John Boyd RIP

But for a short entry in the latest issue of Interzone, I dare say I would not be aware of the passing of one of my favourite authors, John Boyd. He was 93.

Boyd's career as a science fiction author was short and traumatic. He began with The Last Starship from Earth, which drew comparisons to Orwell and Huxley, deservedly so, continued with the charming Pollinators of Eden and Rakehells of Heaven, to the bizarre sf western Andromeda Gun, to galactic pot-boilers like The Organ Bank Farm, Sex and the High Command, The I.Q. Merchant, The Doomsday Gene and The Gorgon Festival, before ending in a blaze of glory with Barnard's Planet and The Girl with Jade Green Eyes. After that he appears to have quit writing science fiction altogether. There exists a non-genre novel, The Slave Stealer, published under his real name, Boyd Upchurch, and also one solitary novella, The Girl and the Dolphin. There is also something called Scarborough Hall, which appears to be a ghost story, but I have never been able to locate a copy. Boyd achieved all this in ten short years - 1968 to 1978, a reasonably brief interlude in a long, long life.

To my mind his best novels are as good as anything in the front rank of science fiction: In The Last Starship from Earth a mathematician falls in love with a poetess - such a union is forbidden in their future dystopia, and they are tried as doomed lovers. Their ultimate fate changes not only Earth history, but also the genre of the novel. In The Rakehells of Heaven, two scouts from a rapacious imperial Earth discover a peaceful planet divided, not into nations, but into autonomous universities. Upon attempting first contact they find the inhabitants pay them no heed - unless they add their mission to the curriculum and teach it. In typical Boyd fashion the students do not wear clothes, and the reader's introduction to the heroine is a description of her vagina. In Andromeda Gun a stranded alien takes over the body of gunfighter Johnny McCloud - arriving in a small town to rob the bank, Johnny falls in love with a local girl, but the alien falls in love with her widowed mother. And so a bizarre inter-galactic love-triangle is played out against the backdrop of the old West. In The Girl with Jade Green Eyes a beautiful alien lands her stricken ship in an American forest park and ventures forth to borrow a thimbleful of uranium; she is spirited away by the forest ranger who leads her on a Lolita-style odyssey across America as she seeks to undress red tape. Barnard's Planet is a cynical reworking of The Last Starship from Earth, this time incorporating 70s paranoia and conspiracy theories - it is Boyd's acknowledgment that the dystopias of the future have arrived ahead of time, and is a suitable, if bitter, end point.

 At some point in his career, probably with The Pollinators of Eden, Boyd ran afoul of the militant feminist contingent in sf. The story of a woman who allows herself to be seduced by an alien plant, Pollinators is unique in treating character as species and sex as first contact. Most of Boyd's best novels develop this approach, and it is at its most successful when it draws the disapproval of social conservatives and/or identity or gender obsessed socialists.

On the whole I would say that his work as a sf novelist is an acquired taste; his subjects were always invariably science fiction of the soft variety. He attempted few theories or innovations of technology, but rather concentrated on social futures, most of which are now as quaint as a 1970s space age stereo. But the effortless verve of his best novels has never been matched by any other sf novelist.

Tomorrow's Men: by Michael Shea

In the near future Britain has descended into chaos and civil war. There is government, of a kind, attempting to police the violence as the ideological struggle between left and right is finally played out on the streets with bombs and guns. The US, ever mindful of Britain's strategic position on the edge of Europe, despatches special envoy Max Gregory, ex-Brit and head of distinguished think-tank, the Gregory Institute, to act as American adviser to a weakened Prime Minister, with hopes he may eventually become Pro-Consul. Gregory has a hard time in Britain - he cannot even meet with the leaders of the various factions, much less negotiate with them. All factions seem to be under the spell of retaliatory violence. Gregory falls in with maverick reporter Dan Lateman, who feeds him conspiracy theories which seem curiously prescient - it appears that once espionage reaches a certain pitch, all investigative journalism becomes a conspiracy theory. Together they acquire evidence that much of the violence on the streets is not that of left and right factions, but is rather the false flag operation of a third party. Gregory at first suspects the Soviet Union, but through his institute acquires further evidence that the culprit is in fact the US, in the form of a leaked CIA report into North Sea oil capacity, which is much greater than previously thought. Britain is suddenly the most oil-rich nation outside of the Gulf states. As both an American envoy and ex-Brit, Gregory's loyalties are torn - until the US State Department decides he knows too much and is now expendable, as are his loved ones. And so the emergent neo-con policies usually reserved for the far-flung are to be played out to their conclusion in Britain - unless Gregory and Lateman can find a way to expose the false flag operations to the factions of left and right, and unite them under the old, old banner - my enemy's enemy is my friend...

