Transition: by Algernon Blackwood

A few short years ago a certain film took a hoary old twist ending and gave it a new lease of life by selling it to a generation of illiterates as something new. The writer/director, one M Night Shyamalan, was then given a blank cheque to inflict on us a series of twists so predictable as to reveal that his first film was more fluke than assimilated reading. The dead-all-the-while gambit was a staple of pulp shockers for many years, and so badly abused that it fell out of use for generations. My first encounter with it is even more unfortunate for Mr Shyamalan - it was in a short, short story by the masterful Algernon Blackwood, published about 1916.

In Transition a clerk is knocked down by a trolley-bus while carrying home Christmas presents for his wife and children. He completes the journey as a ghost, but of course no-one can see him, or his gifts. Except, that is, for his youngest child, whose much-anticipated desire for the shiny, wrapped parcels under his arms allows her to see him. So much so, in fact, that his parcels drop at her feet, while he is escorted elsewhere by Minturn, who had gone down with the Titanic.

The difference between Shyamalan and Blackwood is that the latter attempts no deception. He doesn't litter his narrative with misdirection and false clues to distract from the single idea by which his story may succeed or fail - he invites the reader to share a dead man's poignant desire to play Father Christmas from beyond the grave so that he might personally deliver the tempting fortitude of consolation to his children.

Blackwood is perhaps my favourite writer of supernatural and weird fiction, and I tend to revisit his work at Christmas, a habit most probably programmed into me by the BBC. Transition is not even one of his better stories, but it is a useful example of an almost lost art of ghosts who cannot be auto-written by the living.

Harrison Bergeron (1995)

You haven't made everybody equal, you've made them all the same...

A flawed but interesting adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's short, short story, made for television in the 1990s, scripted by Arthur Crimm, directed by Bruce Pittman, and starring Christopher Plummer and a miscast Sean Astin in the title role.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War comes the great recession - called great because it is never-ending. The loss of defence expenditure to keep the world economy afloat, and ever increasing mechanisation in the workplace, leads to a second American revolution. The outcome of this revolution is the imposition of a curiously American form of "socialism" - or what they think or fear is socialism, which is something else altogether.

The film expands greatly on the original story and in doing so loses some of its satirical elements, though the fact that 2053 is presented as a nostalgia-driven 1950s, complete with retro-style cathode ray TVs and Oldsmobiles, goes some way towards amelioration if you retain the context of McCarthyism in mind: because this dystopia has much to do with America's perverse misunderstanding of socialism. In fact, Harrison Bergeron demonstrates that the US would do socialism in the same way it does capitalism - in a form so twisted as to be recognisable only by its omissions. To demonstrate: there are no free markets in America - there are only captive markets made available to corporations by government and regulated, or not, by same. Similarly, a socialist America would seek to entrench equality as a form of mediocrity which requires exceptions and exemptions to work, hence the ever present corporate elite. It quickly becomes apparent that if you choose intelligence to measure equality then eventually the society you create is only as smart as its biggest idiot: to this end the population is forced to wear electronic headbands which limit intelligence to the pre-determined average. But who determines the average?

The servicing of ideology requires a Commissar class and it is this class into which Harrison is recruited. He takes a job with the shadow government as a television executive, wherein he observes the true workings of the end of history. He is witness to the committees which decide the level at which the general run of life is to be pitched at the populace. But as he is gradually drawn into the elite's time and motion studies of eye-wash, a personal tragedy overtakes his training and he resolves to share his pain, and to show people how they are being duped and controlled at every turn. To go beyond this would be to spoil it, so I won't, except to say the film pulls none of its punches, none whatsoever - it even ends on a note of false optimism.

Harrison Bergeron came as a considerable surprise to me - I had long believed there were no 90s sf classics, as that particular decade was captured early by the awful X-Files. There is an excellent performance by Christopher Plummer as a sort of benevolent Big Brother, and much of the dialogue is witty and inventive. The film has a horribly corporate atmosphere which suits its subject matter very well. Lastly I'm reminded of L.P. Hartley's fantastic novel Facial Justice, the lost link between Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It's just a great pity that Harrison Bergeron remains so obscure - it deserves a much wider audience and greater reputation. It was apparently remade as 2081, a short film which I haven't seen, but I doubt very much it can better the original.

The Edge: by Charles Beaumont

Charles Beaumont's name is fairly well-known amongst weird fiction and horror fans, perhaps because his books are irritatingly hard to track down and so remain on some infernal, unfulfilled wish-list. He was a chief writer on the original Twilight Zone series and penned the low-budget William Shatner film The Intruder, as well as a number of short stories which appeared in a variety of pulp magazines and were later collected in volumes like The Howling Man and The Edge.

The New People takes the well-worn theme of jaded suburbia and adds a reasonable (for the time) twist, but not a twist that could be used now. And perhaps not even then - because the story trades one suburban myth for another in a very effective way. Hank and Anne Prentice, and their adopted son Davey, take possession of their new home - rather uneasily, as the previous resident committed suicide. But they settle into a neighbourhood that appears otherwise respectable and modest. In fact, they themselves appear to be the only oddities: "He wondered what it would be like to sleep with her. Probably it would be very nice." She is, of course, his wife. Because Hank is impotent and Ann is a virgin. Here you can locate the twist in the story, the point being that suburbanites have a way of finding the one fatal weakness/strength in a stranger, usually to diabolical ends...

I'm sure The Howling Man has been anthologised by Pan or Fontana at some point. I have encountered it outside of the pages of The Edge, somewhere. Or maybe it's just that the atmosphere of the story is so immediately a classic that it provides its own afterlife. An American student, touring Europe before he takes a job with his family's legal practice, falls ill with pneumonia and wakes to find he has been nursed back to health by an order of monks in a timeless abbey. But the student is not their only guest - there is also the mysterious howling man of the title, of whom the monks decry all knowledge, refusing not only to hear his cries, but also to acknowledge his existence. The student resolves to help the man escape...  The Howling Man makes effective use of the New World meets Old World setup; its descriptions of the German landscape are almost medieval, treating Europe as an ancient forest that requires regime change.

