John Boston and Damien Broderick: Strange Highways: Reading Science Fantasy, 1950-67 (p. 256 of 365) (Amazon UK)
The Furies (Part 1 of 3) • serial by Keith Roberts ♥♥+
A Distorting Mirror • short story by R. W. Mackelworth
The Door • short story by Keith Roberts [as by Alistair Bevan] ♥♥♥
The Criminal • short fiction by Johnny Byrne
Cover • by Keith Roberts
Editorial • by Kyril Bonfiglioli
Editor, Kyril Bonfiglioli; Associate Editor, J. Parkhill-Rathbone
This issue is almost entirely filled with Keith Roberts’ work. Apart from contributing a solid Cover to illustrate the first instalment of his debut novel The Furies (which takes up 97 pages out of the 128 in this issue) he also provides a pseudonymous short story, The Door.
The Furies is a conventional British disaster novel that has huge extra-terrestrial wasps attacking humanity at the same time as the Earth is subject to a catastrophic planet-wide earthquake. This latter event is due in part to the explosion of a nuclear bomb on the sea floor (the Neptune Project). These nuclear tests are mentioned a few times at the start of the novel, no doubt reflecting the political situation at the time.
The main character is Bill Sampson, who lives in the country and works as a cartoonist. He owns a dog, a Great Dane called Sek:
One of Sek’s minor advantages was that she seemed inordinately fond of my cooking. I could never resist the temptation to dabble about with fancy recipes; as often as not the results were disastrous but it seemed to me the more horrible the mess the more she enjoyed it. Maybe she was just being tactful; it was hard to tell with her, she was naturally polite.
When the daily battle was over I usually walked Sek for a couple of miles. We’d always finish up at the “Basketmakers Arms” in Brockledean. She was a firm favourite there. They kept biscuits behind the bar for her; she’d stretch her neck, push her great dark head over the counter, roll her lips back from her teeth and take the goodies as if they were made of glass. Then she’d eat them without leaving a crumb. She developed a fair taste for beer as well, though I usually restricted her to a dishful at the most. I felt one dipso in the family was enough. p. 8
Sampson befriends a precocious teenager called Jane before the disaster:
She was rubbing the great animal on the chest and Sek was standing there soaking it up and looking as sloppy as possible. The youngster straightened when she saw me; she was tall, she might have been fifteen or sixteen. It was hard to tell. She was neatly dressed in blue jeans and a check shirt; her face was round and rather serious with a straight, stubborn little nose and wide-spaced, candid blue eyes. She had a superb mane of dark hair, sleek and well brushed, caught up behind her ears with a crisp white ribbon. Altogether, a surprising vision. p. 13-14
When the Furies attack they are thrown together on a permanent basis and initially take cover in Sampson’s cellar, with the earthquake wrecked house above them. They later emerge and a British Army armoured car arrives, but after stopping briefly it moves on as they have no room for the pair of them. Sampson does find out where there is an army camp and, after a couple of minor solo adventures, picks up an APC (armoured personnel carrier) and returns to the cottage for Jane.
These events pretty much set up the template for the next thirty or forty pages: they move around the countryside, other people and forms of transport come and go, and the Furies attack, sometimes trapping them in the places they shelter. At one point the pair end up in Granny Thompson’s house (unlike the ‘Anita’ stories, here she is called Mrs Stillwell):
“Got a cat round somewhere,” said the old lady. “Or at least I ’ad. ’Aven’t seen her since this mornin’. Such comin’s an’ goin’s, I never seen anything like it I’m sure. Look at that . . .” She glared at the blocked window. “Messed all the paint, using pins an’ that tape stuff . . . I wouldn’t ’ave bothered only that young feller we ’ad round, he told me I better. Just like the war it’s bin, all over. I don’t know . . . She changed her tack abruptly. “Want a cuppa?” p. 82-83
She reports she managed to fight off two of the Furies, which surprises Bill and Jane as the giant wasps are lethal, and are usually only brought down with flamethrowers.
As you can probably gather from what I’ve described so far, the first six chapters are competent but episodic fare which don’t really advance the story. There are also a number of elements that don’t convince: there is no particular explanation as to how the Furies can exist (the square-cube law), and the earthquake that devastates the entire world feels a little too convenient. Also, more cringe-inducing today than in 1965 perhaps, why is a thirty-something man together with a fifteen or sixteen year old? (Sampson’s feelings for Jane mostly go unspoken but occasionally rise to the surface before disappearing back down into the deeps—we’ll see if that remains the case in the next couple of instalments.)
Fortunately, with the arrival of chapter seven, we start to see some flashes of Roberts’ ability. The pace picks up and there is a good description of what Bill and Jane see after they have left Mrs Stillwell and are trying to outrun the Furies in their car en route to the coast:
We crabbed out of a final bend and the view widened ahead. Jane shrieked something and started to point. Away to our left the land shelved into a bowl a mile or more across; and for hundreds of yards, as far as I could see, the grass was covered by a weird encrustation. It was as if somebody had let a king-size bowl of porridge boil over and spill down the slope. It was a few seconds before I realized what I was looking at. It was a nest, or a city.
