PSI High & Others: by Alan E. Nourse

I first happened across Alan E. Nourse about 15 years ago, when I was reading anthologies at the rate of two a day; as a result his work must have passed me by. I had opportunity to revisit him when I discovered that some of his stories are out of copyright and can be found in readings of variable quality at librivox (and youtube). PSI High & Others is a trilogy of novellas published by Faber in the UK in 1967, the stories originally appearing in pulps in the late 50s/early 60s. Nourse's future America is depressingly corporate, though not very dystopian - for the most part its heroes are Presidents, Senators, Congressmen, Industrialists, and so on. They are the villains too, if that's any consolation. His future US also features a fifth column of PSI capable humans (PSI is ESP+ to us post-Campbellians), which comes gradually to challenge the established order.

The first story, Martyr, has tough as nails Sen. Dan Fowler launch his campaign to have a longevity treatment, currently restricted to a small elite of rich and famous, extended to the general population. He arranges for his brother to have the treatment, and report to the Capitol on its details; but his brother refuses. When quizzed as to why, Paul Fowler tells Dan to look at the life work of those whose lives have been extended. And, sure enough, Dan visits his favourite childhood composer to find the man has been working on the same symphony for 77 years. Fowler writes and presents his own report - that by making human life open-ended, the urgency goes out of endeavour, and nothing ever gets done. Martyr is a deftly arranged story, written up as thriller because the macguffin is near-immortality, which of itself necessitates intrigue. But the only real intrigue in the story belongs to Dan Fowler, because he is dying...

In the title story, PSI High, an alien with powerful mental abilities lands alone on Earth to seek out the fledgling PSI movement and destroy it as a prelude to invasion. The PSI-ers track the alien as it cuts a swathe across America, leaving a trail of mental destruction in its wake. Nothing the PSI movement throws at the alien slows or affects its progress towards its prize - frail and beautiful Jean Sanders, PSI High's most gifted. As the alien gets closer, the PSI-ers form ranks about Jean, and a sort of mental siege takes places, with Nourse ratcheting up the tension by having the government and populace turn against the PSI-ers - they suspect the alien is in league with PSI High; and as it turns out...  The denouement of the story is a twist tied as a noose; but I'm not sure that the weight is correct. The set-up is overly-elaborate and the pay-off rests entirely with the fate of the alien which, while certainly plausible, has rather a touch of Chekhov about it - permitting your raygun to be seen and not used is a delicate narrative choice. Put bluntly (spoiler ahead), the alien dies quietly at its first human encounter - at the hands of a farmer whose dog it has killed. The "alien" they've been tracking turns out to be a human, the next step in PSI development, who used the alien's arrival (and disappearance) as cover to announce his existence. As you would. The story is also a gothic romance of sorts, as a being perceived throughout to be monstrous pursues the mind of a girl. PSI High is a complex tale which probably would have worked better at greater length. Its mood is dark and ambitious, but Nourse's prose is simply not precise enough to allow it to take hold. There are too many competing elements; however, as flawed as it is, PSI High is the best story in the volume, and evidence that Nourse's work is a cut above the norm.

The last story, Mirror Mirror, is a rather grim study of the psychological aspects of war. An alien fleet blunders into the solar system; it violently repels attempts at contact from Earth, destroys a base on Titan, and flees to forbidding Saturn, where it hides in the atmosphere. Earth, always keen to press a disadvantage, builds a space station to orbit Saturn and carries the war to the aliens through "analogues" (shades of Poul Anderson's Call Me Joe and, fwiw, James Cameron's Avatar). The minds of soldiers are encased in electronic drones and fired into the atmosphere of Saturn to harrass the aliens. Upon returning they are given Relief (as opposed to leave), which is the only thing that keeps them sane. One such soldier is John Provost. He has formed a deep bond with one of his Relief pleasures, or "that Turner girl," as she is referred to throughout the text. On returning from a particularly arduous mission he finds "that Turner girl" mouthing suspiciously alien thoughts - she is promptly and brutally killed by the station staff, and the entire garrison goes into meltdown, believing the aliens have somehow infiltrated them. Of course, what Provost might well have been hearing from "that Turner girl" were his own thoughts at remove; his psychological breakdown due to the ravages of war; echoes of combat. The rest of the story is neither here nor there, except to say that in the best tradition of human folly, the cure for pain is more pain.

