For a writer of whom Radio 2 once said, “One of those writers on whom critics have already lavished almost every word of praise possible”, it’s somewhat surprising that today Christopher Hodder-Williams is pretty much forgotten. He published eleven sf novels between 1959 and 1984, and most of them are difficult to find these days.
The above Radio 2 puff comes from the back of 98.4, probably Hodder-Williams’ best-known work. It was first published in 1969, and I included it in my British SF Masterworks list here. Having said that, the book also features a quote from The Sun: “Read and be scared”…
Nigel Yenn, the narrator of 98.4, handled the security at an unnamed company’s “Group Two” laboratories in Elstree. As the novel opens, he’s been fired, and dumped by his girlfriend. He is subsequently recruited by a UN agent who is suspicious of the research taking place in the company’s “Group Three”. Yenn tries quizzing his ex-colleagues at Group Two – fired employees wouldn’t be allowed back in a building these days, but apparently they were much more lax back in the 1960s – but they know nothing. Various people pop up and hand Yenn clues, including Louise, who has some connection to Group Three and its resident genius, Dr Stergen. It’s all to do with nuclear missiles guided by human brain tissue. Somehow Stergen has built an underground base near Taunton, where he can perform his vile experiments on unwilling subjects. And he has also managed to put together a small fleet of submarines to carry his “Nerve Controlled Ballistic Missiles”. Yenn does the 007-thing: first to uncover more about Stergen’s activities, and second to foil his dastardly plot to launch his NCBMs and trigger a nuclear war. The former includes boarding one of Stergen’s subs, where he discovers exactly what “Nerve Controlled” means:
Near at hand was the smallest box of all. It measured about six inches across by two inches down by four inches deep. I thought I saw something flickering on the front… the first sign of activity.
Through the rapidly thickening smoke I now saw that this box was linked by plastic strip to the other units mounted at intervals below. These were already flooded with water.
Then the fumes cleared for a second and I saw what it was that had moved on the little box.
It was a pair of human eyes. (p118)
Hodder-Williams’ prose is actually quite good. 98.4 has a breezy man-of-action tone throughout, like Ian Fleming’s but without the horrible racism and sexism. He characterises Louise, the doomed love-interest, well, although the gay villain, Michael, who helps Yenn, reads like a dated caricature. But the plot is all a bit, well, silly. It starts off plausibly enough, but then it all turns as daft as a Cubby Broccoli movie, with a secret high-tech base buried under Somerset which Yenn manages to destroy in an explosive climax. Admittedly, the central premise is quite chilling and, as the above excerpt shows, Hodder-Williams writes well enough to get that across. Unfortunately, in order to maintain suspense throughout the story, Hodder-Williams only allows Yenn to be given cryptic clues. Yenn, and hence the reader, has little idea what’s going on for much of the book, even though other characters, such as Louise and Michael, plainly do. It makes for a frustrating read in places. Still, action-man characters often require idiot plots because otherwise they’d have no deadly missions to undertake and cunning puzzles to solve…
98.4 is more like a daft techno-thriller than it is a science fiction novel. It’s a quick, fun read, and well-crafted, even if elements of the story stretch credulity somewhat. For the time-being, it’ll stay on the British SF Masterworks list… at least until I’ve read more by Hodder-Williams.