In 1975, Michael G. Coney seemed omnipresent; he had had nine novels published in the space of three years, and for four consecutive years Donald Wollheim had selected Coney's stories for his "World's Annual Best SF" series.
But as fast as Coney's star had risen, it faded; a 1980 short story again picked up by Wollheim, and a novelette that was a Nebula Award finalist in 1995, were the sole high-spots, and within a decade of the latter Coney's death was all but unremarked within the field. Thirty years after he won the BSFA Award for Brontomek, Coney is all but forgotten except by a few fans with long memories, and/or a taste for obscure British SF.
Hopefully that situation will now be rectified. PS Publishing have reissued Coney's most famous novel, Hello Summer, Goodbye—published in 1975, and apparently voted the best novel of the 1970s by the British Science Fiction Association, though sadly the link cited in the introduction no longer works—and its previously commercially unpublished sequel, I Remember Pallahaxi. Brian W. Aldiss and Eric Brown (with whom Coney collaborated on what was to be his last published work) have contributed introductions, and Edward Miller has provided handsome covers.
Hello Summer, Goodbye opens with narrator Alixa-Drove helping to load the family motor-cart before embarking on the annual holiday to Pallahaxi, a resort where his family spend each summer. Neither world nor race is named outright, and without Coney's original 1975 introduction to clarify, it's left to the reader who comes cold to it to tease out from Coney's hints that Drove is not a human adolescent, but a humanoid who has "barely reached puberty."
Coney's world-building is detailed; Drove's world orbits the star Phu on a long, elliptical orbit which brings short, hot summers, and bitterly cold winters. Drove describes it:
I'd been taught to think of it all as a ball held in a hand. The ball is the world, the hand is the single continental mass ... divided into two ... between Erto and Asta. This hand-continent wraps around the globe, leaving three oceans; the huge polar oceans and the long, narrow ocean joining the two. (p. 15)
Winter is everywhere in Hello Summer, Goodbye, regardless of the time of year. Ice-devils inhabit pools, ready to freeze the water around the unwary who step into the pool in which they lurk; the cold is as taboo as sex was to Victorians—freeze, freezing and freezer are the equivalent of our four-letter word and its derivatives; and most significantly, Drove's people (I'll continue to call them this for the moment) react badly to the cold, first panicking, and if the temperature drops low enough, literally losing their minds. When Drove and his aunt are stranded one night, only the Lorin—shaggy parodies of Drove's people—save Drove from certain madness, or even death.
Drove's father is a minor functionary in Esto's Parliament, and as a "Parl" is privileged —few ordinary people can afford motor-carts and a cottage by the sea, even if the journey is a busman's holiday, for Drove's father has (unspecified) connections with the new government-owned cannery. It seems merely incidental at first that Pallahaxi occupies the point on land that is closest to the neighbouring country of Asta, with whom Drove's people are at war, but no point is insignificant in Coney's detailed, closely observed world.
The opening quarter of the novel may seem langourous to those used to today's relentless epics, but Coney spends the time on setting and characterization, both critical to the novel's denouement. Part of that setting is cultural: Esto's society is as hide-bound as Britain in the inter-war years. Indeed, as the second quarter of the novel unfolds Drove and his friend's explorations, and hints of smuggling and gun-running echo the work of mid-twentieth century children's authors such as Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome. Only when Drove and a friend are again saved by the Lorin does the tone gradually begin to darken.
And against a claustrophobic milieu and a backdrop of petty snobbery, Drove falls in love with Browneyes, the "commoner" daughter of an inn-keeper. Throughout what seems like an endless summer, Drove's part in saving another local girl earns him the villagers gratitude and as he grows closer to them, so he drifts into ever greater conflict with his parents.
Summers seem endless when one is a child, but they always end and as As Hello Summer, Goodbye moves toward its wintry conclusion, Drove learns that the war really is going as badly as the doubters claim, and tension is growing between the villagers and the Parls, with accusations from the former that food and weapons are being diverted to the cannery. When Drove has it proven beyond doubt that his father and the other Parls are lying, he seeks to avert a looming catastrophe.
In its last quarter the plot of Hello Summer, Goodbye seems to sharply dog-leg, but on re-reading, the clues to that unexpected turn are all there, albeit needing careful study. The novel's earlier echoing of Blyton and Ransome is savagely revisited, this time showing the bitter truth behind adolescent fantasies of empowerment and adventure. Hello Summer, Goodbye ends with many questions, and a gloriously ambiguous last line.
