The third volume in Wingrove’s revised epic future history is the start of the original series published in 1989. An overview of this can be found in my original review of The Middle Kingdom (1989).
I imagine that the 1989 version has been split into two for this new release. The original series comprised of eight hefty volumes while the new ‘re-cast’ version is twenty smaller issues with two new volumes at either end. I can’t determine how much this has been revised if at all. One wouldn’t have thought the series needed any revision until perhaps the last two volumes of the original release, which had major flaws due to publishers’ interference.
Those new to Chung Kuo who have read the first two ‘recast’ volumes would be advised to persevere. I am dubious as to whether volumes one or two added anything valuable to the series. They had that feeling of having been ‘bolted on’ for no good reason.
Here, however, the story really kicks off and I am taken back to my first addiction to this brilliant series. Wingrove handles the multi-character storyline with aplomb and the pace is generally fast. It’s a master class in world-building if nothing else as one does get immersed in this highly detailed dystopia from the outset. Page-turningly good and highly recommended.
Priest novels have never been an easy read, although they can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience, in my experience once one has finished reading them, more of which later. He has never gone in for infodumping or providing easy explanations for the reader, and his work tends to be a puzzle, or – in the nature of one of his favourite themes – a magical act of misdirection where the reader has to spot the clues in order to interpret the reality of what he or she is experiencing.
Reality is the major theme here, or alternate realities. Priest is exploring a concept which Moorcock employed throughout his career and indeed used to connect his many disparate works with each other.
The central character is Tibor Tarent, a photographer from the Islamic Republic of Great Britain, some time after the 2030s. He has been returned to England from Turkey for a debriefing following the death of his nurse wife Melanie in an apparent terrorist attack. This terrifying new ‘adjacency’ weapon appears as a light above the target. What then follows is that everything in an equilateral pyramid below is apparently destroyed, leaving a perfectly triangular blast area. It would have been interesting for Priest to have explored the workings and history of the IRGB a little more. Here, it is merely a presented fact, employed as a backdrop to Tibor’s dystopia.
Tibor learns that the authorities are interested in him because he once photographed Thijs Rietveld, the Nobel Prize winning scientist who discovered and developed the adjacency technology.
On returning to London he discovers that Notting Hill has been destroyed in the same way (I note that another critic has pointed out that this may be a bit of an overreaction to the effect of the Richard Curtis movie, but hey ho).
Interspersed with Tarent’s journey to Warnes’ Farm, where he is due to be interviewed by unspecified government officials, are other stories, set in the First and Second World Wars, and on the island of Prachous, a setting from from a previous novel ‘The Dream Archipelago’.
In all these sequences we find alternate versions or reflections of Tarent and Melanie. Two are magicians or illusionists echoing the themes of reality and illusion from ‘The Prestige’. A stage magician called Tommy Trent is drafted to the front line of The First World War, along with HG Wells, in an effort to devise a plan to make British planes less visible to the Germans.
In World War II, a pilot called Torrance is connected by chance to a Polish female pilot who is drawn to him because of his resemblance to her lost lost lover Tomasz.
And on Prachous, there are two incarnations of the couple; one of the males being a photographer and the other another magician. The Melanie figures are a pilot, a religious guide, and a nurse. This continues a regular theme of Priest’s of doubles, twins and doppelgangers which appear in his past work to a greater or lesser degree.
All the sequences have a certain sense of illogicality or unreality about them, certainly in the sense that on at least two occasions women who seem initially cold and aloof initiate rampant sex with the Tibor incarnation.
Indeed, Priest keeps us guessing throughout, as the Tibor Tarent sequences may or may not reflect the same reality.
I have always been a fan of those works which do not explain everything. Many authors feel they have to do a Downton Abbey and tie up all the loose ends, marry off all the single people and leave no question unanswered, which for me is rather more unreal than any of Priest’s realities here.
One of the most fascinating sections is the one dealing with the interview with Thijs Rietveld where – like an illusionist – he demonstrates the adjacency field with no explanation while having his photograph taken by Tibor in his garden. A conch shell appears to move without volition between his left and right hand while he stands there unmoving.
