When I wrote about Richard Cowper here a little while back, I was suddenly reminded of the “High Cs”, a name sometimes given to a small group of British sf writers of the 1960s and 70s whose names all began with C. They included Edmund Cooper and Michael Coney, but to my mind the best of them was D.G. Compton.
Compton’s work has an understated but distinctive style, with well-defined characters, gentle humour, and a sense of being solidly located in place and time. Although he chose to write science fiction, he wasn’t particularly interested in science fictional paraphernalia; his concern rather was with human relationships played out against the backdrop of whatever changes the sf idea had wrought. Most of his 18 or so novels are readable and entertaining, but we’ve selected just five from his glory days between 1966 and 1974 that represent the peak of his literary achievement.
This is probably the best and best-known of all of his books (partly because it was filmed by Bernard Tavernier as La Mort en Direct, or Death Watch). In a near future where death by disease has been virtually wiped out, Katherine Mortenhoe is diagnosed with a fatal illness that gives her just a few weeks to live. One of the fascinating things about the book is that it predicts, decades before it happened, the rise of reality TV. Television companies try to persuade her to allow them to film her final weeks, but she refuses. So one cameraman has a miniature camera inserted into his eye and befriends her, filming her secretly. But as their relationship grows, he realises that his film is a betrayal because it doesn’t display the humanity, the compassion, with which he sees her. This really is a classic of 1970s science fiction that that seems to be even more relevant today.
This is a novel that may be best known because of its original title (deep breath): Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes, and Something that Might have been Castor Oil. It begins with Roses Varco sitting by a creek in Cornwall when he hears a bang and smells something best described by the original title of the novel. What he doesn’t realise is that he has just witnessed the death of a time traveller – and that time traveller is himself. Though this isn’t really a time travel story so much as, in typical Compton fashion, the story of the disintegrating relationships between people at a mysterious research establishment in a near-future Britain that is itself running down.
Many of Compton’s novels seem to have had variant titles, and The Steel Crocodile was also published as The Electric Crocodile, though I’ve never understood this particular change. Once again it is a story concerned with the relationships between the people at a secretive research establishment. Here, an omnipotent computer has been created to protect against uncontrolled technology. But the computer becomes a messianic figure, controlling people and dictating what the future will be like. But idiosyncratic flesh-and-blood researchers aren’t so sure of things as the computer they are meant to serve.
A doctor and an electronics engineer develop a way for ordinary people to share in the emotional experiences of other people. Sensitape, as they call it, allows you to experience, first hand, what a great artist sees or how a child enjoys Christmas. And with Sexitape there’s the chance to share more intimate, passionate experiences. But as the novel raises moral questions about evesdropping on somebody else’s most private moments, there’s also the question of whether a completely synthetic emotion, a totally artificial ecstasy, can and should be created.
We’ve noted that Compton wasn’t really interested in sf paraphernalia, but that didn’t stop him using such devices. In this novel an obsolete ship reaches its final destination. Its passengers, nervously awaiting the moment when their reception committee reaches them, are social outcasts who have been condemned to Earth’s harshest and most unwelcoming penal settlement, on Mars. But again, as is typical of Compton, the focus is less upon the alien world of Mars as it is upon the relationships between the convicts as they struggle to survive in this primitive environment.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.