As a socialist historian I am very familar with Edward Thompson’s contribution to labour history, particularly The Making of the English Working Class, which was very influential on a whole generation of young historians and political activists by putting working class agency at the centre of his narrative of events in the late C18th and early C19th.
In addition he was very active in the 1980s in the anti-nuclear movement, speaking at countless meetings up and down the country, stalking the plaform like an C18th Methodist preacher. Thompspn wrote the pamphlet Protest and Survive, an evisceration of Protect and Survive, a government leaflet on how to cheerily prepare your home for a nuclear attack.
What I didn’t know was that he had written a science fiction novel The Sykaos Papers, published in 1988. The full title is The Sykaos Papers, Being An Account of the Voyages of the Poet Oi Paz to the System of Strim in the Seventeenth Galaxy; of his Mission to the Planet Sykaos; of his first Cruel Captivity; of his Travels about its Surface; of the Manners and Customs of its Beastly People; of his Second Captivity; and of his Return to Oitar. To which are added many passages from the Poet’s Journal, documents in Sykotic script and other curious matters.
Essentially this lengthy novel is Gulliver’s Travels in reverse, a satire on society, language, culture, science, politics, governments, the media, sexual mores and much else. It tells the story of Oi Paz, a poet sent by the planet Oitar (who have established a base on the Moon) to reconnoite Earth (which they call Sykaos and its people Sykotics) as a possible candidate for colonisation. The story is reconstructed at some future date through Oi Paz’s journal, government reports, media news stories and the field notes of Helena Sage.
Oi Paz crashes to Earth and is promptly run over by a car. Recovering in hospital – and bemused by the culture he discovers on Earth – he is judged an impostor and kicked out into the street after being relieved of his gems. Mistaken for the Emir for Quotar he meets Mrs Thatcher briefly. He is then taken up by promoter Nigel Harmer and tours the world as Sapio the Spaceman with his own television show, kept docile with copious amounts of alcohol.
After some months, following observations of activity on the Moon, the authorities realise Oi Paz is telling the truth and seize him, keeping him captive at Martagon Hall in England, which is run by a top secret government organisation called FARCES (internal code LUNATIC). They bring in anthropologist Helena Sage to get to know him, and to seek to understand Oitarian culture. This is a sample of her first field notes on Oi Paz:
Tall, exceptionally well built. Dark complexion upon somehat European (Caucasian?) features ..Moves with deliberation and grace, yet in some way distancing himself from the movements of his own body as if his limbs were delicate prosthetic tools. All senses seem sound. Hearing remarkably acute (detected mice scratching wainscot, informed me there were three) …Impressive yet passive personality, almost a “vibe” coming from him, not hostile, yet aloof and alert at the same time …Robes (quite gorgeous!) looked like a hand-weave but couldn’t identify with certainty, nor identify material (cottony texture but sheen of silk) Elaborate belt – seems to contain some instrument (micro-computer?) at right hip – with large ornamental gold clasp in which a phallic catch (rt) engages with wheel-symbol (lft).
In time Helena and Oi Paz become close, and then intimate.
Much of the novel is in a comic vein, lancing the pomposity of the establishment, but in the final part the mood darkens as international political tensions invade Martagon Hall, and the ending is sombre.
This is far from a light read, and there are nearly 500 pages, but if you feel like taking on the challenge, this might be the novel for you.
E P Thompson