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Kerr, Philip

Entry updated 16 January 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1956-2018) Scottish author, married to Jane Thynne (see C J Carey) until his death, who first came to notice for his Bernard Gunther sequence, the first volumes of which – beginning with March Violets (1989) – are police procedurals set in pre-World War Two Berlin, but which move into occult territory after Gunther has survived the war. Much of his later work is of direct sf interest, beginning with A Philosophical Investigation (1992), perhaps his most impressive single novel; it is set in the then Near Future, around 2013, after the Discovery that when a certain portion of the brain in males is not of sufficient size, the sufferer is likely to exhibit severe sociopathy. Deftly, Kerr indicates that the device that determines the Localization of Modular Brain Resonations Obliging Social Orthopraxy (the acronym is LOMBROSO) is named after Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), a prominent espouser of the late nineteenth-century scientific delusion (see Psychology; Scientific Errors) that criminality could be detected in humans through physical measurement. Kerr's novel follows one of these afflicted individuals – each of whom when identified is given a code name from a list of great thinkers; he is called Wittgenstein, after Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), author of Philosophical Investigations (1953) – who sociopathically decides to kill all the other victims of the deficiency, acting out a peculiarly deformed version of Eugenics. His decision to do so is at least in part based on philosophical arguments, just as is his later decision to commit Suicide. Another philosophical debate focuses on the morality of the "punitive coma" that has replaced the death penalty. Kerr does not tell the reader whether or not his 2013 is meant to be understood as a Utopia or a Dystopia.

Perhaps inevitably, later novels fell away from the high sustained pitch of this tale, and displayed a growing likeness to the kind of phobic Technothriller specialized in by Michael Crichton. In Gridiron (1995; vt The Grid 1996), for instance, a self-aware Computer, having been designed to operate every aspect of a new corporate headquarters, begins to create replicate versions of itself, which spread openly into the world, eager to begin running things properly; Esau (1996) is a Lost World thriller featuring deadly yetis; The Second Angel (1998) is a medical thriller set several decades into the Near Future, at a time when pure blood, necessary to combat an invasive virus-based Pandemic, is astonishingly scarce, and must effectively be stolen from a penal colony (see Prisons) on the Moon. One Small Step (2008) as P B Kerr, a Young Adult tale, stays one step shy of full Alternate History in describing the exploits of a young pilot seconded to the Moon in 1969, prior to the actual NASA mission.

The Children of the Lamp sequence, as by P B Kerr [see Checklist for titles], is Young Adult fantasy. [JC]

Philip Ballantyne Kerr

born Edinburgh, Scotland: 22 February 1956

died London: 23 March 2018



Children of the Lamp

Bernard Gunther

individual titles


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