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Out of the Unknown, Series 1, episode 11: “Thirteen to Centaurus” by J G Ballard,

“Thirteen to Centarus” was broadcast on 13th December 1965

Cast: Dr Francis – Donald Houston, Abel Granger – James Hunter, Colonel Chalmers – John Abineri, General Short – Noel Johnson, Dr Kersh – Robert James, Zenna Peters – Carla Challoner.

Script: Stanley Miller

Director:  Peter Potter

Designer: Trevor Williams

Producer and Story Edtor: Irene Shubik, 

Associate Producer: George Spenton-Foster.

J G  Ballard was one of the most influential  post-war British writers. His work includes novel such as The Drowned  World, The Crystal World, Crash, High Rise and Concrete Island.  Whether or not he was a science fiction writter in the classic sense is open to debate: his  preoccupations are often inner, rather than outer, space coupled with dystopian tales  of modernity in Britain;   Ballard’s chosen territory is  the world of supermarkets, motorways and high rises.

“Thirteen  to Centaurus” is a short story  which was first published in Amazing Stories in  April 1962. This  adaptation follows the story closely with some  minor alterations

The station crew

Set in a station whose purpose is yet to be revealed It begins with the  funeral of the captain with those present heartily singing “Onward Christian  Soldiers” as the coffin is dispatched into, well, where exactly?

In this community,  numbering just a dozen,   Dr Francis wields  authority,  constantly monitoring the behaviour and thoughts of the crew. He orders a young woman  Zenna to report for conditioning which he says is weakening.  We see the inhabitants working out in the gym to the accompaniment of recorded voice, endlessly repeating:  “This is the world and the whole world. There is no other  world but this. There are no other  creatures but the chosen, and their children shall  the universe. This is the world and the whole world.”

But a young man called Abel  (who suffers from a recurring  dream of a burning disk) is asking questions of Francis.  Abel  is the Einstein of this tiny world. In his essay about the station he calls  it “The Closed Community” and has worked out the station appears to be revolving at about two  feet per second.   Francis  decidedsit is time to tell Abel the truth  and puts him  under the  conditioning to bring back his memories.

“When  you wake up you you will know  the truth, that this station is in fact a spaceship. We are travelling from our home planet  Earth to another planet million of miles away. Our grandfathers  always lived on Earth. We are the first people to  attempt  such a journey. We were chosen from all people.  You can be proud of that Abel.. You were chosen before  you were born.  Your grandfather was a great man,  he volunteered to come – and so  you are here too. Never forget …The station must be kept running properly…this is a multi-generation space vehicle. Only your children will land  and they will be old when they do.”

Dr Francis and Abel

He explains to Abel that the ship set out 50 years ago and is heading for a planet that revolves around  the Alpha  Centauri.“The social  engineering that went into the building of this ship was more intricate than  the mechanical side….One day the project will be your  responsibility.”

So now we and Abel  know the truth. Except we don’t know.  For on one of  Francis’s screens showing starfields a shadow of a man  appears,  prompting  him to go through a hatch  to find himself…not in outer space,  but  firmly on the ground on Earth.

The station is in fact a  scientific project to test the ability of humans to endure centuries of travel to the stars. They have been conditioned not to question why Dr Francis is not an old man.  But the mood of the government and  public   has changed since the project began  50 years before.  One of his colleagues tells Francis. “Even the public is beginning to feel that there is something obscene about this human zoo.  What began as a grand adventure has dwindled into a grisly joke.”

The new commander General Short  tells  Francis that a decision  has been taken to shut down the project.  “What we propose is a phased withdrawal, a gradual re-adjustment  of the world around the crew, that will bring them down to Earth as gently as a parachute. Some of you may have other suggestions. But however we do  it, Project Alpha Centari will be discontinued…The returned   crew will have to be given every freedom and every tv station and  newspaper network in the world  will want to interview  each of them a hundred times.”

General Short

Francis  vehemently objects; “It’s crazy. They will be bound to find out the truth… I don’t think you know what you are  saying General.  Bring them back? How can you bring back the dead?  How can you restore  the lost hundred years?… The task of the original project was to get them to Alpha Centauri. Nothing was said about bringing them back. ..I/m thinking about the crew. If it takes 50 years to get them there, it should take the same time  to bring them back. ..What I don’t know is how each individual is going to react. The people inside that dome hav veen taught to believe since they were children that they are living in a world of their own..and that they would never meet anyone else in the whole of their lives. …The people inside that dome do not want to come out. “

Francis suggest  a chilling  alternative solution , that the project continues but with  no further children being born until the crew  are all dead as the life span within the dome is only 40 on average.

