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A British sf masterwork? Implosion, DF Jones

The SF Encyclopedia makes no real comment on the works of Dennis Feltham Jones, preferring instead to précis his novels. He is perhaps best known for his first novel, Colossus, which was filmed as Colossus – The Forbin Project. Implosion, from 1967, is his second novel.

An unnamed Eastern Bloc country develops a substance which renders women sterile. Because the nation’s premier is the illegitimate son of a British diplomat, he chooses to use this powder on the UK. Two years later, fully eighty percent of British females can no longer ovulate. The country’s population begins to fall, and is calculated to hit around five million by the mid-1980s. A government with far-reaching powers and a mandate to fix the problem is voted into power. All the fertile women are put into camps to become baby machines. Children are put in National Schools, where they are kept safe from harm and educated to as high a level as possible. Villages are demolished, and towns abandoned, when their populations fall below sustainable levels.

In charge of all this is John Bart, the Minister for Health and Regeneration. His wife Julia proves to be one of the rare fertile women, and is packed off to a camp. Meanwhile, the government tightens its grip on the country. After a raid on the lab which developed the powder, the Brits reverse-engineer it but can find no cure. They publish the formula, so that now everyone has it. Naturally, other countries soon find themselves in the same situation.

Meanwhile, Julia has come to realise that the regime in the fertile women’s camps has turned nasty. Women are whipped for the slightest infraction, such as smoking (even when not pregnant). She escapes… and discovers that the world outside is very different to what she had been told. She finds her husband, who is still the number two man in the government, and likely soon to be the number one, and learns that he is now shacked up with her twin sister. The twins turn on one another, Julia gets sent back to the camp, and that’s that. Except Nature has one final trick up her sleeve…

There’s a very 1960s British po-faced earnestness to Implosion. The characters are exemplary – Bart himself is young and noble and brilliant at organisation and making decisions. His wife is beautiful and loving and a true soulmate. Or at least, she starts out like that. Even their lady who does is a treasure. The prime minister is a hearty man of the people, straight-talking and more than willing to do the necessary. The Britain of the story appears pretty much the same as the Britain of 1967. Even though it begins in the early 1970s, the currency is still pounds, shilling and pence.

Implosion reads like a novel in which the author had a good idea and then set out to show clever he was in solving it. Its politics are simplistic, as is its view of the British people. The Barts are very much the “right sort”, and what few working class people do make an appearance are viewed with all the patronising indulgence of the privileged. Implosion is not a cosy catastrophe – there’s more brandy drunk than tea, for one thing – but it is peculiarly English. Perhaps it could be called a “Mayfair catastrophe”. That’s what it feels like, a black and white 1960s television Play for Today with a cast speaking in cut-glass accents, while around them the world they don’t much care for slowly falls apart…

So, not a British sf masterwork, then.

(And no, I’ve no idea what that blobby thing on the cover of the book is supposed to represent.)


British sf masterwork: The Uncensored Man, Arthur Sellings

When I put together my list of British SF Masterworks last year (see here), a number of eligible authors were suggested to me that I’d never heard of before. One such was Arthur Sellings who, I discovered, had written six novels and numerous short stories (many of which were collected in two collections) between 1953 and 1970. He died suddenly in 1968 of a heart attack, “just as he was gaining more and more notice” according to his entry in the SF Encyclopedia here.

Although I actually put Sellings’ 1970 novel, Junk Day, on my British SF Masterworks list, I have so far only managed to acquire The Silent Speakers (1962), his debut novel, and The Uncensored Man (1964), his second novel. It was the latter I read.

Dr Mark Anders is a physicist at Jarwood, a secret British weapons laboratory. He is married to Ruth, who also works there, but their marriage is faltering. Ruth is too perfect, and too much a perfectionist, and whatever spark their relationship had possessed has long since dissipated. In an effort to cheer himself up, Anders goes visits an old friend who is a doctor in a distant town. While there, he witnesses a teenage patient of the doctor’s have an epileptic fit, wake up and talk for a minute in German, and then fall into a light coma. But the boy has learning difficulties and has never been taught a foreign language. Intrigued, Anders investigates further, but draws a blank. Then his brand-new computer spits out a page of Greek writing instead of the expected experimental results. He gets this translated, and it proves to be a quote from the Book of Revelations.

