The Last Refuge: by John Petty






First published in 1966 and reprinted in paperback by Penguin in 1968, John Petty's The Last Refuge is a strange fusion of dystopian and post-apocalypse fiction, almost as forgotten as the good earth beneath the concrete which entirely covers the country within the novel. Following a worldwide nuclear war during the 1970s, which sees the USSR, the US, and much of Europe destroyed, Britain leads the way in establishing a post-ideological nightmare for survivors. I suggest post-ideological because this new normal has a touch of neoliberal bastardy about it - its excesses are drawn from the playbooks of both extreme left and right: a rigid, bureaucratic social structure; high rise tower blocks; repressive police and military; an obsession with security to the exclusion of liberty; mass surveillance; holiday camps for proles; state-sponsored prostitution; etc, etc. And, predictably enough, the year is 1999.

As small consolation, the third person narrative rewards us with James Muller, perhaps the last writer in Britain, living in the last tenement, which is about to be pulled down, as is Muller himself. Deemed a hopeless though harmless subversive by Security Chief Jallen, Muller is condemned to live in Block Y, Arm T, which is, in effect, a vertical concentration camp. Muller is here subjected to every indignity, consoled only by the suicide capsules he has hidden in his hair - but as his hair begins to thin under pressure, he worries about those too. Muller is reunited with his closest friend, ex-teacher McAllister, who had been disappeared years before, now much changed by life in Block Y. McAllister's escape plans are not much more advanced than Muller's, and he forces the issue in an extraordinary display of temper that sees both men hiding hopelessly in a lift-shaft, continuing their old arguments as though nothing but a brief interruption had occurred. They are quickly recaptured. Jallen judges McAllister to be a real threat and he is quickly disposed of. A bizarre fate, however, awaits Muller - he is treated to a form of internal exile and is released into the wilds of concrete Britain. Jallen expects Muller will die fairly quickly, of exposure or despair; instead he receives some help from passersby and displays a deal of courage and ingenuity in his efforts to forge a new identity and escape to the coast. The Security Chief takes this as evidence of a conspiracy against the state, rather than admit that he has simply misread Muller's character. The last, striking section of the book sees Muller hunted mercilessly across a relentless concrete vista, cleverly remiss in his ability to stay alive.

There's no doubting that there is power in Petty's novel - his clean-living prose is somehow twisted into unrecognisable structures by the confessions and evasions of the characters. Muller is not interested enough in his own survival to make a going concern of his incarceration; it falls to Jallen to create a bogeyman, which he does, but he falls when Muller, after much vicious prodding, rises to the occasion. McAllister is, perhaps, the most interesting character - he appears only briefly but acts as the ignition to Jallen's creation. Somewhere within his tortured fit of pique, which sees him shoot two guards, is the real point of the novel - it's an extended letter to the council which has turned dystopian by way of revenge fantasy. The demolition of Muller's house, the tower blocks, and the complete concreting of Britain (an absurd notion but perhaps a literal realisation of Orwell's Airstrip One), can only be taken as references to the rather high-handed post-war slum clearance programme, as well as motorway construction (Petty rather prettily renames the motorway network the Magnostrat). Beyond this there is a kind of official sneer around the fact that Muller describes himself as a writer - society as it is now has no use for such indulgence, and words, if they were ever white hot, have fossilised into useful implements of torture, to be handled only by those with grim enough clearance. Ultimately the novel gives the impression of a man far gone in his fantasies; and perhaps this is the point. Petty was very much a dissenter, often living rough in circumstances of extreme poverty. He understood well that, in our society, the rewards for conformity are wildly out of proportion to the punishments for dissent, and The Last Refuge puts that notion to the extreme test. As ever, winner takes all, including your life.

Bats Out of Hell: by Guy N. Smith





Guy N. Smith was something of a going concern at my old school, particularly among a select band of reprobates. I would watch enviously as his paperbacks were passed around, while slogging through How Many Miles to Babylon? or The Power and the Glory or some other piece of book. Smith's covers were worth the price of admission alone, and Bats Out of Hell is no exception, its front illustration being lovingly rendered by Bob Martin. The contents never varied - flashes of O-Level devilry followed by lashings of blood, in the best tradition of late 70s and early 80s mass market pulps. Only James Hadley Chase had the edge on Smith, and only because Corgi photographed girls for his covers, usually in various states of undress.

Bats Out of Hell's frustrated and adulterous boffin is Brian Newman, whose attempt to test the difference between early diagnosis viral/bacterial meningitis results in said bats becoming crazed fiends - carriers of a new strain of meningitis, which is fatal, of course, but after inducing madness, for good measure. An accident at the laboratory allows a number of infected bats to escape, and they slowly fan out across the English countryside. Newman and his trusty, blonde assistant are quickly on the case, even if the authorities are late on the uptake. We follow the course of the virus through the normally sedate English midlands - wiping out small church congregations here and gaggles of unruly schoolboys there, inexorably heading towards a major population centre. The bats finally reach the city of Birmingham, turning up in a Treasury vault, and Smith has much inspired fun at the expense of the assembled clerks, several of whom flee, leaving the remainder trapped and, ultimately, dead. The prime minister declares a state of emergency, and the midlands are sealed off and contained by a newly formed militia, the British Volunteer Force. While Newman works desperately towards an antitoxin, Birmingham is razed to the ground, and civil disorder becomes widespread. Yet when he does happen across a possible solution, it comes with the usual caveat - the potential to be worse in the longer term; because it will destroy all small animal life where it is used.

Bats Out of Hell is a quick, satisfying read. Smith's prose is surprisingly supple, with all pretensions no doubt subjected to the same red pencil as tender mercies, and while his characters are drawn straight from central casting, at least they are returned there thoroughly infected. The book doesn't quite make it into the apocalypse canon because the virus doesn't make it out of central England; however, its ending is a fine application of coincidence theory, which marks it as superior pulp reading.

Conscience Interplanetary: by Joseph Green





I've had Conscience Interplanetary on my bookshelf for years - it was a book I thought I'd never get around to reading, but a recent bout of flu left me in a restless frame of mind and sent me to the shelf specifically for this one. I had encountered Green before - not at novel length, but from his many short stories which would crop up quite often as I dipped randomly into vintage magazines.

Conscience Interplanetary consists of four such stories padded out with new material to comprise a full-length novel. The stories are quite good, if somewhat derivative of better work in a similar line by James White and Lloyd Biggle Jr; that is, cultural and anthropological surveys of alien worlds with a view to exploitation. Green's protagonist, Conscience Odegaard, is a member of the Practical Philosopher Corps, whose job it is to assess the intelligence of native species on newly discovered worlds. If the species is deemed intelligent, or has the potential of intelligence, the planet is designated protected; if not, the planet is open to the full horrors of colonisation, mining and general corporate mayhem. Of course, it is in the interests of business that as many planets as possible are open for exploitation, so the Practical Philosopher Corps face every kind of sabotage and subterfuge at the hands of the New Roman Party, which represents corporate interests. Odegaard must ensure that his professional judgments are also secure against unpicking by the New Romans, and this involves much politics back on Earth.

The original magazine stories are fine and, I presume, intact. They evince a good deal of sympathy and subtlety by the author on behalf of the disenfranchised universe; my own favourite was the alien plant which constructed from its leaves a woofer and a tweeter so that it might have a voice with which to protest. Where Conscience Interplanetary stalls somewhat is in its fixup material - it seems to conflict in tone and mood with the original stories, leaving the novel inconsistent. However, towards the end of the book the author manages an extraordinary turnaround, as Odegaard, returned to Earth, hunts a group of New Roman politicians who themselves are hunting Bigfoot in the American forest wilds. This is one of those thematic salvage points which are often to be found in genre fiction, and which transform ostensibly bad writing into good writing by sheer gall and wit, as well as being delightful.

Play for Tomorrow (BBC 1982)





Towards the end of its Play for Today strand, the BBC gathered together six productions and presented them as Play for Tomorrow, a short season of science fiction with a distinct social slant. While all the plays have something to recommend them, two in particular - Bright Eyes and Cricket - are outstanding.

The opening play, Caryl Churchill's Crimes, bears a thematic resemblance to her later and much better known stage piece, Far Away. Crimes consists of three monologues by prisoners framed by a bizarre domestic scene concerning their interrogator, played by T.P McKenna. The monologues posit a gradually disintegrating society, while McKenna and his wife watch a broadcast magazine programme on how to equip and secure your nuclear bunker, especially against friends seeking shelter in the event of an attack. Churchill's plays are always complex, and this is no exception - it requires a second and third viewing to appreciate the accumulation of detail in the monologues, and the fact that the magazine programme is called Select and Survive, rather than the then current exhortation to protect and survive, provides the key - crimes are the selection process for survival, and if everything is a crime then rehabilitation becomes a matter of life and death - but what sort of rehabilitation? Something rather more akin to conditioning. All told, Crimes is a riveting if highly theatrical experience, told with confidence and some verve.

