science fiction from sir kingsley amis


Sir Kingsley Amis’ interest in genre fiction spanned most of his writing career—indeed, at the ceremony in which he was knighted, he told the Queen that he only read Dick Francis novels.  Invited to give a series of lectures at Princeton University as part of the 1959 Christian Gauss Seminars in Criticism, Amis chose science fiction as his subject matter. The lectures were then reworked and published as New Maps of Hell in 1960. Amis considered science fiction a viable means for social commentary of the kind which couldn’t be made in other forms of literature.

Amis also wrote his own speculative fiction, with novels like The Anti-Death League (1966), The Green Man (1971), The Alteration (1976)—described by Philip K. Dick as the best alternative history novel ever written, and Russian Hide-and-Seek (1980), a dystopic portrayal of a future Great Britain which has been conquered by Russia.

The following short story first appeared in The Spectator in 1960, ran in Fantasy & Science Fiction in July 1961, and was later collectd in Possible Tomorrows (1973) and other anthologies.

book cover of 

Possible Tomorrows 

by

Groff Conklin
 

 

 

“Something Strange”

By Kingsley Amis

 

 

Something strange happened every day. It might happen during the morning, while the two men were taking their readings and observations and the two women busy with the domestic routine: the big faces had come during the morning. Or, as with the little faces and the coloured fires, the strange thing would happen in the afternoon, in the middle of Bruno’s maintenance programme and Clovis’s transmission to Base, Lia’s rounds of the garden and Myri’s work on her story. The evening was often undisturbed, the night less often.                               

 

They all understood that ordinary temporal expressions had no meaning for people confined indefinitely, as they were, to a motionless steel sphere hanging in a region of space so empty that the light of the nearest star took some hundreds of years to reach them. The Standing Orders devised by Base, however, recommended that they adopt a twenty-four-hour unit of time, as was the rule on the Earth they had not seen for many months. The arrangement suited them well: their work, recreation and rest seemed to fall naturally into the periods provided. It was only the prospect of year after year of the same routine, stretching further into the future than they could see, that was a source of strain.

 

Bruno commented on this to Clovis after a morning spent repairing a fault in the spectrum analyser they used for investigating and classifying the nearer stars. They were sitting at the main observation port in the lounge, drinking the midday cocktail and waiting for the women to join them.

 

‘I’d say we stood up to it extremely well,’ Clovis said in answer to Bruno. ‘Perhaps too well.’

 

Bruno hunched his fat figure upright. ‘How do you mean?’

 

‘We may be hindering our chances of being relieved.’

 

‘Base has never said a word about our relief.’

 

‘Exactly. With half a million stations to staff, it’ll be a long time before they get round to one like this, where everything runs smoothly. You and I are a perfect team, and you have Lia and I have Myri, and they’re all right together – no real conflict at all. Hence ho reason for a relief.’

 

Myri had heard all this as she laid the table in the alcove. She wondered how Clovis could not know that Bruno wanted to have her instead of Lia, or perhaps as well as Lia. If Clovis did know, and was teasing Bruno, then that would be a silly thing to do, because Bruno was not a pleasant man. With his thick neck and pale fat face he would not be pleasant to be had by, either, quite unlike Clovis, who was no taller but whose straight, hard body and soft skin were always pleasant. He could not think as well as Bruno, but on the other hand many of the things Bruno thought were not pleasant. She poured herself a drink and went over to them.

 

Bruno had said something about its being a pity they could not fake their personnel report by inventing a few quarrels, and Clovis had immediately agreed that that was impossible. She kissed him and sat down at his side. ‘What do you think about the idea of being relieved?’ he asked her.

 

‘I never think about it.’

 

‘Quite right,’ Bruno said, grinning. ‘You’re doing very nicely here. Fairly nicely, anyway.’

 

‘What are you getting at?’ Clovis asked him with a different kind of grin.

 

‘It’s not a very complete life, is it? For any of us. I could do with a change, anyway. A different kind of job, something that isn’t testing and using and repairing apparatus. We do seem to have a lot of repairing to do, don’t we? That analyser breaks down almost every day. And yet -‘

 

His voice tailed off and he looked out of the port, as if to assure himself that all that lay beyond it was the familiar starscape of points and smudges of light. ‘And yet what?’ Clovis asked, irritably this time.

 

‘I was just thinking that we really ought to be thankful for having plenty to do. There’s the routine and the fruits and vegetables to look after, and Myri’s story…. How’s that going, by the way? Won’t you read us some of it? This evening, perhaps?’

 

‘Not until it’s finished, if you don’t mind.’

 

‘Oh, but I do mind. It’s part of our duty to entertain one another. And I’m very interested in it personally.’

 

‘Why?’

 

‘Because you’re an interesting girl. Bright brown eyes and a healthy glowing skin – how do you manage it after all this time in space? And you’ve more energy than any of us.’

 

Myri said nothing. Bruno was good at making remarks there was nothing to say to.

 

‘What’s it about, this story of yours?’ he pursued. ‘At least you can tell us that.’

