David I. Masson was born in Edinburgh in 1915 to a family full of distinguished academics, and lived to be ninety-one, dying in early 2007. He read English Language and Literature at Oxford, and spent his career as a librarian (shades of the great poet Philip Larkin). He wrote academic articles on sound-patterning in poetry, with a particular interest in the work of Rilke, Yeats, and Shakespeare. This demonstrates an interest in the effects of language that was reflected in some of his fiction. His focus as a librarian was on special collections, particularly the Brotherton Collection at the University of Leeds. He retired at a fairly normal age (sixty-four) and lived on in Leeds with his wife, who survived him (after fifty-seven years of marriage). This, I suppose, is the sort of career and life his family might have expected.
Probably they wouldn’t have expected him to become, in middle age, a leading light of the New Wave of a lightly regarded form of literature. But, to be fair, his modest but influential and original contributions to SF seem to represent the sort of intellectually provocative but somewhat obscure sideline that could be called donnish. His first story, “Traveller’s Rest,” appeared in 1965, when he was fifty. His first seven stories (clearly his best) came out in Michael Moorcock’s groundbreaking magazine New Worlds. As such, Masson was considered a “New Wave” writer, despite his age and despite his fairly traditional prose and plots (the ideas, however, were not traditional at all!).
I first encountered “Traveller’s Rest” on reading the Wollheim/Carr anthology World’s Best Science Fiction: 1966. (It also appeared in Judith Merril’s The 11th Annual of the Year’s Best SF, making it one of only two stories Wollheim/Carr and Merril agreed on in the two years their books overlapped.) But I confess I don’t remember it from that reading. Several years ago, I came back to it, buying Masson’s only story collection, The Caltraps of Time (still available from David Langford’s Ansible Editions). I was astonished then—a truly remarkable story.
My first comparison was to Ted Chiang. It seemed to me then that Masson and Chiang had careers of superficially similar shape: only a few stories, almost every one unique and “mind-blowing.” That comparison is less apposite now, as Chiang, though still far from prolific, has continued to write with some regularity. But the “mind-blowing” comparison still applies, as does the “unique.” Both writers in their best stories introduce truly stunning and unexpected central ideas—not necessarily plausible in terms of our physics, but internally consistent—and they both allow us to wonder at the cool ideas, but also to care for the characters in these worlds.
To my mind there is no real doubt that “Traveller’s Rest” is Masson’s best story, which is a bit sad in a way, but the rest of his work is still extremely interesting, especially “Lost Ground,” about weather consisting of literal “emotional fronts,” and also about time displacement areas (reminiscent of Gordon Dickson’s novel Time Storm); and “A Two-Timer,” about a man from the seventeenth century stumbling on a time machine and visiting our day (that is to say, the ’60s). That story and several others show Masson’s interest in linguistics. There is also “Mouth of Hell,” a deadpan investigation of something that might be a gateway to Hell (shades of Chiang again, foreshadowing perhaps both “Tower of Babylon” and “Hell is the Absence of God”), and “Psychosmosis,” which turns on a simply wacky central idea.
Because of Masson’s limited output, he is not widely known anymore, but, as “Traveller’s Rest” surely demonstrates, his work remains fresh and inimitable, and very much worth the time of any reader.
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