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.

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