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Compton, D G

Entry updated 29 October 2021. Tagged: Author.

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(1930-    ) UK author, born of parents who were both in the theatre; he lived for some time in the USA after 1981. Compton's novels are almost always set in the Near Future, and present a moral dilemma within that arena: the future is very clearly used in his work as a device of perspective, with the result that his tales bring contemporary trends into focus that is both clear and intimate. Most of the interest transparently inherent in these novels lies in their exposure of personal relationships and the behaviour of people under stress; minor characters are observed with humour which frequently arises from class differences. Endings are ambiguous or deliberately inconclusive. Later novels are increasingly varied in the narrative techniques deployed, but do not significantly depart from the humane focus of his early work. Compton's rare public utterances confirm the impression that he is not interested in the staple concerns of Genre SF.

Compton's first sf novel was The Quality of Mercy (1965; rev 1970), in which conspirators conceive it will be appropriate to commit genocide, using a biological weapon, to combat Overpopulation. In The Silent Multitude (1967), a space-borne fungus has begun to end civilization. In a crumbling cathedral in a small, infested English city, the Dean and two companions begin to face – but very movingly are incapable of grasping – the fact that the world is ending, moment by moment and inch by inch, around them; that the future they cannot grasp has no room for them, or any other mere human. Farewell, Earth's Bliss (1966; rev 1971) shows the plight of social misfits transported to Mars. Synthajoy (1968), a more complex novel, brought Compton wider notice, particularly in the USA. A surgeon and an electronics engineer develop tapes which enable unremarkable people to enjoy the experiences of those who are more gifted or fortunate. This basic idea opens the reader to explore moral problems and also to taste, vicariously, the experience of transgressive eavesdropping on other human psyches. Compton does not precisely describe Reality TV, but the analogies are clear to a twenty-first century reader. The Steel Crocodile (1970; vt The Electric Crocodile 1970) may be Compton's most intricately sustained and successful single tale. It is set in the Near Future, where an unnamed authority has become fearful of the threat of uncontrolled technological advance, and creates a Computer monitor to ward off potential excesses. The lives and careers of those involved in its creation are compellingly recounted, and the punchline is so bedded into the intimate wisdom of the narrative that it comes as a shock, though it perhaps should not: if we allow a preternaturally advanced technology to watch over us (Compton asks), who then shall watch the watcher? Forty years ago, that question may have seemed melodramatic. Chronocules (1970; vt Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes, and Something that Might have been Castor Oil 1971) is a Time-Travel story. The Missionaries (1972) describes the efforts of some evangelizing aliens with a good deal of social comedy.

Compton's strengths as a writer are all displayed in the much admired Katherine Mortenhoe series comprising The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974; edited version vt The Unsleeping Eye 1974; vt Death Watch 1981) and Windows (1979). A woman in her forties is given four weeks to live. A reporter with eyes replaced by television cameras has the job of watching her decline for the entertainment of a pain-starved public in a world where illness is almost unknown. The reporter sees one of the transmissions and realizes (perhaps a little late in the game) that the camera cannot tell the truth; the recorded film is without mind and therefore without compassion. The second volume depicts the consequences of the reporter's decision to opt for the oxymoron of literal blindness; neither character in the end is allowed to escape into solitude. The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe was filmed as La Mort en Direct (1979). In a more recent solo novel of interest, Ascendancies (1980), manna-like free energy begins to fall from space, but the side-effects include profound displacements, both physical and in the domestic psyches whose traumas have always inspired his best work. Ragnarok (1991) with John Gribbin shows Compton's grasp of character depiction; its near-future plot – in which a scientist brings on a Nuclear Winter in an attempt to enforce disarmament – owes much to his collaborator's grasp of scientific process. But Nomansland (1993), and the Alec Jordan series of Near Future policiers comprising Justice City (1994) and Back of Town Blues (1996), increasingly demonstrate his recapture of the humane smoothness with which, in earlier books, he so eloquently anatomized the near future. In 2007 he was honoured by SFWA as Author Emeritus (see SFWA Grand Master Award) and in 2021 with the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award. [MaA/JC]

see also: Colonization of Other Worlds; Communications; Cybernetics; Cyborgs; Disaster; Media Landscape; Power Sources; Psychology; Religion; Scientists.

David Guy Compton

born London: 9 August 1930



Katherine Mortenhoe

  • The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (London: Victor Gollancz, 1974) [Katherine Mortenhoe: hb/nonpictorial]
    • The Unsleeping Eye (New York: DAW Books, 1974) [rev vt: text edited by publisher: Katherine Mortenhoe: pb/Karel Thole]
    • Death Watch (London: Methuen/Magnum Books, 1981) [vt of the above: Katherine Mortenhoe: pb/uncredited]
  • Windows (New York: Berkley Publishing Company, 1979) [Katherine Mortenhoe: hb/Paul Stinson]

Alec Duncan

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