By contrast, I Remember Pallahaxi reads as almost an apologia for the enigmas of Hello Summer, Goodbye. Where its precursor hints, the sequel explains and re-tells, and threatens to diminish the impact of its precursor.
I Remember Pallahaxi opens two centuries or so after the end of Hello Summer, Goodbye. Humans have come to the (still-unnamed) world to mine for minerals, and the humanoids have gained a name—the Stilk.
What was a martial, industrialized society has regressed to an agrarian one. The Stilk have developed the facility to access their ancestor's memories, but males can only dream back along the male line, while female Stilk can only access their maternal ancestor's memories. This has led to segregation along gender lines, once children have been conceived—boys live with their fathers, girls with their mothers. The child who can dream back furthest becomes the chief of their gender. While the society is no longer class-driven, as it was in Drove's day, it's still divided, but now between the villagers of the coast, who live by fishing in the sea, and the farmers and hunters inland. Pallahaxi is abandoned, a shrine to the memories of Drove and Browneyes, while the former capital Alixa is in ruins.
I Remember Pallahaxi opens with Hardy, a young Stilk, visiting the fishing village of Noss. Hardy's father is the brother of the village chief, on a mission from the hunter-farming village of Yam to obtain a loan of fish against the next harvest. Hardy's uncle is a blustering fool, his regime propped up by Hardy's father; and unfortunately the title is hereditary, with Hardy's cousin Duff first in line. Hardy meets Charm, a girl of his own age, who is engaged to the son of the chief.
Once again the planet is heading into winter, but in the meantime, as the novel progresses, it emerges that first there is a famine to be survived. Moreover the humans have a policy of non-interference, irrespective of how grim the consequences, so will do nothing to help—assuming that they could.
I Remember Pallahaxi has a plethora of plot-strands: the love story between Charm and Hardy, slower burning than that between Drove and Browneyes in the first book; the mystery of the accidents that befall Hardy, the unexpected death that follows in their wake, and the whodunnit that follows; the political dimension of the relationship between human and Stilk; and finally the biological mystery of the Stilk themselves, and their relationship with the placid Lorin.
Hardy is a more engaging protagonist than Drove, and Charm a stronger heroine than Browneyes, while amongst the minor characters, the nomadic Smith and gargantuan Smitha are well drawn, and Coney does his best to flesh out the Earthman, McNeil. But all too often the supporting characters in I Remember Pallahaxi are not as sharply drawn as those in Hello Summer, Goodbye.
And while I Remember Pallahaxi strives for a greater transparency, it's at the expense of tempo—too much of it is flashback, or consciously reprise the earlier novel, slowing its pace almost fatally (such echoes work better on screen than in print); moreover, several of the sub-plots simply fizzle out, while the resolution is an essentially passive one. Nonetheless, the reveal of the mystery central to both novels outweighs the negatives sufficiently to make I Remember Pallahaxi worth persevering with.
The science-fictional landscape has changed considerably since 1975, particularly where British novels are concerned, the majority of which then seemed more cerebral and less plot-driven than their American counterparts. Like many of his contemporaries, such as Richard Cowper and Keith Roberts, Coney's settings often displayed a longing for simpler, less urban societies.
The intervening years have seen major publishers on both sides of the Atlantic seek to eliminate risks by publishing ever-more populist work, while agents and publishers alike have increasingly pushed series at the expense of stand-alone works (which only adds to the irony of Coney writing a sequel); tighter, tauter plotting has sometimes been achieved at the expense of character and ideas, although the best SF still has all of those qualities.
Dreams of Wessex (Eric Brown refers in his introduction to Coney's "beloved Devon.") are no longer in fashion, and Coney, like Cowper and Roberts, seems to have been viewed as too much of a risk to be attractive to a "major" publisher.
Which is a shame, because for all the frustrations attendant on I Remember Pallahaxi, neither it nor Hello Summer, Goodbye are bad books—quite the opposite. For those readers who are prepared to look for the clues buried in the text, who prefer their novels to defy the default commercial narrative structure, both books have much to commend them, not least classic love stories and some outstanding world-building. PS Publishing deserve kudos.
Colin Harvey latest novel is Blind Faith, which he describes as a thriller with a speculative twist. Next up is Killers, an anthology containing original stories from Bruce Holland Rogers, Sarah Singleton, Lee Thomas and others, due out in September.