Barrington J. Bayley: Science-fiction writer who treated the human condition as a puzzle that must be solved

Monday 27 October 2008 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


An absence of external geography marks the life of Barrington J. Bayley, most of whose travels were restricted to his science fiction.

He was born in Birmingham and died in Shrewsbury. He did his National Service in the RAF between 1955 and 1957, then moved to London, where he gained some immediate success as a journeyman writer able to turn his hand to almost anything, and more lasting renown as an author of exceedingly erudite, intellectually electric space operas. He married in 1969, moved to Telford had two children. Family concerns kept him in the Midlands from then on. It does not seem he ever left Britain after 1970.

His work, on the other hand, was anything but local. He had begun publishing science-fiction stories as early as 1954, and had met Michael Moorcock in 1957. The two collaborated prolifically on stories and other work in that decade; and Bayley became a central contributor to Moorcock's New Worlds magazine in the 1960s; his stories seemed simultaneously estranged and metropolitan, appearing instinctively to confirm that journal's aggressive disregard of the local or the provincial.

Bayley never became as well-known outside Britain as New Worlds writers like Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, or Thomas M. Disch; but he shared their intense early devotion to certain literary models, from William Burroughs to Borges and Albert Jarry and later French Surrealists. Bayley never abandoned this heritage; by the early 21st century he had published nearly 100 tales whose deadpan playfulness with the most abstruse of scientific speculations, and whose surreal adventurousness about time and place, made him seem almost more European than English.

At the same time, Bayley was beginning to write the exorbitant but chilly space operas for Ace Books that made him, for a while, a recognisable and respected figure in the American scene, where any science-fiction writer – certainly one like Bayley, who was ambitious to support a family through his work – needed to flourish. Early novels like Star Virus (1970) or Empire of Two Worlds (1972) were popular with American readers, especially those who found intoxicating the sometimes ungovernable flourishing of his speculative constructs and the gorgeous intricacies of his storylines.

But it was a risky course to take. Later novels – like Collision with Chronos (1973) or The Fall of Chronopolis (1974), both of which played far more deliriously with the Time theories of J.W. Dunne (who contended that past, present and future exist simultaneously) than J.B. Priestley ever imagined possible – combine intellectual joy with a redoubtable grimness about the ability of his human protagonists fully to benefit from the worlds of his imagination.

In these books, and in later virtuoso tales like The Garments of Caean (1976) or The Pillars of Eternity (1982), there is much travel, time paradoxes galore, and storylines whose complications resist synopsis.

But his American career did not flourish; it is almost certain he had begun to travel too far for readers looking for adventures, however spiced with thought, conducted by kinetic heroes with whom they might identify.

The closest to such a figure was in fact not human at all. In The Soul of the Robot (1974) and The Rod of Light (1985) – two tales featuring the Candide-like adventures and disasters of a robot named Jasperodus – Bayley created a touching creature more human than any human he had been able to write about, a monster-like-us afflicted with torments of consciousness, ethical dilemmas and catastrophes of obsolescence. Bayley's satires on the human condition may not have the hilarity of the robot stories of John T. Sladek, a colleague from the New Worlds days; but they focus, if possible, even more unrelentingly on the human condition.

In person, Barry Bayley was convivial, quiet, wry, elliptical; his head, almost too large for his body, would tend to cant towards those he sat with in the pub on a rare visit to London, as though he could not quite believe his ears. This may have been exactly the case. As the stories assembled in The Knights of the Limits (1978) and the late fiction published in Interzone all demonstrate, Bayley never ceased from treating the human condition as a puzzle that must be solved.

John Clute

Barrington John Bayley, writer: born Birmingham 9 April 1937; married 1969 Joan Clarke (one son, one daughter); died Shrewsbury 13 October 2008.

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