The Primal Urge and Cryptozoic!, by Brian Aldiss

Second paragraph of third chapter of The Primal Urge:

As you went through plate glass doors into a foyer ambushed with cactus, a sign in sanserif announced, “Only books stand between us and the cave. Clyde H. Nitkin. The IBA ran mainly on dollar lubrication supplied by the Clyde H. Nitkin Foundation, and the words of the great man, at once original and obvious, were in evidence throughout the building. In the cafeteria downstairs, among the Mojave Desert decor, was “To read is to strike a blow for culture. Clyde H. Nitkin.” In the Main Exhibition room on the ground floor was “Speech is silver: silence is golden: print is dynamite. Clyde H. Nitkin.” Up in the library, appropriately enough, was “Only by libraries can man survive. Clyde H. Nitkin.” And, most touching heart cry of all, reserved for the board room up by the roof, was “Dear God, I would rather be an author than Clyde H. Nitkin.”

Second paragraph of third chapter of Cryptozoic!:

Ann let go of him and stretched. They had materialized beside a dead tree. Its bare shining arms were like a reproof to the girl; Bush realized for the first time what a slut she was, how dirty and unkempt, and wondered why it did not alter what he felt about her – whatever that might precisely be.

As sometimes happens, my reading lists threw up two related novels simultaneously, both 1960s works by the late great Brian Aldiss. They are very different in content, The Primal Urge being set in a contemporary (1961) world, and Cryptozoic! set in the much more distant future as well as the even more distant past. Both however look at the impact of new technology on England and the consequent disintegration of British society and government.

The Primal Urge is both more approachable and has aged much less well. The story is about the revolution in 1961 Britain caused when everyone of adult age installs lights in their forehead which glow if they are sexually attracted to the person they are speaking to. (The book was banned in Ireland.) A few foolish people resist the compulsory modification to their bodies, but the population as a whole embraces it, and soon, each other. The humour is not exactly subtle – one of the protagonist's love interests is called Rose English, and there is a psychiatrist called Dr Croolter B. Kind. It's a long way down the list of Aldiss's novels, perhaps an attempt to break into the mainstream by writing a contemporary comic novel with an sfnal twist, and for that reason has dated very badly; but it's clearly written and you know where you are. You can get it here.

Cryptozoic! aka An Age shows more of Aldiss's greatness as a writer, but doesn't quite come together as a novel. A couple of hundred years from now (in a setting which nonetheless feels like England in 1967), people have developed the technology of mental time-travel by use of a drug (called CSD, totally different from LSD of course). Our protagonist returns from an extended mental time trip to find that a fascist government has taken over, and he is sent on a meandering quest to eliminate a fellow time-traveller who is a threat to the government. It's the sort of story that Moorcock and Ballard were doing just that bit better at the time, but there are some Aldissian twists to it all the same (notably the protagonist's relationship with his father and his lover). You can get it here.

The Primal Urge was the top book on my unread list acquired in 2015; next on that list is Day of the Dead, Neil Gaiman's script for his Babylon 5 episode.

Cryptozoic! was the top book on my unread list acquired in 2018; next on that list is City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett.

One thought on “The Primal Urge and Cryptozoic!, by Brian Aldiss

  1. This sadly seems convincing. But at the same time I do not see Owen Smith, or Angela Eagle until a few days ago, as a viable alternative. They support austerity, and seem to basically accept the premise of pre-Corbyn Labour that winning requires moving to the center and adopting a slightly softer version of Tory policies on things like immigration and benefits.

    Apart from the moral problems with this, I don’t think this is any longer a viable way to win (it may have been in the 1990s). I think that centrist social democracy is dead or dying all over Europe. The sort of message that Labour was offering before Corbyn, and is likely to offer again if Smith wins, is one that has nothing to say to the discontented working classes that have abandoned Labour, whether for the Tories or UKIP. It is appealing to a narrower and narrower section of the electorate. The fact that so many of them were willing to abstain on the welfare bill is symptomatic – accepting defeat, refusing to even contest the argument, on what ought to be a core tenet of social democratic belief, that society should protect the poorest. Such an approach seems to me to be doomed to defeat.

    I would like to see a left-wing candidate, or at least genuinely soft-left, anti-austerity in particular, other than Corbyn, who also possesses rather more competence. I’m not sure if there’s any on the horizon at the moment.

    In these circumstances, there are no good options. I think the chances of Labour winning the next election are minimal either way. Overall I think I still want Corbyn to win, because if Smith wins it represents the pusillanimous Labour establishment regaining power and continuing its previous course of leading Labour into irrelevance. If Corbyn wins, Labour will at least be putting forward some sort of counter-narrative, even if badly. And it might convince the middle ranks of Labour MPs (rather than the outright Blairites) that they can’t just ignore the membership. And, well, the chances of winning in 2020 are low but not zero, I’m not convinced they’re less with Corbyn than Smith, and in this unlikely event I’d rather it was the left winning than the right.

    On the other hand, it occurs to me, given that the strong likelihood is that Labour will lose, maybe it’s better if the right of the party loses the next election rather than the left. I don’t know.

    It maybe says something about my despair at English politics at the moment that I am excited about moving to the US where the political situation seems more hopeful. More frightening, but also more hopeful.

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