Leaving a mystery unsolved is the best way to ensure that a work stays on in one’s head, and Priest leaves many haunting questions here. Many people see that as a bad thing, but I would disagree. The novel persists in one’s head where other works with ‘closure’ (ironically the title of one of the sections toward the end) are soon dismissed by the conscious process.
There is a resolution, or is there? It’s difficult to tell with Priest. Maybe we have all been misdirected and the entire book is one enormous conjuring trick, designed to lead us to an erroneous conclusion while the real truth lies hidden like Schrodinger’s cat, waiting for us to open the box.
Ten stories from Eric Brown, of varying quality, set in various parts of the world or universe.
There are recurring themes of Death (or perhaps mortality) and identity. There a couple of stories which are a little weak, although on the whole they are fascinating little gems, featuring well-rounded characters, and not all of them Anglo-American Anglo Saxon folk either, which makes a pleasant change.
A very easy and enjoyable read.
Venus Macabre (Aboriginal Science Fiction, Winter 1998)
A tale of two men obsessed with death. One is a conceptual artist who is equipped with a device which records his mind. He perpetually destroys himself as a performance before spending seven days in the impervious device while his body is being regrown. The other, who attends his final performance, is a TV host who employs empaths to track suicides. Their final days and their actual suicides are filmed and shown on a popular prime time show.
This tale cleverly unravels the history of the two protagonists and what else they have in common.
The Frankenberg Process (Interzone, #171 September 2001)
A fascinating story with a very retro feel to it. The Frankenberg Process splits top level executives of a vast Corporation into two separate but identical individuals, keeping one on Earth and teleporting the other to work on a distant alien world, never to return.
It’s a tale of corporate greed and control, but also examines the human effects of such a process.
Skyball (The Edge, Vol. 2, #5, August-September 1997)
In a near future Far East, a form of quidditch is played, with teams zooming about in powered harnesses. A telepath, who used to be employed to scout out talent by seeing their potential in their minds, is now employed seeking out criminals. He is at an important Skyball final as a tip has been received that someone will attempt to kill one of the players.
While there, he discovers a crippled girl who has the mind of a brilliant Skyball strategist, and conceives the idea of temporarily transferring her mind into that of a fading star player. .
Bengal Blues (The Angels of Life and Death 2010)
A weak but atmospheric story about a telepathic detective on the trail of a man who has married a prostitute. The ending is a little rushed and awkward for me. It seems as if it should be part of a larger work.
The Nilakantha Scream (Interzone, #48 June 1991)
Telepaths again feature in this odd tale of an interstellar contact crew returning from a world where they were deeply traumatised and have been emitting a daily psychic scream on their way back home. This is however, more about the central figure and her relationship to her boss and to one of the crew returning from space.
The Thallian Intervention (The Edge, Vol. 2, #2, February-March 1996)
One of the weaker tales in ‘Angels of Life and Death’ is an attempt at an early Twentieth Century style, where Mr Meredith, a passenger on a liner to Singapore meets an alien visitor from the future.
The Earth is doomed, but the aliens plan to effectively copy the Earth, transport it to their own time period, and hopefully save Humanity from destroying itself.
It ultimately looks at the same themes as ‘The Frankenburg Process’ but not to any great degree.
The Tapestry of Time (Fantasy Adventures 12 – 2006)
An archaeologist is struggling to come to terms with an anomalous corpse from the 11th Century that has turned up. Not long after an old colleague invites him to have a tour of his project, which appears to be a working time-travel process.
Without giving too much away there is not enough of a mystery, and the piece could have been longer with a little more plot.
The Frozen Woman (Interzone, #190 July-August 2003)
A gardener for a large private estate is discovered frozen, as if in stasis, in Sainsburys. A year later he recovers, apparently none the worse for his experience. However, he will only speak with one specific reporter, a woman about whom he seems to know and care a great deal, although she has never met him.
Brown’s aliens and evolved humans (as are described here and in the stories in Angels of Life and Death) seem in the main to be benevolent, which is interesting and a little refreshing.
Crystals (New Moon #2, January 1992)
An alien ship crashed just off an island on Britain’s coast. It has been thoroughly examined by most of the world’s specialists and the alien bodies removed.
