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.
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.