Michael G. Coney’s Short Stories 8

zzzzzzzzzzzzconeyTroubleshooter” (If Science Fiction, May-June, 1970.)

I’d read “Troubleshooter” before, many years ago, but returned to it now with no memory of the story. Having read it again, I understand why. It’s a very minor, pedestrian piece about DeGrazza, the troubleshooter of the title, who works for Galactic Computers. When ships belonging to aliens from Altair begin malfunctioning, the aliens blame Galactic Computers, and the company sends DeGrazza to find out what’s going wrong. The Altairean ships are fitted with both Terran computers and their own organic ones – made from the alien’s minds, which are telepathic. DeGrazza, a troubled soul plagued by nightmares, solves the problem, and is thanked by the aliens: “Goodbye, DeGrazza of the tortured mind and plunging compulsions. […] You are so immersed in self-pity that you are hardly aware of those around you…” which, it is hinted, is why he makes a successful troubleshooter.

The problem with “Troubleshooter” is that DeGrazza’s character is not successfully integrated into the story – we’re told what he’s like, not shown. Also, the plot is perfunctory. In later tales, plotting will become Coney’s marked strength.

Rating: 3/10

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Michael G. Coney’s Short Stories 6 & 7

“Discover a Latent Moses” (Galaxy, April, 1970.)

Although I’ve read this story in Coney’s fix-up novel Winter’s Children, I haven’t read it as a stand-alone, so I’ll comment on the story when I’ve tracked down the issue of Galaxy, April, 1970.

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nwwrtngsns1970The True Worth of Ruth Villiers” (New Writings in SF 17, edited by John Carnell, Dobson Books, 1970.)

Michael Coney’s seventh published story is a wonderful indictment of conservative politics. It’s narrated by a minor civil servant called Archer who works for the local government as a Valuation Officer. We’re in near future Britain and the Darwinist party is in power. Under this regime, every citizen has a Social Value Credit Rating, calculated according to their profession and earnings. Their Value dictates the level of assistance they can hope to receive from the state, when it comes to healthcare or – in the case of Ruth Villiers – when they suffer an accident.

Seventeen year-old Ruth has fallen down an old mineshaft which has collapsed, burying her alive under tons of rubble. Archer is sent in to assess the level of help she can afford, and he decides that an excavator and crew can be brought in to dig her out. However, when the digger hits a seam of granite, the cost of cutting through the seam escalates beyond the girl’s Credit Rating. Archer, a purblind proponent of the system until now, begins to have second thoughts – suffers, in the parlance of the time, Undue Sympathy – and even considers hiring, illegally and to his eventual cost as he might lose his job, a more expensive excavator to cut through the granite. But before Archer weakens fully, his boss comes to the site and suggest a cheaper alternative: a slim bore hole will be drilled, allowing air, food and water to reach the stricken girl. This she can afford, until her Credit Rating runs out in a few months…

She is saved, in the end, by an unforeseen event – a deus ex machina, it might be said, but one that fits beautifully into the remit of the story.

Archer – at one point almost convinced of the inhumanity of the system – has his narrow-minded politics vindicated: “Surely, now, nobody can criticise the system. […] Not even me.”

The True Worth of Ruth Villiers” is Michael Coney’s best tale to date, a nicely crafted, well characterised story of social injustice and the inability of some to acknowledge iniquity. It prefigured the rise of Thatcher by almost ten years.

Rating: 7/10

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Trump

So America has voted a narcissistic, bigoted fascist as its leader. There’s an excellent article about the debacle in the New Yorker.

I’m glad I live in liberal Scotland, but there’ll be no getting away from his evil influence.

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Michael G. Coney’s Short Stories 5

nwwrtngsng1970R26/5/PSY and I” (New Writings in SF 16, edited by John Carnell, Dobson Books, 1969.)

The story opens in a psychiatrist’s office, where Hugo Johnson has been brought by ‘Central’ after failing to leave his apartment for two months. Johnson lives in an over-populated, regimented world; he’s anti-social and bitter: “I had had my fill of friends. They sponged on you, drank your drinks, invaded your privacy and drove you mad with incessant, nattering monologues on matters of supreme unimportance.” Johnson is diagnosed with chronic apathy and told he is a potential suicide. As treatment he is given a companion – a robot who will live with him until he’s cured.

The robot arrives and proceeds to drive Johnson to distraction: eating his food, mimicking him, and ultimately making a pass at a woman Johnson invited back to his room.

The story closes with Johnson back in the psychiatrist’s office. “I was cured. I had taken the necessary steps towards getting out and meeting people.” And the reason for this cure? It’s not giving much away, as most readers would have worked out the reason by the end of the tale: the shrink reveals that, “The robot possessed an almost perfect replica of your own brain!” For the past three weeks, Johnson has been living with himself.

R26/5/PSY and I” is another minor though entertaining tale. Coney has yet to hit his stride in the short story format.

Rating: 4/10

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Michael G. Coney’s Short Stories 4

vision-of-tomorrow-2A Judge of Men” (Vision of Tomorrow, December, 1969.)