When the story begins the ship has become merely a scenic view for the islanders. The narrator moved to the island following an acrimonious divorce. His estranged daughter is due to arrive for a visit and her mother has not told her that the man she calls father is not her father.
As she arrives, the island is beset by a storm and the next day alien crystals are found on the beach, crystals that can one record one’s thoughts and experiences.
It is not a bad story but would benefit with some extra length and more conflict.
Angels of Life and Death ( Spectrum SF, #5 February 2001)
Just after Ben, an artist, discovers he has terminal cancer, aliens arrive, announcing their intention to take Earth’s mortally sick for a trip around the Universe. Ben volunteers and is introduced to Tallibeth, his guide, a humanoid being who appears to be composed of light.
The Tallani, as the aliens are known, take Ben to various worlds across the Universe and ultimately tell him that they can, if he wishes, cure him.
As with some of his other stories there is an exploration of what it means to have quality of life.
Banks’ third Culture novel is original, poetic, at times amusing, at times tragic, and just beautifully written.
Cheranedine Zakalwe is, or was, a Culture agent, The Culture being a multi-stellar civilisation in effect ruled by Artificial Intelligences. It is a civilisation which is basically socialist, since there is no currency, poverty, class systems or war.
Outside of its borders the Culture works in oblique and subtle ways to reduce wars between planets. Zakalwe has been involved in several operations of this sort and has subsequently gone rogue and vanished.
Diezit Sma, the woman who originally recruited Zakalwe, needs to bring him in for a further mission; to abduct a politician who is being held by a faction on a primitive world, one who could possibly help to bring peace to several worlds heading toward war.
That is the basic plot, but Banks has embellished those bare bones beautifully with exquisitely carved facets of narrative.
Much of the novel is dedicated to Zakalwe’s examination of his own memories so that structurally we are leaping backwards and forwards between Zakalwe’s past life and adventures and his present day mission. Slowly the strands begin to connect with each other.
The title of this novel is perfect since we are presented, time and time again, with weapons of various sorts; the things with which Zakalwe feels most comfortable and which he, when the moment arrives, is reluctant to deploy.
As a child, living with his stepbrother and stepsisters, he and they stole a weapon to play with in the garden, and by sheer chance were able to foil an assassin’s strike on their family.
It can also be seen as a metaphor at various points, most obviously in the case of Zakalwe himself, who is nothing more than a weapon employed by The Culture, although admittedly for peaceful ends.
The other recurring motif is that of chairs which begins in the first section where an aristocrat Zakalwe is protecting sits down on a fragile chair which collapses under his weight.
Zakalwe returns to his family home one day to find his stepbrother Elethiomel, sitting naked in a chair with Zakalwe’s sister Darckense straddling him. Zakalwe is conscious of some repressed memory related to a chair but it is not until the denouement that the truth of this memory is revealed.
The characters are also beautifully out together. Some sections are almost self-contained vignettes of a point in Zakalwe’s past, such as the period when he travelled on an interstellar ship ferrying frozen colonists to a planet a hundred or more light years away during which he chose to be awakened for a period to experience the flight.
He spends several months in the company of two men, one of those peculiar heterosexual partnerships where the two men involved seem to love each other very much but are constantly competing to be the alpha male. It’s a beautifully observed portrait of male behaviour, and a clever counterpoint to Zakalwe’s nihilistic and suicidal mood at the time.
There are amazing settings, dark humour, wise-cracking personal bots, giant thinking ships with ridiculous names sailing through the blackness of space, and a jawnumbing twist at the end.
Banks was a very original voice in the world of SF.
If you haven’t read him then you should.
Popular music went through its punk phase in the mid Nineteen Seventies. It was almost an extinction event for some of the pop and rock establishment of the time and heralded a brief new era of musical diversity and experimentation.
SF had experienced its own punk revolution in the late Sixties, The New Wave movement, at the forefront of which, along with Judith Merrill, JG Ballard, MJ Harrison and others, was Michael Moorcock. The New Wave was an attempt to invigorate the SF genre and produce a more literary product with an emphasis on character, ‘inner space’ rather than outer space, and experimentation.
