Bats Out of Hell: by Guy N. Smith

Guy N. Smith was something of a going concern at my old school, particularly among a select band of reprobates. I would watch enviously as his paperbacks were passed around, while slogging through How Many Miles to Babylon? or The Power and the Glory or some other piece of book. Smith's covers were worth the price of admission alone, and Bats Out of Hell is no exception, its front illustration being lovingly rendered by Bob Martin. The contents never varied - flashes of O-Level devilry followed by lashings of blood, in the best tradition of late 70s and early 80s mass market pulps. Only James Hadley Chase had the edge on Smith, and only because Corgi photographed girls for his covers, usually in various states of undress.

Bats Out of Hell's frustrated and adulterous boffin is Brian Newman, whose attempt to test the difference between early diagnosis viral/bacterial meningitis results in said bats becoming crazed fiends - carriers of a new strain of meningitis, which is fatal, of course, but after inducing madness, for good measure. An accident at the laboratory allows a number of infected bats to escape, and they slowly fan out across the English countryside. Newman and his trusty, blonde assistant are quickly on the case, even if the authorities are late on the uptake. We follow the course of the virus through the normally sedate English midlands - wiping out small church congregations here and gaggles of unruly schoolboys there, inexorably heading towards a major population centre. The bats finally reach the city of Birmingham, turning up in a Treasury vault, and Smith has much inspired fun at the expense of the assembled clerks, several of whom flee, leaving the remainder trapped and, ultimately, dead. The prime minister declares a state of emergency, and the midlands are sealed off and contained by a newly formed militia, the British Volunteer Force. While Newman works desperately towards an antitoxin, Birmingham is razed to the ground, and civil disorder becomes widespread. Yet when he does happen across a possible solution, it comes with the usual caveat - the potential to be worse in the longer term; because it will destroy all small animal life where it is used.

Bats Out of Hell is a quick, satisfying read. Smith's prose is surprisingly supple, with all pretensions no doubt subjected to the same red pencil as tender mercies, and while his characters are drawn straight from central casting, at least they are returned there thoroughly infected. The book doesn't quite make it into the apocalypse canon because the virus doesn't make it out of central England; however, its ending is a fine application of coincidence theory, which marks it as superior pulp reading.

Conscience Interplanetary: by Joseph Green

I've had Conscience Interplanetary on my bookshelf for years - it was a book I thought I'd never get around to reading, but a recent bout of flu left me in a restless frame of mind and sent me to the shelf specifically for this one. I had encountered Green before - not at novel length, but from his many short stories which would crop up quite often as I dipped randomly into vintage magazines.

Conscience Interplanetary consists of four such stories padded out with new material to comprise a full-length novel. The stories are quite good, if somewhat derivative of better work in a similar line by James White and Lloyd Biggle Jr; that is, cultural and anthropological surveys of alien worlds with a view to exploitation. Green's protagonist, Conscience Odegaard, is a member of the Practical Philosopher Corps, whose job it is to assess the intelligence of native species on newly discovered worlds. If the species is deemed intelligent, or has the potential of intelligence, the planet is designated protected; if not, the planet is open to the full horrors of colonisation, mining and general corporate mayhem. Of course, it is in the interests of business that as many planets as possible are open for exploitation, so the Practical Philosopher Corps face every kind of sabotage and subterfuge at the hands of the New Roman Party, which represents corporate interests. Odegaard must ensure that his professional judgments are also secure against unpicking by the New Romans, and this involves much politics back on Earth.

The original magazine stories are fine and, I presume, intact. They evince a good deal of sympathy and subtlety by the author on behalf of the disenfranchised universe; my own favourite was the alien plant which constructed from its leaves a woofer and a tweeter so that it might have a voice with which to protest. Where Conscience Interplanetary stalls somewhat is in its fixup material - it seems to conflict in tone and mood with the original stories, leaving the novel inconsistent. However, towards the end of the book the author manages an extraordinary turnaround, as Odegaard, returned to Earth, hunts a group of New Roman politicians who themselves are hunting Bigfoot in the American forest wilds. This is one of those thematic salvage points which are often to be found in genre fiction, and which transform ostensibly bad writing into good writing by sheer gall and wit, as well as being delightful.

Play for Tomorrow (BBC 1982)

Towards the end of its Play for Today strand, the BBC gathered together six productions and presented them as Play for Tomorrow, a short season of science fiction with a distinct social slant. While all the plays have something to recommend them, two in particular - Bright Eyes and Cricket - are outstanding.