Nourse is probably best known for the term Blade Runner, which was the title of one of his novels and which was borrowed by Ridley Scott for the director's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? He had a fairly active career in the pulps and was lucky enough to see his work collected and issued in hardcover by Faber & Faber in the UK. Why this should be the case, I'm not sure. His novellas are, for the most part, his best work; the novels are weaker in subject matter and it seems obvious (to me) that he made some odd choices as to the possibilities of his ideas. Still, there's no denying that his best work is well-worth reading.

And, thankfully, one of the surviving episodes of the fabled Out of the Unknown is an adaptation of Nourse's The Counterfeit Man, which you can watch here:

Revolution: by Mack Reynolds

Mack Reynolds was a long time member of the Socialist Labour Party in the USA, and a hugely prolific and popular writer for the near pulps during the 50s and 60s. Much of his work in science fiction was political, extrapolating futures from the Cold War, from economics, and from news items which did not necessarily make the news, but certainly made the future. His work is always interesting, though in view of the fall of the Soviet Union, it appeared for a time that he had been debunked by history. Not so, as his novella Revolution demonstrates.

The Soviet Union has overtaken the US in the economic race. While America uses its steel mills to produce cars and televisions and washing machines, the USSR puts steel mills to producing more steel mills, and more, until the country is a belching powerhouse of economic growth. At which point the US decides to intervene by sending an agent into the USSR, with orders to contact the underground opposition and organise a revolt. Money is no object, and the agent is to be assisted by all the ingenuity of US industrial espionage.

The opposition is not at all what agent Koslov expects, nor is it what his masters in Washington need. They are not fledgling capitalists; they are not even disillusioned communists - they are syndicalists. They applaud the Soviet experiment; they believe it has been ultimately successful, but they also believe it has served its purpose in turning the USSR into a world power. Now they wish to place that power in the hands of workers. They want to transform the USSR from a Union into a Collective. Because he is Russian by birth, Koslov understands that these people are not revolutionaries because they are corruptible - they are revolutionaries because they are incorruptible. Koslov knows such people are no use to America's ultimate purpose, which is to overthrow Soviet communism and turn the USSR to free market capitalism. But will his paymasters grasp this? Their opinion appears to be that, because they have willingly assisted revolution, the revolutionaries are traitors and once bought, will stay bought. The US dollar is the payment; the imposition of the US system is the payback.

Reynolds leaves the story hanging, to be completed by events. Will the revolution go ahead? Of course it will, despite Koslov's warnings - America will have its Russian day, and if the revolutionaries prove inconvenient at a later date, they too can be dispensed with. Everyone is expendable in the human race to the bottom.

Of particular note in Reynolds' other works is The Fracas Factor, an extraordinary series of novellas which locate exactly where he believes history is going - "People's Capitalism" - in which corporations attempting takeovers and mergers hire proles to fight these as bloody battles, all televised for the delight of shareholders, stakeholders, and spear holders.

The Foundations of the Twenty-First Century: by Philip Challinor

The year is 1989. The place is London. But the event... the event is the centenary of Hitler's birth, and it is being celebrated by Britain; not simply Nazi-occupied Britain, but a country almost fully integrated into Germany's Third Reich, embedded, as it were. The Royal Family still survives, suggesting an all-too familiar treachery; there are references to Isolationists gaining influence at the beginning of World War Two; the Russian front appears to be ongoing and claiming the life of many a British Volk soldier; and there is mention of America escaping the fate of Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Foreign tourists abound in London for the centenary, and all appears well on the Home Front.

Harold Cullen is part of a group of cadets who arrive in London to begin their courses and are seconded to assist with centenary duties, amongst other things - for in Nazi Britain the officious attitude of the stern corporal is king, and as punishment for youth and lack of rank, the group finds itself detailed to hand out leaflets, while billeted in a dreary but surprisingly large flat. The cadets are a mixed bag - while they are all keen to hone their Nationalist-Socialist zeal, Cullen seems particularly adept - for example, happily spying on fellow train passengers on the journey to London. Not content with this, he is also keen to explore the personal belongings of their landlord, whose flat seems rather more spacious than Cullen deems fit for a single man living alone. The landlord, Truman, well aware of what motivates the likes of Cullen, lets slips that his accommodation is reward for a special service performed for the Reich years before. But he remains tight-lipped about details, and this only furthers Cullen's curiosity. Perhaps Cullen's zeal can only be attributed to the fact that his grandfather also performed special service for the Reich, of which he is always mindful, chiefly because he is never allowed to forget it - not by his mother, his instructors, or by the other cadets - the exact nature of that service, however, is never shared with him.

