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The Crystal Ship, Randall, Vinge & McIntyre

August 21, 2014

crystalThe Crystal Ship, edited by Robert Silverberg (1976)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Only a handful of SF anthologies have hit print solely featuring women authors – none were published before 1972 and, surprisingly, few after 1980 (there seems to be a resurgence in the last few years). The Crystal Ship (1976) is one of these. It contains the three novellas by three important SF authors who got their start in the 70s: Marta Randall, Joan D Vinge, and Vonda N McIntyre. The latter two achieved critical success: Joan D Vinge won the Hugo for her novel The Snow Queen (1980) and Vonda N McIntyre won the Hugo for her novel Dreamsnake (1978). Marta Randall, on the other hand, despite her Nebula nomination for the intriguing Islands (1976) remains to this day lesser known.

All three of the novellas feature impressive female protagonists and narratives that subvert many of SF’s traditional clichés. All three protagonists are outcasts, striving against worlds characterized in turn by decadence, colonialism, and sadistic prison systems. Tarawassie in Vinge’s ‘The Crystal Ship’ is cast in the vein of Alvin in Clarke’s The City and the Stars (1956). She takes on the mantel of “the one who knows how the world really is”. The eponymous heroine of Randall’s ‘Megan’s World’ is shunned by her fellow humankind due to her mechanical and strangely-coloured body. She is accepted by the natives of a soon to be exploited planet and feels compelled to fight, in the final confrontation, against her own. It takes all mental and physical strength of Kylis in McIntyre’s ‘Screwtop’ – imprisoned for minor infractions including “stealing passage” on a spaceship – to not succumb the hellish environment of the world and the sinister whims of a particularly disturbed guard.

‘Screwtop’ is the highlight of The Crystal Ship. Neither Randall or Vinge can match the raw psychological power, evocative world building, and solid storytelling of McIntyre.

‘The Crystal Ship’ Joan D Vinge: In the past I have found Vinge’s works from the late 70s deeply flawed – for example, Fireship (1978) and The Outcasts of Heaven Belt (1978). She would refine her style/characterizations in The Snow Queen Cycle of novels from the 80s and 90s. In a far future environ, a vast (mostly empty) crystal spaceship orbits a distant planet. The occupants of the vessel lived a drugged and satiated existence where they end their lives by jumping into a mysterious contraption called a “wishing well” (p 14). Like Alvin in The City and the Stars, Tarawassie sees the sad state of the world after her mother, who lives on the planet’s surface and refuses the life of the crystal ship, seeks to end her life in the wishing well. Tarawassie escapes the “Loom’s catch-spell of light/music” (p 19) and strikes off for the planet’s surface.

On the surface she encounters the “real humans”, ie some new strain of humanity (mixed with the native population?) with pouches, telepathy, and tails. These rat-like creatures believe themselves superior to the inhabitants of the spaceship. With the help of a native named Moon Shadow (*wince*), Tarawassie learns the true history of their peoples, and reason for the strange crystal ship.

‘The Crystal Ship’ is an inarticulate allegory with an intriguing premise but a flawed delivery. Moon Shadow’s “‘What it’ – he grimaced, concentrating – ‘what it – mean?’” (p 29) attempts at dialogue are beyond frustrating for the reader. The unease generated by the world and the hints of past cataclysmic confrontation are the most praiseworthy elements of the story. For die-hard Joan D Vinge fans only.

‘Megan’s World’ Marta Randall: Randall’s novella is on the surface a traditional SF narrative. Engineer Padric Angelo, whose past is filled with ignominy, lands on an alien planet in search of natural resources with an inept ethnologist who knows little about dealing with aliens. The ethnologist believes that it will be easy to convince the natives to desecrate their planet, ie just speak into the universal translator and they will think that the Terrans are gods and thus get whatever they want with superior technology.

