The Penal Colony, by Richard Herley, New York: William Morrow, 311 pages, $18.95
If there is a coin of the realm in the genre of "sociological" fiction, it is the author's vision of where we're all going and what life will be like when we get there. This coin comes in many shapes, sizes, and denominations, but it generally shows one of two faces. The obverse is utopia, a writer's prescription for a bright tomorrow…if only people wise up in time. The coin's reverse is dystopia, generally a tour of some special version of perdition, one that we are told awaits us down the road a piece if people don't wise up in time.
I am a great fan of both utopias and dystopias. Rather more the latter, actually. For besides offering better scope for grit and adventure, novels that double-time as dire warnings sometimes actually do us good. Which is more than one can say for most preachy recipes for heaven on earth.
I've heard it contended that Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe actually helped prevent World War III by exploring scenarios for holocaust-by-mistake in such vivid, frightening detail that military planners consciously and subconsciously changed their methods accordingly. Certainly our cultural resistance to more-blatant forms of tyranny benefited from the mythic inoculations provided by Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. And are we not more likely to do our homework, when we begin instilling intelligence in animals or computers, after having been scared half to death by Planet of the Apes, Colossus, and Frankenstein? Clearly, the best dystopias make us think, and thereby become self-preventing prophesies.
Still, even those must be taken with several grains of salt. After all, what product is the author pushing?
Now don't get the wrong idea. I rather like Richard Herley's new novel, The Penal Colony. It is vividly written, extremely visual, and features characters who, if not exactly deep, are nevertheless entertaining and believable. Herley's peculiar dystopia—set upon a tiny Cornish island called Sert—is depicted as society's ultimate disposal site for human toxic waste. There, late-century Britain has chosen to rid itself of "Category Z" convicts by dumping them into primitive isolation with no guards and only each other for company. On Sert, they are to fend for themselves, supplementing what they can raise or hunt with meager weekly helicopter drops.
It is a dire thing to be sentenced to Sert. From such exile no one has ever returned.
The story is seen through the eyes of a young newcomer, an innocent victim of justice gone awry. From his bewildered arrival until the prisoners' final, desperate attempt at escape, Anthony Routledge's principal struggle is simply to survive.
Obviously, though, there is more here than an action story. The Penal Colony is well wrought and escapes the tendentious simple-mindedness of many sociologically motivated novels. Nevertheless, it is clear that Herley has opinions and wants the reader to share them. He raises thought-provoking questions about man in an enforced "state of nature." His allegory is made more stark by the situation—only men…mostly men with violent pasts…with no women or children present to muddy the ethical waters.
This gives Herley an opportunity to take us through some moving passages about alienation and loss and how, for some men, the exercise of craftsmanship can be a salvation from the agony of loneliness. It also lets Herley create a set piece in which his archetypes can engage each other without the murkiness of civilization getting in the way. (I sometimes think this is the attraction of "survivalist" fiction. The reader gets to pretend all the hated rules of daily existence have evaporated…it's just him, his trusty AK-47, and the bad guys. "Eat leaden death, weasels!")
Herley's stark contrast is between life in "the Village," under autocratic but benevolent "Father" Franks, and that beyond the Village palisade, where the Outsiders exist in brutal anarchy. Herley presents two human paradigms. It is a Hobbesian choice and, given the rules of this game, perhaps an inevitable one.
Herley seems to be saying that there are two ways to deal with the apparently inevitable and endless struggle among males to outdo each other at egomania and violence. One is to allow the strong to bash the weak and prevail in might. And the other is cooperation—dedication to a community and to a purpose greater than the individual. He also seems to be saying that, at least under circumstances as extreme as these, any cooperative effort must be supervised by a powerful, if benevolent, leader.
In the context of Sert, this is quite believable. Democracy and tolerance of eccentricity are, after all, products of prosperity. It is hard to picture men—especially violent men—behaving democratically in a setting of privation. I am led to think of the adventures of the British explorer Shackleton, whose gentle but dictatorial rule brought all of his men home alive from a catastrophe in the Antarctic that should have killed every one of them.
But myths are the coinage we use in our sociological ponderings. And I wonder if, in these times, we need more tales extolling the führer principle, even under extreme circumstances. It is a fantasy that's all too tempting to daydreaming young males, but there are others with stronger potential. For example, we are a nation that nurses the idea of man as indefinitely perfectible…perhaps a silly notion, but one that has produced the first generation of women and children who have some say over their own lives.
Herley stacks the deck heavily, depicting the Penal Colony as not only a savage, brutal institution, but venal and corrupt as well. The penal authorities are callous and unfeeling to an extreme. There are passing hints that a few prisoners were snuck in for political reasons. And the point-of-view character sees himself as innocent of the rape-murder for which he was convicted.
And yet even after all of this, I found myself in the end rooting for the jailors—hoping the escape attempt of the prisoners would fail. For I had come to know these men. And while I had been drawn into liking some of them, I also realized the inevitable consequence if they got away. Somewhere, sometime soon afterward, quite a few innocents were bound to suffer, horribly.
It is a quandary for which Herley offers no solution. Would you empty San Quentin for the sake of one innocent man?
That is just one of the beauties of fiction. We can perform thought experiments, argue, and debate the issues. But nobody is asking us to live, in the real world, with the consequences of such hypothetical choices.
David Brin is the author of seven novels, including The Postman and the Hugo Award-winning Startide Rising.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Root for the Jailors".