Coney rings the changes with his fourth published story, that old favourite staple of the SF genre – the biological puzzle tale. Spacers Bancroft and Scott come to the planet of Karamba – Bancroft is a trader, Scott a bio-ecologist – ostensibly to trade with the aliens for Shoom, but in fact so that Scott can work out why the Karambans’ birth rate is falling off. Shoom is a much sought-after commodity in the outside universe, a kind of pelt worth millions, and if the aliens die out then the precious Shoom will perish with them.

The Karambans are monopods, one-footed aliens with one eye, one arm, one ear, etcetera: “All in all, they look rather like sawn-off elephants’ legs with a grey daffodil stuck on top.”

Bancroft is an old-hand on the planet, Scott the eager neophyte, and when the latter trespasses upon a sacred Karamban burial ground, landing them in what at first seems like hot water, he makes a discovery that solves the puzzle of the aliens’ declining birth-rate. He comes up with a simple solution which is to the benefit of everyone, humans and Karambans alike.

It’s a minor, mildly entertaining story, graced with an excellent black and white illustration by Eddie Jones.

Rating: 4/10

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Michael G. Coney’s Short Stories 3

t1690Sixth Sense” (Vision of Tomorrow, August, 1969.)

Sixth Sense” combines many features which will crop up again and again in Coney’s short fiction and novels in the years to come: a southern English coastal location, a young femme fatal, an ageing vamp, a lonely older man, and a bar-cum-hotel.

Jack Garner, who narrates the tale, runs a small guest-house on the coast. He’s a loner who hates the city and fled to the countryside ten years earlier. As the story opens, he’s distracted and impatient as he waits for a new arrival. He thinks back to an incident, three years before…

Then, two couples arrived for a short holiday, Hera and ‘Piggy’ Piggot – Hera ageing (but still attractive, in her own eyes at least) and ‘Piggy’, overweight and downtrodden. With them are the Blantyres, the mousy Joyce and husband Jim whom Jack characterises as a gigolo-type – he assumes that Hera and Jim are having an affair. With the Piggots is their precocious fourteen year-old daughter, Mandy. What follows over the next few days, as the sultry, stormy weather clamps down on the coast, is the playing out of Jack’s suspicions. Driven from the hotel by her mother’s infidelity and her father’s passive acceptance, Mandy climbs the dangerous Gull Crag cliff and gets into difficulties, only to be saved by Jack.

And how is this science fiction?

Well, in this future the human race is telepathic, and speech a thing of the past. Coney excels at portraying societies in which just one thing has changed, with massive implications, and “Sixth Sense” is a prime example of this. Jack Garner, our narrator, is a freak, a throwback… (but to reveal quite why he is would spoil the denouement) and it is this which allows him to save Mandy’s life.

The story closes on a typically Coneyesque, sentimental note, and a neat last line.

Sixth Sense” was reprinted in World’s Best SF 1970, edited by Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr, published by Ace Books.

Rating: 6/10

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How Writers Write

This piece first appeared on Tony Ballantyne’s website, part of the fascinating ‘How Writers Write series’. My thanks to Tony for allowing me to reproduce it here.

ZZZ What tools do you use?

I work on Word on a Dell computer, a twelve year old machine that Keith Brooke gave me. It serves its purpose as a word processor. I’m not into technology: I’m not interested in tech and gadgets. I don’t have a mobile phone or whatever they’re called now. I don’t even have a watch. I carry a sundial around in my backpack.

I plot a novel – in as much as I plot anything – and make random notes freehand in an old jotter. These days I don’t do much planning, just some notes on characters and an idea or two, then I get going. It works for me. In my notebook, which I keep to the left of me when I’m writing, I scribble down anything from a list of phrases that people spoke in the nineteen-fifties (for the series of crime novels I’m writing set then), to a line of dialogue, to a detailed day-by-day breakdown of how may words I’ve written. (I’m anal like that).
ZZZZZWhen I’m working on a project, novels, stories or whatever, I work five days a week, from Monday to Friday. Occasionally I might work on a Saturday and Sunday if my wife and daughter are off doing things. I walk the hound in the morning at eight-thirty, and get to my desk at nine-fifteen, work for two and a half hours. In that time I write two thousand words, or a couple of hundred under or over. Around eleven forty-five I knock off, take the dog for another gallop, have a green tea and a sandwich for lunch (yeast extract, peanut butter and beetroot, since you asked, or less occasionally Stilton cheese, lettuce and mayonnaise, or sometimes Vegemite, tahini and cucumber, or probably once a month cheddar and hot lime pickle), then get to the desk again around one and work till around three-thirty, knocking out another couple of thousand words. Before I married, fifteen years ago, I’d work in the evening too, so that I could produce over six thousand words a day – and I worked at the weekends.
This meant that my early novels (from Penumbra to New York Dreams) were written in around a fortnight, or just over. I’d stagger from my study a gibbering wreck and demand pints and pints of Timothy Taylor’s best bitter. Then, when I’d sobered up, I began the laborious task of rewriting the things.