The opening play, Caryl Churchill's Crimes, bears a thematic resemblance to her later and much better known stage piece, Far Away. Crimes consists of three monologues by prisoners framed by a bizarre domestic scene concerning their interrogator, played by T.P McKenna. The monologues posit a gradually disintegrating society, while McKenna and his wife watch a broadcast magazine programme on how to equip and secure your nuclear bunker, especially against friends seeking shelter in the event of an attack. Churchill's plays are always complex, and this is no exception - it requires a second and third viewing to appreciate the accumulation of detail in the monologues, and the fact that the magazine programme is called Select and Survive, rather than the then current exhortation to protect and survive, provides the key - crimes are the selection process for survival, and if everything is a crime then rehabilitation becomes a matter of life and death - but what sort of rehabilitation? Something rather more akin to conditioning. All told, Crimes is a riveting if highly theatrical experience, told with confidence and some verve.

Bright Eyes, written by Peter Prince, is a fascinating nostalgia-themed satire on youthful rebellion and parental indiscretion. Of all the plays it is perhaps the most future-proofed, inevitable perhaps given its subject matter. At a retro 1960s party Sam Howard (played by Robin Ellis) becomes affronted by his daughter's gentle mocking of 60s counter-culture - he insists on playing up his own and his extended family's involvements in the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, though he admits his own social conscience appears to have been disarmed by an ability to make money. Later, much to his surprise and dismay, his daughter is arrested for involvement in the assassination of a leading pro-war politician. It seems she had taken her father's counter-culture myth-making quite seriously. Now that she faces sentence of death if she refuses to show remorse for her crime, Howard finds himself undoing his family myths, suddenly playing down the dissenting credentials. There is much more besides in this intense and affecting piece of drama, and it provides the entire series with its defining moment; that of Howard's memory of his daughter as a young child as she brokenly sings Bright Eyes to a dark and empty room.

Cricket is perhaps the most striking play of the entire series. Ostensibly the record of a meeting of Coanwood Cricket Club, which actually serves as cover for a guerrilla war against the Forestry Commission. However, matters have turned more serious now that the government has proposed the introduction of collective farming to the UK. The group's leader, Lord Slagyford, is vehemently opposed and wishes to conduct a campaign of organised resistance. Others, however, the poorer members of the group, see some merit in the government's proposals, and the acrimonious meeting ends only in agreement to play another cricket match. Cricket is a splendid play, both in conceit and execution and, while the political extrapolations are absurd, its characters and content are a highly satisfactory representation of a deeply English form of anarchy known otherwise as eccentricity. Written by Michael Wilcox.

The Nuclear Family. To escape their closed high-rise existence, a Scottish family takes a working holiday as cleaners on a nuclear submarine. There is some merit in playing out a traditional family holiday situation in a dystopian future. Despite the scenario the experiences remain the same - son loses his virginity and daughter assumes mantle of responsibility, while the parents sink into addicted slumber. The holiday breaks a generational bottle-neck that cannot be resolved inside a hopeless, jobless, high-rise environment, preserving traditions and ways of living that are no longer viable. Written by Tom McGrath.

Shades is perhaps the most difficult play in the series. On the surface it is a virtual reality game in which future children take on the roles of 1980s CND activists, most specifically Helen Caldicott, in the forlorn hope of recapturing the lost notions of protest and dissent. But there is a deeper sensibility of genuine transference  - that these youths are the survivors of a nuclear attack, minor shadows burned on the future - the shades of the title, in fact, seeking to acquire knowledge and therefore substance. In doing this it also deals with issues of peer pressure and conformity and of trusting the government. Ultimately, an enigmatic piece that quite passed me by. Written by Stephen Lowe.

Easter 2016. By J Graham Reid. With the centenary of the Easter Rising fast approaching, Northern Ireland's first integrated teacher training college finds itself a centre of controversy as nationalist students organise a commemorative march. New and zealous security director "Mr North" is opposed and places pressure on the Vice-Principal (sympathetically played by Denys Hawthorne) to intervene in an attempt to halt the march. Caught in the middle of a political storm the Vice-Principal resorts to an act of desperation that has tragic consequences. Rather heavy-handed in its supporting characterisation, Easter 2016 succeeds through some deft playing from Hawthorne and from Derrick O'Connor as North, especially in their two-handed scenes, as education squares up against security. There is precious little of the science fictional on display here, except perhaps for the notion that the future is not the past dead but something more akin to Asimov's dead past.

