The Animal Women: by Alix E. Harrow

“Something beautiful and wild and red-toothed woke up in us. And we were not nothing anymore.”

As a young man I only ever identified years by their accompanying pop culture tags - 1968 was the year of the Beatles' White Album and Where Eagles Dare and Disch's Camp Concentration; later and older with it, I gleaned a little of history and politics and 1968 became the year of the Paris uprising, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the founding of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland. The year changed from one of pop culture tags to body bags. Lately I had the pleasure to read Alix Harrow's story, The Animal Women, and 1968 changed again.

Young Candis falls into the company of a group of women living in a cabin on the edge of the woods. While the locals see only their colour, she sees their shapes, shapes which she attempts to capture on camera, but which are declined even by her light meter. The women register on the townsfolk only in relation to the racial strife which continues to creep across America as the year progresses. We are privy to it as a school year, and Candis is made extra-curricular by events beyond her control as she learns that the wounds these women bear have healed as more than themselves, as though they have fashioned the weals and welts into weapons of a feral kind. In a text which transforms adjectives into body doubles, Candis is placed in danger by her association wth the animal women, and learns herself how to fashion her wounds thus.

The Animal Women can be read at the Strange Horizons website in two parts, here and here.

The Zilov Bombs: by D.G. Barron

D.G. Barron's novel of Soviet-occupied Britain was first published by Andre Deutsch in 1962 and then by Pan in paperback in 1965. It has never been subsequently reprinted, perhaps because it falls into an uneasy territory between genre and literary fiction. The book demonstrably fails at both, but its charm is that it never really tries to be either - it is pure headturning pulp, and it is most amusing that the book's cover reviews are quotes from such quaint periodicals as Woman's Journal, Topic and The Listener. Of course, these are the good reviews - I have no idea what the Times Literary Supplement had to say about it, or Analog. If anything.

Following the ban the bomb demonstrations of the late 1950s, governments across Europe opt for nuclear disarmament, hoping the Soviets will reciprocate and withdraw their nuclear deterrent from their satellite states. Instead the Soviets simply roll across Europe, conquering former NATO countries and transforming them into People's Republics. In subjugated Britain, Guy Elliot, former writer and ex-peace campaigner, is now an agricultural commissar, slowly forcing the new rules of collectivisation on reluctant farmers in Norfolk. Guy is also involved with the resistance in a small way, much to the chagrin of his wife, who would rather he did not place them or their two children in danger. One night, while doing his rounds on a country road, Guy is witness to the theft a Soviet lorry and the murder of its driver - he then discovers the lorry carried several limited nuclear weapons, and that these have been hidden on a nearby farm. Guy informs the resistance and is then drafted into securing these bombs for use by the resistance in a country-wide rebellion. The bombs are secured, at great cost; so great, in fact, that Guy wants out. But it is too late - the Soviets have identified him as a key figure, rather than the minor player he so reluctantly allowed himself to become. He turns back to the resistance for help, but they simply make him their prisoner - because he is in possession of valuable information. A sensible enough precaution as it turns out - Elliott is well-remembered as one of those ban the bomb "traitors" who forced Britain to relinquish its deterrent in the first place. Now in a position to hear the plans of the resistance for a rebellion, he is horrified at the prospective loss of life. Sadly, at this point, the book degenerates into a straight will he/won't he thriller, with an unsatisfactory denouement.

Despite its faults The Zilov Bombs is a better than expected novel. It is obviously an anti-peacenik tract and the moral choices set up throughout the novel illustrate the author's intent, all the way to Elliott's final, explosive moments. Still, the characters are often well-drawn, the arguments both for and against are allowed to be made, and the Americans are kept out of it. So too, curiously, are the Russians - it is an all-English affair. And this perhaps is how the novel is so affecting - everyone resists in their own way, from Elliott's boss, who wants to sabotage collective farms by slowing their introduction, to the senior civil servants who find the ultimate use for the Zilov Bombs. It is not a novel about invasion - it is rather a peon to tradition, to the implacable management of British society, which can ameliorate the shock of ideology by simply absorbing it into a class system that looks and feels as solid as landscape.

The cover price states 2/6 - I'm not sure how much that is in roubles, or in new money.