 

‘I have told you. It’s about normal life. Life on Earth before there were any space stations, lots of different people doing different things, not this -‘

 

‘That’s normal life, is it, different people doing different things? I can’t wait to hear what the things are. Who’s the hero, Myri? Our dear Clovis?’

 

Myri put her hand on Clovis’s shoulder. ‘No more, please, Bruno. Let’s go back to your point about the routine. I couldn’t understand why you left out the most important part, the part that keeps us busiest of all.’

 

‘Ah, the strange happenings.’ Bruno dipped his head in a characteristic gesture, half laugh, half nervous tremor. ‘And the hours we spend discussing them. Oh yes. How could I have failed to mention all that?’

 

‘If you’ve got any sense you’ll go on not mentioning it,’ Clovis snapped. ‘We’re all fed up with the whole business.’

 

‘You may be, but I’m not. I want to discuss it. So does Myri, don’t you, Myri?’

 

‘I do think perhaps it’s time we made another attempt to find a pattern,’ Myri said. This was a case of Bruno not being pleasant but being right.

 

‘Oh, not again.’ Clovis bounded up and went over to the drinks table. ‘Ah, hallo, Lia,’ he said to the tall, thin, blonde woman who had just entered with a tray of cold dishes. ‘Let me get you a drink. Bruno and Myri are getting philosophical – looking for patterns. What do you think? I’ll tell you what I think. I think we’re doing enough already. I think patterns are Base’s job.’

 

‘We can make it ours, too,’ Bruno said. ‘You agree, Lia?’

 

‘Of course,’ Lia said in the deep voice that seemed to Myri to carry so much more firmness and individuality in its tone than any of its owner’s words or actions.

 

‘Very well. You can stay out of this if you like, Clovis. We start from the fact that what we see and hear need not be illusions, although they may be.’

 

‘At least that they’re illusions that any human being might have, they’re not special to us, as we know from Base’s reports of what happens to other stations.’

 

‘Correct, Myri. In any event, illusions or not, they are being directed at us by an intelligence and for a purpose.’

 

‘We don’t know that,’ Myri objected. ‘They may be natural phenomena, or the by-product of some intelligent activity not directed at us.’

 

‘Correct again, but let us reserve these less probable possibilities until later. Now, as a sample, consider the last week’s strange happenings. I’ll fetch the log so that there can be no dispute.’

 

‘I wish you’d stop it,’ Clovis said when Bruno had gone out to the apparatus room. ‘It’s a waste of time.’

 

‘Time’s the only thing we’re not short of.’

 

‘I’m not short of anything,’ he said, touching her thigh. ‘Come with me for a little while.’

 

‘Later.’

 

‘Lia always goes with Bruno when he asks her.’

 

‘Oh yes, but that’s my choice,’ Lia said. ‘She doesn’t want to now. Wait until she wants to.’

 

‘I don’t like waiting.’

 

‘Waiting can make it better.’

 

‘Here we are,’ Bruno said briskly, returning. ‘Right…. Monday. Within a few seconds the sphere became encased in a thick brownish damp substance that tests revealed to be both impermeable and infinitely thick. No action by the staff suggested itself. After three hours and eleven minutes the substance disappeared. It’s the infinitely thick thing that’s interesting. That must have been an illusion, or something would have happened’ to all the other stations at the same time, not to speak of the stars and planets. A total or partial illusion, then. Agreed?’

 

‘Go on.’

 

‘Tuesday. Metallic object of size comparable to that of the sphere approaching on collision course at 500 kilometres per second. No countermeasures available. Object appeared instantaneously at 35 million kilometres’ distance and disappeared instantaneously at 1500 kilometres’. What about that?’

 

‘We’ve had ones like that before,’ Lia put in. ‘Only this was the longest time it’s taken to approach and the nearest it’s come before disappearing.’

 

‘Incomprehensible or illusion,’ Myri suggested.

 

‘Yes, I think that’s the best we can do at the moment. Wednesday: a very trivial one, not worth discussing. A being apparently constructed entirely of bone approached the main port and made beckoning motions. Whoever’s doing this must be running out of ideas. Thursday. All bodies external to the sphere vanished to all instruments simultaneously, reappearing to all instruments simultaneously two hours later. That’s not a new one either, I seem to remember. Illusion? Good. Friday. Beings resembling terrestrial reptiles covered the sphere, fighting ceaselessly and eating portions of one another. Loud rustling and slithering’ sounds. The sounds at least must have been, an illusion, with no air out there, and I never heard of a reptile that didn’t breathe. The same sort of thing applies to yesterday’s performance. Human screams of pain and extreme astonishment approaching and receding. No visual or other accompaniment.’ He paused and looked round at them. ‘Well? Any uniformities suggest themselves?’

 

‘No,’ Clovis said, helping himself to salad, for they sat now at the lunch table. ‘And I defy any human brain to devise any. The whole thing’s arbitrary.’

 

‘On the contrary, the very next happening – today’s when it comes – might reveal an unmistakable pattern.’

