Ascendancies – D.G. Compton

I was attracted to reading D.G. Compton by some of the posts around the time of the British S.F. Masterworks meme. It seems that he hasn’t published anything since the late 1990s and, as far as I can tell, there’s nothing still in print. However, it isn’t too difficult to get a hold of second hand copies of most of his work. Indeed, I managed to get a nice yellow jacket Gollancz edition of his 1980 novel Ascendancies quite cheaply.

Published in 1980 and set in a 1986 where a mysterious substance is falling to the ground, described as Moondrift in the novel although it is acknowledged that everybody is aware that it doesn’t come from the moon, which is both a perfect clean energy source and fertiliser has solved both the problems of energy supply and food production. This has wrought some changes, notably that there is now legally a three day working week. The other thing to note about the (then) future world is that there are also unexplained Disappearances signalled by the Singing (a combination of sound and smell). Apparently at random people disappear and nobody knows where they go.

The novel opens with Richard Wallingford, a loss adjuster for the Accident and General Insurance Company going to see Caroline Trenchard regarding the claim that she is making against the policy on her husband Havelock’s life. The death policy won’t pay if it is discovered that Havelock is not dead and has only disappeared. Wallingford is conscientious and discovers that the body of Havelock is, in fact, a replacement so that she can make the claim without waiting the seven years before a missing person is declared dead.

On discovering this deception, Wallingford takes the opportunity to blackmail Trenchard for a share of the insurance money; initially he looks for a fifty-fifty split, but Trenchard uses her superior social situation to knock him down to sixty-forty and she believes that she could lean on him further. I think that this holds the key to the novel. Although it is set in the future and has some science fiction, social class and the interactions between classes are at its heart. Indeed the Moondrift is almost incidental.

As noted, Compton was picked up in the Bristish SF Masterworks meme. And it is an incredibly British novel. I’m not making this point as being an inherently good thing; I don’t wish to imply any chauvinistic insistence that British SF is superior to anything else produced or, conversely, that it is poorer than that written by non-UK writers. It’s just different.

This does potentially present a problem for some readers, I think. Compton’s novel is particularly misanthropic. He doesn’t seem to have a great deal of time for any of his characters. None of them are portrayed in a particularly sympathetic light. The other thing is that the world of 1986, despite apparently unlimited energy and food, is far from a post-scarcity paradise where all are equal and free to pursue their dreams and realise their potential. It is a class-ridden country.

In Ascendancies, Trenchard is of the upper-class and enjoys a bohemian lifestyle, whilst Wallingford is a lower-middle class clerk and we are reminded often by the two of them and their friends that their relationship is not quite suitable. When visiting her house, Wallingford notes his disapproval of her lifestyle while in several scenes he is reminded of his lower status by Trenchard’s friends.

“Suddenly she seemed to make up her mind. ‘The joke,’ she said crisply, ‘was that Lesley had a passion for lorry drivers. As lovers, you understand. They never lasted more than a week or two. But she could always pick up another. As long as they had thick hairy arms, she said, she wasn’t fussy. And she gave them hell. The whole group did, one way or another. Christ, how they must have hated us.’

Richard was hot behind the ears. He gripped the wheel tightly, possessed by torrid versions of Lesley, and the vicarious joys of thick hairy arms about her body. His body. No, her body. And closed his eyes briefly in disgust.

‘So?’ he queried, his voice husky, but keeping to the point at issue.

Mrs Trenchard folded her hands in her lap. ‘James’s suggestion was that you were my lorry driver.’ She seemed to think this sufficient.

‘But I don’t have thick hairy arms.’

‘The metaphor, Richard, is one of social and intellectual differences. Lesley is a Doctor of Philosophy.'”

This conversation continues and the point is forced home by Caroline suggesting that James is imagining Richard to be nasty and common.

This kind of exchange and characterisation seems to me to be peculiarly British and perhaps confusing if you are unfamiliar with the vagaries of the British class system. There is a slight sense that the depiction of it is somewhat dated. The portrayal of the differences between and the barriers that separate Richard from Caroline and her friends are slightly unrecognisable to me. Of course, this could just be because I’m not of sufficiently high social status and don’t recognise the life that they enjoy. What I think is more likely, however, is that things have changed. As noted, I don’t think that they have changed in the sense that class is no longer a factor in British society. Rather that I’m inclined to feel that there is merely the illusion of progress. That is to say that the upper classes wouldn’t dream of suggesting that the lower orders are in some way of poorer stock, characterised by an excess of body hair and lower intelligence. They just are more subtle in the way that they pursue their own ends.

Compton’s misanthropy and disregard for his own characters is quite possibly too much for some people, although it is leavened (slightly) by his excellent writing. If the subject matter wasn’t particularly joyous, it was nonetheless a pleasure to read. Compton is certainly one of the better prose writers in SF.

I realise that I have focused a great deal on the class aspect of the novel. This is deliberate. As noted, the Moondrift and the story of the blackmail and the way that this unfolds, though tightly and satisfyingly plotted, are almost incidental to the novel. They serve as a SFnal backdrop to Compton’s examination of the relationship between Trenchard and Wallingford. Also, if the extreme Britishness of the novel may seem off-putting, I think it’s more subtle than that. Clearly Caroline and her cronies are the privileged elite in all of this; despite this, and I have to confess it’s difficult to feel particularly sorry for them, they are as trapped by class as is Richard. Furthermore, the barriers are, in some ways, self imposed. It’s not, perhaps, quite correct to suggest that he is happy with his lot, but he certainly is disapproving of Caroline’s lifestyle and behaviour. All of the characters find it hard to transcend their roots; even when, as did Lesley’s friend, it’s unsatisfying and unequal.

Though Compton is depicting something specific to Britain, I think that the idea of barriers, both external and maintained internally is one that transcends this. Some of it does seem a little dated and almost quaint, but that doesn’t stop me from being of the opinion that it’s a pity that Compton’s work (not that it’s impossible to find) isn’t easily available any longer.

An enjoyable novel, I look forward to reading more from Compton.

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7 Responses to Ascendancies – D.G. Compton

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Great review! I just discovered Compton…. I highly recommend Synthajoy (I wrote a review a while back…).

    • Richard says:

      Cheers! Aye, I think I’d seen that one, I’ve Synthajoy and a few of the others to read too. Have you any more of his stuff?

      It’s a shame that he’s not better known. Although this is a little unforgiving of his characters and I’m not convinced how well the depiction of the society has aged (though, as I say, I do think that’s more to do with dishonesty in current class relations than anything else) the general theme is still valid. And he’s certainly a more than competent writer.

  2. Joachim Boaz says:

    Yes, I have The Steel Crocodile, Chronocules, and The Unsleeping Eye all waiting to be read.

  3. Joachim Boaz says:

    Yeah my UK copy of Chronocules has the original title: Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes, and Something that Might have been Castor Oil — haha

  4. Pingback: A book a day in March | Solar Bridge

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