Back inside the station the balance of power shifts from Francis to Abel who has started an experiment, conditioning  Francis every day for hours on end and unsettling him  by changing the meal times.   Francis stops leaving the station, worrying the controllers of the project.  They prepare to send in a recovery crew,  but Francis threatens to reveal the nature of the project to the crew and the raid is called off. Finally he cuts  off all communication  with the outside world  with the words, “I’m going to Alpha Centauri. “ The General  now wonders, “Whose really in control?

We discover that Abel knows  there are people outside the station, something he seems to have known for some time. Francis finds out and  tells him he should leave and  be free. Abel responds, “Free?  What does that mean? Neither of us is free. This is our whole world and these are our people. The burning disk is the eye of God and Abel is his servant,chosen of the Lord.”

Abel  continues   his experiment on Francis,   conditioning him to lose  his memories of the outside world. and to make him believe his is flying to Alpha Centauri but will never live to get there.  At the end Abel plays  a recording he has made himself: “This is the voice of the chosen of the Lord. This is a spaceship.  We are the first people to undertake such a journey Doctor Francis.  This life is your only life. This ship is your only world. You will never see another. You are flying to Alpha Centauri. You can be proud of that, Doctor Francis.”

In  his epic poem Paradise  Lost Milton gave a now famous line to Satan: Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Is that the choice that Abel has made?

This is a successful  production, creating  a  distinct claustrophic intensity and makes good use of  the array of   solid acting talent eg Noel Johnson and Robert James  available to the director. James Hunter is particularly  good as Abel, moving convincingly  from gaucheness to  authority in the course of the episode.

 

Where Have I Seen Them Before?

John Abineri appeared in Doctor Who in  “Fury from the Deep” (1968)  as Van Lutynes, in “The Ambassadors of Death” (1970) as General Carrington, in “Death to the Daleks” (1974)  as Richard Railton and in   “”The Power of Kroll” (1979)  as Ranquin

Robert James appeared in Doctor Who in “The Power of the Daleks” (1966)  as Lesterson  and in “The Mask of Mandragora”  (1976) as the High Priest.

Noel Johnson played the suave civil servant  J M  Osborne in A for Andromeda  (1961) and The Andromeda Breakthrough  (1962)

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“the plug-in society…”: The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner (1975)

The Shockwave Rider is one of a series of influential  and wildly imaginative novels that Brunner wrote in the 1960s and 1970s in which he  imgined how society might develop in the future under the impact of  problems such as over-population and environmental pollution.

In The Shockwave Rider, Brunner’s focus is  the impact of computers on society, a technology whose use in the early  1970s was confined to large corporations,  scientific research institutes  and the government. Computers were large machines which filled whole rooms: the idea of home computers was just a distant dream. (You can find a timeline on the development of computers here).

In his introduction to the novel John Brunner writes:

People like me who are concerned to portray  in fictional terms aspects of that foreign country, the future, whither we are all willy-nilly being deported, do not make our guesses in a vacuum. We are frequently – and in this case I am specifically  – indebted to those who are analyzing  the limitless possibilities of tomorrow with some more practical aim in view…as for instance the slim yet admirable hope that our children may inherit a world more influenced by imagination and foresight than our own.  The scenario (to employ a fashionable cliche) of The Shockwave Rider derives in large part from Alvin Toffler’s stimulating  study Future Shock, and in consequence I’m much obliged to him.

Future Shock, published in 1970,   was written by Alvin and Heidi Toffler. The Tofflers argued that society was  undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society” a  change which was overwhelming  people and leaving them suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation” ie “future shock”  In their view the majority of social problems  were symptoms of  “future shock”.and “information overload.”

The Tofflers explicitly referenced  science fiction: “… science fiction has immense value as a mind-stretching force for the creation of the habit of anticipation. Our children should be studying Arthur C. Clarke, William Tenn, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Robert Sheckley, not because these writers can tell them about rocket ships and time machines but, more important, because they can lead young minds through an imaginative exploration of the jungle of political, social, psychological, and ethical issues that will confront these children as adults.” 

Brunner  specificlaly references the book in the novel :“oh, well the fact it it took us by surprise is just another example of Toffler’s Law, I guess: the future arrives too early and in the wrong order.”

