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.

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