Raven

First broadcast in six parts from 19th September to 24th October 1976, Raven was written by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray, the duo who also brought us Children of the Stones. And Trevor Ray has another connection to 70s kids’ telefantasy, in that he acted in an episode of Sky, playing the sinisterly avian Rex. Perhaps that gave him the seed of the idea of creating a series called Raven.

The series is named after its main character, Raven (played by Phil Daniels, best known now for Quadrophenia two years later, and Blur’s “Parklife” 17 years later), a 15 or 16 year-old orphan (found as a baby in an earthworks maze, watched over by a raven) on trial release from a borstal. He is to spend time with archeologist Professor James Young (played by Michael Aldridge, later Professor Diggory in the BBC’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and his ornithologist wife (Patsy Rowlands, of Carry On fame). The Professor is currently investigating a subterranean cave system he believes to have been an ancient sacred site associated with King Arthur. (It also has a circle of standing stones above it, which he claims to be the origin of the idea of the Round Table.)

The Professor, professing

The Professor, though, only has a month to finish his work, because the government is putting plans in motion to turn the caves into a containment site for nuclear waste, and to build a reprocessing plant above it. Raven, on first hearing this from the project’s manager, Bill Telford, is all for it: “No good living in the past. Got to look after the future, right?” But the Professor is horrified. “Why are you talking like the establishment?” he demands (knowing how best to win over this rebellious young man), and gives him a pile of reading about the site, saying he should be better informed.

Raven has already had some visionary moments in which he’s seen the old professor as a bird — a merlin, in fact. Now he goes down into the caves and has a vision of himself as King Arthur, who presses his thumb to Raven’s forehead, leaving him with the astrological mark of Pluto between his eyes. From that point on, Raven is committed to saving the caves.

Phil Daniels as Raven

He falls in with local cub reporter Naomi Grant, who as well as junior reporting jobs (where she always has to follow the editorial line, however much she’s personally against it, and at the moment the paper is for the nuclear waste dump), does the paper’s horoscopes. When the professor gets her to recognise the symbols carved outside each cave as ancient versions of our modern astrological symbols (Gemini once being a giant, and Cancer a ship, apparently), she realises Bill Telford’s men are trying to tunnel between two caves whose astrological energies are in direct opposition. She’s convinced it will lead to disaster. Bill doesn’t listen — who would? — and so gets trapped in a cave when the new tunnel’s roof collapses. Naomi and Raven pick a more astrologically-harmonious route into the now-sealed cave, and though the surveyor doesn’t think it will work, it does. The rescued Bill emerges with the sign of Pluto on his forehead, converted to the anti-nuclear-waste point of view…

There’s a way of looking at Raven as a sort of reverse folk-horror. The cave site is sacred, and must be protected, and to ensure people protect it they’re forcibly initiated into its cult, usually by being trapped in the caves, leading to a vision of King Arthur pressing the mark of Pluto onto their foreheads. After this, they change their minds about the nuclear waste site. Professor Young is the head of this coven, and it seems even more folk-horror-coven-like when we learn the local vicar is one of his main allies. There’s even a night-time gathering of all the main players at the sacred stones, and a hint of ancient ritual sacrifice when a skull (of a young male of Raven’s height and age) is found in one of the inner caves.

Key to the Professor’s efforts is convincing young Raven he’s the reincarnation of King Arthur — or, at least, the latest incarnation, as “Some people believe that Arthur was the name of the office, rather than the man himself.” Raven is, at first, resistant:

[Professor Young]: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

[Raven]: “Yeah, and some thrust it right back again.”

But he comes round, not because he believes he’s King Arthur, but because he believes in the cause, and finds that other people are listening to him: “First time in my life I’ve ever felt useful.” This is the only one of these 70s’ kids’ telefantasy shows I can think of to so heavily feature the media as a necessary part of its story. Raven not only has to recruit the local newspaper to get his message across, but, through TV man Clive Castle, the general public:

[Raven]: “They’re destroying the countryside to make way for a lot of industrial garbage. They’re starting a dangerous game with no idea how it’s going to finish. And they’re dumping a lot of poisonous waste which might top us all one day…”

[Clive Castle]: “So you see yourself as the guardian of the future, as the representative of a younger generation who’s battling against the shortsightedness of your elders?”

