Born in England in 1943, Ian Watson's first novel The Embedding appeared in 1973, placing second in the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and winning the French Prix Apollo. It's the first SF novel to take modern psycholinguistics as its theme, and a lot of Ian's novels have centred around themes of communication and consciousness, altered perceptions, the evolution of mind, the nature of alien intelligences (including whales and dolphins), and the codes and customs and cultural concoctions by which we structure our lives. Alchemy, perfumery, costume, cosmology, cake decoration, the history of lighting, the Renaissance art of memory - all is grist for his thirty-odd novels and hundred and fifty or so stories, leading Greg Benford to describe him as "the most madcap, daring figure of his generation" and the Encylopaedia Psychedelica (no kidding) to number him with Timothy Leary as one who "has grasped the idea that 20th century science is as marvellous and bizarre as the heraldic tapestry of the Middle Ages," not to mention him belonging "to the company of Blake, Rimbaud, Stapledon, Ballard and Burroughs."
Brought up on 1950s Tyneside, dismally dull, he read Wide World Magazine, dreamed of being an Indiana Jones of the cactus world, and grew cacti because they seemed like the vegetation of an alien planet. One of his earliest publications, at age 16 in Amateur Gardening, was about how to grow peyotl. The desire to be a scientist foundered after he swallowed a lot of meths while performing a titration during a Chemistry practical, so he studied Arts instead, taking a degree in English at Oxford and doing a research degree there on 19th century French literature before becoming a lecturer in Lit in East Africa, then Tokyo. Africa awakened him politically to the Third World. Japan zapped him with Future Shock.
In the late 80s he went through a horror phase, culminating in The Fire Worm (1988), a novel developed from a story ("Jingling Geordie's Hole") which Interzone readers simultaneously voted the best and worst story of the year, and which intersects SF and horror, being an ABC of Alchemy, Buggery, and a Creature (created by a medieval Chernobyl event, the repercussions of which spill through time). Quite often he cross-dresses genres. Thus, the science fantasy epic Books of Mana consisting of Lucky's Harvest (1993) and The Fallen Moon (1994) inspired by Finnish mythology, and the sf technothrillers Hard Questions (1996) and Oracle (1997), the former about quantum computers and consciousness and American cults and militias, the latter about a Roman centurion from the time of Boudicca dragged forward through time becoming enmeshed with ultra IRA peace-refuseniks.
Quote from Ian: "It's pretty odd that anything exists at all. And it's just as odd that we have evolved as beings capable of thinking about such things. Paradoxes feed my imagination. That's why my stories bring together elements which appear at first to have no connection with each other. Perhaps what I write could be described as Science-Surrealism."
Maybe only a sort of surrealist could have managed to write 4 novels on the side set in the world of Warhammer 40,000.
Quote from John Clute (in the Illustrated Encyclopedia of SF): "Watson is never still. He jostles the worlds of thought."
A full-time author since 1976, Ian has produced over 30 novels and 9 collections of short stories, the most recent of these collections being The Coming of Vertumnus (Gollancz, 1994). Full details of his life and work are on his website -- which he cordially invites you to visit.
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© Ian Watson 4 July 1998; updated November 2004