The Prescience of Mark Adlard
by L. J. Hurst
It must be ten years now since newspapers first reported a new style of training shoe successfully launched in the U.S.A. The Mall Walker is popular with older people as it has a better grip on the tiled floors of the huge shopping malls where so many of these people now spend their time. The malls' air-conditioned ambience varies across the country - cool in the south, warm in the colder north - but provides perfect combined opportunities for shopping and exercise. Sensible people are improving their social life and extending their vitality by joining mall walking clubs. The clubs' membership is increasing every week, L. L. Bean's catalogue seems to offer a wider range of mall shoes in every issue and I've seen the signs at the mall entrances in Massachussetts announcing the times that the clubs will meet to walk.
Mark Adlard's 'Interface' or 'Tcity' trilogy, published in the early '70s, saw that specific thing happening, among many others. Another was the importance of male yuppie hairstyles - which has come into and gone out of fashion since I wrote the first draft of this in 1988. Adlard's books provide remarkably prescient detail about the close future but they are now hardly known and seem to have been out of print for years, though second-hand copies are common. In their time they were published in hardback and papercover, in the USA and in Britain, and in bookclub editions.
Adlard was a manager in North Eastern industry who was also knowledgable about SF (he was a contributor the first edition of Peter Nicholls' Encyclopedia of Science Fiction), who seems to have lapsed into silence after publishing the first volume of projected trilogy about nineteenth century whaling (again, one comes across second-hand Penguin copies of The Greenlander). I hope he is alive to read this tribute.
Interface (1971), Volteface ('72) and Multiface ('75) seem to be ignored in some critical works but David Wingrove (in The Science Fiction Source Book) called them 'extraordinarily erudite' and Peter Nicholls (in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction) wrote that the Tcity 'books are ambitious in scope and deserve to be more widely known'. They are also unusual in that they manage to combine a large number of subjects naturally into one story. Peter Nicholls identifies at least nine themes covered by the books:
The trilogy can be read as both utopia and dystopia, as political and non- political, as religious and as materialist. At the same time, through a roughly realist style, it manages to imply much more than is described.
The trilogy was clearly planned before the writing began so that each volume leads naturally to the next, and concludes with the third. The first volume introduces Tcity, a dome-covered megalopolis sited between the Tees and the Tyne, associated with the nearby Stahlex plant. Stahlex is the wonder material of this future, capable of constructing everything from roads to hosiery. The Stahlex Corporation is responsible for running the city nominally, although due to high levels of automation both city and factory run themselves with little human involvement. An almost incredible number of people cannot work because there is little role left for human labour and possible human error. They are bored and unhappy, though they do not recognise it. The tiny number of executives have surgically increased intelligence, and tend to mingle with the ordinary city dwellers only when they go slumming or looking for rough trade. Along with all this there has been a Denaissance - art has ended, and people know that they are living in a sterile, non-creative world.
The first book, Interface, mostly centres on a group of executives, their personal happiness, affairs and strivings, and the way their lives are affected when there is a revolt of disaffected citizens and allied managers. It begins with Jan Caspol, one of the elite, waking in the cubicle of an aphrodolly, and ends with violence and destruction, but readers do not know how much.
As Volteface begins the revolt is some time past and the executives have decided that the people's lives must be filled, by re-creating work. A vast manufacturing, distribution and sales system for ear-rings, bracelets, trinkets and gewgaws is generated and the market then artificially maintained (by TV programmes using sex fantasies). Applicants are appointed to jobs for which computer matching shows they are suitable, but some are then swapped to completely inappropriate posts by executive action, since this is felt to replicate how business was organised in our twentieth century heyday. The novel expands its social reach to deal with the middle-ranking managers who find a place in this new business. The city fathers have decided that work will be elaborated and exacerbated by using our management methods, and the book follows the experiences that suggest the lives of everybody who goes to work today is partly one of horror. (This second volume more than the others can be read as a satire on the present day).