Of the remainder, there is some energy and verve in Mother's Day, the story of an Irishman forced to mate with a stick-like Martian; The New Sound is the engaging story of the world's first (and last) practicing necroaudiophile; Song For a Lady is an atypical deathship story (depressingly this story reminded me that I'm one of the vanishingly small number of human beings who can put a face to the name C. Aubrey Smith); and in The Magic Man, a travelling magician in the Old West gives a little too much of his act away to strangers...

For the most part Beaumont's stories are very well-developed. They go where they need to go with minimum fuss and maximum gain. There is a good deal of attention to detail, and he has a talent for an apt phrase. As an author he makes no attempt to outsmart his reader; his conceits are such that we are delighted in short order, and spend the remainder of the story co-writing their conclusions. Sadly, Beaumont suffered a fairly odd and premature death in his late 30s from something called pre-senile dementia; perhaps he believed his own stories, which now resemble the grisly output of a cantankerous O'Henry gone impeccably to seed.

To Die in Italbar: by Roger Zelazny

The crime is life, the sentence is death...

To Die in Italbar has been somewhere described as the story of the walker in the valley of the shadow, an epithet which for once does justice to its subject. HvH (an interesting set of initials, almost a formula) is host to a deity named Aram-O-Myra (Miriam, also a formula), a Goddess whose powers encompass the microscopic world of germs, viruses and virulence of all kinds. Her presence inside HvH renders him literally both carrier and cure. When he achieves balance, and this seems to be related to the dynamics of his relationship with Miriam, he can cure; out of balance he is a world-killer. On a mission of mercy to one particular planet he is unable to leave a habitat before his balance tilts and he inadvertently starts an epidemic, resulting in his being stoned and beaten. This seems to be the vulnerable moment that Miriam has been waiting for, as she transforms from deity to devil and encourages HvH to commit revenge fantasy. They are a good match.

Zelazny then gets to work by introducing a host of characters, some old, some new, often dropped into the text mid-point with no previous introductions, but so well-drawn that it hardly matters. Because Zelazny's plots are organised over such swathes of time and distance, economies of scale are sought only in motivations: Malacar Miles, for example, wants HvH so that he can be used as a weapon in his own revenge fantasy to do justice by a destroyed Earth; Larmon Pels, suspended perpetually on the point of death, wants access to HvH for insight into his own condition; and Francis Sandow, late of Isle of the Dead, seems to be a point of continuity between both books and provides a story arc wherein life doesn't so much foreshadow death as stalk it across a universe that is poorly-lit by dissenting suns.

Italbar is not particularly well-regarded amongst Zelazny readers, mainly because the climax of the novel is related at some remove from the action; the confrontation between Sandow and Miriam is a piece of exposition by telepathy, something I first happened across in The Silent Speakers by Arthur Sellings, and which I regard as inventive enough to serve here; in fact, it couldn't be any other way. Also, the last chapter, a brief half-page, may contain a hidden denouement which is easily missed - Give it that much.

I came late to Zelazny, perhaps having been discouraged by his Amber series. But for a long time I had in my possession a copy of The Doors of his Face, The Lamps of his Mouth, and one day on a whim I sat down to read it. And it wasn't very long before I was enthralled. In fact, I was so moved I resolved not to read any more Zelazny for fear of spoiling the experience, a reaction I had also had to Lucius Shepherd. Thankfully, those days have passed. These writers don't spoil with a paucity of good work. Quite the opposite. They are prolific by their excellence. And while I'm still not much enamoured of Amber, the remainder of Zelazny's work is... well, it's not earthly literature - really it's the dark matter of the universe, which the mainstream has yet to detect.

Requiem for a Wren: by Nevil Shute

When things like this happen, there's just nothing to be done about it. Even suffering itself is a mere waste of time...

It is widely held (among those who still care) that Nevil Shute never wrote a horror novel during his long and famous career. Yet Shute's bibliography includes a fair few departures from the norm. An Old Captivity, for example, details an overworked and exhausted pilot who slips into a Norse coma;  In the Wet features a risible alternate history set in a socialist Britain during the 1980s and detailing the "plight" of the Royal family and attendant parasites; his (brilliant) first novel, Stephen Morris welds two early novellas together as an engineering fantasy - this is a recurrent theme in Shute's work: that the application of mechanical and technical principles to human problems can solve them, or at least nurse them home. And that, of course, is pertaining to science fiction. Which leads us to On the Beach, perhaps his most famous novel, an apocalypse tale that adds nothing very new to the genre but provides a reasonable point of entry. It was successfully filmed, as were Pied Piper, No Highway and A Town Like Alice. For me, Shute's best work is Requiem for a Wren, and to my mind this is his horror novel. It is also the saddest book I have ever read, perhaps the only one that I have ever wept over, so much so that I doubt I will ever be able to read it again. It is a one sitting book, and the sitting resembles a wake. The desolation the book imparts is quite beyond description; but if you've ever felt compelled to make a promise to a fictional character, then the promise you make to Leading Wren Janet Prentice is one you will never break.

On a military training exercise Janet Prentice makes a terrible mistake - she shoots down a German plane, as she has been told it is her duty to do; but in this instance the plane is not full of bombs but instead is filled with political refugees who have somehow stolen the airplane and escaped Nazi-occupied Europe. An inquiry finds she acted in haste and she is punished accordingly. Soon afterwards her fiance is killed while on a commando raid in France. She is left with her memories, both of her career in the Wrens, and his affections. She also has his dog to care for, which she does, as lovingly as his memory deserves; until one day while walking the dog on the beach she blunders into some army exercises and the dog is crushed to death by a half-track. It seems to Janet by now that she is operating under a curse - and she looks back on the fateful incident of shooting down the plane as the moment her life turned against her. She is entirely lost, but the worst is yet to come...

All of this is contained within a flashback narrative told around two brothers, both of whom are in love with Janet at various points in her life; it is their intersection with her tragedy that gives the novel its bitter and bittersweet qualities. In the end the reader must take a personal stake and berate the brothers for their inability to save this woman, first from the war and then from herself. But even then it is not that she cannot be saved; it is that she will not be saved, and the final tragedy is a senseless race against time performed in a future tense.