So to the story. Nicholas Haflinger is a “dodger.”  In this  future society  computers log all citizens  and their activity,  but  Haflinger can create his own identity on the data-net (as Brunner calls it)   by  inputting   fictitious details from his veephone  – and then disappear from the gaze of the authorities.   Periodically Haflinger  purges his existing identity  and  creates a new one.

The data-net

In this future those  with money   have adopted the “plug-in” lifestyle”  which offers  never-ending change as one  vacuous trend replaces another, one job replaces another, one house replaces another,  one partner replaces another… ad infinitum.  Television offers multiple three-vee channels which are periodically hijacked by pirate channels broadcasting from satellites. There are also  competing religious groups: eg the Billykings (Protestants), the Grailers (Catholic), the Jihadi babies (Muslims),  who attack  each other in gang wars (known as “triballing).

The computer networks offer public Delphi boards  on which the public bets on the outcome of predictions.

It works approximately like this.

First you corner a large – if possible, a very large  – number of people who, while they’ve never formally  studied the subject you’re going to ask them about and hence are unlikley to recall the correct answer, are nonetheless plugged into the culture to which a question relates.

Then you ask them, as it might be, to estimate how many people died in the great influenza epidemic, which followed World  War 1, or how many  loaves were condemned by EEC food inspectors as unfit for human consumption during June 1970.

Curiously, when you consolidate their replies they tend to cluster around the actual figure as recorded in almanacs, year-books and statistical returns,

It’s rather as though this paradox has proved true: that while nobody knows what’s going on around here, everybody knows what’s going on around here.

Well, it works for the past, why can’t it work for the future? Three hundred million people with access to the integrated North American data-net is a nice big number of potential consultees. Unfortunately  most of them are running scared from the awful specter of tomorrow. How best to corner people who just do not watn to know?

An orphan,  Haflinger was  was recruited from school  by the government and taken to a training and educational facility called Tarnover. It’s dedicated to:

…exploiting genius. Their ancestry could  be traced back to the primitive “think tanks” of the mid-twentieth century, but only in the sense that a solid-state computer was descended from Hollerith’s  punched-card analyzer. Every superpower, and a great many second-hand and third-rank nation has similar  centres. The brain race had been running  for decades and some countries had entered it with head start. (The pun was popular, and forgivable.) 

The USA entered the race on the grand scale very late. Not until the nation was reeling under the impact of the Great Bay Quake was the harsh lesson learned that the economy could not absorb disasters of even this magnitude. Even then it took years for the switch from brawn to brain to become definitive in North America. ..the goal? To pin down before anybody else did the genetic elements of wisdom.

Haflinger flourishes at Tarnover –  but  then  he discovers that they are trying to   make  a superhuman through genetic experiments, creating life that is brought to term in an artificial  womb. Appalled, he goes on the run

At the start of the novel,  after deleting  his identity as Arthur Lazarus, founder and proprietor  of the Church  of Infinite Insight  in a converted drive-in movie theatre near Toledo,  Haflinger creates  a new identity as Sandy Locke, a computer-sabotage consultant, and  gets a job with  a corporation called G2S.  All well and good and as planned.  But then he meets a woman  called  Kate  Lilleberg  who sees  right through his role-playing. “You Sandy Locke are trying far too hard to adhere to a  statistical norm. and I hate to see a good man go to waste.”

Californian commune, 1970

The strain of living too many lives and having to constantly maintain a facade brings about Haflinger’s mental collapse from which he is rescued by Kate.  They become  lovers and go on the run, eventually  ending  up at at Precipice, one of the settlements created  by refugees from Northern Califiornia after the Great Bay Quake which levelled San Francisco.  The town is reached by a meandering electric rail-car.  “Among the things Precipicians  didn’t like  might be cited the data-net, veephones, surface vehicles not running on tracks, heavier-than air craft…modern merchandising methods and the Federal government.”

Precipice rejects “the plug-in society”;  the inhabitants   lives  life in environmental way  with  a strong sense of  place and community, guided by a grassroots democracy. But it hides some vital secrets that  protect its  independence  from a Federal governmnet that loathes it and from the tribes  who  try and  raid the town from time to time. This description of a human-based society  seems very inspired by the communes that sprang up in California in the 1970s.

After a falling out Kate and Haflinger  spilt up and leave Precipice.   Haflinger  is identified and captured, returned to Tarnover  and questioned relentlessly  about his life on the run.

