Eyes Right

In 2021 I used the lockdowns to catch up on some reading I’d wanted to do over the years. The easiest part of the pile were some children’s books I mostly missed out on reading when I was a child, and so now was their time. I read some darkly realistic stories that didn’t have any overt fantasy or magic. I read some mystery stories which did tend toward the paranormal. I read some stories that went full in to mythology and occult forces breaking into the modern world. And now finally for some science-fiction. It’s all from a single author this time: Nicholas Fisk.

Trillions (1971)

This is the only one of these books I read when I was the appropriate age for it, in 1983. I loved it, and I wrote an ecstatic review of it when we had to write book reviews as an exercise in English. Now I am doing that again, but none of my dozen or so readers will be taking this in and marking it.

We start straight in to a blank mystery falling from the sky on the English seaside town of Harbourtown.

No one can tell you exactly who it was now, but it was quiet certainly one of the youngest children that invented the name ‘Trillions’. You can imagine a group of children squatting on the ground, scraping together heaps of brightly coloured, mysterious grit that had fallen from the sky…

’I’ve got millions!’

’I’ve got billions!’

’I’ve got trillions!’

Trillions it was from then on. The name fitted perfectly. It had the right hard, bright sound to it – and Trillions were hard and bright. It suggests millions upon millions – and the Trillions were everywhere, sprinkling roads and gardens and roofs and even the firesides of people’s homes with a glittery dusting of the tiny jewels (but Trillions were not jewels).

And the name Trillions had a foreign sound to it –  a suggestion of other worlds, star-studded skies, the cold emptiness of space. That was right, too. For wherever Trillions came from, it was not this world.

So everyone – the children, then the adults, then the local newspapers, then the national newspapers and TV stations and at last the world authorities – came to call the strange, jewel-like dust by the name the children invented: Trillions.

This opening passage captures the magic of this book, and also sets out some of the rules of the Fiskiverse. Although there are no common characters or worlds (apart from an explicit sequel, see below), they all have a sense that children have a democratic role in understanding whatever strange phenomenon has emerged; they can perceive it better and see goods and evils about that that elude adults. The wonders are also straining the edge of language (“trillion” – just beyond the biggest number anyone could imagine a use for; not featuring regularly in TV economic news reports about national debt until many years later). The phenomenon has a nature just within grasp of a quasi-scientific explanation that brainy kids could think up, but then they’d begin to realise the limitations of their theory, even if it satisfied their elders.

Scott never spoke about his ideas and inventions, not even to his father. He was, after all, a schoolboy. Why should his father, a grown man, be interested in schoolboy ideas? In fact, his interests were shared by only one other person – Bem. But Bem was younger than Scott and also perhaps a smaller-minded person. Bem had an ‘old’ mind, Scott had an ageless mind. So Scott was really alone with his extraordinariness.

…But when the Trillions came, everything about him and around him became complicated. For the Trillions were very extraordinary indeed and it was to take more than ordinary ways of thinking and acting to deal with them.

But there are other extraordinary people drawn in to the Trillions situation. There’s sad old Icarus Blythe, the heroic astronaut who survived being marooned in orbit following an accident. He detests being a “human interest” story to reporters who aren’t interested in the truth he learned from his experience.

’That loneliness…’ Icarus went on. ‘I got used to it. They say you can get used to anything. I don’t know. But I got used to my own loneliness after a day or two – or three. I don’t know how long. But then, Scott, something came up that I hadn’t been expecting. I got used to my own loneliness but I found that there was another sort of loneliness I couldn’t get used to. Its loneliness! The loneliness of space itself!

’And that’s when the nightmare really began. I don’t know how to describe this, Scott, but I’ll try. They tell you that space is emptiness, nothingness – the void. They suggest that space, empty space, is something negative. I found it’s not! Space lives, Scott. Nothingness, emptiness, has a life all of its own.’

The mystery deepens and darkens when Scott finds a way to communicate with the Trillions.

What can we do for you?’ he wrote.

The answer came back as quickly, violently and directly as a blow to the face.

Hate us’.