In a strange way Requiem for a Wren has suffered the same fate at the hands of readers as L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between - the demonic aspect has been overlooked in favour of the drama resulting in powerful tales diminished by the attribution of coincidence or passion play or common spite. The truth is that these novels are fundamentally esoteric - and in the case of Requiem for a Wren, it goes only to confirm the calculation that if war is hell, then hell is other people.

RPG Gatehouse, Falls Rd

Perhaps my favourite closed house in West Belfast, this appears to have been the one-time gatehouse of St Rose's School, or St Mary's Training College, on Beechmount (RPG) Ave. Judging by the brickwork, the house looks as though it was closed not long after it was built.

And that ball has been on the extension roof for as long as I can remember.

The Bury Line: by Stephen Hargadon

Stephen Hargadon's The Bury Line brings new and terrible meaning to the networking skills required in the modern workplace. Though it displays a sure, light touch in tone, the humour is black throughout, in the manner of Gogol. In grand fact, the story is highly reminiscent of recurrent themes in much 19th century Russian literature, particular those of soul-destroying time-serving in the Imperial Civil Service. And if you think of Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground as a sort of tube tale, then The Bury Line is the surface equivalent. Add to this Hargadon's marked talent for writing sympathetic characters and the story gains a good deal of its power to affect by way of shared disillusion. The characters are not laconic: they are laconics; a manifestation of progress reports and performance related pay. As they appear and disappear the reader becomes almost a nine-to-five familiar; and the story exists as a consultant meta-narrative to the daily grind.

Martin goes through a succession of line managers. Watching them come and go at the discretion of upper management, he notes each one's foibles, and how these prove to be fatal to much-fabled efficiencies. Martin understands that another job is often another life, an afterlife perhaps. At first he watches his colleagues despatched to this afterlife; then he begins to experience them in other incarnations, on other networks; perhaps as symptoms of his own burgeoning disillusionment. In turn this affects his own performance and his work begins to suffer. It does not go unnoticed...

And this perhaps is how the story most startled me - it is not that the work suffers: it is that the worker suffers it.

The Bury Line is published in Black Static Issue 42. Well worth reading.

I, Mengele: by Philip Challinor

Following on from the author's Foundations of the Twenty-First Century, Philip Challinor's I, Mengele is a rare look into the academic and culture wars of an alternative history. F21C created a world in which Britain had fallen to the Nazi's during World War 2 - it succeeded by sidestepping the gaming mechanics of most alternative histories, instead concentrating on a curiously deft fit of Nazi politics and philosophy into daily English life. The book avoided epiphanies, deliberately so, except perhaps the resolution of duty into horror by means of a narrative that I would describe as speak into memory; by that I mean again that history is written by the winner. 

I, Mengele is drawn from the same alternative history. It is a critical study of an epic film, conceived in Germany, financed in Hollywood, made in Britain. In our history Mengele is famous, or rather infamous. In that history Mengele is neither; victory has rendered him an almost anonymous functionary as the Holocaust has been overlooked by historians of the Reich for obvious reasons. All this is about to change as the cultural custodians of F21C take ownership of some of the less daring yet equally important actions of the war years. But how can mass-murder be reimagined as heroic service to the Reich?

Mengele's life and exploits are presented as epic fantasy, filmed in the manner of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Herein lies the power of the author's imagination: Mengele's victims are become CGI monsters. They are recreated as writhing hordes and dark inhuman masses. Jews, Russians, Gypsies... all are thrown into the CGI melting pot to emerge as the villains of epic fantasy as we know them - the faceless armies of Mordor, or the boundless hordes of Mallorea. As someone who has always found much fantasy to be faintly distasteful, this came as something of a revelation for me as it pinpointed my distress. Perhaps the most striking comparison to be made is with Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream. It hadn't occurred to me until I read I, Mengele that Spinrad's novel can be read similarly - as an attack on the dehumanising East/West divide in fantasy fiction.

The book also provides fascinating background detail, including Churchill's cribbing of Hiro Hito in his surrender speech; and the timetable for the invasion of Russia being moved forward by three crucial weeks to June 1st, just time enough to get the Wermacht to Moscow before Christmas, 1941. It is interesting to compare such details with David Downing's The Moscow Option, another front rank World War 2 alternate.

Ultimately I, Mengele demonstrates that a commentariat can make almost anything acceptable if its cultural context is engineered to reflect the prevailing political consensus.

You can buy a copy of I Mengele here, and its companion volume The Foundations of the 21st Century here.

The Sculptor's Hand: by Nicholas Royle

 The prior assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

On the week that Hilary Mantel publishes her story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher to a degree of controversy in our largely Tory press, it is interesting to go back to Nicholas Royle's assassination of same. In The Sculptor's Hand Thatcher is not named, but the story was written while she was serving as Prime Minister, and the Premier is throughout referred to as "she."

The narrator is a sculptor in the classical style. While on a business trip to Glasgow he is involved in a minor train crash and escapes with a knock on the head. Upon leaving hospital he notes the arrival of the Premier, her entourage, and a media scrum. He pauses only to express relief that he escaped meeting her. A month later, by a bizarre coincidence, perhaps, he is involved in another train crash, this one rather more serious. He loses his arm, a disaster for a man of his occupation. Almost as bad, he is unable to avoid being consoled by the Premier in hospital and, to his horror, these images are widely televised. The media, of course, are much taken with the coincidence of his having been involved in both accidents, but when they seek his opinion his answers are not what they want to hear - rather than look to his own luck as cause, he blames cuts in spending on public transport infrastructure. This opinion is widely derided by a media which would rather believe that the narrator is labouring under a personal curse. After all, there is no such thing as society; only individual men and women, and their luck. If their luck is bad, well, personal responsibility is everything.

By this point the narrator is reeling. His art and business have begun to suffer - a slew of lost orders and canceled shows take their toll. He becomes convinced that he is being punished for speaking out, convinced also that the Premier has struck a vendetta against him - almost a Mafia-style contract by means of public sector cuts. He takes a plane to Belfast to attend the opening of his new exhibition. The plane crashes on the runway. This time he loses a leg. In hospital he is again confronted by his nemesis - the Premier. The public notes that if he is at the scene of every disaster, so is she - but, as Premier, she has every right to be there, while he has no right to be the victim of every accident. Upon release from hospital, complete with false leg, he attends his show in Belfast and smashes every figure, breaking their arms and legs to reflect his own loss - the media take this as yet more evidence of his refusal to shoulder personal responsibility.

