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Amis, Martin

Entry updated 13 May 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1949-2023) UK journalist and author, son of Kingsley Amis; both father and son, perhaps unusually, achieving a similar eminence in the same field (and both dying at the age of 73); he wrote many reviews as by Henry Tilney. From the first his novels threaten and distress their protagonists – and their readers – with narrative displacements that undermine consensual reality, so that moments of normality in his work are, like as not, intended to reveal themselves as forms of entrapment. His work hovers in a consequential Equipoise between the mundane and Fantastika (see also Horror in SF), his uneasy venues (usually London) constantly rattled by deadpan abruptions reminiscent of the work of J G Ballard. His understanding of and attachment to sf, often expressed in nonfiction pieces as by Tilney, runs from Ballard to Ron Goulart; his interest in sf-like (and sf-mocking) worlds dates back to his second novel, Dead Babies (1975), set in an indistinct Near Future and featuring a protagonist who has made his pile by working at a local abortion factory. Amis was responsible for the screenplay for Saturn 3 (1980), though Stephen Gallagher wrote the book tie.

Other People: A Mystery Story (1981) takes its title from the definition of Hell as being other people in Huis clos (first performed 1944; 1945; trans Stuart Gilbert as In Camera in anth 1946; vt No Exit 1947) by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980); it is an afterlife fantasy whose protagonist responds to what she thinks is Amnesia with a blanket literalness in her understanding of sensory input which has been described as an example of "Martianism" (see Craig Raine). Einstein's Monsters (coll 1987; cut vt God's Dice 1995 chap) and Heavy Water; and Other Stories (coll 1998) assemble several sf stories variously concerned with the decaying of the world into Holocausts, nuclear and otherwise. The savagery of the Satire in this shorter work – as in "Heavy Water" (22-29 December 1978 New Statesman; rewritten for coll) or in "State of England" (24 June-1 July 1996 The New Yorker), both from Heavy Water – is sometimes extremely intense. London Fields (1989), whose seemingly leisurely pages only intensify the apocalyptic ominousness of Einstein's Monsters, takes place in an intricately realized 1999 London (though in the Portobello Road, not the eponymous park in then less fashionable East London), a world overcast by looming Pandemic or nuclear Disaster or Climate Change. In Yellow Dog (2003), a sense of the desuetude of things is jostled by a narrative that interchanges four clanging worlds, one of these being an Alternate History version of modern Britain in the reign of Henry IX, mostly consonant with actual Britain except at such places where Amis's satirical appetite prompts changes to (for instance) the political power and engagement of the monarchy. Lionel Asbo: State of England (2012) extends into the very Near Future.

Amis's novel of greatest sf interest is Time's Arrow; Or, the Nature of the Offense (1991) – which begins, as does Other People, at the moment at which its protagonist "awakens" into a radically displaced world – and is based on the premise that the arrow of time has been reversed; Amis's acknowledged sf sources for his use of the Time in Reverse premise run from Philip K Dick's Counter-Clock World (1967) to Kurt Vonnegut Jr's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), but he harshens the implications of the conceit by making his protagonist an old Nazi, whose involvement in the death camps (see Holocaust Fiction; World War Two) now becomes (precariously) a hymn to life. Throughout the book, the reversal of the course of the twentieth century reads as a reprieve. It is a tale, however, whose joys encode ironies so grim that the "happier" moments of return and redemption are impossible to read without considerable pain. Time's Arrow was, inevitably, received as a "literary" text whose sf structure was embarrassing, a response itself embarrassing to observant readers; despite, or perhaps because of, its under-the-hood engagement with the engines of sf, the novel reads with all the clarity of the best century reportage. The Zone of Interest (2014), which is nonfantastic, again attempts to approach what may be unsayable about the Holocaust, citing in its afterword the phrase –"that which happened" – that Paul Celan (1920-1970), himself a Holocaust survivor, used in 1958 to emphasize the murderous effect on language of the Final Solution; the phrase is also used, to different effect, in Howard Jacobson's simultaneously published J (2014).

Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict's Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines (1982) is a nonfiction guide to arcade Videogames (see Space Invaders; Defender; Missile Command; Asteroids), now technically out of date but of interest for Amis's approach to the subject. Of the essays assembled in The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America (coll 1986), "Kurt Vonnegut: After the Slaughterhouse" (1983 Observer) is of strong interest (see Kurt Vonnegut); Visiting Mrs Nabokov and Other Excursions (coll 1993) includes pieces on Isaac Asimov, J G Ballard and RoboCop 2 (1990); The War against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 (coll 2001) and The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage 1994-2017 (coll 2017) variously include pieces on Brian Aldiss, Ballard again, Anthony Burgess, Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov and several others of sf interest.

Given the adversarial and moat-defensive literary culture of Great Britain, especially in the early years of Amis's fifty-year long career, it is notable that both his nonfiction and his fiction so extensively concern themselves with, and embody, sf. His use of sf-generated temporal dislocations to gain icy perspectives on his contemporaries' grotesque dances of ambition and lust does all the same seem central to his very considerable success as the author of his generation's finest Satires. It is to be trusted that the generic mainsprings of his work will become better understood.

Amis was posthumously knighted in the 2023 UK King's Birthday Honours, with the knighthood backdated to 18 May that year. [JC]

see also: Perception; Time Travel.

Martin Louis Amis

born Oxford, Oxfordshire: 25 August 1949

died Lake Worth, Florida: 19 May 2023

works (selected)


nonfiction (selected)


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