Tomorrow's Men is a very bleak, if satisfying, novel. It is fascinating to compare its plot to the tragedies currently playing out in the Middle-East, and Shea's extrapolations from US Cold War operations in the 70s are well-judged, especially in his view that Airstrip One is a very expendable part of the American empire and would face the full force of black ops and scorched earth if required. It is not that it is an overtly anti-American novel - it simply puts Britain in the firing line and takes it from there. The end of the novel is suitably distressing and reminds me greatly of the early 80s BBC TV series, Spyship.

Tomorrow's Men was first published in 1982 by Weidenfield and Nicholson. I'm not sure whether it had a paperback imprint immediately following that, but it seems to have been reprinted in 2001 under the title Breaking Point. Shea's earlier novels were written under the pen-name of Michael Sinclair - Tomorrow's Men was the first novel he chose to publish under his own name. It is difficult to see why he made this decision, unless as some kind of statement - because his day-job was as no less than Press Secretary to Queen Elizabeth II. In 1986 Shea became embroiled in a minor controversy when a leak from the Palace suggested that the Queen was 'dismayed' by Margaret Thatcher's divisive social policies. After a brief investigation, the source of the leak was traced to Shea, and he left the Queen's service the following year - the two events are said not to be connected. It is ironic that the controversy centred around the source of the leak rather than the veracity of its content - considering her conspicuous silence at the nation-shattering actions of Britain's current coalition, I'm sure that HMQ does not give a flying fuck about divisive social policies. It is my own theory, having read Tomorrow's Men, that Shea was a man of conscience (and a Scot to boot) and that he struck at Thatcher's regime with the only weapon he had in his possession - headed notepaper.

A State of Denmark: by Robin Cook

In this camp, not one man has gone mad yet, at least not since I arrived, hanged himself or attacked a guard. I think it is because everyone has been robbed of his tenses, as I certainly have. Or, to be accurate, robbed of two tenses; the present and the future. The present here never changes and so has become what amounts  to a historic present: in other words, part of the past. And there is no future. I have heard of no-one even being interrogated yet, let alone standing trial. I have questioned the guards: yes, interrogations are on the point of starting. Next week, next month. But they never do.

Richard Watts is a once eminent English journalist living in exile on a small working vineyard in northern Italy. His crime had been to interview on television and make rather a fool of a leading left-wing politician, Jobling, on the eve of the election in which Jobling won power in Britain. Richard subsequently travels to America on business and prudently decides it would be unwise to return to England until the nature of the new regime makes itself known - there are already rumours circulating of mass-arrests, and even of executions. Using his American savings and investments, he buys the vineyard in Italy and settles there with his partner, Magda, to wait it out.

As time passes, the news from England is scarce and not at all good - Scotland and Wales have seceded, a fact that shocks Richard but does not appear to unduly concern anyone else. In fact, the Scots and Welsh governments have sealed and mined their borders to prevent English refugees from entering - later Richard discovers the English often clear these minefields by marching political prisoners through them. Elections have been ended and the class system has been replaced by a card system which exactly replicates a class system, except that it now permits a form of social mobility to a whole new swathe of bureaucrats and officials who are on the right side of the new regime. Non-whites are deported en masse. The few English visitors who come Richard's way are unwilling to discuss what is happening to England; it is obvious that they are frightened and unsure just how far the regime's arm is apt to reach. But their reticence is also a show of loyalty - they parrot phrases about sacrifice and national interest, as though they have persuaded themselves of the value of a murderous interim: (Janet: "They should all be locked up or drafted into labour gangs! We've got to have law and order! Students who won't conform have got to be bounced and cut right down till they do what they're told..."). Whatever actual information Richard can glean from this hysteria betrays a country in terminal decline, sliding into the usual totalitarian muck.

Richard is summoned to the local police station where he is warned, in friendly terms, that there have been inquiries about him from London, as well as some talk of extradition. The English government, having cleaned up at home, has decided to undertake housekeeping abroad. He is advised to take up Italian citizenship, and is admonished for not having done so already. The paperwork is duly despatched but it is much too late - several weeks later an official from Her Majesty's Revenue arrives on the vineyard to inform Richard that his affairs are not in order and that he must return to England. This interview is conducted entirely at the point of a gun, and Richard later bitterly regrets not shooting the official. For the vineyard is seized and deportation papers are served. With English diffidence, Richard decides too late to resist; on the boat, in fact, where he is beaten and tortured and his few remaining belongings thrown into the sea. He is separated from Magda upon arrival in England - he never sees her again - and is transported by train to a concentration camp in north-east England. And here Richard plays out the rest of his short life in some bewilderment - there is no confrontation with Jobling, just occasional pleasant chats with a minor official. When a man begs to be interrogated, you know you have him where you need him to be. For a brief time he attempts to recreate his Italian idyll by growing vegetables on a patch in the camp; they grow surprisingly well. Then it's over.