Finally, in order to restore faith in Britain's crumbling infrastructure, the Premier issues the narrator with a challenge - she will fly with him and by her good grace he will be safe. She will make him her personal responsibility. This irony is too much for the narrator, who makes quite deliberate arrangements to ensure neither of them will survive his next journey...

It is a matter of regret that this vivid and inventive story is not more widely known. Royle confronts Thatcherism by giving its every victim the same face, thereby dismissing the notion that accidents are mere accidents - if the victims are the same every time, then they are the targets. They could be teachers, nurses, coal-miners... Because, in Thatcher's own words, "Any man who rides a bus to work after the age of 30 can count himself a failure in life."

Like A Life of Matter and Death below, The Sculptor's Hand can be found in the Fifth Interzone Anthology. And you can read more about Thatcher's disastrous public transport policies here.

A Life of Matter and Death: by Brian Aldiss

Every so often you happen across the template for a generation of stories. Some of these templates are famous and some are not. This is not. A Life of Matter and Death was published in Interzone in 1991 and made that year's best-of anthology. I don't recall reading it at the time, perhaps because I was in my first year at university, having my brain addled with James Joyce. In fact, my tutors would have been well-served to set aside their annotated editions of Ulysses to spare an hour for Aldiss. They might even have come to share my own conviction that literature, real literature, is not literary fiction, but is rather the best of genre fiction. Though I doubt it - they were always too far gone in a stream of salaried consciousness. And sadly, my own conviction did not arrive till some years later, when it was much to late to argue the point.

A Life of Matter and Death contains all the major elements that currently subjugate much modern genre fiction. Ostensibly the story is about flesh-eating aliens; two brothers carry the body of their father down a South American mountain, only to find that the ground won't accept his remains. One brother descends into local magic realism, inventing infamous headlines for newspapers - the other brother sets about making those headlines a reality and inadvertently changes the way humanity treats with death. Rejecting the ground that refused his father's body, he sails the oceans, happening upon a stricken alien craft - all he can rescue from the wreckage are several eggs which hatch and away. These winged creatures begin to prey on the world's newly dead. And as the world is such a charnel house, they have plenty of feed with which to establish themselves. At first the Odonata, as they come to be called, are treated as vermin; gradually, as their almost angelic qualities grow familiar, then comforting, their purposes become part of the ritual of burial, and the disposal of bodies is given over to them as a matter of ceremony, religious in nature. Huge towers are built to offer up the dead of the world. And so the brothers need not have carried their father down the mountain - they should have finished the climb and left his remains for the Odonata. But these would not have existed if they had acted otherwise.

Put thusly: flesh-eating aliens become beautiful angels when they bring acceptance through cultural exchange settling dysfunctional family arrangements and satisfying eco wish-fulfilment and religious pieties in the process; all of these put together as a sort of difference engine which consumes smoke to produce mirrors. The story is splendid.

I have to admit I haven't been the closest Aldiss reader. Of his contemporaries at New Worlds - J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock and Barrington J. Bayley - I much preferred Ballard and Bayley - I may have to think again. Currently I am of the opinion that the best work of Aldiss is to be found in his shorter fiction; and, in fact, A Life of Matter and Death is subtitled, A Novel in One Chapter. I think he can go one better - a genre in one chapter.

Heart Clock: by Dick Morland

There are few things more satisfying on a wet afternoon in August than a failed dystopia and a pot of tea. Dick Morland's Heart Clock, published by the New English Library in 1974, hits the a guilty pleasure, even if it misses the point as political satire.

In 21st century Britain everyone is fitted with a heart clock which determines their life span. Their life span is in turn determined by the economy - on Budget day the Chancellor announces how many years are to be added or how many are to be taken away. In times of boom everyone lives longer; in times of bust lifespans are reduced. The economy of 21st century Britain is such that lifespans have been reduced over successive budgets to close to what is known as the "Bible barrier" - that is three score years and ten. The heart clocks are not fatal devices - they are reminders to those whose time is up that they must report for termination. Failure to report results in heavy fines in years being applied to the lifespans of their immediate families. Everyone reports.

The creator of this system is Matlock. The one-time Prime Minister, who was one of the first to have a heart clock fitted, is now approaching 70 and is, of course, having second thoughts. He leads a minority party which campaigns against the system, but the country is too far gone to countenance further change. After one of his meetings is broken up by the police, Matlock is taken to the current Prime Minister's office and offered a seat in the Cabinet. He has no idea why but suspects the Bible barrier is about to be breached and that the government wants him on-message should there be trouble. While considering the offer an attempt is made on his life, then he is kidnapped, then he escapes...

And herein lies the problem with Heart Clock. It is frantic. It starts out as a splendidly British dystopia, complete with peeling wallpaper and cracked china; it proceeds as an action sf thriller wherein the physical heroics of its 69 year-old ex-Prime Minister beggar the reader's belief; and it ends with the attempted invasion of England by Scotland. It is as though the author was working to the timetable of a heart clock of his own and pieced together fragments of several stories which do not properly gel. None of this is to say Heart Clock is a bad book - in fact, it is very enjoyable, and connecting the Chancellor's Budget directly to mortality is a major stroke of imagination. But with a little more care and attention a "supergenarian" uprising sounds like just the cure for Logan's Run.

Dick Morland is, apparently, Reginald Hill, author of the Dalziel and Pascoe series.

Jackal's Meal: by Gordon R. Dickson

There's no doubt that science fiction has thrown up some appalling militaristic nonsense in its time. Some of it, like Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, is redeemable by viewing it across a post-modern line of sight; some, like Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, is just wildly over-rated; some is offensive, like Jerry Pournelle's Jannisaries; and some is sublime, like Adam Roberts' New Model Army. But none of these are as convincing as Gordon R Dickson's various military sf ventures, perhaps because Dickson served with some distinction during World War Two, which adds gravitas to his Dorsai series, as well as a good deal of like detail and characterisation.

