Tuesday 28 November 2017

SF: Charles Platt's 'THE GARBAGE WORLD'


 Originally serialised in two parts in ‘New Worlds’ magazine, 
 Charles Platt’s ‘The Garbage World’ (1967) remains a 
 startlingly confrontational – and effortlessly readable novel. 
It’s well-worth revisiting.

 ‘Platt is a ‘writer’, and he doesn’t care for labels…’ 
 (Philip José Farmer)

Shit. Eat, excrete and reproduce. That’s what organisms do. That’s the behavior humans share with every other organism in the biosphere. As a literature of speculation, Science Fiction has dealt extensively with future-cuisine and the varieties of sexual expression. But has very little to say about the other basic function. Brian Aldiss ‘let defecation commence’ with his explosively satirical ‘The Dark Light Years’ (1964), concerning the alien Utods to whom excrement is central to their culture. Charles Platt’s ‘The Garbage World’ (1968) takes the subject down an alternate cosmic s-bend.

In his introduction to the ebook edition, Platt writes that ‘human colonies in the asteroid belt were a common feature of science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet in all the stories and novels that I ever saw, the writers ignored a fundamental problem. People generate trash. If you’re living on an asteroid, where are you going to put it?’ (‘A Scatological Singularity’, 2017). So Kopra becomes the garbage asteroid, a ‘foetid cesspool of a world’. Its name a play on coprophilia, coprophagia, coprology, coprolite and other words derived from the Greek ‘kopros’ for dung. ‘The asteroid is named Kopra, just in case anyone didn’t get it.’

Located in an asteroid belt, not specifically the one orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, but it seems to be in the future solar system, with the other planetoids of the group terraformed into antiseptic pleasure worlds which have been dumping their waste products onto Kopra for a century. Until it’s become a compost heap of steaming waste, viscous brown garbage-dunes hazed in pungent yellow gas, with trace-radioactivity producing jungles of mutant plantlife. The Kopran inhabitants – ‘defiant social rejects’, live a primitive life by scavenging from the ‘brown landscape of steaming refuse’ deposited by incoming blimps, which are shaped like ‘giant, fifty-foot-long sausages’. Again, a fairly obvious symbolism.

“The Garbage World” formed the ideal ‘New Worlds’ serial for its time, a scatological satire to satisfy New Wavers, yet with a fast plot-driven space-adventure narrative for those who prefer more traditional SF forms. It first appeared in two-parts in issues nos. 167 and no.168 (October and November 1966), under Michael Moorcock’s editorship. The first episode cover-illustrated by Keith Roberts with inner art by James Cawthorn. To Platt, it was what Moorcock saw as being ‘easily accessible’, ‘which was the term he used for fiction that people would not find too challenging. If readers started with the conventional stuff, they might be more willing to try other stories in the magazine that were somewhat unconventional.’ Delving deeper, it’s also a cleverly disguised nudge at the disposable consumer society with Junk-Yard Angel counter-culture cross-overs. Even now, in the twenty-first century, there are Third World peoples who inhabit landfill sites and live by scavenging through the waste matter of the affluent free-market cities all around them. Platt simply got in first. The serial graduated into novel-form through Berkley Medallion in November 1967, before its UK debut as part of the Panther Science Fiction imprint in 1968.

The plot opens with a first-contact situation when an imperial navy Survey ship from the ‘Government of the United Asteroid Belt Inhabited Pleasure World Federation’ alights in the garbage dunes for dialogue with Isaac Gaylord, headman of the shanty village. Gaylord picks his nose, and when he scratches his head small insects and dirt-flakes drop from his scalp. He resembles the protagonist in Philip José Farmer’s 1962 story-compilation ‘The Alley God’, which Platt ‘revered’.

The confrontation leads to a cultural stand-off represented by the hygiene-obsessed worlds represented by Captain Sterril (sterile), to whom Kopra is ‘a blemish in the flawless purity of the rest of the asteroid belt,’ and the Koprans contentedly wallowing in filth, ‘trapped at the anal stage of their development.’ The action hinges on a scheme to evacuate Kopra while vital upgrades are made to its ‘botched’ artificial-gravity, which is threatened by a century’s unwieldy build-up of waste. Or is this a pretext for something more sinister, as Lucian Roach begins to suspect? While there’s a star-crossed lover’s flirtation between Roach, the expedition’s Observer and Recorder, with the lovely Juliette, Isaac’s grubby daughter.

Platt was once ‘Ralph T Castle’ – ‘which is an anagram of my real name’, on Facebook, until he came out from behind the guise on 17 August 2017. ‘For many years I’ve kept my name separate from Facebook because I didn't want to be searchable here. But I think fewer young people are using Facebook these days, and the overlap is unimportant. If you were ‘Friended’ by Ralph T. Castle you’ll see me as Charles Platt when I complete the Facebook renaming process.’ Me? I ‘Friended’ both Castle, and Platt.