Mystified, and suspecting he may be suffering from some psychological condition, Anders visits Dr Nowatski, A Polish psychiatrist he met briefly at a party years before. Nowatski gives Anders a shot of LSD – it was legal, in those days. Under the influence of the drug, Anders… visits a parallel world and meets its human inhabitants. The remainder of the novel describes Anders attempts to learn the truth of this alternate Earth, his run-ins with Jarwood’s security stemming from his association with Nowatski, and his subsequent development of mental powers.

The Uncensored Man is tosh, but it’s quite well-written tosh. The central premise – the origin and reason for existence of the alternate Earth – is neither plausible nor convincing. While Anders is a nuclear physicist working on neutron bombs, Sellings gives no information on his actual work. And though the reason why his computer spouts Greek is explained, how it actually does so is ignored. The book lacks authenticity.

However, Anders is a well-drawn character. Likewise Nowatski. The two women – Ruth, and Nowatski’s wife, Anna – are less rounded, though their treatment is sympathetic. In fact, they are repeatedly shown to be better persons than their menfolk. The prose is also good – in other words, it is typical of British sf of the 1960s, and so much better than US sf of the same period. US authors of the time may have had the ideas, but British sf authors had the writing chops.

The Uncensored Man is a very British novel, and very much a novel of its time. These days, it’s little more than a curiosity. It’s no masterwork, and it remains to be seen which of Sellings’ novels belongs on my list. It’s an interesting read, but not one, I think, that would have set the genre alight.

As mentioned earlier, I also have a copy of Selling’s debut, The Silent Speakers (published as Telepath in the US), and if I see other novels by him I’ll no doubt pick them up. But he was neither as good as Compton, nor as prolific as other British sf authors of the time, such as Tubb, Brunner or Cooper. Like Rex Gordon and Leonard Daventry, the fact he’s now forgotten does not seem entirely surprising. But it would not have done the genre a disservice to have had the likes of Sellings and his peers representing it rather than some of the sf novels we now consider to be classics.


Bookjoy: more Compton

Synthajoy was DG Compton’s fourth science fiction novel. Previously, he had written half a dozen crime novels under the name Guy Compton. So it should come as no surprise that Synthajoy is as much a crime novel as it is a science fiction novel.

Thea Cadence has been incarcerated in the Kingston, a clinic designed to rehabilitate criminals using the Sensitape process. Thea’s husband, Dr Teddy Cadence invented Sensitape – or rather, he invented the concept. The device itself was invented by Tony Stech, his business partner. Sensitape is, as the name suggests, recorded emotional states which can be played into a person’s mind, and thus directly affect it. At the Kingston, Thea is undergoing Sensitape treatment in contrition as her sentence for a crime.

Cadence had been inspired to invent Sensitape while attempting to cure Stech’s father of an increasingly common condition called UDW, Uncompensated Death Wish. He failed to prevent the man’s death, but Sensitape did subsequently make UDW extremely rare. In fact, Sensitape was a great success. But the recording made of a couple making love, Sexitape, was an even bigger success. Cadence, however, always dreamed of artificially creating the emotions on a Sensitape, i.e., deliberately programming the effect required. He called this process Synthajoy.

Thea drifts in and out of her memories as she is being treated. Though she did not defend herself during her trial, she does not consider herself guilty of the crime. She resists her rehabilitation treatment. And in between periods of introspection and rebellion, she relives – or explains to her nurse – the history of Sensitape and her involvement with it. In this way, facts pertinent to the crime of which she has been charged are revealed.

Thea murdered her husband.

An early Sensitape session in which she was the guinea pig gave her a revulsion for her husband’s body. He found sexual companionship in the arms of another woman – the one from the Sexitape, in fact. Thea meanwhile had an affair with Tony. Who later committed suicide under suspicious circumstances. During her trial, the prosecution claimed it was jealousy that had led to the murder. They did not know of Thea’s relationship with Tony, nor did she tell anyone of it.

