The Sculptor's Hand: by Nicholas Royle


 The first assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

On the week that Hilary Mantel publishes her story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher to a degree of controversy in our largely Tory press, it is interesting to go back to Nicholas Royle's assassination of same. In The Sculptor's Hand Thatcher is not named, but the story was written while she was serving as Prime Minister, and the Premier is throughout referred to as "she".

The narrator is a sculptor in the classical style. While on a business trip to Glasgow he is involved in a minor train crash and escapes with a knock on the head. Upon leaving hospital he notes the arrival of the Premier, her entourage, and a media scrum. He pauses only to express relief that he escaped meeting her. A month later, by a bizarre coincidence, perhaps, he is involved in another train crash, this one rather more serious. He loses his arm, a disaster for a man of his occupation. Almost as bad, he is unable to avoid being consoled by the Premier in hospital and, to his horror, these images are widely televised. The media, of course, are much taken with the coincidence of his having been involved in both accidents, but when they seek his opinion his answers are not what they want to hear - rather than look to his own luck as cause for the accidents, he blames cuts in spending on public transport infrastructure. This opinion is widely derided by a media which would rather believe that the narrator is labouring under a personal curse. After all, there is no such thing as society; only individual men and women, and their luck. If their luck is bad, well, personal responsibility is everything.

By this point the narrator is reeling. His art and business have begun to suffer - a slew of lost orders and canceled shows take their toll. He becomes convinced that he is being punished for speaking out, convinced also that the Premier has struck a vendetta against him - almost a Mafia-style contract by means of public sector cuts. He takes a plane to Belfast to attend the opening of his new exhibition. The plane crashes on the runway. This time he loses a leg. In hospital he is again confronted by his nemesis - the Premier. The public notes that if he is at the scene of every disaster, so is she - but, as Premier, she has every right to be there, while he has no right to be the victim of every accident. Upon release from hospital, complete with false leg, he attends his show in Belfast and smashes every figure, breaks their arms and their legs to reflect his own loss - the media take this as yet more evidence of his refusal to shoulder personal responsibility.

Finally, in order to restore faith in Britain's crumbling infrastructure, the Premier issues the narrator with a challenge - she will fly with him and by her good grace he will be safe. She will make him her personal responsibility. This is too much for the narrator, who makes quite deliberate arrangements to ensure neither of them will survive his next journey...

It is a matter of regret that this vivid and inventive story is not more widely known. Royle confronts Thatcherism by giving its every victim the same face, thereby dismissing the notion that accidents are mere accidents - if the victims are the same every time, then they are the targets. They could be teachers, nurses, coal-miners, in this case they are commuters. Because, in Thatcher's own words, "Any man who rides a bus to work after the age of 30 can count himself a failure in life".

Like A Life of Matter and Death below, The Sculptor's Hand can be found in the Fifth Interzone Anthology. And you can read more about Thatcher's disastrous public transport policies here.

A Life of Matter and Death: by Brian Aldiss


Every so often you happen across the template for a generation of stories. Some of these templates are famous and some are not. This is not. A Life of Matter and Death was published in Interzone in 1991 and made that year's best-of anthology. I don't recall reading it at the time, perhaps because I was in my first year at university, having my brain addled with James Joyce. In fact, my tutors would have been well-served to set aside their annotated editions of Ulysses to spare an hour for Aldiss. They might even have come to share my own conviction that literature, real literature, is not literary fiction, but is rather the best of genre fiction. Though I doubt it - they were always too far gone in a stream of salaried consciousness. And sadly, my own conviction did not arrive till some years later, when it was much to late to argue the point.

A Life of Matter and Death contains all the major elements that currently subjugate much modern genre fiction. Ostensibly the story is about flesh-eating aliens; two brothers carry the body of their father down a South American mountain, only to find that the ground won't accept his remains. One brother descends into local magic realism, inventing infamous headlines for newspapers - the other brother sets about making those headlines a reality and inadvertently changes the way humanity treats with death. Rejecting the ground that refused his father's body, he sails the oceans, happening upon a stricken alien craft - all he can rescue from the wreckage are several eggs which hatch and away. These winged creatures begin to prey on the world's newly dead. And as the world is such a charnel house, they have plenty of feed with which to establish themselves. At first the Odonata, as they come to be called, are treated as vermin; gradually, as their almost angelic qualities grow familiar, then comforting, their purposes become part of the ritual of burial, and the disposal of bodies is given over to them as a matter of ceremony, religious in nature. Huge towers are built to offer up the dead of the world. And so the brothers need not have carried their father down the mountain - they should have finished the climb and left his remains for the Odonata. But these would not have existed if they had acted otherwise.

Put thusly: flesh-eating aliens become beautiful angels when they bring acceptance through cultural exchange settling dysfunctional family arrangements and satisfying eco wish-fulfilment and religious pieties in the process; all of these put together as a sort of difference engine which consumes smoke to produce mirrors. The story is splendid.

