John Boston & Damien Broderick: Strange Highways: Reading Science Fantasy 1950-1967 (71%, Location 4981 of 7028 in the Kindle edition)
Seventh Moon • novelette by Douglas R. Mason [as by John Rankine] ♥
Brother John • novelette by Keith Roberts ♥♥♥+
The Pace That Kills • novelette by Keith Roberts [as by Alistair Bevan] ♥♥
The Run • short story by Christopher Priest ♥
Cry Martian • short story by Peter L. Cave
Homecalling (Part 2 of 2) • reprint novella serial by Judith Merril ♥♥♥
Cover • Keith Roberts
Editorial • Kyril Bonfiglioli
This issue begins with an short editorial by Bonfiglioli. It is essentially about literature having man at the centre of its concerns and how SF moved away from that model—and now it needs to go back.
The fiction starts off with Seventh Moon, a long novelette by Douglas R. Mason using his John Rankine pseudonym which, according to SFE, he kept for ‘routine space operas and other adventures’. This is one of his ‘Dag Fletcher’ series1 and concerns a missing spaceship.
Dag is given the job of leading the investigation into the disappearance and is given a 24-hour deadline (which is subsequently forgotten about). There are several pages of desk bound investigation which is pepped up by male-female interactions like this:
She said, “Director Xenia Cordoban. What can I do for you Controller?”
The voice was low pitched, and used English as if it was thick cream to be spooned out. He could have replied, in truth, that she had already done quite a lot for him; but, with a commendable sense of duty, he put business first. p.8
She was a striking redhead, with a tawny mane, which surged round her head in deep waves whenever she moved. On the sturdy side of perfect form, she had a pale, freckled skin, straight nose, short upper lip, wide mouth and more vitality than a confined space was meant to contain. p.17
Fletcher eventually crews up a spaceship and retraces the missing ship’s journey. They end up on a known planet called Bromius (Fletcher’s intuition of course) where there is a humanoid race that is excessively polite and helpful. After some running around on the planet (spoiler) they find a strange structure that suggests the planet has an uncharted seventh moon. Fletcher and his female sidekick use themselves as bait and eventually it turns out that there is a madness/death ritual connected with it. The rest of the crew nuke the moon, Fletcher and his sidekick are saved, job done.
As you have probably guessed, although this moves along well enough it doesn’t really engage at all and is just one of those fifties New Worlds stories populated by cardboard characters being manoeuvred through a unlikely plot. You do get the sense of a writer capable of more than this though.
Finally, Bonfiglioli described this as ‘solid fuel job’ in the previous issue. I think the solid fuel he was thinking of was wood.
The second and third stories, both novelettes, are by Keith Roberts. Brother John is the third in the ‘Pavane’ sequence and The Pace That Kills appears under his Alistair Bevan pseudonym.
Brother John starts well in its depiction of a monk who works in the abbey’s lithography room and who is also a talented artist. He is summoned by the abbot and told he is being given a commission to travel to Dubris to produce artwork for the Court of Spiritual Welfare:
But… nothing decent, nothing good, would ever come out of the doings of the Court of Spiritual Welfare, Father Meredith knew that as well as anybody else. Because there had once been another name for the Court, a name that even in the Church-owned West had fallen into evil repute.
The Inquisition…. p.54-55
Once he arrives in Dubris he is taken down into the castle and, as a brother priest fervently explains the necessity of what they are doing, he sees terrible instruments of torture:
There were spiked rollers, oddly shaped irons, tourniquets of metal beads; other devices, ranged in rows, he identified with a cold shock. The little frames with their small cranked handles, toothed jaws; these were gresillons. Thumbscrews. Such things then really existed. Nearer at hand a species of rough table, fitted at each end with lever-operated wooden rollers, declared its use more plainly. The roof of the place was studded with pulleys, some with their ropes already reeved and dangling; a brazier burned redly, and near it were piled what looked to be huge lead weights. p.56-57
The muttering of the priest at the far end of the chamber ceased abruptly. John’s guide smiled thinly, without humour. “Good,” he said. ‘‘Your waiting is ended, Brother. They will start soon now.”
“What,” said Brother John, “were they doing?”
The other turned to him, vaguely surprised. “Doing?” he said. “They were blessing the instruments of the Questioning, of course… p.58
He draws constantly during the horrific Questioning but is left a broken man by the experience. He subsequently returns to his order after drifting around the country for weeks on end. He has a fit, sees visions and leaves the monastery again.
The second part of this story is about his teachings and the rebellion that he foments in the land. Towards the end of this part there is a scene that involves a blind quarryman that I didn’t really understand. John cannot cure his sight so the quarryman goes into the mine and quarries stones till he dies. At this point either John has another vision or there is a solar event that people treat as a miracle, or both.
Brother John turned slowly, the rushing and the drumming once more in his brain, raised a white face as above him a weird sun glowed. Brighter it grew and brighter again, a cosmic ghost, a swollen impossibility poised in the blustering sky. John cried out hoarsely, raised his arms; and round the orb a circle formed, pearly and blazing.
