D. G. Compton’s first science fiction novel, The Quality of Mercy (1965), is a forgotten work which deserves to be read along with the rest of his canon. I’ve found Compton’s lesser known works to be on the whole quite solid — with the dismal The Missionaries (1972) the lone exception so far. Both Synthajoy (1968) and The Steel Crocodile (1970) are among my top reads of this year. I’m keeping his acknowledged masterpiece The Unsleeping Eye (1974) till later.
The Quality of Mercy manages to create a viable husband and wife team whose evolving relationship is the main motivating force of the novel. Somewhat falsely described as having “the same terror-probability quality as Dr. Strangelove” The Quality of Mercy instead focuses on the breakdown of a single family extrapolated from the extension of Cold War areas of operation a few years into the future. Thankfully a plot along the lines of “will the bomb be dropped or not” à la Lumet’s Failsafe is not the source of tension — instead, moral questions are posed of Donald’s covert operations and other questionable actions by his wife Maria with catastrophic (and disturbed) consequences.
Brief Plot Summary (substantial spoilers)
A few years from today (1965) the world has become increasingly overpopulated. A virulent and mysterious disease VPD kills indiscriminately or so it seems. Donald, an Englishman, flies covert “peacekeeping” operations over Western Europe from a secret base in England staffed predominately by Americans. However, the real purpose of the flights is known only to an elite few. The base personel are completely in the dark as to the real point of the missions and spin wild ominous rumors about the disease, the operations, etc.
The base Squadron Leader presents Donald’s wife Maria with information about the flights — Donald at various points doesn’t believe him, Donald doesn’t want to believe him, and eventually decides that national security is more important.
Approaching the base one night Donald and his wife are stopped by protesters. The protesters have a young woman dying if VPD with them — they beg Donald to take the girl to the doctors at the base. Donald refuses because there’s no cure. The situation becomes more dire when the protesters attempt to stop the cae and Donald throws a gas grenade. Later, it is discovered that the girl died faster than the normal course of the disease because of the gas.
The flight information supplied by the Squadron Leader, the governmental cover-ups, Donald’s questionable moral decisions, comes to head in the person of Maria, who confronts him…
Strong female characters? Yes. Disturbing ending? Yes.
I’ve found that Compton is one of the best 60s/70s male writers when it comes to creating female characters. The reader roots for Maria and is devastated by Donald’s final actions. Although her role is ostensibly that of a housewife, she is more intelligent than Donald, has a stronger moral makeup, and the only redeemable character (a case can be made for the unnamed Squadron Leader).
The “mystery” isn’t exactly a mystery but that’s fine because the characters are the focal point of the work.
The Quality of Mercy is a quality Cold War related science fiction novel, well-written, and engaging. Sadly it is seldom read…. Hopefully my review will convince a few to procure a copy.