A State of Denmark was written in the mid to late 60s and published in hardcover by Hutchinson in 1970 - there was a later 1973 imprint in paperback from Panther and a 1994 edition. If I have one gripe with the dystopian/totalitarian scenarios dreamed up by mid to late 20th century authors, it is that their imaginations are restricted to the procedurals of Nazism or Stalinism; the Stasi or the Gestapo; the concentration camp or the Gulag, etc. None of them appear to have imagined the horrors of an ideology such as neo-liberalism; they could not foresee a form of capital flow so lazy that it requires people to voluntarily immerse themselves without coercion - to the point of ruin and death. Still, all that aside, A State of Denmark is an artful book. The writing is excellent and captures the Italian idyll brilliantly; the conclusion is detained by dystopian cliches, but there is enough force of character to make it as poignant and chilling as necessary. And Richard is, in many ways, my favourite kind of Englishman; a kind of last gasp dissident.

Robin Cook is probably better known as Derek Raymond, author of the acclaimed Factory crime novels. He led a very interesting life, from 50s beatnik to Foreign Minister in a short-lived anarchist government in the late 60s. A State of Denmark appears to have been well-informed by his life, which was one searing turn of events after another.

It's a Good Life: The Infancy Gospel of Jerome Bixby

And when Jesus saw what was done, he was wroth and said unto him: O evil, ungodly, and foolish one, what hurt did the pools and the waters do thee? behold, now also thou shalt be withered like a tree, and shalt not bear leaves, neither root, nor fruit. And straightway that lad withered up wholly... After that again he went through the village, and a child ran and dashed against his shoulder. And Jesus was provoked and said unto him: Thou shalt not finish thy course. And immediately he fell down and died...

Jerome Bixby's famous story, It's a Good Life, adapted variously for The Twilight Zone and the Simpsons, always served me as a reminder of the possibilities of the infant Jesus. Consider a young boy with extraordinary powers whose role model is the vengeful God of the Old Testament: he thinks heretics into lonely graves, usually messing with their humanity in their process - anyone digging up this boy's victims in a couple of thousand years will find weirdly alien remains or ancient astronauts.

Little Anthony also appears to be the creator of the multiverse - having flung his rural community away from the earth upon his birth, it now exists in a limbo or void or purgatory. Upon re-reading I was rather surprised to find the story had no post-apocalypse setting, and no mutantcy to offer as reason for the boy's powers of behaviour. He is genuinely inexplicable. However, it is rather difficult to imagine little Anthony on the cross, rolling his eyes to heaven and saying, "Father, it's good that you made this awful thing happen."

A community of fixed grins and forced laughs is about as far as his power goes. Which is nowhere.

After All, this is England: by Robert Muller

"The state must certainly look after the poor and the sick... but general state charity, as the Labourites understand it, not only weakens the national economy, but degrades the recipient. The entire system of state aid and assistance must be de-socialised, and stripped of waste and inefficiency."

I know the Tories in the Coalition won't quarrel with that! Looking around me, I felt that the whole country is beginning to warm to the Leader's strength and positive approach, especially the women, who also admire his faultless sense of showmanship... the man has something.

Originally published in 1965 under the title The Lost Diaries of Albert Smith, Robert Muller's disturbing story of the rise of fascism in the UK was reprinted by Penguin as After All, This is England in 1968. This appears to have been its only paperback imprint, and the book has faded from memory over the years, partly because it has remained out of print, and partly because those reading it in the 1960s, an era of entrenched social democracy in Britain, must have considered its contents far-fetched, if not perverse. Unlike Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Muller's book does not offer us a recognisable future from which we can draw pertinent but distant warnings; instead it offers an uncomfortable take on a persistent present; that of constant dissatisfaction with the way things are; and a yearning for the way they could be... if only.

Albert Smith is not an impressive man. He manages a small hardware store which once belonged to his father but which has since been bought out by a chain - Smith was retained as manager only because it seemed proper to do such things in post-war Britain. His wife is active in amateur dramatics and he suspects her of affairs with her fellow thespians, whom he regards as typical of the malais affecting the country. He has a small daughter, on whom he dotes. His son is a leftist hippy, much to his horror (Smith is very much a Conservative); they do not get on, and Smith has suspicions about his son's sexuality; the reverse is also true. Smith has a little problem - he likes to spy on couples who make love in their cars at a local beauty spot. He visits a psychiatrist to deal with his voyeurism, who suggests he keep a daily diary - the book is made up of the five diaries of Smith, each punctuated by an important or a terrible event, and each with explanatory notes from a mysterious future 'editor'.

