John Boyd RIP

But for a short entry in the latest issue of Interzone, I dare say I would not be aware of the passing of one of my favourite authors, John Boyd. He was 93.

Boyd's career as a science fiction author was short and traumatic. He began with The Last Starship from Earth, which drew comparisons to Orwell and Huxley, deservedly so, continued with the charming Pollinators of Eden and Rakehells of Heaven, to the bizarre sf western Andromeda Gun, to galactic pot-boilers like The Organ Bank Farm, Sex and the High Command, The I.Q. Merchant, The Doomsday Gene and The Gorgon Festival, before ending in a blaze of glory with Barnard's Planet and The Girl with Jade Green Eyes. After that he appears to have quit writing science fiction altogether. There exists a non-genre novel, The Slave Stealer, published under his real name, Boyd Upchurch, and also one solitary novella, The Girl and the Dolphin. There is also something called Scarborough Hall, which appears to be a ghost story, but I have never been able to locate a copy. Boyd achieved all this in ten short years - 1968 to 1978, a reasonably brief interlude in a long, long life.

To my mind his best novels are as good as anything in the front rank of science fiction: In The Last Starship from Earth a mathematician falls in love with a poetess - such a union is forbidden in their future dystopia, and they are tried as doomed lovers. Their ultimate fate changes not only Earth history, but also the genre of the novel. In The Rakehells of Heaven, two scouts from a rapacious imperial Earth discover a peaceful planet divided, not into nations, but into autonomous universities. Upon attempting first contact they find the inhabitants pay them no heed - unless they add their mission to the curriculum and teach it. In typical Boyd fashion the students do not wear clothes, and the reader's introduction to the heroine is a description of her vagina. In Andromeda Gun a stranded alien takes over the body of gunfighter Johnny McCloud - arriving in a small town to rob the bank, Johnny falls in love with a local girl, but the alien falls in love with her widowed mother. And so a bizarre inter-galactic love-triangle is played out against the backdrop of the old West. In The Girl with Jade Green Eyes a beautiful alien lands her stricken ship in an American forest park and ventures forth to borrow a thimbleful of uranium; she is spirited away by the forest ranger who leads her on a Lolita-style odyssey across America as she seeks to undress red tape. Barnard's Planet is a cynical reworking of The Last Starship from Earth, this time incorporating 70s paranoia and conspiracy theories - it is Boyd's acknowledgment that the dystopias of the future have arrived ahead of time, and is a suitable, if bitter, end point.

 At some point in his career, probably with The Pollinators of Eden, Boyd ran afoul of the militant feminist contingent in sf. The story of a woman who allows herself to be seduced by an alien plant, Pollinators is unique in treating character as species and sex as first contact. Most of Boyd's best novels develop this approach, and it is at its most successful when it draws the disapproval of social conservatives and/or identity or gender obsessed socialists.

On the whole I would say that his work as a sf novelist is an acquired taste; his subjects were always invariably science fiction of the soft variety. He attempted few theories or innovations of technology, but rather concentrated on social futures, most of which are now as quaint as a 1970s space age stereo. But the effortless verve of his best novels has never been matched by any other sf novelist.

No comments:

Post a Comment