Trevor Hoyle’s books may be set in futuristic or dystopian worlds but they tackle the big issues confronting us now, says ANDY HEDGECOCK
WHEN the original version of Trevor Hoyle’s The Last Gasp was published in 1983, it read like a prophetic SF thriller.
Hoyle blended a taut near-future plot with an epic thought experiment to challenge complacency about the consequences of global pollution. He flung down a gauntlet to his readers, daring them to contemplate the kind of ecological apocalypse that might result from the relentless abuse of military might, technological power and greed.
At the time the book gained a cult readership. But it drew little critical attention from a media more interested in celebrity, fashion and the cold war.
Three decades later, there is developing awareness of global warming, habitat destruction and species extinction but many continue to deny the risks posed to our planetary life-support systems by the way we live, work and consume.
So the publication of a revised edition of The Last Gasp is timely, not least because Hoyle seems less like a prophet and more like a chronicler of imminent chaos.
The narrative of the new version projects forward from 2016 to 2052 as we track the activities of a cast of scientists, soldiers and ambitious corporate shills as they play their parts in opposing or facilitating worldwide environmental catastrophe.
The tale begins in Antarctica, with the discovery of a dying Russian scientist by Gavin Chase, a young marine biologist. An uttered word, half understood and a scrawled formula are the keys that open a Pandora’s Box of danger, duplicity and scientific revelation. Chase’s story is the central thread of the multi-layered plot — it is through his interactions that we see shifting allegiances and appreciate the increasingly dire situation faced by humanity and the planet. The biologist writes a bestselling book called One Minute to Midnight, which highlights the alarming dangers created by polluting our oceans.
The cause of Hoyle’s eco-apocalypse is one rooted in conspiracy rather than cock-up. While there’s an element of human folly propelling us towards biochemical Armageddon, there are some strikingly ruthless and self-serving villains too.
They symbolise the manipulations and abuses of untrammelled capitalism but are well-rounded and vivid enough to be thoroughly detestable in their own right. While Chase and his fellow scientists strive to save the planet, corporate and military opportunists plan wars with weapons of climate degradation (WCDs).
Hoyle’s commitment to his central theme is very clear and the book ends with a passionate afterword and a list of symptoms of global environmental degradation. The writer has dedicated 10 years to the research and writing of The Last Gasp and he shares hard-won scientific knowledge with the reader.
But he avoids preaching and resists the temptation to “infodump” data into his dialogue. The author’s deftness with character, plot and the conventions of the thriller form is vital to a book of this length and complexity. It maintains narrative momentum and encourages the reader to get to grips with the science behind the story.
In spite of its length and erudition, this is an enormously entertaining book. But it’s also a novel that speaks truth to power, in the tradition of Dickens’s Hard Times and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The horrors of pollution and oxygen depletion are presented in unflinching style.
Hoyle has form as a writer of erudite and entertaining radical fiction and we ignore his message at our peril.
Vail (1984) is a forensic examination of the horror of early-period neoliberalism. It rejects gritty realism for surreal black humour and the picaresque adventures of Jack Vail provoke hilarity and anger by turns.
We follow him through a totalitarian England in which the north has been designated as a dump for toxic waste and redundant people. The action cuts from zones terrorised by helicopter gunship patrols to a conspicuously wealthy capital, mired in pornography and obsessed with celebrity. The novel is a dystopian classic that captures the physical and psychological damage wrought by unchallenged corporate power and the collapse of social cohesion.
One of the themes of Mirrorman (1999) is propaganda and manipulation. The book melds history, fantasy and horror and focuses on the attempts of a quasi-religious cult, The Messengers of the Fall from Grace, to achieve global domination. It’s a pell-mell adventure story that tackles the guilt-inducing regimes of command and control imposed by man-made religions.
Rule of Night (2003), a tale of violence, disaffection and hope set on a northern council estate in the 1970s, is a trip to the dark side of that decade’s culture.
The Man Who Travelled on Motorways (1979), a story that blurs the boundaries between fantasy and illusion, is amusing and terrifying by turn as it considers the impact of motorway travel on the modern psyche while Blind Needle (1994) is an existential thriller involving memory loss, dark secrets and fractured personality.
Like The Last Gasp, these earlier works from Hoyle are well worth searching out.
• The Last Gasp is available from Jo Fletcher Books, price £10.99.