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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E.P. Thompson’s Desert Island Discs

Brodie Waddell

E.P. Thompson had, with one or two notable exceptions, rather boring taste in music.

Thompson has always been one of my favourite historians and I’ve been learning more about him recently as 2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his Making of the English Working Class. We celebrated earlier with ‘The Future of History From Below’ event and I’ll be giving talks at Oxford (Nov. 29th) and at Birkbeck (Jan. 24th) on EPT’s legacy over the next few months.

William Blake's 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' (1789): Thompson's choice of reading material

William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ (1789): Thompson’s choice of reading material

So imagine my delight when I heard – via Jonathan Healey – that Thompson had been a guest on the famed BBC programme ‘Desert Island Discs’ and that the episode was freely available online. It was broadcast in 1991, just two years before his death at the age of 69, and his health was clearly not great, but he was still very intellectually sharp and irrepressibly politically engaged.

Thompson made a couple of inspired musical choices. For instance, I was struck by the raw power of Paul Robeson, the African-American communist actor and entertainer, belting out ‘Peat Bog Soldiers’, a song composed in the Börgermoor concentration camp in 1933. Even more interesting is Thompson’s second choice. He offers a beautiful recording of Rabindranath Tragore, the Bengali poet, singing a totally transformed version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. It’s a wonderful piece of music and a wonderful encapsulation of Thompson’s close links to India. As he says in the interview, his father was a Research Fellow in Indian history at Oxford and former Methodist missionary, with close links to the Indian National Congress. Thompson recounts a childhood memory of Gandhi visiting his family home in the late 1920s or early 1930s:

‘I was just about the height of the sideboard. My main memory of Gandhi coming was the sideboard piled with all these fruits that we didn’t usually get. But there he was, and he was doing his daily stint of charkha – spinning – in the corner of our house, and it’s a very pleasant memory.’

In light of this, it is quite easy to see how Thompson’s ideas about poverty and protest emerge not only from his extra-mural teaching in the West Riding but also from his long and deep connections to South Asia.

However, almost as notable as these two striking choices of records is – to my mind – the ‘conservative’ nature of the rest of his choices. Despite being a political radical and an incredibly innovative historian, his other six records seem distinctly nostalgic and a bit earnest. There’s some eighteenth-century Irish harp music, an unbearably miserable rendition of a Yeats poem, two well-known classical pieces and an early English Baroque song. There’s nothing particularly objectionable about any of them – with the possible exception of Warlock’s composition – but they’re hardly the inspiring music one would hope for from a man like Thompson.

Where are the radical musicians of his own age, who often combined musical invention with a hard political edge?  Where are the Sex Pistols or the Specials or even the Rolling Stones? Was it really possible to be an activist in the 1960s and 70s without liking rock and roll?

The Specials (1979)

Sorely lacking from Thompson’s playlist.

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