E.P. Thompson’s forgotten sci-fi novel: The Sykaos Papers

Mark Hailwood

Back in October I was writing a lecture on E.P. Thompson when I learnt, to my surprise, that he had written a sci-fi novel towards the end of his career. Published in 1988, The Sykaos Papers seems to have made very little impact, despite being generally well reviewed at the time as far as I can tell. The New York Times said it possessed ‘undeniable power’; the Observer opined it ‘will surely become a classic’. Well, it didn’t. When I asked around on Twitter there were only a few responses from people who had heard of it, let alone read it. ‘Should I bother with it, dear twitter?’ ‘It depends how into Thompson deep-cuts you are’… enough, I decided, to order a copy.

9780747503279-us-300Now I’ve read it. I had low expectations – presumably it had fallen off the radar because it was junk, right? – but I must say I think it is a belter. It is a bit mad, I’ll grant you, but endlessly inventive and stimulating, and at times downright hilarious and at others deeply affecting – neither of which I was expecting. And, I’d say it is much more fluent than his academic writing, which I have heard described recently by a historian who shall remain anonymous as ‘wittering’. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I take the point, and I was expecting a slog – it wasn’t one. Anyway, I’m no great book reviewer – of fiction at any rate – and you can make your own mind up on this stuff, but I would recommend it to readers of this blog. With Christmas coming up and all that…

Not sure? I’ll try to give you a bit more to go on. The book’s central character is Oi Paz. He has been sent to Earth (which his people call ‘Sykaos’), sometime in the 1990s, from the planet Oitar, which has endured ecological catastrophe, to assess whether this planet might make a suitable location for a new Oitarian colony. What ensues is an anthropological face-off between Oi Paz and the humans (and in particular Dr Helena Sage, an anthropologist, who is the other major character in the book) as each side tries to unpack and decipher the other’s society and culture, often with hilarious consequences (not that Oi Paz laughs: his culture has no laughter, so he calls it ‘the Incongruous Noise’).

In a sense, you could call it a work of anthropological fiction, as much as science fiction, and there are interesting attempts to construct the alien subjectivity of Oi Paz (it’s also interesting, given that gender is often seen as his blind-spot, to witness Thompson’s attempt to construct the subjectivity of a female academic, Dr Sage). But historians should not feel left out, for the book’s main nod to Thompson’s own craft is the fact that the novel is structured as though the story of Oi Paz’s expedition has been reconstructed later, by the Oitarians, from a series of surviving PRIMARY SOURCES! There are the notebooks and diaries of Oi Paz and Helena Sage, interspersed with news reports, official communications, memos, etc, which the account – partial and multi-vocal, of course, like all histories – has been pieced together from.

I did wonder if part of the reason for the book’s low impact is that many of its key themes seemed less urgent as the Cold War ended and the 1990s progressed, dating it quickly. But the threat of nuclear war, a reckless U.S. President, a dangerous Russia, a tension between nationalism and the need for humankind to unite to confront its most pressing threats, ecological catastrophe – sadly, none of these feel like outdated themes today.

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E.P. Thompson: an #AcademicWithCats?

But Thompson’s prescience doesn’t end there, for the book also prefigures the social media age’s valorisation of the cat as a vital antidote to doom and gloom. The Oitarians worship them: they have good vibes. I strongly suspect, in fact, that E.P. Thompson himself would have been an avid consumer of, and contributor to, #AcadecmicsWithCats. A sci-fi novel, by E.P. Thompson, with cats! Surely that’s mad enough to warrant a look…

And if you do read it, or have done, please come back and share your thoughts in the comments section below – I’d love to know what other people think of it, positive or negative.

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The Tenth Commandment: the Depth of Sin

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

JacketAfter a brief mid-term hiatus, in this last post marking the publication last month of my latest monograph, The Reformation of the Decalogue, I want to explore the Tenth Commandment.

Earlier in the series, I talked about the Reformed Protestant renumbering of the Commandments.  In brief, Reformers took the traditional Catholic list, made a separate precept out of the injunction not to make or worship graven images, and reduced the number back down to ten by folding the two forms of coveting in the Catholic Ninth and Tenth Commandments (of wives and goods) into a single precept.

Traditionally, historians have seen the changes at the start of the Decalogue as much more significant than the changes at the end of it.  The new Reformed Second Commandment spoke to important concerns surrounding idolatry and iconoclasm – the merging of two forms of covetousness into one commandment was just a case of tidying things up and making sure that there were still Ten Commandments.  The historian John Bossy, for example, judged that ‘the exposition of the second table was a less controversial matter than that of the first’.[1] Continue reading

Remember, remember: ‘Gunpowder’ and our nation’s bloody past

Laura Sangha

This is a reproduction of a piece that I wrote for the local press after watching the first episode of Gunpowder.

