October Books 8) Ten Years to Oblivion

8) Ten Years to Oblivion, by “Clem Macartney”

Older readers who grew up in Northern Ireland (ie , , , and perhaps ) may remember the BBC’s veteran political correspondent, W.D. “Billy” Flackes, who would pop up on “Scene Around Six” every evening to explain to us what was going on in the twisted world of Ulster politics. It is not generally known that Flackes wrote three science fiction books in the early 1950s, one (Duel in Nightmare Worlds) under his own name and two (Dark Side of Venus and Ten Years to Oblivion) as by “Clem Macartney”.

Ten Years to Oblivion was published as issue 12 of the magazine “Science Fiction Monthly” which ran for almost seven years in the 1950s, and sold for the princely sum of one shilling and sixpence. (It cost me a bit more.) The plot is as follows: we are in the year 3094 ADNungis explained, “It is a self-contained community, for the Jungas are forbidden by law to mix socially with Zugs, and, of course, the two races are not allowed to intermarry.”

Chiffley remarked that he seemed to have read about that sort of thijng in Earth’s ancient history, but the Zug ignored the interruption. Interestingly, there were also at one time interfering busybodies locally, the Onyks from “the vast continent across the water” (subsequently wiped out by the cosmic disaster):

There was a bit of trouble at first because the Onyks objected to the only other race on Raz, the Jungas, being underprivileged and providing the labour force for the Zugs, as they always have done. But this was smoothed over because the Zugs pointed to the superior physique of the Onyks and claimed that their own was not capable of withstanding the heavy demands that are made by the Atomic Energy Council on their workers, who had to work in the ore mines, the foundries and other heavy industries, and the luxury goods workshops.
Nowadays, the Jungas live in rebellious exile on the former continent of the Onyks, under the leadership of the Zug leader’s banished brother (since they are obviously not capable of generating their own leader).

Now, it is pretty obvious to me that this represents the take of one Ulster journalist on the general question of colonisation (the human spacemen actually come not from Earth but from a recently colonised outer planet) and the specific question of apartheid, which in 1951 was in its very early days in South Africa (the National Party won the 1948 election on a platform of introducing it; and stayed in power for four and a half decades). Colonial rule was still in place in almost all of Africa (bar Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia, and Libya which became independent that year), and Harold MacMillan’s “winds of change” speech was ten years in the future. And it’s not just the British – the Philippines had only just become independent, and Hawai’i and Alaska were still several years from statehood; it was not until 1955 that Belgium began to discuss maybe withdrawing from Congo over the next thirty years. It seems difficult to believe from half a century later, but I guess that in 1951 the question of whether the South Africans had found a viable way forward was one about which reasonable, intelligent people could have a serious discussion.

It’s awfully tempting to try and read a bit more local and personal content into this. The connections between South African and Ulster politics are a matter of record. It was of course the then recently voted-out South African leader, General Smuts, who had played a key role in persuading Unionists to accept the 1921 settlement. The chairman of the 1925 Boundary Commission was a South African judge. Republicans still see their struggle as intimately linked with that of the ANC, though Unionists’ enthusiasm for the Afrikaners is less visible now than it was in my childhood. The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir Basil Brooke, was the man who had declared in 1933 that he would never have a Catholic about his own place, and who would be given a hereditary peerage the following year. The Northern Ireland establishment had recently weathered a strong challenge from the South, where Costello’s government had declared a Republic and withdrawn from the Commonwealth, as well as making a serious (though ultimately ineffectual) effort to help Nationalist candidates in the 1949 Northern Ireland election (before disintegrating in early 1951 in a row with the Church). Although Flackes had been working in London since 1947, he must have been following events at home, and he was a clever enough man to see the linkages.

One can’t, however, take it much further than that. Indeed, the moral conclusion of the novel is ambiguous. The Zugs turn out to be hostile and treacherous, which suggests that their society may not be quite as utopian as earlier chapters suggested. As the humans obliterate the Zugs’ city and civilisation, one reflects that “it was conceived in fear and cloaked in invisibility, and fate marked it out for early destruction.” But no effort whatsoever is made to save or even warn the Jungas and their leader on the other continent before their planet is destroyed at the end of the book (and no regret whatsoever is expressed for the fate of the Zugs, who are collectively annihilated in retaliation for their leader’s behaviour).

Ken MacLeod argues in his fascinating essay in The Cambridge Companion to Sceince Fiction that sf “is essentially the literature of progress, and the political philosophy of sf is essentially liberal.” There are, of course exceptions; and this may be one of them. The 1950s were obviously a weird time.

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