Book Review: In Solitary, Garry Kilworth (1977)

(Paul Alexander’s cover for the 1979 edition)

3/5 (Average)

Garry Kilworth’s first novel, In Solitary (1977),  attempts to present a morally complex take on human revolt against brutal alien conquest. A brief read, In Solitary piques interest but doesn’t manage to provide compelling backstories to beef up its analysis of the morality of revolt.

Ultimately, In Solitary (1977) does not live up to its compelling premise. Recommended for die hard fans of 70s SF and those fascinated by ambivalent takes on rebellion.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*spoilers*)

“The Soal Law

1. No member of the Human Race, born a native of the Planet Earth, may have contact with any other such native, by any medium, natural or otherwise, after the age of 170 months, except for the performance of mating.

2. No member of the Human Race under 170 months of age, born a native of the Planet Earth, may have contact with any male member of the same race.

The penalty for disobedience of The Soal Law is death (6).”

The bird-like Soal conquered Earth and imposed draconian measures on suppressing revolt. Humans, expelled from their homelands, eek out their existence in marginal territories (for example, the muddy tidal flats of the English Channel). The entire Soal system is predicated on preventing humans from effectively breeding and congregating. Tangiia braves the Pacific ocean alone on his Polynesian canoe for the chance to mate.

Meanwhile, a handful of humans reside with their Soal conquerors. Cave, our action-wary main character, spends his days with his Soal friend Lintar, wandering the vast fields of bacteria vats, the food-source of the bird aliens. His life changes when he is discovered “investigating the tapes contained in the Soal history archives” (12). Expelled from Brytan with only a crossbow (you wander the Channel mudflats in the nude), he meets up with Stella and her newborn (who promptly dies of exposure)—in direct violate on Soal law (see The Soal Law rule 1). Avoiding other mudwalkers, Stella pushes the idea of REVOLT. Cave cannot help but remember the fond moments he enjoyed together with Lintar. Stella, a woman of action, appears to know more than she lets on.

Soon,  Stella meets up with Tangiia and hatch a plan—and Cave reluctantly tags along. The Soal are hot on their heals.

Final Thoughts

“The mud wastes, smooth and ugly; the monotony broken only by wrinkles, ridges and rays left by the retreating tide. This was the stomach of the world, slip open and spread flat exposing a dull grey colour and veined textures: enzymes and juices left in the crevices and hollows of corrugated tissue” (24).

I found the Soal transformation of Earth’s landscape the most fascinating element of the novel. As with John Christopher’s surreal crossing of the English Channel in A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965), Kilworth also uses the Channel to signal how much the world has changed. Here it’s a muddy tidal flat interspersed with unusual Soal spires (that double as refuges at high tide). Humans, evicted from their historic places of habitation on the mainland, instead wander the muddy landscape, dependent on Soal goodwill, avoiding each other for fear of retribution. Massive mushroom towers, interspersed across the globe, maintain a standard temperature (10).

The use of Polynesian mythology and technologies is a nice touch as well. Kilworth’s interest in cultures that aren’t normally part of science fiction or fantasy is a common theme so far in the works I’ve explored. The integration of Arab culture and Islamic theology in The Night of Kadar (1978) is far more sustained and integral.

Kilworth does not shy away from flawed characters. Cave often serves as a mouthpiece of Soal propaganda. For example, he acknowledges that he originally believed the words of Lintar spouted that justified his race’s brutal treatment of the humans: “Humans,’ Lintar had once informed me, “are solitary beasts. They live apart from each other because they react violently to one another’s moods. Put two in a cage together and before the month is out one or both will lie dead on the cage floor” (61). While his friendship with Lintar might be believable, Cave’s reluctance to admit Soal brutality makes him a challenging character. Stella’ flaws aren’t immediately apparent. As her backstory is revealed, ideological chasms emerge between her and Cave.

When the revolt gains steam, Kilworth’s frustrating narrative tick—the tendency to describe an action sequence after it occurs—undermines the novel’s tension.

All in all, if you’re new to Kilworth’s SF, check out The Night of Kadar (1978) first.

(Adrian Chesterman’s cover for the 1979 edition)

(R. Michael Payne’s cover for the 1981 German edition)

(Karel Thole’s cover for the 1983 Italian edition

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For cover art posts consult the INDEX

12 thoughts on “Book Review: In Solitary, Garry Kilworth (1977)”

  1. Um…as pretty as the jacket image of the kneeling hunk is, I think on balance I’ll run out for some COVID-19 before trying this one out. The actionless action irks me, the eyeroll-inducing planetary aircon system, the far-too-easy terraUNforming…nope.
    Thanks for taking the bullet.

    1. Hah — the cover is inaccurate. He should be naked.

      There’s a lot of promise in the book. I thought the transformed landscape was pretty fascinating. I like that phrase — “actionless action.” That’s probably why the book is so short — he could easily have added 50 pages if he were to describe the action as it is happening.

      The same tick was found in The Night of Kadar but the premise held my interest more than this one.

      1. I’ve got the mileage to do some mental editing. happy sigh
        That tic, the actionless action, is just flat unendurable to me. I discovered how deeply I loathe it when reading CLARISSA as a young student; all those bloody letters describing what already happened ::headdesk::

        1. Yeah, I am still going to explore a bunch more of his novels and short stories (I have his collection The Songbirds of Pain).

          Other Kilworth novels I own include:
          Theatre of Timesmiths
          Cloudrock
          Gemini God

          But I’m glad I didn’t read In Solitary first!

          1. Holy Goddesses! I remember GEMINI GOD! Twins, a woo-woo girlfriend, emigrating to a place called New Carthage…that’s the one, isnt it?
            I hope you’ll read that one next, he chortled evilly.

            1. Is it good or bad? I mean, I have another two reviews on the way of very average books…. I need to mix it up with some higher quality reads!

              No. No it is not. If we use this book as 100, GEMINI GOD is 85. Tops. Vague maunderings, pointless wanderings, a few things are “hm”-worthy but, on balance, it is a deeply tedious read.

            2. I mean, I did have a really good book I was reading but its entropic nihilism was hitting too close to home so I put it down (for now) — M. John Harrison’s A Storm of Wings.

              I’ll hold off on Gemini God. As I mentioned before, I’ll give his short stories a shot when I return to him.

            3. Viriconium series isn’t a laff-riot read, for sure, but they’re at least devoid of actionless action.

          2. I’ve only read a few, but Abandonati was interesting and from the same year as Cloudrock. Might be the one to read next.
            Don’t think I’ve read any other early stuff before 1995 and the enjoyable House of Tribes. I’m sure a sequel was scheduled (I distinctly remember telling a customer about it and he asked about it several times) but it never appeared. I remember the rep saying it was in the schedules some months down the line, but it vanished completely.. Only my memory (and maybe my customer’s) says it ever existed (or not!)
            If you happen to like author memoirs, On My Way to Samarkand is good.

            1. You’ve mentioned On My Way to Samarkand before — it’s intriguing although the genre isn’t (as of this moment) for me.

              His travel is what gives his SF its worthwhile elements — here the integration of Polynesian culture. In The Night of Kadar (the better book) the use of Arab culture.

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