The first diary is fairly innocuous - it details Smith's unhappiness with his life, his marriage, with the Labour government, and it sets out his analysis of the decay which he feels has entered Britain and its people. He harks back to the Empire quite fondly, recalls how things were done differently and properly by another calibre of men. He favours strong leadership and discipline. Youth must be set to work; immigrants must be sent home; all lives should be subjugated to the higher calling of the nation. It does not occur to Smith that dealing with his small dissatisfactions in the way he wants would require radical departures from the freedoms that allow him to keep a dissident diary in the first place (one of his later diaries is indeed confiscated). Nothing typifies Smith's dissatisfaction as much as his outrage over a local street sign which reads Cosley, Drive and about which he writes repeatly to the council - the misplaced comma represents everything wrong with the country. The first diary also tells of the forming of a new right-wing political party led by an ex-Conservative (Crossmere) and an ex-soldier (Hearn) - the British Action Party, which Smith promptly joins.

The second diary details the fall of the Labour government and the election of a coalition, part Conservative, part BAP. It also details the beginnings of a terrorist campaign across the country, which sees the coalition roll back civil liberties in the name of security. Smith becomes active in the local branch of the BAP as secretary and is drawn into the persecution of local minorities, for which he arrested and sent for trial. The Party suspends his membership with a nod and a wink, intimating that they'll see him right when he is released. There is a break while Smith serves his sentence and the third diary picks up his life upon release. He is, largely, ruined. His wife has left him, his son has gone abroad where he has become a sex worker, he has lost his job - yet rather than look to his radicalisation for some clue as to how he has fallen so far so fast, Smith clings to the same notions of strength, discipline and leadership - there must be more of it, not less, and it must be imposed. He throws himself back into the Party. But the Party has changed too. It is no longer a meeting point for those who feel a vague sense of dissatisfaction with modern Britain - it is now a slickly oiled political machine with a hierarchy of activists and a covert hand in the terrorism engulfing the country, something Smith, of course, refuses to believe, despite the mounting evidence. The third diary ends in absolute tragedy, as the coalition is dissolved and the BAP takes virtual control of country - in the ensuing street celebrations, Smith's four-year old daughter is killed by accident.

The fourth diary is a high-octane version of the third. Smith is drawn further into Party intrigue and adopts extreme positions to impress his ideological zeal on his superiors. He develops something of a martyr complex, having served time on behalf of the party, as he sees it; he approves of the ghettoes into which immigrants and minorities are now herded. He applauds when Hearn ousts Crossmere into exile and takes over the government, abolishing elections in the process. These are all sacrifices for the good of the country, and no-one has sacrificed more than Smith - his liberty, his employment, his daughter... when he receives an offer to attend a top-secret Party training course on the final solution to undesirables, he is delighted to accept. The fifth diary then picks up Smith after the six-month course - implacable, somewhat dehumanised, ready to do his duty, whatever it takes. An extermination camp is established on the beauty spot where Smith formerly spied on lovers and he is appointed camp administrator. Here he is witness to sights that do not seem to take him by surprise, despite their horror; it is not that he has been trained for it - it is that Smith's own pernicious view of human nature has reached its extreme end-point. He expected this, but he also expected it to be different, and he views all with severe dissatisfaction - the killing is chaotic and artibrary, not the orderly process Smith imagined - there is too much corruption and pettiness in the selection, as he finds for himself when he has a former employee of his, a young crippled girl, interned in the camp to act out his personal fantasies. He finds his Party colleagues to be too cruel, too corrupt, and altogether too zealous in their duties. He finds human fallibility at the camp to be every bit as infuriating as the moral failings of the young couples he once spied upon in the same place. In the words of the time - everything has changed and everything is the same. When the end comes for Smith he finds himself turning not to the Leader or the Party for strength, as he has all along, but instead turning to the crippled girl for comfort... meanwhile the comma between Cosley and Drive remains, sure as coastline.

Muller's narrative mirrors the progress of the country towards fascism through the events in Smith's life - the analogies are apt, if perhaps a little predictable; for example, Smith's young daughter dying on the eve of the Party ascending to power. The familiar political refrains of 'strong leadership' and 'law and order' and 'common sense' rattle through the text disturbingly. These simple-minded concepts are timeless political old-rope, and are always guaranteed to appeal to those who believe human nature can be changed through imposed discipline - in this case, a discipline rooted in tradition and self-reliance. Smith always 'knows better' when it comes to young people, immigrants and Union officials, just as he always 'knows his place' when it comes to Party members and the gentry. The fact that he can look both ways makes him a very desirable demographic for politicians who will campaign for his vanity and legislate for his prejudice. If Smith is to be believed, Britain expects... Britain expects a politician who is a strong leader, who will stand up for traditional values, who will cherish her imperial past, who will revive the Commonwealth, who will take us out of Europe, who will reform the welfare so it cannot be abused by scroungers and shirkers, who will reward those who want to work hard and get on, who will stem the tide of foreigners to our shores...