I frequently refer to Platt’s ‘Who Writes Science Fiction?’ (Savoy Books, 1980), a collection of interviews with writers he terms ‘the weirdest and most wonderful inhabitants of the literary worlds,’ across the SF spectrum from Isaac Asimov and EC Tubb through Robert Silverberg and Brian Aldiss to Philip K Dick and Harlan Ellison. Although he claims his own greatest influences were Alfred Bester – ‘the great innovator of the 1950s’ who ‘alone among science-fiction writers of his generation, seemed truly keyed into modern media, and the arts, urban style and fashion’, and JG Ballard – ‘the great innovator of the 1960s’. Born in London, 26 April 1945, he edited his school magazine through which he published early Michael Butterworth fiction, and freelanced his own photography. As early as December 1963 he was contributing letters-of-comment to the BSFA magazine ‘Vector’, to Graham Charnock’s ‘Phile’, and cover-art for the fanzine ‘Beyond’ (April 1964). His first fiction sale – “One Of Those Days”, appeared in ‘Science Fantasy’ (no.68, December 1964) under Kyril Bonfiglioli’s editorship. A brief niggling marital dialogue exasperated by heat and noise, leads to accidental domestic death.

He started writing full-time after dropping out of Cambridge University, where he’d studied economics for a couple of terms. Graduating to ‘New Worlds’ for the novelette “Lone Zone” (no.152, July 1965), in which amoral Loners roam the depopulated Linear City Seven, ‘the entire material resources of the earth plundered in a panic-stricken rush to build for a generation that never arrived.’ Four feral youth and one confused civic are pursued through a JG Ballard landscape of empty malls and towerblocks, trekking through empty London, skirting the Cenlon centre where a semblance of outmoded civilization survives. With Platt aged just twenty, it’s a remarkably consistent bleakly existential future-vision, singled out by Ballard himself as a ‘wholly original attempt… to enlarge the scope and subject matter of science fiction’ (in ‘New Worlds’ no.167).

Platt played keyboards with various Rock bands, which might have fed into “The Failures” (‘New Worlds’ no.158, January 1966), where Gregg – vocalist with the charting Ephemerals is beguiled by enigmatic Cathy, to eventually lose her. With minimal SF content, Gregg restlessly frequents the transient beat-group milieu of a Notting Hill Gate crash-pad with detailed descriptions of rolling joints and getting high, vivid with dialogue and speeding atmosphere. It was followed by “The Disaster Story” (no.160, March 1966) a brief personal rumination on surviving the end of civilization. And, working chronologically through his published tales, by “The Rodent Laboratory” (no.165, August 1966) – where rats in a population-density experiment mirror the laboratory-bunker compression around them, both enclosed societies peaking into breaking-point.

At the same time, his ability as book-jacket designer, photographer and illustrator became an asset when the name ‘Charles Platt’ was added to the ‘New Worlds’ colophon as ‘Designer’. He also graduated to editing stints. ‘I just had to keep cranking out an issue of ‘New Worlds’ every month’ he tells me. ‘Sixty-four pages plus covers.’ He went on to co-compile the paperback-format ‘New Worlds 7’ (1975) with Hilary Bailey. ‘It didn't leave me with much time.’

His sequence of tales was nevertheless followed by a unique joint effort with the amazing Barrington J Bayley, “A Taste Of The Afterlife” (no.166, September 1966). Anticipating Joel Schumacher’s 1990 movie ‘Flatliners’, and its 2017 remake, the story concerns the use of ‘afterlife’ techniques in a Cold War espionage setting, where Fairweather is ‘killed’, and then functions as a ‘pseudo-electromagnetic field entity’ to penetrate and sabotage a Soviet installation. After being attacked by enemy afterlifers, he reawakens in his own body, only to learn that the project is to be endlessly repeated as the political confrontation escalates. Religious interpretations of the ‘soul’ are dismissed as ‘nonsense’, in genuinely original metaphysical speculation, albeit in a fast-moving plot.

Platt’s next appearance was with the two-part “The Garbage World”, trailered as ‘an entertaining new satire dealing with the very quintessence of capitalism’. Well, maybe. The concept had been bantered around ‘during one of many drunken evenings at Michael Moorcock’s London flat... we were taking a break from working on ‘New Worlds’ magazine, and I was sitting on the floor while he strummed an out-of-tune acoustic guitar.’ Platt recalls how ‘I mentioned that I was contemplating a novel set in a world of garbage,’ and, despite Moorcock’s amused incredulity, he went ahead and developed the idea.