 

‘The one to concentrate on,’ Myri said, ‘is the approaching object. Why did it vanish before striking the sphere?’

 

Bruno stared at her. ‘It had to, if it was an illusion.’

 

‘Not at all. Why couldn’t we have had an illusion of the sphere being struck? And supposing it wasn’t an illusion?’

 

‘Next time there’s an object, perhaps it will strike,’ Lia said.

 

Clovis laughed. ‘That’s a good one. What would happen if it did, I wonder? And it wasn’t an illusion?’

 

They all looked at Bruno for an answer. After a moment or two, he said: ‘I presume the sphere would shatter and we’d all be thrown into space. I simply can’t imagine what that would be like. We should be … Never to see one another again, or anybody or anything else, to be nothing more than a senseless lump floating in space for ever. The chances of -‘

 

‘It would be worth something to be rid of your conversation,’ Clovis said, amiable again now that Bruno was discomfited. ‘Let’s be practical for a change. How long will it take you to run off your analyses this afternoon? There’s a lot of stuff to go out to Base and I shan’t be able to give you a hand.’

 

‘An hour, perhaps, after I’ve run the final tests.’

 

‘Why run tests at all? She was lined up perfectly when we finished this morning.’

 

‘Fortunately.’

 

‘Fortunately indeed. One more variable and we might have found it impossible.’

 

‘Yes,’ Bruno said abstractedly. Then he got to his feet so abruptly that the other three started. ‘But we didn’t, did we? There wasn’t one more variable, was there? It didn’t quite happen, you see, the thing we couldn’t handle.’

 

Nobody spoke.

 

‘Excuse me, I must be by myself.’

 

‘If Bruno keeps this up,’ Clovis said to the two women, ‘Base will send up a relief sooner than we think.’

 

Myri tried to drive the thought of Bruno’s strange behaviour out of her. head when, half an hour later, she sat down to work on her story. The expression on his face as he left the table had been one she could not name. Excitement? Dislike? Surprise? That was the nearest – a kind of persistent surprise. Well, he was certain, being Bruno, to set about explaining it at dinner. She wished he were more pleasant, because he did think well.

 

Finally expelling the image of Bruno’s face, she began re-reading the page of manuscript she had been working on when the screams had interrupted her the previous afternoon. It was part of a difficult scene, one in which a woman met by chance a man who had been haVing her ten years earlier, with the complication that she was at the time in the company of the man who was currently having her. The scene was an eating alcove in a large city.

 

‘Go away,’ Volsci said, ‘or I’ll hit you.’

 

Norbu smiled in a not-pleasant way. What good would that do? Irmy likes me better than she likes you. You are more pleasant, no doubt, but she likes me better. She remembers me having her ten years ago more clearly than she remembers you having her last night. I am good at thinking, which is better than any amount of being pleasant.’

 

‘She’s having her meal with me,’ Volsci said, pointing to the cold food and drinks in front of them. ‘Aren’t you, Irmy?’

 

‘Yes, Irmy,’ Norbu said. ‘You must choose. If you can’t let both of us have you, you must say which of us you like better.’

 

Irmy looked from one man to the other. There was so much difference between them that she could hardly begin to choose: The one more pleasant, the other better at thinking, the one slim, the other plump. She decided being pleasant was better. It was more important and more significant – better in every way that made a real difference. She said: ‘I’ll have Volsci.’

 

Norbu looked surprised and sorry. ‘I think you’re wrong.’

 

You might as well go now,’ Volsci said. ‘Ila will be waiting.’

 

Yes,’ Norbu said. He looked extremely sorry now.

 

Irmy felt quite sorry too. ‘Good-bye, Norbu,’ she said.

 

Myri smiled to herself. It was good, even better than she had remembered – there was no point in being modest inside one’s own mind. She must be a real writer in spite of Bruno’s scoffing, or how could she have invented these characters, who were so utterly unlike anybody she knew, and then put them into a situation that was so completely outside her experience? The only thing she was not sure about was whether she might not have overplayed the part about feeling or dwelt on it at too great length. Perhaps extremely sorry was a little heavy; she replaced it by sorrier than before. Excellent: now there was just the right touch of restraint in the middle of all the feeling. She decided she could finish off the scene in a few lines.

 

‘Probably see you at some cocktail hour,’ Volsci said, she wrote, then looked up with a frown as the buzzer sounded at her door. She crossed her tiny wedge-shaped room – its rear wall was part of the outer wall of the sphere, but it had no port – threw the lock and found Bruno on the threshold. He was breathing fast, as if he had been hurrying or lifting a heavy weight, and she saw with distaste that there were drops of sweat on his thick skin. He pushed past her and sat down on her bed, his mouth open.

 

‘What is it?’ she asked, displeased. The afternoon was a private time unless some other arrangement were made at lunch.

 

‘I don’t know what it is. I think I must be ill.’

 

‘Ill? But you can’t be. Only people on Earth get ill. Nobody on a station is ever ill: Base told us that. Illness is caused by -‘

 

‘I don’t think I believe some of the things that Base says.’

 

‘But who can we believe if we don’t believe Base?’

