But for a short entry in the latest issue of Interzone, I dare say I would not be aware of the passing of one of my favourite authors, John Boyd. He was 93.
Boyd's career as a science fiction author was short and traumatic. He began with The Last Starship from Earth, which drew comparisons to Orwell and Huxley, deservedly so, continued with the charming Pollinators of Eden and Rakehells of Heaven, to the bizarre sf western Andromeda Gun, to galactic pot-boilers like The Organ Bank Farm, Sex and the High Command, The I.Q. Merchant, The Doomsday Gene and The Gorgon Festival, before ending in a blaze of glory with Barnard's Planet and The Girl with Jade Green Eyes. After that he appears to have quit writing science fiction altogether. There exists a non-genre novel, The Slave Stealer, published under his real name, Boyd Upchurch, and also one solitary novella, The Girl and the Dolphin. There is also something called Scarborough Hall, which appears to be a ghost story, but I have never been able to locate a copy. Boyd achieved all this in ten short years - 1968 to 1978, a reasonably brief interlude in a long, long life.
To my mind his best novels are as good as anything in the front rank of science fiction: In The Last Starship from Earth a mathematician falls in love with a poetess - such a union is forbidden in their future dystopia, and they are tried as doomed lovers. Their ultimate fate changes not only Earth history, but also the genre of the novel. In The Rakehells of Heaven, two scouts from a rapacious imperial Earth discover a peaceful planet divided, not into nations, but into autonomous universities. Upon attempting first contact they find the inhabitants pay them no heed - unless they add their mission to the curriculum and teach it. In typical Boyd fashion the students do not wear clothes, and the reader's introduction to the heroine is a description of her vagina. In Andromeda Gun a stranded alien takes over the body of gunfighter Johnny McCloud - arriving in a small town to rob the bank, Johnny falls in love with a local girl, but the alien falls in love with her widowed mother. And so a bizarre inter-galactic love-triangle is played out against the backdrop of the old West. In The Girl with Jade Green Eyes a beautiful alien lands her stricken ship in an American forest park and ventures forth to borrow a thimbleful of uranium; she is spirited away by the forest ranger who leads her on a Lolita-style odyssey across America as she seeks to undress red tape. Barnard's Planet is a cynical reworking of The Last Starship from Earth, this time incorporating 70s paranoia and conspiracy theories - it is Boyd's acknowledgment that the dystopias of the future have arrived ahead of time, and is a suitable, if bitter, end point.
At some point in his career, probably with The Pollinators of Eden, Boyd
ran afoul of the militant feminist contingent in sf. The story of a
woman who allows herself to be seduced by an alien plant, Pollinators is
unique in treating character as species and sex as first contact. Most
of Boyd's best novels develop this approach, and it is at its most
successful when it draws the disapproval of social conservatives and/or
identity or gender obsessed socialists.
On the whole I would say that his work as a sf novelist is an acquired taste; his subjects were always invariably science fiction of the soft variety. He attempted few theories or innovations of technology, but rather concentrated on social futures, most of which are now as quaint as a 1970s space age stereo. But the effortless verve of his best novels has never been matched by any other sf novelist.
In the near future Britain has descended into chaos and civil war. There is government, of a kind, attempting to police the violence as the ideological struggle between left and right is finally played out on the streets with bombs and guns. The US, ever mindful of Britain's strategic position on the edge of Europe, despatches special envoy Max Gregory, ex-Brit and head of distinguished think-tank, the Gregory Institute, to act as American adviser to a weakened Prime Minister, with hopes he may eventually become Pro-Consul. Gregory has a hard time in Britain - he cannot even meet with the leaders of the various factions, much less negotiate with them. All factions seem to be under the spell of retaliatory violence. Gregory falls in with maverick reporter Dan Lateman, who feeds him conspiracy theories which seem curiously prescient - it appears that once espionage reaches a certain pitch, all investigative journalism becomes a conspiracy theory. Together they acquire evidence that much of the violence on the streets is not that of left and right factions, but is rather the false flag operation of a third party. Gregory at first suspects the Soviet Union, but through his institute acquires further evidence that the culprit is in fact the US, in the form of a leaked CIA report into North Sea oil capacity, which is much greater than previously thought. Britain is suddenly the most oil-rich nation outside of the Gulf states. As both an American envoy and ex-Brit, Gregory's loyalties are torn - until the US State Department decides he knows too much and is now expendable, as are his loved ones. And so the emergent neo-con policies usually reserved for the far-flung are to be played out to their conclusion in Britain - unless Gregory and Lateman can find a way to expose the false flag operations to the factions of left and right, and unite them under the old, old banner - my enemy's enemy is my friend...
