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Watson, Ian

Entry updated 4 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1943-    ) UK teacher and author who lectured in English in Tanzania (1965-1967) and Tokyo (1967-1970) before beginning to publish sf with "Roof Garden Under Saturn" for New Worlds in 1969; he then taught Future Studies for six years at Birmingham Polytechnic, taking there one of the first academic courses in sf in the UK; he became a full-time writer in 1976, publishing more than 180 short stories since 1969 at a gradually increasing tempo and with visibly increased mastery over the form. His collections include The Very Slow Time Machine (coll 1979), Sunstroke (coll 1982), Slow Birds (coll 1985), The Book of Ian Watson (coll 1985), Evil Water (coll 1987), Salvage Rites (1989), Stalin's Teardrops (coll 1991), The Coming of Vertumnus (coll 1994), The Great Escape (coll 2002), The Butterflies of Memory (coll 2006), The Beloved of My Beloved (coll 2009) with Roberto Quaglia, Saving for a Sunny Day and Other Stories (coll 2012), The 1000 Year Reich and Other Stories (coll 2016) and others; of these, The Chinese Time Machine (coll 2023) contains entirely recent material.

It is as a novelist, however, that Watson remains best known. His first novel, The Embedding (1973), although it is not necessarily his finest work, remains his most respected single title, a work which very early confirmed his stature as an sf writer of powerful intellect, one of the most demanding authors of the Scientific Romance, though the sometimes erratic quicksilver shiftiness of his tales perhaps makes him less fully representative of that self-consciously serious-minded tradition than his near-contemporary Brian Stableford. Through a complex tripartite plot, the book engages in a searching analysis (see Communications; Linguistics; Perception) of the nature of communication through language; the Whorfian hypothesis that languages comprehensively shape our perception of reality – a hypothesis very attractive, for obvious reasons, to sf writers, though now discredited – is bracingly embodied in at least two of the subplots: one describing a cruel experiment in which children are taught only an artificial language; the other showing attempts on the part of visiting Aliens to understand Homo sapiens through an analysis of our modes of communication.

Again and again, though they vary widely from one another, each of Watson's novels reveal itself to be very much of a piece, each comprising a Thought Experiment which spirals outwards from the same central obsessions about the nature of Perception, the quest for what might be called the True Names that describe ultimate realities, and the terrible cost to human beings – in betrayals and self-betrayals – of gaining Conceptual Breakthroughs, especially through a search for Transcendence. The Jonah Kit (1975), which won the BSFA Award for 1978, features the imprinting of human consciousness into a whale, in an ironized rendering of Uplift, and the transcendental whiffs of alien Intelligences (and disturbing speculative cosmology) to which Earth's whale population becomes heir. Orgasmachine (1976; English-language version 2010) is a fable (not published in English for many years) about the manufacture of custom-built girls for Sex. The Martian Inca (1977) reverses the dynamic flow of The Jonah Kit, featuring a transformative virus that invades Earth. Alien Embassy (1977) foregrounds a constant Watson preoccupation – his concern with the control of information and perception by the powers-that-be, generally governments – in a tale about the frustrated transformation of the human race. Miracle Visitors (1978) again combines speculations about perception and transcendence, in this case suggesting that UFOs work as enticements to focus human attention on higher – indeed Posthuman – states of communication. God's World (1979) reworks Watson's ongoing concerns in yet another fashion, describing another ambivalent alien incursion, this time in the form of the "gift" of a stardrive which takes a selected human team to the eponymous world, where they undergo dangerous transfigurations and encounter a dangerous metaphysics.

Watson's first six novels, then, comprised a set of virtuoso variations on his central themes. His next, The Gardens of Delight (1980), seems at first a Science Fantasy, stepping sideways from the early work: a human Starship encounters a planet which has transformed itself into a replica down to the last detail of the painting The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (1460-1516); but this mimicry of human Arts is soon unveiled as a further examination of Transcendence. Under Heaven's Bridge (dated 1980 but 1981) with Michael Bishop shows the flavour of the latter writer's mind as its protagonist investigates an alien culture in terms more relevant to Anthropology than Watson would alone have been inclined to employ. As the 1980s progressed, his novels tended to plunge into a pyrotechnic inventiveness in plot and style; and some even show attempts at humour, though the impatience of his quick mind has never made for successful light moments. Deathhunter (1981) suggests that humans give off a pheromone-like signal at the point of death, which attracts Death himself in the form of a mothlike insect (see Eschatology). Chekhov's Journey (1983), perhaps his least enticing novel through its entanglement in too large a cast (Watson has never been a sharp delineator of character), revolves around the Tunguska explosion of 1908.