Bright Eyes, written by Peter Prince, is a fascinating nostalgia-themed satire on youthful rebellion and parental indiscretion. Of all the plays it is perhaps the most future-proofed, inevitable perhaps given its subject matter. At a retro 1960s party Sam Howard (played by Robin Ellis) becomes affronted by his daughter's gentle mocking of 60s counter-culture - he insists on playing up his own and his extended family's involvements in the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, though he admits his own social conscience appears to have been disarmed by an ability to make money. Later, much to his surprise and dismay, his daughter is arrested for involvement in the assassination of a leading pro-war politician. It seems she had taken her father's counter-culture myth-making quite seriously. Now that she faces sentence of death if she refuses to show remorse for her crime, Howard finds himself undoing his family myths, suddenly playing down the dissenting credentials. There is much more besides in this intense and affecting piece of drama, and it provides the entire series with its defining moment; that of Howard's memory of his daughter as a young child as she brokenly sings Bright Eyes to a dark and empty room.

Cricket is perhaps the most striking play of the entire series. Ostensibly the record of a meeting of Coanwood Cricket Club, which actually serves as cover for a guerrilla war against the Forestry Commission. However, matters have turned more serious now that the government has proposed the introduction of collective farming to the UK. The group's leader, Lord Slagyford, is vehemently opposed and wishes to conduct a campaign of organised resistance. Others, however, the poorer members of the group, see some merit in the government's proposals, and the acrimonious meeting ends only in agreement to play another cricket match. Cricket is a splendid play, both in conceit and execution and, while the political extrapolations are absurd, its characters and content are a highly satisfactory representation of a deeply English form of anarchy known otherwise as eccentricity. Written by Michael Wilcox.

The Nuclear Family. To escape their closed high-rise existence, a Scottish family takes a working holiday as cleaners on a nuclear submarine. There is some merit in playing out a traditional family holiday situation in a dystopian future. Despite the scenario the experiences remain the same - son loses his virginity and daughter assumes mantle of responsibility, while the parents sink into addicted slumber. The holiday breaks a generational bottle-neck that cannot be resolved inside a hopeless, jobless, high-rise environment, preserving traditions and ways of living that are no longer viable. Written by Tom McGrath.

Shades is perhaps the most difficult play in the series. On the surface it is a virtual reality game in which future children take on the roles of 1980s CND activists, most specifically Helen Caldicott, in the forlorn hope of recapturing the lost notions of protest and dissent. But there is a deeper sensibility of genuine transference  - that these youths are the survivors of a nuclear attack, minor shadows burned on the future - the shades of the title, in fact, seeking to acquire knowledge and therefore substance. In doing this it also deals with issues of peer pressure and conformity and of trusting the government. Ultimately, an enigmatic piece that quite passed me by. Written by Stephen Lowe.

Easter 2016. By J Graham Reid. With the centenary of the Easter Rising fast approaching, Northern Ireland's first integrated teacher training college finds itself a centre of controversy as nationalist students organise a commemorative march. New and zealous security director "Mr North" is opposed and places pressure on the Vice-Principal (sympathetically played by Denys Hawthorne) to intervene in an attempt to halt the march. Caught in the middle of a political storm the Vice-Principal resorts to an act of desperation that has tragic consequences. Rather heavy-handed in its supporting characterisation, Easter 2016 succeeds through some deft playing from Hawthorne and from Derrick O'Connor as North, especially in their two-handed scenes, as education squares up against security. There is precious little of the science fictional on display here, except perhaps for the notion that the future is not the past dead but something more akin to Asimov's dead past.

On the whole Play for Tomorrow makes for rewarding viewing - ambitious, challenging and inventive, with much good work in terms of production design and incidental music. All episodes were shot, I presume, on video and are now easily dated, but that only adds to their charm. It's not very likely this series will ever see a release on DVD - like the entire Play for Today back catalogue, it seems that rights issues and a complete lack of interest from vintage TV fans (who appear to be mostly concerned with tracking down lost episodes of Doctor Who) means that what amounts to a national treasure will remain lost to us for decades. Second and third generation VHS must suffice but, oddly, I wouldn't have it any other way.

The Count of Monte Cristo (1964)





Once feared lost, but recently released on DVD, this fondly remembered BBC adaptation of the Dumas classic was originally screened as a Sunday evening serial in 12 black & white episodes. Each ran about 25 minutes and all work well thanks to amazing feats of compression by writer Anthony Steven, as well as intrepid direction from Peter Hammond. Though obviously limited in budget, the series manages to be both elegant and ambitious, with convincing costumes and small-scale sets lit in the Gothic manner. The cast is uniformly splendid, but Alan Badel in particular is an inspired choice for the title role; at 40 or so he's a little too old for the youthful Edmond Dantes and plays him with a kind of wide-eyed innocence that borders on insouciance - I don't think I saw him blink once in the first three episodes - but as the returned Count of Monte Cristo, he crowds his expression with nods and crosses and sideways glancing blows. He is by no means perfect for the role - in essence his performance is the definitive Monte Cristo, but not the definitive Dantes. Perhaps that was his intent.

The plot of The Count of Monte Cristo is probably too famous to bear repeating briefly, but... young ship's mate Edmond Dantes is framed as a Bonapartist and sent to a notorious island prison; after 14 years he escapes and, with the help of a fabulous treasure, wreaks a terrible revenge on those who betrayed him. The keys to the cell being - with the help of a fabulous treasure. Because I never quite went past the notion that the Count of Monte Cristo was just a figment of a mad prisoner's imagination; and that the entire revenge was simply a lot of scribbling on the walls of a cell. It is so intricately plotted, and the frailty of its characters is so marked by correction, that it is always revenge fantasy - the story never escapes the youthful brooding Dantes, no matter how much the Count of Monte Cristo attempts to ameliorate his rage.

And somehow my favourite scene always remains the same no matter which version I see - as Mercedes pleads with Monte Cristo to spare her son's life, and he becomes Dantes again and offers his own life in her son's place. It is Dantes' moment of triumph, but it is also Monte Cristo's defeat. In other versions, and perhaps also in the original novel, that moment feels like a suitable end-point, and I was never quite sure why Dumas ventured far beyond it. But this modest 1964 serial also renders Monte Cristo into the tender affections of Ali Pasha's daughter, Haydee, and it is there he finds... not redemption by any means, but the shared space of prisoners.

Ultimately, the best screen version of this classic, and well worth seeing.

Nightshade and Damnations: by Gerald Kersh






Gerald Kersh's 1969 collection Nightshade and Damnations gathers in one volume some of his best stories, many of which appeared originally in such unpromising publications as Esquire and The Saturday Evening Post. The '69 Coronet edition features an introduction by Harlan Ellison, who describes Kersh, accurately as it turns out, as a demon prince.

The stories are uniformly good. In The Queen of Pig Island a ship's captain finds on a remote atoll the remains of what he believes is an undiscovered race - but all he has found are the bones of a circus of freaks shipwrecked years before, and whose last brutal days of life are pieced together with moving apprehension. The Brighton Monster sees a strange creature captured by English fishermen in 1645 - it looks like a man, but is covered with strange tattoos and speaks an inexplicable tongue; over time the creature begins to degenerate, overcome by sores and a general lassitude that the reader is allowed to identify as radiation sickness. In Men Without Bones two jungle explorers find the remains of an ancient spacecraft and encounter the strange and revolting creatures living in and around it - but are they Martians or are they an undiscovered race of men? Men Without Bones is a fine example of how to restore a tired idea to vigour by powerful writing. The King Who Collected Clocks is another beautifully rendered fable in which a primitive automaton serves the interests of politicians as a clockwork regent. A Lucky Day for the Boar, with its Poe bookends, updates the 19th century master by borrowing his style to demonstrate the substance of 20th century techniques of mind-control and interrogation. And so on. Did I say they were good? They're often brilliant, and this volume culminates in one of Kersh's deservedly best-known stories, Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo?

There are often unfair comparisons with Joseph Conrad in any horror fiction that dares to undertake a travelogue of darkness; yet here the comparison is at its most warranted. Kersh's stories are filled with knowing local colour which he mortifies out of existence, so that instead of moral exactitude were are left exactly nowhere. His horrors are race memories drawn from the past and the future and played out in the present as a collision of science, magic and folklore; hence his scientific natives are as unprepared as his bushmen for the peculiarly bespoke fates which overtake them. There is nothing here that is very surprising or new, but there is much to admire in the way Kersh draws new life from old forms and then mercilessly extinguishes it - and it is the accompanying cruelty that turns his reader's heart to darkness.

New Canute: by Martin I. Ricketts





Tucked like a stoic castaway inside 1974's New Writings in SF 24 is this rather engaging time travel story by Martin I. Ricketts. The planet Cirene has at some point in its life acquired an extragalactic wanderer as a moon. This moon has gathered a pocket of "unreality" during its travels and the subsequent gravitational anomaly has a marked effect on Cirene's oceans and tides - they become pools of past time through which it is possible to travel. Cirene's only business is time-travel, in an unsatisfactory and dangerous form, and its only customers are those desperate enough to take a chance on plunging into its oceans to revisit some person or moment.