His interogator Freeman tells him: “…But you see you are nobody. And you chose to be so of  your own free will. Legally, officially,   you simply don’t exist.” Kate too is abducted and interogated to put pressure on him. But, convinced by Haflinger’s relentless logic, his interrogator Freeman releases them unofficially.  The couple then criss-cross  the United States, borrowing home computers   as Haflinger creates and releases  a  worm that cannot be killed   into  the data-net, as he tells a press conference held in building occupied by students;

…consist in a comprehensive and irrevocable order to release at any printout station any and all data in store whose publication may conduce to the enhanced  well-being, whether physical, psychological or social of the population of North America. Specifically…information concerning gross infringements of Canadian, Mexican and.or United Staets legal enactmnets respecting  – in order of priority- public health, the protection of the environment, bribery and corruption, fair business and the payment  of national taxes, shall be dissemminated automatically  to the media.

In other words there are  no longer any secrets.

They return to Precipice where  they  and the town face  a final  apocalyptic threat from the Federal Government  that only Halflinger’s extraordinary talent for altering the data-net can save them from.  Can  he achieve  the impossible?

The Shockwave Rider  is  at heart a novel of ideas and possibilities :  the core of the novel is Freeman’s and Haflinger’s dialogue on the kind of  society they are living in – and what an alternative might be.  Highly recommended.

 

 

“Fun for all”: The animated version of the Doctor Who serial The Macra Terror (1967, 2019)

As an avid Doctor Who viewer since the first episode on 23rd  November 1963  I  almost certainly watched “The Macra Terror”, aged 11, on its original broadcast March to April 1967, but I have no recollection of it whatsover. Which means that I got to this watch  the serial as though I was seeing it for the first time which was  a real pleasure.

“The Macra Terror” was one  of the many Doctor Who serials that was wiped by the BBC  in the 1960s and early 1970s.  Home video was just a distant dream, even  on Tomorrow’s World:  drama of any kind  were very rarely repeated so there was no notion at the BBC  that anybody in the future would want to see these programmes again.

The era in which Pat Troughton played the Doctor from 1966 to 1969  was particularly  hard hit because of this policy with 14 serials either  partly or wholly missing at one time. Fortunately some of  those are now available  to us once again, either because they turned up abroad (where they had been  sold decades ago to foreign broadcasters) in the case of the “The Web of Fear” and “The Enemy of the World” or  because they have been turned into animations using the original soundtrack which  forunately have survived. This was done in the case of “The Power of the Daleks”, the first serial in which Pat played the Doctor  for the first time, and which was wholly missing, The DVD was released at the end of 2016, 50 years after ist first broadcast. Now “The Macra Terror” from 1967  has also been animated  – in colour.

In an interview  published in Doctor Magazine (536) to coincide with the release the director Charles Norton said, “It’s not a reconstructuion of the original – it’s a new production of the story. The existing set designs and things like that are really more of a starting point than an end destination” while Adrian  Salmon,  who storyboarded the production, said, “We decided not to refer to the original  shooting script, but rather cast a fresh eye over the performances in the audio.”

The story  begins in the Tardis  with the Doctor  showing his three companions, Polly (Anneke Wills), Ben ( Michael Craze) and Jamie (Frazer Hines) a device known as Time Scanner which  looks into the future. Suddenly a large claw fills the screen.

On landing the travellers find themselves  on a human colony planet (how and when this colonisation happened is never discussed). At first glance this appears to be a space age Butlins with a drum majorette leading a parade as the travellers arrive, while there are constant exhortations from louspeakers: “The colony needs you” and “Fun for All.”. The Pilot (Peter Jeffrey), is in day to day charge,  but orders are received from the Controller (Graham Leaman) whose image  is seen on screen only,  like Big Brother.

This is your Controller speaking. There is no need for alarm. You may all continue your work and play confident that the best is being done for you…. Now, return to your work and play with fresh heart and renewed energy.

The travellers receive a friendly welcome and  are offered steam baths,  beauty treatments etc.  The Doctor even has his suede shoes polished.  All fine.

But the Doctor is already suspcious after an encounter with  Medok (Terence Lodge),  a  colonist who claims  that there are creatures that come out at night.  Soon we too will learn the truth about the colony –  and who is really in charge.

One  of the key  themes of the story  is how dissenting voices are treated by a society. In the case of the colony there is a Corrections Unit and also sleep-machines which brainwash Ben into  conformity for a time with their re-iterated messages;

The sleeper must relax and believe. Everything in the Colony is good and beautiful. You must accept it without question. You must obey orders. The leaders of the Colony know what is best. In the morning when you wake up you will be given some work. You will be glad to obey. You will question nothing in the Colony.