The Black Current/Yaleen trilogy – The Book of the River (fixup 1984), The Book of the Stars (1984) and The Book of Being (1985), all assembled as The Books of the Black Current (omni 1986) – was his major 1980s effort; in a world divided by a mysterious and apparently sentient river into two utterly opposed halves, one half being dominated by women (Gender), the heroine Yaleen suffers rites of passage, uprootings, rebirths and transcendental awakenings as she becomes more and more deeply involved in a final Cosmological conflict between the river/Worm and the Godmind, the latter's intentions being deeply inimical to the future of humanity. More expansive, and easier than his earlier books, the Black Current sequence was, except for his later rather off-hand Warhammer 40,000 Ties (see listing below), Watson's best attempt to gain a wide readership.

Subsequent books are if anything even more varied. Converts (1984) is a brisk comedy about forced Evolution and the misuse of power. Queenmagic, Kingmagic (1986) is a slightly over-perky Fantasy based on Chess and other board games. The Power (1987) and Meat (1988) are horror. Whores of Babylon (1988), set in what may be a Virtual-Reality version of Babylon reconstructed in America, details its protagonists' suspicions that a Computer is generating them as well as the city. The Fire Worm (1988) is a complex and gripping tale in which the medieval Lambton Worm proves to be the alchemical salamander of Raymond Lully (Ramon Lull; circa 1235-1316). The Flies of Memory (September 1988 Asimov's; exp 1990) dazzlingly skates over much of the thematic material of the previous twenty books, as the eponymous Aliens memorize bits of Earth – in a manner evocative of The Gardens of Delight a decade earlier – so that the Universe can continue remembering itself, while various human protagonists embody linguistic concerns and dilemmas of Perception, and Space-Opera antics continue en passant. The Books of MANA sequence comprising Lucky's Harvest (1993) and The Fallen Moon (1994), which elaborately and intricately reworks the Finnish Kalevala (1835; much exp 1849) [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] compiled/written by Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884), features exuberant adventures set on a planet much like Finland (which in the back-story was discovered by a female Finnish Starship pilot, Lucky, who assumes the role of the Kalevala's witch Louhi). Through an emphasis on a storyline involving a great deal of Shapeshifting and Magic part-rationalized by Nanotechnology, Watson neatly captures the metamorphic intensity of Finnish legend, where landscape and myth and folk seem hauntedly mutable.

Later novels continued the same pattern of skittish but intense and cognitively demanding invention. Oracle (1997) is a Time Travel tale involving a Roman centurion, with twists. Mockymen (2003) replays earlier themes – dubious Aliens visiting Earth in search of prizes whose nature is long unrevealed; Transcendence at huge cost; Drugs that drive Faustian bargains with users – against an intricate storyline that combines apocalyptic and Technothriller elements, along with Identity Transfer and occult evocations of Norwegian neo-Nazi violence. The almost unpinned range of the book, like some earlier titles, seems to have directly influenced writers like James Lovegrove. The Waters of Destiny (2012 3vols ebook; part rev vt Waters of Destiny 1: Assassins' Legacy 2018) with Andy West [for individual ebook titles see Checklist below] is a Technothriller taking off from the concept of a twelfth-century Arab physician's successful identification of the Black Death as a form of haemorrhagic fever, with dire modern consequences. The Brain from Beyond: A Spacetime Opera (2016) spoofishly combines Space Opera and Time Opera in a tale involving Time Travel shenanigans, an AI called Homer, a Creation Geologist from fundamentalist Near Future America (see Religion), Aliens in an Antarctic Stasis Field, and other elements.

In Cinema, Watson wrote and received screen credit for the screen story of Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), based on "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" (December 1969 Harper's Bazaar) by Brian W Aldiss.

Watson's intelligent, polemical pieces about the nature of sf – many of which appeared in Vector, Science Fiction Studies and Foundation (for which he served as features editor 1976-1991, sitting on the Council of the Science Fiction Foundation for the same period) – throw some light on the intentions of his sometimes difficult fiction, and is also, in a sense, of a piece with it. As a whole, his work engages vociferously in battles against oppression – cognitive or political – while at the same time presenting a sense that reality, so far as humanity is concerned, is subjective and partial, created too narrowly through our perception of it. The generation of fuller realities – though incessantly adumbrated by methods ranging from Drugs through linguistic disciplines, focused meditation, radical changes in education from childhood up, and a kind of enhanced awareness of other perceptual possibilities – is never complete, never fully successful. Humans are too little, and too exorbitantly storyable, for reality. Watson has been perhaps the most impressive synthesizer of late twentieth-century sf; and (it may be, after the radically different J G Ballard) the least deluded. [JC/PN]

see also: Antimatter; Cybernetics; Devolution; Games and Sports; Game-Worlds; History in SF; Interzone; Machines; Mars; Metaphysics; New Wave; New Worlds; New Writings in SF; Pastoral; Physics; Psychology; Quantum Computers; SF in the Classroom; Sociology; Superman; Under the Sea; Writers of the Future Contest.