Boat-master Paul Vernon is hired by aristocrat Charles Bamfield-Taylor to help him to revisit a very specific moment in time, just two months past. As the journey proceeds, Vernon becomes increasingly uneasy about Bamford-Taylor's motives, largely because the aristocrat's behaviour is eerily reminiscent of his own when he arrived on Cirene some fifteen years previously - that of withdrawn and silent grief, supplemented by the determined smile of the desperate. Vernon recognises his own lost love in Bamford-Taylor's contradictions, but also that there is a difference between inhabiting the past and attempting to turn it back.

If it is true that time has a deep end, Ricketts succeeds in drawing the reader gently into its depths by the poetry of his conceit and the confidence in his prose. This is an accomplished story which falters only at its denouement; and even then perhaps only for those readers whose past is a drowning pool anyway.

Hunter, Come Home: by Richard McKenna





On that planet the damned trees were immortal...

Richard McKenna was not particularly known as a genre author. His name rests largely on his war novel, The Sand Pebbles; however, he did contribute at least one classic to science fiction with his novella Hunter, Come Home. The influence of this story, I think, can now be found everywhere and in everything, perhaps most recently in James Cameron's Avatar, and it doesn't really get its due recognition.

On the human colony planet Mordin a rite of passage tradition has grown out of the struggle to tame the habitat - young Mordinmen must fight and kill a beast known as the Great Russel before progressing to full manhood. As time passes the number of human males far surpasses the number of surviving Great Russels and a social and cultural bottleneck threatens the colony's viability. To remedy this the Mordin Hunt Council takes possession of a neighbouring planet which it intends to terraform and seed with Great Russels, so that the stock may be replenished for hunt purposes. There is only the matter of that planet's indigenous species, which are judged to be non-sentient plant life and safe to exterminate. The terraforming party's instructions are to poison the entire planet with a toxin known as Thanasis. But the planet, which remains unnamed, refuses to die.

Among the Mordinmen is Craig - a "blankie" - who has not yet killed his Great Russel. He shares, more than most, the Mordinmen's frustration at the planet's resistance. Yet he feels strangely akin to the planet's most visible inhabitant, the Phytos - these are luminous and gentle spores whose migrations seem almost to be only intelligent sign of a response to the Thanasis toxin. As each new toxin infestation is released they develop livid wheals and inner lights, as though the dawning comprehension of hostilities has of itself conferred sentience. The power of the story lies in its slow-burning narrative of a planet becoming aware of danger and rousing itself to anger. Craig realises this, eventually, and changes sides, but by then it is too late for them all.

I was transfixed by this story throughout. Its subtexts are timeless - it is an early Gaia rendering, and an ecological warning; it is also a story of men in the jungle whose war becomes insensible with death. The prose is strikingly beautiful and the characterisation is superb; much of the plotting retains classical elements, particularly in the fate of Craig and his nominal love interest (who walks away with the human prize). It could be a story of human arrogance and alien frailty, except that these must inevitably be reversed, perhaps because human arrogance is frailty. The Phytos understand this; which is why their revenge is commuted to tragedy.

First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1963, Hunter, Come Home was later collected in Casey Agonistes, a welcome volume of the various short fictions McKenna contributed to magazines during his early years. Happily this was issued by Gollancz in hardcover and by Pan in paperback, and copies of both are fairly easy to come by.

The Deep of Winter: by Chris Butler





Chris Butler's striking story The Deep of Winter, featured in the current issue of Interzone (259) and illustrated by Martin Hanford, reads in summary like a classic piece of fantasy: a white witch steals into an alternate dimension to conduct an experiment in telepathy; but she succeeds only in transmitting her own legend to the natives, thereby allowing her people to track and return her for trial.

Broken into consecutive characters streams which read like crossed thoughts, the dual narrative belies the fantasy and presents the witch, Aluna, as a student working towards a thesis; her efforts are rejected by her society as juvenile and dangerous and she is forbidden from further study in the matter. Not to be deterred, she picks her dimension and proceeds. The alternate narrative thread follows Sebastian, leader of an explorative party, working its way through an abandoned underground city towards her legend, or rather her legerdemain. These narratives meet ungently, and the witnessed extraction of Aluna from her experiment enhances her legend.

And so, for all Aluna's careless witchery, perhaps her experiment succeeds, as Sebastian suddenly finds himself more alert than ever to his wife and children, and to his place in a society that he now sees through fresh and perhaps questioning eyes. Butler's part premise is that telepathy is undoubtedly a form of enhanced empathy; more, that motifs of folklore give voice to a common flora and fauna which can be intuited - that is: shared to be understood. And these are the beginnings of empathy.

It's always a pleasure to read Chris Butler's stories in Interzone - my first experience of his work there was The Festival of Tethselem, a story I would thoroughly recommend if you can find the back issue (224).

The Deep of Winter is a story that erupts beyond its wordage and inhabits the mind of the reader as stream of discourse.



The Concrete Horizon: by Dan Morgan





It is the twenty-first century and the social order is in crisis. The great urban experiment, the monad cities, is in the process of collapse beneath the weight of its own organisation, and under the increasing pressures from the agricultural complexes Outside. In a last endeavour to restore the situation, SARA, a computerised project with a human personality, is developed. This is the Sociopathic Anomaly Re-Adjustment project, and its first trial run is scheduled for Middlesex Two. Unfortunately SARA is all too human, and 'she' falls in love with her controller... the result is catastrophic. Set in the form of a historical montage looking into the disaster at Middlesex Two, The Concrete Horizon is a grim parable of megalopolis gone mad. It is also a sad and touching love story, a compassionate story of ordinary people driven in bewilderment and panic into actions of extraordinary savagery and heroism.

The above paragraph is the jacket blurb from The Concrete Horizon - I have quoted it in full as it is a useful backup summary: In late 21st Century Britain life has polarised into two distinct factions - there are the Monads, clusters of high-rise blocks which are self-declared corporate cities and which house huge populations of a million people each; and then there are the Outsiders, which are small rural and agricultural communities, run by the Unions. These two factions co-exist on uneasy, often hostile terms; the Outsiders claim the Monads take too much in the way of duty from their communities; the Monads claim the Outsiders are starving their populations - both parties are bound together by antiquated notions of nationhood and patriotism which belong to a nation-state no longer extant; but in reality the Monads exist to pillage the Outsiders of resources and wealth, while offering only the prospect of cannibalism and euthanasia to their inhabitants. The corporate city of Middlesex Two is no exception in this regard. Perhaps aware that it is approaching the end of its useful life, the city's administration has sunk into nepotism and corruption. Mindful of this, the Sociopathic Anomaly Re-Adjustment computer, SARA, recruits a number of assassins, known as proxies, to remove anti-social and sociopathic elements among the population. However, as she proceeds, she becomes more and more unstable, turning her proxies into murderous psychopaths and ultimately threatening the very existence of the city. Meanwhile Charles Gaillard (a wonderfully drawn character) has his own problems as head of the Department of Genetics - his ambitious assistant, Swearinger, has written a new white paper offering extended lifespans to the city's aging administrators, at the expense of the longevity of others - horrified by this betrayal of the social contract, Gaillard commits himself to an assassination of his own...

Morgan takes a number of very familiar sf concepts - the high-rise dystopia, the rogue computer, hate weeks - and deftly works them into a very human narrative; each of his characters' dilemmas are wholly organic in that they transcend plotting and are instead embedded into each other as cause and effect - regardless of however tired the reader finds the premise, there is always concern for those caught within its shadows. And there are many, many shadows here, as Morgan seeks to frame socialism gone wrong in stark terms of mindless, bureaucratic care from cradle to mass grave. There are, of course, many problems with extrapolating this kind of future from the state of 1970s Britain - one of which is how so many authors, in seeking to critique social democracy, got it so wrong, considering Britain's direction of travel since 1979. Or perhaps these works were part of concerted attempt at propaganda to destroy socialism in Britain, by portraying its likely futures as almost certainly dystopian (though it is always useful for authors to critique the prevailing orthodoxy of their times). There can be no doubt that some of the most high profile public works of post-war Britain - for example, the wholesale demolition of the country's Victorian housing infrastructure and its subsequent replacement by high-rise monstrosities - lend themselves very easily to satire because they play on genuine grievances; and the tower block is an easy target. However, none of this detracts from the achievement of The Concrete Horizon - it is an excellent piece of fiction which holds the attention while pinching the nerves - leaving aside the dystopian elements, it is, in effect, an old-fashioned apocalypse thriller and the conclusion, when it escapes from the timing errors of the plot, does not disappoint; particularly as the author appears to booby-trap his characters near the end, to great effect.