Synthajoy is a carefully-plotted ramble through Thea’s consciousness and history. She is hiding the truth from herself as much as she is from her prosecutors and rehabilitators. And it is only as she reveals her past that the truth about Tony’s suicide and the murder of Dr Cadence are uncovered. Unlike later novels, Synthajoy is a single-hander, and told entirely from Thea’s point of view. She is intelligent, educated, middle-class, and beautifully real. Unsurprisingly, the writing is a joy to read:

It is extraordinary to watch my hands. They smooth and fold, now so neat and expert, so accomplished now that they act without mind, without my volition … Hope is like a fever, a heat engendered by battle, and it leaves a deadly chill behind it. My arms ache. My hands tingle and creak. (p 50)

Also, unsurprisingly, the book is very firmly British, and very firmly a novel of the late 1960s / early 1970s. (It was first published in 1968). Those characteristics, as much as the writing, are the essence of Compton’s appeal. His novels are fiercely intelligent and beautifully crafted, but it is their finely-tuned sense of time and place, the way the central ideas are so well integrated into the real world, that makes them stand out.

There are ideas that Compton returns to again and again. The abuse of technology is an obvious marker – and one that demands a story set in as close an analogue of the real world as is possible. And yet… It seems odd that Compton should begin his writing career in crime, writing novels in which the purpose of the story is to explain a death. Yet his science fiction novels typically feature epidemics of unexplainable deaths – UDW in Synthajoy, Gordon’s Syndrome in The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (see here), and the Disappearances in Ascendancies (see here).

In his three decades of writing science fiction, Compton never won an award, despite being published regularly in both the UK and the US. The Steel Crocodile was shortlisted for the Nebula in 1971, but lost out to Ringworld (an extremely popular book, but nowhere near as well-written). He appeared on the Locus Award shortlist three times, and in 2007 the SFWA made him an Author Emeritus. Yet he was possibly the best British sf writer of the 1970s. At a time when US authors of the 1950s dominated the field on both sides of the Atlantic – Asimov, Smith, Herbert, Heinlein – Compton was one of a handful of British sf writers writing sf novels so much more intelligent and well-crafted than those of their contemporaries. It’s a shame they appear to be mostly forgotten, and it’s the likes of Foundation and Stranger in a Strange Land which dominate lists of so-called genre classics. Perhaps the re-issue of Compton’s back-catalogue as ebooks through the SF Gateway (Compton’s entry is here), and The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe‘s appearance in the SF Masterwork series in October 2012, will see Compton receive the recognition he deserves.

The following novels by Compton are currently available on Kindle via the SF Gateway. If you own such a device, you should buy them immediately: Farewell, Earth’s Bliss (1966), The Silent Multitude (1966), The Quality of Mercy (1967), Synthajoy (1968), The Steel Crocodile (1968), Chronocules (1970), A Usual Lunacy (1978), Windows (1979), Ascendancies (1980), Scudder’s Game (1988), Nomansland (1993), Justice City (1995) and Back of Town Blues (1997).


British sf masterwork: A Far Sunset, Edmund Cooper

Between 1954 and 1980, Edmund Cooper published thirty novels and collections. None of his books remain in print, none have been considered for Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says of him, Edmund Cooper “died with his reputation at a low ebb; but he was a competent and prolific writer”, which is hardly fulsome praise. In the decades since his death in 1982, Cooper has been almost forgotten. Secondhand copies of his novels are not hard to find, although it seems nothing of his was ever reprinted after 1980. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he wasn’t published much in the US (during the 1960s and 1970s, DAW had lots of UK sf writers on its list). Of Cooper’s novels, the one which is perhaps mentioned most often approvingly is A Far Sunset. This was first published in 1967, but stayed in print throughout the 1970s.

In 2032 AD, the Americans, Russians, and “United States of Europe” each built an interstellar spacecraft. The American ship was the biggest, the Russian the fastest, and the European the cheapest. This last was named the Gloria Mundi, and her destination was Altair. After twenty years of travel, spent chiefly in hibernation, the crew of twelve arrived in the Altair system… and discovered an inhabitable and inhabited world. They landed. Six went out to explore, but never returned. Three went looking for them, and also disappeared. The remaining trio had no choice but to follow… and were promptly captured by the humanoid Bayani. Only one of the three survived captivity, Paul Marlowe, the ship’s psychiatrist. As Poul Mer Lo, he went native.

