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.

Ossian's Ride: by Fred Hoyle

One time Astronomer Royal Fred Hoyle had a long career as a science fiction novelist; his early books are undoubted classics - A for Andromeda, for example, is perhaps the finest message from space novel written, despite beginning life as a BBC television series, now sadly lost. The Black Cloud is deservedly Hoyle's most famous novel, in which a sentient gas cloud interposes itself between the Earth and the sun, leading first to a scientific coup d'etat and then near apocalypse. Later in his career Hoyle began co-writing with his son, Geoffrey; the result was a serious reduction in quality, if not in imagination, as Geoffrey's main purpose appeared to be spicing his father's ideas with then fashionable ideas about sex and violence - these books are dated by their social aspect, while their science remains as sure-footed as Hoyle's prose. The one exception is The Fifth Planet, their first collaboration, a splendid novel by any standards.

Between The Black Cloud and Andromeda Hoyle penned one of the few science fiction stories with an Irish setting, Ossian's Ride. The novel is set in the near future, 1970, though later editions bump the date to 1980, no doubt to accommodate reprints. Ireland has become an industrial powerhouse; it has sealed itself behind an "Erin Curtain" of security and innovation and is governed by a mysterious and paranoid entity - the Industrial Corporation of Eire (ICE). The origins and aims of this corporation are obscure, and despite attempts by foreign agents to penetrate the curtain, remain so; invariably the agents are all killed or disappear or defect. The little information that makes its way to the outside world speaks of burgeoning nuclear prowess and contraceptive pills made from turf. The British Foreign Office is particularly chagrined by its failure to plant an agent inside ICE. In desperation the British recruit a newly graduated scientist and, after the briefest of briefings, send him to Ireland with no more mission than he can keep in his coat pockets. The thinking appears to be that an amateur with no mission may fare better than a professional. And, at first, they appear to be correct. Thomas Sherwood blunders into Ireland like no kind of spy; his lack of technique wrong-foots both ICE and agents of other powers, who develop an uncanny knack of taking each other out while allowing Sherwood to escape unscathed. Eventually his luck runs out and he is captured by ICE, or rather, he arranges his own capture. It is at this point Sherwood departs a thriller and enters an sf novel; he wakes with his memory wiped (though his personality is intact) in the new and sealed city of Caragh, the description of which seems rather pertinent to the modern corporate architecture of steel and glass. He is ostensibly a worker drone, but he is asked to do no work and finds that he is under heavy surveillance. Slowly regaining his memory, Sherwood escapes, but now his blundering seems guided; his mission appears to have been co-opted, curiously accounted for, and as he draws closer to the secret at the heart of the corporation, danger recedes to make way for a quaint sense of wonder.

I love this book, I do surely, struck as I am by an image of the world's combined agents tramping across Irish bogs to infiltrate a shining new city with industrial espionage in mind. It has been called Buchanesque, with some justification, but the book of which I'm most reminded is Eric Ambler's The Dark Frontier. In that novel a scientist who believes himself to be a super-hero embarks on a similar mission in a Ruritanian state; and this is somewhat to the point of Ossian's Ride. Ireland, while a British isle, is off the map. You can't really look to the mythology of the title to give it context; rather, Ossian's Ride re-partitions Ireland; where there was once north and south, there is now human and inhuman.