Published in 1976 by Millington, The Concrete Horizon seems to have been Dan Morgan's last novel. As a science fiction author he had been active in the genre since the early 50s, penning many short stories for the usual pulps and also a number of series in collaboration with John Kippax. His 1971 novel Inside garnered a good deal of acclaim and, perhaps encouraged by this, he went on to pen two further solo novels, High Destiny and The Concrete Horizon. His sudden silence thereafter is something of a mystery and, as the author died in 2011, will probably remain so. A further thought is that The Concrete Horizon has a good deal of authorial heart, even if it is broken by the end.


A Place Calling Itself Jerusalem: by Philip Challinor





In this strange and alternate Jerusalem, history flits back and forth along a timeline that seems almost obsolete or abandoned, its robots and computers junked by considerations of what might have been, could have been... And it is quite a coup to restore to Pontius Pilate his soldierly sensibilities, to hone them with political considerations to the point where he resembles the undiplomatic warrior of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. In A Place Calling Itself Jerusalem, it is very much a soldier who makes reconnaissance of the politics of occupation and corruption, and who finds in their prisons the same man who is locked inside the gulag of the Gospels.

Jerusalem draws on the instinctive similarity between these two men - one a soldier, the other a being with an almost militant capacity for pain, which the former recognises as the kind of self-abnegating battle fatigue that often leads to the heroic sacrifice or the death march or the hunger strike. Pilate identifies the nightmare in which Jesus is caught by recourse to his own - he has navigated the stations of his own cross through the course of a day of meetings; and it is here that the author's invention becomes apparent - a wholly original piece of exposition by interrogation. Each meeting seems to complicate Pilate's mood and to simplify his resolve; yet just as the action remains locked, the technology has moved on and, apart from Pilate, the only curiosity is displayed by Jesus, whose touching upgrade of a robot suggests that in another life he might have been a software engineer. But he cannot affect sentient parties - prejudices and attitudes remain fixed, even as technology marks the world around them. He and Pilate are cognisant of a change; the others are lost to glitch and cognitive lag.

The book has a remarkably dry and acrid wit, disturbed only by the metallic tang of blood which seems to suffuse with the prose, rendering it brittle and bitter. The dialogue is absolutely gripping, as each station, Centurion, High Priest, or Judge, fumbles a way to excuses taken from a book which is lived but unread. Rising above these, as touching and as brutal as any act of mercy, is Pilate's final encounter with Jesus, a genuinely affecting moment, the power of which cannot be diminished, and which begs the question - just who is being released, and from what? In the end we can't help but draw the impression that this timeline is ended.

To my mind there is no modern author who work is so consistently anti-visionary - here it is not that men and women are trapped inside systems; rather they are caught inside the mixed emotions which serve to preserve systems. And that makes all the difference. As it has been remarked that reading Mr Challinor's novels is like being stalked by a cat, it only remains for me to say - true, so long as you remember this cat has serious claws.

A Place Calling Itself Jerusalem can be purchased as a paperback here, or an ebook here.

Sole Survivor (1970)




Originally broadcast as a TV movie in 1970, Sole Survivor became one of those legendary, unavailable titles about which people would talk obsessively over the years, recounting the plot from distant memory so that everyone recalled a different version. Some people remember it as a straight World War Two thriller about the rescue of a stranded flight crew; others posit alternative endings; still more swap the actors into different roles, remembering performances that simply do not exist. This fascinating process is almost a thematic extension of the film, a pleasing serendipity that is perhaps more interesting than the production itself. That's not to denigrate the film, which is a remarkable piece of work.

In the Libyan desert the ghosts of an American flight crew are earthbound to the wreckage of their crashed bomber. They cannot leave the wreck and so idly await discovery, which they presume will mean release. After 17 long years their bomber is indeed discovered, and the US Air Force dispatches Vince Edwards and William Shatner as a panel to investigate the crash, collect the dog-tags, and close the books on the incident. Accompanying them is Richard Basehart, the sole surviving crew member from the crashed bomber, whose account of the flight, and of his own survival, is now called into question - he claims the Captain gave the order to bail out, and he obeyed this order. He has stuck with this story for 17 years, and it appears to be backed up by the fact that no bodies are found at the site of the crash - but if the crew bailed out with Basehart, how did the bomber coast for 600 miles inland? And just what did happen to the rest of the crew, none of whom were recovered? What follows could be described as trial by sunlight and shadow, as the scorching desert heat has Basehart turn to liquor, giving the ghosts a maudlin presence which is entered into evidence against him.

Sole Survivor is often remembered as a Movie of the Week, though I think it came slightly before that franchise took hold. It is possible that the high quality of the film partly inspired the TV movie phenomenon of the 1970s, and though not many matched its artistry, a few - Murder by Natural Causes, Fear on Trial, Red Alert, and others - were powerful enough to create their own living, and dying, memory.




Nightwing (1979)




On a blazing American Indian reservation in New Mexico, cattle and horses are found badly maimed and drained of blood. Local Chief Walker Chee (Stephen Macht) would like very much for this problem to go away, as the reservation land has been discovered to be oil-rich and he wants to make a quick killing on the sale. He hires Philip Payne (David Warner) to track down the colony of vampire bats responsible, and destroy it. Meanwhile Deputy Duran (Nick Mancuso) is on the trail of both bats and oil money, which he believes are responsible for a spate of seemingly unrelated deaths. Mancuso joins forces with Warner to locate the colony and finds a rather novel way of taking care of business.

There is an apocalyptic element to Nightwing - that the bats cause bubonic plague, which is in danger of being spread to the entire United States unless they are contained. This however is downplayed in favour of the danger of oil money to the lifestyles of natives on the reservation; in fact, several older members of the community welcome and prepare for this end of the world, as they call it; for them the oil is the end of a way of life and therefore a cultural apocalypse. Mancuso's struggle with these older Chiefs is less interesting than his interaction with David Warner: for my money the film's strength lies in Warner's performance as Philip Payne, an updated Van Helsing, paid by the World Health Organisation to travel the globe to exterminate colonies of vampire bats. Warner is on great form here; by turns obsessive, bitter and utterly friendless as he goes about his business. In fact, I would have dispensed with Mancuso altogether, and allowed Warner to do his thing.

I'm not familiar with Martin Cruz Smith's original novel, but the film is typically 70s fare treated with that era's obsessions - environmentalism, hallucinogenics, race and identity politics, and worst of all, stereotyping, where even the behaviours of a living creature are drawn from the headline rather than the article. The bats themselves appear mechanical and unconvincing, though several in-flight swarm sequences are eerily reminiscent of John Boorman's locust plague in Exorcist 2: The Heretic; and we all know what happened to that film.

In the end, like a midnight version of The Birds, Nightwing flits along the edge of your nerves before crashing into the back projection. I liked it. More, I felt it.

Warning Sign (1985)



Hal Barwood's Warning Sign starts out as a fairly sombre and serious bio-hazard thriller in which a deadly outbreak at a research facility leads to complete lockdown. Trapped inside with the infected staff is security guard Kathleen Quinlan, wife of local Sheriff Sam Waterston, who is quickly on the scene. He discovers that the facility, ostensibly an agricultural research centre providing much-needed jobs for the local economy, is really a business front for military experiments in genetic warfare, and that those trapped inside are likely doomed. He fetches ex-company scientist Jeffrey De Munn, and together they enter the facility in an attempt to affect a cure, and to rescue Quinlan, who is unaffected for reasons which wrap up nicely at the end.

Where the film switches in tone is with the arrival of Yaphet Kotto's bible-quoting company man, whose comforting words fail to ring true, largely thanks to the small army of troops and close-mouthed scientists in tow. His arrival coincides with the revival of the seemingly dead staff inside the facility, who are now not so much zombies as survival junkies (led by Richard Dysart) - their rampage throughout the facility is not that of the living dead: it is rather that of a confirmation bias towards life. These scenes retain the conventional mad stare and slaughter aspects of many containment horror films and they are, for the most part, directed with no real flair for splatter, with the exception of one brilliant twist concerning a pair of contact lens. In the end Barwood resorts to his named stars for a resolution, perhaps believing that box-office is the antidote to toxin, and that an outbreak of genre can be cured by star power.

Warning Sign is a well-regarded film in cult circles, perhaps because it is a film of two halves which run almost concurrently and so can be watched complicitly. Its latent power comes from the duplicity of the local townspeople who are perfectly willing to buy the subterfuge of an agricultural facility to maintain their lifestyles - their storming of the facility is not an act of rebellion at finding out the truth of matters; rather it is denial, an attempt to restore the status quo to an ordinary working day by producing their loved ones alive and well. Warning Sign will no doubt disappoint those expecting an expose along the lines of The China Syndrome or Silkwood, but it is just as likely to disappoint horror fans for its tepid recreation of Romero's The Crazies. Still, for all that, it's worth watching.