The Bayani are described throughout A Far Sunset as possessing a “mediaeval” society, but it seems much more ancient than that. From the description of Baya Nor, the Bayani city, Angkor Wat was plainly an inspiration. As was early Polynesia. The Bayani are ruled by a god-king, always called Enka Ne, who rules with absolute power for one year. He is then sacrificed, and a new Enka Ne is chosen.

The current Enka Ne is intrigued by Marlowe, and visits him in disguise as Shah Shan. He asks to learn English, and Marlowe is astonished by Shah Shan’s fierce intelligence and the speed with which he learns what Marlowe has to teach. Emboldened by this, Marlowe tries to introduce the wheel to the Bayani. The priestly order are immediately against it, but only accept it reluctantly after Enka Ne kills over a hundred of them. Change, then, is not going to be easy. And the current Enka Ne’s reign is not long.

Sure enough, after a new Enka Ne becomes god-king, the school Marlowe has set up is destroyed. Determined not to give in, Marlowe decides to travel a distant mountain which may hold the secret to the Bayani’s origin. This he does, and, yes, he does find the secret of the Bayani. But it’s not enough to effect change.

But on Marlowe’s return to Baya Nor, he learns that Enka Ne has died. And the Bayani oracle has chosen Marlowe to be the new god-king…

Cooper evokes his invented world with skill, and Marlowe is a well-drawn character. A Far Sunset has not aged gracefully, but neither is it as embarrassing as many other books of its time. Some of the science and technology feels a bit 1960s, and the gender politics are definitely from that decade; but the Bayani and Baya Nor are mostly timeless. The writing throughout is solid, and occasionally good without being flashy. While the secret of the Bayani is not obvious – so the reveal does come as a surprise – the existence of a secret is perhaps introduced too late in the story to have much dramatic impact.

Having said all that, there’s not much in A Far Sunset that is actually science fiction. It could be the story of a European explorer cast adrift on a Pacific island whose inhabitants who have lived the same way for centuries. Even the secret behind the origin of the Bayani, and their god Oruri, doesn’t really need to be sf. And that makes A Far Sunset ultimately a disappointing read. It’s by no means a bad book. It’s well-written, with a well-drawn world and protagonist, but it could just have easily been a “European marooned in the South Seas” story. I suspect I shall have to find another novel by Cooper to take its place on my British SF Masterworks list.

ETA: comments have been closed, and the exchange between members of Cooper’s family and literary trust removed. This is not the venue for such a discussion, and I’ve no desire to be held responsible for what might or might not be said by either party. Please air your differences elsewhere.


British sf masterwork: 98.4, Christopher Hodder-Williams

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.


Another obscure British sf masterwork

Among the books recommended to me by others for inclusion on my list of British sf masterworks (see here) was A Man of Double Deed, Leonard Daventry’s debut novel, and the first book of the Keyman trilogy. Daventry is forgotten now. He wrote seven science fiction novels between 1965 and 1980 – the last one somewhat ironically titled You Must Remember Us…? – but his books are neither in print nor especially easy to find. Which is a shame, as there are worse authors from that period still in print, whose deathless prose continues to clog the bookshelves of Waterstone’s and other book shops.

The title character of A Man of Double Deed is Claus Coman. He is a keyman. This means he is a telepath, and one of a handful of such people, who operate something like secret agents and something like Special Branch, on an Earth a century after an all-out nuclear war, the “Atomic Disaster of 1990”. Coman is something of a throwback – he lives in a house in Old Peckham, not in a giant apartment block, and he smokes like a chimney, even though the habit is illegal. He is also, we are told on the first page, “old-fashioned in other ways also, being content with two women only”. These two women are Jonl and Sein, and Coman is bonded to them – again, something considered old-fashioned and slightly dubious.