And then Randall subverts the paradigm: the feline aliens are far from simplistic naturalistic aliens who are one with nature. Rather, they worship bloodthirsty gods and are stricken with internal political and social dissension. The biggest realignment concerns Padric’s sister, whom he encounters on the planet. Megan is “thin and immensely tall; has gray hair; a second and transparent set of eyelids set above liquid crystal irises that shift colors with changes in temperature and pulse in time to her heartbeat. Her bones are formed of high-impact, stress-resistant biosteel allow, and her bluntly shaped finger- and toe-nails are of a dully gray metal” (p 95). Megan was developed as an experiment in spaceship construction (integration of human with machine) – however, the experiment was a failure. She escaped the ridicule she faced by her fellow Terrans and fled via a stolen yacht. In part because she is accepted by the natives of the planet, she feels closely for their plight and the danger her brother represents.

The story is somewhat bogged down with needless exposition. Most frustrating is the lack of nuance dealing with the key themes of the novel – alienation, colonialism, etc. The frustratingly abrupt ending does little to ram home the more intriguing elements. Recommended with reservations.

‘Screwtop’ Vonda N McIntyre: is by far the most satisfying and evocative novella in the collection. Kylis, a spaceport “rat” who spent her childhood at spaceports stowing aboard ships, is captured for stealing passage and is imprisoned on the planet Redsun. A perpetually hot planet filled with strange parasites, fern plants, and volcanoes, Redsun is powered by some form of geothermal energy (how exactly this works is not altogether clear). Kylis spends her day working with other prisoners removing vegetation and drilling into the planet’s crust. She encounters two disparate characters who become her friends: Jason, an writer, arrested and imprisoned for vagrancy; and a tetraparental, ie a designed super-intelligent individual culled from the DNA of four parents, named Gryf. However, the prison guard named Lizard is commanded to force Gryf to return to the life he escaped and uses Kylis affection for Gryf and Jason as leverage.

There are indications throughout of non-traditional relationships – for example, group living and non-monogamous relationships such as Kylis, Gryf, and Jason. McIntyre’s avoids info-dumps and only carefully reveals each character’s back-story. The narrative is well-told and ultimately, downright heart-rending.

McIntyre’s Dreamsnake is the only Hugo-winning novel published between 1960 and 1980 I have yet to read. After experiencing the refined and psychological power of ‘Screwtop’, I desperately want to get my hands on a copy. Highly recommended.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

The Incomer, Margaret Elphinstone

August 19, 2014

incomerThe Incomer, Margaret Elphinstone (1987)
Review by Jack Deighton

I picked this one up in a second hand bookshop in Edinburgh a few months ago. For two reasons. One, it was a Women’s Press SF publication I hadn’t bought at the time so it filled a gap and two, it fitted the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge. The book has the impeccably Scottish word “incomer” as part of its title. Though born in Kent, author Margaret Elphinstone has lived extensively in Scotland – in Galloway when the book was published – and has a professional academic interest in Scottish literature, especially of the islands. (She does have a character say, “Aren’t I?” though.)

As dark is falling a human figure falters through a vaguely menacing forest to a crossroads with a village on its north side. The village has several ruined houses but we are given to understand this is by no means unusual for the times. (Almost incidentally we find out some sort of change has reduced the human population compared to our time and advanced technology is conspicuous by its absence. Despite this, familiar things such as flower pots, nappies and sheep crop up from time to time. Heat is provided by burning wood, which seems to be a precious resource despite the surrounding forest. The North Sea is dangerous, referred to as dead, in contrast to the reviving Irish Sea.)

The figure, a travelling musician named Naomi, finds room at the inn. Her fiddle playing at a gathering a day or so later ensures her acceptance to stay for the rest of the winter. The village is called Clachanpluck (the novel has been republished as The Incomer or Clachanpluck) and holds a secret. A path through the forest leads to an entry into the earth hidden behind a waterfall. (No spoilers.)

Naomi’s presence has an impact on the relationships within the village but the main theme of the novel is mutual incomprehension, the lack of understanding Naomi has of the local norms, the assumed knowledge she doesn’t have, the care with which she has to tread. Her main driving force is her music but during her stay in the village she nevertheless – if somewhat unconvincingly – throws off her long-maintained celibacy in a relationship with fellow fiddle player Davey to whom she teaches tunes that she learned on her travels in Europe. Old, powerful music, written by Beethoven. Despite the almost unspoken matriarchy in Clachanpluck human nature hasn’t much changed. Other misunderstandings take place among those who have lived there all their lives.