‘I wrote the novel in a small ground-floor flat at 70 Ledbury Road, in the Notting Hill area of London’ he recalls. ‘I no longer lived in the decaying tenement full of sociopaths and drug users that had inspired “Lone Zone.” My current accommodation seemed quite civilized, being furnished with wall-to-wall carpet. Actually it was car carpet, which my father had obtained wholesale from Vauxhall Motors, where he was Chief Engineer. The carpet had an industrial look, and I slept on a second-hand mattress on the floor, but by my standards, it was sumptuous’ (‘A Scatological Singularity’, 2017). ‘The Garbage World’ has since evolved into e-format. Platt explains ‘I had to write an introduction to the electronic edition, and I wondered how I managed to make a two-part serial into a novel. But I didn’t take the trouble to find out. Just lazy I guess.’

In fact, there are differences between the slim magazine version, and the resulting expanded novel. In the serial even the Koprans wear air filters within their nostrils. And the muddy drunken orgy at the Garbage Impact site was originally set in the village itself where ‘they built a great bonfire in the road, and all the lights and all the TV sets were turned on, each one tuned to a different station. The people just seemed to like a lot of background noise.’ To Lucian, ‘the idea of such permissiveness was unsettling,’ although he’s wavering.

There are comic sequences of a hung-over Gaylord stumbling amok aboard the Survey Craft, befouling Lucian’s cabin with vomit and filth – more explicit in the novel than in the serial, and confronting the prissy Minister Larkin (a character based by Platt ‘on my fastidious tutor, Ellis Larkin, at the London College of Printing and Graphic Arts. I saw no need to modify his name’). The disciplinary action that follows the chaos results in Lucian dispatched on a three-day trip to round up feral Kopran nomads, with Gaylord hunting his stolen ‘hoard’ of salvaged treasures, and Juliette aboard the tractor as guide.

With the power-source and radio sabotaged, they’re wrecked in a mud-lake where they’re attacked by a giant predatory slug. In the novel, they’re rescued by junk-hunting nomads, only to fall into a fissure opened up by storm-lightning, garbage-tremors and blimp impact, to be rescued again by nomads using long roots as cables. In the serial they encounter no wild nomads at all. Either way, they must trek back on foot through a deluge of piss-yellow rain, while Lucian and Juliette overcome their cultural differences sufficient to get it together in romping love-making, splashing around in an oozing muddy pool.

In correspondence Platt points out that ‘you will also find numerous tiny differences between the text of the US novel and the UK novel, because the US editor, Damon Knight, believed in doing a lot of line editing. He showed me a few sample manuscript pages, and I said ‘Go ahead, do whatever you like.’

Following the serialization of “The Garbage World” came “The Total Experience Kick” (no.169, December 1966) – collected into Judith Merril’s influential anthology ‘England Swings SF’ (Doubleday, 1968) as well as Michael Moorcock’s ‘The Best SF Stories From New Worlds no.2’ (Berkley Medallion, 1969), before “The City Dwellers” (no.176, October 1967) took him forward both into the new format ‘New Worlds’ and into his next novel ‘The City Dwellers’ (Sidgwick & Jackson, March 1970), which reconfigures the early magazine tales.

Although obviously related to the “The Failures”, and to the passages in the novel that mirror it, “The Total Experience Kick” story is a stand-alone spin-off, a music-technology satire where Joe Forrest of Sound Trends infiltrates Harry King’s laboratory intent on learning its secrets. The ‘Total Experience Kick’, he discovers, is a kind of sensurround psychedelic-feelie emotional-feedback projection that has propelled Marc Nova to overnight stardom and evolved the industry in ways that subsequent real-life developments only in part reflect. SAM – Statistically Average Man operates as a test-audience now does for new movies.

The novel itself links expanded versions of “The Failures” to “Lone Zone” into a potential ‘Greybeard’-world, in which the SF-elements – cybernet, synthfood, dream-relax machines, zero-G booths, can seem irrelevant and time-locked. Gregg is no longer with the Ephemerals group, and no longer opens with a Lennon-McCartney number (“The Total Experience Kick” quotes ‘the last three chords in “She Loves You” are the best example’). Gregg wears tomorrow-clothes and plays Total Experience shows. Characters are adrift in a milieu of drugs and casual sex. Doomsayer thalidomide-victim Jameison is smashed to death, after first predicting how declining populations will affect future urban communities ‘Something’s happened, no-one knows what. Psychological, biological… all I know is, women aren’t having children. And the economy’s showing the strain.’