Ian Watson

born St Albans, Hertfordshire: 20 April 1943



Black Current

Warhammer 40,000: Inquisition War

  • Inquisitor (Brighton, Sussex: GW Books, 1990) [tie to Warhammer 40,000: Inquisition War: pb/Chris Baker as Fangorn]
    • Draco (Nottingham, Nottinghamshire: BL Publishing/Black Library, 1992) [tie to Warhammer 40,000: vt of the above: Inquisition War: pb/Clint Langley]
  • Harlequin (London: Boxtree, 1994) [tie to Warhammer 40,000: Inquisition War: pb/Dave Gallagher]
  • Chaos Child (London: Boxtree, 1996) [tie to Warhammer 40,000: Inquisition War: pb/Mark Craven]
    • The Inquisition War (Nottingham, Nottinghamshire: BL Publishing/Black Library, 2004) [omni of the above three with additional material: tie to Warhammer 40,000: Inquisition War: pb/Clint Langley]

Warhammer 40,000

Book of MANA

The Waters of Destiny

  • Assassins (Gijón, Spain: Palabaristas Press, 2012) with Andy West [ebook: first of three parts of The Waters of Destiny broken up for ebook publication: Waters of Destiny: na/Ana Diaz]
  • Tongue of Knowledge (Gijón, Spain: Palabaristas Press, 2012) with Andy West [ebook: second of three parts of The Waters of Destiny broken up for ebook publication: Waters of Destiny: na/Ana Diaz]
    • Waters of Destiny 1: Assassins' Legacy (Alconbury Weston, Cambridgeshire: NewCon Press/Steel Quill Press, 2018) with Andy West [rev vt comprising volume one and part of volume two above: Waters of Destiny: hb/Ian Whates]
  • Death Overflows (Gijón, Spain: Palabaristas Press, 2012) with Andy West [ebook: third of three parts of The Waters of Destiny broken up for ebook publication: Waters of Destiny: na/Ana Diaz]
    • Waters of Destiny 2: Assassins' Endgame (Alconbury Weston, Cambridgeshire: NewCon Press/Steel Quill Press, 2018) with Andy West [rev vt comprising part of volume two and volume three above: Waters of Destiny: hb/Ian Whates]

individual titles

  • Japan: A Cat's Eye View (Osaka, Japan: Bunken, 1969) [Japan as seen through the eyes of a cat, for younger readers: Bunken Extensive Reading Series: pb/]
  • The Embedding (London: Victor Gollancz, 1973) [hb/nonpictorial]
  • The Jonah Kit (London: Victor Gollancz, 1975) [hb/nonpictorial]
  • The Martian Inca (London: Victor Gollancz, 1977) [hb/nonpictorial]
  • Alien Embassy (London: Victor Gollancz, 1977) [hb/nonpictorial]
  • Miracle Visitors (London: Victor Gollancz, 1978) [hb/nonpictorial]
  • God's World (London: Victor Gollancz, 1979) [hb/nonpictorial]
  • Orgasmachine (Paris: Editions Champ Libre, 1976) [trans by Michel Pétris from original manuscript: pb/uncredited]
    • Orgasmachine (Alconbury Weston, Cambridgeshire: NewCon Press, 2010) [rev of original English-language manuscript: hb/Judy Watson]
  • The Gardens of Delight (London: Victor Gollancz, 1980) [hb/from Hieronymus Bosch]
  • Under Heaven's Bridge (London: Victor Gollancz, 1981) with Michael Bishop [book is dated 1980: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Deathhunter (London: Victor Gollancz, 1981) [incorporating "A Cage for Death", January 1981 Omni: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Chekhov's Journey (London: Victor Gollancz, 1983) [hb/nonpictorial]
  • Converts (London: Granada/Panther, 1984) [incorporating "Jean Sandwich, the Sponsor and I" from Universe #11 (anth 1981) edited by Terry Carr: pb/James Marsh]
  • Queenmagic, Kingmagic (London: Victor Gollancz, 1986) [hb/Kathleen Aldridge]
  • The Power (London: Headline, 1987) [pb/uncredited]
  • Meat (London: Headline, 1988) [pb/Graham Potts]
  • Whores of Babylon (London: Grafton Books/Paladin, 1988) [pb/Peter Goodfellow]
  • The Fire Worm (London: Victor Gollancz, 1988) [incorporates "Jingling Geordie's Hole", Autumn 1986 Interzone #17: hb/nonpictorial]
  • The Flies of Memory (London: Victor Gollancz, 1990) [earlier version appeared September 1988 Asimov's: hb/Mike Litherland]
  • Hard Questions (London: Victor Gollancz, 1996) [hb/Splash]
  • Oracle (London: Victor Gollancz, 1997) [hb/Splash]
  • Mockymen (Urbana, Illinois: Golden Gryphon Press, 2003) [hb/Steve Montiglio]

collections and stories

works as editor

about the author


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