The military are of course deployed in the Harbourtown and they insist on using a tactical nuclear weapon (ineffectually) against the underwater structure that the Trillions spontaneously organised themselves into. It’s an international crisis as well once the Trillions start falling and forming all over the planet. Everything is going crazy and the world is heading for self-inflicted mass destruction because of an “invader” who never showed any destructive tendencies. It’ll all end in disaster if it wasn’t for these extraordinary kids who can work it all out – in a downbeat, non-triumphal way, with a strong sense of the tragic history of the homeless Trillions and a psychic link to their desperate loneliness in the void.

Grinny (1973)

Stylistically very different, this is presented as a manuscript prepared by young Timothy Carpenter from the Diary he kept from January 14th to April 24th of some unspecified year – it’s reasonable to assume we are in 1972 or 3, since unfortunately the children are quite familiar with bombs going off in public places, as shown by this image at the start of “Book Two” on April 10th:

…You’re here for something. At the moment, you’re just a sort of suitcase and nobody notices the ticking noise. Later – WHOOMPF! – and people screaming and bleeding, broken glass and blood on the pavement. ‘Oh yes, Officer, I saw this feller with the suitcase sure enough, I saw him plain so I did, but how was I to know….!’

The “ticking suitcase” is the invading presence of smiling and mysterious “Great Aunt Emma” who turns up out of nowhere and immediately hypnotises the adult members of the Carpenter family into accepting she is a relative entitled to stay with them indefinitely, asking endless questions about aspects of modern British life whilst being extremely vague about her own life and background and also displaying bizarre failures of understanding – for example, taking very seriously chatter about TV science fiction shows with alien spacecraft in them.

Of course the 2 children – 11 year old Timothy and 7 year old Beth – are suspicious of the newcomer and are sensitive to many details that adults literally cannot see. It’s not because they’re stupid – Mr Carpenter is involved with an archaeological dig – but Grinny (as Beth names her, because of her endlessly smiling expression) can bring them under control instantly with the control expression: “You remember me…”

Timothy’s prose style is self-consciously juvenile, and his Introduction, written some time later, states he has decided to prepare it from the earlier Diaries on the advice of the writer Nicholas Fisk, whom he has been in touch with as he tries to become a writer himself. We see plenty of youthful boyish attitudes, some learned from his dad, dismissing or ridiculing female opinions, but he does have to accept that Beth has the measure of the intruder before him. She sees for herself that Grinny has wires and steel rods underneath her odd-smelling flesh when it gets split open after a fall in the garden – and heals up again quickly.

The two children, and their friend Mac, learn that their enemy can be confused and disorientated with some simple tricks.

The beauty of Eyes Right is that no outsider can really be positive you’re doing it. So you cannot be accused of anything. Not that I would mind much if someone did accuse me. I am sick and tire of the whole Grinny situation and the sooner we can bring it out into the open the better. Beth was right all along. It only remains to find out just what she was right about.

Mac wanted to do what he called an Elegant Variation and do it to the left instead of the right, but I said no, we’ll stick to Eyes Right. It must always be done the same way so that the effect builds up.

So after dinner, when we were alone with her, we gave her the treatment. We all stared at a point just one foot to the right of Grinny’s head whenever we spoke to her, instead of looking her in the eye in the usual way.

…Beth said, ‘Is it very bad, Grinny?’ and Grinny was obliged to look at Beth… who was looking where Grinny wasn’t. Anyhow, it went on and on until she started dabbing her hand towards her face, as if tryng to reassure herself that she was there.

How ruthless those kids were in the 70s, using tricks to make unwelcome adults doubt their own reality. Grinny isn’t completely alone, as there’s a flying saucer that has been sighted a few times and she goes into her own trance and babbles a fast, distorted language of her own when communing with it.

Grinny is of course defeated, and her demise would be a superb moment in children’s TV if it had been dramatized… but I think it would have probably been a bit much to bring off technically. I don’t think Doctor Who was doing anything as clever as that until at least the late 80s.

Time Trap (1976)

A jump into another world: the installation Homebody Unit 362 in the year 2079. Young Dano Gazzard is living in the enclosed high-tech society that emerged after the disaster of World War Three left most of the Earth’s surface uninhabitable. Within the Units things are mostly pretty safe but dull and of course we’re all suffering the moral decay that pessimistic philosophers predicted would occur in utilitarian utopias that lost touch with the tragic dimension of life once everyone had their own coffee machines, or whatever the Devil’s instrument was expected to be.

There is a very obvious Clockwork Orange influence running through this short yarn. It’s not just the teen gangs causing havoc with their Skimmers and aggro and scaring the Oldies; there’s also a trace of Nadsat in the language they use and the “Viddy” screens that exist everywhere and can do everything. Dano is quite unusual in wanting to know things, but then he’s a typical Fiskian youngster with more energy than all the bankrupt and depleted adults around him.

Nobody – except a few Topmosts of the Official Authority – knew Uncle Lipton’s secret. I alone did – and you must admit, it’s an amazing secret. The fact is (and it is a fact, not just another of Uncle Lipton’s Bevvie Lounge stories) that he might live for another hundred years… and has already lived one hundred and thirty-seven years!

As I say, no one here in Homebody Unit 362 knows that. But then, nobody in Unit 362 knows anything very much. They just amble about doing their thing. A pretty dull thing it is. The old ones drink True T and Coffymost and all the other synths in the Bevvie Lounge. Some of them drink gallons a day, I swear they do. Sometimes, when they get their Senior Citizen Credits and it’s a Saturday night – they can drink alcohol then – then they lash out and buy each other Wizzky or Brand-E or =Gin. Some of them even pretend to get drunk on the stuff although it isn’t strong enough to wiffle a mouse. None of them has even tasted the real thing, of course (but I have. In the 1940s).

Uncle Lipton (not his actual uncle) is another one of those decrepit ex-astronauts who learned a great spiritual insight in outer space about the inner space, but nobody who lauds his career wants to hear about it… except our young hero. So it is Dano who learns that the Xtend pills he was given to keep him alive on the long interstellar voyage (which was abandoned and he came home early from) allow personal time travel. Which is how our boy gets to go into the much more “real” world of the pre-Ecoshield distant past.

(Has it ever occurred to you that we are not real at all – but the Viddy is? Put it another way: do we watch the Viddy, or is Viddy watching us? Have you ever thought that you yourself might be just part of the Viddy’s programme – a component it can’t do without?)

Life in 1939 has quite a different texture, which is an odd conclusion to reach about a time in which millions were treated as national resources to be conscripted and deployed on battlefronts or in industry, or deported to camps and eliminated. If Dano bothered to ask them he’d probably find the same sentiments amongst the people of the lost world he adores, and he should have an inkling of it all since he turns up in a crowd of evacuees and is immediately bullied as a weird outsider.

The idea of drugs-as-time-travel comes up in Brian Aldiss’s An Age (also known as Cryptozoic!) and it didn’t make a great deal of sense there either. Fisk seems to be adjacent to, and clearly influenced by, a lot of the New Wave and related British sci-fi of the 70s, and the authors later dubbed “slipstream” by Christopher Priest. The lack of chapter separations in Time Trap, and the narrator musing to himself about the metaphysical puzzles of time travel, put us in that mood, but in a version for teenagers and no complications about sex and relationships (not that they were handled especially well by the usually male authors of the adult version). Trillions are not so far away from J.G.Ballard’s Crystal World and the journeys made possible by Xtend could have been made up by Aldiss or Michael Moorcock, but they would have spun them out over at least another hundred pages.

One thing that has not aged about this book: its philosophy is absolutely mainstream for much popular social commentary in 2021, namely: these kids today don’t know they’re born, it’s all too soft, they can’t imagine what it was like in 1940, God help us if there’s a war. Perhaps we need to investigate how many of those cultural critics read this book in a school library in the late 70s.

A Rag, A Bone And A Hank Of Hair (1980)

Brin Tuptal is a 12 year old who knows that “I am cleverer than most people”. He’s living in a world not unlike the one that Dano Gazzard comes from – magical tech city built in a wasteland Earth ruined by past conflict. In this world there are hardly any children being born and so desperate research programmes are underway to find a solution. The boy is called in to the Council Chamber of The Western Elect to be told he has to get involved in the project to make Reborn people.

’How do you think Reborns will be made?’

’Every part of every living thing,’ Brin began, concentrating hard and staring straight ahead of himself, ‘contains its own recipe. A tiny bit of lettuce contains the recipe for the whole lettuce. Part of a fingernail contains a recipe for the whole fingernail. Scraps of bone and tissue from the flesh of a cat or a dog contain the recipe for the whole animal – ‘

…Brin continued, ‘I suppose what you’d do is something like this: you’d get various scraps of tissue, bone, anything, and put them in a Genetic Recoder. And then in a sort of soup. With some electricity of course. You’d cook it up. And then you would have living matter, even a living human being. A new human just the same as the old one. A reborn human.’