ZZZZZZI walk the dog for two hours a day. He’s called Uther and he’s a red and white setter. He’s our first dog, and a life-changer. Having children is easy, a joy, compared to owning a dog. That said, he does exercise me. I wouldn’t get out otherwise, and while out walking the beautiful countryside of Berwickshire, around the village of Cockburnspath, I get lots of day-dreaming done. Uther was immortalised in Tony Ballantyne’s fine novel Dream Paris, in a scene which brilliantly encapsulates my relationship with the hound. Here we are; he’s reading his favourite chapter in Jani and the Great Pursuit, about a mechanical dog.

ZZZZZZZWhere do you write?

I write in my study surrounded by over three thousand tomes and air that smells of dog. I love books. I collect them. I collect SF, old and new, and fiction from the thirties, forties, fifties, sixties. I collect autobiographical books and biographies of writers. I collect the works of Rupert Croft-Cooke, G. K. Chesterton, Peter de Polnay, Miles Tripp, Elizabeth Ferrars, Michael Coney, Charles Bukowski, and many more. I don’t read on a Kindle, onscreen, or anything else like that. I detest Kindles etc. They’re just text, shorn of much of what a book is. A book is a beautiful object with its own history and associations. The abomination of Kindle renders every single book as a homogenised, soulless product – perfect for the homogenised, soulless world in which multinational companies and capitalist moguls would like us to exist.

My computer sits on my ‘desk’, a nineteen-fifties Baird radiogram. I sit back in a armchair with the keyboard on my lap and tap away. My wife says that’s why I have backache. On my desk are bits and bobs I’ve picked up over the years. Pens I love. A broken Wallace and Grommit mug. A tin rocket. A rock. A clay bee and a hippo my daughter Freya made. A hole-filled rock I found on Eastbourne beach while visiting James Lovegrove, which I use as a pen holder. Some reference books I hardly ever refer to. A statue of the Hindu monkey God Hanuman. A Timothy Taylor beer mat. A clock. On the window sill behind my computer are some plastic dinosaurs, a couple of pigs, a robot salt- and pepper-pot (thanks, Becky), a BSFA award for a short tale, an ancient metal statue, probably worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, of a man holding his head in one hand and his penis in the other. He looks like how I often feel.

When do you write?

I only ever write in my study, but think about story all the time.

I like peace and quiet while I’m scribbling. I don’t like music when I’m writing. I don’t wait for inspiration. That way I’d never write a word.

I write by the seat of my pants. In the early days, forty years ago when I began writing, I didn’t know how to write, so I had to have detailed notes and plans and plots and lists of characters to shore up my under-confidence. Now I know how to write and I have no fear of writing. I have technique, and trust in that and in my subconscious. They get the job done. I often start with little knowledge of what I’ll be writing , but the old sub-con kicks in and dictates the words.

zzzzzzzzQuestions of style

A novel or story dictates style, narrative viewpoint etc. I don’t much think about things like that beforehand, or about the actual prose style I’ll be using. I follow both characters and plot, whatever is dictated by my subconscious.

When the first draft is done I’m unutterably depressed for a while. Life seems pointless. The rush of creation is over, the endorphins run dry. Now comes the hard and dispiriting work of rewriting. While writing the first draft, I convince myself that the book or story is great, even exceptional. Then I finish and realise it isn’t – but it has to be made better. That’s bloody hard work. And I make lots of continuity errors and other ballsups which need fixing. Hey-ho.

How many redrafts?

Many.

How many readers?

Half a dozen. And I value them immensely.

ZZZZZZZZZHow easy is it to let go?

It’s bloody fantastic to say au revoir to something I’ve been working on for months. I’m delighted to see the back of it.

At the moment I’ve just finished the first draft of Murder Take Three, the fourth book in the Langham and Dupré series of crime novels set in the fifties. So I’m at that depressed stage of creativity, the rush over. Plus my wife and daughter are away in Haworth visiting my mother-in-law so I’m rattling round the house with the dog, eating curry and sandwiches and feeling sorry for myself and staring balefully at the mound of the ms I’ve just printed out and shaking my fist at the bloody thing and threatening to rip into it with a red pen and cut it by nine thousand words and turn it from a sow’s lughole into a silken purse.

Also, the damned thing isn’t contracted for. I wrote it on spec, which I don’t normally do, as the idea came to me and I like the characters of Donald Langham and Maria Dupré and Ralph Ryland, the Cockney detective. I just hope Severn House want it.

Next, I’ll be rewriting the second half of Binary System, an action-adventure novel about a woman stranded on a very alien planet, and how she survives. The two halves of the novel will come out later this year from Solaris as e-books, and next year as a real paperback book which you can hold, fondle, smell, read, and slip onto the shelf. Then I’ll be writing the fourth Telemass novella for PS Publishing, then a play for Big Finish, a few shorts stories, and later this year a big SF novel I’ve just sold to Solaris.

How would I describe myself?

Writer, curry addict, secularist, liberal, Leeds United fan, a man who increasingly finds the world a bewildering hell-hole, bracketed as we are by the appalling Mr Trump on one side and the religious fascists of Daesh on the other. No wonder I escape into my writing whenever possible.

Cheers!

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