Friday, July 1, 2016

The Steel Crocodile by D. G. Compton

"Why are you keeping an eye on me?"
"And that's all you know?"
"More than that'd only be trouble to me."
"Do you often have to watch perfectly innocent people?"
"Innocent's a big word."  He scratched his cheek.  "But I expect so."
"And that's the way you serve society?"
"I hadn't thought about it.  I don't see why not.  It's a job in a growth profession--aren't many of them left."

In our last episode I read, for the first time, one of Joachim Boaz's fave authors who perhaps is nowadays underappreciated, Langdon Jones.  Let's repeat that experiment today, this time with Boaz-approved D. G. Compton's The Steel Crocodile.  Joachim wrote about the 1970 novel back in 2011, so my memory of his review has had time to fade and I can attack this work without many preconceptions.  I own the Ace paperback, Ace 78575, with the cover by the Dillons.  I love the title--is there any hope this novel is about a tremendous mechanical war machine, like the ones in Jack Vance's  The Killing Machine and Michael Moorcock's Land Leviathan?  Let's see!

(It seems that the original British title was Electric Crocodile, which sounds like a disco dance move. Writers always complain that editors change their titles, but sometimes the revised title is an improvement!)

The people of Europe, united under a single heavy-handed and surveillance-obsessed government, live uneasily in a world characterized by unemployment and political murder.  Ripped from today's headlines, eh? Well, at least the members of the British elite (i.e., government workers) in this world enjoy such luxuries as laser pistols, force fields, carcinogen-free cigarettes and electric cars.

Matthew Oliver is one of these elites of post-industrial Europe, a sociologist who works for the government and thus enjoys the selfless generosity (ha ha) of the taxpayers. He's got two electric cars, and, before the book is a quarter of the way through, is temporarily moving out of his fine London demesne into a second beautiful house! You see, he just got a cushy job at a government research center in the country, the Colindale Institute, and is provided housing on the fortified campus.  He also is provided his own bodyguard! (Wait, that guy seems as much like a jailer, or "gaoler" as our English friends might put it, as a bodyguard.)  Maybe Matthew needs that bodyguard--his predecessor as director of the sociology department at Colindale was assassinated!  Quite the coincidence--just this week one of Matthew's old college chums, Edward Gryphon, also got himself assassinated! And Matthew was one of the last people to see him alive!

Gryphon was one of those people who thought the government was too oppressive, what with all that spying and censorship and all that bother, and was a big wig in the underground, illegal but somewhat tolerated, Civil Liberties Committee. When Gryphon found out Matthew was going to become a department head at Colindale, he wanted to ask his old buddy to act as a sort of spy in there, to uncover what the government was up to behind that force field.  Being something of a civil libertarian himself, Matthew had, albeit reluctantly, agreed.

Around page 100 Matthew is told the secret of Colindale--they have the world's most powerful computer, the Bohn 507!  This machine can, through extrapolation after reading all the latest scholarly periodicals, predict future scientific and technological developments!  Sounds awesome, right?  But it presents Matthew with a moral dilemma. The scientists, who of course think they are smarter than everybody else and have contempt for democracy, are keeping their predictive ability a secret and using their influence to stifle research they disapprove of.  For example, when a young student figured out a way to make organ transplants more widely available, the boffins at Colindale fallaciously discredited her research and ruined her career because more transplants would mean an economically undesirable increase in population!  Matthew has to choose whether to wholeheartedly join this team of egghead manipulators, or to expose them the way his late pal Gryphon and the Civil Liberties Committee would want.

Steel Crocodile has some of the structure and tone of a noirish detective story and/or a cynical spy novel.  There are many characters and we wonder which are murderers, which are spies, which are working for the European Federation and which are working against it, and Compton tosses out little clues here and there to fuel our speculations.  I often complain that a book has too many characters, but not this time: I was pleasantly surprised at how well-written the book was, and Compton, who spends a lot of time on the characters and their relationships and emotions, makes all these people distinctive and interesting.  (Anne McCaffrey, in her blurb on the back of my copy, appropriately highlights this welcome facet of the novel.) 

The most important and compelling character in the book may be Matthew's wife, Abigail.  A dedicated Roman Catholic from a poor family, Abigail has her own attitudes and beliefs about Gryphon and about the Colindale Institute, and is at the center of moving subplots that involve her aged grandfather and her younger brother. Through these male blood relations of Abigail's we get an idea of how unfulfilling life is for many people in post-industrial big-government Europe--both Grandpa and her brother Paul are totally alienated from modern society.  In a great scene at the nursing home Gramps denounces all the available television programmes (including a documentary extolling the virtues of post-industrial European life that he thinks is full of "rubbish") and declares he wishes he was dead.  Meanwhile, Abigail loans Paul a packet of dough for some ostensibly benign purpose, only to later realize he is going to use the money to finance revolutionary violence!

Abigail and Matthew's marriage is at the center of the novel--while Matthew has some sympathy with the elitist technocracy of Colindale, Abigail is dead set against it from the moment she hears about it. Is this because of her staunch beliefs in democracy and free will, informed by her Catholic faith? Or because she is a passive person who naively trusts things will work out for the best and is unwilling to take any risks or responsibilities to make change happen?