Tomorrow's Men is a very bleak, if satisfying, novel. It is fascinating to compare its plot to the tragedies currently playing out in the Middle-East, and Shea's extrapolations from US Cold War operations in the 70s are well-judged, especially in his view that Airstrip One is a very expendable part of the American empire and would face the full force of black ops and scorched earth if required. It is not that it is an overtly anti-American novel - it simply puts Britain in the firing line and takes it from there. The end of the novel is suitably distressing and reminds me greatly of the early 80s BBC TV series, Spyship.
Tomorrow's Men was first published in 1982 by Weidenfield and Nicholson. I'm not sure whether it had a paperback imprint immediately following that, but it seems to have been reprinted in 2001 under the title Breaking Point. Shea's earlier novels were written under the pen-name of Michael Sinclair - Tomorrow's Men was the first novel he chose to publish under his own name. It is difficult to see why he made this decision, unless as some kind of statement - because his day-job was as no less than Press Secretary to Queen Elizabeth II. In 1986 Shea became embroiled in a minor controversy when a leak from the Palace suggested that the Queen was 'dismayed' by Margaret Thatcher's divisive social policies. After a brief investigation, the source of the leak was traced to Shea, and he left the Queen's service the following year - the two events are said not to be connected. It is ironic that the controversy centred around the source of the leak rather than the veracity of its content - considering her conspicuous silence at the nation-shattering actions of Britain's current coalition, I'm sure that HMQ does not give a flying fuck about divisive social policies. It is my own theory, having read Tomorrow's Men, that Shea was a man of conscience (and a Scot to boot) and that he struck at Thatcher's regime with the only weapon he had in his possession - headed notepaper.
In this camp, not one man has gone mad yet, at least not since I arrived, hanged himself or attacked a guard. I think it is because everyone has been robbed of his tenses, as I certainly have. Or, to be accurate, robbed of two tenses; the present and the future. The present here never changes and so has become what amounts to a historic present: in other words, part of the past. And there is no future. I have heard of no-one even being interrogated yet, let alone standing trial. I have questioned the guards: yes, interrogations are on the point of starting. Next week, next month. But they never do.
Richard Watts is a once eminent English journalist living in exile on a small working vineyard in northern Italy. His crime had been to interview on television and make rather a fool of a leading left-wing politician, Jobling, on the eve of the election in which Jobling won power in Britain. Richard subsequently travels to America on business and prudently decides it would be unwise to return to England until the nature of the new regime makes itself known - there are already rumours circulating of mass-arrests, and even of executions. Using his American savings and investments, he buys the vineyard in Italy and settles there with his partner, Magda, to wait it out.
As time passes, the news from England is scarce and not at all good - Scotland and Wales have seceded, a fact that shocks Richard but does not appear to unduly concern anyone else. In fact, the Scots and Welsh governments have sealed and mined their borders to prevent English refugees from entering - later Richard discovers the English often clear these minefields by marching political prisoners through them. Elections have been ended and the class system has been replaced by a card system which exactly replicates a class system, except that it now permits a form of social mobility to a whole new swathe of bureaucrats and officials who are on the right side of the new regime. Non-whites are deported en masse. The few English visitors who come Richard's way are unwilling to discuss what is happening to England; it is obvious that they are frightened and unsure just how far the regime's arm is apt to reach. But their reticence is also a show of loyalty - they parrot phrases about sacrifice and national interest, as though they have persuaded themselves of the value of a murderous interim: (Janet: "They should all be locked up or drafted into labour gangs! We've got to have law and order! Students who won't conform have got to be bounced and cut right down till they do what they're told..."). Whatever actual information Richard can glean from this hysteria betrays a country in terminal decline, sliding into the usual totalitarian muck.