The Doctor  asks the Pilot: “Why do  you want to make everyone the same?” Why indeed.

To my eye this is a better animation than  “The Power of the Daleks” . If you are purist you can watch it in black and white, rather than the colour.

“The Macra Terror” was not the greatest story  of the Pat Troughton era  but it is still a welcome return.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name…” the new Doctor Who novel: Scratchman by Tom Baker and James Goss (2019)

This Doctor Who novel was a long time in coming. It began life as a joint  script dreamt up by Tom Baker and his co-star,  the late Ian Marter (who played Unite medic Harry  Sullivan in  Doctor Who between 1974 and 1975).    A good deal of the original story seems to have been  worked on between rounds  in their favourite London pubs or the Colony Club. Giving  it the name   name Doctor Who Meets Scratchman the two actors got as far as talking to director James Hill about a possible film,  but it never progressed any further.

Flash forward forty odd years and the project has been  revived and turned into a novel  in a collaboration between Tom and the very  experienced writer James Goss,  whose previous Doctor Who work  has included  the novels City of Death (2015), The Pirate Planet (2017) and  Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen (2018). In an interview in Doctor  Who Magazine (534)  James says:

At the start of the project I sat down with Tom and a storyline… Although a script of Scratchman exists, there were a  few hints that  it wasn’t quite what Tom and Ian had originally envisaged. So we went right back to the original story and built it up from there.  ..Tom was very influential in shaping the story. 

Scratchman features The Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan. The story is told in a series of flasbacks by the Doctor himself who has been hauled up in front of an assembly of Time Lords with the snappy  title of the Convocation of Oblivion. They’re not happy.

Your recent actions endangered the enture universe,” the Zero Nun informed me.

Yes. Something trivial like that.

The crowd seethed. There was hunger to them….

“All right,” I told her. “But in order to do that I need to teach you about the fear”.

“Fear?” she blinked. That got her.

“Yes.” I addressed the  entire chamber. “You see, even the Time Lords are afarid of something . And tonight, I’m going show you what it is. Are you sitting  comfortably? Of course you are. And  I’m  rather afraid that’s the problem…”

The novel opens  with the Doctor and his companions landing on a  remote Scottish island. (Science fiction and Scottish islands seems to  naturally go together, one thinks  of Target Luna, The Andromeda Breakthrough, Orbit One ZeroAliens in the Mind etc).

A peculiar breeze drifted through the fading daylight on the island. The strange wind howled around the field, circling like a cat before settling down.

A sheep observed all this curiously. Confirming her worst suspicions, a large blue box pushed its way out of thin air onto the grass. The ewe shook her head sadly and trotted away.

The island is picturesque,  but the Doctor senses something in the air. He’s right, of course. They  soon discover that the scarecrows on the island are mutated villagers. They are alive (sort of)  –   and  malevolent,  and it’s not long before the Doctor and the remaining  villagers are barricaded  in the local church in a  classic “base under siege” scenario with the scarecrows hammering on the doors. (The Doctor comes up  with a collective noun for scarecrows, by the way  “a scratch”)

The Doctor manages to get them out of this,   but this is just the begining of their troubles. If the first half is gothic in feel, the second half draws on classic Greek tales, particularly The Odyssey.

The Doctor, having been separated from Sarah and Harry, finds himself in a mythological place. If I tell you that he’s driven there by Charon (in a London taxi) you’ll probably guess where he is (or appears to be, for nothing is straightforward and nothing is what it seems). Can the Doctor free himself and rescue his companions?

Between them Tom and James have successfully evoked a particular era of Doctor Who without it being a pastiche and I  personally enjoyed it a great deal, particularly some of the phrases in the novel. Here are a few of my favourites;

“Oh,”  said Sarah, and it was the saddest of “oh’s”.

“I love a good barricade, it reminds me of the Siege of Leningrad”.

“That”,  I said very  gravely, “is a bag of jelly babies”. I took the sweets  from Harry’s hand and offered them around. No takers.

I took refuge in the canapes, successfully helping myself to a vol-au-vent. It’s quite something when  only the profiteroles believe in you.

“What lies beneath… ” my review of the Doctor Who novel: Molten Heart by Una McCormack (2018)

This is one of three novels  published by the BBC which  feature The Thirteenth Doctor for the first time (the other two  are Combat Magicks by Steve Cole and The Good Doctor by Juno Dawson).

