RPG Gatehouse, Falls Rd





Perhaps my favourite closed house in West Belfast, this appears to have been the one-time gatehouse of St Rose's School, or St Mary's Training College, on Beechmount (RPG) Ave. Judging by the brickwork, the house looks as though it was closed not long after it was built.

And that ball has been on the extension roof for as long as I can remember.

The Bury Line: by Stephen Hargadon






Stephen Hargadon's The Bury Line brings new and terrible meaning to the networking skills required in the modern workplace. Though it displays a sure, light touch in tone, the humour is black throughout, in the manner of Gogol. In grand fact, the story is highly reminiscent of recurrent themes in much 19th century Russian literature, particular those of soul-destroying time-serving in the Imperial Civil Service. And if you think of Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground as a sort of tube tale, then The Bury Line is the surface equivalent. Add to this Hargadon's marked talent for writing sympathetic characters and the story gains a good deal of its power to affect by way of shared disillusion. The characters are not laconic: they are laconics; a manifestation of progress reports and performance related pay. As they appear and disappear the reader becomes almost a nine-to-five familiar; and the story exists as a consultant meta-narrative to the daily grind.

Martin goes through a succession of line managers. Watching them come and go at the discretion of upper management, he notes each one's foibles, and how these prove to be fatal to much-fabled efficiencies. Martin understands that another job is often another life, an afterlife perhaps. At first he watches his colleagues despatched to this afterlife; then he begins to experience them in other incarnations, on other networks; perhaps as symptoms of his own burgeoning disillusionment. In turn this affects his own performance and his work begins to suffer. It does not go unnoticed...

And this perhaps is how the story most startled me - it is not that the work suffers: it is that the worker suffers it.

The Bury Line is published in Black Static Issue 42. Well worth reading.




I, Mengele: by Philip Challinor




Following on from the author's Foundations of the Twenty-First Century, Philip Challinor's I, Mengele is a rare look into the academic and culture wars of an alternative history. F21C created a world in which Britain had fallen to the Nazi's during World War 2 - it succeeded by sidestepping the gaming mechanics of most alternative histories, instead concentrating on a curiously deft fit of Nazi politics and philosophy into daily English life. The book avoided epiphanies, deliberately so, except perhaps the resolution of duty into horror by means of a narrative that I would describe as speak into memory; by that I mean again that history is written by the winner. 

I, Mengele is drawn from the same alternative history. It is a critical study of an epic film, conceived in Germany, financed in Hollywood, made in Britain. In our history Mengele is famous, or rather infamous. In that history Mengele is neither; victory has rendered him an almost anonymous functionary as the Holocaust has been overlooked by historians of the Reich for obvious reasons. All this is about to change as the cultural custodians of F21C take ownership of some of the less daring yet equally important actions of the war years. But how can mass-murder be reimagined as heroic service to the Reich?

Mengele's life and exploits are presented as epic fantasy, filmed in the manner of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Herein lies the power of the author's imagination: Mengele's victims are become CGI monsters. They are recreated as writhing hordes and dark inhuman masses. Jews, Russians, Gypsies... all are thrown into the CGI melting pot to emerge as the villains of epic fantasy as we know them - the faceless armies of Mordor, or the boundless hordes of Mallorea. As someone who has always found much fantasy to be faintly distasteful, this came as something of a revelation for me as it pinpointed my distress. Perhaps the most striking comparison to be made is with Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream. It hadn't occurred to me until I read I, Mengele that Spinrad's novel can be read similarly - as an attack on the dehumanising East/West divide in fantasy fiction.

The book also provides fascinating background detail, including Churchill's cribbing of Hiro Hito in his surrender speech; and the timetable for the invasion of Russia being moved forward by three crucial weeks to June 1st, just time enough to get the Wermacht to Moscow before Christmas, 1941. It is interesting to compare such details with David Downing's The Moscow Option, another front rank World War 2 alternate.

Ultimately I, Mengele demonstrates that a commentariat can make almost anything acceptable if its cultural context is engineered to reflect the prevailing political consensus.

You can buy a copy of I Mengele here, and its companion volume The Foundations of the 21st Century here.



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, 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, breaking their arms and 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.