Among others, Adlard introduces Gregory Smythe, James Twynne and Carl Amory - young men who spend their time in whatever recreation they can find until one they day they come out of a concert to see the new adverts for work opportunities flashing in front of them.
Adlard uses the trick of a character noticing another in passing, and that character becoming important only later (as Robert Altman did in the film Short Stories). This is how Ventrix is introduced - an attractive blonde girl passing. Later, the story follows her as she goes to the computer to find suitable work. Her responses to the thematic apperception tests are unusual:
"Ventrix looked at (a pciture of) a girl, who was sitting cross-legged on a chair, and who appeared to be gazing thoughtfully at some object which was outside the confines of the picture
. "'Tell me what you think the girl is doing.'
"Ventrix answered without hesitation. 'She is watching the tri-di and worrying in case it is going to turn into an erotic fantasy.'
"The screen blanked.
"'Perhaps you said that she was remembering the last happy evening she spend in a saloon,' commented the indifferent voice, 'and that she is looking forward to going there again. Or something like that."
Ventrix's other comments become particularly ironic, as one of the executives becomes obsessed with her, but only after he has been disembodied in an accident, and kept as a brain in a central processing unit, and Ventrix becomes his sexual fantasy.
Adlard does something similar when James Twynne gets a job as Planning Manager of Depot Number One and meets his new boss for the first time:
"'Excuse me, sir.'
"The Director faced him unwillingly. The eyes were furtive behind the coloured irises of his contact lenses, and there were faint scars of recent facial surgery about his forehead, cheeks and mouth. He must have already spend his first month's increment.
"Twynne recognised him under the cosmetic tan, and extended a joyful hand. 'Congratulations, Greg.'"
Director Gregory Smythe is all appearance and no depth.
Multiface follows the system working and explores the everyday lives of a still lower class - those who have become clerks and such-like as well. (The series never deals with those people found to be fit only for warehouse staff or delivery drivers, or unemployable). This exploration is one of psychopathology - people brought up in the residential blocks of Tcity have lead lives of misery and for most of them work is an escape. Among other things, the Directors of other warehouses start plotting for market share, and Gregory Smythe's unit dives towards bankruptcy, driven by the Machiavellian plotting of Mr Felixstowe, the Director of Depot Number Five, and his own incompetence.
Felixstowe is asked: "Why did you trick that man into paying more than he need have done for stock you didn't want anyway?" and he replies "It's good business." Smythe has the appearance of a businessman, but Felixstowe has the mind.
Other lives are even more bizarre - such as Will Taggart, a man who lives only to work and turns into an almost drooling idiot when five o'clock comes. Or Osbert Osborne, who does not work, but becomes obsessed with collecting door knobs. Both of them are sick, but it is the apparently comic obsession of the doorknobs that leads to murderous tragedy. The lives of the executives are not much better, and the book ends with Jan Caspol, who has been followed through the series, in a Buddhist retreat in Northumbria.
I don't want to suggest that Adlard has all or any of the answers - after all, that hairstyles seemed important a few years ago, and now are less so; or the use of body piercing and nipple-rings, shows that we are not talking about tight prediction. In Volteface body piercing and jewellery become the engine of the new businesses, something that is happening now in the late '90s, not in the world of an exotic princess (as the Tcity TV subliminally advertises them), but in something frequently associated with new paganism, fetishists and nightclubbing ravers.
The trilogy is not a dystopia, at least in the sense of an Orwellian "boot trampling on a face forever" dystopia. It represents some of the interests or its author, some of his fears, a projection of the implications of work with which he was familiar, but includes them in something much bigger. Where Mark Adlard was most successful, though, was in including the small with the large - he filled in the details, and in some ways, long before the time he suggested, things have gone as he indicated.
He cannot, probably, be called Cyberpunk. The media landscape is important, but the methods of electronic communication are not. Specifically, Tcity is about reality, and not virtual reality. Yet his three books are just as important, and perhaps some editor might consider re-issuing them in a Tcity Omnibus.
I have referred to Peter Nicholls' Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
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© L J Hurst 2007