Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Ryman, Geoff

Entry updated 19 November 2023. Tagged: Author.

Icon made by Freepik from


(1951-    ) Canadian-born author who moved to the USA at age eleven, in the UK since 1973. He began publishing sf with "The Diary of the Translator" for New Worlds in 1976, but began to generate significant work only with the magazine version of The Unconquered Country: A Life History (Spring 1984 Interzone; rev 1986), which won the BSFA Award and the World Fantasy Award. It is the story of a young woman forced by poverty and the terrible conditions afflicting her native land (clearly a transfigured Cambodia) to rent out her womb for industrial purposes (it is used to grow machinery). In the book Ryman demonstrated – as have Bruce McAllister, Ursula K Le Guin and Lucis Shepard in various tales – that sf is capable of a mature response to the ordeal of Southeast Asia. That this response was a decade or more years belated confirms the depth of the trauma, as does the anguished saliency of Ryman's short text. It is included in Unconquered Countries: Four Novellas (coll 1994), which assembles most of his longer tales of interest; Paradise Tales and Other Stories (coll 2011) assembles shorter work, though it appeared too soon to include "What We Found" (September 2011 F&SF), which won a Nebula award.

Ryman's first full-length novel, The Warrior Who Carried Life (1985), is a quest Fantasy which, though pacifist, is less visibly subversive; but The Child Garden; or A Low Comedy (Summer-Autumn 1987 Interzone as "Love Sickness"; much exp 1989), which won the Arthur C Clarke Award and the John W Campbell Memorial Award, complexly massages an array of themes – Drugs, Dystopia, Ecology, Feminism, Gender, Hive Minds, Medicine and Music – into a long rich novel about identity and the making of great art. Set in a transfigured UK – in effect a Parallel World – the book stands as one of the sturdiest monuments of "Humanist" sf – which, as in this novel, and like genuine liberal cognition in general, is in truth far harder-headed about the reality of the world than most muscle-flexing contrarianism – despite some moments of clogged selfconsciousness. A non-sf novel, ostensibly about the life of the Kansas girl whose tragedy sparks L Frank Baum into creating the Oz books, "Was ..." (1992; vt Was 1992), focuses on the twentieth century, and the knot of memory and desire generated in the mind of an actor dying of AIDS, by both the books and the 1939 film. The simplified vt – evoking both the past tense and Oz – points to some of the complex resonances of the tale.

Two Five Three: A Novel for the Internet in Seven Cars and a Crash (1996 Internet; rev vt for print 253: The Print Remix 1998), which won the Philip K Dick Award for the print version, is necessarily a different experience (ie a different narrative enterprise) in its electronic and print forms (see Equipoise). In either form, the artefact is structured according to Oulipo rules: 252 passengers (plus driver) on the Bakerloo Line of the London Underground are each described in a 253-word chapter; everyone is killed instantaneously before the train reaches the Elephant and Castle station, in a clearly deliberate echo of The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) by Thornton Wilder (1897-1975). In the electronic version, Hypertext links join together passengers with elements in common, which, according to Ryman, creates a net of similitude; in the book form, the text is read linearly, ending in a concatenation of dissimilarities. The tale, which is not ostensibly sf, cogently recognizes the kind of world that contemporary sf must arguably deal with: a world experienced simultaneously as cloud and solitude.

Lust: Or No Harm Done (2001) is a fantasy whose gay protagonist examines the nature of his life, both as a failed human being and as one who has succeeded, through his capacity to dream into reality simulacra of figures for whom he feels lust; of those who appear in this encyclopedia, Tarzan is perhaps the most noticeable. Air (Or, Have Not Have) (2004), which won the Arthur C Clarke Award, the BSFA Award and the James Tiptree Jr Award, is sf. The title refers to what Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) might have continued to call the noosphere, if that term could be used to describe both the cloud-content and the media-intense distribution of information (see Communications; Cyberspace; Information Theory; Media Landscape; Virtual Reality) that, in the Near Future world of Air, has been focused, for test purposes, on a small mountain village in the imaginary country of Karzistan (see Imperialism). "Air" is a Technology whose powers amalgamate everything from the Internet to barcode-ordinated commerce, from pop music to Skype; through an accident the protagonist is embedded with (or in a sense becomes) Air, and must help guide her traditional culture, warily, into the inevitable world to come.

In its treatment of the Near Future as an extrapolated concretizing of the known, Air does something to justify Ryman's argument – as furthered by the stories assembled in When It Changed: Science into Fiction: An Anthology (anth 2009; vt When It Changed: "Real Science" Science Fiction 2010) – that sf writers should abandon their crutches, abandon the fantasticated devices that have motored sf until now – and focus on "mundane" matters: those elements of the world of science, and of the world as experienced, that are anchored in reality. The proposal has rhetorical force, but if taken literally would have a crippling effect not only on the Thought Experiments and evolved Fantastic Voyages central to sf, but also on the nature of Story itself, whose moves have always been inherently nonmimetic (so far as reality can in fact be distinguished from the narrative strategies used by humans to tell their stories). The King's Last Song; Or, Kraing Meas (2006) is an historical novel. Ryman has also written some sf plays, none published but most performed, including an adaptation of Philip K Dick's The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982).

Though his work is irradiated by a substantially left-wing Politics that places him outside the triumphalist orientation of much earlier sf, Ryman is a central figure in the long and painful transformation of sf into a form of literature that acutely addresses the twenty-first century world. [JC]

see also: Genetic Engineering; Gothic SF; Intelligence.

Geoffrey Charles Ryman

born Canada: 9 May 1951


collections and stories

  • The Coming of Enkidu (Birmingham, England: The Birmingham Science Fiction Group, 1989) [story: chap: pb/Dave Mooring]
  • Unconquered Countries: Four Novellas (New York: St Martin's Press, 1994) [coll: includes The Unconquered Country above: hb/Dave McKean]
  • V A O (Hornsea, East Yorkshire: PS Publishing, 2002) [novella: hb/Les Edwards as Edward Miller]
  • What Remains (Seattle, Washington: Aqueduct Press, 2009) with Ellen Klages [coll: each author taking approximately half the volume: in the publisher's WisCon Guest of Honor Offerings series: pb/]
  • Paradise Tales and Other Stories (Easthampton, Massachusetts: Small Beer Press, 2011) [coll: pb/Giovis Dimitrios]


works as editor


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies