- The Sykaos Papers by E.P. Thompson
Bloomsbury, 482 pp, £13.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 7475 0117 3
It isn’t easy to describe this Protean work, but the 18th-century flavour of the title page offers a useful preliminary hint. Essentially the story is an inversion of Gulliver’s Travels. The voyager, Oi Paz, views Sykaos, our own dear planet, with the pained, baffled rationality of a visiting Houyhnhnm. His early adventures among us, however, are picaresque in their variety and indignity. He points contrasts and passes judgments like Quixote or Parson Adams. The punning suggestiveness of ‘Sykaos’ and the related adjective ‘Sykotic’ is, of course, deliberate. As with Swift, names are significant: ‘Oitar’ (Oi Paz’s home planet) should be read backwards as well as forwards.
Things look bad for the United Kingdom when its female Prime Minister – perhaps to become the Lady Finchley later alluded to – gives way to Dr Charon. The events narrated take place approximately ten years hence. The ‘papers’ are variously the records of Oi Paz himself, official reports, newspaper cuttings and, in particular, the field notes and diaries of Helena Sage, an anthropologist appointed to quiz Oi Paz about his native planet and its social structures.
This futuristic aspect of the story poses problems that don’t arise in Gulliver. A couple of sentences of nautical jargon and Swift can maroon his unlucky hero and get down to satirical business. Thompson has equipment to sort out. Oi Paz must be provided with a Translator, a device that can ‘command any language through a process of recording, sorting into grammatical parts, decoding and storing of vocabulary’. Thus assisted, he can soon speak and write English after his own fashion. At times he lapses into a doleful Tarzan-speak further curtailed, presumably in the interests of humour, by an inability to construe metaphor or idiom. When Helena Sage somewhat laboriously remarks, ‘I’ve just dropped in to call on you for a few minutes,’ he replies: ‘You do not drop, woman, you walk through door. And no need for calling at me, I hear you if you speak as you do.’ For the most part, however, he achieves a serviceable, quaintly-flavoured style – which is just as well, since through the first quarter or so of the book his locutions are doing most of the work. Soon alter his arrival from the Moon (an Oitarian staging-post) Oi Paz is knocked down by a car, hospitalised, and then detained by the police for interrogation. Described in the press as ‘about 35, 6 foot 6 inches in height, of a dark complexion, with shoulder-length fair hair’, he passes for human, and is eventually discharged as an out-of-work actor angling for publicity.
The humours hereabouts are of a familiar Martian variety, everyday sights being transformed by innocence of vision and oddity of verbal expression.
A ceaseless, ill-spaced procession of cars of many sizes and colours carried creatures here and there in both directions, yet the vehicles conducted themselves with such cunning, dividing their directions on one side of the road or the other, that they did not impact. Now, as if by some instant common signal from a thought-controller, all would stop together, their engines roaring impatiently. Then all would receive a different signal and would lurch forward together once more. The occupants had anxious faces, and leaned forward, as if obsessed by the urgency of their futile errands.
The idiom pays greater dividends when Oi Paz is taken over by an Australian impresario, who keeps him permanently fuddled with drink and has him appear on television, where his semi-comprehensible admonitory harangues soon win him a cult following:
Good Night. I give this night even heavier sentences to your plugs than before. I bug you in your inmost vibes. For the time of forgiveness is failing fast and all your traffickings draw to the Final Jam.
O cast up your peepers to the seemly stars which are aghasted at your muckeries! Beware! Ah, then will it be too late to wail and wilter, when the chuckall gashes at thy knackered bones.
Such passages recall the efforts of Golding, in Darkness Visible, or Hoban in Riddley Walker, to give weight to a prophetic message by couching it in a newly-coined prose-style. The effect can be found alternatively arresting or specious, as though a trite message were being displayed behind mottled glass. With well over three-hundred pages of The Sykaos Papers still to be read, the jeremiads of Oi Paz don’t promise to last the pace.
Fortunately he is retrieved by British intelligence agents who have belatedly recognised him for the genuine space-invader that he is. They shut him away in a carefully-guarded country estate in Hampshire, there to be interrogated by a variety of experts. An Oitarian presence has been identified on the Moon, and it has been concluded that detailed study of Oi Paz is a necessary prelude to negotiation with these potential foes. The most successful of the investigators is Helena Sage, whose notes provide most of the subsequent narrative. The interposition of Helena’s distinctly human voice cheers up the story immensely.
Indeed, it is only at this point that The Sykaos Papers becomes a story rather than a fable. There is a sudden expansion in several directions. Hitherto the emphasis has been on our own oddities: we have been offered no more than intriguing hints about Oitar. Now Sage and others make a systematic effort to piece together a picture of life on this remote planet. While Swift presents no more than a sketch, partly fantastical, of Houyhnhnm society, Thompson attempts a boldly systematic account of the ultra-rational Oitarians. Both the account itself and the investigation that produces it have real intellectual vigour, but there is more yet to this section of the narrative. Mysterious correspondences emerge between Oitarian and human history. The two worlds have certain phenomena and even certain words in common. How can this have come about?
The very process of interrogating Oi Paz proves problematic. One of the scientists involved becomes the victim of transference, drawn into the visitor’s patterns of thought and response. But Oi Paz, too, has his difficulties. It becomes clear that one reason for the lack of passion on Oitar is the fact that the great mass of the population never attain sexual maturity. Oi Paz himself has so far been pre-pubertal. Under the influence of earthly climatic and dietetic conditions his voice deepens, his body-hair and his genitals grow, and he feels accompanying stirrings of human feeling that his Oitarian personality cannot accommodate.
These interlocking developments bring the book excitingly to life. It isn’t simply that the debate widens: the whole nature of the argument changes. Most people probably have a limited tolerance for being nagged about the deficiencies of humanity by a fellow human-being. Thompson engagingly stops using the Oitarians’ rationality simply as a stick to beat us with, and pursues the possibility that their weaknesses might be the obverse of our own. David Nettler, the language expert who falls into Oitarian thought patterns, gives a long account of what it is like to enter that alien ‘mindscape’:
Somehow the senses – the body – seemed to grow dim, so that it was an inert mechanism, like a corpse with no signals of its own. You know, we really do inhabit a dualism – body and mind – and there’s a flow going on between them, signals to each other, as if we each had two ‘I’s. When I jumped paths, this dialectic snapped – I was a mind which had lost touch with the ‘I’ ... A grammar cured of choice. Nowhere in the whole mindscape an ambiguity. Not even a language, but a sense of compulsions, so that one could not speak but was spoken, like a digit in a flowchart.
The question is repeatedly implied: is it better to live a passionless, error-free existence as, in effect, a computerised being, or to have the human capacity for feeling, and with it the human capacity for error and aggression, the liability of our species to encompass its own doom.
‘Doom’ – the very word is like a bell which tolls us back to the certainty that Thompson isn’t the man to let his readership off with a mere debate and a few personal encounters, however promising these have become. In the period during which Oi Paz is under intensive study the plot of the novel is more or less in abeyance. Once Sage has completed her draft accounts of Oitar, it is strenuously reactivated. The country estate where the investigation is taking place sprouts a couple of secret tunnels, KGB moles are unmasked, CIA agents burst in, Oi Paz breaks out and so forth. For unconvincing reasons the whole operation is taken over by the Americans – a bad lot, save for a solitary black one. There’s a sudden intensification of worry about the plans of the Oitarians on the Moon – who in fact want to colonise part of the Earth, since their own planet is becoming uninhabitable. With a crashing of narrative gears mankind is manoeuvred to the top of the slippery slope that would lead to nuclear destruction.
Somehow it’s hard to take all this very seriously. The succession of events and international reactions that Thompson devises is pretty ramshackle. There’s a reassuring evitability about them. The final third of the book, which works out the inter-galactic plot, shows nothing like the intellectual and imaginative engagement that has characterised the previous section. A variety of incidental effects militate against the required awe. There are the throwaway political gags, for example: ‘the govt needs to buy votes with a tax cut, & since they privatised the River Severn & sold the Channel Islands to France they’ve run out of assets.’ A prophet sincerely proclaiming the imminence of Armageddon wouldn’t waste time on shooting peas at barn doors. The dénouement has to be held up for a year or two so that inter-galactic miscegenation can take place between Oi Paz and Helena. To this end the Americans, who have earlier gone to great lengths to try to capture the Oitarian visitor, unconvincingly lose interest in him altogether once he is in their clutches, leaving him and Dr Sage to rove the pastoral estate together. A further disincentive to involvement is the symbolism, which grows hectic at this juncture. The lovers are consigned to the Zone of Eden. Helena first makes love to Oi Paz in the presence of a viper, having duly bitten an apple and passed it to her prospective mate. They produce a son who is named Adam. With all these odds and ends of significance about it’s hard to keep one’s eye on the terrestrial ball. The final bang is something of a whimper.
The Sykaos Papers is ultimately disappointing because it attempts too much. The diversity is welcome in principle, but some of the competing objectives are incompatible. In particular it’s hard to see how a discussion of the limitations and potentialities of the human personality, which cannot be brought to a conclusion, could ever be reconciled with a cautionary fable about nuclear war, which demands one.