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.