(John Holmes’ cover for the 1973 edition)
“KEEP A CLEAN SHEET OR YOU’LL END UP AS MEAT” (72)
Michael G. Coney’s focus on everyday struggles—the normal minutiae of life—reached wonderful heights in the lyrical paean to youth and youthful travails Hello Summer, Goodbye (variant title: Rax) (1975). While the true import of Hello Summer, Goodbye‘s narrative only slowly unfurls as the young man comes of age and perceives more about his world, the world of Friends Come in Boxes (1973) relentlessly writhes and boils as each main character is compelled to commit a crime against the System.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)
Friends Come in Boxes is comprised of a prologue that introduces the frame story and world, five vignettes with interrelated characters and situations that form the propagandistic pamphlet against the System, and an epilogue that describes what has happened since. Two of the five vignettes were previously published in 1973 in Worlds of If, “The Never Girl” and “A Woman and Her Friend.” The figure of Phillip Ewell, the Android who asked the pamphlet to be written, plays a role in all five vignettes.
And how did this world come about where the old are put in the bodies of babies? Overpopulation pressures cause entire cities, such as Manila in the year 2053, to starve to death (11). In this world Theo Kleinmaker’s scheme of Compulsory Transfer gains widespread acceptance. At the age of fifty (soon dropped to forty) every person must attend a Transfer Center “where his brain will be removed and his body destroyed” (11). The brain is then placed in the “adapted cranium of a six-month-old child”—the person in the host body will then go through a second psychical childhood. And again, when they reach the required physical age the process repeats. A perverse immortality…
There are extreme side effects both intended and unintended with social and governmental ramifications. First, couples are less likely to have children and thus the population decreases. Who wants a child if they will be killed at 6 months to make someone else immortal! Second, due to the decrease in available children a massive waiting list, often years long, means that the brains of those undergoing Compulsory Transfer are stored in boxes. These individuals, now called Friends (one of many examples of Coney’s wit) are able to talk via artificial means but cannot see or move their own boxes. If the Friends had arranged for someone to take care of them while they are on the waitlist, large hyper-intelligent dogs carry them from place to place. If the Friends are friendless then they are deposited in a central repository at the Transfer Center where employees are paid to engage them in conversation to prevent insanity. Those with influential positions in society can gain Preferred Transfers which prevent the horrific experience of being a Friend.
Of course, the Transfer Center becomes a vast and powerful governmental System that decides who will be immortal and who will experience Total Death. The lack of host bodies means that the most minor crimes result in Total Death. To alleviate the pressures scientists create non-mechanical Androids—Coney does not explain what they are at length—who at first glance look human-like but have strange scars and stains. Often a shorter wait period results if one wants an android body. But humans hate androids.
Part I “Creche” follows the story of Nurse Eleanor Jones and her boss Sister Nancy Blackett. Both work at the Axminster Creche for both infants and adult infants. After a baby goes missing, Jones discovers corruption at the highest levels. The payout for providing host infants to an illegal transfer center is worth the potential of Total Death. And Nurse Eleanor Jones has secrets of her own.
In Part II “The Never Girl” (1973), easily the most transfixing and disturbing section of the novel, the narrative follows Woman Mary Atkinson. Raised illicitly outside of the reaches of the System, Mary’s parents decided not to turn her in at 6 months. Unfortunately both her parents undergo Compulsory Transfer and she is left without an identity card and without protection. When she arrives to claim her parents, now Friends in boxes, and steal her monther’s identification card (they have the same name) Man Linton James who works at the Transfer Center discovers her story might not be entirely true. Insane and unstable Linton James lusts after Mary and will do anything to possess her.
Part III “Menagerie”: Drugs, alcoholism, morbid jokes about the dead, unsettling rumors, conniving Friends in boxes. A landlord tells the police about his tenants Leslie Anstead, his wife Kate Anstead, and Leslie’s domineering mother (now a Friend) Ada Anstead. Leslie drowns himself in alcohol as his wife is dying and his mother is certified insane and thus not allowed to have another transfer. Ada will perpetually be in a box, but she has other plans.
Part IV “A Woman and Her Friend” (1973): Woman Alice Lander, a Placement Officer at the Transfer Center, accidentally kills a child with her car. Total Death will be the penalty if she cannot pull off a Transfer before the boards broadcast her name across the city.
Part V “Charity Run” ties all the stories together. In the prologue Android Phillip Ewell, Transfer Surgeon, asked the ex-bartender to write the anti-System pamphlet. This is his journey to open rebellion against the system. Unlike Alice Lander. his ex-lover, who cares primarily for her own immortality, Philip moves somewhat accidentally into the orbit of the inhabitants of Bovey Tracey who will do anything to resist the injunctions of the System.
Once the whimsical veneer wears off the true horror of the Michael Coney’s world shows through like some mordant and decrepit core. The frame story, relayed by an “ex-bartender editing a small newspaper” (9) turned novelist, gives the first indication that all is not what it seems. The ex-bartender us that what we are about to read is but some propagandistic exercise (drawn from real events) meant to illustrate the extent of the System: “and the characters will be ordinary people; mildly good, mildly bad” (9). The vignettes of “ordinary people” highlight how the System manipulates the characters. The system looms behind everything and everyone. And the fight against it even compels the author of the pamphlet afters its initial publication—as indicated in the epilogue edition—to commit great violence (160).
Michael G. Coney’s uncomfortable humor permeates all levels of the novel. The entire premise generates awkward laughs: adults in the bodies of babies, strange relationships between individuals of similar mental years but physically disparate, dogs carrying the boxes of Friends, etc. One character encounters a baby attempting to fill her car with gas… The whimsey paired with the dark and morbid material elevates the material from esoteric but experiment to successful novel. Coney’s focus on human relationships/desires/concerns helps the reader suspend disbelief. If such a ridiculous world existed and a powerful system compelled it to stay in place this is how people would act.
Highly recommended for fans of 70s SF. Thankfully Gollancz Press just sent me a new volume [here] of three Coney novels for review over the coming months: Mirror Image (1972), Charisma (1975), and Brontomek! (1976). I will also keep my eyes out for his sole collection Monitor Found in Orbit (1974).
For more book reviews consult the INDEX
(Uncredited cover for the 1975 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1976 edition)
(Jean Solé’s cover for the 1977 French edition)