The book takes the form of a first person narrative by Cullen, perhaps a journal of some kind, because each entry is dated. The prose throughout is terse, succinct and, at times, a little conspiratorial. All the pettiness of life in Britain is combined with the perversity of Nazism, and they are found to be compatible, collaborators, familiars even. The language reflects this in turn of phrase and figure of speech - phrases are jackbooted through the text as slogans (blood always tells), figures are uniform and correct. It captures ideology not only as a way of life, but as a mode of self-censoring forethought - as interior life. However, Cullen's narrative gives the impression of being a little too correct - at least at first. He has an eye for the disloyal; but he also has a disarming eye for the loyal. He sees and reports contradictions, anomalies, pettiness and even ideological doubts, all of which take various forms; and his crisis, when it comes, is an almost willfully perverse and unwelcome development in his career. It is as though we are not the only people looking over his shoulder.

Up to this point, there appears to be almost no resistance, except perhaps in one regard: the near-forbidden knowledge of another event, uncelebrated but seemingly unforgotten, and which can be pieced together from clues and hints scattered throughout the text, variously as allusions, threats, boasts and anecdotes. Who, for example, are the mysterious "hoaxers" hiding in plain sight on the London Underground? Just what was the supreme service rendered by Cullen's landlord to the state?  Even the early reference to trains running on time assumes ominous significance, once the reader has pieced together the subtext. Usually, in alternative history, authors game their point of departure - it is built into the text as a twist or a hook. But here, no such point of departure matters, and there are no safe games to be had from a reveal. If anything, history and its alternate converge in the opposite of foregrounding - as a defining back shadow which haunts the text. F21C transports its themes by more than train of thought: the final, almost hallucinatory journey is anything but that - it is the culmination of everything we have seen and heard: in Cullen's history, and in ours.

As for resistance, in a way Mr Challinor performs a remarkable feat: in a book which so cleverly transports the reader, the thought occurs - if history is written by the winner, who writes the alternate history? The dissident perhaps.

Unearthly Stranger (1964)

One of a number of fondly remembered British sf films made in the early 60s (The Night Caller and The Mind Benders being otherly), Unearthly Stranger provided a rare early leading role for John Neville. Here he is superbly supported by Philip Stone and Gabriella Licudi in a story which, to my surprise, is not based on a novel, but on an original idea. The idea, of course, is old hat, even by the sf standards of the early 60s, but it's interesting to see a maturity of treatment which is all too rare in science fiction in the cinema.

A private research laboratory appears to be on the verge of making a breakthrough in space exploration - not by means of sending ships, but by flinging the human consciousness onto other worlds. The question is - have aliens already flung their consciousness to earth? When scientists on the project begin to die, Neville suspects yes. In the meantime, he is newly-married. His wife, ostensibly foreign, permitted him to notice her on a dark Italian road with mysterious powers in attendance. She does not satisfy the company's security checks - she has no personal or family records. She also has a number of oddly inhuman quirks on the feminine/domestic side - she can't blink, but when she learns to do so it is with the self-conscious flutter of a coquette. Neville's colleague watches her remove a hot dish from an oven without wearing oven gloves. Salt tears leave vivid scars on her cheeks. Neville is well aware of what all this means - after all, it was his his idea that aliens maybe already be present - he just refuses to believe it of his wife, which is where the film gets most of its drama, as well as some of its absurdities. Licudi's is quite a disingenuous character - she obviously has sexual and maternal instincts, but they are not complete; her very lack of design must seem beguiling to scientists. When she looks to her husband to complete her things begin to unravel, because he looks to his work for answers.

There are a number of quite striking scenes, the best of which is Licudi's brief stop outside a schoolyard; she watches the children at play, until they become aware of her not-quite-right presence and retreat en masse to the school building, no bell necessary, except perhaps the alarm bells set to ringing in their heads. And it is interesting to watch Stone move Neville to the inevitable conclusion during a series of increasingly fractious encounters between the two men - as Licudi's character struggles with its mission, the two men are almost cruelly discursive, but it's hard to see how it could be any other way.

Ultimately, the aliens are all female, as confirmed by the striking final shot. I'm almost tempted to speculate that there is no better position to abuse than that of perennial female assistant, or demure wife, and that the aliens are aware of this and use it to their advantage - that our weak spots are prejudices and inequalities because they can be exploited in ways we can't imagine by beings who understand them as strategy rather than as tactics.

Unearthly Stranger is, for the most part, brilliantly shot, acted, and directed and well-worth seeking out. It is something of a rarity and it would be a real treat to see it cleaned up for a DVD release.

John Boyd RIP

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.

Tomorrow's Men: by Michael Shea

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.