Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Watson, Ian

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(1943-    ) UK writer who began to publish work of genre interest with "Roof Garden Under Saturn" for New Worlds in 1969, and who has established himself as one of the most important UK sf writers of his generation. His first six novels – beginning with what remains his best-known single title, The Embedding (1973) – are all sf. It is only with The Gardens of Delight (1980) that he began to write book-length fantasy, though even this text is given an sf frame. Searching for a lost colony, a starship lands on a planet which has been transfigured into the Landscape created by Hieronymus Bosch in his painting, "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (circa 1500). This landscape, and the Metamorphosis-ridden figures who inhabit it, form an Allegory depicting various fates potentially destined for the human Soul after death. This Afterlife arena is transformed into a spiritual testing ground, its inhabitants (the colonists originally searched for) being occupied in self-metamorphosing attempts to gain enlightenment. The Godgame nature of the book is strengthened when it turns out that the central Magus controlling this Story is a man named Knossos (a play on gnosis, just as John Fowles's Conchis plays on "conscious"). Underlying hints that Bosch was versed in Alchemy and that his painting depicts an alchemical striving for enlightenment (see also Rosicrucianism) are incorporated, along with, perhaps, a grain of salt. Ultimately, there is an sf rationale for the transformations and the striving; but the multiplex Quest nature of the tale and its circumambient tone make it a fantasy of importance.

The Black Current sequence – The Book of the River (fixup 1984), The Book of the Stars (1984) and The Book of Being (1985), assembled as The Books of the Black Current (omni 1986 US) – is also fantasy, though with some markedly convoluted hints of an sf frame. The protagonist, Yaleen, lives on a planet bisected by a great River which turns out to be a vast soul-collecting Worm, itself in conflict with an interstellar God-figure; Yaleen, who dies more than once in the sequence, travels posthumously to Earth, comes back to her home planet in the body of a baby, and assists the Worm in its conflict with the overweening God figure; in the end, Reality proves exceedingly shiftable, and the sequence – a scintillating intellectual farrago – closes abruptly.

A metaphysical bias is apparent throughout IW's work, and several novels subject their casts and venues to such abrupt and absolute Transformations and transcendences that fantasy and sf explanations may dizzyingly interweave. The Black Current is perhaps the most glittering example; but other late IW novels display much of the same dancelike ingenuity. They include: Queenmagic, Kingmagic (1986), set initially in a world governed by the rules of Chess, though the cast soon proceed to venues where other rules govern proceedings; Meat (1988), a Horror novel, which depicts a world fighting back against those who refuse to eat meat; and The Fire Worm (1986 Interzone as "Jingling Geordie's Hole"; much exp 1988), also horror, where past-life experiences which evoke Ramon Lull (?1232-1315) are conflated with the conjuration of the eponymous alchemical worm. The Book of MANA sequence – Lucky's Harvest (1993) and The Fallen Moon (1994) – combines elements from the Kalevala, a hugely complicated set of metamorphosis-prone Dynastic Fantasy interrelationships between humans and aliens on the planet Kaleva and space opera. The planet's moon houses Shadows of the cast, and seems to be gestating a new Reality where the same cast, variously transfigured, may continue much the same tale; and the sentient asteroid which transported a load of human colonists to Kaleva did so (it emerges) for a price: to be told a proper Story. As in other IW novels, Tricksters abound, including the "demon fastboy" Jack Pakkenk (see also Jack).

IW's short fiction, much of which wickedly mixes genres in the same fashion as his longer works, has been assembled in The Very Slow Time Machine (coll 1979), Sunstroke (coll 1982), Slow Birds (coll 1985), The Book of Ian Watson (coll 1985 US), Evil Water (coll 1987), Salvage Rites (1989), Stalin's Teardrops (coll 1991) and The Coming of Vertumnus (coll 1994). Two anthologies ed IW – Pictures at an Exhibition (anth 1981) and Changes: Stories of Metamorphoses, Both Psychological and Physical (anth 1983 US), the latter with Michael Bishop – contain fantasy. [JC]

Ian Watson


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.