The book's problem is a too-close analogy to the rise of Nazism in Germany. Hearn is obviously Hitler; Crossmere is obviously Von Papen; the BAP with its banners and rallies is obviously the Nazi Party. At no point does Smith seek to draw a comparison between what is happening in Britain and what happened in Germany - it is a fatal weak spot because this is not an alternate history in which Nazism did not happen - Smith himself was something in stores during the Second World War, and a Party member of his acquaintance collects Nazi memorabilia. But even when Smith is arranging disposal of bodies at the camp, he seems curiously ignorant of historical context. There is only one possible explanation for this - the mysterious future editor who is presenting Smith's diaries for publication. This editor insists the diaries have not been redacted but, given his identity, or his origin, which is revealed at the end, we can only wonder if the historical context has been removed for political purposes.

Muller was an interesting writer, a German who settled in England after the war, and who doesn't really get the attention he deserves for the contribution he made to British cultural life; apart from this novel (and several others) he was very active on British television, penning several series, including Supernatural for the BBC in 1978, a rather splendid anthology of horror stories; and he made an outstanding contribution to the BBC's seminal science fiction series, Out of the Unknown, as well as ITV's Mystery and Imagination in the late 60s, writing blazing adaptations of Frankenstein and The Suicide Club, no less. It is a matter of regret that his name seems to have disappeared so mysteriously... to complete the sentence of the title: It couldn't possibly happen here; after all, this is England.

The Professor's Teddy Bear: by Theodore Sturgeon

 Theodore Sturgeon's bizarre story about a teddy bear which dips into the future of its human charge, causing murder and mayhem, has to be one of the first examples of the boy communicating with the man and vice versa. In this case, with diabolic intent. The messages escape safe missive form and are instead the dreams of the boy become the actions of the man. But the boy's dreams and therefore the man's actions are directed by the bear, in the best traditions of a warped toy. For the man, it means that he is in a permanent state of deja vu; which is, perhaps, the worst nightmare of all - he can remember being the boy, but the boy cannot remember being the man. The capsule of the story is the man's horror passed back to the boy. The boy doesn't understand the horror, but the bear does, revels in it, and wants more... until the man's outrage reaches back through the years and turns the boy against the bear.

The Professor's Teddy Bear finds Sturgeon at his most inventive and grotesque; it originally graced the pages of an edition of Weird Tales and is, perhaps, a story best described by reading it.

The Hunter: by David Case

The Hunter is probably David Case's great story of record. In it he demonstrates how men make beasts of themselves: it is not that they are defying their nature; it is, perhaps, that they are giving way to it.

Beginning with a series of terrifying killings in a remote part of rural England, which leaves the local constabulary baffled, the story switches to a Gentlemen's Club in London, where a retired big game hunter laments the company he keeps. Weatherby is the sort of man for whom civilisation is a retirement, a well-earned rest. His quiet life is not at all jaded because his life has been unquiet. His past permits him the luxury of a drink and a pipe because it so often placed those pleasures in doubt; those around him have no such claim to make and so are jaded by lack of doubt, by lack of danger. He is unsurprised when the police seek his help in catching the murderer, whom they now believe to be a wild beast rather than a man. Weatherby accepts the charge, not in the spirit of a last hurrah, but as a favour to his past, which has given him a splendid retirement.

The case is not straight-forward. Weatherby's calculation of tracks suggests two beasts at work, or one beast that transforms into another while in pursuit of its prey. This leads to panic as the press speculate about a Werwolf. People withdraw to their homes as the police roam the area in an increasingly desperate cordon. A killing indoors suggests no-one is safe. Weatherby obsessively stalks the fields and lanes, convinced he is being watched and stalked in turn. He is painfully aware of a fact that the police seem unwilling to act upon - that at the centre of the killing zone stands the stately home of another hunter: Bryon. Weatherby and Byron have history. They have a past. And it is that past which now erupts into the gentle countryside of England, as Byron becomes a murder suspect in Weatherby's mind, and Byron baits Weatherby about his retirement, which he insists has not been earned as Weatherby is a man of all reasonable precaution. Hunt without harness, advises Byron, stalk with only one bullet and the beast will show itself to you... a sporting stalk.

The Hunter is in some ways an academic exercise - two old hunters, re-fighting past campaigns, pitting two different philosophies of gamesmanship against each other for old times' sake. But the games are played out by spending other people's lives; and it is here that the story is most affecting - because Case writes superbly about people. There are no incidental lives to be lost in The Hunter - a fact that is lost to Byron, but not to Weatherby. Their final duel pits a force of nature against a force of human nature.

The Hunter is contained, or to be found rather, in the Twelfth Pan Book of Horror Stories, where it accounts for 82 out of 190 pages.

