" In this universe the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again"

Arthur C. Clarke Against the Fall of Night

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Committed Men M. John Harrison




 The Committed Men M. John Harrison, Panther Science Fiction 1973, cover by Bob Haberfield.


  I have to admit that, after reading Harrison’s Pastel City, I Googled to see what else he had done and fell in love with this cover (so much so, I read a library copy rather than my paperback edition). To supply some background Harrison is identified with the New Wave and the writers Moorcock and Ballard especially.This book is dedicated to Mike and Hilary Moorcock and the protagonist keeps a photo of J.G. Ballard among the detritus he has accumulated in his Nissen hut.

We first meet the protagonist, Dr. Clement Wendover in the prologue. As he watches the few remaining vehicles traveling a motorway which has been fenced off, he has been told to, “contain accident effects and protect the urbanized sections of the motorway from damage,” an accident occurs even as Wendover watches.  This a perfect introduction into the sensibilities of the New Wave. The lone observer, ruined motorway, and inevitable accident scene are right out of the themes of J.G. Ballard. We are quickly told that Wendover’s society has broken down because an unexplained release of radiation has caused an increase in skin cancer. As is often the case with apocalyptic science fiction, especially the New Wave the cause of the disaster is unimportant the results are the main driver of the plot. James Gunn, in his introduction to The Road to Science Fiction #4, explains how New Wave writers differ from previous science fiction “ The customary difference is that the cause of the change was often omitted, because it was unknown or unknowable, and the people to whom the changes happened seldom inquired into the causes because the changes were so massive that causes were irrelevant or so mysterious that inquiry was futile, or because the people were incurious, or were benumbed by events or life itself, or had lost their faith in rational inquiry. The reasons why causes were minimized may be various, but the effects were clear: Rationality was short-circuited (if the causes are unavailable, solutions are so beyond reach as to make the search unthinkable) and characters became victims.” We quickly learn that Wendover at least realizes that things are only going to get worse and this view is clearly demonstrated in the argument he has with his wife Vanessa before she leaves him. Then, in a bit of authorial sleight of hand that left me breathless with admiration, (I hate a lot of back story),  the first sentence of chapter one begins “some time, later” and we are off.

My impressions: while definitely New Wave The Committed Men does not suffer from the heavy handed stylistic excesses of some New Wave, we are spared badly written stream of consciousness digressions, there is a straight forward story involving a journey/quest. I initially characterized The Committed Men as a cozy catastrophe a category characterized by such works as the Day of the Triffids or The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham . The term cozy catastrophe was coined by Brian Aldiss in the Billion Year Spree, when I reread Aldiss’s description in the now Trillion Year Spree he characterises it this way “ The essence of cosy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.” P316 While others have embraced and perhaps expanded this definition, by Aldiss’s description The Committed Men is too bleak, the consequences of this disaster for both the protagonist and society as a whole too severe, to fit this category. 


 I also felt there was a connection to other more conventional science fiction works like Search the Sky by Fredrick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth in which the main character takes a rather satirical journey to visit a number of interstellar colonies. As one might expect from a New Wave novel The Committed Men is a much darker with a fairly ambiguous ending. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it, at under two hundred pages it was a quick read with a compelling plot, lots of action and twists that kept my interest. It is a perfect introduction to British apocalyptic science fiction and New Wave themes in particular.  One quibble is the rather, to me, inexplicable meetings between several of the main characters and a rather oddly dressed young man which seem to serve no real purpose. It was only after I finished the book and Googled some other reviews that I learned that this was Jerry Cornelius, a character created by Moorcock and incorporated into their works by a number of other writers.

Spoilers

When we join Wendover after the collapse of the British society he is living a fairly aimless existence snaring rabbits for food and living in a junk filled hut. He avoids prolonged contact with fellow survivors. This is an existance typical of many New Wave characters, who often seem to be waiting rather that acting. That changes when Harper a young man from the nearby community of Tinhouse and a dwarf named Arm, a survivor from one of the local armies arrive. They enlist Wendover in a house call to visit a newborn for the local strong man Holloway Pauce. Arriving at the village Wendover finds the baby is a mutant covered with a dry leathery skin. We learn that similar mutants have been born, but Pauce has killed them. It is then Wendover acts

" At that point, Wendover committed himself. Up until then, he had watched the decline of the world with passive acceptance; taken refuge in dreams because he could not bear the present. His memories had not been the stigma of senility but those of retreat. Because the child represented somebody's future, he became involved with the present.
He shot Pauce without taking the pistol out of his raincoat pocket. "

It is at this point we meet the committed men, as Wendover, Harper and Arm, later joined by a young woman Morag who nurses the child, begin their journey across the ravaged landscape. Along the way we meet the bureaucrats, characters worthy of Swift or Peake, with their papier mache heads and endless forms, “ The door opened fully on a strange miscegenation. The disgusting head was set on narrow, stooped shoulders. There seemed to be no neck. A thin pot-bellied body twitched beneath it, dressed in dirt glazed black coat, grey and ragged woolen waistcoat and grey striped trousers cut off just above the knee. The feet were bare, the vee of chest revealed by the waistcoat covered with fine white hairs. On the left lapel of the coat was pinned a small bright rectangle of orange plastic. The huge head swung slowly to a stop, fixed on the group in CURRENT AFFAIRS.  “Papier mache,” mused Arm. Then, “Bloody hell; it’s a mask!” and the fanatic followers of the nun Sister Dooley; (who sadly despite the cover illustration does not actually fly a la Sally Fields but travels by hovercraft.) Through the flashbacks of the dwarf Arm we are introduced not only to his own personal demons but the military culture that has sprung up as local strongmen try seize power.  Harrison has presented a consistent vision of a landscape changed by radiation. The characters do not move through a landscape rejuvenated by the collapse of mankind, even the endless rabbits they snare, the wolfhound who initially accompanied Harper and the unicorn/pony of the mutants are crippled mutated parodies of normal animals “ A crude bitless bridle decked with small pieces of polished tin and coloured plastic-the source of the strange music- hung askew on the raw, fiddle-shaped head. Wall-eyed and bemused, ewe-necked and goose rumped, it moved slowly, skin alternately taut then sagging over big, ungainly bones. Discoloured areas that might equally have been filth or skin cancers showing  at stifle and withers. Its knees were bloody. Some congenital deformity of the skull had favoured it with an incipit horn, a short nub of bone growing from between it’s eyes.” And the mutants themselves are no higher beings ready to create a new utopia but primitives trying to adapt to a not so brave new world.


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