Their flagship magazine was ‘New Worlds,’ an already extant magazine which Moorcock took over as editor in the mid-Sixties. It was a groundbreaking publication which has since reappeared in various formats up to 1997.
‘Behold The Man’ was expanded from a novella which appeared in New Worlds in 1967.
Some New Wave writers set out to shock, and one would imagine that as controversial subjects go, Jesus Christ has to be fairly near the top of the list.
In a weird parallel with ‘The Life of Brian’ however, the subject of this novel is not the real Jesus of Nazareth, but one Karl Glogauer, of London.
Glogauer is one of Moorcock’s more fascinating creations, born presumably at the beginning of World War II and growing up in Nineteen Forties and Fifties England, much like Moorcock himself.
Glogauer is one of life’s victims; a target for bullies and a sadistic couple who run a children’s summer camp. He is in search of sexual and spiritual fulfillment, and finds neither although he does become fascinated by the work of Jung and hosts a regular meeting of like-minded individuals to discuss his work.
Glogauer is invited to the country by a member of the group, Sir James Headington, a scientist who claims to have discovered the secret of time travel. Even he, it seems has ulterior motives since he attempts, unsuccessfully, to seduce Glogauer. It does appear, however that the time travel equipment does work. Animals have apparently been sent to the past although the equipment has not as yet been tested with human subjects.
Subsequently, Glogauer becomes fixated on the life of Christ as his relationship with his girlfriend Monica begins to break down. Monica is an atheist who has her own views about where ‘Christian’ ideals originated.
When he finally breaks up with Monica, Glogauer immediately rings Sir James and volunteers to travel back in time, as long as he can choose the time and place of arrival.
And this is where this extraordinary novel begins, with Glogauer arriving in the Palestine area in around 28 AD. His experiences from herein on are interspersed with extracts from his life in the twentieth century, and passages from the Bible.
Initially, Glogauer’s desire is to meet Christ – who is destined to be crucified within a year – and to determine for himself the truth of the gospels. Glogauer is however injured when the time capsule arrives and the vehicle itself essentially destroyed since no technology exists in his current timeline to repair it.
He is taken on by the Essenes who believe that he is a prophet from Egypt. John the Baptist, who appears to be the leader of the Essenes, hopes to foster this belief and employ Glogauer in his resistance to Herod and Roman rule. He baptises Karl who then, seized with confusion, runs off and is lost in the wilderness.
Eventually, Glogauer finds his way to Nazareth and the home of Joseph the carpenter and his wife Mary.
Their son, Jesus, the result of an assignation on Mary’s part before she married Joseph, turns out to be a physically and mentally disabled man who can do nothing more than giggle and repeat his own name.
This is then the pivotal point. Glogauer now realises that he is on a predestinate path and must take on the role for which, it seems, he was born.
Having been trained in the basics of psychiatry and hypnotism Glogauer is able to easily cure some people of hysterical or psychosomatic conditions and, followed by a growing number of followers begins his inevitable journey toward Jerusalem and his death by crucifixion.
For a short novel it manages to pack a great deal in and says an awful lot about religion and the phenomenon of belief.
The author makes a telling point about the priests of the time which is just as relevant to today’s priesthood (of whatever religion) as it was two thousand years ago.
‘They would ask questions of the rabbis but the wise men would tell them nothing, save that they should go about their business, that there were things they were not yer meant to know. In this way, as priests had always done, they avoided questions they could not answer while at the same time appearing to have much more knowledge than they actually possessed.’
There are some shock factors in that, in line with the style of the New Wave, Moorcock introduces subjects one would not normally expect to find in a Science Fiction novel such as child abuse, sexual fetishism and homosexuality. Added to which, to hammer the final nail (an unfortunate metaphor I know) into the Christ myth Moorcock has Glogauer return to Joseph’s house once Joseph has gone to sell his wares, where he has sex with ‘the Virgin Mary’ until they are interrupted by the giggling drooling form of the real Jesus.
It’s a shame Mary Whitehouse never discovered this book as it would no doubt now be far more widely read than it is, which can only be a good thing.
