Skip to main content

Molly Zero (SF) - Keith Roberts ****

Revisiting some of the SF favourites from my youth, I've just read Molly Zero by Keith Roberts. This came from the second phase of Roberts' career. He started out with sub-Wyndham SF disaster novels like his The Furies featuring physically impossible giant wasps, but then wowed the literary world with his bucolic alternative history novel, Pavane, set in a modern day Britain where technology was held back to the steam level by a controlling Catholic church.

Molly Zero also feels like an alternative history novel, though it isn't. We meet the eponymous schoolgirl heroine being sent by train from the 'Blocks', where she was brought up, to another location. This could easily have just been another Brave New World derivative, but it's far more. My 1970s copy has a huge plot spoiler in its blurb (as does at least one of the Amazon pages) - I'm not going to do that, but I am about to discuss its main theme.

This book proved a particularly appropriate re-read in 2017 as, despite being a very readable adventure story, it is a fascinating study of a society that decides to withdraw from globalism. What seems at first a straightforward dystopia is, in fact, the playing out of the idea that globalism inevitably leads to rampant consumerism and eventually the attempt of governments or corporations to build empires - which then leads to mass slaughter and untold horrors. In response, British society is cut off from the world and managed by an elite. Molly experiences a number of different versions of isolationism, and though we may dislike them, we are challenged to think what really is the best approach.

So far, so brilliant. There are a few issues, though. Roberts takes the brave decision to write in the second person - so Molly is referred to throughout as 'you'. The idea of this style is to immerse the reader, but I find it really grates on me - though, to be fair, by about 50 pages in I was noticing it less. Some of the situations Molly find herself in feel rather stereotyped (though arguably they are designed to be so by the elite). I think Roberts struggled with Molly's sexuality in a way that wouldn't be an issue for a modern writer. And the ending is odd. I really can't decide whether it's terrible or very clever.

While probably not the equal of Pavane, this is a really interesting and thought-provoking book that manages never to let the message overwhelm the narrative. I'm very glad to have revisited it.


Paperback:  

Kindle 

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…