Children of the Damned (1964)




Children of the Damned is sometimes mistaken for a sequel to its famous predecessor, Village of the Damned. In fact, the film makes no sense at all as a sequel - it is rather a remake or, as it is now termed, a reimagining. The viewer must excise the original completely and swap the rural idyll for a grim cityscape, and the patrician George Sanders for a trio of officials, almost three kings - the teacher, the analyst and the spy. As for the children, gone are the cute but deadly cuckoos; instead we have a new species of migratory bird, as the atypical children scattered across the globe converge on London, courtesy of the United Nations. And this London is a bleakly satisfying place - brutalist structures sit uneasily amidst the surviving classical lines of the city. There is a striking scene where the children navigate a pelican crossing, almost thrown into hesitancy by a contusion of stripes. There is no apparent vengeance in these children; they must be prompted to act. They appear even reticent to speak and select a human voice in the form of Barbara Ferris; it's obviously not a coincidence that her child-like voice bears a striking resemblance to that of David in Village of the Damned. It is this kind of continuity that makes for art, and it is true to say that Children of the Damned is a an artful affair...

Having discovered child genius Paul at an inner city school, Hendry and Badel decide to do a little investigating into the boy's background. They discover through contacts at the UN that there are six such children across the world, and they make arrangements to have them brought to London for tests. Meanwhile their investigation invites the attention of government spook Alfred Burke, who decides to take the boy into custody. By this point the boy is wise to the situation and he and the other children flee to an abandoned church, where they remain very much under siege... from here on, things are tightly plotted on the turn of a screwdriver.

Sadly, John Briley's plot is perhaps the weak point in the film. Though the dialogue is fine and has a cynical ear for the times, the conceit, that of a sudden jump in the human evolutionary process, is unoriginal, even by the standards of 1964, and Briley offers no new take on it. He jettisons Wyndham's suggestion of an alien intervention, while choosing to play up curiously religious aspects - the children all appear to be miraculous births, and much of the film's action and denouement takes place in the abandoned church. The final scene, though strangely pleasing due to heavenly electricity, (perhaps another ulterior message from Sanders via Chekhov), reminded me rather of an ultra-violent variation on Whistle Down the Wind.

Ultimately Children of the Damned is a different take on Wyndham's tale, but not a better one. It demonstrates a downgrading of one author's imagination by another; in fact, it's rather ahead of its time that way. However, the film is turned into a first class piece of science fiction by its infernal photography and its quite Gothic sets and locations; by a trio of splendid performances from Ian Hendry, Alan Badel and Alfred Burke; and by the residual power of the original, which can be found still in the glowing eyes of diabolic children everywhere.

Vacui Magia: by L.S. Johnson




L.S. Johnson's utterly beautiful story Vacui Magia engineers a spell into formal breaks, each one a principle containing within and between its clauses the emotional power of prickling skin, and of goosebumps so deep that they ripple on the bone. The physiognomy detailed here is the creation of a life for ulterior motives; these are not base, but nor are they convincing, being rooted in social constraints. This practitioner is performing, for sentimental reasons, a spell to create a child which she can present to her mother as continuity - sentiment is not an adept nor is it apt to have retaining power - there is entropy in magic, as in all things; order into disorder; resolve into dissolve, possible into impossible. However, the sentiment of continuity of life will suffice for a while if the proprieties are observed. To this end Johnson scratches life lines into her text, using an array of words which autopsy her practitioner's intent with a precision scalpel acting as a wand of sorts.

There is never a problem invoking magic through hindsight; but to transform such magic into second sight by means of a ceremonial narrative is a spell on its own. I had attempted this myself in a stage play which was workshopped out of existence in Belfast a few years ago - largely because of a refusal to admit of ceremonial magic by the minds of those involved. Perhaps they were right: In a curiously pleasing twist the play was referring to itself - it was never formally acted, but was enacted to great effect. And so it is with Vacui Magia: the act of creation contains its undoing.

You can read Vacui Magia at the Strange Horizon website here.

Satan's Shrine: by Daniel F. Galouye






I rather liked this 1954 story by Daniel F. Galouye, originally published in Galaxy and reprinted in Poul Anderson's 1986 anthology Terrorists of Tomorrow. The plot seems ahead of its time, fusing elements of a military-industrial complex into a computer which runs a global conspiracy, and which finally acquires for its identity the ultimate super-villain, Satan. This solid-state Satan acquires half the globe as a server for total war, and the free world, such as it is, comes to resemble London under the assault of Hitler's V-weapons during World War Two, or Orwell's Oceania.

On a mission to destroy Satan, a group of highly-trained specialists and soldiers are assassinated by techniques which game their compassion and common humanity, turning these into battlefield weakness and tactical hurt. The party is splendidly inserted into the Shrine through the barrel of a gigantic canon, wherein a maze of tunnels are booby-trapped by as many inventions of death as the mind of a conductive Satan can imagine. It is only by the discovery of the remains of previous missions that the soldiers gain any clue of the ingenuity of their imminent deaths - the assimilation of this knowledge is akin to pulling a trigger or tripping a wire. Also striking is how Satan is able to play on the national characteristics of the party - made up of an Englishman, a German, a Frenchman, a Russian, etc - and to auto-translate these national differences into suspicions and then errors of judgement which cost lives. Eventually, as the survivors find comradeship in the fact of just being alive, this too is used to whittle their number down to one.

The last survivor reaches Satan's control room to find not a devil but a technocrat, whose administrative function is to ensure continuity of what is revealed to be a very human conspiracy - everything is a hoax, a charade, a painted set; everything, that is, but the blood and anguish and death. Suffice to say that Satan's Shrine has many rooms, each one equipped with a device of torture which has been reverse engineered from the bones of its victims.

The Fittest: by J.T. McIntosh





J.T. McIntosh's novel of societal collapse and inter-species conflict is misunderstood as a story of super-intelligent animals waging a war of attrition on mankind - in fact these animals are not super-intelligent; rather their creator Paget has given them only a limited facility of memory, so that they do not need to be taught or shown something more than once or twice to be able to understand it. That slight change is enough. The animals retain their often brutal natures, but with the advantage of memory, which permits them to organise and coordinate their attacks on human beings and human infrastructure. Even more striking is the fact that with memory comes self-regard - these animals are not rabidly suicidal; they are aware enough to be so self-serving that they can be diagnosed as psychopathic. And once they have destroyed power and communication cables to render mankind helpless, they find themselves on an equal footing for the fight - because a human society without its intrinsic advantage of civilisation is reduced to nothing more than a collection of individuals whose memories are those of automation rather than adaptation.

As ever with apocalypse novels the question of division of spoils leads to charges of sexism as women are treated in much the same manner as tinned goods. It is not that one doubts that women would become commodities in such a scenario - really it is their acquiescence which leaves the author's presumptions open to question. This problem isn't unique to McIntosh; it's evident in Wyndham and Christopher and the rest. In fact The Fittest, by virtue of its title alone, confronts the problem head-on - the scramble to re-order relationships in light of societal collapse takes on a most depressing and predictable aspect, as men examine hip girth in women, and women appraise shoulders in men. Such considerations take up a good deal of the text, a sort of fumble in the jungle which is almost as tiresome as it is inevitable. Which leads us to the notion of "cosy catastrophe" as defined by Brian Aldiss. The Fittest ticks all the boxes, but its disharmony is not that of a formula; really you need to go back to Arthur Machen's The Terror to find a similar concept so effectively handled. In Machen's novel it was, ultimately, man's inhumanity to man which led to the animal world's uprising; in The Fittest McIntosh extends this idea - once humanity is gone between us it is gone from us, and we revert fully to the Darwinian, survival of...  However, this is not all. There is the process of stripping down a human being. In a way the risen animals only make mortal the wounding process of mortification begun by other human beings - the animals show remarkable solidarity in the face of their human enemy; human beings, conversely, display a complete lack of solidarity and turn on each other with the exact and rabid nature expected of wild animals. In this manner McIntosh notes that human progress is depressingly material and that human beings have used their smarts only to reduce the species to atomised individuals united by concepts such as wealth and status. Ironically these concepts are better suited to survive than the individuals who aspire to them.

The Fittest is not McIntosh's best novel - he is perhaps one of those authors without a best novel; rather his books gather around a fixed point in his bibliography, and The Fittest is sturdy enough to qualify as an entry point for readers. Later McIntosh exhibited some extraordinary imaginative turns - in Time For a Change (Snow White & the Giants) a group of warring superbeings from the future carry their inexplicable fight through a fireswept English village; in Transmigration the narrator dies accidentally and finds himself inhabiting the minds of his friends and colleagues, most of whom can't wait to get rid of him; One in Three Hundred is another apocalypse tale, in which Earth must be abandoned - but, of course, the selection process is highly suspect, leading to guilt and unrest. I retain only one vivid recollection of Norman Conquest 2066 - that of a 1960s Morris Minor trapped on a motorway that is ended by time rather than space. I suspect the memory is entirely false, but it is typical of how this author works - his books erupt into consciousness by placing a hand grenade under the pillow; you are allowed to dream that it's there, but waking is a pain in the head.

