Tuesday, 24 April 2018



 The three novels that make up MARK ADLARD’s trilogy
 – ‘Interface’ (1971), ‘Volteface’ (1972) and ‘Multiface’ (1975) 
 are surely due for a reappraisal…? 

Place the three paperback jackets of the Futura editions in the correct order and the Peter Jones artwork forms a single Tcity panorama, rather like a ‘Science Fiction Monthly’ centrespread. But unfortunately, despite blurbs quoting Brian Aldiss and the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ – from then on, things get decidedly less impressive. There are enough ideas spread across this trilogy to perhaps justify a single volume, and enough original ideas to constitute a reasonably good novella. In an interview published in an earlier edition of ‘Arena’, Adlard credits at least a portion of the Tcity concept to Fritz Lang’s expressionist epic ‘Metropolis’ (1927), and such a comparison presents itself without too much difficulty – but it’s just as easy to trace the lineage back to HG Wells. You have the Eloi (Executives), the dominant one-percent who roam the retro-ruralised twenty-second-century UK with their genetically and surgically-enhanced intellects, and you have the Morlocks (Tcity populace) in the overcrowded warrens of their walled Stahlex Beeblock megacities.

Perhaps a critical analysis flaunting its culture on its sleeve – in Adlard fashion, would attempt to trace the roots of this dystopia back even further to draw analogies with Karl Marx’ final stage of capitalism, through Hobbes ‘Leviathan’ (1651), all the way back to Plato’s ‘Republic’ (380BC) in which – as in Tcity, poets are anathema. Other critics have suggested Yevgeny Zamiatin. But unlike such examples, Mark Adlard is not dealing in any philosophical or political rhetoric. Although the Executives put something into the water supply to keep the people content, they’re not conscious tyrants. Their motives are even benevolent in a condescending fashion.

Similarly, the populace are not an oppressed exploited proletariat, in fact they do no work and live on State Increment ‘hand-outs’. And while there’s a minor revolution – significantly instigated by Paul Steinberg, son of a powerful Executive, there’s no real politically motivated dissident group. In fact, if we’re talking in terms of ‘sides’ then the writer’s sympathies seems to fall with the Executives. The novels handle their insultingly patronising treatment of the gatehouse butlers, Fred and Dixon, in much the same way that Elstree treats the chirpy loveable cockney, or early Hollywood treats the token eyes-rolling hands-shaking black maid, both of whom ‘know their place’ and are grateful for it. But then Adlard states, somewhat unconvincingly, that ‘the whole ethos of modern (Tcity) industry was as remote from that of the twentieth-century, as that of the twentieth-century was distant from the organisation which built the pyramids for the Fourth Dynasty Pharaohs.’

Taking the books individually, ‘Interface’ (1971) outlines the basic geography of the twenty-second century, with Britain ruled by the pregnant Queen Elizabeth III, and the national economy dominated by a division of the all-embracing American Stahlex Corporation from its north-eastern industrial complex. The ‘interface’ of the title is possibly that which exists between art and technology, although the word crops up in other contexts throughout the book. ‘Interface’ also places Jan Caspol on the landscape, an Executive who – in this first novel, falls in love with a Tcity nightclub singer. A relationship that’s dismissed in two sentences in ‘Volteface’ (1972), and by the climax of ‘Multiface’ (1975) the Wagner-quoting Caspol has moved beyond such fleshy indulgencess and come to some kind of self-understanding through Buddhism.

‘Volteface’ (about-face) is largely devoted to the ‘new therapy’ devised by the Executives to keep the Tcity minds suitably distanced from a recourse to inconvenient insurrection. A ‘new therapy’ that involves the introduction of deliberately inefficient business ventures, based around the twentieth-century model. Other distractions include super-whore aphrodollies with bionic vulvas – although sex is invariably treated with coy reserve. It’s tempting to suggest that Adlard is writing an affectionate pastiche of the idiosyncrasies of current business practice. Critic Peter Nicholls finds ‘a rich but sometimes sour irony’ which ‘plays a set of variations, often comic, on automation, hierarchical systems, the media landscape, revolution, the difficulties of coping with leisure, class distinction according to intelligence, fantasies of sex and the stultifying pressures of conformity’ (in his ‘The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’). At one point, referring to the twentieth-century, Adlard has a character say ‘the situation in industry and politics was absolutely hopeless, and it became clear to everyone that we couldn’t afford to let ordinary people have any say in how things were organised. There used to be industrial strikes, sabotage of computer centres, demands for equal privileges’ etc. 