Double Illusion: by Philip E High

No-one worried about a prole. They were the outcasts of the new feudalism, the nightmare of the politician, the barrier to economic recovery, the burden of the privileged classes. It had not come to pogroms or mass extermination yet...
Phillip E High's Double Illusion is rather a political novel; it starts out as a familiar dystopian nightmare in which free markets have commodified everything to the point where 'hypnads' are used to alter perception and reality as a selling point; the dystopia is then abolished in favour of an overweening utopia, in which a central computer known as "Mother" governs a nanny state. The transition is due to a group of seemingly well-meaning leaders keen to substitute some sort of liberal order for chaos. It goes wrong because Mother is sabotaged; it is wired to self-destruct if it tends towards illiberal acts, ostensibly a safeguard - hence it cannot impose a solution on every human problem and is therefore subject to the whims of every human. It evolves ingenious workarounds to this, which become so illogical as to appear ideological - it will try every solution except the one that works because the one that works may be illiberal. Citizens are protected from harm, but the mechanisms and systems which may cause them harm remain in place.

Having established this rather tortuous backdrop, High proceeds to hand the story over to men of action; crime syndicates declare war on Mother and invade major cities; citizens rebel and are protected from the consequences of their rebellion. In the midst of this, a group of 'oracles' train one of their number to infiltrate Mother's central computer and remove the self-destruct mechanism - the hope is that this will free Mother from ideological constraints and find a compromise.

It's possible to see Double Illusion as a commentary on the post-war settlement, on the much older conflict between capital and labour, and on the need for an honest broker; High's sympathies are clear - mixed economy. The original dystopia and Mother's failed utopia are the double illusion of the title - they are the extremes tried and found not to work. The book is a part polemic dressed up as sf action and it is as wired to educate as it is to entertain. Mindful of the work of Mack Reynolds, it reads like a 142 page plan, and not a tractor in sight.

I'm lucky enough to own a signed Dobson first edition of Double Illusion, which I purchased in FutureShock in Glasgow; the printing history notes that it was originally published in the US a couple of years before, under the title The Mad Metropolis and probably as one half of an Ace double. High's signature is written in a perplexed biro font.

The Birds: by Daphne Du Maurier

So what do you get if you remove Rod Taylor's dark amber, Tippi Hedren's time of the month, and some very bad back-projection from Hitchcock's film The Birds? You get Daphne Du Maurier's sad, forlorn little story, of course.

Coming in at just over 40 pages, The Birds barely qualifies as a novella. Nat Hocken works the land and keeps his family safe and well in a small house near the sea. A change in the seasons from Autumn to Winter appears to bring more than a change in the weather, as gigantic flocks of birds gather in cloud-like formations off the coast, and begin a systematic attack on human habitats. Hocken retreats to his home with his family, where they remain barricaded inside for the duration of the siege. But according to the radio, this is no mere siege; human organisation has succumbed to avian mobilisation. As the radio broadcasts cease forever, Hocken smokes his last cigarette, realising there will likely never be another.

The only real character in The Birds is the birds; whether wheeling or floating or murderous, they carry the story in talons and beaks and claws to where they want to take it; and Du Maurier lets them take it all the way into disaster territory. Like a piece of psychological profiling, Du Maurier turns the story on what you see when you look at something a certain way; in this case, it's what you see when you look up; Hocken has scratched his living from the land, so we trust him when he looks up and sees death in the sky, and he communicates the emergency to us in workmanlike manner as he gathers his family about him for the end. This is the story's gift to apocalypse literature - the instincts of craftsmen, artisans and farmers, as opposed to the literary scientists and curious aristocrats of Wells and M.P. Shiel.

What the birds do is not unexpected; like all disasters, as soon as it happens we knew it would happen all along. It also begs the question: What do you see when you look up?

Archie Roy, RIP

Sadly not much remarked upon was the passing, in December 2012, of Scottish writer and academic, Archie Roy. Best known as Professor of Astronomy at Glasgow University, Roy published a series of bizarre, esoteric novels during the 60s and 70s; at one time these books were among the most borrowed from UK libraries - at least, that's what it says on the rear cover of my copy of Devil in the Darkness. It is almost impossible to describe these novels without resorting to comparisons; John Buchan meets L.P. Davies perhaps. I will make an effort to review some of Roy's novels in the near future; it's about time they saw print again.

Roy was also partly responsible for the construction of a modern stone circle at Sighthill in Glasgow in 1979, now under threat of demolition by the ever destructive Glasgow City Council. Besides being a superb addition to Scotland's built heritage, something very rare since the 1960s, the circle is a fitting memorial to Roy's unique and wild talents: let's hope it stays.

The Year of the Comet: by John Christopher

John Christopher's The Year of the Comet remains one his more obscure novels. It's an easy one to miss, being his first genre novel, and coming just before the book which made his name, The Death of Grass. It is, perhaps, Christopher's only attempt at a functioning dystopia; in his later years he tended towards post-apocalypse scenarios, usually with great success. Also of note is his children's fiction, of which the Tripods trilogy is probably the best regarded, though I have more than a passing fondness for Empty World.