This is a quiet, understated novel whose depiction of a restrained, unfussy, reticent lifestyle where people no longer exploit nature unsustainably and have a deep attachment to the land may be nostalgic and idealistic yet resists being idyllic.

This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.

The Revolving Boy, Gertrude Friedberg

August 14, 2014

revolvingThe Revolving Boy, Gertrude Friedberg (1966)
Review by Ian Sales

According to the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Gertrude Friedberg published only a single sf novel and three sf short stories (one in an original anthology and two in F&SF). Her novel, The Revolving Boy, was not, I’d been told, especially good. So I was somewhat surprised to discover it was a nicely-written, slightly whimsical, but very much science fiction, novel, with an engaging protagonist and an appealing voice.

Derv Nagy is the boy of the title. He was conceived in orbit during a space mission – one of the novel least convincing elements, it must be said; it’s passed off and hand-waved away with little or no attempt made at plausibility. Initially, Derv’s strangeness exhibits itself in a desire to face in a specific direction whenever possible, or to take routes, or move his body, in such a way as to maintain some sort of specific heading. As he grows older, so the urge becomes stronger, until he is only comfortable when facing in the “Direction”… and this is taking into account the rotation of the Earth, the movement of the Earth about the Sun, and so on. Of course, this makes life difficult for him. Which is not helped by the fact that he and his parents are pretty much in hiding – they fled the publicity and notoriety generated by their space mission, and are now living under assumed identities.

For much of The Revolving Boy, Friedberg describes the development of Derv’s strange talent, and how he learns to fit his life around it. And how his parents learn how to cope with it. He grows up, marries, begins on a career as a chemical engineer… But then the signal, whatever it is that indicates the Direction to him, stops. Derv falls ill as a result, but the only condition the medical establishment seems to think fits his symptoms is a brain tumour. So they schedule exploratory surgery. In desperation, Derv’s wife, Prin, visits Green Bank, a renowned radio telescope facility. They had been listening to a signal from somewhere out in space, origin and purpose unknown but, they suspect, the product of intelligence. Except the project had fallen out of favour years before, and the signal had not been listened to since. Prin’s visit prompts a young radio-astronomer to check the signal, and he discovers it has returned.

Meanwhile, Derv miraculously recovers from his “brain tumour” and discharges himself from hospital. The Green Bank astronomers – who were aware of Derv and his ability – now want his help in conforming the direction and source of the signal. But they can’t find him, as he has been living under a different name for decades…

The SF Encyclopedia describes The Revolving Boy as “a minor classic in the field”. I don’t think I would go quite far, but it’s certainly a novel which doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. Friedberg’s prose is good throughout, and while the central premise – ie, SETI – is a real thing and so very much plausible, the story elements wrapped around it are a little too hand-wavey for comfort. Derv’s difference is handled sensitively, and makes for an interesting metaphor. But the lack of explanation, or the feebleness of the explanations which are offered, often work against it.

Read The Revolving Boy for Friedberg’s writing, for Derv’s story… but don’t read it necessarily as heartland science fiction. It works better in the areas peripheral to its central conceit, in the adjustments its cast must make to that conceit, in the way it affects them and their lives. It’s not a classic, but it does deserve a fresh audience.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia E Butler

August 12, 2014

parableParable of the Sower, Octavia E Butler (1993)
Review by Nicolette Stewart

Parable of the Sower begins on July 20th, 2024 – narrator Lauren Olamina’s birthday and what will be, assuming I manage to live that long, my own 42nd birthday. This coincidence gave me a head start – I felt connected with the narrator before Butler had lifted more than a couple of fingers, felt the chill of how close this future could be to our own.

On my 42nd birthday America could be going to shit (let’s forget for a second that I don’t live there). On my 42nd birthday I could find that a group of drugged out Robin Hoods who thought I was rich had broken into my community, killed my neighbuors, and burned down my house. I could be forced to take to the road and fight to survive. To steal, to starve, to endure rape, to bury my friends and family, to learn to shoot, to learn to kill. It isn’t just the date that makes Parable of the Sower feel so close, but the disturbing normality of the situation. There are more and more poor, more and more homeless. People squat houses, the police are corrupt, public schools are all but extinct, and clean water will cost you. This isn’t The Road, with its mysterious, unexplained circumstances. This isn’t an epic plague story like The Stand or a whacked out King Arthur mash-up like SM Stirling’s Emberverse series or a suspenseful (and racist) “will the asteroid hit the Earth?” thriller like Lucifer’s Hammer. This is plausible to a banally horrible degree. This is already happening. Open up today’s paper and you will see the signs there already, and it is these signs that, according to the interview in the back of my book, Butler decided to follow to one of their possible conclusions in writing this.