Team Tardis (the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan and Graham) land on Adamantine, a planet on which nothing ever seems to have happened, nor ever seems likely to . But nothing is what it seems (is it ever in the world of the Doctor?)

The best travellers  – the very best – aren’t fooled by surfaces. The best travellers know that if they want to find treasures, they must dig, dig deep, below the surface, down to the heart. And below the surface this world – Adamantine – indeed has many treaures to show. Many trearures, and some terrors,  and always, always adventure. The best travellers  always find adventure.

The time and space travellers do indeed find adventure, coming across a beautiful  city. This is  how Yaz sees it;

Sheer white towers shot skywards.Anywhere else, Yaz might have thought  they were glass skyscrapers, but not here.These were like huge  stalagmites, hollowed out, a whole city of crystals. They seemed to shine from within, and here and there white jewels and pale gemstones – sapphire and ruby and topaz and emerald  – had been set into the crystal structures to make patterns  and decorations., beautiful and intricate mosaics. Light bounced off these from every angle.  The whole City shimmered, as if the stone was gently swaying to an alien rhythm.

The city’s inhabitants (some friendly, some not) are even more remarkable:   the Doctor and her friends quickly  find themselves caught up in a  power  and philosophical struggle whose outcome will determine the future of the planet.

A key theme in the book  is  how  people (whether humans or aliens)  respond to challenges to existing thinking.  Some will  accept new knowledge  which overturns orthodoxy, others will violently  reject it as heresy.

Nobody  is truly evil in this book.   There are people making the wrong decisions from fear or ignorance,  but not from malevolence.

In conclusion, a excellent addition to the canon of Doctor Who novels  which  stretches back to 1964’s Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks written by David Whittaker (and which I  can remember reading as a child )

 

 

 

 

Out of the Unknown, Series 1: episode 10, “Some Lapse of Time” by John Brunner.

Cast: Max Harrow – Ronald Lewis, Diana  Harrow – Jane Downs, Smiffershon – John Gabriel,  Gordon Faulkner – Richard Gale, Laura Danville – Delena Kidd, Professor Leach – Moultrie Kelsall,

Script:  Leon Griffiths

Director: Roger Jenkins

Designer: Ridley Scott.

Producer and Story Edtor: Irene Shubik, 

Associate Producer: George Spenton-Foster.

“Some Lapse of Time” was first broadcast on  8 December 1965.

It is based on a short story by  John Brunner, published in February 1963 in Fantasy magazine. Brunner began writing science  fiction in the late 1950s and went on to write such influential novels as Stand on Zanzibar (1968) about overpopulation,  The Sheep Look Up (1972) about pollution,   and The Shockwave Rider (1975) about the threat to liberty posed by computers.

Like many young people in the late 1950s  Brunner was a member of Campaign  for Nuclear Disarmament,   founded  in 1958 to campaign   against the H- Bombs posssessed by  Britain the USA and Soviet Union,  which many  feared would end civilisation if  they were ever used in a war. For a time CND attracted tens of  thousands on its “Ban the bomb” marches.  Brunner organised CND caravans into Europe,  and wrote several songs for the movement, including the CND Marching Song,  which was sung on the first London to  Aldermaston March in 1958. His non-SF novel The Days of March (1988) is set in the early  days of the movement.

Leon Griffiths wrote for the Communist party newsaper  the Daily Worker for a time before going on to write for television, most famously creating Minder.

The opening  shows us  Max Harrow having a nightmare in which what look like cavemen are gathered around a fire,  performing  a ritual,  chanting and  waving what seems to be a bone of some kind. Then he dreams that he is being hunted.  When Harrow  finally awakes we learn that this is a recurring nightmare; his wife Diana  urges him to see someone at the hospital where he works.

As they talk  a policeman  rings the doorbell asking Harrow to see  a tramp they have found collapsed near his car. When he is brought in Harrow   diagnoses that the tramp is suffering from “heterocardia”,  a disease caused by radiation  from which his son Jimmy  has  died. Tests at the hosptial convince his sceptical colleagues that his diagnosis was correct, even though sufferers invariably die when young.  The tramp is clutching  something which, when they persuade him to let it go,  they realise  is a fingerbone.