Coman returns to Earth after adventures on Venus – several of his previous escapades are mentioned in the novel – to find something strange going on. The youth of 2090 have taken to murder and suicide. It’s almost an epidemic. The only solution the World Council can conceive is a “War Section”. This is an area, preferably on another planet, in which the murderous teenagers and young adults can be left to their own violent devices. The Council is meeting shortly to consider implementing such a War Section, but the leader of the Council, Marst, is being influenced to vote against the proposal by a conspiracy. Coman’s boss, Karns, asks him to travel to the Fifteenth City, a holiday destination built above a line of islands in the Pacific, to persuade Marst to change his vote. Marst is apparently under the influence of a pair of “jokers”, telepaths who oppose the keymen but fortunately possess much weaker abilities. Coman and his two wives travel from the Twelfth City (London) to the Fifteenth City. Shortly after their arrival, while at a swimming-pool, Coman identifies one of the jokers, a woman called Linnel. He seduces her – Jonl and Sein are not happy about it, but they trust him. With Linnel’s help, Coman manages to prevent the conspiracy.

The plot summary above probably doesn’t quite illustrate how odd this novel is. Superficially, it resembles an ordinary piece of science fiction tosh from the 1950s or 1960s, with a superman hero, a supporting bevy of beautiful subservient women, and a future Earth which in no way resembles the Earth of the time of writing but still feels horribly dated. But that would be doing A Man of Double Deed a disservice. It’s a much better book than that.

Coman is such a strange hero, for one thing. He is a dour intellectual, but not a misanthrope. He is not a man of action, but is often called upon to behave like one. There’s something of the World War II RAF officer in him, a combination of education, arrogance, pragmatism, and a grudging respect for others. He is his own biggest critic, but extremely private with his criticisms. He is very British.

Nor are the women of the story, Jonl, Sein and Linnel, characterless females. On the contrary, Jonl could become a keyman herself, but does not wish to do so on principle. Sein is more stereotypical a female character. She loves Coman, and longs for a baby. She gets her wish in the end, and it’s a result all are happy with. Linnel is a femme fatale, but an insecure one who falls for Coman’s singular charms, but refuses to bend entirely to his will. These three are not, I hasten to add, brilliantly-drawn female characters, or even especially realistically-drawn ones, but they are a good deal better-realised than is common for genre fiction of the time.

A Man of Double Deed is a novel in which principles play a large part. At several points in the story, Coman, Karns, Marst, or Coman’s cyborg friend Deenan talk about moral and legal principles, and these are well-written and well-argued pieces of dialogue. They are not the usual political or moralistic crap you’d find in most genre novels, and which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, this is solid, well-presented, intelligent argument. It makes for a refreshing change.

Perhaps the invention on display in the novel is not especially high, but the writing is solid, and even occasionally good, the characters are drawn well, and the plot comes to a satisfactory end… even if not everything is explained. What, for example, was the conspiracy which had hired the two jokers? Why did they not want a War Section? Nevertheless, A Man of Double Deed is an interesting sf novel and doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. In fact, I think I’ll hunt down the other two books in the trilogy, Reflections in a Mirage and The Ticking is in Your Head, and read them.


British SF Masterworks redux

After all the comments on my list of 50 British science fiction masterworks, I decided to revisit it. There were several authors I’d inadvertently left off – and no, I’ve no idea how I managed to miss Paul J McAuley (sorry); but he’s on there now. There were also a couple of books I listed which, on reflection, were either too peripheral to the genre, or not really masterworks. The Durrell stays on, however, because a) he’s my favourite writer, and b) it features a number of sf tropes.

Brian W Aldiss claims in Trillion Year Spree that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first science fiction novel, but I prefer to date the genre to the appearance of Amazing Stories in 1926. So Shelley goes. But it would be criminal to produce a list of British sf masterworks without including one by HG Wells, whose “scientific romances” were certainly an ancestor of sf (and many were reprinted in Amazing Stories, anyway).

I’ve also changed Lessing’s entry from The Memoirs of a Survivor to the Canopus in Argos: Archives quintet, as each of the five books in it are more substantial than my original choice. I’ve added Christopher Evans, Geoff Ryman, Ted Tubb, Mark Adlard, Eric Frank Russell, James White, Colin Kapp and Douglas Adams (bowing to public pressure there). Some of the books may not be masterworks per se – the Kapp series, for example, is more notable for its eponymous Big Dumb Object than it is its prose, characterisation or plot. Tubb, of course, was best known for his 33-book Dumarest series, but I’ve seen several positive mentions of The Space-Born, a generation starship story. James White probably wrote better books than the one I’ve chosen, but it’s the only one of his Sector General novels to appear on a any kind of shortlist – the Locus SF Novel Award for 1988 (which was, admittedly, a shortlist of thirty-three…).