It takes almost half of the book for the chaos to creep over Olamina’s community’s gated wall. And when it does she flees, meeting people along the way, gathering them to her as allies and disciples. Because this book isn’t just about survival in a crisis situation, it is about the religion that Olamina has created: Earthseed. A quick browse of other internet reviews of the book tell me that Earthseed was a disturbing element for many readers. I loved it. This collection of verses are an expression of the truths Olamina has seen in the world and written down, and their basis is that change is the most powerful force in the world:

“All that you touch

You Change.

All that you Change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is Change.


Is Change.”

The entire philosophy – and to me Earthseed is more of a philosophy than a religion – strikes me as rational, a way of thinking meant to help people describe the world as it really is and to successfully cope with those realities. I’ve never liked the “delay your happiness in this world to gain the eternal carrot in the next” fantasy that most religions are selling. Earthseed isn’t even about God (or gods). The point is that there is no God, not as anyone has ever imagined him/it/whatfuckingever before. (There is a moment in the text when Lauren admits to using the word God, even though that isn’t really what she means, to get people’s attention. This sentiment seems to fade in time, however.) There is the world and your participation in it can shape it and it can shape you. There is no anthropomorphic being in the sky who gives a single shit about what you or I do, loving or angry or indifferent. Prayer is a way of talking to yourself that helps you to focus your concentration on achieving certain goals. They are all thoughts I have had before. Not only that, but it is a philosophy, religion, whatever you want to call it, that encourages personal responsibility, something that seems to have leached out of most of the world and something that is incredibly important to me.

“Your God doesn’t care about you at all,” a skeptic tells Olamina after she has told him about Earthseed. And her reply? “All the more reason to care about myself and others.” To take care of the world. To feel responsible for taking care of the world. That’s the good shit.

If it weren’t for the fact that Earthseed was also based around humanity’s “destiny” to settle on other planets – not really my thing, though if it happens, neat – I would have been a ready convert in the universe of the book. See? Butler’s already got me joining a fictional cult. She’s that good.

All this to say that depending on your take on things, Earthseed will either be a slight irritant or a very enjoyable reading bonus. For me it was another delicious layer among other delicious layers: a story that I devoured; full, interesting characters and relationships; a complex world that felt intensely real for the lack of white- and hetero-washing; post-apocalyptic survival stuff (my favourite aspect of the genre); travel; and philosophy.

A few quotes to savour… Before her world ends, Olamina tries to convince a friend to learn about survival, to join her in preparing for the worst scenario. Sometimes it sounds like this in my head:

I’m trying to learn whatever I can that might help me survive out there. I think we should all study books like these. I think we should bury money and other necessities in the ground where thieves won’t find them. I think we should make emergency packs – grab and run packs – in case we have to get out of here in a hurry. Money, food, clothing, matches, a blanket… I think we should fix places outside where we can meet in case we get separated. Hell, I think a lot of things. And I know – I know! – that no matter how many things I think of, they won’t be enough. Every time I go outside, I try to imagine what it might be like to live out there without walls, and I realize I don’t know anything.

On being dirty (and this reminds me so much of punk, and how it integrates things like having holes in your clothes into fashion):

Fashion helps. You’re supposed to be dirty now. If you’re clean, you make a target of yourself. People think you’re showing off, trying to be better than they are. Among the younger kids, being clean is a great way to start a fight. Cory won’t let us stay dirty here in the neighborhood, but we all have filthy clothes to wear outside the walls. Even inside, my brothers throw dirt on themselves as soon as they get away from the house. It’s better than getting beaten up all the time.

This review originally appeared on Bookpunks.