First published in Analog in 1969 and collected in The Star Road (Robert Hale, 1975), Jackal's Meal pits military honour against diplomatic expediency. During a conference to debate an alien request for a corridor through Earth-controlled space a strange being is found wandering around the cargo decks of the conference station. It is examined by human doctors and found not to be human, but they conclude it is not alien either. A rumour circulates amongst the station's garrison that the being is a genetically modified human - that it had been a human soldier captured by the aliens and modified for fun or sport. This rumour reaches the aliens, who deny the being was once human, but offer no explanation as to what it is - and so a tense stand-off develops, which must be defused by the diplomatic staff. The garrison is convinced that an atrocity has taken place and is outraged; the aliens view such outrage as an attempt to gain the upper hand in negotiations. The solution, which I won't reveal, is rather affecting and typical of an author who has seen at first hand how codes of honour and sacrifice can be erected as obstacles and traps on a battlefield.

Honourific systems appear to be a long-standing feature in Dickson's work; who can forget his stunning 1951 colony story, The Bleak and Barren Land, in which a human colonist and an alien fight a duel, the purpose of which is to serve legitimacy on the tide of humans to come.

I'm fortunate to have the Robert Hale edition of The Star Road. Hale editions are interesting, and always a welcome addition to my collection. They were printed almost exclusively for circulation in UK libraries; if you wanted to buy a copy of any of their books you had to make the trip in person to the company's office in Clerkenwell. And ask nicely.

Transformation Scene: by Claude Houghton

Against a backdrop of war-time Britain, with Hitler's V-weapons raining death and destruction upon the streets of London and the Allied invasion of mainland Europe underway, Houghton's murder-mystery could easily be mistaken for a telegram, were it not that its contents are much too esoteric to be an official communication. Rather than a next of kin informed of their loved one's death, a dream informs an artist of his model's death. The artist, prone to sleep-walking, and with some very repressed childhood memories, suspects himself of her murder and determines truth will out, whether it destroys him or not.

There follows an odd mix of Crime and Punishment and The Picture of Dorian Gray, as the artist self-interrogates in the company of a series of bohemians who constitute a sort of home guard: in fact, Houghton specialises in this kind of character; for example, the ex-public schoolboy who finds himself the sole survivor of generations of aristocrats, and whose attempts to preserve the line in fact doom it to extinction; or the distressed gentlewoman whose mind gives way when the pressures brought to bear upon it are outside of her class experience; or the spiv whose spats are louder than bombs. Their war is not fought on the front line; rather it is fought for and against social and political change on the home front.

In the middle of all this is the model herself - Carol, also known as The Enigma, which is the title of her most famous sitting for the artist. The image is the pin-up of choice for many a soldier; and so it must be a tragedy for soldiers to return from the front to find their sweetheart dead - murdered by a home guard of loafers and ex-aristocrats. To this end, Transformation Scene is an angry novel and one that anticipates great social change, hence the title. It concerns itself with the casualties of this change - the hitherto untold statistics identified only as other.

Reclamation Yard: by Paul Meloy

The boy Elliot sees monsters. They are not of his own imagining. Rather they are the creations of his father, escaped from a children's book he had published years before. Now Elliot's father has dementia and the monsters he imagined for his book visit Elliot like the visible symptoms of his father's declining mental state. They troll the countryside and invade Elliot's home. Eventually his father is institutionalised, but it makes little difference - the power of monsters is drawn from an imagination gone to the bad. But just as that imagination gives up monsters, so Elliot is able to recruit help from its pages, in the form of a girl and her hot-air balloon who rescues Elliot's father from the institution and returns him for a final confrontation - in the Reclamation Yard of the title, which is, beautifully, locked with a robot's heart.

There's not a great deal that I can add. A summary of Meloy's story is its best possible review, so striking is it in conception. For anyone who has had to deal at close quarters with dementia in a loved one, there is a great deal of consolation to be had here, right out of the marvellous.

You can read Reclamation Yard in Issue 40 of Black Static wherein it is stunningly illustrated by Ben Baldwin.

A Wild Justice: by Francis Clifford

Sometimes the purpose of our cultural custodians is to award posterity to their darlings; we are given a steady stream of articles, reprints and documentaries about, say, Le Carre, or Graham Greene, etc; however, those authors not read by our custodians are designated forgotten and hence their cultural impact is nil. This, of course, is a vicious circle, because if books go out of print and living memory is finite, then the works of certain authors might as well not exist at all. Despite this widespread cultural censorship, ghosts do appear, but our custodians do not have the sensibilities to see them; rather it is left to genre readers to communicate with the out of print.

Francis Clifford was the author of many excellent thrillers which sold well over three decades. Two were adapted into films; one (The Naked Runner) starring Frank Sinatra, no less, was passably good; the other, Act of Mercy, was filmed as Guns of Darkness, quite ineffectively, as the recent Network DVD release allowed me to discover. For the most part Clifford's cold war thrillers are his best; these are always complicated by a unique form of suspense in which the act of page-turning is almost a victimless crime. There are also several Nazi-hunting thrillers, and a wonderful little book called The Third Side of the Coin, in which a desk clerk at a British airport steals a suitcase full of money and flies to Spain, where he is apprehended by an earthquake. There are three war novels, the best of which, Honour the Shrine, is probably the most moving war story out of the Far East that I have ever read.

Clifford had several Irish connections in his personal life which led him to write two Irish-themed books. Drummer in the Dark and A Wild Justice. The former is poor by his usual standards, but the latter, with a little tweaking, is a remarkable book altogether. The action of A Wild Justice takes place in the ruins of an Irish city; the city is unnamed, as is the battle by which it has been destroyed - we are left simply to assume there has been another rising, though which rising and by whom are not specified. The survivors seek a means of escape through a maze of half-collapsed houses, factories and shops, while the army routinely bomb the ruins to prevent any escape. Within these once lived-in shells another kind of life takes place, a desperate struggle for survival that encompasses the full range of human cruelty, from murder to rape; and beyond this is the ultimate Irish crime - betrayal, the advent of which turns freedom fighters to terrorists. It is sometimes remarked that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, but when both share a cellar with only one exit the distinction is most brutal. Of course there is no real resolution except tragedy; the surviving rebels are doomed, and as their cause is broken down to emotional rubble, so they seek to play dead therein.