A bridging sequence about Julius and Hilary in their rural retreat, torn apart by city revelers, takes the narrative over into the vast urban emptiness of Lone Zone, where the city has become a ‘giant concrete graveyard’. With Part Four shunting further into a final orgy of destruction as The Last Generation devolution hold riot nights with Mad Max autos between ‘the tall apartment blocks, empty and dead, but magnificent in their stark bare symmetry’. Essentially the story from no.176 – the Twenty-First Anniversary issue of ‘New Worlds’, its stark photo-art catches the mood as survivors Manning and Carole abandon urban living, walking ‘on slowly along the street, heading northwards, towards the city limits and the countryside.’ Despite its fragmented structure the novel builds into a genuinely affecting vision of entropy and slow depopulation.

And then there’s ‘The Gas’ (1970). In an introduction to an expanded 1980 Savoy Books edition Philip José Farmer explain how the book ‘uses a science-fiction premise as the rationale for the wild, orgiastic, often violent and sometimes humorous events.’ The escape of a yellow chemical vapour from a secret germ-warfare laboratory has the effect of deleting social inhibiters to extents way beyond the limits of current political correctness, and more into the openly ribald historical mainstream of Sadean pornographic writing. No taboo is too sacred not to be drawn into the playful swirling tongue-in-every-imaginable orifice tale, as Vincent attempts to reach wife Judith in London, stealing cars and a light aircraft with hitchhiker Cathy and an old priest in tow, through a grotesque comedy of erotic excess. ‘She was screaming, he was shouting, they were both coming, the car was a rocketship aimed at the stars, all the jets were firing, colours flashed in front of his eyes.’ It becomes darker as Vincent heads north with his family in a station-wagon, with blasphemous Nuns, cannibalism, an exploding landlady, and the scabrous revenge Platt inflicts on the Cambridge academic elite.

Meanwhile, on Kopra, issues are also brought to an explosive climax. Gaylord’s effete adopted son Norman is revealed as the perpetrator of the hoard-theft, and of sabotaging the expedition with murderous intent, in a misguided attempt to gain off-worlder approval. A clean misfit in a dirty world, he commits dramatic suicide in the serial when his scheme fails. For the novel, Platt takes pity on him and rescues him. While Larkin’s sinister secret plans are not to implement vital upgrades to the offending asteroid’s ‘botched’ artificial-gravity, but to use a ‘hundred-megaton shaped charge’ to blast it into four precise pieces which can then be discretely re-sited, while the inhabitants are mentally-purged through psycho-surgery… Lucian too, seeing as he’s ‘gone native’.

With guile and resourcefulness the Koprans use the Survey Ship to escape, as Norman’s tampering with the charge results in the ‘garbage world exploded into a million muddy fragments in a burst of red-hot fire, while a thousand sterile pleasure worlds cowered before a vast cloud of filth.’ As Lucian and Juliette make love on the control cabin acceleration couch, the partying evacuees have any number of befouled new Kopras to settle. In a happily messy conclusion.

The conventional writer-evolution from short-stories into novels was ruptured by Platt leaving England in 1970, and settling in New York – into a ‘horrible five-feet-by-ten-feet $30-dollar-a-month room’, where he ‘wrote some undistinguished novels in order to finance an itinerant life-style’ including – according to a book-blurb, a handbook on outdoor survival, ‘a biography of a striptease artiste, and an intercourse positions guide’. He was then appointed consulting editor at Avon Books where he was instrumental in their ‘rediscovery’ list of SF classics, before he claims ‘science fiction diverged from me.’

‘Most of my friends know that I write educational books for young people under the name Charles Platt,’ he says now. Yet despite his diverse creativity-levels across the decades since, the 1960s Charles Platt legacy of tales and books remains collectable and highly readable. When I tell him I’m rereading that phase of his work in general, with a focus on ‘The Garbage World’ he responds ‘Ha! What a strange thing to do! It’s kind of you, though, to remember my old book.’

Humans are a garbage-producing species. The earliest evidence that archaeologists find of cave-habitation is the midden spoil-tip. The legacy we leave for future generations is landfills and oceans of floating plastic junk-islands. In Platt’s fiction, it’s possible to make a case for a shared tendency towards direct fleshy responses over literary intellectual ones. In ‘The City Dweller’ Cathy gives up her tainted luxury life-style, to surrender into the drugged sleazy sensuality of the Slum Zone. In ‘The Gas’ repressed libidos are released with orgiastic results. Just as Lucian is seduced into seeing the muddy virtues of the Kopran life-style. But although Earth itself has become a ‘Garbage World’, as a comment on our urban over-obsession with antiseptic germ-free hygiene, if anything the situation has intensified. Because contact with dirt – as Lucian discovers, can occasionally be beneficial.

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