 

Bruno evidently did not hear her question. He said: ‘I had to come to you – Lia’s no good for this. Please let me stay with you, I’ve got so much to say.’

 

‘It’s no use, Bruno. Clovis is the one who has me. I thought you understood that I didn’t -‘

 

‘That’s not what I mean,’ he said impatiently. ‘Where I need you is in thinking. Though that’s connected with the other, the having. I don’t expect you to see that. I’ve only just begun to see it myself.’                                                 

 

Myri could make nothing of this last part. ‘Thinking? Thinking about what?’

 

He bit his lip and shut his eyes for a moment. ‘Listen to this,’ he said. ‘It was the analyser that set my mind going. Almost every other day it breaks down. And the computer, the counters, the repellers, the scanners and the rest of them – they’re always breaking down too, and so are their power supplies. But not the purifier or the fluid-reconstitutor or the fruit and vegetable growers or the heaters or the main power source. Why not?’                                                             

 

‘Well, they’re less complicated. How can a fruit grower go wrong? A chemical tank and a water tank is all there is to it. You ask Lia about that.’

 

‘All right. Try answering this, then. The strange happenings. If they’re illusions, why are they always outside the sphere? Why are there never any inside?’

 

‘Perhaps there are,’ Myri said.

 

‘Don’t. I don’t want that. I shouldn’t like that. I want everything in here to be real. Are you real? I must believe you are.’

[The story concludes in the post immediately below].

kingsley amis’ “something strange”—conclusion


[Continued from the post immediately above].

‘Of course I’m real.’ She was now thoroughly puzzled.

 

‘And it makes a difference, doesn’t it? It’s very important that you and everything else should be real, everything in the sphere. But tell me: whatever’s arranging these happenings must be pretty powerful if it can fool our instruments and our senses so completely and consistently, and yet it can’t do anything – anything we recognise as strange, that is – inside this puny little steel skin. Why not?’

 

‘Presumably it has its limitations. We should be pleased.’

 

‘Yes. All right, next point. You remember the time I tried to sit up in the lounge after midnight and stay awake?’

 

‘That was silly. Nobody can stay awake after midnight. Standing Orders were quite clear on that point.’

 

‘Yes, they were, weren’t they?’ Bruno seemed to be trying to grin. ‘Do you remember my telling you how I couldn’t account for being in my own bed as usual when the music woke us – you remember the big music? And – this is what I’m really after – do you remember how we all agreed at breakfast that life in space must have conditioned us in such a way that falling asleep at a fixed time had become an automatic mechanism? You remember that?’

 

‘Naturally I do.’

 

‘Right. Two questions, then. Does that strike you as a likely explanation? That sort of complete self-conditioning in all four of us after … just a number of months?’

 

‘Not when you put it like that,’

 

‘But we all agreed on it, didn’t we? Without hesitation.’

 

Myri, leaning against a side wall, fidgeted. He was being not pleasant in a new way, one that made her want to stop him talking even while he was thinking at his best. ‘What’s your other question, Bruno?’ Her voice sounded unusual to, her.

 

‘Ah, you’re feeling it too, are you?’

 

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

 

‘I think you will in a minute. Try my other question. The night of the music was a long time ago, soon after we arrived here, but you remember it clearly. So do I. And yet when I try to remember what I was doing only a couple of months earlier, on Earth, finishing up my life there, getting ready for this, it’s just a vague blur. Nothing stands out.’

 

‘It’s all so remote.’

 

‘Maybe. But I remember the trip clearly enough, don’t you?’

 

Myri caught her breath. I feel surprised, she told herself. Or something like that. I feel the way Bruno looked when he left the lunch table. She said nothing.

 

‘You’re feeling it now all right, aren’t you?’ He was watching her closely with his narrow eyes. ‘Let me try to describe, it. A surprise that goes on and on. Puzzlement. Symptoms of physical exertion or strain. And above all a … a sort of discomfort, only in the mind. Like having a sharp object pressed against a tender part of your body, except that this is in your mind.’

 

‘What are you talking about?’

 

‘A difficulty of vocabulary.’

 

The loudspeaker above the door clicked on and Clovis’s voice said: ‘Attention. Strange happening. Assemble in the lounge at once. Strange happening.’

 

Myri and Bruno stopped staring at each other and hurried out along the narrow corridor. Clovis and Lia were already in the lounge, looking out of the port.

 

Apparently only a few feet beyond the steelhard glass, and illuminated from some invisible source, were two floating figures. The detail was excellent, and the four inside the sphere could distinguish without difficulty every fold in the naked skin of the two caricatures of humanity presented, it seemed, for their thorough inspection, a presumption given added weight by the slow rotation of the pair that enabled their every portion to be scrutinised. Except for a scrubby growth at the base of the skull, they were hairless. The limbs were foreshortened, lacking the normal narrowing at the joints, and the bellies protuberant. One had male characteristics, the other female, yet in neither case were these complete. From each open, wet, quivering toothless mouth there came a loud, clearly audible yelling, higher in pitch than any those in the sphere could have produced, and of an unfamiliar emotional range.