[Raven]: “Listen, mate. We’re responsible for the kids who ain’t even born yet.”

This echoing of ancient mythic patterns in the modern world recalls The Owl Service, but in this case in mostly a benevolent way (Raven does get its replaying of the Guinevere story, though). I did find people seemed all too eager to see Raven as a new King Arthur, but for me it was the astrological stuff that was the least convincing. Perhaps if a little more effort had been made to tie modern astrology with ancient Earth-mysteries and ley line energies it might have seemed a little less ridiculous that knowing the incompatibility of two birth signs could lead to predicting a rock fall and saving someone trapped by it. Perhaps that’s just because I find one sort of nonsense (ley lines) a little less nonsensical than another (astrology), but to me it seemed Raven took the Earth-mysteries-type mysticism of Sky, Children of the Stones and The Changes just a little bit too far into the ridiculous — not because it is unbelievable, but because it was too convenient, story-wise.

It’s the acting that makes Raven work. Phil Daniels is properly both annoying and charismatic as a spiky, street-wise rebel, a ne’er-do-well with his head on straight, and you never doubt he might actually become the sort of public leader he does become. It can almost make you ignore the fact that the story culminates not in the sort of exciting confrontation with dark mystical forces you find in Sky, Children of the Stones and The Changes, but in a public hearing in a local government hall — and that the tactics our heroes use basically involve the sort of mind-control most often associated with the villains in this kind of story.

Was Raven starting to show the limits of this brief cycle of Earth-mystery-inspired kids’ telefantasy? I think The Moon Stallion, which came two years later, showed there was more to be mined from this particular subterranean strata, though perhaps that show’s being set in the past helped. Still, Raven’s an interesting entry in this little sub-genre.

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Radicalized by Cory Doctorow

Radicalized, first published in 2019, is a collection of four novellas of a Black Mirror-ish cast, bringing as they do a dystopic twist to areas of modern concern. I hadn’t read any of Doctorow’s fiction before this, aside from I think one short story in a cyberpunk anthology, but have been listening to his podcast, where he reads his non-fiction pieces, mostly on matters concerning the social impact of big tech companies’ business practices. The first of the stories in Radicalized is a fictional take on one of these topics, but if that makes it sound dry, it isn’t.

The protagonist of “Unauthorized Bread” is Salima, a refugee immigrant to the US who, upon finally being allocated housing, finds herself in one of the quota of assisted-housing flats in a large, technologically modern tower block. This means certain aspects of the building’s tech infrastructure quietly but relentlessly discriminate against her, to ensure she can never forget she’s there on sufferance. The lifts, for instance, have two lobbies, one for the full-paying residents, one for the likes of her, and if a full-paying resident is in a lift, it won’t open its doors on Salima’s side, or stop at any of the assisted-housing floors. As Salima lives on the thirty-somethingth floor, she often has to wait forty-five minutes for a lift that will open its doors for her. Mostly, after a hard day’s work, she climbs the stairs.

Her apartment comes equipped with some modern appliances, too, including a Boulangism toaster. (Which I, as a UK reader, thought meant a pop-up toaster, but apparently means a “toaster oven”.) This marvel of modern tech will toast anything to perfection, as long as it’s in the manufacturer’s approved list. So, if you buy just any bread (i.e., cheap bread), the machine won’t even open up. You have to buy approved bread, made by bakers who have paid a subsidy to Boulangism. (In turn, Boulangism pay a cut of the profits to the landlords who install these appliances, which is how they can afford to rent a number of apartments to low-paying tenants: the tenants end up paying more than the difference in rent through having to buy more expensive consumables, the profits from which partly go into the landlords’ pockets.) And it’s not just the toaster that does this, but the dishwasher, the fridge, and so on.