For me, it’s one of Moorcock’s most original and underrated novels, possibly his best.
‘WHAT PORT AWAITED THE END OF THEIR THOUSAND YEARS BENEATH THE SEA?
There had been one war scare too many and so the human race had used genetic sorcery to delete the aggressive tendencies from its heredity. But now mankind was faced with an alien enemy so superior, so ruthless, that it was fight or be wiped out . . . and the humans could not fight. They couldn’t even give orders to their robots to produce weapons.
The only possibility was to call up and bring back to life a museum exhibit, the submarine Euphrates and its battle-trained crew. The ship had been sunk a thousand years before and had been preserved to show the decadence of violence – violence which was the only hope against an enemy to whom living space was all-important and human life was entirely superfluous.’
Blurb from the 1968 H-59 Ace Doubles paperback edition
British writer Philip E High brings us a very enjoyable romp here. Captain Randall is is in control of a navy submarine which is hit by a warship and sinks to the bottom of the ocean to be forgotten for a thousand years.
Then, Randall, his sub and his crew are resurrected by a human civilisation that spans some twenty five worlds, and taken to a human colonised planet.
Humanity has genetically altered itself to be incapable of violent thought or action and now needs the captain and his crew to combat an alien invasion.
This, like Kenneth Bulmer’s ‘Behold The Stars’ examines – not very deeply in either case to be honest – the theme of Humanity being altered to become pacifist.
High did not intend, I think, to make a political point about it, and it is explained to Randall that the cause of their action was the pointless wars and belligerence that would have destroyed the human race.
The aliens are somewhere between an insect and a frog and need habitable worlds to expand since they breed prodigiously producing thousands of frogspawn-like eggs which Randall observes floating in the alien sea.
We therefore will have little sympathy for the invaders when Randall goes about destroying their bases.
There’s some decent characterisation, even with the robots that this future civilisation has given to Randall to aid in his mission.
The moral here, if there is one, is that sometimes you have to fight for your survival.
It is one of the better Ace Doubles, and although at heart is a simple story of man versus nasty beasties, is nonetheless highly enjoyable.
One of a quartet of books which seem to reflect the Alchemical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, this being the Water section.
In a near future Earth, solar flares have set a process of extreme climate change in motion which has resulted in the sea level rising and displaced silt forming new and unpredictable land masses. Lagoons are formed where the upper parts of hotels and office buildings rise from the waters.
Kerans is part of a scientific team studying the ecological effects, since animal and plant life appear to have been forced into a rapid phase of devolution, reverting to forms common in the Triassic. Reptiles such as iguanas, alligators and monitor lizards are particularly prevalent, and seem to have displaced humanity to become, like their dinosaur ancestors, masters of the world.
Kerans has set up camp in one of the upper floors of the Ritz hotel, as has the enigmatic Beatrice who spends her days devolving into the persona of a former guest.
Indeed, devolution is the major theme here, since Humanity is also being affected, psyches accessing the race memory of an ancient age and drawn inexplicably to the South and the murderous heat.
This is Ballard at the start of his writing career, finding his feet and already displaying many of the hallmarks of his later work.
Already Ballard’s characters are intriguing and complex with motives that are difficult to determine. Kerans from the outset is affected by the devolutionary malaise that has changed many people and progresses through the narrative, his ancient race memory taking him back to the conscious state of the Triassic era.
Kerans colleague, Dr Bodkin, has been charged with investigating and monitoring this condition, although he himself seems more fascinated with the nature of the phenomenon than in seeking a means to cure it.
Conflict arrives in the form of Strangman, a peculiar almost vaudevillian character, who brings with him a team of black followers, and who appears to have the power to control the monstrous alligators who have thrived in this new world of steaming heat, jungles and lagoons.
Apart from Kerans and Strangman vying for the attention of Beatrice Dahl, a contest which appears to have motives other than a sexual one, Strangman hosts an evening on his ship, exhibiting paintings and other memorabilia which he has rescued from the flood and promising a surprise.
