Book Review: Chronocules (variant title: Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes, and Something that Might have been Castor Oil), D. G. Compton (1970)

(Diane and Leo Dillon’s cover for the 1970 edition)

3/5 (Average)

D. G. Compton has long been one of my favorite SF authors.  Regrettably, his readership remains small and he has ceased publishing SF.  Novels like The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (variant title: The Unsleeping Eye) (1973) and Synthajoy (1968) are first rate masterworks with Farewell, Earth’s Bliss (1966) and The Steel Crocodile (1970) close behind.  All of his works have a distinctly English feel with solid, and occasionally beautiful, prose.

Chronocules (1970), with its outrageous variant title Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes, and Something that Might have been Castor Oil, contains the hallmarks of a great Compton novel: A central female character (in this case a highly educated scientist), a focus on character over plot, and an avoidance of “hard SF” technobabble and tangential ramblings.

Unfortunately, I’ve been less than satisfied by Compton’s more overtly satirical novels — Chronocules included.  The two main characters — Roses Varco, an unemployed and unintelligent man stuck in some ultra-Puritan past who shakes uncontrollably when he reads the word “nakedness” (11), and Liza Simmons, a brilliant scientist who practices free love — are purposefully archetypal caricatures of the “traditional past” and “progressive future.”  But, in true satirical fashion both are equally unpleasant individuals.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

Roses Varco was Penheniot Village’s last inhabitant.  He lived alone in the kitchen of his crumbling family house — subsisting off what he can catch in the increasingly polluted waters of a near future dystopic England.  One day he encounters a shimmering object, a book inscribed a the word, “NAKEDNESS” (11).  He is initially intrigued by the book but it resists his attempts to rip it apart.  In desperation derived from his ignorance and immense shame the words conjure, he hurls it into the water causing a distinct smell best described as “hot wireless sets, aspirin tablets, the sandpaper sides of used matchboxes, and something that might have been castor oil” (15).

The mysterious book is from a few years in the future — an object displaced in time during an experiment by a complicated, and mostly unexplained, time-travel device.  The device, and high-tech complex staffed with the best scientists that spreads over what was once Penheniot Village, is funded by Manny Littlejohns —  a despotic and vicious man who wishes to literally escape into time away from the riots, pollution, and general instability of this dystopic England.  Littlejohns concerns himself with dressing the security guards into interesting costumes, killing people for small infringements, and thinking inordinately about the size of his john…  This type of juvenile humor is apparent throughout. For example Penheniot Experimental Research Village has P.E.R.V as an acronym (23).

In this future, Roses Vargo (who has long forgotten the unusual book he hurled into the water and the smell it generated) still lives in the kitchen but within the new research facility.  The rest of the village, and his home, has been destroyed.  He’s treated in the same way as a village idiot.  A mostly “insane” relic from the past…. He has little knowledge of what is happening in the community.

Liza Simmons, a brilliant scientist who manages to think very little about science, spends most of her time chasing men.  Compton inverts most the common stereotypes — although whether or not he’s is endorsing new roles for women or satirizing the individuals who acquire them is less than clear.  Liza’s first target is David Silberstein, the leader of the village, who walks around in body paint with carefully manicured pubic hair and is plagued by impotence….  Eventually she tires of him and pursues Roses Vargo, who in his unkempt and uncultured state simultaneously intrigues and repulses her.

While the tides of unrest wreck the rest of the country, Penheniot protected by its security forces remains mostly untouched.  Of course, such protection can only last so long.  The plan of action is a successful escape to a better place through time — but, the time-machine tends to kill the test animals….

Final Thoughts

All the characters either are too unintelligent to think coherently about the world around them (Roses Vargo) or have given up completely on fixing the issues and instead resort to a crazy plan to leave all the problems behind (the founder and all the scientists of the research facility).  Liza herself is much more concerned with her sexual pursuits than the problems at hand…  Compton adeptly conveys the slow encroachment of the outside world onto the seemingly stable village.  Unfortunately, every character and their actions are so incredibly petty/irreprehensible that we care nothing for the events that are unfolding.  Which is entirely Compton’s point for both traditionalists and the mainstream society (who embody the sexual politics of some 60s radicals) are ridiculed at length for doing nothing about the imploding political and ecological state of the world…

I can only recommend the novel for D. G. Compton completests and fans of esoteric late 60s/early 70s satirical SF.  This one is definitely in the third tier of his oeuvre.  If you have not read any of Compton’s novels do not be dismayed by this review — go pick up a copy of The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe or Synthajoy.

(Uncredited cover for the 1980 edition)

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: Chronocules (variant title: Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes, and Something that Might have been Castor Oil), D. G. Compton (1970)”

  1. I enjoyed Chronocules as I have other books by Compton. I’m almost finished with The Missionaries and Ascendancies is in my TBR pile. That leaves only The Silent Multitude and the sequel to The Unsleeping Eye to track down (although I’ve read where it doesn’t measure up to the original).

    1. I desperately wanted to like it…. I disliked The Missionaries as well (the only works of his I’ve not enjoyed). I’ve yet to read Ascendancies although I plan on doing so soon. I have a signed copy of Scudder’s Game (originally written in the 70s but published in the 80s) in my too read pile!

  2. Joachim, I`ve never read a Compton novel, though I`d heard of him since the 70s. One real pleasure of folks like you who read books from decades past is seeing which writers and books click with you without you being influenced by the ads or the trends–to me that shows the books of real quality standing out. I hope to read some Compton, based solely on your enthusiastic reviews.

    1. He’s one of my favorites — perhaps read Farewell, Earth’s Bliss (1966) — or go with his acknowledged classic, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (variant title: The Unsleeping Eye) (1974).

  3. Based on your praise of Compton, I noticed his Nomansland in a bargain bin–real cheap (about $1). So I picked it up.

    Have you read it? if so, any thoughts?

  4. There are times I just like bizarre. Maybe I’m too forgiving but I did like this because it was so out there. I will explore his other work to see any difference in quality.

    1. Chris wrote a great review of Farewell, Earth’s Bliss — highly recommended! But yeah, Synthajoy, Farewell Earth’s Bliss, The Unsleeping Eye, and to a lesser degree The Steel Crocodile are all better than Chronocules…

  5. Actually, Roses Varco (note spelling) observed the smell before he saw the book. And before the smell, he heard the noises from his house — the roar like an impossible express train (approaching on a line too far away to be heard even before it had fallen under Beeching’s axe), the curious explosion or implosion or adplosion or intraplosion, the scream cut off so short as to be almost without duration like a purely theoretical point.

    (Can you tell I read “Chronocules” at an impressionable age, almost but not quite old enough to understand it?)

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