Margaret and I, Kate Wilhelm

August 7, 2014

margretandiMargaret and I, Kate Wilhelm (1971)
Review by Joachim Boaz

The grayness swirled and became solid, a plain that was featureless at first, then with grotesque shapes emerging from it, obviously things growing, but things that shouldn’t have been. They looked like monstrous scabs, like leprous fingers curled obscenely in an attitude of prayer, like parts of bodies covered with a fungus or mold, misshapen and horrible. (p 73).

Margaret and I is a profoundly unsettling and hallucinatory exploration of a woman’s sexual and emotional self-realization. Or, to use the Jungian terms deployed by Wilhelm in her preliminary quotation, the novel charts the process of individuation where the conscious and unconscious “learn to know, respect and accommodate each other”.

The SF elements – a future political crisis where a third political party threatens to destabilize the country and a newly discovered knowledge that gives insight into the actions of time – are sprinkled throughout. They are not meant to be “descriptions of a future world” but rather carefully constructed metaphors of Margaret’s struggles. This struggled is apparent in the title for the “I” of the title is Margaret’s subconscious. Just as the external political environment is fragmenting, Margaret’s conscious and subconscious are not in unison.

Kate Wilhelm, famous for the masterpiece Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976), produced a substantial catalogue of lesser known SF novels and large numbers of short stories that I have only recently started to investigate. Without doubt, her favorite form is the novella – and it is little surprise that her most successful novel is a fix-up work comprised of three novellas. An adept at the shorter form, Wilhelm weaves her trademark dark/claustrophobic ruminations characterized by substantial psychological tension.

Unfortunately, in Margaret and I the psychological tension conjured in the first third looses impetus by the end. However the characterization of Margaret and her subconscious who flits in and out is the most satisfying aspect of the work. Margaret’s slow realization, at the instigation of her subconscious, of her position as an extension of her husband and his desires is convincing and poignant. And, the narrator as the subconscious is more than a gimmick, but a fascinating window into a character.

Recommended for fans of psychological and feminist SF. Although, be aware that the SF elements are secondary to the novel’s aims – they are eluded to as external metaphors for Margaret’s internal struggles. Be aware, there are extensive autoerotic sequences and hallucinatory sexual visions that are not suitable for younger readers. Mature audiences will realize that they are necessary elements of the narrative and characterizations.

Margaret Oliver flees from her husband Barnett to the house of her sister-in-law Josie Oliver. In a strange sequence of decisions, Margaret decides that she rather take on the identity of Josie Oliver, who is absent, and hide her own. She is desperate, urged on by her subconscious who is narrating, to figure out where her life went wrong and what exactly about her husband is so repulsive to her. Also “she is still grappling from the problem of her sexuality and the senseless promise she had made herself” (p 21).

Josie Oliver, the owner of the house, is a well-known costume designer. Her husband, Paul Tyson, a physicist who was murdered…. And whose secret discoveries are locked away in journals in a safe. Various forces conspire to access the safe and uncover its secrets. Including Dr. Bok and his assistant Morris Stein who studies “Perception Distortions in Various Psychological States” (p 63).

Swirling at the edges is the figure of Barnett, Margaret’s husband. Barnett treats her as a object, he believes “buying her pretties” will satiate all her desires (which he never bothers to ask about). Barnett is involved with the sinister politician Arnold Greenley. Greenley wants Margaret to join Barnett on his campaign because she is pretty and speaks like Midwesterners do. His motives at first glance seem obscure, he does not have a distinct political platform but rather lusts after power: “all he can hope for, as he well knows, is to create a schism in the two major parties and wield a power bloc that will make demands and have enough votes on hand to reward whoever promises to meet those demands…” (p 61).

The house itself – where all these characters’ paths intersect at various points in the narrative – seems to spurn hallucinations. It, with the turbulent ocean nearby, is almost a nexus – a point of intersection…. Greenley and Barnett seek to force Margaret to follow a certain path against the will of her subconscious. The subconscious desires to get at Paul’s journals to learn how to persuade Margaret to chart her own way.

Wilhelm adeptly weaves metaphors and images of fragmentation and individuation: the quests for hidden knowledge (the journals/the subconscious/sexual awareness), masquerading as another (costume designer/Margaret as Josie/Margaret as wife rather than individual), and interior searching (Margaret and her subconscious merging/choices vs societal expectation).