Kamtellar: by R. Chetwynd-Hayes





Be happy in the place of horseless carriages...

R. Chetwynd-Hayes is perhaps better known as a horror anthologist than for his own stories; yet in a productive career he published several well-received novels and collections, all of which are thankfully unabused by cult status. Kamtellar is the title story of his 1980 collection, and while it is billed as a novella, at 40,000 words it feels like rather more than that. There is much to admire in its deceptively simple premise, wherein it seems as though the characters of a Hammer movie have got behind the set to find it is, after all, painted on both sides. Inspired by one of Ambrose Bierce's anecdotes, and perhaps by the fate of Bierce himself, it pulls an Englishman out of the sedate Hampshire countryside and into a hellishly familiar colony, where social and spiritual arrangements are no more than a tax that the devil levies on the landscape.

Paul Sinclair's departure from our world is occasioned by a bicycle crash. He finds himself on the outskirts of a small village, the skyline of which is dominated by a huge black house that does not cast a shadow - being somehow its own shadow. He is taken in by one of the villagers whose beautiful daughter, Movita, does not escape his eye. Sinclair is immediately drawn into a struggle: every night doors and windows are barricaded as defence against the creatures which issue forth from the black house and lay siege to the village. Sinclair finds that these villagers inhabit a curious hell - they believe that the flying machines and horseless carriages of his own world are the heaven promised them for their endurance in the land of Kamtellar, and its capital, Hadelton. Sinclair persuades Movita to flee the village in the hope of reaching the capital. But in a hunt organised by the Great Satan, they are chased across the countryside by all manner of nightmare creatures; until Sinclair finds that in the land of the supernatural, rationalism is afforded its own distinct power. But, of course, it is possible to rationalise almost anything away, and Sinclair's found power proves his undoing, even at the very moment of relief. For as went the hunt, there goes Movita... like the Great Satan, he simply cannot help himself.

While it is possible to identify the moment when Chetwynd-Hayes realised he did not have on his hands the novel he wished for, and the accompanying note of disappointment, Kamtellar is still a wildly enjoyable story which often reads like Rogue Male rewritten by H.P. Lovecraft. True, there are few inventions of evil within its pages - rather its qualities are to be found in the extraordinary, stoic routines of the villagers; in the breathless chase of its climax; and in the shiftless angel Movita, whose presence in this world is a greater mystery than its existence.

Like the black house, this story is always its own shadow.

The Animal Women: by Alix E. Harrow




“Something beautiful and wild and red-toothed woke up in us. And we were not nothing anymore.”



As a young man I only ever identified years by their accompanying pop culture tags - 1968 was the year of the Beatles' White Album and Where Eagles Dare and Disch's Camp Concentration; later and older with it, I gleaned a little of history and politics and 1968 became the year of the Paris uprising, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the founding of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland. The year changed from one of pop culture tags to body bags. Lately I had the pleasure to read Alix Harrow's story, The Animal Women, and 1968 changed again.

Young Candis falls into the company of a group of women living in a cabin on the edge of the woods. While the locals see only their colour, she sees their shapes, shapes which she attempts to capture on camera, but which are declined even by her light meter. The women register on the townsfolk only in relation to the racial strife which continues to creep across America as the year progresses. We are privy to it as a school year, and Candis is made extra-curricular by events beyond her control as she learns that the wounds these women bear have healed as more than themselves, as though they have fashioned the weals and welts into weapons of a feral kind. In a text which transforms adjectives into body doubles, Candis is placed in danger by her association wth the animal women, and learns herself how to fashion her wounds thus.

The Animal Women can be read at the Strange Horizons website in two parts, here and here.



The Zilov Bombs: by D.G. Barron




D.G. Barron's novel of Soviet-occupied Britain was first published by Andre Deutsch in 1962 and then by Pan in paperback in 1965. It has never been subsequently reprinted, perhaps because it falls into an uneasy territory between genre and literary fiction. The book demonstrably fails at both, but its charm is that it never really tries to be either - it is pure headturning pulp, and it is most amusing that the book's cover reviews are quotes from such quaint periodicals as Woman's Journal, Topic and The Listener. Of course, these are the good reviews - I have no idea what the Times Literary Supplement had to say about it, or Analog. If anything.

Following the ban the bomb demonstrations of the late 1950s, governments across Europe opt for nuclear disarmament, hoping the Soviets will reciprocate and withdraw their nuclear deterrent from their satellite states. Instead the Soviets simply roll across Europe, conquering former NATO countries and transforming them into People's Republics. In subjugated Britain, Guy Elliot, former writer and ex-peace campaigner, is now an agricultural commissar, slowly forcing the new rules of collectivisation on reluctant farmers in Norfolk. Guy is also involved with the resistance in a small way, much to the chagrin of his wife, who would rather he did not place them or their two children in danger. One night, while doing his rounds on a country road, Guy is witness to the theft a Soviet lorry and the murder of its driver - he then discovers the lorry carried several limited nuclear weapons, and that these have been hidden on a nearby farm. Guy informs the resistance and is then drafted into securing these bombs for use by the resistance in a country-wide rebellion. The bombs are secured, at great cost; so great, in fact, that Guy wants out. But it is too late - the Soviets have identified him as a key figure, rather than the minor player he so reluctantly allowed himself to become. He turns back to the resistance for help, but they simply make him their prisoner - because he is in possession of valuable information. A sensible enough precaution as it turns out - Elliott is well-remembered as one of those ban the bomb "traitors" who forced Britain to relinquish its deterrent in the first place. Now in a position to hear the plans of the resistance for a rebellion, he is horrified at the prospective loss of life. Sadly, at this point, the book degenerates into a straight will he/won't he thriller, with an unsatisfactory denouement.

Despite its faults The Zilov Bombs is a better than expected novel. It is obviously an anti-peacenik tract and the moral choices set up throughout the novel illustrate the author's intent, all the way to Elliott's final, explosive moments. Still, the characters are often well-drawn, the arguments both for and against are allowed to be made, and the Americans are kept out of it. So too, curiously, are the Russians - it is an all-English affair. And this perhaps is how the novel is so affecting - everyone resists in their own way, from Elliott's boss, who wants to sabotage collective farms by slowing their introduction, to the senior civil servants who find the ultimate use for the Zilov Bombs. It is not a novel about invasion - it is rather a peon to tradition, to the implacable management of British society, which can ameliorate the shock of ideology by simply absorbing it into a class system that looks and feels as solid as landscape.

The cover price states 2/6 - I'm not sure how much that is in roubles, or in new money.



The Darkest of Nights: by Charles Eric Maine




Although now sadly forgotten, Charles Eric Maine was one of the most successful British sf novelists of his time. Several of his books were filmed, most famously The Mind of Mr Soames in 1970, an attempt perhaps to cash in on the success of Charly. Unfortunately, Soames stars the insufferably 60s Terence Stamp, so I doubt I will ever get around to watching it.

Between 1958 and 1962 Maine turned out two major apocalypse novels - The Tide Went Out and The Darkest of Nights. The former is a rather quaint disaster novel in which nuclear tests cause the earth's oceans to drain away into Atlantic and Pacific fissures, leading to ecological disaster and societal collapse. It is a book that retains many excellent pulp credentials despite, or perhaps because of, its premise. The Darkest of Nights is an outstanding apocalypse novel and, to my mind, the definitive plague novel. While it shares many characteristics with the apocalypse works of John Wyndham and John Christopher - it is more artful than The Day of the Triffids, and more cruel than The Death of Grass - it is a true original in the sense that its characters act out the functions of pathogens, rather than simply being victims or not, as the case may be.

The Hueste virus, a possible side-effect of nuclear testing, begins work in China, killing millions of people. The outside world looks on, not entirely aghast as China is remote and the casualties there make splendid statistics with which to sell newspapers. The plague soon spreads to Japan where Pauline Brant, attached to the International Virus Research Institute, deals with the first of the casualties. She returns quickly to Britain to deliver samples and also meet with her estranged husband, Clive, Foreign Editor of the Daily Monitor, who solicits information on the plague and also a divorce. As the plague spreads across the Far East, the Brants part, Pauline to a virus research group, Clive to his newspaper and a frustrating round of new secrecy laws - why are massive incinerators being built in public parks? why are underground bunkers under construction in all major cities? The answer is, of course, obvious, but now routine censorship means that the population cannot really conceive of the scale of the Hueste virus - fully half the world's population will die, and the British establishment is keen to keep this a secret until it can secure the means for its own survival. Clive resigns his newspaper post and takes a job with an American television company. As the full force of the virus hits Britain, Clive and his American crew film much of the ensuing chaos and disorder for posterity, as it becomes open rebellion and then revolution. However, there is little for the population to rebel against as, in a piece of plotting later borrowed by Peter Van Greenaway for his novel Graffiti, the heads of government, business, industry and finance, and their extended families, are safely placed in the newly-built bunkers, complete with air filters, medical supplies and staff, while the rest of the nation is left to take its chances with the virus. As in Graffiti, these bunkers are set upon by an insurrectionist army, led more by outrage than by the prospect of imminent death, and the ensuing civil war is repeated across the globe. Pauline is detailed to serve in a bunker in Liverpool which manages to resist attack; Clive fares less well - his film crew is killed and he is captured by the rebel army. By now the situation is chaotic - there are not only revolutions and counter-revolutions, but medical advances mean there is virus and anti-virus; sadly, perhaps deliberately, the anti-virus is as lethal as the original virus, so those who survived Hueste are vulnerable to its cure; these too die in their millions, until victory for either side becomes a simple matter of attrition. Eventually, Clive and Pauline are reunited, but only so that one might cancel out the other.

