Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Day of the Shield by Antony Alban

"There she is, boys," he said soberly.  "Fortress America."
Here's a paperback I bought because of the Richard Powers cover, Antony Alban's 1973 The Day of the Shield.  Who is Antony Alban, you ask?  isfdb tells us "Antony Alban" is a pen name of British writer Antony Allert Thompson.  Alban does not seem to have set the SF world on fire; isfdb only lists two works by him, 1968's Catharsis Central in addition to The Day of the Shield, and if isfdb is to be believed, neither novel was ever reviewed in a SF magazine.

A minimum of googling brings up a book written under Thompson's real name: 1970's Big Brother in Britain Today.  (A few websites, including thriftbooks, which is already on my shitlist, list The People's Cookbook under his name, but I am pretty sure that is a mistake.)  That 1970 nonfiction title leads one to suspect that The Day of the Shield might be about government surveillance or propaganda or something.  Well, let's see.

The world is a mess!   A nuclear/biological war between Russia and China has turned most of Africa and Asia into desert.  Western Europe was safe behind a force field, but they aren't exactly living the good life, instead, due to overpopulation and drastic food shortages, Europeans live in crime-ridden and overcrowded slums and are sustained by a monotonous diet of synthetic goop!  As for the USA, also a beneficiary of force field technology, it is a land of plenty where the automatic factories produce a surplus of consumer goods, but the native-born population is down to a mere three million due to some kind of sterilization disease that results in very few babies being born--the skyscrapers and streets of major cities are in total disrepair because there are no people to use and maintain them.  (I kept expecting Alban to explain how Americans got sterilized, but if he did so in a straightforward way I missed it; a minor character offhandedly refers to some crime or attack inflicted on the US "back in ninety-eight," so maybe biological warfare is to blame.)  To make up for the dearth of population, America permits immigration by British subjects who, after a term of indentured servitude, are given land on reservations.  These "bondsmen" form a sort of second, inferior, class that performs what little work the robots don't do while most of the three million Citizens spend their time playing elaborate wargames; performance in these wargames largely determines social status.

Alban’s setting combines high technology--force fields, hover cars, sonic artillery, computers that can read your mood, prosthetic eyes and hands, and so on--with a social structure that is a kind of pastiche of various periods of medieval and early modern Europe.  The United States is now called the United Estates and those who govern the individual states are now called "Owners," and they rule their Estates like barons ruled their fiefs in Europe’s aristocratic past.  At the top of the feudal pyramid is the Owner of the Estate of Washington-Virginia, who resides in the White House.

The protagonist of The Day of the Shield is Fisk, a twenty-something Englishman who has immigrated to America; because of his impressive health, the computer gives him the job of serving as "body servant" to the daughter of the Owner of the Estate of Washington-Virginia, Lady Alice, a sexy but haughty and temperamental young thing.  Fisk's secondary job is to be her valet, driver, secretary and bodyguard--his primary job is to serve as a sort of living collection of space parts for her--all the Owners have such body servants, and many have survived violence and disease and lived to extreme old age thanks to many transplants.

I found Fisk's being selected for this job a little hard to believe: 1) Would your first choice of tissue and organ donor to a woman be a man?  Would big-shouldered muscleman Fisk's organs comfortably fit Alice's sexy girl frame? 2) Young and healthy Alice would most likely need donated body parts after a car accident, fire, or assassination attempt, yes?  But if Fisk is always with her, in the same vehicle and same building, wouldn't he be likely to be damaged in the same mishap that damaged her?  Shouldn't spare parts be kept in a safe place?  Well, whatever; Alban's book is more symbolic than realistic, and the plot requires that Fisk and his direct superior be of opposite sexes because the market for books with gay sex is smaller than the market for books with straight sex (at least I think it was in 1973.)

Alice spends her time going on fox hunts and shooting ducks and going to fancy parties, like somebody in a 19th-century novel.  Pushing the feudal and aristocratic theme, Alban even tells us she wears dresses of “Victorian cut” while the military officials she hangs around with wear uniforms that “would have done credit to a marshal of the Napoleonic Empire.”  When he is first presented to her, Fisk even has to fall to one knee and formally swear fealty to Alice.

Thrill-seeking Alice entertains herself with even more dangerous pastimes than fox hunting, like going in disguise to the reservations of manumitted bondsmen to see how they live behind the reservations' force fields.  The freed bondsmen, liberated from the need to work by the efficiency of the automated factories, follow bizarre lifestyles centered on cults and extravagant forms of roleplay.  Fisk accompanies Lady Alice to a sort of drug-fueled Mardi Gras bacchanal that features jousts between combatants on electric scooters.  Things get really out of hand when the "jester" who is master of ceremonies, by a crazy coincidence, turns out to be Fisk's predecessor, Alice's previous body servant.  He recognizes Alice through her old lady disguise, and tries to exact revenge.  Fisk saves Alice's life, and this precipitates their affair.  Fisk's secretive relationship with Lady Alice might be characterized as "hate sex" and features various fetishistic elements, like spanking and couplings in a mausoleum where cryogenically frozen people are warehoused.