So I have made some changes. And somehow the list has grown to fifty-five books.

1 – The Time Machine, HG Wells (1895)
2 – Last And First Men, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
3 – Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)
4 – Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell (1949)
5 – The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951)
6 – The Death of Grass, John Christopher (1956)
7 – No Man Friday, Rex Gordon (1956) – my review here.
8 – The Space-Born, EC Tubb (1956)
9 – On The Beach, Nevil Shute (1957)
10 – WASP, Eric Frank Russell (1958)
11 – A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (1962)
12 – The Drowned World, JG Ballard (1962)
13 – Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
14 – A Man of Double Deed, Leonard Daventry (1965)
15 – A Far Sunset, Edmund Cooper (1967)
16 – The Revolt of Aphrodite [Tunc, Nunquam], Lawrence Durrell (1968 – 1970)
17 – Pavane, Keith Roberts (1968)
18 – Stand On Zanzibar, John Brunner (1968)
19 – Behold The Man, Michael Moorcock (1969)
20 – Ninety-eight Point Four, Christopher Hodder-Williams (1969)
21 – Junk Day, Arthur Sellings (1970)
22 – T-City trilogy [Interface, Volteface, Multiface] Mark Adlard (1971 – 1975)
23 – The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, DG Compton (1973) – my review here.
24 – Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C Clarke (1973) – my review here.
25 – Collision with Chronos, Barrington Bayley (1973)
26 – Inverted World, Christopher Priest (1974)
27 – The Centauri Device, M John Harrison (1974)
28 – Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975) – my review here.
29 – Orbitsville [Orbitsville, Orbitsville Departure, Orbitsville Judgement], Bob Shaw (1975 – 1990)
30 – The Alteration, Kingsley Amis (1976)
31 – The White Bird of Kinship [The Road to Corlay, A Dream of Kinship, A Tapestry of Time], Richard Cowper (1978 – 1982) – my review here.
32 – SS-GB, Len Deighton (1978)
33 – Canopus in Argos: Archives [Shikasta, The Marriages Between Zones 3, 4 and 5, The Sirian Experiments, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire], Doris Lessing (1979 – 1983)
34 – The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life, the Universe and Everything, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Mostly Harmless], Douglas Adams (1979 – 1992)
35 – Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981) – my review here.
36 – The Silver Metal Lover, Tanith Lee (1981)
37 – Cageworld [Search for the Sun!, The Lost Worlds of Cronus, The Tyrant of Hades, Star-Search], Colin Kapp (1982 – 1984)
38 – Helliconia, Brian W Aldiss (1982 – 1985)
39 – Orthe, Mary Gentle (1983 – 1987)
40 – Chekhov’s Journey, Ian Watson (1983)
41 – In Limbo, Christopher Evans (1985)
42 – Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton (1986)
43 – Wraeththu Chronicles [The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, The Bewitchments of Love and Hate, The Fulfilments of Fate and Desire], Storm Constantine (1987 – 1989)
44 – Code Blue – Emergency!, James White (1987)
45 – Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988) – my review here.
46 – The Empire of Fear, Brian Stableford (1988)
47 – Desolation Road, Ian McDonald (1988)
48 – The Child Garden, Geoff Ryman (1989)
49 – Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990) – my review here.
50 – Wulfsyarn, Phillip Mann (1990)
51 – Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1990)
52 – Vurt, Jeff Noon (1993)
53 – The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter (1995)
55 – Fairyland, Paul J Mcauley (1995)

So that’s the new list. I still intend to read and review some of the more obscure books – and have already done the Rex Gordon (see here). Those books I’ve written about on this blog now have links beside them – some are full-blown reviews, some are just a paragraph or two in one of my Readings & Watchings catch-up posts.

Now let the discussion begin.



An obscure British sf masterwork?