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

August 5, 2014

the-dispossessedThe Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
Review by Shannon Turlington

You shall not go down twice to the same river, nor can you go home again. That he knew; indeed it was the basis of his view of the world. Yet from that acceptance of transience he evolved his vast theory, wherein what is most changeable is shown to be fullest of eternity, and your relationship to the river, and the river’s relationship to you and to itself, turns out to be at once more complex and more reassuring than a mere lack of identity. You can go home again, the General Temporal Theory asserts, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.

Long after I closed this book for the night and lay waiting for sleep to catch up with me, I thought about what I’d read, about the ideas posed by the novel’s premise and characters, and the implications for my own life and our society. That’s a sign of a book that’s definitely worth reading.

The story is set in the future on a distant planet, Urras, and its moon, Anarres. The culture on Urras is similar to ours: capitalist, competitive, with a huge gap between haves and have-nots. One hundred and fifty years ago in Urras’ history, a group of anarchists rebelled against this way of life. They settled on — or were exiled to, depending on your point of view — Anarres, a desert world where they built a subsistence society based on the premises of no government and no ownership of private property.

Despite the difficulties of their environment, life on Anarres is like a simple Eden. No one goes hungry while others eat. No one goes without a sheltered place to sleep at night. People work and study at what they enjoy, travel where and when they want, and everyone communally shares the necessary but non-glamorous jobs. Without commercialism to occupy them, people spend their time working, learning and socializing. Even an eight-hour workday is considered unusually long.

Of course, there are problems in this utopia, which have at their root the conflict between the continued survival of the society and the human drive to assert ourselves as individuals, to push the boundaries and explore new ideas. Without a government, Anarres is ruled by societal approval. Challenges to the status quo are unwelcome, and the challenger is often shunned.

This is the situation that the main character, a physicist named Shevek, finds himself in. He is on the cutting edge of theoretical physics but unable to progress in a society that does not want his work. So he begins communicating with physicists on Urras, and becomes convinced that he needs to be the first Anarresti to travel back to Urras in order to shake up his own society and return them to their anarchist roots.

The Dispossessed plays on the theme of time in many ways. The narrative is divided into two timelines: the present, when Shevek is living on Urras, contrasted with the Shevek’s past life on Anarres and growing discontent with his own society. Shevek’s physics are also concerned with time; applications of his theories could make possible faster-than-light space travel and instantaneous communication across space to other known worlds, including our Earth (called Terra).

The four cultures of humans portrayed in the novel — Urras, Anarres, Terra and another planet called Hain — also represent four possible timelines of the human species. Urras is most like modern-day culture, if exaggerated; consumption, possessions and power are all highly valued. Terra’s future warns of the consequences of such excess, a planet made desert by the waste of previous generations, now trying only to survive. Contrasted with these outcomes are the alternate paths proposed by Hain and Anarres. We are not told much about Hain, only that it is a very advanced civilization, which helped save the Terrans. It seems only fitting that when Shevek finally returns to Anarres, the only person who wants to accompany him and learn from him is Hainish.

This novel is rich and meaty, full of ideas and keen observations of human nature. Like the dusty plains of Anarres, it takes some time to get used to Le Guin’s dry writing style, which incorporates hard science and spare prose. But give it time and you will find many fascinating landscapes to explore.

This review originally appeared on Books Worth Reading.

The Mind Readers, Margery Allingham

July 31, 2014

Penguin-a Allingham The Mind ReadersThe Mind Readers, Margery Allingham (1965)
Review by Adam Roberts

Allingham is famous as (of course) a crime writer; and it so happens that I’ve read a fair few of her Campion titles. I’d been aware for a while that she wrote a late career science fiction, or sort-of science fiction, novel, but hadn’t gotten around to checking it out. Well, the time came; and so I read it. I out-checked it. It got checked over. And out.

Verdict: it’s a strange novel, in good and bad ways. To read it as an Albert Campion novel (which it is; in the sense that he’s in it, although he never feel essential to it) is inevitably to compare it with earlier, better Campion tales and be struck by its creaky anachronisms and paper-thin mystery plotting. The first of these two problems is especially debilitating, I think. The story is set in the 1960s, and hinges on an item of miniaturised technological cleverness that magnifies and directs telepathic abilities; but apart from the occasional reference to televisions and The Cold War the feel of the novel is solidly 1930s in tone, dialogue, class-attitudes and, well, cosiness.