At the conclusion of the evening Strangman smugly reveals that pumping machines have been draining the local lagoon, slowly revealing the silt-covered buildings and streets which had been previously submerged. This has a marked effect on Beatrice, Kerans and Dr Bodkin who are horrified by the intrusion of the human world they had abandoned.
It is a flashpoint which appears to polarise the affected and the non-affected, forcing them into a fight for the survival of their states of mind.
Ballard’s work often examines the nature or the effects of time, and here it is a central theme. In other work and short stories we find him referring to time either directly or obliquely near the start of the story or chapter.
Chapter One – ‘Soon it would be too hot. Looking out from the hotel balcony shortly after eight, Kerans watched the sun rise behind the dense groves of giant gymnosperm…’
Chapter Nine – ‘ During the next two weeks, as the southern horizon became increasingly darkened…
Chapter Eleven – ‘ Half an hour later, Beatrice, Kerans and Dr Bodkin were able to walk out into the streets.’
Chapter Thirteen – ‘By eight o’clock the next morning Riggs had stabilised the situation and was able to see Kerans informally.’
These are random samples but the pattern is there. It’s not clear if this is merely a feature of Ballard’s writing style or whether the constant references to time hold a deeper meaning for him, as this is apparent in other works.
‘Man – yes; Machine – no!
While the age of automation had brought leisure and luxury to Earth, it was also bringing disaster down upon the human race. For a group of unmerciful migratory monsters settled down on Earth, to enjoy for themselves the results of our progress. In no time at all, they would be able to turn the world of automation into one single master machine, which they alone would control.’
Blurb from the 1962 F-129 Ace paperback edition
Magellan is intrigued when a rather forceful woman insists that she will be buying his home in Hampstead. Little does Magellan realise that the woman is working on behalf of the Mackees, alien invaders who have exploited humanity’s need for automation in order to take control of the planet.
Magellan, and presumably Temple, is against the impersonal automation of the jobs that humans used to do. In an odd moment of prescient extrapolation he describes a time when one may visit a bank and not speak to a human teller at all. In fact, your withdrawal will be dispensed from a machine along with a printed receipt showing your balance.
The Mackees also have devices built into TVs that can mass-hypnotise the world so their victory is soon complete.
It is up to Magellan to defeat the invaders and take back back the Earth.
It’s nice to see a British view of such shenanigans. The action, a refreshing change, is centred in the UK and, at the finale, an alien world.
It’s definitely one of the more readable Ace Doubles, oddly structured with other character viewpoints in a couple of sections, but is not really anything out of the ordinary.
I was about fifteen years old when I first read this trilogy, and don’t recall it being as funny as it is. In other of his more serious fantasies, Moorcock occasionally refers to our Earth of thousands of years past, whose history has been twisted and fantasised to an absurd degree. In ‘The Runestaff’ for instance, the ships of the Granbretanians are decorated with the figureheads of ‘terrifying ancient gods of Granbretan – Jhone, Jhorg, Phowl, Rhunga, who were said to have ruled the land before The Tragic Millennium.’
There is much of that here, in the second volume of Moorcock’s acclaimed ‘Dancers At The End of Time’ trilogy, such as when Jherek Carnelian discovers a group of children held in a time-loop by a robot nanny, stashed away to protect them from the Tyrant Director Pecking Pa.
It’s not just a device to add humour or show the End of Timers as a decadent civilisation with no conception of the reality of their past. It also makes the point that we believe only what we know from history books, and that the truth may be far removed from what we think may have happened.
The End of Timers would not spend much time worrying about such things. This is a world where emotion is a fashion; the civilisation of the ultimately decadent. Although this world lacks any concept of malice or guilt, it also lacks the concept of compassion.
Moorcock pre-empts any comparison between his far future denizens of Earth and the Eloi in HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ by introducing it himself. When Jherek finally manages to get back to Eighteen Ninety Six to search for his lost love, Mrs Amelia Underwood, he meets HG Wells himself who helps Jherek get to Bromley, home of the Underwoods.
Wells thinks Jherek is being merely flattering and amusing when he tells him he is from a far future Earth, while Jherek believes that Wells actually built a time machine.