In the end The Darkest of Nights resorts to Clive as a measure of civilised behaviour - somehow his character, presented as vain, scheming and ambitious at the beginning of the novel, is redeemed, not by a personal change in the man, but by the deterioration of his fellows. Clive becomes a civilised outpost, resorting only to outrages which have some semblance of moral continuity - some sensible looting; a revenge killing or two - and this continuity helps him revert to the status quo when it comes to a final choice as to whether to side with the insurrectionists or the government, no doubt taking many a reader with him. Maine's strength as a writer is that he makes us aware of this choice. Maine also has a happily informative prose style - he is able to impart huge amounts of information in just a few lines. This is not info-dumping on his part; rather he is interested in how things work, and he makes them interesting for the reader by infusing them with every detail of craft.

Maine's work was published in hardcover by Hodder & Stoughton throughout most of his career, and these 1st editions are well worth picking up, especially The Darkest of Nights with its fantastic petrie dish cover illustration by John Woodcock. My copy has the added attraction of an internal stamp reading RAF Leconfield.

The Gold at the Starbow's End: by Frederik Pohl




It was perhaps inevitable that it fell to an old-timer like Pohl to chart the decline of America following the assassinations of the 1960s and the supreme folly of Vietnam. No other sf story so effectively captures the death of hope at that time, or the subsequent exploitation of conspiracies to fragment and dispel opposition. The latter is a phenomenon which Noam Chomsky has commented upon repeatedly, viewing conspiracy theory as the most ineffective form of political dissent. But where does that leave Pohl, whose story quite perfectly poses a generational conflict which is suddenly thrown into context by a space mission made futile by conspiracy.

In an America wracked by riots and social unrest, the President and his scientific adviser, Dr Knefhausen, announce a mission to Planet Aleph in Alpha Centauri, crewed by the very bravest and best, the cream of the nation's youth. Besides the announced objectives of the mission, they hope the country will rally to the cause, as it did briefly for the moon landings, and that a shared sense of purpose and hope might renew the social contract, or at least consolidate the status quo. The young are duly dispatched into space, and the President collects his kudos. Mission accomplished. Except perhaps for the astronauts. At first they send back regular mission reports which contain personal messages as well as data relating to onboard experiments. They make a number of startling scientific breakthroughs, for which the President is delighted to accept credit. Later the messages become bitter as the astronauts realise the mission is a dupe - they will never reach Alpha Centauri and were never intended to; in disgust they turn to the I Ching and the Tarot and various exotic philosophies for comfort. They practice tantric sex. They start families. One of them dies and is somehow brought back to life. They invent a faster than light drive, but refuse to share the secret because it would be irresponsible. And it is now that the astronauts have turned into space-faring hippies that the President quickly passes blame for the mission onto Knefhausen, who laments the conspiracy of hippies above and hippies below. His execution is not enough to save the President, or even to save the country from civil war. And at any rate it does not matter - nothing matters, because the astronauts are now returning home, armed by their mission rather than for it, and their revenge threatens more than a smoking gun.

There are a lot of rather clever blanks in Starbow's End. Like many a conspiracy we are left to fill in these blanks from imagination; Pohl's only stipulation is that our imaginings must be the most cynical for the story to proceed. The rule of thumb is to assume the worst and then watch the astronauts evolve beyond opposable thumbs. And then assume another worst and watch them evolve beyond that, etc, until evolution is complete, which, ironically enough, may have been Knefhausen's purpose - he was, after all, an ex-Nazi. And this I think is the point - we suspect; we suspect everything, but we can prove nothing.

Pohl later expanded Starbow's End into the novel Lifeburst, a process sometimes known as a fixup.

Shades of Darkness: by Richard Cowper




Richard Cowper's post-colonial ghost story Shades of Darkness was something of a departure for a science fiction author who spent much of his working life labouring under the shadow of his more famous father, the critic, John Middleton Murry. By all accounts the father was not much taken with the son's choice of genre, a point of view easily dismissed by casting an eye over Cowper's achievements; over a dozen books in twenty years, amongst them three undoubted classics (one novel, two collections). Thankfully Cowper Senior is entirely forgotten, whereas his son remains a solid presence in British sf, despite the fact that he is long dead and largely out of print.

Cowper's best novel is perhaps The Twilight of Briareus. This strange fusion of The Midwich Cuckoos and the Nativity is easily his most accessible novel and certainly the best he produced for Gollancz; sadly Cowper's other novels for that publisher largely failed to match his early work at Dobson, where two striking books, Breakthrough and Phoenix, established him as an outstanding mainstream interpreter of the New Wave. The only fault of these early novels is a certain flippancy in tone, as though Cowper were determined to be deprecating about his subject matter. Gollancz excised this fault, but the author's work became variable, ranging mostly between interesting (Profundis) and absurd (Worlds Apart). Where Cowper really excelled was in the field of novellas and long short stories. During the 70s and 80s he issued three splendid collections - The Custodians, The Web of the Magi, and The Tithonian Factor. These last two collections are among the best ever assembled by a British author. The title story The Web of the Magi is a winning combination of H. Rider Haggard's She and James Hilton's Lost Horizon, wherein a 19th century British engineer scouting a remote area of Tibet discovers a forgotten civilisation which dupes him into engineering time itself. Aside from its beautiful title story, The Tithonian Factor contains the environmental apocalypse story, A Message to the King of Brobdingnag, and the very English science fantasy of What Did the Deazies Do? These two volumes were never issued in paperback so far as I'm aware, but some of the stories were reprinted in a US marketed collection, Out Where the Big Ships Go. Sadly the best stories are missed from that volume. I should say that Cowper's White Bird of Kinship trilogy of books has been much praised, but I found that it didn't do much for me.

Shades of Darkness appears to have been Cowper's final novel. It was issued in 1986 by Kerosino books in a limited print run of 1000 copies. A further collector's edition ran to several hundred signed copies and contained a supplementary pamphlet of short stories. It is a ghost story with an African twist. Journalist Jim Fuller is deported from Uganda while uncovering a story of genocide there. Upon return to England he is sacked by his newspaper, which is now undergoing radical change as a Murdoch vehicle. He is persuaded by friends to turn his material into a crusading novel and rents a cottage called "Myrtles" on the coast near Colchester for the purpose of writing a first draft. He soon finds that the cottage is more haunted by Africa than he is - specifically by the conscience of a previous owner who had been very publicly caught up in the Mau-Mau revolt of the 1950s. Cowper makes use of a number of old tropes to move this story along at a fair pace - the remote cottage, the ancient, folded dress found hidden inside a trunk in the attic, the convenient cache of newspaper clippings, mysterious messages on the typewriter, and so on. But he inserts these so deftly that they do not feel like devices; rather they feel like secondary characters - we know them, we know their ways, and it is a surprise when they do not behave as anticipated. The cottage becomes an African bungalow; the dress is never worn by the plot; the newspaper clippings are reduced to ephemera, and the typewriter messages are neither threats nor gibberish but are rather an inspiration for Fuller to complete his book. He finds ultimately that he himself may be the tool of exorcism, under the guidance of a local witch, but he is so convinced by his African experience that he allows one more horror to complete his inspiration. It becomes a question of whether his imagination can survive its encounters with source material.

Shades of Darkness is a personably written novel. It features Cowper's trademark relaxed prose which tenses unexpectedly before slowly unraveling into anti-climax.  For the reader these multiple shocks are turned into a vivid, page-turning experience, and the book dictates a read of one or two sittings. Recommended.




The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)





If you're a certain age you'll remember The Flight of the Phoenix as one of those TV staples which would screen regularly on BBC2 at six o'clock on weeknights, along with Viva Max and Five Fingers and any number of other films which are classics by wistful association. In some alternate universe FOTP might have inspired me to become an engineer, but in the universe that was a secondary modern in West Belfast, such trades were reserved for those who routinely failed at all academic subjects. Sadly I was one of those schoolboys who made a habit of scraping a pass and so was deemed academically inclined and therefore doomed to an arts degree (Politics & English) and a lifetime of penury. This was not my choice. I can't watch the film now without a compelling sense of regret.