Extending such a contention to cover the whole trilogy it seems possible that some kind of analogy – through polarisation, is being attempted, and that in this light Tcity becomes a vast monolithic version of the Welfare State. Indeed, one Executive, tracing the origins of twenty-second-century society points out that ‘people with little capacity for general education, and without required skills would soon have ample leisure, although they were the very people least fitted to occupy their leisure… the better-educated minority, who could have used their leisure to good effect, would be deprived of such activities because they would be part of a managerial class, and be forced to work longer and longer hours in an attempt to direct increasingly complex operations.’ The class implications behind such passages, whether intended to voice the ideas of the fictional future, or represent the ideas of the writer, are disturbing.

Nevertheless, such ideological demerits could be made more acceptable if the standard of the writing, and the characterisation was better. In the first chapter of ‘Interface’ alone we get an unwieldy preponderance of direct comparisons – hips ‘as wide as an embrace’, sand as soft as ‘a bed of velvet cushions’, sighing ‘as tender as a hand stroking a frowning brow’, and even breasts that hung ‘like exotic fruit’. Later, the moon becomes a ‘big sandblasted bearing in the well-greased ball-race of its orbit.’ One of the novel’s protagonists uses a cliché-scrambler, and it’s tempting to suggest that Adlard should have used the device himself on this chapter. In fairness, however, over the three novels – and the space of the four years it took to write them, the standard gets better and such obvious clumsiness decreases, even though Adlard repeatedly ducks any attempt at really descriptive writing by using, instead, classical allusions that are often wildly inappropriate. At one point even Newcastle Brown Ale is described as being ‘worthy to be carried in gold cups to blushing Hebe, and its fairy foam was fit to wet the bearded lips of Zeus himself.’

Personalities are contrived in much the same way, reduced to assemblies of cultural references. Sylvia ‘had an eighteenth-century mind. Her intelligence had the rounded elegance of a couplet by Pope, the balanced harmony of a string quartet by Haydn, the geometric logic of a painting by David, the proportions of an entablature from Vitruvius.’ Their individuality is just as derivative. Nick Levantine ‘strode through life like Charles the Bold through the pages of Philip of Comines, or Clovis through those of Gregory of Tours, or perhaps even more like the Black Prince through the chronicles of Froissart.’ Even sexual features become art catalogues – ‘she had the small high breasts of a Van Eyck virgin, and the nipples were crowned with gold discs like the heads of Byzantine saints.’ As though plundering coffee-table reference-books, food, furniture, architecture, wine, wildlife and machines are also described through a welter of analogies. The Council of Executives is spoken of through the lens of Robert Grave’s ‘Claudius’ novels, and even a dog has ‘Proustian eyelids’!

Such compulsive name-dropping suggests an ‘although-I’m-writing-in-a-crappy-genre,-really-I’m-a-respectable-writer’ syndrome. It’s the literary counterpart to the Executives ‘slumming’ in the Tcity Fun Palace. Adlard’s central thesis, the concept of the Denaissance – the atrophy that has rendered the entire population creatively barren, is more to his credit. A similar idea was used by Colin Wilson in his novel ‘The Mind Parasites’ (1967), although Wilson – another writer with a penchant for name-dropping, concentrates on the specific collapse of the Romantic movement, rather than the wholesale loss of creativity. To explain a disaster of such proportions Adlard suggests some quite intriguing symptoms. That a kind of alienation has enveloped the population. That the total automation of production has rendered work – and with it, any creative function, devoid of purpose. His reference to Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of need’ are – for once, relevant and within context to the argument. Significantly, the only SF-writer to qualify for a mention is Olaf Stapledon.

‘Multiface’ – the final instalment of the trilogy, goes into greater and more satisfying detail about the origins and problems of the Denaissance. It is, in every way, the best of the three novels. The characterisation in stronger. Whereas (in ‘Volteface’) descriptions of Ventrix’s upbringing in an automated crèche teeters on the ludicrous edge of Pulp Era pastiche, unintentionally humorous – in ‘Multiface’, similar situations develop Freudian depths as the narrative pokes into the various compulsions and traumas locked beneath the apparent passivity of Tcity, while the Executive unrest is also placed under closer scrutiny, even conceding that ‘the need to manage was as barbaric an idea as a lust for raw meat.’

