(Chris Yates’ cover for the 1971 edition)
4.5/5 (Very Good)
Entropic visions of decay and despair inhabit M. John Harrison’s first novel The Committed Men (1971). Possessed by destructive melancholy, the inhabitants of a post-apocalyptical UK–where political powers have sunk into oblivion–attempt to recreate a semblance of normalcy. Clement St John Wendover, teeth long since rotted, still administers to the skin diseases and ailments of his one-time patients although he cannot cure them. Halloway Pauce, decked out in his “gold lamé suit”, fastidiously coats his cancered face with a “layer of pancake make-up” (48). Grocott Personnel and his hierarchically oriented fellows recreate the bureaucratic veneer of forms and phrases, their status in the “company” indicated by the size of their elaborate and grotesque papier mâché masks decked out with faux-tumors: “rigid and expressionless, [the mask stares forth] like the face of a dead animal” (110).
Gathering together a troop of “committed men” (and a woman!), Wendover sets off across the corroded landscape with a newborn mutant child: a new species for an altered Earth or an accidental abnormality….
Analysis/Brief Plot Summary
(Note: As always, spoilers…)
The Committed Men revolves around a “harsh and inhuman” image inscribed across the landscape: a fenced road constructed out of “steel and ferroconcrete” that stretches off into the distance (11). The cage around the road, built in the aftermath of the disaster, was a “misguided attempt to contain accident effects and to protect urbanized sections of the motorway from damage.” (12-13). The road now serves as a suicide device.
Like the road, a symbol of the past transformed, Wendover sees his own journey as some outgrowth of “emotional reasoning made obsolete by the catastrophe” (159). The fragmentation of the road symbolizes the transformation of the world, a transformation that its previous inhabitants cannot quite admit or see. Obsessed with “watching the symptoms of a degenerating world” (20), the attempted murder of a “mottled and scaly” mutant child galvanizes Wendover into action (50). A desperate mother offers him the newborn and with the bundle in his arms he flees from Halloway Pauce, who rules “Tinhouse”–a town that rattles in the wind like “the playing of giant tambourine” (42)—clothed as if in the “cerements of a dead emperor” (48).
Fortuitously, he encounters a woman named Morag, who recently suffered the trauma of a miscarriage induced by a community of women (and one chained man). With others that join the group, they set off on a quest across “tangled landscapes” to find other mutants who might be able to raise the child (159).
M. John Harrison tends to polarize SF readers. If you don’t believe me, look at the comments on my review of his third novel The Centauri Device (1974)—-a subversive take-down of space opera and the single most commented-on review on my site. Unlike many of his other works The Committed Men–although heavy with despair, violence, and uncomfortable scenes of bodily decay–treads more traditional ground. Wendover’s motivation, unlike the apathetic and amphetamine popping John Tuck of The Centauri Device, is a noble one: “he felt an intense empathy with the children, destructive and frustrating because of his utter medical impotence” (43). Although political forces might have been defeated “by entropy” (121), Wendover and his companions–as a final act–find another way to create a semblance of order, a symbolic passing of the baton to a new people.
The Committed Men reaches greater heights than many of its ilk because of Harrison’s attention to detail and evocative prose. While Wilson Tucker’s The Long Loud Silence (1952, revised 1969) generated its intensity via a direct and unadorned style, Harrison creates haunting scenes that cannot be shaken off. A few examples will suffice. Morag experiences dreams about a gigantic crane-fly attempting to exit her nightmare, “diving and gyring as it blundered about looking for an exit; whining and breaking its grotesque dangling limbs against the walls of her skull” (68). Harrison describes Wendover as “plagued by uneasy reveries” (159). And the details! Morag finds a book called Real Life Romances in the back of a car, Harrison includes an image from the text (63). Wendover keeps a single vial of penicillin among the objects gathered from the past. The chairman of a bureaucratic entity with his massive papier mâché head, pontificates from his office: “its walls covered with ancient, wrinkled graphs and flow diagrams” (128). There is beauty in the decay. Patterns of the past obscured by mold and grime still exert their diminishing powers.
Recommended for fans of literary SF and 70s post-apocalyptical nightmares. Often reveling in the grotesque, The Committed Men will stay with you like “a black pit” of dissolving teeth (74-75).
*Note: I recommend following M. John Harrison’s site. He posts selections from new and old writings, and various reflections that will appeal to fans of his fiction.
For more book reviews consult the INDEX
(Bob Haberfield’s cover for the 1973 edition)
(John Holmes’ cover for the 1971 edition)
(Peter Elson’s cover for the 1989 edition)