At one point Jherek tells Wells that the time machine in which he first travelled to Eighteen Ninety Six broke, but was thought be from two thousand years before Wells’ time, so that it was probable that Wells has merely rediscovered Time Travel.
‘What a splendid notion, Mr Carnelian. It’s rare for me to meet someone with your particular quality of imagination. You should write the idea into a story for your Parisian readers. You’d be a rival to Monsieur Verne in no time!’
Jherek hadn’t quite followed him. ‘I can’t write,’ he said. ‘Or read.’
‘No true Eloi should be able to read or write.’ Mr Wells puffed on his pipe, peering out of the window. ‘
(Chapter Eleven – A Conversation on Time Machines and Other Topics)
It wasn’t really clear back in the Seventies how much of a divergence this was from Moorcock’s usual style. Certainly, he produced many experimental pieces before this, but most of his work was serious, if not dour, with only the occasional humourous moment or in-joke being manifest.
This is a joyful rollercoaster of a comedy of manners, filled with grotesques and caricatures, exquisitely assembled for the edification of all.
The first volume is ‘An Alien Heat‘
This is a refreshingly short novel at a time when genre novels are bulking up and threatening in many cases to be only the first volume of a proposed trilogy. It is also quite minimalist, and what I would describe as an ‘old fashioned novel’. It keeps the characters to a bare minimum which helps to focus on them and their role in the drama.
Beth is a teacher in a near future Britain scarred and flooded by the effects of climate change. Her husband, Vic, injured and traumatised by military service in Iran and subsequently subject to episodes of violence, was given the opportunity to try a revolutionary treatment in which a machine removes traumatic memories. The treatment (partly as a result of Beth’s actions) left him a near-vegetable, and he is being looked after in a care home. Now, Beth believes, having purchased one of the original machines, that she can return the memories he recorded back into his head and resurrect him, thus regaining her husband and absolving her guilt.
There are echoes of the Frankenstein mythos referenced within the novel, in some cases quite obviously. Victor is the name of Shelley’s legendary scientist in the original Frankenstein novel and Beth is no doubt a contraction of ‘Elizabeth’, the name of Victor Frankenstein’s doomed wife.
On the machine recordings, Vic tells his life story to, or at least is interviewed by a Doctor ‘Robert’ which is the first name of the ship’s Captain in ‘Frankenstein’ who finds the monster in the Arctic and narrates his sorry tale.
There is a scene where a child is thrown from a cliff into the sea, which brings to mind a scene from the original Boris Karloff film. The murdered child’s name is William, who in ‘Frankenstein’ was killed by the monster because he was Victor’s younger brother.
The roles however are not carried through as it is Beth who takes on the role of ‘the giver of life’ to Victor, who is cast as the monster. Unless I am missing some additional subtext there is no good reason for this extensive connection to the Shelley novel.
Providing conflict is Beth’s new colleague at her school; Laura. In an unguarded moment Beth reveals her plans for Vic to Laura only to discover that Laura is a devout Christian fundamentalist who is vehemently opposed to Machine technology rebuilding someone’s soul as she sees it. Laura’s character seems not as well-developed as it may have been and it might have been an idea to have had some additional initial exposure and time with Beth to a) establish some other aspects of her personality and b) to allow her to get Beth into her confidence.
Some have criticised ‘The Machine’ for its bleak background and unsympathetic characters. I would disagree, since Smythe has created a plausible version of a near-future UK in which climate change has seen the sea invading the land.
Beth’s character seems fairly well-rounded and one can not escape the fact that she lives alone in a flat on a sink estate in a town with no future. It is necessarily bleak. In its own way, this is a modern Gothic horror built around the central figure of the Machine itself, a huge and enigmatic presence which has moods demonstrated by its various hums, engine roars and physical vibrations. One gets the impression that the machine may be almost orchestrating events for its own purposes. It is reminiscent of Stephen Gregory’s ‘The Cormorant’ in this respect.
The novel leads relentlessly and inevitably to its (perhaps a little too predictable) conclusion, but is no less satisfying for that. Smythe exhibits a welcome economy of writing which flies in the face of some of the more corpulent novels weighing down the bookshelves of genre readers. Let’s hope this is the start of a new trend.