Most of the story happens in London, with two off-stage centres of action: a mysterious ‘island’ off the coast someplace, where scientific research into the possibilities of telepathy has been ongoing, and a famous English prep school where one of Campion’s nephews has been accused of cheating on his exam. He wasn’t cheating, or not in the conventional sense – he and his brother are telepaths, their skill aided by the pill-sized ‘Iggy’ tubes taped to their wrist or neck, and that’s how Eddie, or was it Sam, I forget, learned that the following day’s exam was going to be about ‘Horatius at the Bridge’. Anyhow, the government hush-up this scandal so as not to draw attention to the telepathy thing, or perhaps to cover up the fact that they’ve been schoolboys as guinea-pigs (again: I’m honestly not sure), and the boys come to London to stay with Campion and his wife. At Liverpool Street Station they are almost kidnapped, and Campion – apparently now employed in a semi-official though unpaid capacity by MI6, or something – looks into it.

The mystery, though, doesn’t take us very far. In her glory days Allingham was capable of constructing a properly intricate and absorbing puzzle-box textual logic. This, though, is the last novel she completed on her own before dying – cancer – in her early 60s (her husband completed subsequently one remaining unfinished manuscript, and then wrote a couple more Campion novels), and it feels underworked. Who tried to kidnap the boys? Sinister Forces of an Enemy Power. Who drugged one of the junior scientists at the Island and then left him in a room with the gas fire on but unlit, as if to try and suffocate him – only to leave the doors and windows open, so that the victim was discovered long before he died? This mystery is introduced at the quarter-point of the novel and, weirdly, tied-off at the halfway point – it turns out that one of the senior scientists at the facility was worried that his junior colleague might be about to overtake him. In order to keep him on staff – because he was making valuable contributions to the research – yet simultaneously stymie his chances of promotions, said senior scientist staged this half-hearted gassing, to make it look as though the junior chap was suicidal, hence mentally unstable, hence unpromoteable. Mystery-plotting things that make you go: hmm?

The senior scientist who staged the mock-attempted-suicide, and then stole the Iggy-tubes with a view to maybe selling it to the Soviets, or maybe just investigating them non-treacherously on his own terms—once again it’s not clear—turns up dead. He was killed, put in the boot of a car, transferred into the back of a stranger’s car to dispose of the body; but this stranger, instead of alerting the police, moved the body into the back of a van at a service station. Wha? Said van then got driven north by its innocent drivers, and co-incidentally happened to be involved in a large traffic accident. Only then did the middle, innocent-of-murder (but guilty of helping cover one up) driver go to the police to report that he’d moved the body. It’s all very strange, and takes the wind out of the narrative sails. At the very end Allingham pulls her finger out for a fairly exciting climax on the island, a tense stand-off between the elderly, feeble Campion and a younger, trained killer ready to dispose of him quickly and untraceably. But as a mystery-thriller there’s something missing in this novel.

The two schoolboys are oddly written, too: the fact that they are period pieces (samples of a now Dodo-like vanished species, the slightly precocious upper-class prep-school schoolboy) notwithstanding. Neither of them come alive in any meaningful, fictive sense, mostly because of the über-Richmal-Cromton mannered awkwardness of the way they speak and act. I might add: that could have been good thing—it could have added an estranging twang to the whole. But somehow it doesn’t. ‘Estrangement’ in the genre sense of the word isn’t Allingham’s game.

The ‘Iggy tubes’ work because they are powered by ‘carbonized Nipponanium’, a new element discovered in Japan and hence so-named. This also has a weirdly 1930s vibe, a gesture in the directions of ‘scientific plausibility’ so half-hearted as to be almost endearing (it reminds me of my favourite line from the old Flash Gordon serials, spoken by a panicking Dr Zarkhov: “he’s been infected with radioactivity! He’ll descend to the level of a brute!”) But then again, Allingham’s Iggy Tubes (a terrible name, by the way, for a piece of tech) are not offered to the reader as serious-minded attempts to extrapolate current technology, They’re a mystery McGuffin tinged faintly with social satire. But what’s really interesting about them is the way they touch in interesting ways on what Allingham does. They are, after all, a symbolic externalisation of the principle of absolute transparency; and to a writer whose whole process relies upon a strategy opacity, a playful withholding of revelation, a valorisation of the secret and the mystery, such a principle would be death.