Richard is summoned to the local police station where he is warned, in friendly terms, that there have been inquiries about him from London, as well as some talk of extradition. The English government, having cleaned up at home, has decided to undertake housekeeping abroad. He is advised to take up Italian citizenship, and is admonished for not having done so already. The paperwork is duly despatched but it is much too late - several weeks later an official from Her Majesty's Revenue arrives on the vineyard to inform Richard that his affairs are not in order and that he must return to England. This interview is conducted entirely at the point of a gun, and Richard later bitterly regrets not shooting the official. For the vineyard is seized and deportation papers are served. With English diffidence, Richard decides too late to resist; on the boat, in fact, where he is beaten and tortured and his few remaining belongings thrown into the sea. He is separated from Magda upon arrival in England - he never sees her again - and is transported by train to a concentration camp in north-east England. And here Richard plays out the rest of his short life in some bewilderment - there is no confrontation with Jobling, just occasional pleasant chats with a minor official. When a man begs to be interrogated, you know you have him where you need him to be. For a brief time he attempts to recreate his Italian idyll by growing vegetables on a patch in the camp; they grow surprisingly well. Then it's over.
A State of Denmark was written in the mid to late 60s and published in hardcover by Hutchinson in 1970 - there was a later 1973 imprint in paperback from Panther and a 1994 edition. If I have one gripe with the dystopian/totalitarian scenarios dreamed up by mid to late 20th century authors, it is that their imaginations are restricted to the procedurals of Nazism or Stalinism; the Stasi or the Gestapo; the concentration camp or the Gulag, etc. None of them appear to have imagined the horrors of an ideology such as neo-liberalism; they could not foresee a form of capital flow so lazy that it requires people to voluntarily immerse themselves without coercion - to the point of ruin and death. Still, all that aside, A State of Denmark is an artful book. The writing is excellent and captures the Italian idyll brilliantly; the conclusion is detained by dystopian cliches, but there is enough force of character to make it as poignant and chilling as necessary. And Richard is, in many ways, my favourite kind of Englishman; a kind of last gasp dissident.
Robin Cook is probably better known as Derek Raymond, author of the acclaimed Factory crime novels. He led a very interesting life, from 50s beatnik to Foreign Minister in a short-lived anarchist government in the late 60s. A State of Denmark appears to have been well-informed by his life, which was one searing turn of events after another.
And when Jesus saw what was done, he was wroth and said unto him: O evil, ungodly, and foolish one, what hurt did the pools and the waters do thee? behold, now also thou shalt be withered like a tree, and shalt not bear leaves, neither root, nor fruit. And straightway that lad withered up wholly... After that again he went through the village, and a child ran and dashed against his shoulder. And Jesus was provoked and said unto him: Thou shalt not finish thy course. And immediately he fell down and died...
Jerome Bixby's famous story, It's a Good Life, adapted variously for The Twilight Zone and the Simpsons, always served me as a reminder of the possibilities of the infant Jesus. Consider a young boy with extraordinary powers whose role model is the vengeful God of the Old Testament: he thinks heretics into lonely graves, usually messing with their humanity in their process - anyone digging up this boy's victims in a couple of thousand years will find weirdly alien remains or ancient astronauts.
Little Anthony also appears to be the creator of the multiverse - having flung his rural community away from the earth upon his birth, it now exists in a limbo or void or purgatory. Upon re-reading I was rather surprised to find the story had no post-apocalypse setting, and no mutantcy to offer as reason for the boy's powers of behaviour. He is genuinely inexplicable. However, it is rather difficult to imagine little Anthony on the cross, rolling his eyes to heaven and saying, "Father, it's good that you made this awful thing happen."
A community of fixed grins and forced laughs is about as far as his power goes. Which is nowhere.
"The state must certainly look after the poor and the sick... but general state charity, as the Labourites understand it, not only weakens the national economy, but degrades the recipient. The entire system of state aid and assistance must be de-socialised, and stripped of waste and inefficiency."
I know the Tories in the Coalition won't quarrel with that! Looking around me, I felt that the whole country is beginning to warm to the Leader's strength and positive approach, especially the women, who also admire his faultless sense of showmanship... the man has something.
Originally published in 1965 under the title The Lost Diaries of Albert Smith, Robert Muller's disturbing story of the rise of fascism in the UK was reprinted by Penguin as After All, This is England in 1968. This appears to have been its only paperback imprint, and the book has faded from memory over the years, partly because it has remained out of print, and partly because those reading it in the 1960s, an era of entrenched social democracy in Britain, must have considered its contents far-fetched, if not perverse. Unlike Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Muller's book does not offer us a recognisable future from which we can draw pertinent but distant warnings; instead it offers an uncomfortable take on a persistent present; that of constant dissatisfaction with the way things are; and a yearning for the way they could be... if only.