This is of course absolute rubbish but it is the standard garbling about DNA and its biological role that is so helpful for getting magical plots to look quasi-scientific and so pass as “sci-fi”

The Council of the Western Elect is indicated as being multi-racial, but Fisk doesn’t seem to be too happy about how to handle this idea. The black member, Tello (short for “Othello”) is in charge of the Reborn project, and his skin colour is constantly noted, but another member is consistently dubbed “Chinese-looking”, and there is a “brown, Indian-looking Senior”. Presumably it is through the eyes of Brin that non-white people appear to be different in a way that can’t be fully identified.

The Reborn project has decided to recreate the environment of 1940, for reasons that are an expansion of ideas that could have been drafted by Dano Gazzard. There is a primary advantage that persons existing in the blackout of the Blitz will not require a complex life outside the home, but also:

’But could you have used a later period?’ Brin asked.

’Perhaps. But probably not. By 1960 or 1980, children wanted all kinds of things – and got what they wanted! They expected freedoms and possessions and excitements. So later children wouldn’t have done for us. They would almost certainly become impatient with the Scenario. We could condition our Reborns not to become impatient: but that wouldn’t do either. Too much conditioning interferes with the natural being we want to observe.’

The Reborns have to be studied in an artificial Scenario resembling the world they knew so that it can be determined whether it is viable as a long-term strategy to revive many of them to repopulate the Brave New World where everyone behaves themselves because they’ve got special brain implants, and first aid is so good that no one needs to know what a bleeding wound looks like. Brin has to be their host to keep things ticking over and engage with Mavis and Brian and Mrs Mossop as they spend all their time in a simple set with only a few rooms in it, constantly prevented from wandering off into the surrounding darkness and then entering the bright future city around it.

The November 1940 Scenario is a truly fantastic idea, and this really is a great lost Sapphire & Steel story buried inside a very average late 70s Doctor Who story (including the idea that in the future a simplified, more phonetic version of written English will be in use, which was also seen in The Invisible Enemy). The “experiment” simply doesn’t make any sense once Fisk has finished attaching so many conditions and parameters to it. Let’s just accept that dead people reconstituted from DNA fragments somehow have back all their memories of the world they were living in, and can be “conditioned” to forget the nasty bit at the end. Do they know why they’re in this place with this strange boy or not? There’s a terrible inconsistency about whether they remember events from one day to the next: they introduce themselves to Brin when they first meet him, but they’re supposed to already know him, yet they’re also getting their memories wiped so they don’t realise it’s the same games and staying indoors every night… except that they do, somehow. It’s a bit vague about how they get put to sleep and revived again without ever seeing their non-existent bedrooms or spending the day at a non-existent school, but if their brains are being manipulated and conditioned so much, what on Earth is the point as we clearly aren’t observing any “natural being”?

The problem is that this story is inside-out: we should have started in the mystery deception-house, and then broken out to discover it was an experiment; instead we started with the info-dump in the board room outside, and then walked in. When something magical starts happening outside of established parameters, we break outside the frame to hear the Seniors explaining it all really slowly to themselves. There is a gentle bit of satire about news manipulation and the secret agencies putting out phoney explanations for their own brutal terminations of troublemakers, but overall this story could have been something truly fabulous, and instead ended up just odd and incoherent. For a more focussed example of the same idea, see The Overman Culture (1971) by Edmund Cooper.

Sweets From A Stranger And Other Strange Tales (1982)

A collection of ten short stories. In the publication details it is stated that Nicholas Fisk has copyrights on the contents from 1978, 1979, 1980 and 1982, indicating that some of these were previously printed. Perhaps they were in Puffin Books Christmas Annuals – I’ve seen one of those, and it had an article by Fisk, although it was non-fiction and discussing comics.

This volume also includes some rather good illustrations by David Barlow, in addition to the creepy cover by Dave Holmes.

The stories are very good, and show that Fisk can be funny, which wasn’t apparent earlier. Some of the more satirical tales could bear comparison with work by Douglas Adams and Robert Sheckley. “Oddiputs”, about a low-grade robot that slowly acquires a sense of self and desire for revenge on the spoiled children that torment it, has affinities with the great robot-satires Tik-Tok and the Roderick novels by John Sladek. However there is an unsavoury moment where we’re told what sort of human Oddiputs would be if it were human, which doesn’t display a very warm or sympathetic attitude.