 

‘Well, I wonder how long this will last,’ Clovis said.

 

‘Is it worth trying the repellers on them?’ Lia asked. ‘What does the radar say? Does it see them?’

 

‘I’ll go and have a look.’

 

Bruno turned his back on the port. ‘I don’t like them.’

 

‘Why not?’Myri saw he was sweating again.

 

‘They remind me of something.’

 

‘What?’

 

‘I’m trying to think.’

 

But although Bruno went on trying to think for the rest of that day, with such obvious seriousness that even Clovis did his best to help with suggestions, he was no nearer a solution when they parted, as was their habit, at five minutes to midnight. And when, several times in the next couple of days, Myri mentioned the afternoon of the caricatures to him, he showed little interest.

 

‘Bruno, you are extraordinary,’ she said one evening. ‘What happened to those odd feelings of yours you were so eager to describe to me just before Clovis called us into the lounge?’

 

He shrugged his narrow shoulders in the almost girlish way he had. ‘Oh, I don’t know what could have got into me,’ he said. ‘I expect I was just angry with the confounded analyser and the way it kept breaking down. It’s been much better recently.’

 

‘And all that thinking you used to do.’

 

‘That was a complete waste of time.’

 

‘Surely not.’

 

‘Yes, I agree with Clovis, let Base do all the thinking.’

 

Myri was disappointed. To hear Bruno resigning the task of thought seemed like the end of something. This feeling was powerfully underlined for her when, a little later, the announcement came over the loudspeaker in the lounge. Without any preamble at all, other than the usual click on, a strange voice said: ‘Your attention, please. This is Base calling over your intercom.’

 

They all looked up in great surprise, especially Clovis, who said quickly to Bruno: ‘Is that possible?’

 

‘Oh yes, they’ve been experimenting,’ Bruno replied as quickly.

 

‘It is perhaps ironical,’ the voice went on, ‘that the first transmission we have been able to make to you by the present means is also the last you will receive by any. For some time the maintenance of space stations has been uneconomic, and the decision has just been taken to discontinue them altogether. You will therefore make no further reports of any kind, or rather you may of course continue to do on the understanding that nobody will be listening. In many cases it has fortunately been found possible to arrange for the collection of station staffs and their return to Earth: in others, those involving a journey to the remoter parts of the galaxy, a prohibitive expenditure of time and effort would be entailed. I am sorry to have to tell you that your own station is one of these. Accordingly, you will never be relieved. All of us here are confident that you will respond to this new situation with dignity and resource.

 

‘Before we sever communication for the last time, I have one more point to make. It involves a revelation which may prove so unwelcome that only with the greatest reluctance can I bring myself to utter it. My colleagues, however, insisted that those in your predicament deserve, in your own interests, to hear the whole truth about it. I must tell you, then, that contrary to your earlier information we have had no reports from any other station whose content resembles in the slightest degree your accounts of the strange happenings you claim to have witnessed. The deception was considered necessary so that your morale might be maintained, but the time for deceptions is over. You are unique, and in the variety of mankind that is no small distinction. Be proud of it. Good-bye for ever.’

 

They sat without speaking until five minutes to midnight. Try as she would, Myri found it impossible to conceive their future, and the next morning she had no more success. That was as long as any of them had leisure to come to terms with their permanent isolation, for by midday, a quite new phase of strange happenings had begun. Myri and Lia were preparing lunch in the kitchen when Myri, opening the cupboard where the dishes were kept, was confronted by a flattish, reddish creature with many legs and a pair of unequally sized pincers. She gave a gasp, almost a shriek, of astonishment.

 

‘What is it?’ Lia said, hurrying over, and then in a high voice: ‘Is it alive?’

 

‘It’s moving. Call the men.’

 

Until the others came, Myri simply stared. She found her lower lip shaking in a curious way. Inside now, she kept thinking. Not just outside. Inside.

 

‘Let’s have a look,’ Clovis said. ‘I see. Pass me a knife or something.’ He rapped at the creature, making a dry, bony sound. ‘Well, it works for tactile and aural, as well as visual, anyway. A thorough illusion. If it is one.’

 

‘It must be,’ Bruno said. ‘Don’t you recognize it?’

 

‘There is something familiar about it, I suppose.’

 

‘You suppose? You mean you don’t know a crab when you see one?’

 

‘Oh, of course,’ Clovis looked slightly sheepish. ‘I remember now. A terrestrial animal, isn’t it? Lives in the water. And so it must be an illusion. Crabs don’t cross space as far as I know, and even if they could they’d have a tough time carving their way through the skin of the sphere.’

 

His sensible manner and tone helped Myri to get over her astonishment, and it was she who suggested that the crab be disposed of down the waste chute. At lunch, she said: ‘It was a remarkably specific illusion, don’t you think? I wonder how it was projected.’

 

‘No point in wondering about that,’ Bruno told her. ‘How can we ever know? And what use would the knowledge be to us if we did know?’

 

‘Knowing the truth has its own value.’

