Who Killed Enoch Powell?: by Arthur Wise

The assassination is real enough, and nicely underplayed; but what follows is a grab-bag of small arms. Public disquiet leads a weak Prime Minister to appoint ex-colonial military hard-man, Colonel Monckton, to lead the investigation. Meanwhile rightist and anarchist groups seize the opportunity to cause mayhem. There are widespread race riots in London, and at Powell's funeral in Wolverhampton, leading to many casualties among minority groups. The police, desperate to contain matters, extend their own investigation across country, but the murder of Powell is still treated as a local affair, and so much of the plot falls on the shoulders of small-town Chief Inspector Taylor, who quietly pursues his leads with due diligence. Monckton by contrast cracks down with curfews, mass arrests, and eventual false flag terror tactics to consolidate his power and position. His dragnet starts out with foreigners, naturalised or otherwise, then expands to take in leftists, hippies, undesirables, and then just about anyone. In the end the entire nation is suspect because it harbours so suspicious a thing as grief.

Who Killed Enoch Powell? is a hybrid affair: part political thriller, part routine thick-ear, with a smattering of detective work thrown in to make it respectable. Wise has a habit of withholding a little too much information from the reader and for too long, resulting in an often frustrating read. However, conducting the text on a need-to-know basis is in keeping with the operation that is eventually mounted to remove Monckton from power. It falls to Taylor, an ordinary policeman, to infiltrate a military HQ and take Monckton, dead or alive. His passage is such that it is clear the operation is proceeding with no questions asked by officers, policemen and highly placed militia. Only Monckton's personal bodyguards appear to be out of the loop, a fact that seems to render them singularly incompetent. In this case the author is playing on espionage tropes; having elevated Taylor from ordinary policeman to secret agent, he then acquires Bondian skills of tradecraft, as though establishment sanction bestows superpowers. It's an amusing if rather suspect tactic, but it offers the author all the plausible deniability he needs to wrap matters up nicely.

Slow-burning to begin with, Wise builds a fair head of steam, primarily through some excellent descriptions of public disorder, and the book ends before the plotting begins to unravel. Ultimately, a beckoning strange one.

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.
Shadows in the Sun (Classics of Modern Science Fiction 9)Shadows in the Sun by Chad Oliver
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oliver's odd little novella is far from being a classic, but it is certainly more original than many more acclaimed sf stories. Anthropologist Ellery finds the small Texas town of Jefferson Springs is not all it should be. None of the residents have been there longer than 15 years, and all seem peculiarly ornery. They go through the motions of being alive, until Ellery discovers they have quite another kind of life. These are not invaders - they are colonising aliens, and upon discovery they invite Ellery to join them in a sort of reverse colonising process. This leads to a will he/won't he climax in which the protagonist defers to the author, who imposes a cop-out ending as a form of meta-narrative - Oliver's experience as an anthropologist is one of brooding pessimism, here disguised as getting the girl by not getting the galaxy.

The Last Refuge: by John Petty

First published in 1966 and reprinted in paperback by Penguin in 1968, John Petty's The Last Refuge is a strange fusion of dystopian and post-apocalypse fiction, almost as forgotten as the good earth beneath the concrete which entirely covers the country within the novel. Following a worldwide nuclear war during the 1970s, which sees the USSR, the US, and much of Europe destroyed, Britain leads the way in establishing a post-ideological nightmare for survivors. I suggest post-ideological because this new normal has a touch of neoliberal bastardy about it - its excesses are drawn from the playbooks of both extreme left and right: a rigid, bureaucratic social structure; high rise tower blocks; repressive police and military; an obsession with security to the exclusion of liberty; mass surveillance; holiday camps for proles; state-sponsored prostitution; etc, etc. And, predictably enough, the year is 1999.

