Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review of Nomansland by D. G. Compton

There is a scene very near the beginning of D.G. Compton’s 1993 Nomansland that directly informs the reader what kind of novel will unfold thereafter.  A woman, who is being pressured by government not to publish a controversial research paper, receives a visit from a secret service agent.  The woman and the agent settle down nicely in the living room for tea, and amiable banter ensues.  But things suddenly go… cheesy.  The agent whips out a knife and slices the cat’s throat.  Blood stains the sofa as a word of warning what will happen should the woman decide to publish her paper.  Such literary tricks in existence for ages, I thought perhaps writers might try to move beyond…  I guess not.

Nomansland is the story of Dr. Harriet Ryder-Kahn, a prestigious researcher working on the MERS problem; humankind is no longer able to conceive male children.  No cure in sight, male embryos are rejected upon conception.  Only forty years having elapsed since MERS first hit, the generation in power remain elderly men—and they are bent on keeping power until their time is over.   Dr. Ryder-Kahn having made a major breakthrough in discovering the root cause of the syndrome, it’s her research that is causing the cat-killing reaction.  But getting her research into the public’s eye is her life’s work—and humanity’s if no male is ever born again.

With such a plot setup, it’s only possible that one of two explanations will close the book:  1) men are preventing Ryder-Kahn from making her research public, or 2) a woman, or group of women, are behind the scenes playing their own power game.  I will not spoil the book, but suffice to say neither option is a prelude to the most complex or profound conclusion; men are egomaniacs who want nothing but power, or women are also egomaniacs who want nothing but power the only two morals possible.

And Compton does not disappoint.  Nomansland moving forward one excruciatingly obvious step at a time, even the most amateur of genre readers will know well in advance what’s coming down the pipe.  I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for some cutting insight into humanity to reveal itself via a clever plot twist. But it never came.  One obvious trick after another was rolled out as the story headed to Vanillaville. 

Compton a practiced stylist, his vanilla at least flows edgily and progressively.  Back cover copy states the book is a thriller, and while I would add the word ‘subdued’, it remains true that Compton pays nice attention to detail, hones his prose, and, unlike the scenes which move the plot, produces realistic characters.  While I think Graham Greene remains a better writer, Compton’s overall style is at least similar.

In the end, Nomansland is not among Compton’s best work.  His skills as a stylist are evident, but the story simply does not have the same level of sophistication.  If Compton was aiming for a shot in the arm to feminism, he ended up shooting himself in the foot—in terms of a subtle, profound narrative that examines or exposes some truth about mankind the overwhelming majority are not already aware of.  From the extortion cat-killing scene to the barn door climax, I have trouble recommending the book—for as average as it is.  James Patrick Kelly’s “Men Are Trouble” and "Last Judgement", two stories set in a similar male-less setting, are both higher quality works.

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