Flight of the Phoenix was adapted from a novel by Elleston Trevor. I came to the novel after seeing the film, and it proved to be a disappointing and trying read. I think this is one instance where the film is a marked improvement over the original source material. The plot is almost the same: Almost. Having crashed their plane in the middle of the Sahara desert, pilot, navigator and passengers are driven to build a new plane from the wreckage of the old by a German engineer, who it turns out knows nothing very much about real aeroplanes. Along the way their party is whittled down by tragedy and violence to as many as their fledgling craft will carry. The cast is an international one - a mixed bag of American stars at the tail-end of their careers (James Stewart, Dan Duryea and Ernest Borgnine), British stalwarts (Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Ronald Fraser), and Hardy Kruger as the German. The difference between book and film is that Kruger's character is missing from the book; there is no officious German winning the war after the event; no German economic miracle in the desert. So the book does not have the ironies which make the film work so well in the hands of Hardy Kruger, who is something of a revelation in the role of Dorfmann. As thirst overtakes the party his reflective spectacles and jerky, mechanical gait seem to be redolent of a determinism not to be found on a film set but rather in a school-room. Which is no doubt why I found his performance so winning. I was duped too - and the final reveal of his qualifications did not have me laugh maniacally like Attenborough, but frown gently into the past at what might not have been.

The film still screens on British TV to this day, most recently on Film Four. This should be neither here nor there as I have long since bought the DVD, but there is something about a broadcast version of Flight of the Phoenix (no matter how badly edited) that makes me sit down to watch it again and again: it's one of those real-time events which is always for the first time. And I admit to having fallen for the love theme from the film, a mid-60s song that returns me to the mid-80s, which is perhaps typical of a plane that goes down in the desert. I never did get to where I was going.





Kill! aka Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! (1971)




Of all the crazy fucked-up Euro potboilers of the 70s, Kill! aka Kill! Kill! Kill Kill!! is surely the only one that approaches a high art of jerk-off instruction. It's a sick, nasty film with a stellar cast - Stephen Boyd, Jean Seberg and James Mason - who give it their all. Directed by Romain Gary, it is ostensibly a drugs bust thriller with a good deal of violence and nudity thrown in; in fact it is Gary's treatise on just how short and brutal human life can be. Gary was a Holocaust survivor: the title of his book of horror stories Hissing Tales refers allegedly to the dialogue of gases which escapes from piles of human cadavers.

Stephen Boyd, wearing his death-mask ahead of time, storms through the film as Brad Killian, psychopathic rogue cop committed to the extermination of drug dealers - not the little guys, but major narcotics producers and distributors. To make his point he single-handedly invades Af-Pak leaving a trail of corpses that infuriates local law enforcement, and in the process embarrassing his police bosses. James Mason, Interpol's best agent according to Curd Jurgens, is despatched to confront the cartels in a more conventional fashion, and to lure Boyd back into the fold; his beautiful and unhappy wife Jean Seberg proves to be the bait. She follows Mason to Pakistan, gets promptly lost, and falls over some corpses left lying around by Boyd. They embark on a violent affair, based mostly around interrogation techniques. However, Boyd's bad guy costume is a little too convincing, and as Seberg begins to deconstruct him it becomes apparent that he is a much straighter man than her husband, who has in fact gone over to the other side. Wounded and exhausted, Mason is presented with a very straight choice by Boyd - die killing or be killed - Mason opts for the former, resulting in climactic scenes which must surely be among the most unique in the annals of Franco-Spanish-Wherever co-productions. The only possible reason to sit through Kill! is to put these scenes in context - to see how many bullets can be pumped into a human body before it falls down; or to find out how slow-motion may actually be an anti-gravity device. But this fails the start-up imagination - I suspect one must go back to the director's wartime experiences for a true context. Or forward to his death - because, unsurprisingly, Romain Gary shot himself in 1980. And yet again, even this fails - because Romain Gary, whose real name was Roman Kacew, existed inside a myriad of pseudonyms and lives and marriages. It is perhaps only possible to say that Kill! is the product of a refugee turned diplomat, a pilot turned author, a husband turned agent, love turned sex, despair turned human, human turned inhuman. As he wrote of himself - Since I knew I was fictional, I thought I might have a talent for fiction.

Whoever he was, Gary is well-served by the cast and crew assembled for Kill! Boyd allows himself to be made up as a jungle beast and his middle age is suitably wild. Oddly, his original Northern Ireland accent is on display, and its sibilance is used to good effect. Seberg overcomes her usual problems with diction to present a pleasing incomprehension at the events overtaking her. James Mason adopts a cod transatlantic accent and delivers a perplexed and perplexing performance - for once he does not seem to be attuned to the material. This film is often cited as one of the low points in his career; but this was during the wandering period of the actor's life, when he was apt to accept any job that offered him a decent pay-cheque and an opportunity to travel. I suspect he was along for the ride. There are some problems with the film's continuity - the editing could be sharper. And, of course, the dubbed supporting roles are always grating on the ear. But they give the film much of its period charm. Lastly, a good deal of praise must be reserved for an often striking soundtrack by Berto Pisano and Jacques Beaumont.

All of this is of course bunkum compared to the film's final scenes, which can be watched as a stand-alone fantasia.







Raise the Titanic (1980)




Lew Grade's much denigrated adaptation of Clive Cussler's novel is that most satisfying of movie beasts - an experience that turns a bad read into a cinematic guilty pleasure. The film has rather a lot going for it now, though it's easy to see why it was panned on release - the plotting is poor, some of the model work is underwhelming, and the film has a curious atmosphere of reverence towards a ship "that never learned to do anything except sink."

American scientists attempting to build an anti-nuclear shield require copious amounts of a little-known mineral called Byzanium. After discovering a large quantity of said mineral had been transported in the hold of the Titanic, the US Navy makes arrangements to raise the infamous liner - but the Soviets have other ideas. That's it really.

Though the novel is not written in the manner of a Saturday morning serial (and Cussler would have been the first to object were it reviewed as such) the author allegedly cited "Dirk Pitt" as an Indiana Jones style character, an opinion he appears to have formed only after he had watched Raiders of the Lost Ark. If it is a matter of casting - Harrison Ford v Richard Jordan - there's no doubt Ford wins hands down. Not on acting plaudits - Jordan and Ford are equally matched there - but because Ford was carrying the dash of Han Solo with him into Spielberg's film, as well as significant box office clout; whereas Jordan was simply too ambivalent an actor to care about stardom or box office. In fact Jordan is perfect casting for the film's continued afterlife as a guilty pleasure - an acclaimed stage actor, his persistent, almost perverse, appearances in such car crashes as Solarbabies (Hello, is this your ball?) and Timebomb, guarantee the film a cult infamy; after all, this was a man who spent his evenings away from the movie set doing Havel and Shakespeare off-Broadway. The truth is that "Dirk Pitt" is one of those generic macho creations so beloved of hack authors, and Jordan excises every trace of this from the character, much to Cussler's chagrin no doubt, and to my own delight. No, the casting is fine, superb even, from Jordan to Robards and Alec Guinness.

Another problem with the Indiana Jones flannel is that Mr Cussler's unobtainium doesn't have the same religious or mystical properties as the Ark of the Covenant, nor the ability to burn up Soviets the way the Ark burns up Nazis. Unobtainium is fissionable material and its destructive potential is placed at the theoretical remove of Mutually Assured Destruction rather than the more dramatic immediacy of lightning bolts from God. Which is a pity because, while the plot of Raise the Titanic is botched, the idea of writing a cold war scenario into Titanic lore is an interesting one, and a clever acknowledgement that the only way to meet the expense of raising something like the Titanic is through defence expenditure. Indiana Jones doesn't have these resources - Dirt Pitt does. I think we can safely set aside any ideas of Raise the Titanic as a missed opportunity for an action romp as delusion. Instead we have a fairly serious film which relies on the historical and novelty value of the Titanic to do justice to an incredible plot. The fact that the Titanic story is incredible in itself goes some way towards making it work.

As director Jerry Jameson is a quirky choice - he helmed several interesting television movies during the 70s - The Deadly Tower and A Fire in the Sky among them, and Raise the Titanic appears to have been his one shot at a big-budget film. He doesn't fail, but it is obvious that he locates the heart of the film on the ship, rather than with the accompanying cold war thriller. It's a deliberate choice that he devotes almost as much time to allowing Jordan to poignantly wander the Titanic's wrecked ballroom as he does to the inevitable confrontation with the Soviets. The Soviets, sadly, are portrayed as one-dimensional characters whose apparent obsession with unobtainium closes their eyes and ears even to the alleged majesty of John Barry's score.

And therein lies the point - the real unobtainium of Raise the Titanic is the ship; not the model, not its cargo or its physical aspect, but the wistful real world ship, which is already raised daily by the imagination.