The troubles did not throw up many successful Irish thrillers; most were a mix of propaganda and/or special pleading. To my mind the best of them was probably Benedict Kiely's Proxopera. A Wild Justice matches Kiely's novel in power and brevity and is greatly helped along by its anonymity of venue, an idea I would have taken a lot further. Because the sheer scale of destruction wrought in Clifford's novel goes well beyond anything experienced during the troubles - rather the book reads like an alternate history in which a civil war is fought and lost by those who wargamed it to death.

Ossian's Ride: by Fred Hoyle

One time Astronomer Royal Fred Hoyle had a long career as a science fiction novelist; his early books are undoubted classics - A for Andromeda, for example, is perhaps the finest message from space novel written, despite beginning life as a BBC television series, now sadly lost. The Black Cloud is deservedly Hoyle's most famous novel, in which a sentient gas cloud interposes itself between the Earth and the sun, leading first to a scientific coup d'etat and then near apocalypse. Later in his career Hoyle began co-writing with his son, Geoffrey; the result was a serious reduction in quality, if not in imagination, as Geoffrey's main purpose appeared to be spicing his father's ideas with then fashionable ideas about sex and violence - these books are dated by their social aspect, while their science remains as sure-footed as Hoyle's prose. The one exception is The Fifth Planet, their first collaboration, a splendid novel by any standards.

Between The Black Cloud and Andromeda Hoyle penned one of the few science fiction stories with an Irish setting, Ossian's Ride. The novel is set in the near future, 1970, though later editions bump the date to 1980, no doubt to accommodate reprints. Ireland has become an industrial powerhouse; it has sealed itself behind an "Erin Curtain" of security and innovation and is governed by a mysterious and paranoid entity - the Industrial Corporation of Eire (ICE). The origins and aims of this corporation are obscure, and despite attempts by foreign agents to penetrate the curtain, remain so; invariably the agents are all killed or disappear or defect. The little information that makes its way to the outside world speaks of burgeoning nuclear prowess and contraceptive pills made from turf. The British Foreign Office is particularly chagrined by its failure to plant an agent inside ICE. In desperation the British recruit a newly graduated scientist and, after the briefest of briefings, send him to Ireland with no more mission than he can keep in his coat pockets. The thinking appears to be that an amateur with no mission may fare better than a professional. And, at first, they appear to be correct. Thomas Sherwood blunders into Ireland like no kind of spy; his lack of technique wrong-foots both ICE and agents of other powers, who develop an uncanny knack of taking each other out while allowing Sherwood to escape unscathed. Eventually his luck runs out and he is captured by ICE, or rather, he arranges his own capture. It is at this point Sherwood departs a thriller and enters an sf novel; he wakes with his memory wiped (though his personality is intact) in the new and sealed city of Caragh, the description of which seems rather pertinent to the modern corporate architecture of steel and glass. He is ostensibly a worker drone, but he is asked to do no work and finds that he is under heavy surveillance. Slowly regaining his memory, Sherwood escapes, but now his blundering seems guided; his mission appears to have been co-opted, curiously accounted for, and as he draws closer to the secret at the heart of the corporation, danger recedes to make way for a quaint sense of wonder.

I love this book, I do surely, struck as I am by an image of the world's combined agents tramping across Irish bogs to infiltrate a shining new city with industrial espionage in mind. It has been called Buchanesque, with some justification, but the book of which I'm most reminded is Eric Ambler's The Dark Frontier. In that novel a scientist who believes himself to be a super-hero embarks on a similar mission in a Ruritanian state; and this is somewhat to the point of Ossian's Ride. Ireland, while a British isle, is off the map. You can't really look to the mythology of the title to give it context; rather, Ossian's Ride re-partitions Ireland; where there was once north and south, there is now human and inhuman.

The Voivode: by Philip Challinor

There is cosmic horror; and then there is cosmic holocaust.The former is the sensibility of human frailty in an unknowable universe; the latter is the insanity that ensues from it.

In Philip Challinor's extraordinary novella, The Voivode, vampirism is in league with the pre-Galilean universe, and its enemy, the Church, is mired in the dark ages. The spacecraft Persephone, lifted into the void by the burning of ten thousand or so heretics, attempts to venture beyond Earth's furthest satellite, Sol. Instead it finds evidence of the Gililean universe in the form of a new planet that appears to orbit Sol; and it finds itself under siege from within, as a stowaway vampire lays waste to the crew with the help of the ship's doctor. Sangruel the vampire and the doctor change the Persephone's course to land on this new planet and claim it... but it claims them in the most curious and horrifying manner.

At the heart of The Voivode is a bloody transfusion; that is, a protectionist exchange of knowledge and of power. Earth's enlightenment is to be more of the same, on an industrial scale, as Challinor reveals the newly discovered planet to have been asset-stripped of its only resource, blood, which is, after all, the currency of vampires. Blood cells converted to coin.

The Voivode, like most of Challinor's work, is precisely rendered. There are touches of Ligotti and Lucius Shephard (The Golden comes to mind); in fact, the prose is better than the former and the conceit fully matches the latter. It is a major work of strange and vivid imagination, and in subjecting cosmic horror to economic rationalism, Challinor has found a wholly unique voice.

You can buy a copy of The Voivode here - I absolutely recommend that you do.

PSI High & Others: by Alan E. Nourse

I first happened across Alan E. Nourse about 15 years ago, when I was reading anthologies at the rate of two a day; as a result his work must have passed me by. I had opportunity to revisit him when I discovered that some of his stories are out of copyright and can be found in readings of variable quality at librivox (and youtube). PSI High & Others is a trilogy of novellas published by Faber in the UK in 1967, the stories originally appearing in pulps in the late 50s/early 60s. Nourse's future America is depressingly corporate, though not very dystopian - for the most part its heroes are Presidents, Senators, Congressmen, Industrialists, and so on. They are the villains too, if that's any consolation. His future US also features a fifth column of PSI capable humans (PSI is ESP+ to us post-Campbellians), which comes gradually to challenge the established order.

