Back in July I listed 20 British SF Novels You Should Read. One of the titles on that list was Chronicules by DG Compton. Here is a review of it, offered in part as an antidote to all those blog posts about science fiction being doomy and gloomy. If miserable sf gives us books such as this, and happy optimistic sf gives us the likes of, well, Asimov… then I know which one gets my vote. Read it and wince.
DG Compton’s Chronicules has one of the all-time great opening sentences:
About twenty years before this story begins – give or take a few years, the Simmons s.b. effect being untried and seriously (not that it mattered) inaccurate – the desolate silence on Penheniot Village, at the top of Penheniot Pill which is a creek off the small harbour of St. Kinnow in the county of Cornwall, was shattered by the practised farting of young Roses Varco.
But then the book was originally published under the title Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes, and Something That Might Have Been Castor Oil, so this is not entirely unexpected. Neither title – the original unwieldy one, nor the later more science-fictional one – actually provides much clue to the story. If anything, both are somewhat misleading. (Weirdly, the later title was slightly altered for publication in the US to Chronocules.)
According to the blurb, Chronicules is a grand adventure through time. It isn’t. Nor is it a cutting-edge discussion of temporal research. The time travel bookends the actual story, which is more concerned with life in an artificial research village in a Britain slowly falling apart. Further, there’s a nastiness to Chronicules of which only the British seem capable. Americans don’t do it, don’t cut and belittle their own creations. Irony may be a high-minded alternative, but it doesn’t have sarcasm’s scalpel-like edge: wielded inexpertly, irony is at best blunt-force trauma.
A lack of sarcasm in a novel is not necessarily a bad thing: a writer being unnecessarily cruel to his or her own characters often seems like torturing defenceless children. And in Chronicules, Compton has loaded the odds in his favour: his chief protagonist is mentally retarded. Which only emphasises the novel’s intrinsic cruelty. Further honing the blade is the setting’s custom of public nudity: Compton dwells cuttingly on the physical unsuitability of various characters showing their sagging flesh and dangly bits. There are some quite disturbing images, certainly enough to turn you off nudism.
The characters are well-drawn, and wholly unlikeable. Varco, the central character, is entirely ineffective, and those characters which do have some impact on the plot have more hang-ups than positive qualities. Compton’s future UK is miserable and reads almost prophetically like the Britain of the Tories during the eighties. While some science fiction novels may attract through their settings – Banks’s Culture, or Varley’s Eight Worlds, for instance – Compton’s near-future UK only repels. In fact, the only thing to really like about Chronicules is its writing. The prose is a joy to read.
Finally, the last page of Chronicules, after the end of the story, in the Arrow paperback edition I read is headed “Other Arrow Books of interest:”. It is otherwise blank…