The Darkest of Nights: by Charles Eric Maine

Although now sadly forgotten, Charles Eric Maine was one of the most successful British sf novelists of his time. Several of his books were filmed, most famously The Mind of Mr Soames in 1970, an attempt perhaps to cash in on the success of Charly. Unfortunately, Soames stars the insufferably 60s Terence Stamp, so I doubt I will ever get around to watching it.

Between 1958 and 1962 Maine turned out two major apocalypse novels - The Tide Went Out and The Darkest of Nights. The former is a rather quaint disaster novel in which nuclear tests cause the earth's oceans to drain away into Atlantic and Pacific fissures, leading to ecological disaster and societal collapse. It is a book that retains many excellent pulp credentials despite, or perhaps because of, its premise. The Darkest of Nights is an outstanding apocalypse novel and, to my mind, the definitive plague novel. While it shares many characteristics with the apocalypse works of John Wyndham and John Christopher - it is more artful than The Day of the Triffids, and more cruel than The Death of Grass - it is a true original in the sense that its characters act out the functions of pathogens, rather than simply being victims or not, as the case may be.

The Hueste virus, a possible side-effect of nuclear testing, begins work in China, killing millions of people. The outside world looks on, not entirely aghast as China is remote and the casualties there make splendid statistics with which to sell newspapers. The plague soon spreads to Japan where Pauline Brant, attached to the International Virus Research Institute, deals with the first of the casualties. She returns quickly to Britain to deliver samples and also meet with her estranged husband, Clive, Foreign Editor of the Daily Monitor, who solicits information on the plague and also a divorce. As the plague spreads across the Far East, the Brants part, Pauline to a virus research group, Clive to his newspaper and a frustrating round of new secrecy laws - why are massive incinerators being built in public parks? why are underground bunkers under construction in all major cities? The answer is, of course, obvious, but now routine censorship means that the population cannot really conceive of the scale of the Hueste virus - fully half the world's population will die, and the British establishment is keen to keep this a secret until it can secure the means for its own survival. Clive resigns his newspaper post and takes a job with an American television company. As the full force of the virus hits Britain, Clive and his American crew film much of the ensuing chaos and disorder for posterity, as it becomes open rebellion and then revolution. However, there is little for the population to rebel against as, in a piece of plotting later borrowed by Peter Van Greenaway for his novel Graffiti, the heads of government, business, industry and finance, and their extended families, are safely placed in the newly-built bunkers, complete with air filters, medical supplies and staff, while the rest of the nation is left to take its chances with the virus. As in Graffiti, these bunkers are set upon by an insurrectionist army, led more by outrage than by the prospect of imminent death, and the ensuing civil war is repeated across the globe. Pauline is detailed to serve in a bunker in Liverpool which manages to resist attack; Clive fares less well - his film crew is killed and he is captured by the rebel army. By now the situation is chaotic - there are not only revolutions and counter-revolutions, but medical advances mean there is virus and anti-virus; sadly, perhaps deliberately, the anti-virus is as lethal as the original virus, so those who survived Hueste are vulnerable to its cure; these too die in their millions, until victory for either side becomes a simple matter of attrition. Eventually, Clive and Pauline are reunited, but only so that one might cancel out the other.

In the end The Darkest of Nights resorts to Clive as a measure of civilised behaviour - somehow his character, presented as vain, scheming and ambitious at the beginning of the novel, is redeemed, not by a personal change in the man, but by the deterioration of his fellows. Clive becomes a civilised outpost, resorting only to outrages which have some semblance of moral continuity - some sensible looting; a revenge killing or two - and this continuity helps him revert to the status quo when it comes to a final choice as to whether to side with the insurrectionists or the government, no doubt taking many a reader with him. Maine's strength as a writer is that he makes us aware of this choice. Maine also has a happily informative prose style - he is able to impart huge amounts of information in just a few lines. This is not info-dumping on his part; rather he is interested in how things work, and he makes them interesting for the reader by infusing them with every detail of craft.

Maine's work was published in hardcover by Hodder & Stoughton throughout most of his career, and these 1st editions are well worth picking up, especially The Darkest of Nights with its fantastic petrie dish cover illustration by John Woodcock. My copy has the added attraction of an internal stamp reading RAF Leconfield.