The first story, Martyr, has tough as nails Sen. Dan Fowler launch his campaign to have a longevity treatment, currently restricted to a small elite of rich and famous, extended to the general population. He arranges for his brother to have the treatment, and report to the Capitol on its details; but his brother refuses. When quizzed as to why, Paul Fowler tells Dan to look at the life work of those whose lives have been extended. And, sure enough, Dan visits his favourite childhood composer to find the man has been working on the same symphony for 77 years. Fowler writes and presents his own report - that by making human life open-ended, the urgency goes out of endeavour, and nothing ever gets done. Martyr is a deftly arranged story, written up as thriller because the macguffin is near-immortality, which of itself necessitates intrigue. But the only real intrigue in the story belongs to Dan Fowler, because he is dying...

In the title story, PSI High, an alien with powerful mental abilities lands alone on Earth to seek out the fledgling PSI movement and destroy it as a prelude to invasion. The PSI-ers track the alien as it cuts a swathe across America, leaving a trail of mental destruction in its wake. Nothing the PSI movement throws at the alien slows or affects its progress towards its prize - frail and beautiful Jean Sanders, PSI High's most gifted. As the alien gets closer, the PSI-ers form ranks about Jean, and a sort of mental siege takes places, with Nourse ratcheting up the tension by having the government and populace turn against the PSI-ers - they suspect the alien is in league with PSI High; and as it turns out...  The denouement of the story is a twist tied as a noose; but I'm not sure that the weight is correct. The set-up is overly-elaborate and the pay-off rests entirely with the fate of the alien which, while certainly plausible, has rather a touch of Chekhov about it - permitting your raygun to be seen and not used is a delicate narrative choice. Put bluntly (spoiler ahead), the alien dies quietly at its first human encounter - at the hands of a farmer whose dog it has killed. The "alien" they've been tracking turns out to be a human, the next step in PSI development, who used the alien's arrival (and disappearance) as cover to announce his existence. As you would. The story is also a gothic romance of sorts, as a being perceived throughout to be monstrous pursues the mind of a girl. PSI High is a complex tale which probably would have worked better at greater length. Its mood is dark and ambitious, but Nourse's prose is simply not precise enough to allow it to take hold. There are too many competing elements; however, as flawed as it is, PSI High is the best story in the volume, and evidence that Nourse's work is a cut above the norm.

The last story, Mirror Mirror, is a rather grim study of the psychological aspects of war. An alien fleet blunders into the solar system; it violently repels attempts at contact from Earth, destroys a base on Titan, and flees to forbidding Saturn, where it hides in the atmosphere. Earth, always keen to press a disadvantage, builds a space station to orbit Saturn and carries the war to the aliens through "analogues" (shades of Poul Anderson's Call Me Joe and, fwiw, James Cameron's Avatar). The minds of soldiers are encased in electronic drones and fired into the atmosphere of Saturn to harrass the aliens. Upon returning they are given Relief (as opposed to leave), which is the only thing that keeps them sane. One such soldier is John Provost. He has formed a deep bond with one of his Relief pleasures, or "that Turner girl," as she is referred to throughout the text. On returning from a particularly arduous mission he finds "that Turner girl" mouthing suspiciously alien thoughts - she is promptly and brutally killed by the station staff, and the entire garrison goes into meltdown, believing the aliens have somehow infiltrated them. Of course, what Provost might well have been hearing from "that Turner girl" were his own thoughts at remove; his psychological breakdown due to the ravages of war; echoes of combat. The rest of the story is neither here nor there, except to say that in the best tradition of human folly, the cure for pain is more pain.

Nourse is probably best known for the term Blade Runner, which was the title of one of his novels and which was borrowed by Ridley Scott for the director's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? He had a fairly active career in the pulps and was lucky enough to see his work collected and issued in hardcover by Faber & Faber in the UK. Why this should be the case, I'm not sure. His novellas are, for the most part, his best work; the novels are weaker in subject matter and it seems obvious (to me) that he made some odd choices as to the possibilities of his ideas. Still, there's no denying that his best work is well-worth reading.

And, thankfully, one of the surviving episodes of the fabled Out of the Unknown is an adaptation of Nourse's The Counterfeit Man, which you can watch here:

Revolution: by Mack Reynolds

Mack Reynolds was a long time member of the Socialist Labour Party in the USA, and a hugely prolific and popular writer for the near pulps during the 50s and 60s. Much of his work in science fiction was political, extrapolating futures from the Cold War, from economics, and from news items which did not necessarily make the news, but certainly made the future. His work is always interesting, though in view of the fall of the Soviet Union, it appeared for a time that he had been debunked by history. Not so, as his novella Revolution demonstrates.

The Soviet Union has overtaken the US in the economic race. While America uses its steel mills to produce cars and televisions and washing machines, the USSR puts steel mills to producing more steel mills, and more, until the country is a belching powerhouse of economic growth. At which point the US decides to intervene by sending an agent into the USSR, with orders to contact the underground opposition and organise a revolt. Money is no object, and the agent is to be assisted by all the ingenuity of US industrial espionage.

The opposition is not at all what agent Koslov expects, nor is it what his masters in Washington need. They are not fledgling capitalists; they are not even disillusioned communists - they are syndicalists. They applaud the Soviet experiment; they believe it has been ultimately successful, but they also believe it has served its purpose in turning the USSR into a world power. Now they wish to place that power in the hands of workers. They want to transform the USSR from a Union into a Collective. Because he is Russian by birth, Koslov understands that these people are not revolutionaries because they are corruptible - they are revolutionaries because they are incorruptible. Koslov knows such people are no use to America's ultimate purpose, which is to overthrow Soviet communism and turn the USSR to free market capitalism. But will his paymasters grasp this? Their opinion appears to be that, because they have willingly assisted revolution, the revolutionaries are traitors and once bought, will stay bought. The US dollar is the payment; the imposition of the US system is the payback.

Reynolds leaves the story hanging, to be completed by events. Will the revolution go ahead? Of course it will, despite Koslov's warnings - America will have its Russian day, and if the revolutionaries prove inconvenient at a later date, they too can be dispensed with. Everyone is expendable in the human race to the bottom.

Of particular note in Reynolds' other works is The Fracas Factor, an extraordinary series of novellas which locate exactly where he believes history is going - "People's Capitalism" - in which corporations attempting takeovers and mergers hire proles to fight these as bloody battles, all televised for the delight of shareholders, stakeholders, and spear holders.