 

‘I don’t understand you.’

 

Lia came in with the coffee just then. ‘The crab’s back,’ she said. ‘Or there’s another one there, I can’t tell.’

 

More crabs, or simulacra thereof, appeared at intervals for the rest of the day, eleven of them in all. It seemed, as Clovis put it, that the illusion-producing technique had its limitations, inasmuch as none of them saw a crab actually materialize: the new arrival would be ‘discovered’ under a bed or behind a bank of apparatus. On the other hand, the depth of illusion produced was very great, as they all agreed when Myri, putting the eighth crab down the chute, was nipped in the finger, suffered pain and exuded a few drops of blood.

 

‘Another new departure,’ Clovis said. ‘An illusory physical process brought about on the actual person of one of us. They’re improving.’

 

Next morning there were the insects. Their main apparatus room was found to be infested with what, again on Bruno’s prompting, they recognized as cockroaches. By lunch-time there were moths and flying beetles in all the main rooms, and a number of large flies became noticeable towards the evening. The whole of their attention became concentrated upon avoiding these creatures as far as possible. The day passed without Clovis asking Myri to go with him. This had never happened before.

 

The following afternoon a fresh problem was raised by Lia’s announcement that the garden now contained no fruits or vegetables – none, at any rate, that were accessible to her senses. In this the other three concurred. Clovis put the feelings of all of them when he said: ‘If this is an illusion, it’s as efficient as the reality, because fruits and vegetables you can never find are the same as no fruits and vegetables.’

 

The evening meal used up all the food they had. Soon after two o’clock in the morning Myri was aroused by Clovis’s voice saying over the loudspeaker: ‘Attention, everyone. Strange happening. Assemble in the lounge immediately.’

 

She was still on her way when she became aware of a new quality in the background of silence she had grown used to. It was a deeper silence, as if some sound at the very threshold of audibility had ceased. There were unfamiliar vibrations underfoot.

 

Clovis was standing by the port, gazing through it with interest. ‘Look at this, Myri,’ he said.

 

At a distance impossible to gauge, an oblong of light had become visible, a degree or so in breadth and perhaps two and a half times as high. The light was of comparable quality to that illuminating the inside of the sphere. Now and then it flickered.                                               

 

‘What is it?’ Myri asked.

 

‘I don’t know, it’s only just appeared.’ The floor beneath them shuddered violently. ‘That was what woke me, one of those tremors. Ah, here you are, Bruno. What do you make of it?’

 

Bruno’s large eyes widened further, but he said nothing. A moment later Lia arrived and joined the silent group by the port. Another vibration shook the sphere. Some vessel in i the kitchen fell to the floor and smashed. Then Myri said: ‘I can see what looks like a flight of steps leading down from the lower edge of the light. Three or four of them, perhaps more.’

 

She had barely finished speaking when a shadow appeared before them, cast by the rectangle of light on to a surface none of them could identify. The shadow seemed to them of a stupefying vastness, but it was beyond question that of a man. A moment later the man came into view, outlined by the light, and descended the steps. Another moment or two and he was evidently a few feet from the port, looking in on them, their own lights bright on the upper half of him. He was a well-built man wearing a grey uniform jacket and a metal helmet. An object recognizable as a gun of some sort was slung over his shoulder. While he watched them, two other figures, similarly accoutred, came down the steps and joined him. There was a brief interval, then he moved out of view to their right, doing so with the demeanour of one walking on a level surface.

 

None of the four inside spoke or moved, not even at the sound of heavy bolts being drawn in the section of outer wall directly in front of them, not even when that entire section swung away from them like a door opening outwards and the three men stepped through into the sphere. Two of them had unslung the guns from their shoulders.

 

Myri remembered an occasion, weeks ago, when she had risen from a stooping position in the kitchen and struck her head violently on the bottom edge of a cupboard door Lia had happened to leave open. The feeling Myri now experienced was similar, except that she had no particular physical sensations. Another memory, a much fainter one, passed across the far background of her mind: somebody had once tried to explain to her the likeness between a certain mental state and the bodily sensation of discomfort, and she had not understood. The memory faded sharply.

 

The man they had first seen said: ‘All roll up your sleeves.’                       

 

Clovis looked at him with less curiosity than he had been showing when Myri first joined him at the port, a few minutes earlier. ‘You’re an illusion,’ he said,

 

‘No I’m not. Roll up your sleeves, all of you.’

 

He watched them closely while they obeyed, becoming impatient at the slowness with which they moved. The other man whose gun was unslung, a younger man, said: ‘Don’t be hard on them, Allen. We’ve no idea what they’ve been through.’

 

‘I’m not taking any chances,’ Allen said. ‘Not after that crowd in the trees. Now this is for your own good,’ he went on, addressing the four. ‘Keep quite still. All right, Douglas.’

 

The third man came forward, holding what Myri knew to be a hypodermic syringe. He took her firmly by her bare arm and gave her an injection. At once her feelings altered, in the sense that, although there was still discomfort in her mind, neither this nor anything else seemed to matter.