Harrow and Smiffershon

When Harrow meets his wife for lunch, she is reading a newspaper whose  main headline is about an accident  at an atomic weapens base. He tells her about the tramp. He’s a very sick man…nobody knows where he came from or how he managed to stay alive until now…the police think that he came round to my place  to ask for help, but why? Harrow becomes angry when his wife presses him to see somebody about his dreams.

When the tramp regains consciousness Harrow recognises him from his dream, while the tramp recognises him. They are able to glean that his  name is Smiffershon but cannot comprehend  anything else he says.  Smiffershon   bursts into laughter when he sees Harrow’s finger.

At home Harrow again rows with his wife about the tramp. If we know what he knows about heterocardia Jimmy wouldn’t have died. Doesn’t that matter?…  It’s hard to understand but this tramp means something more. It wasn’t just chance that brought him here,  carrying that fingerbone. It’s as  if  he’s if slipped out of one of my nightmares….I just know that tramp means something special to me. ..Where does he come from?.

Laura and Smiffershon

Harrow calls in a philologist Laura Denville, an attractive blonde,  in an effort to identify his language which sounds Scandanavian.  She  comes to an unsettling conclusion, namely,  that he is speaking a form of English. He’s speaking our language as if it’s undergone a series of extreme changes. It’s the sort of difference between the English of  Langlands’  day and our own…These changes take place over hundreds of years. 

His fixation with Smiffershon leads to Harrow having another  argument  with his wife,  who  is suspicious  of  Denville.  Diana accidentally  catches his fingers in the  car door,  resulting in the end  of  one of them having  to be amputated. The dream is starting to come true, the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place.

When Smiffershon is given a routine X-ray they discover that  he is  full of Strontium 90 and should be dead. He is immediately placed in isolation. Harorw calls in  archaeolgist who discovers that  the fingerbone  which they took from Smiffershon  is also full of radiation.

Both Jane and his friends are increasingly concerned for Harrow’s mental health. His colleagues try to assure  him that there is a rational explanation,  but he is now convinced that Smiffershon has come back through time after a nuclear war  to warn them of the dangers of what they are doing.

I know all about our friend the tramp now…I even recognise his face from my dreams…That old tramp hasn’t just been dusted with radioactive particles, it’s inside him, in his muscles, in his glands. He’s lived through something pretty terrible, a world we can hardly even imagine…Seven, eight, nine generations after the bombs..I am talking about an island  when the cities have gone, when fires, a hundred miles wide,  consume the fields and forest, when there’s nothing left. That’s when people stop using words like “blankets”, “shoes”, “pints  of beer”, “cigarette”. And, of course,  there’s still be people, people saturated with radioactivity like Smiffershon. 

Harrow is drugged  and is given therapy, but it does not help. Despairing, he tries to attack Smiffershon. When he is restrained he  suffers a  complete collapse and begins speaking in the same language as Smiffershon. He is taken to a psychiatric hospital with little hope of recovery. In the final minutes of the drama Laura  is able to converse with Smiffershon who confirms that everything that Harrow  suspected is true.

In my view this is the best  in the series  so far,   with real tension and disquiet created.  Ronald Lewis and John Gabriel,  in particular,  give superb  performances.

At the time of transmission the viewing public would have been familar with the idea of a nuclear war that would destroy humanity. This theme was explored in numerous novels,  television plays  and films. I have already written in an earlier post on The Chrysalids by John Wnyndham,

In addition there were the following:

Novels

The Spurious Sun, by George Borodin (1948) begins  with an H-bomb-like explosion in Scotland which ignites the upper atmosphere; savage wars ensue worldwide, the UK is eliminated by nuclear weapons, and both Leningrad and San Francisco are obliterated. 

Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley (1948) is a  satire on the potential for the destruction of humanity.

 On the Beach by Neville Shute (1957) is   set in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear  war,  and follows the fate of  group of  people awaiting the arrival of  the fallout from the northern hemisphere. The government  issues suicide pills to the population. The novel was a worldwide bestseller and  was filmed in 1959 and again in 2000.

On the Last Day by Mervyn Jones (1958)  features  a Russian/Chinese invasion of Britain, during a non-nuclear Third World War , and of the successful attempt of the British government in exile (in Canada) to build a new intercontinental missile. Jones was  an activist  in CND.

 British television

Number Three, broadcast by the BBC on 1st  February 1953. This was dramatised from a novel by Charles Irving by Nigel Neale and  others.  Scientists at an atom research station  working on a new form of nuclear power discover  the project leader plans to  use it as a weapon.

