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?