Brian Stableford: A Memory, with Dragons

The name Brian Stableford is universally known among SF and Fantasy fans of my generation. Novelist, editor, critic, sociologist, scholar, translator, he came to represent the capacity of speculative fiction writers and commentators to extend their zone of interest right across the spectrum of written genres and adjacent media. His death a few days ago triggered a memory, and I thought I’d share it here.

In the 1980s, while writing my DPhil thesis on early modern prose fiction – the astonishing story of the invention of what became the modern novel – I got friendly with an Oxford-based musician who shared my passion for fantasy and science fiction in all their manifestations. Martin O’Cuthbert (aka MARTOC) was a punk singer-songwriter, known for his solo experiments in weird electronica, who I knew by his alternative name as a writer and editor, Warren Scott Morrow; tall, lanky, funny, melancholic, buzzing and bleeping with creative energy. Warren introduced me to Bowie’s Berlin period, we discussed all the SF movies and novels of the mid-eighties, and I joined the team that helped him realise one of his projects: to start a magazine.

The magazine in question was called Star Roots, and it only managed one issue, much of which was written by Warren himself. It included comic strips, music and book reviews, short stories (I supplied two), and an interview with Iain Banks, fascinating to read now as a snapshot of his mindset at this point in his career, just two novels into the Culture series – though I seem to remember that Warren was more of a fan of what he termed the ‘fantasy’ novels, especially The Bridge. All in all, the price of the issue bought you plenty of content, and if the presentation was amateurish and the writing uneven, Star Roots was by no means the worst of the magazines and fanzines getting churned out in that extraordinary decade.

It was generous of Banks to supply an interview for the new magazine; but more generous still of Brian Stableford to have presented Warren with a new short story, ‘The Dragons Yetzirah and Alziluth: How the Dragons Yetzirah and Alziluth Lost the Knowledge of a Million Lifetimes’. The story got pride of place on the cover, and Warren chose to place it first, as a guarantee of quality. A revised version was published by Necronomicon Press in Fables and Fantasies (1996), and by Borgo Press in Beyond the Colors of Darkness and Other Exotica (2009); but Warren published the Original Version. I drew the pictures, as part of my doomed attempt to launch a parallel career as an illustrator – I also drew the cover of one of Martin O’Cuthbert’s singles, Follow That Car – and the magazine version of the story is duly included in lists of Stableford’s works, voluminous and varied as they are.

It’s worth pausing over the story. It tells of two dragons, Yetzirah and Alziluth, who form a symbiotic relationship as they soar through space over the course of a million lifetimes. The lifetimes in question are their own, and ‘dragons’, as Stableford points out, ‘are by no means short-lived creatures’. When the time comes to die, each dragon lays a single egg, swallows it, then falls asleep, giving birth by being consumed in its unconscious state  by the ‘clone-child’ that has hatched in its belly. The task of the other dragon is to teach the child everything it knows.  By this means each successive generation of Yetzirahs and Alziluths accumulates more knowledge, garnered in the course of their peregrinations from star system to star system, from galaxy to galaxy, in pursuit of delicious new tastes afforded by ‘the excited light of exploding stars’.

Eventually, however, the dragons quarrel (for no good reason) and fight over the ‘most delicious radiations of a particularly tasteful supernova’. Yetzirah gives Alziluth a mortal wound, and despite all its subsequent efforts to save its companion’s life, Alziluth dies and Yetzirah finds itself alone. Less than a century later Yetzirah gives birth, but of course the newly-hatched Yetzirah has no one to teach it, to replenish and enhance its store of knowledge. As a result the new Yetzirah grows to adulthood in utter ignorance, ‘a mere animal wandering aimlessly in the void’. Whenever it meets with other creatures it falls on them and tears them to pieces, ‘though it did not need their flesh for meat’; and as it rends their bodies with teeth and claws it cries ‘bitter and anguished tears’, though it doesn’t know why.

That’s the story, and I apologise for retelling it in perfunctory fashion. The lyricism of the prose comes through in the fragments I have quoted, and I’m struck as I reread it now how carefully Stableford resisted gendering his dragons; this is both scientifically and politically appropriate, I think, ensuring that these beings can be held to represent us all. But the narrative of the story is a moving one, and it deserves to be remembered. Part of Stableford’s mission as a lover of science fiction was to ensure that the history of science fiction and fantasy be passed down, as far as possible, to new generations; he contributed many entries, for example, to the online Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction (which contains a superb summary of his achievements by John Clute and David Pringle), and many of these relate to writers and works which would otherwise have been forgotten. His translation work from French to English ensured that monoglot English readers could expand their horizons to science fiction from another culture and a different period; and his jointly-authored histories of the future took advantage of science fiction’s capacity to take stock of huge swathes of time, from the deep past to unimaginably distant days to come. The notion, then, that all acts of remembrance are deeply precarious, would have resonated with him in a very personal way as a commentary on his own life of literary labour, as well as on the lives of his fellow labourers, past and future. A burst of temper, a sudden scrap, a mortal wound, and whole remembered worlds and histories are obliterated, as if in one of those tasteful supernovas consumed by the dragon companions, neither of whom has any real need to eat for nourishment – or indeed to fight or kill.

One of the key facts of Stableford’s story is that the dragons cannot be hurt or killed by any other species. If they are to be destroyed it must be by their own unaided efforts; no-one else can do the business. Just as they reproduce without assistance, so they destroy one another without assistance, through a random act of thoughtless rage. They need each other, not to reproduce, but to make and remake themselves; and to forget this is to forget all the knowledge accumulated over a million lifetimes. And it is so easy, even for dragons, to forget!

The act of forgetting collapses vast tracts of space and time into nothing at all, or less than nothing. This post is an act of remembrance for Brian, for Warren, for the acts of generosity and needless sharing that sustain all communities, from the symbiotic companions who travel the many dimensions of speculative fiction to the peoples, nations and social groups who live such fragile lives today. Let’s be generous to one another, as Brian was to the makers of Star Roots, those excited young people just setting out on their journey through the precarious wonders of this planet and the imaginary worlds it entertains.

[Revised versions of my Star Roots stories, ‘The Outer Circle’ and ‘Little Ships’, are available here and here.]

Template for Single Sleeve: Martin O’Cuthbert, Follow That Car



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