Allingham was, in many ways, sui generis. A clever and playful novelist, always lively, usually witty and capable at her best of that truly unfakeable literary quality, charm. But in many ways, and despite the superficial fit of her imagination to the puzzle-mystery mode (and despite, moreover, her reputation as one of the giants of Golden Age detective writing), she isn’t terribly well suited to her chosen idiom. I think this is because she really can’t do menace. Her villains tend to be either narrow-minded misguided posh types, or else proletarian professional thieves and (as here) assassins who take a workmanlike pride in their labour. (Her working class characters are, without exception, grotesque sub-Dickensian caricatures too, but that’s not my main point). People talk about Tiger in the Smoke as Allingham’s masterpiece, and it’s not a coincidence that it’s her only novel to centre on what we would nowadays call ‘a sociopath’. Allingham specifically wrote the book in order to put on page a portrait of ‘pure evil’ in the titular and improbably-named Jack Havoc. But he’s a milquetoast sort of psycho, is our Jack: at the final hurdle he is touched by the innate godly goodness of a priest and, given the chance to save his skin and have a bit of fun murdering the bibbety-bopperty heroine, he fluffs it. You don’t see Hannibal falling down at that sort of hurdle.

That doesn’t necessarily matter; and at her best Allingham comes within spitting distance (though we can be honest: no closer) of being the ‘Wodehouse with murders and mystery’ that some of her supporters say she is. Not here, though. Her two telepathic schoolchildren had, in truth, been gazumped by Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos, published eight years previously. There’s certainly no uncanny eeriness about Allingham’s two mind-reading schoolboys, and I’d say there ought to be. Indeed, the denouement relies upon them both acting like mature and responsible adults to neutralise the potential threat of the very technology that makes them mark-worthy in the first place.

I’m concentrating on negatives, when I should be accentuating the positives. There certainly are good things about this novel, I think. What Allingham does best at her best is a kind of an ingenious and playfully morbid intricacy, a surface glitter that plays cleverly both within and in a more meta sense with the conventions of her genre. I write in some spoilerish detail about Police at the Funeral (1931) elsewhere.

What I like about that novel is the way it takes the limitation of its mode, its airless and artificial ‘puzzle’ idiom, and makes a positive feature of it. Campion comes into a hell-ish closed network aristocratic family whose members are being bumped off one after the other. The murderer is inside the family, of course; but all the murderer does is make manifest the mortal logic of this particular kind of unhappy-family intra-dynamic. I quote myself:

The fact that this solution is so involuted, that Allingham portrays the family as a stagnant, closed circle from which and contained within which death operates, gives the book the superbly claustrophobic feel, despite its antic and sometimes strained touches of melodramatic gaiety.

There’s a whisper of something similar about The Mind Readers. The threat attendant to the stealing of the Iggy Tube is not that a super-villain will use this technology to take over the world, but something more small-scale and individual: that an unscrupulous individual will use them to pry and snoop, perhaps to nudge behaviour; something uncomfortable but still just this side of actual violation. That the notionally main character here is Albert Campion, one of the most blandly opaque detectives ever written, throws this into an intriguing sort of relief. What, after all, would the larger implications of a functioning telepathic technology be? Would it be world-shaking? Or would it join the teeming ranks of all our other many little technological advancements and gadgets? The Iggy tube conveys moods (‘feels’ the schoolboys call these) and sometimes content, but it’s no iPhone. On the other hand, the experience of so many surrounding people’s moods and thoughts is described as overwhelming for the adults who try it; oppressive and even stifling. Idiots and kids handle it better, because… well, I’m not sure what the ‘because’ is, here. Because kids are ‘naturally’ less attentive to other peoples’ emotions? It may be that Allingham isn’t so interested in self-absorption, or to put it more precisely she’s interested in the dangerous wedge-end of a new technology that erodes personal, affective space—and that, it turns out, was a pretty prescient future-fear for 1965.

This review originally appeared on Sibilant Fricative.


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