(1957/2019) C. L. Moore, Gollancz, £8.99 / Can$17.99 / US$14.99, pbk, 249pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22326-4
This is a reissue as the book was originally published in 1957, and it’s part of Gollancz’s new ‘Golden Age Masterworks’ series. C. L. Moore is thought to be one of the first women to successfully write science fiction in the 20th century, laying the foundations for other women to move into the genre, writing alone and with her husband (Henry Kuttner).
The story follows a washed-up actor called Howard Rohan. Once half of a Hollywood golden couple, his career has disappeared, his marriage has broken down, and he lives from one day to the next and one drink to the next, working as a farm hand. He lives in a near future America in which the government has complete control over all media, using a system called COMUS (Communications U.S.), and Presidents are elected for life. When he was America’s darling, Howard was part of that system, as his image and his films were used as an example of what true love and happiness looked like. But then his wife Miranda was unfaithful, and the whole thing fell apart. Now he’s at rock bottom, a shell of his former self, stuck in a country that seems equally as broken following a small-scale nuclear war.
Howard’s marriage isn’t the only part of COMUS that hasn’t worked. People have had enough of their daily diet of propaganda. Dissatisfaction with the system is growing, particularly in California. No-one trusts the news anymore. The President is getting old and everyone is nervously waiting for his inevitable death and replacement. The current President has been a good man. The next one may not be.
When California goes offline, cutting itself off from COMUS, Howard Rohan is pulled from his life as a cropper by a senior COMUS employee, and persuaded to go to California with a travelling theatre group. If the government can no longer reach people though radio and television, they’ll go old school, and reach them with some live action entertainment. After all, the people of California must be bored without their screens. Entertainment isn’t the real goal of the trip, however. It’s about finding those behind the rebellion and dealing with them. The power of COMUS cannot be challenged.
At first, Howard finds it difficult to integrate himself with the group, being unsure of the other members, in particular a young woman who reminds him of his wife. Rehearsals are difficult. The group is inexperienced, time is short, and they are not allowed to deviate from the script in any way. But once they reach California, and he begins to know them as individuals, he is forced to re-evaluate his life, to question COMUS and in the end, to decide which side he is really on.
The story is written in a fresh, contemporary voice and feels very relevant to today as the internet works to spread fake news specially curated by those in power in order to manipulate the general public into accepting certain things as truth (anyone who has watched The Great Hack on Netflix will see the parallels). Howard Rohan is an interesting mix, a vain, self-absorbed alcoholic who on the surface should be unlikeable, but who is made human and vulnerable through his inability to let go of his feelings for his wife, and his mistrust of others.
This book is a hidden treasure that I might not otherwise have picked up, and I liked it very much. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the influence of technology and the manipulation of the media for political gain, and anyone who likes a near future dystopian adventure.
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