Then another and another, filling the sky, engulfing, burning cold as ice till with a silent thunder their diameters joined, became a cross of silver flame, lambent and vast. At the node points other suns shone and others and more and more, heaven-consuming; and John saw quite clearly now the fiery swarms of angels descend and rise. A noise came from them, a great sweet sound of rejoicing that seemed to enter his tired brain like a sword. He screamed again, inarticulate, staggering forward, shambling and running while behind him his great shadow flapped and capered. p.76-77
Whatever happens at this point, it precipitates a huge uprising as people flock to him. At the final scene on the cliff top, with a heavily armed military closing in, he recounts to people a vision he has of the future:
In his brain visions still burned and hummed; he told them of the mighty Change that would come, sweeping away blackness and misery and pain, leading them at last to the Golden Age. He saw clearly, rising about him on the hills, the buildings of that new time, the factories and hospitals, power stations and laboratories. He saw the machines flying above the land, skimming like bubbles the surface of the sea.
He saw wonders; lightning chained, the wild waves of the very air made to talk and sing. All this would come to pass, all this and more. The age of tolerance, of reason, of humanity, of the dignity of the human soul. p.79
This has some very good parts to it, but some scenes are not that clear and structurally it doesn’t seem quite right in parts either—there is an awkward break between the Questioning and his journey home. So overall a good story but also an uneven one.
Roberts’ second story in this issue, The Pace That Kills, is so different to the last that if you didn’t know Bevan was Roberts you wouldn’t guess. This story is set in the near future where society has increased traffic regulation to the point there is a Driver underground movement. Road transport is highly regulated by armed traffic wardens, and the maximum speed in cars, SafeTiPeds, is 25 mph. The narrative begins with two of the Driver resistance stopping to help a woman who has been speeding and has crashed. She is subsequently arrested and the incident headlines the news:
The Victim, Moira Alice Kelly, address unknown, was flown by police helicopter to the St. Martins Centre of Social Sciences, where she is still seriously ill. The governorbox of the SafeTiPed had been tampered with and the vehicle was described by witnesses, some of whom are still being treated for shock, as easily exceeding forty miles an hour.
Mr. Bigge, interviewed at our London news studios, said afterward, ‘I can but repeat a phrase that by now should be known to all; Speed Kills. I hope, with my colleagues, that this dreadful proof will be taken afresh to the hearts of every man, woman and child in this grand old country of ours.’ Presented with a personal message of congratulation from the King, Mr. Bigge said, ‘I only done my duty.’ p.87
She is drugged and interrogated and is destined for a laser leucotomy. The Driver underground decide to try and rescue her. While they are waiting in their cars for the convoy transporting her, one of their cell is approached by a traffic warden:
Sue opened the car door, lifted her handbag from the seat. Papers were exchanged; driving licence, insurance, certificates of physical and mental health, optician’s report, psycho-chart, testimonials and referee-list, three-month test chit; all the paraphernalia of the twenty-first century Road user. A torch flashed as the man began to scan the forms, reading with deliberate slowness. p.98
Before the warden manages to set up the mobile urine testing booth, the resistance strike.
For the first half of this Roberts exercises his frustration at the 1966 introduction of a 70 mph speed limit, amongst other things, in an enjoyably bonkers way, and he manages to make an entertaining story out of a quite ridiculous premise. Unfortunately, to its detriment, the second half of the story is more straightforward in execution. Worth reading for the first half though.
The Run by Christopher Priest is his debut story and it is a well described and engaging story but completely directionless. A politician leaves an airbase to return to a government location and as he does so there are rockets being launched behind him. On the run home, hundreds of ‘juvies’ approach his car on the aluminium strip along which it travels: some spit, some throw objects. He is forced to a stop (spoiler) by a number of them who are lying down on the road—just before a huge explosion that wipes out the government building he was heading for and kills the juvies around him.
Cry Martian by Peter L. Cave is about a boy who says he has seen Martians. It has an unlikely twist—he is on Mars and all of the Martians were killed 12 years ago. Oh dear… This is the kind of thing that Christopher Priest was describing as ‘typical Bonfiglioli space-filler’ in the last issue.
While I am dealing with this story I should note that its layout exemplifies some abysmal design. Two pages of this story are printed on p.127-128 with half a page on p.48; the editorial is printed on p.2-3 with half a page on p.81. This gives the issue quite a cluttered and untidy look, and I can’t help wondering why they didn’t print the editorial straight through on p.2-4, lose the Cave story and put in a one page filler advert for New Worlds #162 instead.
The last item of fiction is the last third of the novella serial by Judith Merril, Homecalling. This continues in a similar vein to last issue with the gradual assimilation of Deborah and Petey into the alien colony. The main issue to be resolved by Daydanda, the alien matriarch, is why Deborah is blocking memories of what is behind the locked door in the shuttle. Eventually, as the reader knows from the beginning, the children’s dead parents are discovered.
Again, there are some good parts in this installment, e.g. Petey having a good time in the alien nursery, and some parts that drag, such as when Deborah is back to the ship and is trying to explain electricity to their host. The whole story also comes to something of an anti-climactic end, given we know what is beind the door. But for all that it is a pleasant, if minor, read.
A more mixed issue than the last two. If I remember correctly future issues are equally variable.
- This story was expanded to become the fourth novel/book in the Dag Fletcher series, The Bromius Phenomenon (1973). For more on this writer’s work see here.