I have to admit I haven't been the closest Aldiss reader. Of his contemporaries at New Worlds - J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock and Barrington J. Bayley - I much preferred Ballard and Bayley - I may have to think again. Currently I am of the opinion that the best work of Aldiss is to be found in his shorter fiction; and, in fact, A Life of Matter and Death is subtitled, A Novel in One Chapter. I think he can go one better - a genre in one chapter.

Heart Clock: by Dick Morland




There are few things more satisfying on a wet afternoon in August than a failed dystopia and a pot of tea. Dick Morland's Heart Clock, published by the New English Library in 1974, hits the spot.as a guilty pleasure, even if it misses the point as political satire.

In 21st century Britain everyone is fitted with a heart clock which determines their life span. Their life span is in turn determined by the economy - on Budget day the Chancellor announces how many years are to be added or how many are to be taken away. In times of boom everyone lives longer; in times of bust lifespans are reduced. The economy of 21st century Britain is such that lifespans have been reduced over successive budgets to close to what is known as the "Bible barrier" - that is three score years and ten. The heart clocks are not fatal devices - they are reminders to those whose time is up that they must report for termination. Failure to report results in heavy fines in years being applied to the lifespans of their immediate families. Everyone reports.

The creator of this system is Matlock. The one-time Prime Minister, who was one of the first to have a heart clock fitted, is now approaching 70 and is, of course, having second thoughts. He leads a minority party which campaigns against the system, but the country is too far gone to countenance further change. After one of his meetings is broken up by the police, Matlock is taken to the current Prime Minister's office and offered a seat in the Cabinet. He has no idea why but suspects the Bible barrier is about to be breached and that the government wants him on-message should there be trouble. While considering the offer an attempt is made on his life, then he is kidnapped, then he escapes...

And herein lies the problem with Heart Clock. It is frantic. It starts out as a splendidly British dystopia, complete with peeling wallpaper and cracked china; it proceeds as an action sf thriller wherein the physical heroics of its 69 year-old ex-Prime Minister beggar the reader's belief; and it ends with the attempted invasion of England by Scotland. It is as though the author was working to the timetable of a heart clock of his own and pieced together fragments of several stories which do not properly gel. None of this is to say Heart Clock is a bad book - in fact, it is very enjoyable, and connecting the Chancellor's Budget directly to mortality is a major stroke of imagination. But with a little more care and attention a "supergenarian" uprising sounds like just the cure for Logan's Run.

Dick Morland is, apparently, Reginald Hill, author of the Dalziel and Pascoe series.

Jackal's Meal: by Gordon R. Dickson





There's no doubt that science fiction has thrown up some appalling militaristic nonsense in its time. Some of it, like Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, is redeemable by viewing it across a post-modern line of sight; some, like Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, is just wildly over-rated; some is offensive, like Jerry Pournelle's Jannisaries; and some is sublime, like Adam Roberts' New Model Army. But none of these are as convincing as Gordon R Dickson's various military sf ventures, perhaps because Dickson served with some distinction during World War Two, which adds gravitas to his Dorsai series, as well as a good deal of like detail and characterisation.

First published in Analog in 1969 and collected in The Star Road (Robert Hale, 1975), Jackal's Meal pits military honour against diplomatic expediency. During a conference to debate an alien request for a corridor through Earth-controlled space a strange being is found wandering around the cargo decks of the conference station. It is examined by human doctors and found not to be human, but they conclude it is not alien either. A rumour circulates amongst the station's garrison that the being is a genetically modified human - that it had been a human soldier captured by the aliens and modified for fun or sport. This rumour reaches the aliens, who deny the being was once human, but offer no explanation as to what it is - and so a tense stand-off develops, which must be defused by the diplomatic staff. The garrison is convinced that an atrocity has taken place and is outraged; the aliens view such outrage as an attempt to gain the upper hand in negotiations. The solution, which I won't reveal, is rather affecting and typical of an author who has seen at first hand how codes of honour and sacrifice can be erected as obstacles and traps on a battlefield.

Honourific systems appear to be a long-standing feature in Dickson's work; who can forget his stunning 1951 colony story, The Bleak and Barren Land, in which a human colonist and an alien fight a duel, the purpose of which is to serve legitimacy on the tide of humans to come.

I'm fortunate to have the Robert Hale edition of The Star Road. Hale editions are interesting, and always a welcome addition to my collection. They were printed almost exclusively for circulation in UK libraries; if you wanted to buy a copy of any of their books you had to make the trip in person to the company's office in Clerkenwell. And ask nicely.

Transformation Scene: by Claude Houghton




Against a backdrop of war-time Britain, with Hitler's V-weapons raining death and destruction upon the streets of London and the Allied invasion of mainland Europe underway, Houghton's murder-mystery could easily be mistaken for a telegram, were it not that its contents are much too esoteric to be an official communication. Rather than a next of kin informed of their loved one's death, a dream informs an artist of his model's death. The artist, prone to sleep-walking, and with some very repressed childhood memories, suspects himself of her murder and determines truth will out, whether it destroys him or not.