Doomsday for Dyson  by J B Priestley, broadcast on ITV on 10th March 1958. An anti-war fantasy about a man standing trial in the afterlife for killing his family in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. It was followed by a short studio discussion on the issues raised.

Underground, broadcast  by ATV on 30th  November 1958 in the “Armchair Theatre” series.  It was written by James Forsyth, adapted from novel by Harold Rein Few Were Left, and directed by William Kotcheff.  The survivors of a nuclear holocaust are trapped in the London Underground.

The Offshore Island, broadcast by the BBC on 14th  April 1959. It was written by Michael Voysey, based on a play by  Marganita Laski, an activist in CND.  A  drama about a family whose farm remains unaffected, eight years after a nuclear war. Their peace is disturbed by a force of American soldiers and then a Russsian one.

The Poisoned Earth, broadcast by  ITV on 28th  February 1961 in the “Play of the Week” series. It was written by Arden Winch. Moral problems are raised when a new type of nuclear bomb, with limited fallout range, is developed.

The Road, broadcast by the BBC on 29 September 1963.  It was written by Nigel Kneale,  and was  part of  the “First Night” drama series.  A  scientist and a philosopher  in C18th investigate  “ghosts” that appear on Michaelmass Eve each year. In the end we realise  that they are actually visions from  the future of  people fleeing down a road from a nuclear war.  This drama   was wiped by the BBC,  but an excellent  radio radio dramatisation was broadcast in 2018, adapted by Toby Hadoke.

The War Game (1965) . Devised by Peter Watkins, this is a drama-documentary, depicting a nuclear attack  on Britain, and showing us the aftermath. The Labour government forced the BBC to cancel the screening which had been due to take place on 5 October 1965. Instead it was shown around the country by CND groups. It  was finally shown on television in July 1985.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Connecting you now…”: Crosstalk by Connie Willis (2016)

In previous posts I have written about Connie’s  other novels: To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear, and Doomsday Book

Crosstalk is set in our own time, more or less. Briddey Flannigan is a red-haired young woman with a cool job in  a cool  US tech company Commspan, a rival to Apple etc. She has a cool boyfriend Trent Worth (an executive in the same company)  who has just asked her to  undertake a trendy new medical procedure. an EED.    Performed jointly on couples an EED connects them mentally and  enhances their emotional responses to each other. Life is perfect,  thinks Briddey.

Well almost. There are her work colleagues, for instance,  who use social  media incessantly  to find out what she is up to and relay it to each other. Briddey  can barely walk down the corridor without it being flashed around the building.

Then there’s her Irish-American  family. Her sister Kathleen, her other sister Mary  Clare,  Mary Clare’s daughter (Maeve (8 going on 18),  and  her aunt Oonagh  They constantly text or call Briddey  or leave voice messages or  call around uninvited, so that she has hardly a moment to herself, whilst they inflict their problems on her.  Kathleen is is always on the look-out for a man, Mary Clare  is obsessed with her daughter’s  health and well-being, Maeve feels suffocated  by her mother, while Aunt  Oonagh  has gone back to her Irish roots dressing in a shawl, invoking   St Patrick “and the blessed saints”  on all occasions, and is always on at   Briddey to go with her  to a Daughters of Ireland meeting.

Finally, there’s  C. B. Schwartz. C.B is the scruffy, unkempt  tech genius for Commspan who spends all his time in a freezing windowless basement laboratory working on the next big thing.  C.B.  has a pin-up of Hedy Lamarr, the Hollywood star who spent her spare time trying to come up with a frequency-hopping   device to  hide  torpedo radio signals  from the Germans  during the war. CB is a sceptic  about modern communication:

Connie Willis

Commspan promises the same thing – more communication. But that isn’t what people want. They’ve way too much already – laptops, smartphones, tablets, social  media. They’ve got connectivity coming out of their ears.There’s such a thing as being too connected, you know, especially when it comes to relationships. Relationships need less communications , not more....why does every sentence beginning”We need to talk” end in disaster.?…If people really wanted to communicate, they’d tell the truth, but they don’t…They lie constantly  on Facebook, on eHarmony, in person.

C.B. urges Briddey not to have the EED,  but she takes no notice and goes ahead with the procedure. It works,  but not in the way that Briddey was expecting

For  the rest  of the novel we follow Briddey as she embarks on a journey involving half-truths,  deceptions, narrow escapes and revelations about her  family that turn  her world upside down. We also learn something surprising about the Irish.

Crosstalk is that rare thing,  a humorous science fiction novel that works.