March books 7) The Green Gene

7) The Green Gene, by Peter Dickinson

From the author’s own website: An attempt to imagine for the British what Verwoerd-style apartheid would be like if applied here, and people of Celtic origin had green skins. P.P. Humayan, a naive Indian mathematical genius, is hired by UK racial police to do statistical analysis on likely increase of Green population. His hosts are murdered and he is kidnapped by and then becomes involved with a subversive Green movement.

From the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: an amusing satire on many issues including racial prejudice, set in an alternate-world UK, where all Celts possess a gene that gives them green skin. It was runner-up for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. [It was beaten for the latter jointly by the classic Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke and the completely forgotten Malevil by Robert Merle.]

I had read a few of Peter Dickinson’s books a long time ago (Annerton Pit and Tulku) and of course remember the Changes TV adaptation from when I was very small. I’d also much more recently read his King and Joker, an alternate history centring around the adventures of the British Royal Family in the early 1970s – a much saner set of royals than the real ones, as it turns out, despite their unusual domestic arrangements.

This one, of course, hit my radar screen because of the Irish angle. As the author’s own description makes clear, it describes an England where Celts are visibly green-skinned and therefore face discrimination. A lot of the 1970s neuroses are there – for instance, Celtic terrorists bomb Harrod’s, something that didn’t happen in real life until 1983, ten years after the book had been written – indeed I think the only casualties of the IRA campaign in England at the time the book was published were the five kitchen staff and a chaplain killed at the Aldershot barracks in February 1972. A lot of the satire is spot-on. The girl who our hero eventually ends up with describes herself as a “latter day Satanist” (are you listening, ?). Enoch Powell is reincarnated as a dangerous Welsh radical (in contrast to the fabulous What If Gordon Banks Had Played… saga). The whole of Ireland got independence in 1921 but England remains swamped by “pickles” from Ireland, Scotland and Wales. They control the music scene and London youth rocks to rhythm-and-pibroch.

The one point where I felt the book lost its edge was in its portrayal of the Celts themselves, especially (for some reason) the Welsh. Shaw sails pretty close to the wind in John Bull’s Other Island and is only really forgiven because his most over-the-top Oirish character turns out to have been “Born in Glasgow. Never was in Ireland in his life.” I don’t think Dickinson would have dared to depict black South Africans in the same way as he does the stupid, alcoholic, squabbling Celtic terrorists in this book. (I’ve always felt the best commentary on this period of history – whether your paramilitaries are Irish or Palestinian – is Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, especially Scene 7 and Scene 10.)

But the author redeems himself considerably by having his central character a confused, randy, Indian mathematical genius who has been declared an honorary “Saxon” for political purposes. It’s a good book, though a book of its time, and I’m surprised it isn’t better known.

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1 Response to March books 7) The Green Gene

  1. marnanel says:

    into the model


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