When Gunpowder first aired a few weeks ago it reportedly shocked audiences with its graphic scenes of capital punishment. People particularly objected to an execution scene in the first episode, where a women was stripped naked and crushed to death, and a man was hung, eviscerated and his body chopped into quarters. Viewers were split between those who found the brutality gratuitous and unnecessary, and those who welcomed a historical drama that didn’t shy away from our gory, violent past.

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A still from the execution scene that some viewers thought crossed a line.

I’m no expert on how violent television programmes should be, but I can say that this was a historically accurate representation – judicial execution was a part of Tudor and Stuart life, and killings were bloody affairs. Those who refused to plead either guilty or not guilty in court did face the hideous ordeal of ‘pressing to death’ – that is being laden with weights and stones until the victim either spoke to enter a plea, or died of suffocation. Although the character who suffered this fate in Gunpowder is fictional, her death appears to have been closely based on the execution of the catholic Margaret Clitheroe, who was accused of harbouring priests in 1586. Similarly, men convicted of high treason were hung, drawn and quartered, a punishment that reflected their deplorable crime of attacking the monarch’s authority. And the manner of execution was suitably deplorable – one historian estimated that the process of hanging, disembowelling and quartering a person would take at least half an hour, and there are contemporary reports that the smell and sight provoked horror and disgust in audiences at the time as well. Yet execution days could also be rowdy affairs, with crowds gathering to vent their anger at the victim, whilst pie men and ballad sellers circulated, taking advantage of the chance to earn a few extra pence. In some cases, public executions seem to have taken on an atmosphere of carnival. Continue reading

The Reformation of the People? The View from the Alebench

Mark Hailwood

It’s not every day the Protestant Reformation gets to celebrate its 500th birthday – well, only on one day, really. And it’s no surprise that yesterday’s anniversary of that fateful day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door of Wittenberg – the first ever blog post, perhaps? – was accompanied by a slew of comment pieces and blog offerings. It would be remiss of us here at the monster, as a gaggle of early modern bloggers, not to post up a few thoughts of our own of course. But what angle to take that hasn’t already been covered in the #Reformation500 media frenzy?

Well, as readers will be well aware, we like to look at history from the bottom-up. For us, the most interesting question about the Reformation is the extent to which it changed the religious beliefs and practices of ordinary women and men – especially in England’s 9000 or so parishes. Sure, Luther shook up the religious and political establishment of early modern Europe, but how much impact did this have on the common people?

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Did the Protestant message get through to the people?

Continue reading

The Ninth Commandment: Bridling the tongue

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

reputationAt first glance, the Ninth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’, was rather niche compared to the first four precepts of the second table: honouring parents, and not killing, committing adultery with, or stealing from other people.  However, as historians such as Alexandra Shepherd and Craig Muldrew have shown, credit and reputation were vital and powerful forces in early modern English society.[1]  Honest speech and truthful dealing were therefore essential for the proper functioning of personal and community relationships up and down the land.

This key social role of plain and open speaking was universally recognised by commentators on the Ninth Commandment, as well as humanity’s weakness for using a certain fleshy little member to the detriment of their neighbour.  Continue reading

The Eighth Commandment: Theft; or, making it up as you go along…

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

The Ten Commandments were widely believed to be a comprehensive distillation of God’s will.  As such, every sin discussed in scripture could be located in at least one of the commandments – if God disapproved of it, the Decalogue must forbid it, somewhere.  However, there were some manifest sins in early modern England which were not discussed in the Bible.  As a perfect system of justice and morality, the Commandments also had to forbid these, meaning that the Decalogue effectively provided carte blanche for ministers and authors to condemn whatever they felt was sinful, and to do so with the weight of God’s law behind them.

39749-004-144cf988Nowhere was this aspect of ‘making it up as they went along’ more visible than in discussions of the Eighth Commandment – for while certain sins were pretty much universals of human nature (sins of violence and lust, for example) the realities of economic life in sixteenth century England were very different from those of the ancient Middle East. Continue reading

The Seventh Commandment: Punishing Adultery

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

sheepThe Seventh Commandment, ‘Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery’, was one of the most commented upon in the whole Decalogue.  ‘Adultery’ was quickly expanded by Protestant authors to include all forms of ‘uncleanness’, in thought, word and deed, alone and with other humans and creatures, both in and outside of wedlock.  Fornication, buggery, masturbation and bestiality were some of the headline crimes, but authors also sought to proscribe all ‘occasions’ and ‘enticements’ to sins of the flesh, including mixed dancing, excess consumption of food and alcohol, as well as lewd pictures, cosmetics, alluring gestures and coquettish glances.  In contrast to such filthy living, the commandment enjoined chastity, both in and out of marriage: ‘immoderate use of the marital bed’ was as much a sin as pre- and extra-marital sex.

In this post, however, I want to focus on one particular aspect of the Seventh Commandment which attracted a great deal of attention during the long sixteenth century – how crimes of the flesh ought to be punished.  Continue reading