Several of the authors I included in my fifty British SF Masterworks list (see here), I’d not actually read. And with good reason – they’re more or less forgotten. One such author was Rex Gordon, the pen-name of Stanley Bennett Hough, born in 1917, who wrote nine science fiction novels between 1953 and 1969. Of those novels, the best-known is perhaps No Man Friday (or so I was reliably informed). Second-hand copies of the book are relatively easy to find – both under that title and under its US title, First on Mars – so I bought one. And read it. (Incidentally, Gordon’s The Worlds of Eclos was published in the US as First to the Stars, and his The Time Factor as First Through Time; there seems to be a pattern there…)

Gordon Holder is the narrator of No Man Friday. He is an engineer at Woomera, Australia, where Britain carried out its rocket and missile programme during the 1950s and 1960s. Determined to beat the Americans into space, the British engineers secretly build a rocket to take them to Mars. They sneak orders for the parts they need onto the account lines of officially-approved projects, and build the rocket inside a disused water tower. It’s a peculiarly British way to do it, working within the system, hiding in the bureaucracy – rather than fighting against it, one man versus the overbearing government, as would happen in an American novel.

No Man Friday is not an especially scientifically accurate novel, although Gordon is careful to maintain a plausible tone. The rocket, for example, carries a crew of seven, and clearly owes more to the pointy rockets of the science fiction of the period than it does to the contemporary Redstone launch vehicle of NASA (one of which would put the first American, Alan Shepard, into space six years later).

En route to Mars, Holder has to leave the confines of the rocket to fix a deflector-plate which is causing the craft to spin. On his return, something goes wrong and the outer and inner airlock doors are both opened. Everyone inside dies. Only Holder survives, because he’s still wearing his spacesuit. Gordon has clearly thought about what it would be like to wear an inflated spacesuit in a vacuum, and describes the difficulty of performing tasks in such a suit – although he didn’t anticipate the damage to fingernails that modern-day astronauts apparently experience on EVA (see here).

The rocket crashes on Mars, but again Holder survives. Given that Gordon had no knowledge of the surface conditions of Mars – the first Mars lander would not be until 1971, when the Soviet Mars 3 managed to transmit data and pictures for 22 seconds; and the first successful landers were the US’s Viking 1 and Viking 2 in 1976 – nonetheless, he manages a reasonably believable Martian surface, not unlike, say, the Atacama Desert.

Holder manages to use the wreckage of the rocket, and its surviving equipment, to manufacture both water and oxygen. He builds himself a sand scooter, and goes exploring. But wherever he goes, it’s all the same: an endless red desert, populated only by strange Martian cacti and the over-sized termites which feed on them. He even experiments with the plants, trying to find some method of preparation which will make them edible and nutritious.

Then he discovers evidence of some larger animal – he has already guessed that the low gravity and air pressure would result in creatures larger in size than earthly ones. This creature proves to be humanoid in shape, but its behaviour demonstrates it is clearly not intelligent. But the giant centipede creatures, the size of buses, which feed on the corpses of the humanoids and communicate via biological light-organs, definitely appear to be.

Holder sets out to follow the giant centipedes, and eventually discovers their nesting area. He attempts to communicate with them…

Fifteen years later, a US rocket lands on Mars, and its crew are astonished to see a human approaching their craft on foot. Holder has survived as a favoured pet of the giant centipedes. He explains this to the Americans, telling them that the Martians will only allow one rocket per year to land on the Red Planet. The Americans reply that the system is unworkable, not least because the Soviets are planning their own mission. Holder tries to return to the Martians, but is unable to do so – some strange barrier prevents him.

No Man Friday clearly owes a lot to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and, in fact, references that book a number of times. Not having read Defoe, I can’t say how close the parallels are. No Man Friday is also a very explanatory book, as Holder takes an interest in his strange surroundings and in discovering how to survive in them. He explains what he does, and why. The prose is strong throughout, and Holder is an engaging and thoughtful narrator. The flora and fauna on Mars Gordon invents sounds mostly believable, and the giant centipede Martians are otherworldly enough to feel alien – especially given the hands-on engineering tone of the rest of the novel.