 

After a time she heard the young man say: ‘You can roll your sleeves down now. You can be quite sure that nothing bad will happen to you.’

 

‘Come with us,’ Allen said.

 

Myri and the others followed the three men out of the sphere, across a gritty floor that might have been concrete and up the steps, a distance of perhaps thirty feet. They entered a corridor with artificial lighting and then a room into which the sun was streaming. There were twenty or thirty people in the room, some of them wearing the grey uniform. Now and then the walls shook as the sphere had done, but to the accompaniment of distant explosions. A faint shouting could also be heard from time to time.

 

Allen’s voice said loudly: ‘Let’s try and get a bit of order going. Douglas, they’ll be wanting you to deal with the people in the tank. They’ve been conditioned to believe they’re congenially aquatic; so you’d better give them a shot that’ll knock them out straight away. Holmes is draining the tank now. Off you go. Now you, James, you watch this lot while I find out some more about them. I wish those psycho chaps would turn up – we’re just working in the dark.’ His voice moved farther away. ‘Sergeant – get these five out of here.’

 

‘Where to, sir?’

 

‘I don’t mind where – Just out of here. And watch them.’

 

‘They’ve all been given shots, sir.’

 

‘I know, but look at them, they’re not human any more. And it’s no use talking to them, they’ve been deprived of language. That’s how they got the way they are. Now get them out right away.’

 

Myri looked slowly at the young man who stood near them: James. ‘Where are we?’ she asked.

 

James hesitated, ‘I was ordered to tell you nothing,’ he said. ‘You’re supposed to wait for the psychological team to get to you and treat you.’

 

‘Please.’

 

‘All right. This much can’t hurt you, I suppose. You four and a number of other groups have been the subject of various experiments. This building is part of Special Wefare Research Station No. Four. Or rather it was. The government that set it up no longer exists. It has been removed by the revolutionary army of which I’m a member. We had to shoot our way in here and there’s fighting still going on.’

 

‘Then we weren’t in space at all.’

 

‘No.’

 

‘Why did they make us believe we were?’

 

‘We don’t know yet.’

 

‘And how did they do it?’

 

‘Some new form of deep-level hypnosis, it seems, probably renewed at regular intervals. Plus various apparatus for producing illusions. We’re still working on that. Now, I think that’s enough questions for the moment. The best thing you can do is sit down and rest.’

 

‘Thank you. What’s hypnosis?’

 

‘Oh, of course they’d have removed knowledge of that. It’ll all be explained to you later.’

 

‘James, come and have a look at this, will you?’ Allen’s voice called. ‘I can’t make much of it.’

 

Myri followed James a little way. Among the clamour of voices, some speaking languages unfamiliar to her, others speaking none, she heard James ask: ‘Is this the right file? Fear Elimination?’

 

‘Must be,’ Allen answered. ‘Here’s the last entry. Removal of Bruno V and substitution of Bruno VI accomplished, together with memory-adjustment of other three subjects. Memo to Preparation Centre: avoid repetition of Bruno V personality-type with strong curiosity-drives. Started catching on to the set-up, eh? Wonder what they did with him.’

 

‘There’s that psycho hospital across the way they’re still investigating; perhaps he’s in there.’

 

‘With Brunos I to IV, no doubt. Never mind that for the moment. Now. Procedures: penultimate phase. Removal of all ultimate confidence: severance of communication, total denial of prospective change, inculcation of "uniqueness" syndrome, environment shown to be violable, unknowable crisis in prospect (food deprivation). I can understand that last bit. They don’t look starved, though.’

 

‘Perhaps they’ve only just started them on it.’

 

‘We’ll get them fed in a minute. Well, all this still beats me, James. Reactions. Little change. Responses poor. Accelerating impoverishment of emotional life and its vocabulary: compare portion of novel written by Myri VII with contributions of predecessors. Prognosis: further affective deterioration: catatonic apathy: failure of experiment. That’s comfort, anyway. But what has all this got to do with fear elimination?’

 

They stopped talking suddenly and Myri followed the direction of their gaze. A door had been opened and the man called Douglas was supervising the entry of a number of others, each supporting or carrying a human form wrapped in a blanket.

 

‘This must be the lot from the tank,’ Allen or James said.

 

Myri watched while those in the blankets were made as comfortable as possible on benches or on the floor. One of them, however, remained totally wrapped in his blanket and was paid no attention.

 

‘He’s had it, has he?’

 

‘Shock, I’m afraid.’ Douglas’s voice was unsteady. ‘There was nothing we could do. Perhaps we shouldn’t have -‘

 

Myristooped and turned back the edge of the blanket. What she saw was much stranger than anything she had experienced in the sphere. ‘What’s the matter with him?’ she asked James.

 

‘Matter with him? You can die of shock, you know.’

 

‘I can do what?’

 

Myri, staring at James, was aware that his face had become distorted by a mixture of expressions. One of them was understanding: all the others were painful to look at. They were renderings of what she herself was feeling. Her vision darkened and she ran from the room, back the way they had come, down the steps, across the floor, back into the sphere.

