Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, May 12, 2016

1970: Chronocules (Compton, D.G.)

Very enticing frame, rather tiresome portrait (3/5)

Of the three Compton novels I’ve already read, Synthajoy is my favorite, closely followed by The SteelCrocodile and Farewell, Earth’s Bliss. When picking up Chronocules, I felt the expectation of sinking myself into a warm blanket. In Compton’s novels, layers of meaning lie deep, be it figurative or literal. With each chapter (the concrete part) and each character (the abstract part), Compton somehow impregnates his novels with a vagueness that pulls at the reader longingly—Synthaoy and The Steel Crocodile excel at this, less so Farewell, Earth’s Bliss. Where Chronocules fails, perhaps, is that it’s too abstract. The aim is noble yet the follow-thru is errant; the frame is right, but the painting is wrong. Oh, what could have been…

The introduction sets a curious tone: a technologically unexplainable book appears to the simpleton named Roses Varco. The highlighted words of NAKEDNESS revolt him, but as he’s unable to tear, burn, or hack it to destruction, he simply chucks it into the sea… which is where story begin. A nameless man finds the book and strives to understand its futuristic message, but, by his own un-artistic tastes, he finds that many portions are unreadable or poorly constructed for its unseen, unknown reader. For the benefit of his own readers, he writes a kind of abridgement or transcription of the dynamic, detailed text. As his discretion, he begins the story where it had begun and continues through the events as the narrator sees them—Roses—, as the text implies—author unknown—, and as the transcriber interprets—the nameless man. Given that the narrator is a dullard and a nominated village idiot, every aspect of the story is unreliable.

Within the barely decipherable text: the Penheniot Experimental Research Village (P.E.R.V. as an acronym) is performing time travel experiments in which an object is withheld from temporal flow, only most objects tends to burn up upon reentry—the wood of chairs return in a cinder while its nails are intact. The chair’s fate is matched by any organic entry into the temporal void: cinder. The wizened Professor Kravchensky is prodded into a purely results-driven focus by the eccentric benefactor Manny Littlejohn. Much younger than the professor and with different ideals, the intelligent yet carefree and naïve Liza Simmons provides a contrast to Kravchensky’s gung ho attitude toward his research.

Along with Liza, the other so-called chrononauts—or the village that is composed of the project’s scientists—live in isolation from the rest of England, but friction between is always present: tourists are excitable, pollution kills off wildlife, disease runs amok, and the government sticks its nose into the Village’s business. Parallel to the sad state of social and civil affairs, morality also seems to be on the decline. Most of the Village’s chrononauts go about nude and engage in polyamorous affairs, yet they distance themselves from the word love. When their collective research attains milestones in the scientific sense, their questionable morality begins to affect not only their lifestyle, but also their work… the ultimate victim of which may be Roses Varco.

Poor Roses Varco is at the middle of this all, an unwilling participant in the civilization around him—he prefers to live in a hovel, of which the Village took over—and in the science around him. He goes about his simple life: fishing with a rod, petting his cats, trapping his animals, perusing his comics, etc. His life is interrupted by the naively inquisitive nature of Liz Simmons; her attention is a distraction from his simple life, a burden to his simplicity. The more Liz pushes Varco into her modern world, the more he resists with his circumfluous replies and staunch denial of her eagerness. When this boundary eventually breaks, Liz introduces Varco to a world that was full of love but also full of spite, a reality unbeknownst to her.

Great device for framing, yet the bulk of the novel is a letdown. The probes of morality of its modern-day hippy culture are interesting to an extent, but largely over-played to an annoying degree. I think that most of the conclusion is effective in terms of its moralistic analogy; in addition, it also plays with your head a bit—time travel, no less. If Compton had toned down the hedonistic/free-love culture a bit, it may have been more successful.

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