The wasps had given up all attempt at concealment and allowed their woodpulp shanties to sprawl across the hill. There were combs and great brood cells all made of the same flimsy stuff; over them by way of protection they’d hauled all the junk imaginable, bolts of cloth and cocomatting, sheets of galvanised iron, chunks of linoleum, sections torn from fences, bits of furniture, even old motor car tyres and wheels. It was like a mile-wide corporation tip. Above the rubbish the Furies hung in a golden haze; the thousands of wings made a deep rumbling, like the noise of a massive waterfall. p. 93-94
Later they are separated, and Bill, after trying to follow Jane to the Isle of Wight in a yacht, finds he has travelled through a night-time storm only to end up back on the mainland. He then finds a pub and gets drunk. During this bout of self-pity we get an early example of an effective Roberts’ device1 where his characters dream and/or hallucinate about other characters:
I think altogether I must have put down about four or five, and after that I couldn’t have gone far if I wanted to. I hadn’t eaten for a while of course; I suppose my stomach just couldn’t take the swilling I’d given it. I tried to reason with myself but it was too late. The drink had hold of me and I knew I’d never done a damn thing right in my life and it was no use trying. I’d killed my girl and I’d killed my dog; I was beat, the wasps were everywhere and we were through. Well, if I was only fit for getting drunk I’d try and make a job of it. I managed to edge my way back to the barrels and poured out another tankard . . .
Sometime in the afternoon Jane walked through the bar. I called her but she wouldn’t come. She was smart; she stayed just outside the range of my vision, flitting about like a little wraith. Sek was there somewhere too, but I couldn’t let her in. I pleaded with both of them, then lost my temper and damned them to all eternity. Then, mercifully, I passed out like a light. p. 99-100
In the morning he hears people singing and goes outside to find a truck full of people drunk and laughing. We are treated to a cliff-hanger image to end this instalment:
I was still glaring about vaguely when an ancient lorry came round the corner of the street, stopped alongside with a screech of worn linings. I looked up at it, trying to focus. The back was open and it was crammed with people. They were laughing and cheering and every other one seemed to be waving a bottle. I saw a little man in a striped, collarless shirt, three or four beefy farming types, a heap of girls with long untidy hair and leather jerkins, a bearded boy in a fisherknit sweater, guitar slung round his neck. It looked like an artists’ colony gone haywire. I reeled round to the tailboard. I said thickly “Wha’ the Hell goes on . . .”
Fingers gripped my arms. One of the popsies started to scream with laughter. Somebody said “Come on whack, join the party . . .” I landed in the truck and it careered off down the street. A bottle was shoved in my hand. A voice shouted “Drink up, th’ war’s over.”
I tried to take it in. “What happened? Are the wasps dead?”
Laughter broke like a wave. A blonde lurched across the lorry, tried to grab the bottle and fell over my knees. She jerked her thumb at the top of the cab, giggling. I looked up and for the first time saw the Fury, straddling the metal with its wide-spread legs and staring disinterestedly down at its human load. p. 100
The short story by Roberts, The Door, is a minor and perhaps even clichéd piece, but I liked it nonetheless. A man called Naylor has started a revolution in an underground city and is using the disorder as cover while he tries to force open an entrance to the surface. He believes that the buried city is on a post-holocaust Earth, and that the surface radiation—caused by attacks by Earth’s colony planets in the solar system—may have abated.
There is a neat description of the social order that exists underground:
Below Blue City the Levels increased in complexity and culture. There was the intermediate Brown Level, then the Red, then Orange and Yellow and finally, deepest sunk of all, White. White City was the financial and religious capital of the vertical empire, the seat of government and order. Naylor knew that under the old order he would never have been allowed to sink to full White status. Instead he had founded his own heretic creed; to rise. With him, seeking the heights was no longer a phrase of contempt. p. 123-124
There is a neat twist ending.
The other two short stories are awful. A Distorting Mirror by R. W. Mackelworth was a real slog to get through, not helped by the fact that it starts with several pages of talking heads between a couple, who appear to be under the influence of some kind of drug, and a housing manager of the future. Eventually the couple are vouchsafed a vision of their life in a new home, but this turns out to be a test to see whether they are suitable candidates to join the ‘Management.’
At least The Criminal by Johnny Byrne is short. A silver spaceship ejects a naked man who subsequently explains to the crowd he has been sent to Earth for punishment. At the end (spoiler) he reveals that there was another of his race called Adam who had been sent previously. Oh dear.
As to the non-fiction in this issue, I’ve already mentioned Roberts’ cover above. I note in passing two other items: the Science Fantasy cover logo has shrunk in size to make room for a featured story title and, once again, the back cover promises stories that aren’t in the issue (this time by Harry Harrison and, again, Philip Wordley).
In his Editorial, Kyril Bonfiglioli continues his discussion about ‘readability’ which he started last issue. I’m not sure he really adds anything (and manages to misspell ‘Azimov’ in the process).
A mixed bag, but this issue will always have a soft spot in my heart as it was one of the first copies of the magazine I ever bought (around forty years ago).
- This dream/hallucination device is used to good effect in the final scenes of his novel Drek Yarman.