Obituary: Michael Coney

Science-fiction writer whose readability hid inner depths

Michael Coney, who has died in British Columbia aged 73, established himself in the mid-1970s as one of the leading British science-fiction writers of his day, with a string of novels distinctive for their combination of light readability on the surface and much darker inner depths.

He was born in Britain, but was already an expatriate on the West Indian island of Antigua by the time his first short story was published. This appeared in 1969, in the now-defunct SF magazine, Vision of Tomorrow. Several more stories followed in both British and American publications. Most of these were anthologised, and Coney's first collection of his own short work appeared soon afterwards.

But it was not until his first novels were published that Coney made a real impact on his readers. The ones that made a particular impression were Mirror Image (1972), Winter's Children (1974) and Hello Summer, Goodbye (1975), though all his books at this time did well, both critically and among the readership. During this period, Coney was managing an Antiguan hotel called the Jabberwock, a beachfront nightclub with a few guest rooms. He had left Britain in 1969, after the sort of disengaged career attempts that characterised the early years of so many writers.

Coney was born in Birmingham. His mother was a successful artist. By profession, his father was a dentist, but his real passion was his skill as a mechanical engineer and craftsman, gifts he used to build working models of steam engines for his son.

Coney attended King Edward's school, Edgbaston, and on leaving became a trainee auditor and accountant. His career was interrupted by national service in the RAF between 1956 and 1958. Although he qualified as a chartered accountant, and practised in England, he did not like the life, and, against the wishes of his parents, moved out of the profession. He spent a spell as a tenant landlord in Devon, working for Plymouth Breweries, though the birth of his daughter Sally in the mid-1960s persuaded him to return briefly to accountancy.

The atmosphere of the west country influenced most of Coney's work, in particular Hello Summer, Goodbye, which was an early highlight. A novel that is both charming and chilling, it had much in common with the best books by DG Compton, Richard Cowper or Keith Roberts. Another excellent novel from this period was Friends Come in Boxes (1973), a mordant and witty solution to the problems of over-population.

Restlessness about his work and life continued, and, in young middle age, Coney decided to pull up his roots and take his family for a fresh start in the West Indies. The exotic locale, contrasting strongly with his background in accountants' offices in Britain, clearly released the creative flow. His best work was either written or planned on Antigua.

Although he enjoyed his years on the island, Coney felt increasingly that local politicians were fostering negative attitudes against white-run businesses. In 1972, he and his wife, Daphne, moved to Canada, believing there would be greater opportunities for their children than in England. They ended up in Vancouver. It was raining - nothing unusual for Vancouver - so they took the ferry across to Vancouver Island, where they could see the sun was shining. They stayed put. Coney found a job with the Forest Service and remained with them until his retirement at the end of the 1980s. He and Daphne later became Canadian citizens.

The move to Canada approximately marks the end of Coney's best, and most original, period of writing. His novel Brontomek! (1976) described a group of aliens who could mimic human beings so exactly that they came to believe they were, indeed, human. The book won the British Science Fiction Association Award in 1977, but afterwards Coney's output was marked by fitfulness. Two young adult novels, and his SF books of the 1980s, which often drew on his interests in sailing and locomotives, made no great impact.

However, his interest in maritime subjects led to several extremely successful non-fiction books about the Vancouver locality, notably one about the elderly wooden boats used by the Forest Service to patrol the coasts, fight fires and so on. Coney formed a company called Porthole Press for the purpose of distributing the title and, over the next decade, published several other books of local history. On retirement, he sold the press.

When his cancer was discovered, he made four of his last books available as free internet downloads, including I Remember Palahaxi, the sequel to Hello Summer, Goodbye. There is also a collection of short stories. He is survived by Daphne and his adult children, Kevin, Andrew and Sally.

· Michael Greatrex Coney, writer, born September 28 1932; died November 4 2005


Christopher Priest

The GuardianTramp

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