About halfway through the book another of the bondsmen in the White House discovers Fisk and Alice's fuck nest in the cryogenics warehouse.  Fisk flees for his life, assuming this snoop will expose him and that the White House will have Fisk's brain wiped clean to hide the scandal.  But the snoop pursues Fisk instead of running off to tattle (the snoop does take time to blackmail Alice into having sex with him, though--all the sex in this book is nastily naughty!), giving Fisk a chance to kill the spy in my favorite scene in the book, a fight at an old high tech installation, a "solar furnace" with catwalks and elevators and a huge dish designed to generate tremendous heat by focusing the sun's rays (we are told a temperature of six thousand degrees Fahrenheit is achievable!)  Fisk hooks up with the Underground Railway, and these rebel activists connect him to the center of a revolutionary conspiracy lead by a Scottish bondsman; the head of the body servant union.  The conspiracy integrates Fisk back into the White House.

Fisk, as spearhead of the conspiracy, makes his big move on August 21, Execration Day, apparently a day on which the Commander-in-Chief publicly reads a list of people blamed for the sterilization crisis.  After attending an unexpected duel between the Owners of Georgia and Louisiana, and the scheduled exhibition wargames, Fisk manages to get an audience for himself and Alice with the Commander-in-Chief, Alice's father, Owner of Washington-Virginia.  The Owner, who is like 100 years old or something, lives in a sterile underground bunker because he has had so many transplants that his immune system is totally shot; he will be attending the Execration Day festivities via holographic transmission.  When they get to Alice's father's bunker, Fisk enrages the Owner by stripping his daughter and threatening to rape her.  The furious chief executive throws open his hermetically sealed room, exposing himself to germs that kill him mere minutes after he attacks Fisk with an electric weapon and accidentally kills Alice.  The Owner dies cradling his dead heir in his arms.

While Fisk is killing the monarch and his heir in a way that absolves him of moral responsibility (like the way The Red Skull used to get "killed" by his own foolishness while trying to kill Captain America in those old comic books), the rest of the bondsmen are paralyzing the assembled Owners with gas bombs, neutralizing America's executive branch.  Then Fisk deactivates the force fields protecting America and the billions of Europe sail over to resettle the New World. 

In The Day of the Shield, Alban seems to be using the very common SF device of overpopulation to express his resentment against the United States and the upper classes of the United Kingdom.  He transplants all that feudal oath and joust jazz from medieval England and the fox hunting and pistol dueling from the 18th and 19th centuries to the future USA, I guess in an effort to portray America's republican and democratic traditions, which are in part a rejection of British institutions, as mere hypocrisy.  Perhaps Alban is responding to the pathetic fawning over the Kennedys as a kind of American royalty and to such American attempts to ape European pomp as Richard Nixon's 1970 introduction of new uniforms for the White House security staff, uniforms inspired by those of European palace guards; maybe Alban is warning us of the fragility of liberal institutions and how quickly both elites and the masses will embrace old aristocratic ways in a crisis.  Here is how Alban refers to JFK, when Fisk is looking around the White House:
The drawing room, however, was much as it had been in the legendary days of Camelot, during the term of Kennedy the First.
References to "reservations," "manumission" and the "Underground Railway" are of course swipes at the United States for its treatment of native Indians and enslaved Africans; in the same way that Alban slots the American president and state governors, who of course in real life are elected and subject to restrictions from courts and legislatures as well as voters, into the role of dictatorial barons, he slots British immigrants into the positions held by in real life by Native Americans and Africans.  All the references to American wealth (the robot factories produce more consumer goods and food than the American population can consume, so that the manumitted bondsmen on the reservations use crates full of clocks, artificial limbs, books and silverware as building material for walls) and the contrasting misery in Britain may be a reflection of post-World War II economic realities, when the people of the USA experienced comfort and an economic boom while Europe lay in ruins; perhaps Alban carried with him bitter envy from living through this period as a child.

Presumably Alban's depictions of a working-class Briton spanking and sexually dominating an American aristocratic lady, and of British people overthrowing the American government so the English poor can get their hands on America's wealth, are wish fulfillment fantasies.  Sad!

The title of Alban's 1970 non-fiction book Big Brother in Britain Today is of course a reference to George Orwell's 1984, and a few things in The Day of the Shield did remind me of 1984.  For one thing, the Underground Railway turns out to be a government-run trap, paralleling the role of O'Brien in Orwell's novel.  Execration Day seems like it might be based on the Two Minutes Hate from 1984.

So, can I recommend The Day of the Shield?  There are lots of stories about rebels overthrowing governments in SF, and plenty of stories about palace intrigues and sexual liaisons across class lines  in fiction in general, and The Day of the Shield isn't a terrible example.  The writing style and the pacing and structure are fine; Fisk is a bland character, but Alice and her father are sort of interesting.  I liked the few chapters about Fisk's escape and fight with the nosy bondsman, and the technological SF elements are not bad.  The satirical elements are goofy, but maybe old-fashioned Marxist left-wingers who haven't become consumed with identity politics will enjoy them?  I guess I'll call The Day of the Shield acceptable.

1 comment:

  1. Love the Powers cover! I'd buy the book just for that!