Then Boulangism goes out of business, and the toaster refuses to toast anything. Salima goes online to work out what to do, and discovers a world of advice on how to jailbreak her toaster’s firmware so she can use it again. Once that’s done, she doesn’t see why she shouldn’t jailbreak her dishwasher and fridge, too. And then, perhaps, the lifts?

“Unauthorized Bread” feels like one of those SF stories that could be happening not just tomorrow but right now. The technology for a choosy toaster might not be quite there, but things like this are going on (printers only accepting manufacturer-approved inks, for instance). And, as Doctorow has pointed out in his non-fiction pieces, this isn’t just about high-end consumer appliances, it’s an aspect of tech business practice that covers things like pacemakers (if your pacemaker-maker goes out of business, it’s illegal to have someone concoct a firmware update for it to, for instance, protect it from security flaws) and farm equipment (not being able to sew non-approved seeds, for instance, thus locking farmers into one mega-corporation’s entire product range). This story feels, then, like the moment 80s cyberpunk gets so close to modern life it’s just not SF anymore.

“Radicalized” is another tale of modern tech’s effect on ordinary people’s daily lives (though this time specifically in the US). The protagonist is Joe Gorman, whose wife develops a life-threatening cancer. There’s a treatment available, but it’s experimental, and their medical insurance won’t pay for it. Joe starts checking in on a forum for people in a similar situation, where men, helpless and furious at a system that denies their loved ones the possibility of recovery (and therefore of life), vent their darkest thoughts. Inevitably, some of these are of revenge on the people behind it — the executives at the insurance companies, the politicians who’ve blocked universal healthcare, and so on. Then, perhaps just as inevitably, one of these men, driven to despair when his loved one finally dies, decides to act on these fantasies. He’s going to go into the offices of the insurer who denied payment for an expensive treatment and blow himself up. Because, as he reasons, no one’s going to expect a middle-aged white guy to be carrying a bomb. And when he goes ahead and does it, everyone associated with the forum — even Joe who tried to talk the guy out of it — become, in the eyes of the government, terrorists.

Cory Doctorow, photo by Jonathan Worth (http://jonathanworth.com), Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

The only tale, here, to enter fantasy territory is “Model Minority”, about a superhero called the American Eagle who is, in all but name, Superman. (He has a fellow crime-fighter friend in a billionaire called Bruce, and has — or, rather, his secret identity has — a reporter-girlfriend called Lois.) One day he sees a group of cops relentlessly beating a black man, having stopped him on the flimsiest of pretexts. The American Eagle puts a stop to it, and decides to make sure the victim, Wilbur Robinson, receives the proper medical treatment and a fair trial. Suddenly he finds himself on the wrong side of an America that, previously, had pretty much worshipped him. His crime-fighting billionaire friend Bruce, even the victim Wilbur Robinson, tell the Eagle he’s bitten off more than he can chew, and he’s probably going to cause himself, and everyone else, more trouble than he’s preventing.

I’m not really sure what the take-away from this tale is, aside from flinging a lot of blame at a hero-figure (something the new series of Doctor Who did a lot, I felt), as in, where was the American Eagle at all the other high-points of racial tension in America? The trouble is, this turns the story into, in a way, a criticism of a fictional character (why didn’t the Superman comic take up these issues? — I have no idea if it ever did), rather than addressing the issue of racism. I wondered if the American Eagle wasn’t supposed to be taken as a sort of icon of America’s image of itself, but the story undermines that, by pointing out how this superhero is in fact an alien from another planet, and so, technically, a “minority” himself, and only tolerated as long as he serves the values of the country’s power structures. But the issues here are too complex to be dealt with by such a blunt instrument as a Superman-analogue, so this, for me, is one of the tales in the book that, despite having an excellent premise, ultimately fizzled out. (Perhaps this is just because “Unauthorized Bread”, right before “Model Minority”, was so much about solutions, and I expected this one to present a more optimistic ending than it did. To me, “Model Minority” was basically saying: there’s nothing you can do.)