The Year of the Comet's dystopia is a timely one; in a post-capitalist future there are no nation states. Corporations take the place of countries and their employees are citizen-workers, each neatly categorised according to aptitude and ability. Stepping outside of these categories is viewed as akin to treason. Only one country remains in the world - Israel - which has become a centre of dissent and free market commerce. This world, as constructed by Christopher, seems surprisingly resource-free, and there appears to exist a trinity of inherent contradictions - the existence of corporate nation states, what they actually produce for consumption, and who actually consumes it. The protagonist is a mis-categorised scientist, biding his time in a dead-end research post. In discovering its mistake, his corporation reassigns him to replace a missing scientist who had been working on a unique power source - predictably enough, he falls in love with the missing scientist's assistant, who also promptly disappears. Seeing a conspiracy, he goes underground and on her trail. On the way he is kidnapped repeatedly by various other corporations, all wishing to acquire what seems to be a very recent piece of forbidden knowledge and which has the potential to spell the end of the corporate dystopia. Thrown into this mix is the comet which has appeared in the sky, the traditional harbinger of chaos and upheaval, and which gains a religious, almost cult-like following, even in the age of the corporate state.

Sadly, The Year of the Comet is not a success. It is interesting and inventive because its dystopia pre-empts many later similar dystopias; and it certainly seems prescient in these days of globalisation. But the novel's characterisation is stilted, the central love affair is entirely paternal, and the comet in the sky lights no acceptable fires. The chase is traditional Buchan-esque fare, with enough bizarre context thrown in to satisfy less discriminatory readers of science fiction of the 1950s.

As a side note, it's interesting to compare The Year of the Comet to John Boyd's The Last Starship From Earth. Both are first (SF) novels. Both feature dystopias in which societies are segregated by occupation. Both feature extra-categorical love-affairs. But where Comet descends into plodding chase thriller, Starship takes up the theme of dissent with disturbing vigour and to great acclaim. It is amusing and ironic that the plot of Starship is actually contained within a throwaway scene in Comet - as a soap that our hero watches on television.

All of a Tremble: by St Christopher

St Christopher's celebrated seance of a song, released on the Sarah Records label: to my mind the supernal qualities of the song have been too long overlooked.

Deep Dark Green: by John Connolly

Among strange stories there are some stories so strange that they approach the frozen region locked inside David Copperfield's heart. John Connolly's Deep Dark Green is one such story.

In a valley town lives a creature which feeds on the lives of the young. After unspeakable tragedy the townspeople flood the valley, leaving the creature chained inside its dwelling, at the bottom of a new lake. But it lives on, luring more victims into the viscous waters that are now its home. The narrator details one such incident, when he and his young lover ignore word of mouth warnings as old wives' tales and stray to the edge of the lake to make love. His lover enters the lake naked and does not return. He follows, diving deep into curious water, and sees an ordinary cottage sunk into mud, and decorated by tumbrils of weed that are the bodies of its victims; his lover already the trophy of an old monstrous wife, and his young love become an old wives' tale.

A beautiful story, impeccably conceived and developed; short, powerful and tragic. The prose is as viscous as the lake at the surface, but the deeper the story goes, the more intense is the sensation of holding one's breath as Connolly beaches his consonants and drowns his vowels. As context I was reminded of the old Welsh film, The Last Days of Dolwyn, in which a valley town is flooded for different reasons, with similar results.  

Deep Dark Green is contained in John Connolly's collection of stories, Nocturnes, a rather outstanding volume which places him in a strange, welcome place.

Moonlight Red: by Dighton Morel

Dighton Morel's rather obscure apocalypse novel Moonlight Red, published in 1960, sits easily at the tail end of a decade of such novels, from John Christopher's The Death of Grass to Nevil Shute's On the Beach; it also sits uneasily ahead of the New Wave of the 1960s. Moonlight Red is peopled with the types so prevalent of apocalypse novels written during a more stable era - so we have the stuffy Colonel, the concerned schoolmaster, the dedicated doctor. Yet Morel breaks down all these 1950s types with an extraordinary cruelty which can only be described as ahead of its time. Not far ahead of its time admittedly - for Morel's characters apocalypse will always be only a few years away, in the mid-60s, perhaps, at the hands of a likely Norman Spinrad.

The novel begins blandly enough - a pandemic of flu affects most of the population; slowly it is brought under control. But an outbreak of secondary flu almost invariably results in patients developing encephalitis, which leads to permanent and incurable madness. The authorities, aware that everyone who contracted flu will also contract encephalitis, give up the ghost almost immediately. The action of the novel focuses very specifically on the English town of Westhaven, with almost no reference to what happens outside; and, by inference, what happens in Westhaven is what happens everywhere - after an initial attempt to quarantine victims of acute mania, the authorities are quickly overwhelmed and the now-mad populace is allowed to kill itself off at will. At this point the survivors, Whites (those who have never had flu), and Blues (those who have had flu but have not yet developed mania), withdraw to a redoubt which is, ironically enough, the asylum camp built to house the very first victims. Here they hold fort for a time. Straggling Whites are taken in; Blues who develop the mania are expelled. And it is this which finally undoes the fledgling community - because among those they take in is a gang, made up according to the best traditions of middle class fears about the problem of youth. We have the gang-leader, his moll, the guitar-playing sidekick, etc.

