Armoured Doves: by Bernard Newman





In Newman's 1930 history's fault line is that of France and Germany; all wars are Franco-German, even if they turn global, and this simplification serves a narrative which leaves Britain and the US curiously absent. The Second World War is pushed back to the 1960s, when sufficient technical advances permit a group of rogue scientists to develop super-weapons which destroy war itself. The genius behind this innovation is subdued Hank Scorpio, Paul de Montigny, and his weapons which destroy weapons are much sought-after. But when representations from world powers take the form of family reunions it is clear that Newman has hit upon a truth uncovered by Thomas Hardy; that one coincidence is the province of an amateur and two coincidences that of a charlatan; but many coincidences co-joined, piled up into a colony, are dynastic; they are born pregnant and so are self-generating. Hence much of Armoured Doves is a family affair; missing fathers turn up as foreign ministers and presidents; wives are reformed spies. The conflicting loyalities which are subsequently thrown up are played out in the manner of soap, wherein domestic strife replaces attrition and war is an arrangement of seats at the dinner table. The endgame, in which a few European cities are sacrificed for the greater good, is eerily predictive of Fail Safe and the concept of mutually assured destruction.

But more to the point of Armoured Doves, just who was Bernard Newman? Despite being a prolific author, or perhaps because of it, his prescience smacks of an inside track. His novel Flying Saucer, issued a mere few months after the Roswell incident, suggests a Mockingbird style operation in publishing houses, given its proximity to the event. Ditto his wanderings across the globe at times of international peril - almost an on the spot fictioneer. The Blue Ants, which posits a Russo-Chinese war, was written and published while American involvement in Vietnam was at its height and at a time when tensions in South-East Asia threatened to consume the world. This all reminds me of Paul Linebarger aka Cordwainer Smith, whose US intelligence links monster his fey science fantasies.

Armoured Doves is billed as an anti-war novel, but it is of course nothing of the kind. It is rather a dossier compiled as fiction and assessing the emotional intelligence of scientists, and their dynastic possibilities.


The Silent Voice: by Christopher Hodder-Williams




Four astronauts returning from a mission to Mars are diverted from their landing at Cape Kennedy to the coast of England. Here they find there has not been a nuclear war - but the entire population believes there has been one, as if suffering some form of mass delusion. The country is under martial law; ARP wardens enforce rough justice; and columns of refugees straggle between intact cities, chewing hungrily on their stiff upper lips. The astronauts soon find it is the same across the globe. But what has gone wrong? They suspect the computers which diverted them have staged an electronic coup and that the early-stage artificial intelligence recently introduced into NASA's systems has allowed the computers to co-ordinate a sort of brain wave which maintains the delusion of war. This delusion also has the effect of wearing out brain cells, leading to extinction. After donning tin foil hats, which they wear for the duration, the astronauts confront the computers in a nuclear silo disguised as an oil rig; and the plot degenerates into a version of Fail Safe in which the computers are ultimately talked down. The narrative consists of tape recordings made by the various astronauts as they struggle through a series of mostly old-fashioned and underwhelming plot points.

Hodder-Williams started out writing aviation thrillers during the 1950's, before progressing through two apocalypse thrillers - Panic O'Clock and Chain Reaction - both in the manner of John Christopher rather than John Wyndham. These allowed him to develop a minor talent for cruelty, which he put to good use through-out the rest of his career and which marks him as an authentic fantasist in the revenge mode. He is at his most effective in realising that human emotions can withstand any catastrophe, though often in a form abbreviated by radiation or botulism or voices in the head. It is the abbreviation which concerns him; the moment of the kill. In fact, the only female character in The Silent Voice is killed twice; once so that she might have a metal plate inserted into her head, and twice so that the plate can be used to eviscerate any love interest which might interest the reader.

The Silent Voice is not a bad novel. It's quite satirical in places, such as in the use of human frailty to enforce delusion; and there is much in the climax that cannot be summarised. The computers, whose only presence is that of pain, remain discretely bundled in the ether, and the real villain of the novel is that of self-fulfilling prophecy as a form of open-source software. In this repect, Hodder-Williams really was onto something, tin foil hat or no.

Massacre in Rome (1973)



1973's Massacre in Rome is a surprisingly artful Euro co-production concerning the Ardeatine Caves massacre in 1944. The film calls to mind a later, more acclaimed film concerning a list. Except, in this instance, the list means death, not life.

 As a reprisal for the murder of 33 German soldiers by partisans in Rome, Hitler orders the execution of 330 Italians. The orders are carried out, though they prove to be a logistical nightmare. Much of the film consists of the routine compiling of this list of names; the interminable squabbling between jurisdictions; the swapping of responsibilities between ranks; and the eventual swelling of the names from the rolls of the usual suspects - petty criminals, communists and Jews. And then locating a site of execution which would also serve as a burial ground. All of this takes place in the beautiful and elegant surrounds of high art and architecture, and director George Pan Cosmatos misses no opportunity to provide brutal contrasts between human frailty and human potential. Much of the film's visual palette is an attempt to capture these contrasts, and at times it is spectacularly successful, particularly during the ambush sequence in Via Rasella.

 At the centre of it all is a splendidly robotic performance by Richard Burton as Kappler, the SS Officer with responsibility for the executions, whose self-pity degenerates into a self-serving fatalism that he wears as a badge of duty. It is a sympathetic portrait swaddled in diction and middle-distance, and one of Burton's finer moments. It should be noted that this portrayal of Kappler departs from the historical truth - he was in fact an ardent and zealous Nazi. Leo McKern plays his hot-headed superior, happy to delegate the dirty jobs, but less interested in their details. His ravaged one-eyed face is perfectly evasive in this instance, happy to see and not to see as it suits. Marcello Mastroianni handles the difficult role of Father Antonelli with some sympathy; he is less successful appealing to Kappler's conscience than he is organising his frocks around Vatican indifference. In the end it is the German appeal to self-interest, with the Americans at the gates of Rome, that has more sway in determining the list.

Where Massacre in Rome falters is in its production values, which are those common to Euro co-productions during the 70s (dubbed minor parts), and in a fairly blunt script which introduces an unnecessary melodramatic twist to the end-proceedings. Still, it is full of memorable scenes, perhaps the most striking of which is Kappler instructing his officers on the task of close-range execution by picking out a junior by way of demonstration. If Massacre in Rome is remembered at all today it is perhaps that of an understudy to Schindler's List; but it tells a darker truth - that most lists mean death, not life.