Radicalized’s final novella, “The Masque of the Red Death”, is about one of America’s super-rich, Martin Mars, who, feeling that “the Event” is coming, has built what he’s called “Fort Doom” as a hideaway for himself and a select bunch of equally wealthy friends. “The Event” isn’t a specific thing, just a vague revolution/societal collapse he feels is bound to happen, an “adjustment period”, in the somewhat understated terminology of economists:

“The fact was the world just didn’t need all those people anymore, and the market had revealed that fact, squeezing them into tinier, more uncomfortable places… the world was heading to a state when the number of betas and gammas the alphas needed to keep the systems running would far exceed the demand…”

“Those people”, here, being the poor. It’s pretty obvious from the novella’s title which direction this tale is headed once Mars makes “the call” and summons his super-rich buddies to Fort Doom to begin sitting out this hiccup of civilisation (after which he, and they, all expect to emerge and resume their place at the top). But this novella didn’t quite have the moral inevitability I thought the reference to Poe’s tale implied. It does have a Poe-esque ending, but not one that quite hit the mark as the satire of super-rich survivalists I was expecting. It’s more about the idea that no one can buy out of the basic fact that plans go wrong.

My favourite novella of the four remains “Unauthorized Bread”, which not only kept its central situation evolving on a constant edge of suspense, but ended with a positive message about taking control of the tech that’s intent on controlling you. The others worked good as ideas more than they did as finished novellas, I felt, but were nevertheless worth reading. I’d certainly go for another collection of similar pieces from Doctorow.

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Merlin’s Wood by Robert Holdstock

UK paperback. Art by Geoff Taylor.

Merlin’s Wood, a novella first published in 1994 in the collection of the same name, is listed by its publisher Gollancz as being part of Holdstock’s mythago series. Before reading it, I found some people saying it shouldn’t be considered part of the series, but the reason given — that it’s not set near Ryhope Wood (it’s set in Brittany, by the forest of Brocéliande, where the wily Vivien was said to have trapped Merlin once she’d learned enough of his magic) — didn’t seem convincing. I’d be happy for the mythago series to leave Ryhope Wood and explore other areas of mythago generation. But now, having read the novella, I think there are better reasons for excluding it from the series.

It starts with a young Sebastian Laroche urging his brother Martin to join him on the path around Brocéliande because there are ghosts on it. It’s an accepted piece of local lore that children can see these ghosts. Sebastian, though, takes things further, and dances his way into one of them. There, he can hear its thoughts and feel its feelings, and it’s scared, this ghost, and keeps looking behind, back along the path, as if being pursued.

Time passes. Martin, now grown up and a designer in Amsterdam, returns to the farm where he grew up. He’s there to bury his mother. His father died some time ago, his brother Sebastian died as a child, soon after dancing through those path-walking ghosts. There’s one other member of the family, Rebecca, adopted by the Laroches as a thirteen-year-old shortly before Sebastian’s death. As an adult, she moved to Australia, trying to learn more about an almost magical power of song she has. Now she returns, and she and Martin, who had, unbeknownst to their parents, become lovers in their young adulthood, resume their relationship. The farm has been left to them, though under the stipulation they sell it and move away from the forest, which Martin’s mother believed was dangerous for her children. Instead, they marry and settle down to live by Brocéliande.

French edition. Art by Arnaud Crémet.

Soon they have a child. Born deaf and blind, Daniel nevertheless seems able to hear his mother’s singing, and is soon singing himself. Nobody pays attention to the fact that Rebecca’s singing then dries up — until her sight begins to fade while Daniel starts to see.

One of the reasons I feel this novella doesn’t belong in a series with Mythago Wood is what happens when Rebecca’s song, then sight, then hearing start to fade. Martin takes her to a medical specialist at “the National Institute for Parapsychology”. When we later meet the local priest, Father Gualzator, we hear him talking of “the Church and the Hill”, which seem to be two separate but related aspects of the local religion, one Christian, one pagan. Both details point to this not being our world, or the otherwise identical-to-ours world of Mythago Wood. It seems to be a world where something of pagan worship, and perhaps a little of pagan magic, are an accepted, if not common, part of everyday life.