 

James was unfamiliar with the arrangement of the rooms there and did not reach her until she had picked up the manuscript of the novel, hugged it to her chest with crossed arms and fallen on to her bed, her knees drawn up as far as they would go, her head lowered as it had been before her birth, an event of which she knew nothing.

 

She was still in the same position when, days later, somebody sat heavily down beside her. ‘Myri. You must know who this is. Open your eyes, Myri. Come out of there.’

 

After he had said this, in the same gentle voice, some hundreds of times, she did open her eyes a little. She was in a long, high room, and near her was a fat man with a pale skin. He reminded her of something to do with space and thinking. She screwed her eyes shut.

 

‘Myri. I know you remember me. Open your eyes again.’

 

She kept them shut while he went on talking.

 

‘Open your eyes. Straighten your body.’

 

She did not move.

 

‘Straighten your body, Myri. I love you.’

 

Slowly her feet crept down the bed and her head lifted.

 

reading list

2008
Books Read To Date

1.      Kingsley Amis, Russian Hide-and-Seek (1980)

2.      William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2002)

3.      William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

4.      John O’Hara, Appointment in Samarra (1934)                 

5.      John O’Hara, Sermons and Soda-Water (1960)

6.      William Gibson, Virtual Light (1993) 

7.      William Gibson, Idoru (1996)

8.      Michael Connelly, The Overlook (2007)

9.      William Gibson, Spook Country (2007)

10.  James Purdy, Garments The Living Wear (1989)

11.  Dominique Fabre, The Waitress Was New (2008)

12.  William Gibson, Count Zero (1986)  

13.  Lydia Millet, Everyone’s Pretty (2005)   

14.  Gary Indiana, Gone Tomorrow (1995)   

15.  William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999)  

16.  Lydia Millet, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2005)

17.  Peter Abrahams, End of Story (2007)    

18.  V.S. Naipaul, Magic Seeds (2004)   

19.  Lucius Shepard, Softspoken (2007)

20.  Jeremy Blachman, Anonymous Lawyer (2006)

21.  Lucius Shepard, Green Eyes (1987)

22.  Nicholas Mosley, Look at the Dark (2006)

23.  James Meek, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent  (2008) 

The books by Lydia Millet, John O’Hara, Gary Indiana, V.S. Naipaul and James Meek all deserve to be read, while Michael Connelly and William Gibson write readable — if not re-readable– genre fiction.

James Meek’s We Are Now Beginning Our Descent and John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samara are the best works of fiction I’ve read this year. Of all the novels dealing with the post-9/11 world, Meek’s is the best one, at least in English, outracing Don DeLillo’s Falling Man right from the starting gate. While DeLillo sees post-9/11 New York as just another Cosmopolis-style locale for staging the medium-cool lives of his flattened characters, Meek’s book catches the ambiguities and compromises faced by Anglo-American liberals in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq; his free indirect narration becomes a subtle voice of moral force, despite the reversals and concessions and shabby bargains his characters experience along the way: with this novel Meek seems like a Graham Greene whose faith is not Catholic but catholic, attuned to a broader range of political frequencies than Greene ever was, and just as knowing about the sad secret recesses of the human heart. 

In its opening pages Appointment in Samara reads as a period piece, but by the end its narrative feels as ruthless and inexorable as a Greek tragedy… The alcohol-fueled destruction of Julian English’s marriage, reputation and career is capped by one of the most powerful descriptions of suicide in modern literature.

So how come O’Hara never topped the brilliance of his first novel? His biographers typically point to O’Hara’s thirst for alcohol, quest for fame and money (motivated by his legendary social insecurity) for compromising his subsequent work. Only BUtterfield 8, along with some of his longer short stories and novellas, like “Imagine Kissing Pete,” come close to the high point he set with the story of Julian English, famously ranked by Fran Leibovitz ahead of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (she went so far as to label O’Hara “the real F. Scott Fitzgerald”). And in a uncharateristically generous mood, Ernest Hemingway remarked that “If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra.

But by the end of his career O’Hara was closer in subject matter to Harold Robbins than Fitzgerald, who he so strongly resembled when he started publishing in the 1930s. As for his hundreds of short stories, it seems safe to say O’Hara remains the emblematic short fiction writer of The New Yorker, followed by the other Johns, Cheever and Updike, while only Joyce Carol Oates rivals him in terms of consistency of genuine literary merit across such a huge body of work.

Mosley’s slight Look at the Dark shows flashes of the learning and wit that shines throughout his five-volume Catastrophe Practice series, while cranky Sir Vidia’s Magic Seeds continues the journey of deracinated exile Willy Chandra, modern literature’s passive-aggressive character par excellence.

Finally, although it ultimately fails to cohere as a novel, Kingsley Amis’ Russian Hide-and-Seek is brilliant in spots. In a strange way it illustrates the interpretation made by some of Alexandre Kojève‘s commentators  that “the end of history” will be a time when the rationalized and routinized life of the masses convince the superior or “great-souled” man that criminal enterprise and political rebellion are the only undertakings worthy of him…