Leonard Daventry’s novel, A Man of Double Deed, is another that had been brought to my attention in Ian Sales’ series of posts on British SF Masterworks.
One of the things that is interesting about reading science fiction novels from this time is seeing the future through their eyes; especially as in many cases we are now living in that very future. Our failure to destroy ourselves in a nuclear apocalypse is A Good Thing and it’s always quaint to see British astronauts sharing centre stage with their American and Soviet colleagues (as in more than one Arthur C. Clarke short story that I can recall). Indeed, the willingness of the USSR and American space agencies to cooperate in these stories almost seems like a hangover from the uneasy alliances of the second world war or a (with, admittedly, hindsight) naive belief that space exploration would transcend political rivalry and potentially unite all of humanity rather than the grubby race that lost impetus in the 1970s once an arbitrary goal had been achieved.
There are other element of the novel that 9 year old me, armed with a Big Book of Space, would have laughed at; the idea that it would have been relatively easy to live and work on Mercury and Venus (and that the people of earth would be able to easily exploit the labour of the natives of Venus). Amusing as these may seem now, they are easy easy enough to let pass.
What is often more difficult allow is the society that such novels portray. This isn’t to suggest that if I come across a novel that, in all other respects, is interesting, enjoyable and well-written that I will automatically dismiss it because the mores of the time are at odds with mine or that there are words used with which I am uncomfortable as meanings change. Neither, though, can one ignore the society that these novels portray.
A Man of Double Deed features one Claus Coman, a telepath (or ‘keyman’) whose ability makes him distrusted and feared by many on Earth, though it does also allow him a special position within society, operating as a secret agent. This novel is British and so, although he does have what constitutes a super power, Coman isn’t the lantern-jawed hero of many an American SF novel (I should note here that I’m not suggesting that British SF is inherently superior to that of our American cousins. Far from it, I’m watching Star Trek as I type this). There is, however, something peculiarly British about Coman.
He is also, for the year 2090, something of a throwback. He smokes cigarettes (which has long been illegal in this year) and limits (!) himself to two women. This, I have to confess, did initially feel a little like 1960s male SF wish fulfilment. Although it is true that it seems that bonding for life is unusual (and almost considered deviant) which one could imagine to be liberating for either sex, Coman’s menage a trois, does appear to favour the desires of men. Later in the novel, however, Daventry does attempt to treat sexuality with a little, but only a little, more subtlety. One of his lovers, Sein, does have an unfortunate desire to live as women did two centuries previously; in thrall to the men and children in her life. the example of Jonl is a little more heartening. She has skills (she has telepathic ability of her own) and desires that are not related exclusively to the pleasing of men, although she chooses not to use them. Further, her father a powerful man, is disapproving of her permanent bonding with Coman. He is portrayed as currently being attracted to other men; I think that this is handled in a reasonable enough manner, even if his current partner (of whom we see very little) does seem to be more of a mincing stereotype than I’d like to see. That probably just points to the time at which the novel was written than any homophobia in the novel, however.
The plot of the novel concerns itself with a problem faced by the world. The youth are engaged in inexplicable bouts of frenzied killing, followed by suicide. The World Council (another idea that seems quaint nowadays!) intends to transport the problem off world. For reasons that are never really fully explored, there is a conspiracy against this plan. Coman’s job is to break the back of this conspiracy and allow the plan to be effected. That’s basically it. Though not everything is fully explained, the story and the arguments of the characters in the pursuit of their aims are generally well handled – certainly better than the tedious pontificating of a Heinlein character!
One thing that did grate a little, though, was the fear of youth that drives the novel. I’m not sure that it’s necessarily Daventry giving us a warning about what will happen if we do not watch our children carefully. Indeed the regrettable tendency to see our own children as something to fear certainly existed in the 1960s (the divides that the Vietnam war brought about) and is in the media again. That isn’t to say, though, that I find it slightly distasteful. One could interpret wars, especially the first world war, as being a terrible violence inflicted by old men upon their children and grandchildren. Indeed, this is probably true of most wars. The decisions that lead to the wasteful snuffing out of a persons potential are rarely, if ever, taken by the people that actually have to risk their lives.
I have to admit to being somewhat ambivalent towards this novel. It is very much of the time in which it was written and I can forgive most of that. I’m not that unsophisticated. I am usually interested by novels featuring telepathy and it is nice to see a male lead who, while competent, isn’t the archetype of a SF competent man. He has a little more depth than that. The youth in revolt narrative does irritate me, but that’s not to say that it entirely kills the novel. There is a lot of ethical discussion in this novel, but it mostly feels like conversations that real human beings would have and avoids the tedium of lesser (though more feted) work.
I can’t say that I particularly recommend it, but nor did I hate it. I think that it would perhaps be nice if this book were more easily available in order that people could find their own way to it. I didn’t love it, but nor is it horrible. There are worse novels that continue to be available.