The other reason for excluding Merlin’s Wood from the mythago series is that there are no mythagos in this story. There are ghosts of the past — or, if not ghosts, at least insubstantial things, quite different to the very physical embodiments of myth that emerge from the depths of Ryhope Wood. A lot of Merlin’s Wood feels similar to the sort of woody, earthy, stone-age-to-dark-age magic of the mythago books, but at the same time it’s too different to really fit that series. (It might fit better with the world of Holdstock’s earlier novel, Necromancer.)

Czech cover.

There are artistic connections, though. Like the second mythago book, Lavondyss, this is a narrative with sudden, traumatic breaks. Shortly after the Rebecca/Daniel portion of the novella hits its climax, the narrative is handed over to a completely different character, and we get Merlin telling us the tale of his relationship with Vivien — or Vivyana, Ivanyavok, Evunna, Evye, whose name, in whatever form, means “Vision of Magic”. Vivien wanted to learn magic, and she and Merlin became lovers. It’s a bizarre story, set in a world of ancient sorcery, full of the sort of barbarically weird images so unique to Holdstock’s imagination:

“The lakes were so cold that in each one of them a hundred human bodies floated, half-way down, dead yet still alive, suspended from the process of living by the ice. The magic men of the region, the shamans, swam among them naked, feeding on the faint echoes of memory in the drowned, learning past truths to aid their own journeys to the underworld.”

One day Merlin realises that, however well they’re getting on now, Vivien will not be satisfied till she’s taken his magic for herself. So he takes steps, separating his magic from himself and setting it wandering the paths around Brocéliande in the form of human-like shadows — the ghosts that modern-day children will later see. Then the fight is on, and Vivien buries him in a shaft in the earth, capped by a stone cairn. From that moment, the two become a corruption at the heart of the wood:

“Yes, something lay rotting at the heart of the forest, a death that had been known for generations. It was a decaying place, shedding ghosts like autumn leaves.”

The battle for Merlin’s magic continues to influence the human life around it throughout the generations. The pair fight through others, blighting countless ordinary lives by forcing them to enact the tug-of-power between these ancient enchanters.

Another French cover.

Perhaps the best comment I’ve found on this novella is by Dave Langford, who writes of the narrative being “distorted by its weight of undeserved loss and inaccessible healing”. Lavondyss, too, dealt with an almost immeasurable sense of loss, and an almost inhuman path back to redemption. Here, in this much shorter narrative, the sense of breakage when the human world is invaded by the mythic is almost offhand, and the promised resolution is too remote. (At the end, Merlin seems to be offering to set things right, but is too casual when he says how long it will take: “Six months, six years, six thousand years”, it makes little difference to this almost inhuman being.)

There are undoubted moments of imaginative brilliance in this novella, such as this, from early on in Merlin’s tale:

“You may not be aware of it, but there is a bone in every human body which, when broken, begins the passage of time. For most of you, this bone is broken in the womb and soon dissolved. Rarely, it remains unbroken for centuries without end.”

2009 edition.

But at the same time, it’s hard to work out what to make of this story on a more human level. I feel inclined to reach for the same solution as I did with The Bone Forest: this is a tale about its own creative process. Like the image of the children dancing through ghosts at the start of it, and “the idea that to dance inside the ghostly figures from Brocéliande was to become possessed by some shadow of the past”, here, perhaps, Holdstock is allowing himself to become possessed by an imaginative figure, his version of Merlin, and to write Merlin’s tale as Merlin would tell it, so immersed in magic he doesn’t see things as humans do.

One of the things I liked so much about Mythago Wood was the slow revelation of what was going on inside the wood, Steven’s gradual understanding of what these bizarre beings from the past who stepped from the wood really were. Increasingly, throughout the series (and here, outside the series), Holdstock’s imagination has become wilder and more brutal, less inclined to that sort of measured build-up, and given to jarring narrative breaks that damage his human characters perhaps too much. I’m determined to finish the mythago books, but I’m wondering if they haven’t already gone too far from what I most liked about the early two, and whether the rest will be as fulfilling.

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