On the whole Play for Tomorrow makes for rewarding viewing - ambitious, challenging and inventive, with much good work in terms of production design and incidental music. All episodes were shot, I presume, on video and are now easily dated, but that only adds to their charm. It's not very likely this series will ever see a release on DVD - like the entire Play for Today back catalogue, it seems that rights issues and a complete lack of interest from vintage TV fans (who appear to be mostly concerned with tracking down lost episodes of Doctor Who) means that what amounts to a national treasure will remain lost to us for decades. Second and third generation VHS must suffice but, oddly, I wouldn't have it any other way.

The Count of Monte Cristo (1964)

Once feared lost, but recently released on DVD, this fondly remembered BBC adaptation of the Dumas classic was originally screened as a Sunday evening serial in 12 black & white episodes. Each ran about 25 minutes and all work well thanks to amazing feats of compression by writer Anthony Steven, as well as intrepid direction from Peter Hammond. Though obviously limited in budget, the series manages to be both elegant and ambitious, with convincing costumes and small-scale sets lit in the Gothic manner. The cast is uniformly splendid, but Alan Badel in particular is an inspired choice for the title role; at 40 or so he's a little too old for the youthful Edmond Dantes and plays him with a kind of wide-eyed innocence that borders on insouciance - I don't think I saw him blink once in the first three episodes - but as the returned Count of Monte Cristo, he crowds his expression with nods and crosses and sideways glancing blows. He is by no means perfect for the role - in essence his performance is the definitive Monte Cristo, but not the definitive Dantes. Perhaps that was his intent.

The plot of The Count of Monte Cristo is probably too famous to bear repeating briefly, but... young ship's mate Edmond Dantes is framed as a Bonapartist and sent to a notorious island prison; after 14 years he escapes and, with the help of a fabulous treasure, wreaks a terrible revenge on those who betrayed him. The keys to the cell being - with the help of a fabulous treasure. Because I never quite went past the notion that the Count of Monte Cristo was just a figment of a mad prisoner's imagination; and that the entire revenge was simply a lot of scribbling on the walls of a cell. It is so intricately plotted, and the frailty of its characters is so marked by correction, that it is always revenge fantasy - the story never escapes the youthful brooding Dantes, no matter how much the Count of Monte Cristo attempts to ameliorate his rage.

And somehow my favourite scene always remains the same no matter which version I see - as Mercedes pleads with Monte Cristo to spare her son's life, and he becomes Dantes again and offers his own life in her son's place. It is Dantes' moment of triumph, but it is also Monte Cristo's defeat. In other versions, and perhaps also in the original novel, that moment feels like a suitable end-point, and I was never quite sure why Dumas ventured far beyond it. But this modest 1964 serial also renders Monte Cristo into the tender affections of Ali Pasha's daughter, Haydee, and it is there he finds... not redemption by any means, but the shared space of prisoners.

Ultimately, the best screen version of this classic, and well worth seeing.

Nightshade and Damnations: by Gerald Kersh

Gerald Kersh's 1969 collection Nightshade and Damnations gathers in one volume some of his best stories, many of which appeared originally in such unpromising publications as Esquire and The Saturday Evening Post. The '69 Coronet edition features an introduction by Harlan Ellison, who describes Kersh, accurately as it turns out, as a demon prince.

The stories are uniformly good. In The Queen of Pig Island a ship's captain finds on a remote atoll the remains of what he believes is an undiscovered race - but all he has found are the bones of a circus of freaks shipwrecked years before, and whose last brutal days of life are pieced together with moving apprehension. The Brighton Monster sees a strange creature captured by English fishermen in 1645 - it looks like a man, but is covered with strange tattoos and speaks an inexplicable tongue; over time the creature begins to degenerate, overcome by sores and a general lassitude that the reader is allowed to identify as radiation sickness. In Men Without Bones two jungle explorers find the remains of an ancient spacecraft and encounter the strange and revolting creatures living in and around it - but are they Martians or are they an undiscovered race of men? Men Without Bones is a fine example of how to restore a tired idea to vigour by powerful writing. The King Who Collected Clocks is another beautifully rendered fable in which a primitive automaton serves the interests of politicians as a clockwork regent. A Lucky Day for the Boar, with its Poe bookends, updates the 19th century master by borrowing his style to demonstrate the substance of 20th century techniques of mind-control and interrogation. And so on. Did I say they were good? They're often brilliant, and this volume culminates in one of Kersh's deservedly best-known stories, Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo?