As the novel develops it serves to crystallise Adlard’s attitude to the arts more precisely. From the evidence suggested by the Tcity trilogy his cultural references are all to High Art, Folk Art has no place in his scheme of things. Despite evidence that the former is a culturally recent phenomena, dependant on a socially elite leisure class, the latter has always existed, even as ritual or the mythologies of everyday life, for as long as humans have existed. There’s a suggestion that – as in Colin Wilson’s book, art has been in retreat since the defeat of the Romantic movement, at least the anti-Art onslaught of the twentieth-century. In ‘Volteface’ the time of Queen Anne is spoken of as ‘the last civilised society of man.’

Adlard makes few references to any artist working after 1900 – Max Ernst only gets a mention as a symptom of nightmare! Webern and Shoenberg’s serial composition technique is alluded to, but Adlard admits no possibility that technological innovation can be anything other than a cultural cul-de-sac. No chance that new technology can open up new opportunities for expression, which – after all, is what twentieth-century art is all about, from Futurism and Duchamp to Concrete Poetry and John Cage.

On a more positive note, Adlard’s description of the Stahlex plant, and the process itself (in ‘Interface’) is well worked-out and convincing, even over-technical in places. If he’s modifying his own experience of industry, it reads well even where the reader may well lack the technical expertise to judge. Also the north-east location is to be applauded, local colour and regional history are skilfully fed into the plot, and it provides a refreshing counter-balance to the rootless, or Home Counties bias of much SF. Peter Nicholls even suggests that Tcity is a playful contraction of ‘Tees-City’. In ‘Multiface’ Adlard points out that London had merely ‘happened to be the capital city of a country where provincial towns and areas had, at different times, been world leaders in breeding cattle, mining coal, making cloth, developing railways, manufacturing iron and steel.’

According to the flyleaf biographical notes Mark Adlard is ‘a senior executive in a large steel and engineering group’. Brian Ash’s informative ‘Who’s Who In Science Fiction’ (Sphere, 1976), and the online ISFDB flesh out more details. The son of an auctioneer, Marcus Peter Adlard was born in Seaton Carew, Hartlepool, 19 June1932, an arts graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge before taking a degree in economics and spending twenty years in the steel industry, occupying various managerial posts. He wrote a number of short stories in the SF idiom during the 1960s without being fully aware of the genre’s existence. The first – “Friction Free” appeared in ‘The Evening News’ (28 October 1968), before “Ash Shadow” was published in Jon M Harvey’s fine fanzine ‘Balthus no.2’ (September 1971). A third story – “Theophilus” appeared with an essay “The Other Tradition Of Science Fiction” in ‘Beyond This Horizon’ (Ceolfrith Press, 1973) alongside such luminaries as Brian Aldiss, Bob Shaw and Brian Stableford, in an anthology edited by Christopher Carrell. Having stumbled into SF, according to Brian Ash, ‘he saw it as a literary technique with which business life could be shown in a larger context – to underline its effects on the economy, society and the individual.’ The visibility afforded by the Tcity trilogy, and his retirement in 1976, also led to features in ‘Vector’ – on “DG Compton And New Standards Of Excellence” (No.66, August 1973) as well as book reviews of works by Thomas M Disch, Robert Silverberg, Jack Vance and yes, Olaf Stapledon too.

Place the three paperbacks of the Futura editions in the correct order, and it can be argued that if a first novel is inevitably a work of self-discovery, by spreading his first novel over three volumes Adlard needlessly compounds the inherent problems of that tentative exploration. But the fact that ‘Multiface’ is not only the third, but also the best-constructed book, indicates that future novels could continue that process of amelioration. Although subsequently there was only ‘The Greenlander’ (1978, Harmondsworth/ Penguin), a non-genre novel concerned with steam-powered shipping and the whaling industry. Meanwhile, Adlard’s contention that SF should be drawn closer to mainstream literature is not without merit, but the genre won’t achieve that academic recognition simply through an overkill of forced cultural allusions. At a time when aspiration towards a more innovative Speculative Fiction is being more fully realised by other writers equally new to the novel format, Barrington J Bayley, Ian Watson, Adrian Cole and Robert Holdstock.
The Tcity trilogy consists of:
‘INTERFACE’ (1971)
‘VOLTEFACE’ (1972)
‘MULTIFACE’ (1975)
Original publication by Sidgwick and Jackson
Published by Futura/ Orbit in uniform editions 1977, as 75p each

Published in:
‘ARENA no.7’ (UK –March 1978)

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