as infantry small arms; these, though functional and indeed put to dramatic use, prove to be the cover story masking the more horrific Biological threat of "Operation Apollo", which in its turn is revealed as an elaborate bluff. Amis's interest in Ian Fleming's James Bond universe expressed itself in two nonfiction titles, the spoofish The Book of Bond; Or, Every Man His Own 007 (1965) as by Lt-Col William ("Bill") Tanner and the admiringly critical The James Bond Dossier (1965), as well as a Sequel by Other Hands, Colonel Sun: A James Bond Adventure (1968) as by Robert Markham, which contains occasional sf elements. The supernatural fantasy The Green Man (1969) is among his finest works, blending satirical social comedy with Gothic Horror – one ingenious touch being that the hard-drinking Antihero is uncertain of his ghostly encounters and apt to suffer alcoholic Amnesia about the details; this novel was dramatized as a miniseries by BBC TV in 1991. Amis's major full-scale sf work is The Alteration (1976), set in an Alternate History in which the Reformation has not taken place and Roman Catholic domination has continued to the present; there are knowing allusions to other works of alternate history including Keith Roberts's Pavane (coll of linked stories 1968). The Alteration won the John W Campbell Memorial Award for best sf novel in 1977. Russian Hide-and-Seek: A Melodrama (1980) is a blackly amusing, pessimistic story about the vulnerability of English culture, set in a future England that has for decades been a subject nation of the USSR.

Amis's controversial artistic evolution from supposed radical to national institution (during which he remained always his own man) was neatly summed up by his receipt of a knighthood in 1990. Some entertaining personal reminiscences of authors and editors with entries in this encyclopedia – including Robert Conquest, Roald Dahl and Bruce Montgomery (see Edmund Crispin) – appear in Memoirs (1991). The Letters of Kingsley Amis (2000), selected and edited by Zachary Leader, contains correspondence with Robert Conquest and Brian Aldiss and was followed by a biography, The Life of Kingsley Amis (2006) by Leader. These works provide an insight into Amis's critical engagement with sf and his involvement with sf Fandom. [PN/DRL]

see also: Children in SF; Critical and Historical Works About SF; Definitions of SF; Feminism; Eastercon; Icons; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; Punch; Religion; Prehistoric SF; SF in the Classroom.

Kingsley William Amis

born London: 16 April 1922

died London: 22 October 1995

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