“Swap Shop” is nothing to do with the Saturday morning TV show but does centre on a weird premise about a void discovered behind cracked plasterboard. It’s rather like something that Shadows might have done. “Space Invaders” displays the anxiety about the new arcade machines, but goes for a comic twist. The idea that the new arcades could be conduits for alien manipulators was used by Hollywood in The Last Starfighter (1984) and also turned up in Arcade (1984) by Robert Maxxe.

You Remember Me! (1984)

We do remember you, Grinny, even though you’re now back as Liz Truss’s mum. Or rather, “Lisa Treadgold”, the hot new political campaigner who has risen from nowhere to become a power in the land as the leader of “The Rollers”, or rather R.O.L. (“Rule Of Law”), a crypto-fascist movement who saunter down high streets accompanied by a Dixieland jazz band and with their leader waving from a Rolls Royce. Her exact political message does not get much beyond “Decency, Discipline, Dedication. The three Ds” but that’s not really a problem, because she only needs a microphone or a TV camera in which to say her magical words and adults are all captivated all over again, this time on a bigger scale than just the Carpenter family.

The Carpenters are still here, because it’s 5 years since the events of Grinny. Timothy is now 16 and getting work experience at the local newspaper but unfortunately that means he’s now old enough to fall under the alien influence, whilst Beth is still young enough to be a witness to truth. The style and presentation of the book changes accordingly: this is no longer entirely a recovered or edited Diary, but mostly a third person narrative presumably constructed by Nicholas Fisk. Fisk is himself a character in the plot, since he already got involved in the Grinny saga. This time around unfortunately he falls under the influence of Treadgold as well as the rest of the country (apart from children and a minority of strong-minded adults). If we assume Grinny was 1973 then this would be 1978, and the street battles between “yobs” and others would be a reflection of punks and NF confrontations… is Nicholas admitting he was tempted by some authoritarian rhetoric in the doomy and gloomy late 70s, but was regretting it by the mid 80s? Who can say.

Things that don’t make sense on a bigger scale: how exactly a British politician can have global significance with a control-phrase that only works on Anglophones – we are not told about any parallel figures operating in other territories. So the alien invasion is rather putting all its chips on getting control of Britain and then figuring out the rest, which is a strategic error many failed invasions in Doctor Who in the 70s also made.

What hasn’t dated in this story is the sense of mass hysteria and paranoia, and the powers of hynoptic suggestion on crowds. There is an extraordinary chapter in which Lisa stirs a crowd to attempt unconsciously crush Beth and Timothy between them by not noticing their presence (they don’t realise it, but this would be a reversal of their own previous “Eyes Right” trick of deliberately blindspotting a victim). The escape is a claustrophobic descent down to pavement level and then down in to the sewers.

’Do like this!’ Timothy gasped. He took up a frog-like attitude, facing Beth. They put their hands on each other’s shoulders and braced their spines. Their bodies made a bridge. The feet shuffled and tried to invade their space, break the bridge. Beth and Tim sweated and held on. Above them, the living forest closed in, blotting out the light.

I did wince a bit when one of the adults who was resistant to the effect of “You remember me!” was shown to be also very tiresome, ranting on about everyone else being “sheep” who need to “wake up”. Of course it all washes away quickly when it’s over, as Nicholas Fisk says in his final letter to Timothy:

Already Lisa Treadgold is beginning to slip sideways in my mind. My video cassettes tell me she was there, she existed, she was as beautiful and awful as she seemed. And yet nobody mentions her. Have you noticed that? No one says her name!….

Of the Rollers, there’s hardly a trace. I came across one of those Roller boaters the other day. It had blown into a ditch. It still had its R.O.L. band round – how ancient, remote, like a snatch of blotched, jerky cine film about trench warfare. Yet it all happened only yesterday.

The power of great events to be forgotten quickly when no one wants to remember what they did at the time – a warning from history.

I have included pictures of the separate original covers of Grinny and You Remember Me! but I read them in the double-edition from 2013 which has a nice introduction by Malorie Blackman. The picture in the banner is a detail from the old hardback edition of Trillions that I found on a shelf at school in 1983.

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