As small consolation, the third person narrative rewards us with James Muller, perhaps the last writer in Britain, living in the last tenement, which is about to be pulled down, as is Muller himself. Deemed a hopeless though harmless subversive by Security Chief Jallen, Muller is condemned to live in Block Y, Arm T, which is, in effect, a vertical concentration camp. Muller is here subjected to every indignity, consoled only by the suicide capsules he has hidden in his hair - but as his hair begins to thin under pressure, he worries about those too. Muller is reunited with his closest friend, ex-teacher McAllister, who had been disappeared years before, now much changed by life in Block Y. McAllister's escape plans are not much more advanced than Muller's, and he forces the issue in an extraordinary display of temper that sees both men hiding hopelessly in a lift-shaft, continuing their old arguments as though nothing but a brief interruption had occurred. They are quickly recaptured. Jallen judges McAllister to be a real threat and he is quickly disposed of. A bizarre fate, however, awaits Muller - he is treated to a form of internal exile and is released into the wilds of concrete Britain. Jallen expects Muller will die fairly quickly, of exposure or despair; instead he receives some help from passersby and displays a deal of courage and ingenuity in his efforts to forge a new identity and escape to the coast. The Security Chief takes this as evidence of a conspiracy against the state, rather than admit that he has simply misread Muller's character. The last, striking section of the book sees Muller hunted mercilessly across a relentless concrete vista, cleverly remiss in his ability to stay alive.

There's no doubting that there is power in Petty's novel - his clean-living prose is somehow twisted into unrecognisable structures by the confessions and evasions of the characters. Muller is not interested enough in his own survival to make a going concern of his incarceration; it falls to Jallen to create a bogeyman, which he does, but he falls when Muller, after much vicious prodding, rises to the occasion. McAllister is, perhaps, the most interesting character - he appears only briefly but acts as the ignition to Jallen's creation. Somewhere within his tortured fit of pique, which sees him shoot two guards, is the real point of the novel - it's an extended letter to the council which has turned dystopian by way of revenge fantasy. The demolition of Muller's house, the tower blocks, and the complete concreting of Britain (an absurd notion but perhaps a literal realisation of Orwell's Airstrip One), can only be taken as references to the rather high-handed post-war slum clearance programme, as well as motorway construction (Petty rather prettily renames the motorway network the Magnostrat). Beyond this there is a kind of official sneer around the fact that Muller describes himself as a writer - society as it is now has no use for such indulgence, and words, if they were ever white hot, have fossilised into useful implements of torture, to be handled only by those with grim enough clearance. Ultimately the novel gives the impression of a man far gone in his fantasies; and perhaps this is the point. Petty was very much a dissenter, often living rough in circumstances of extreme poverty. He understood well that, in our society, the rewards for conformity are wildly out of proportion to the punishments for dissent, and The Last Refuge puts that notion to the extreme test. As ever, winner takes all, including your life.

Bats Out of Hell: by Guy N. Smith

Guy N. Smith was something of a going concern at my old school, particularly among a select band of reprobates. I would watch enviously as his paperbacks were passed around, while slogging through How Many Miles to Babylon? or The Power and the Glory or some other piece of book. Smith's covers were worth the price of admission alone, and Bats Out of Hell is no exception, its front illustration being lovingly rendered by Bob Martin. The contents never varied - flashes of O-Level devilry followed by lashings of blood, in the best tradition of late 70s and early 80s mass market pulps. Only James Hadley Chase had the edge on Smith, and only because Corgi photographed girls for his covers, usually in various states of undress.

Bats Out of Hell's frustrated and adulterous boffin is Brian Newman, whose attempt to test the difference between early diagnosis viral/bacterial meningitis results in said bats becoming crazed fiends - carriers of a new strain of meningitis, which is fatal, of course, but after inducing madness, for good measure. An accident at the laboratory allows a number of infected bats to escape, and they slowly fan out across the English countryside. Newman and his trusty, blonde assistant are quickly on the case, even if the authorities are late on the uptake. We follow the course of the virus through the normally sedate English midlands - wiping out small church congregations here and gaggles of unruly schoolboys there, inexorably heading towards a major population centre. The bats finally reach the city of Birmingham, turning up in a Treasury vault, and Smith has much inspired fun at the expense of the assembled clerks, several of whom flee, leaving the remainder trapped and, ultimately, dead. The prime minister declares a state of emergency, and the midlands are sealed off and contained by a newly formed militia, the British Volunteer Force. While Newman works desperately towards an antitoxin, Birmingham is razed to the ground, and civil disorder becomes widespread. Yet when he does happen across a possible solution, it comes with the usual caveat - the potential to be worse in the longer term; because it will destroy all small animal life where it is used.

Bats Out of Hell is a quick, satisfying read. Smith's prose is surprisingly supple, with all pretensions no doubt subjected to the same red pencil as tender mercies, and while his characters are drawn straight from central casting, at least they are returned there thoroughly infected. The book doesn't quite make it into the apocalypse canon because the virus doesn't make it out of central England; however, its ending is a fine application of coincidence theory, which marks it as superior pulp reading.