It is at this point that the novel develops encephalitis of its own. Morel seems determined to act out a confrontation between youth and authority in a sparse community where neither youth nor authority exist in any shape or form where they might pose a threat to one another. The ensuing confrontation is a strange one - casualties are high and, of course, no-one wins. No-one can win. In the absence of both authority and youth to worship, the survivors turn to a quasi-religious figure to lead them, a guru fully qualified for leadership by dint of his previous occupation - wearing a sandwich board which reads 'the end is nigh.' The 60s have finally arrived.

An interesting novel, full of absurdities and fallacies, but very much in the tradition of English disasters; Morel humiliates his characters, sparing no-one - all their worst fears, and fates, come true. It is interesting to compare Moonlight Red with Edmund Cooper's All Fools' Day, in which solar radiation kills off the sane and spares the mentally ill. Cooper's book is much better, but it is 'cosy catastrophe' as defined by Aldiss;  Morel's book is not, for reasons that remain inexplicable.

Niemandswasser: by Robert Aickman

Robert Aickman's Niemandswasser, the third story in his 1975 collection, Cold Hand in Mine, often reads like a Central Powers take on The Shooting Party. Set shortly before the First World War it follows the mood and movements of Prince 'Elmo' after a doomed love affair. Having failed to kill himself Elmo withdraws to an obscure family castle where he becomes obsessed with stories of a strange creature living in a nearby lake. The fact that the creature is said to inhabit Niemandswasser (No Man's Water) - that part of the lake which is beyond territorial waters - serves only to drive Elmo's now revived deathwish and he sorties alone onto the lake, determined to treat with what he believes to be the mistress of No Man's Water... the rest is history.

Niemandswasser is a monster story only to the extent that Aickman is monstering a war; or more specifically, the attitudes of continental drift that led to war. The story contains a very definite sense of an otherness travelling beneath Europe, leaving its trace along borders and under bodies of water before erupting into France in 1914. It is also to be found in the decadence and purposelessness which seems to inhabit Elmo and the various characters he encounters, all of whom display a carelessness and complacency which cannot be accounted for. There is always something else. And there are intimations of Arthur Machen's The Terror, a novel in which the outraged animal kingdom rises up against mankind's cruelty on the Western Front.

And Niemandswasser ends on a stunning note of war correspondence which makes everything that has gone before seem so Ruritanian as to have been unreal.

Definitely a curio, even by the strange standards of Aickman's stories, Niemandswasser shares themes with the last story in Cold Hand in Mine, The Clock Watcher.

Barbary: by Jackson Kuhl

Two-Legged Tobacco

Appearing in the latest issue of British horror zine Black Static (Issue 31) is Jackson Kuhl's medicinal mummy story, Barbary.

Suffering from a degenerative condition of the eyes, our protagonist, an unexcited sailor, seeks relief through his pipe -- smoking neither tobacco nor opium, but a blend of the mummified remains of ancient Egyptians, sold to him by the wizened types who populate the back streets of any port of call. Kuhl inventively details the curing process of this exotic smoke, throwing in a hierarchy of kings to be crumbled into a bowl and sucked through a stem of centuries: the ceremonies around embalming and burial add something to pleasure and pain relief, and our protagonist finds his tastes to be aristocratic and expensive. However, a poor sailor needs as must, and he often finds himself resorting to a more contemporary blend, made up from the human refuse he finds in back alleys. In turn this leads to physical marking out of our sailor as an outcast, beyond the pale -- as his tastes decline, so does his conscience, leading him closer to the corruption of the ultimate blend, Anubis Gold, or pwned cannibalism.

Kuhl vivedly evokes a dissipated waterfront atmosphere; the cumulative effect of his prose deposits in the memory an arresting still from any 1930s double feature film -- perhaps, Mr Moto's Last Warning b/w The Saint Takes Over. There are wonderful echoes of Cornell Woolrich's story of physical and moral degeneration, Jane Brown's Body. And, as a pipe-smoker myself, I raise my Peterson to the author who has written an authentic horror story which works through artifacts rather than artifice, and which delights and surprises throughout. This is the first Jackson Kuhl story I've had the pleasure to read and, I hope, not the last. Well worth investing in a copy of this issue of Black Static to read Barbary alone.

Incidentally, the story is nicely illustrated by Ben Baldwin, who has chosen a bent pipe...