Albert Smith is not an impressive man. He manages a small hardware store which once belonged to his father but which has since been bought out by a chain - Smith was retained as manager only because it seemed proper to do such things in post-war Britain. His wife is active in amateur dramatics and he suspects her of affairs with her fellow thespians, whom he regards as typical of the malais affecting the country. He has a small daughter, on whom he dotes. His son is a leftist hippy, much to his horror (Smith is very much a Conservative); they do not get on, and Smith has suspicions about his son's sexuality; the reverse is also true. Smith has a little problem - he likes to spy on couples who make love in their cars at a local beauty spot. He visits a psychiatrist to deal with his voyeurism, who suggests he keep a daily diary - the book is made up of the five diaries of Smith, each punctuated by an important or a terrible event, and each with explanatory notes from a mysterious future 'editor'.
The first diary is fairly innocuous - it details Smith's unhappiness with his life, his marriage, with the Labour government, and it sets out his analysis of the decay which he feels has entered Britain and its people. He harks back to the Empire quite fondly, recalls how things were done differently and properly by another calibre of men. He favours strong leadership and discipline. Youth must be set to work; immigrants must be sent home; all lives should be subjugated to the higher calling of the nation. It does not occur to Smith that dealing with his small dissatisfactions in the way he wants would require radical departures from the freedoms that allow him to keep a dissident diary in the first place (one of his later diaries is indeed confiscated). Nothing typifies Smith's dissatisfaction as much as his outrage over a local street sign which reads Cosley, Drive and about which he writes repeatly to the council - the misplaced comma represents everything wrong with the country. The first diary also tells of the forming of a new right-wing political party led by an ex-Conservative (Crossmere) and an ex-soldier (Hearn) - the British Action Party, which Smith promptly joins.
The second diary details the fall of the Labour government and the election of a coalition, part Conservative, part BAP. It also details the beginnings of a terrorist campaign across the country, which sees the coalition roll back civil liberties in the name of security. Smith becomes active in the local branch of the BAP as secretary and is drawn into the persecution of local minorities, for which he arrested and sent for trial. The Party suspends his membership with a nod and a wink, intimating that they'll see him right when he is released. There is a break while Smith serves his sentence and the third diary picks up his life upon release. He is, largely, ruined. His wife has left him, his son has gone abroad where he has become a sex worker, he has lost his job - yet rather than look to his radicalisation for some clue as to how he has fallen so far so fast, Smith clings to the same notions of strength, discipline and leadership - there must be more of it, not less, and it must be imposed. He throws himself back into the Party. But the Party has changed too. It is no longer a meeting point for those who feel a vague sense of dissatisfaction with modern Britain - it is now a slickly oiled political machine with a hierarchy of activists and a covert hand in the terrorism engulfing the country, something Smith, of course, refuses to believe, despite the mounting evidence. The third diary ends in absolute tragedy, as the coalition is dissolved and the BAP takes virtual control of country - in the ensuing street celebrations, Smith's four-year old daughter is killed by accident.
The fourth diary is a high-octane version of the third. Smith is drawn further into Party intrigue and adopts extreme positions to impress his ideological zeal on his superiors. He develops something of a martyr complex, having served time on behalf of the party, as he sees it; he approves of the ghettoes into which immigrants and minorities are now herded. He applauds when Hearn ousts Crossmere into exile and takes over the government, abolishing elections in the process. These are all sacrifices for the good of the country, and no-one has sacrificed more than Smith - his liberty, his employment, his daughter... when he receives an offer to attend a top-secret Party training course on the final solution to undesirables, he is delighted to accept. The fifth diary then picks up Smith after the six-month course - implacable, somewhat dehumanised, ready to do his duty, whatever it takes. An extermination camp is established on the beauty spot where Smith formerly spied on lovers and he is appointed camp administrator. Here he is witness to sights that do not seem to take him by surprise, despite their horror; it is not that he has been trained for it - it is that Smith's own pernicious view of human nature has reached its extreme end-point. He expected this, but he also expected it to be different, and he views all with severe dissatisfaction - the killing is chaotic and artibrary, not the orderly process Smith imagined - there is too much corruption and pettiness in the selection, as he finds for himself when he has a former employee of his, a young crippled girl, interned in the camp to act out his personal fantasies. He finds his Party colleagues to be too cruel, too corrupt, and altogether too zealous in their duties. He finds human fallibility at the camp to be every bit as infuriating as the moral failings of the young couples he once spied upon in the same place. In the words of the time - everything has changed and everything is the same. When the end comes for Smith he finds himself turning not to the Leader or the Party for strength, as he has all along, but instead turning to the crippled girl for comfort... meanwhile the comma between Cosley and Drive remains, sure as coastline.