No Man Friday is quick, fun and interesting, without being glib or ridiculously fanciful. It’s very much a “hard” science fiction novel of its time, but also very characteristically British. There’s no mistaking No Man Friday for an American sf novel. That’s where much of its charm lies. And, yes, it does belong on the British SF Masterwork list.


British SF Masterworks

Science fiction is a genre dominated by the US – which is where it was invented. The SF Masterworks series is published by a British publisher. So why not have a Masterworks series of British science fiction? This topic popped up on twitter yesterday, and inspired me to have a bash at creating my own list of fifty British science fiction masterworks.

I’ve not read all of the books listed below – so thanks to Kev McVeigh, Paul Graham Raven and Eric Brown for their input. Not all the books could really be considered “classics”, although the more obscure ones should probably be better known. The only rules I followed in putting together the list are: a) one title per author (unless it’s a trilogy in omnibus form), and b) a completely arbitrary cut-off date of 1995. Some of the books in my list are in Gollancz’s Masterworks series, but many are not. Yes, a few of my favourites have sneaked in there; not to mention a number of non-genre novels by non-genre writers which actually are science fiction.

There are no fantasy novels at all. That’s a list for another day…

1 – Frankenstein, Mary Shelly (1818)
2 – The War of the Worlds, HG Wells (1897)
3 – Last And First Men, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
4 – Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)
5 – Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell (1949)
6 – The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951)
7 – The Death of Grass, John Christopher (1956)
8 – No Man Friday, Rex Gordon (1956)
9 – On The Beach, Nevil Shute (1957)
10 – A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (1962)
11 – The Drowned World, JG Ballard (1962)
12 – Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
13 – A Man of Double Deed, Leonard Daventry (1965)
14 – The Time Before This, Nicholas Monsarrat (1966)
15 – A Far Sunset, Edmund Cooper (1967)
16 – The Revolt of Aphrodite [Tunc and Nunquam], Lawrence Durrell (1968 – 1970)
17 – Pavane, Keith Roberts (1968)
18 – Stand On Zanzibar, John Brunner (1968)
19 – Behold The Man, Michael Moorcock (1969)
20 – Ninety-Eight Point Four, Christopher Hodder-Williams (1969)
21 – Junk Day, Arthur Sellings (1970)
22 – The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, DG Compton (1973)
23 – Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C Clarke (1973)
24 – Collision with Chronos, Barrington Bayley (1973)
25 – Inverted World, Christopher Priest (1974)
26 – The Centauri Device, M John Harrison (1974)
27 – The Memoirs of a Survivor, Doris Lessing (1974)
28 – Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975)
29 – Orbitsville [Orbitsville, Orbitsville Departure, Orbitsville Judgement], Bob Shaw (1975 – 1990)
30 – The Alteration, Kingsley Amis (1976)
31 – The White Bird of Kinship [The Road to Corlay, A Dream of Kinship, A Tapestry of Time], Richard Cowper (1978 – 1982)
32 – SS-GB, Len Deighton (1978)
33 – Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981)
34 – The Silver Metal Lover, Tanith Lee (1981)
35 – Helliconia, Brian W Aldiss (1982 – 1985)
35 – Orthe, Mary Gentle (1983 – 1987)
36 – Chekhov’s Journey, Ian Watson (1983)
37 – A Maggot, John Fowles (1985)
38 – Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton (1986)
39 – Wraeththu Chronicles [The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, The Bewitchments of Love and Hate, The Fulfilments of Fate and Desire], Storm Constantine (1987 – 1989)
40 – Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
41 – The Empire of Fear, Brian Stableford (1988)
42 – Desolation Road, Ian McDonald (1988)
43 – Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990)
44 – Wulfsyarn, Phillip Mann (1990)
47 – Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1990)
48 – Vurt, Jeff Noon (1993)
49 – Ammonite, Nicola Griffith (1993)
50 – The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter (1995)

So, any I’ve missed out? Any UK authors – born, not simply resident – who belong on this list? Or are any of the books I’ve chosen actually really bad and don’t belong on it?

Perhaps this might turn into a meme – you know the sort of thing: how many have you read, how many do you own but have yet to read… For the record, I’ve read thirty-two of the books, and own a further four I’ve not read.