The Foundations of the Twenty-First Century: by Philip Challinor

The year is 1989. The place is London. But the event... the event is the centenary of Hitler's birth, and it is being celebrated by Britain; not simply Nazi-occupied Britain, but a country almost fully integrated into Germany's Third Reich, embedded, as it were. The Royal Family still survives, suggesting an all-too familiar treachery; there are references to Isolationists gaining influence at the beginning of World War Two; the Russian front appears to be ongoing and claiming the life of many a British Volk soldier; and there is mention of America escaping the fate of Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Foreign tourists abound in London for the centenary, and all appears well on the Home Front.

Harold Cullen is part of a group of cadets who arrive in London to begin their courses and are seconded to assist with centenary duties, amongst other things - for in Nazi Britain the officious attitude of the stern corporal is king, and as punishment for youth and lack of rank, the group finds itself detailed to hand out leaflets, while billeted in a dreary but surprisingly large flat. The cadets are a mixed bag - while they are all keen to hone their Nationalist-Socialist zeal, Cullen seems particularly adept - for example, happily spying on fellow train passengers on the journey to London. Not content with this, he is also keen to explore the personal belongings of their landlord, whose flat seems rather more spacious than Cullen deems fit for a single man living alone. The landlord, Truman, well aware of what motivates the likes of Cullen, lets slips that his accommodation is reward for a special service performed for the Reich years before. But he remains tight-lipped about details, and this only furthers Cullen's curiosity. Perhaps Cullen's zeal can only be attributed to the fact that his grandfather also performed special service for the Reich, of which he is always mindful, chiefly because he is never allowed to forget it - not by his mother, his instructors, or by the other cadets - the exact nature of that service, however, is never shared with him.

The book takes the form of a first person narrative by Cullen, perhaps a journal of some kind, because each entry is dated. The prose throughout is terse, succinct and, at times, a little conspiratorial. All the pettiness of life in Britain is combined with the perversity of Nazism, and they are found to be compatible, collaborators, familiars even. The language reflects this in turn of phrase and figure of speech - phrases are jackbooted through the text as slogans (blood always tells), figures are uniform and correct. It captures ideology not only as a way of life, but as a mode of self-censoring forethought - as interior life. However, Cullen's narrative gives the impression of being a little too correct - at least at first. He has an eye for the disloyal; but he also has a disarming eye for the loyal. He sees and reports contradictions, anomalies, pettiness and even ideological doubts, all of which take various forms; and his crisis, when it comes, is an almost willfully perverse and unwelcome development in his career. It is as though we are not the only people looking over his shoulder.

Up to this point, there appears to be almost no resistance, except perhaps in one regard: the near-forbidden knowledge of another event, uncelebrated but seemingly unforgotten, and which can be pieced together from clues and hints scattered throughout the text, variously as allusions, threats, boasts and anecdotes. Who, for example, are the mysterious "hoaxers" hiding in plain sight on the London Underground? Just what was the supreme service rendered by Cullen's landlord to the state?  Even the early reference to trains running on time assumes ominous significance, once the reader has pieced together the subtext. Usually, in alternative history, authors game their point of departure - it is built into the text as a twist or a hook. But here, no such point of departure matters, and there are no safe games to be had from a reveal. If anything, history and its alternate converge in the opposite of foregrounding - as a defining back shadow which haunts the text. F21C transports its themes by more than train of thought: the final, almost hallucinatory journey is anything but that - it is the culmination of everything we have seen and heard: in Cullen's history, and in ours.

As for resistance, in a way Mr Challinor performs a remarkable feat: in a book which so cleverly transports the reader, the thought occurs - if history is written by the winner, who writes the alternate history? The dissident perhaps.

Unearthly Stranger (1964)

One of a number of fondly remembered British sf films made in the early 60s (The Night Caller and The Mind Benders being otherly), Unearthly Stranger provided a rare early leading role for John Neville. Here he is superbly supported by Philip Stone and Gabriella Licudi in a story which, to my surprise, is not based on a novel, but on an original idea. The idea, of course, is old hat, even by the sf standards of the early 60s, but it's interesting to see a maturity of treatment which is all too rare in science fiction in the cinema.

A private research laboratory appears to be on the verge of making a breakthrough in space exploration - not by means of sending ships, but by flinging the human consciousness onto other worlds. The question is - have aliens already flung their consciousness to earth? When scientists on the project begin to die, Neville suspects yes. In the meantime, he is newly-married. His wife, ostensibly foreign, permitted him to notice her on a dark Italian road with mysterious powers in attendance. She does not satisfy the company's security checks - she has no personal or family records. She also has a number of oddly inhuman quirks on the feminine/domestic side - she can't blink, but when she learns to do so it is with the self-conscious flutter of a coquette. Neville's colleague watches her remove a hot dish from an oven without wearing oven gloves. Salt tears leave vivid scars on her cheeks. Neville is well aware of what all this means - after all, it was his his idea that aliens maybe already be present - he just refuses to believe it of his wife, which is where the film gets most of its drama, as well as some of its absurdities. Licudi's is quite a disingenuous character - she obviously has sexual and maternal instincts, but they are not complete; her very lack of design must seem beguiling to scientists. When she looks to her husband to complete her things begin to unravel, because he looks to his work for answers.

There are a number of quite striking scenes, the best of which is Licudi's brief stop outside a schoolyard; she watches the children at play, until they become aware of her not-quite-right presence and retreat en masse to the school building, no bell necessary, except perhaps the alarm bells set to ringing in their heads. And it is interesting to watch Stone move Neville to the inevitable conclusion during a series of increasingly fractious encounters between the two men - as Licudi's character struggles with its mission, the two men are almost cruelly discursive, but it's hard to see how it could be any other way.

Ultimately, the aliens are all female, as confirmed by the striking final shot. I'm almost tempted to speculate that there is no better position to abuse than that of perennial female assistant, or demure wife, and that the aliens are aware of this and use it to their advantage - that our weak spots are prejudices and inequalities because they can be exploited in ways we can't imagine by beings who understand them as strategy rather than as tactics.

Unearthly Stranger is, for the most part, brilliantly shot, acted, and directed and well-worth seeking out. It is something of a rarity and it would be a real treat to see it cleaned up for a DVD release.