The Fittest: by J.T. McIntosh

J.T. McIntosh's novel of societal collapse and inter-species conflict is misunderstood as a story of super-intelligent animals waging a war of attrition on mankind - in fact these animals are not super-intelligent; rather their creator Paget has given them only a limited facility of memory, so that they do not need to be taught or shown something more than once or twice to be able to understand it. That slight change is enough. The animals retain their often brutal natures, but with the advantage of memory, which permits them to organise and coordinate their attacks on human beings and human infrastructure. Even more striking is the fact that with memory comes self-regard - these animals are not rabidly suicidal; they are aware enough to be so self-serving that they can be diagnosed as psychopathic. And once they have destroyed power and communication cables to render mankind helpless, they find themselves on an equal footing for the fight - because a human society without its intrinsic advantage of civilisation is reduced to nothing more than a collection of individuals whose memories are those of automation rather than adaptation.

As ever with apocalypse novels the question of division of spoils leads to charges of sexism as women are treated in much the same manner as tinned goods. It is not that one doubts that women would become commodities in such a scenario - really it is their acquiescence which leaves the author's presumptions open to question. This problem isn't unique to McIntosh; it's evident in Wyndham and Christopher and the rest. In fact The Fittest, by virtue of its title alone, confronts the problem head-on - the scramble to re-order relationships in light of societal collapse takes on a most depressing and predictable aspect, as men examine hip girth in women, and women appraise shoulders in men. Such considerations take up a good deal of the text, a sort of fumble in the jungle which is almost as tiresome as it is inevitable. Which leads us to the notion of "cosy catastrophe" as defined by Brian Aldiss. The Fittest ticks all the boxes, but its disharmony is not that of a formula; really you need to go back to Arthur Machen's The Terror to find a similar concept so effectively handled. In Machen's novel it was, ultimately, man's inhumanity to man which led to the animal world's uprising; in The Fittest McIntosh extends this idea - once humanity is gone between us it is gone from us, and we revert fully to the Darwinian, survival of...  However, this is not all. There is the process of stripping down a human being. In a way the risen animals only make mortal the wounding process of mortification begun by other human beings - the animals show remarkable solidarity in the face of their human enemy; human beings, conversely, display a complete lack of solidarity and turn on each other with the exact and rabid nature expected of wild animals. In this manner McIntosh notes that human progress is depressingly material and that human beings have used their smarts only to reduce the species to atomised individuals united by concepts such as wealth and status. Ironically these concepts are better suited to survive than the individuals who aspire to them.

The Fittest is not McIntosh's best novel - he is perhaps one of those authors without a best novel; rather his books gather around a fixed point in his bibliography, and The Fittest is sturdy enough to qualify as an entry point for readers. Later McIntosh exhibited some extraordinary imaginative turns - in Time For a Change (Snow White & the Giants) a group of warring superbeings from the future carry their inexplicable fight through a fireswept English village; in Transmigration the narrator dies accidentally and finds himself inhabiting the minds of his friends and colleagues, most of whom can't wait to get rid of him; One in Three Hundred is another apocalypse tale, in which Earth must be abandoned - but, of course, the selection process is highly suspect, leading to guilt and unrest. I retain only one vivid recollection of Norman Conquest 2066 - that of a 1960s Morris Minor trapped on a motorway that is ended by time rather than space. I suspect the memory is entirely false, but it is typical of how this author works - his books erupt into consciousness by placing a hand grenade under the pillow; you are allowed to dream that it's there, but waking is a pain in the head.

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