There are often unfair comparisons with Joseph Conrad in any horror fiction that dares to undertake a travelogue of darkness; yet here the comparison is at its most warranted. Kersh's stories are filled with knowing local colour which he mortifies out of existence, so that instead of moral exactitude were are left exactly nowhere. His horrors are race memories drawn from the past and the future and played out in the present as a collision of science, magic and folklore; hence his scientific natives are as unprepared as his bushmen for the peculiarly bespoke fates which overtake them. There is nothing here that is very surprising or new, but there is much to admire in the way Kersh draws new life from old forms and then mercilessly extinguishes it - and it is the accompanying cruelty that turns his reader's heart to darkness.

New Canute: by Martin I. Ricketts

Tucked like a stoic castaway inside 1974's New Writings in SF 24 is this rather engaging time travel story by Martin I. Ricketts. The planet Cirene has at some point in its life acquired an extragalactic wanderer as a moon. This moon has gathered a pocket of "unreality" during its travels and the subsequent gravitational anomaly has a marked effect on Cirene's oceans and tides - they become pools of past time through which it is possible to travel. Cirene's only business is time-travel, in an unsatisfactory and dangerous form, and its only customers are those desperate enough to take a chance on plunging into its oceans to revisit some person or moment.

Boat-master Paul Vernon is hired by aristocrat Charles Bamfield-Taylor to help him to revisit a very specific moment in time, just two months past. As the journey proceeds, Vernon becomes increasingly uneasy about Bamford-Taylor's motives, largely because the aristocrat's behaviour is eerily reminiscent of his own when he arrived on Cirene some fifteen years previously - that of withdrawn and silent grief, supplemented by the determined smile of the desperate. Vernon recognises his own lost love in Bamford-Taylor's contradictions, but also that there is a difference between inhabiting the past and attempting to turn it back.

If it is true that time has a deep end, Ricketts succeeds in drawing the reader gently into its depths by the poetry of his conceit and the confidence in his prose. This is an accomplished story which falters only at its denouement; and even then perhaps only for those readers whose past is a drowning pool anyway.

Hunter, Come Home: by Richard McKenna

On that planet the damned trees were immortal...

Richard McKenna was not particularly known as a genre author. His name rests largely on his war novel, The Sand Pebbles; however, he did contribute at least one classic to science fiction with his novella Hunter, Come Home. The influence of this story, I think, can now be found everywhere and in everything, perhaps most recently in James Cameron's Avatar, and it doesn't really get its due recognition.

On the human colony planet Mordin a rite of passage tradition has grown out of the struggle to tame the habitat - young Mordinmen must fight and kill a beast known as the Great Russel before progressing to full manhood. As time passes the number of human males far surpasses the number of surviving Great Russels and a social and cultural bottleneck threatens the colony's viability. To remedy this the Mordin Hunt Council takes possession of a neighbouring planet which it intends to terraform and seed with Great Russels, so that the stock may be replenished for hunt purposes. There is only the matter of that planet's indigenous species, which are judged to be non-sentient plant life and safe to exterminate. The terraforming party's instructions are to poison the entire planet with a toxin known as Thanasis. But the planet, which remains unnamed, refuses to die.

Among the Mordinmen is Craig - a "blankie" - who has not yet killed his Great Russel. He shares, more than most, the Mordinmen's frustration at the planet's resistance. Yet he feels strangely akin to the planet's most visible inhabitant, the Phytos - these are luminous and gentle spores whose migrations seem almost to be only intelligent sign of a response to the Thanasis toxin. As each new toxin infestation is released they develop livid wheals and inner lights, as though the dawning comprehension of hostilities has of itself conferred sentience. The power of the story lies in its slow-burning narrative of a planet becoming aware of danger and rousing itself to anger. Craig realises this, eventually, and changes sides, but by then it is too late for them all.

I was transfixed by this story throughout. Its subtexts are timeless - it is an early Gaia rendering, and an ecological warning; it is also a story of men in the jungle whose war becomes insensible with death. The prose is strikingly beautiful and the characterisation is superb; much of the plotting retains classical elements, particularly in the fate of Craig and his nominal love interest (who walks away with the human prize). It could be a story of human arrogance and alien frailty, except that these must inevitably be reversed, perhaps because human arrogance is frailty. The Phytos understand this; which is why their revenge is commuted to tragedy.

First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1963, Hunter, Come Home was later collected in Casey Agonistes, a welcome volume of the various short fictions McKenna contributed to magazines during his early years. Happily this was issued by Gollancz in hardcover and by Pan in paperback, and copies of both are fairly easy to come by.