In the final chapters of the book Matthew is told by the Colindale Center director, Bollin, that the Institute's double-super-secret self-appointed mission is to repair the malaise suffered by European society by producing a messianic leader!  They input all the sociological data they can find into the Bohn 507, and ask it what sort of messiah the European people are in the mood to embrace, and then ask it to identify just the person to lead the masses to tranquility.  To the shock and amazement of everybody, Bohn 507 calculates that the people of Europe are ripe for spiritual leadership from none other than Bohn 507 itself!  

(When we and Matthew first hear about the Bohn 507, the Colindale staff call it "Boney," presumably Compton's sly reference to that pan-European tyrant of the climax of the 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte.  Is Compton suggesting that at the climax of the 20th century we will see arise from the crises brought about by the welfare state and the technological age a computerized technocratic tyranny, the way Bonaparte arose from the conditions created by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution?)

Bollin decides to scrap the whole project, and seconds later the bomb set by Paul and his group explodes, killing "Boney," Bollin and poor Matthew.  Paul dies in a laser shootout with the authorities, and Abigail is dragged off to a lifetime of confinement. When she asks for a lawyer she is told the government is not pressing legal charges, but putting her in a mental institution--there are no due process mechanisms to hinder the state from imprisoning those deemed mentally unstable. 

Steel Crocodile is one of those novels that reminds you that life is pointless and meaningless.  Habitually passive Abigail takes action, and her actions are a series of blunders and she ends up imprisoned in a mental institution.  Matthew vacillates between individualist libertarianism and paternalistic elitism, does nothing to further either of them, ruins his marriage and gets killed.  Director Bollin works himself to the bone, and then realizes his big project is a total failure, a dangerous menace that has to be abandoned.  Paul and his fellow saboteurs commit terrible sins--theft, deception, vandalism, murder--for nothing, as the director was going to shut down the computer anyway, and their sabotage campaign merely serves to kill people needlessly.  (When I mentioned cynical spy novels above I had in mind John Le Carre's Looking Glass War, in which naive people try to fight for freedom against tyranny and blunder stupidly, causing innocent people to suffer.) 

Compton's novel is also about how difficult human relationships are, how we are all truly and terribly alone.  Again and again characters, most prominently Abigail, reach out to other people in hopes of making physical or emotional contact, of achieving some kind of intimacy or sharing some kind of support.  These people reach out only to be rebuffed, or, perhaps worse, grudgingly tolerated.  In one sad scene Matthew and Abigail have sex out of a sense of duty rather than love or lust, and then Matthew lays awake in bed beside her as she sleeps, regretting their "lovemaking."

I don't think there are any positive, fulfilling relationships in this book.  Matthew and Abigail's marriage collapses under the weight of their differences over Colindale; Bollin's marriage is shown to be cold, even abusive; Paul exploits his relationship with his sister; Matthew and Abigail both have bad relationships with their parents.  Steel Crocodile reminds us that, even if we say and even believe relationships with family and friends are the most important things in our lives, we don't necessarily act that way, and when we do, we often find ourselves disappointed.  Several times in the book Matthew tells himself that his marriage to Abigail is the most important thing in his life, but he risks it all pursuing the Institute's schemes and his own career; other times he regrets all the accommodations he has made for her in his efforts to make their marriage work.  Is this book trying to turn you into a hermit?

I'm not exactly sure what attitude towards government and religion Compton is putting forward in Steel Crocdile.  Obviously the European Federation is oppressive and corrupt, but Compton offers no ringing endorsement of representative government or the liberty of the individual or social equality or anything like that.  The people in the book who do talk up such things turn out to be liars or fuckups.  I'm afraid Compton is hinting that people get the government they deserve, that government is a reflection of the people's morals, and since we are bad, our government will be bad.  Similarly, while it seems possible that the book is lamenting the collapse of religious faith, Abigail's faith doesn't seem to do her much good--it seems to make her naive and passive.  It is perhaps noteworthy that Paul and the other saboteurs are at least nominally Christians, but spend the book lying, murdering, starting gunfights, etc.  If religion is supposed to make life more bearable and make society more stable it doesn't seem to be fulfilling its purpose in this book.  Is this book trying to tell us life sucks and there is nothing we can do about it?

Well, there's no gigantic war machine, but Steel Crocodile is very good and I strongly recommend it.  Compton masters all that technical stuff I sometimes talk about on this blog, pacing and economy and structure and tone and all that, and he addresses fascinating issues like government, religion, and human relationships.  The little SF touches, like high tech means of shaving and packing boxes for a move, and how a society might respond to a dearth of work for ordinary people, are also good.  Joachim has been promoting Compton for years--maybe I should have listened to his advice sooner!


  1. Great review. I think you nailed what makes Compton such a powerful voice and simultaneously a forgotten one -- his focus on a variety of relationships that are not all positive ones (Farewell, Earth's Bliss does this especially well they are convicts on Mars are from all different backgrounds for a vast range of crimes---from burning an African-American man to petty theft---despite little space devoted to each character Compton manages to render each in a very articulate and powerful way).

    I was very happy that Gollancz picked up The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974) which is by far his best for their masterwork series...

  2. Thanks for your kind words, and thanks for promoting Compton. There are so many books on the shelves I would probably have just ignored Steel Crocodile if I hadn't recalled your praise of Compton. Now I will be keeping my eyes open for him.