There follows an odd mix of Crime and Punishment and The Picture of Dorian Gray, as the artist self-interrogates in the company of a series of bohemians who constitute a sort of home guard: in fact, Houghton specialises in this kind of character; for example, the ex-public schoolboy who finds himself the sole survivor of generations of aristocrats, and whose attempts to preserve the line in fact doom it to extinction; or the distressed gentlewoman whose mind gives way when the pressures brought to bear upon it are outside of her class experience; or the spiv whose spats are louder than bombs. Their war is not fought on the front line; rather it is fought for and against social and political change on the home front.

In the middle of all this is the model herself - Carol, also known as The Enigma, which is the title of her most famous sitting for the artist. The image is the pin-up of choice for many a soldier; and so it must be a tragedy for soldiers to return from the front to find their sweetheart dead - murdered by a home guard of loafers and ex-aristocrats. To this end, Transformation Scene is an angry novel and one that anticipates great social change, hence the title. It concerns itself with the casualties of this change - the hitherto untold statistics identified only as other.


Reclamation Yard: by Paul Meloy



The boy Elliot sees monsters. They are not of his own imagining. Rather they are the creations of his father, escaped from a children's book he had published years before. Now Elliot's father has dementia and the monsters he imagined for his book visit Elliot like the visible symptoms of his father's declining mental state. They troll the countryside and invade Elliot's home. Eventually his father is institutionalised, but it makes little difference - the power of monsters is drawn from an imagination gone to the bad. But just as that imagination gives up monsters, so Elliot is able to recruit help from its pages, in the form of a girl and her hot-air balloon who rescues Elliot's father from the institution and returns him for a final confrontation - in the Reclamation Yard of the title, which is, beautifully, locked with a robot's heart.

There's not a great deal that I can add. A summary of Meloy's story is its best possible review, so striking is it in conception. For anyone who has had to deal at close quarters with dementia in a loved one, there is a great deal of consolation to be had here, right out of the marvellous.

You can read Reclamation Yard in Issue 40 of Black Static wherein it is stunningly illustrated by Ben Baldwin.

A Wild Justice: by Francis Clifford



Sometimes the purpose of our cultural custodians is to award posterity to their darlings; we are given a steady stream of articles, reprints and documentaries about, say, Le Carre, or Graham Greene, etc; however, those authors not read by our custodians are designated forgotten and hence their cultural impact is nil. This, of course, is a vicious circle, because if books go out of print and living memory is finite, then the works of certain authors might as well not exist at all. Despite this widespread cultural censorship, ghosts do appear, but our custodians do not have the sensibilities to see them; rather it is left to genre readers to communicate with the out of print.

Francis Clifford was the author of many excellent thrillers which sold well over three decades. Two were adapted into films; one (The Naked Runner) starring Frank Sinatra, no less, was passably good; the other, Act of Mercy, was filmed as Guns of Darkness, quite ineffectively, as the recent Network DVD release allowed me to discover. For the most part Clifford's cold war thrillers are his best; these are always complicated by a unique form of suspense in which the act of page-turning is almost a victimless crime. There are also several Nazi-hunting thrillers, and a wonderful little book called The Third Side of the Coin, in which a desk clerk at a British airport steals a suitcase full of money and flies to Spain, where he is apprehended by an earthquake. There are three war novels, the best of which, Honour the Shrine, is probably the most moving war story out of the Far East that I have ever read.

Clifford had several Irish connections in his personal life which led him to write two Irish-themed books. Drummer in the Dark and A Wild Justice. The former is poor by his usual standards, but the latter, with a little tweaking, is a remarkable book altogether. The action of A Wild Justice takes place in the ruins of an Irish city; the city is unnamed, as is the battle by which it has been destroyed - we are left simply to assume there has been another rising, though which rising and by whom are not specified. The survivors seek a means of escape through a maze of half-collapsed houses, factories and shops, while the army routinely bomb the ruins to prevent any escape. Within these once lived-in shells another kind of life takes place, a desperate struggle for survival that encompasses the full range of human cruelty, from murder to rape; and beyond this is the ultimate Irish crime - betrayal, the advent of which turns freedom fighters to terrorists. It is sometimes remarked that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, but when both share a cellar with only one exit the distinction is most brutal. Of course there is no real resolution except tragedy; the surviving rebels are doomed, and as their cause is broken down to emotional rubble, so they seek to play dead therein.

The troubles did not throw up many successful Irish thrillers; most were a mix of propaganda and/or special pleading. To my mind the best of them was probably Benedict Kiely's Proxopera. A Wild Justice matches Kiely's novel in power and brevity and is greatly helped along by its anonymity of venue, an idea I would have taken a lot further. Because the sheer scale of destruction wrought in Clifford's novel goes well beyond anything experienced during the troubles - rather the book reads like an alternate history in which a civil war is fought and lost by those who wargamed it to death.