Muller's narrative mirrors the progress of the country towards fascism through the events in Smith's life - the analogies are apt, if perhaps a little predictable; for example, Smith's young daughter dying on the eve of the Party ascending to power. The familiar political refrains of 'strong leadership' and 'law and order' and 'common sense' rattle through the text disturbingly. These simple-minded concepts are timeless political old-rope, and are always guaranteed to appeal to those who believe human nature can be changed through imposed discipline - in this case, a discipline rooted in tradition and self-reliance. Smith always 'knows better' when it comes to young people, immigrants and Union officials, just as he always 'knows his place' when it comes to Party members and the gentry. The fact that he can look both ways makes him a very desirable demographic for politicians who will campaign for his vanity and legislate for his prejudice. If Smith is to be believed, Britain expects... Britain expects a politician who is a strong leader, who will stand up for traditional values, who will cherish her imperial past, who will revive the Commonwealth, who will take us out of Europe, who will reform the welfare so it cannot be abused by scroungers and shirkers, who will reward those who want to work hard and get on, who will stem the tide of foreigners to our shores...
The book's problem is a too-close analogy to the rise of Nazism in Germany. Hearn is obviously Hitler; Crossmere is obviously Von Papen; the BAP with its banners and rallies is obviously the Nazi Party. At no point does Smith seek to draw a comparison between what is happening in Britain and what happened in Germany - it is a fatal weak spot because this is not an alternate history in which Nazism did not happen - Smith himself was something in stores during the Second World War, and a Party member of his acquaintance collects Nazi memorabilia. But even when Smith is arranging disposal of bodies at the camp, he seems curiously ignorant of historical context. There is only one possible explanation for this - the mysterious future editor who is presenting Smith's diaries for publication. This editor insists the diaries have not been redacted but, given his identity, or his origin, which is revealed at the end, we can only wonder if the historical context has been removed for political purposes.
Muller was an interesting writer, a German who settled in England after the war, and who doesn't really get the attention he deserves for the contribution he made to British cultural life; apart from this novel (and several others) he was very active on British television, penning several series, including Supernatural for the BBC in 1978, a rather splendid anthology of horror stories; and he made an outstanding contribution to the BBC's seminal science fiction series, Out of the Unknown, as well as ITV's Mystery and Imagination in the late 60s, writing blazing adaptations of Frankenstein and The Suicide Club, no less. It is a matter of regret that his name seems to have disappeared so mysteriously... to complete the sentence of the title: It couldn't possibly happen here; after all, this is England.
Theodore Sturgeon's bizarre story about a teddy bear which dips into the future of its human charge, causing murder and mayhem, has to be one of the first examples of the boy communicating with the man and vice versa. In this case, with diabolic intent. The messages escape safe missive form and are instead the dreams of the boy become the actions of the man. But the boy's dreams and therefore the man's actions are directed by the bear, in the best traditions of a warped toy. For the man, it means that he is in a permanent state of deja vu; which is, perhaps, the worst nightmare of all - he can remember being the boy, but the boy cannot remember being the man. The capsule of the story is the man's horror passed back to the boy. The boy doesn't understand the horror, but the bear does, revels in it, and wants more... until the man's outrage reaches back through the years and turns the boy against the bear.
The Professor's Teddy Bear finds Sturgeon at his most inventive and grotesque; it originally graced the pages of an edition of Weird Tales and is, perhaps, a story best described by reading it.
The Professor's Teddy Bear finds Sturgeon at his most inventive and grotesque; it originally graced the pages of an edition of Weird Tales and is, perhaps, a story best described by reading it.