We like our alphabet in sf: ABC (Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke), the three B’s (Bear, Benford, Brin), etc. All of these, of course, are still in print, still read. But what about that cluster of British writers of the 70s, Compton, Coney, Cooper, Cowper? Mostly out of print and forgotten now, it would seem. Which is a shame.
Richard Cowper is probably the most famous and best remembered of them, but for my money, when he was on song, D.G. Compton was the best of them. Of course he was really only on song for about three novels in the early to mid 70s. Before that was juvenile stuff, interesting but rather formulaic; the later stuff, particularly the drift into crime, showed a distinct drop in form. But those three great novels – The Electric Crocodile (also known, for some reason, as The Steel Crocodile), Chronicules (also known as a title far too long for me to remember off hand right now), and especially The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe – are simply among the best work of the period. Compton’s ‘trick’, if you want to call it that, was to write science fiction as if it were a mainstream novel. There were social and technological innovations, but the novels were really about the interactions of very ordinary people who just happen to have these innovations happening in the background.
I’ve just finished re-reading The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, which was simply one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve had for a long time. Why has it been so long since I re-read Compton?
A couple of things worth pointing out about the novel: in the first place it is a devastating satire on reality TV written decades before there was such a thing as reality TV as we understand it. It was more broadly intended as a satire on the intrusive way that TV was developing, but Compton’s perception of that development was uncomfortably exact.
The second thing is: what other sf novel of the period, or indeed since, features as its central character a plain, over-weight, married, 44-year-old woman who is scratchy, independent, contradictory, needful, resentful, open, but not unnaturally beautiful, brilliant, inventive? In other words, she is ordinary, and her ordinariness is the most important thing about her.
Of course, if we remember anything about the novel (or more likely the Bernard Tavernier film made from it), it is the character of the narrator, who has a camera implanted in his eye. But for Compton that is not the point of the novel, just a device that stands for the intrusive voyeurism of TV. He is not the hero, that role undoubtedly belongs to Katherine. And it is because he has to get up close to her, that he comes to understand this heroism.
There is a tragic moment late in the novel. Rod has filmed Katherine washing herself in a stream. For him, because he knows her, it is a moment of innocence and beauty. Then he happens to see that segment being shown on TV while he is in a pub, and for the drinkers it is salacious and comic, they laugh at her being overweight and ungainly. It is this moment that triggers Rod’s decision to blind himself. It is a science fictional moment, because it could not happen without the camera in the eye; but its impact is nothing to do with that, it depends purely on how closeness to someone changes the way we see them. It is beautifully done, but then the whole novel s beautifully done.
Katherine and Rod’s flight (which occupies considerably less than half the novel though it seems much more important in retrospect) is full of ludicrous encounters that should undermine the novel. But they don’t, because by this stage you care far less about the externals since you’re so totally caught up in the internal development of the relationship between the two.
It’s time, perhaps, for us to rediscover those high C’s of the 70s in British science fiction.
First published at LiveJournal, 19 November 2009.