Mervyn Peake on drones

Recently, in a fit of nostalgia, I re-visited Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, which I had not read since high school. It’s a funny book—both humorous and peculiar. My Ballantine paperback edition from the 70s classes it as “Adult Fantasy,” and I distinctly remember finding it in the fantasy section of the Paperback Booksmith at the New London (CT) Mall, where I spent lots of time as a teenager (the fantasy section, not the mall). The audio version that I listened to recently was classed either as “Science Fiction” or “Science Fiction/Fantasy.” And yet, the book has none of the conventional fantasy elements—no magic, no mythical creatures, no epic battles, none of that stuff. It has an enormous castle, and a host of highly unusual characters, if not caricatures, and an extremely high-flown style. It also has almost none of the conventional science fiction elements—none at all in the first two volumes, and hardly any in the third. The first two books (Titus Groan and Gormenghast) take place entirely within the castle and its immediate environs, which seem to be a world to themselves. With one or two exceptions, like the sunglasses worn by one of the characters, the time could be any time in the past several hundred years. In the third book, Titus Alone, the protagonist ventures beyond the castle to a world that more nearly resembles the world of the author—mid-century Britain—though with a couple of futuristic touches.

The most notable of those is his prescient description, and critique, of drones. I suppose, if we think of the larger context of mid-century science fiction, they are not so extraordinary—lots of predictions about the future were being made in those days—except in that they are almost the only element of a possible future that he portrays. And this book is about as far from the science fiction of that period as one can imagine. And, unlike so many other predictions, this one has just about come true. So although he didn’t do much in this vein, he’s batting 1000.

It’s hard to convey the strangeness of this book, and of the anachronism of the science fiction elements, which seem oddly incidental to the main plot. That makes these passages on drones (he never uses that term, of course) stand out perhaps more than they otherwise would.

This exquisite beast of the air; this wingless swallow; this aerial leopard; this fish of the water-sky; this threader of moonbeams; this dandy of the dawn; this metal playboy; this wanderer in black spaces; this flash in the night; this drinker of its own speed; this godlike child of a diseased brain—what did it do?

What did it do but act like any other petty snooper, prying upon man and child, sucking information as a bat sucks blood; amoral; mindless; sent out on empty missions, acting as its maker would act, its narrow-headed maker—so that its beauty was a thing on its own, beautiful only because its function shapes it so; and having no heart it becomes fatuous—a fatuous reflection of a fatuous concept—so that it is incongruous, or gobbles incongruity to such an outlandish degree that laughter is the only way out (37-38 in the 1968 Ballantine paperback edition).

And again:

There was no one ahead of him in spite of the length of the road, but it seemed that he was no longer alone. Something had joined him. He turned as he ran, and at first saw nothing, for he had focused his eyes upon the distance. Then all at once, he halted, for he became aware of something floating beside him, at the height of his shoulder.

It was a sphere no bigger than the clenched fist of a child, and was composed of some transparent substance, so pellucid that it was only visible in certain lights, so that it seemed to come and go.

Dumbfounded, Titus drew aside from the center of the road until he could feel the northern wall at his back. For a few moments he leaned there seeing no sign of the glassy sphere, until suddenly, there it was again, hovering above him.

This time as Titus watched it he could see that it was filled with glittering wires, an incredible filigree like frost on a pane; and then as a cloud moved over the sun, and a dim, sullen light filled the windowless street, the little hovering globe began to throb with a strange light like a glowworm.

At first, Titus had been more amazed than frightened by the mobile globe which had appeared out of nowhere, and followed or seemed to follow every movement he made; but then fear began to make his legs feel weak, for he realized that he was being watched not by the globe itself, for the globe was only an agent, but by some remote informer who was at this very moment receiving messages. It was this that turned Titus’s fear into anger, and he swung back his arms as though to strike the elusive thing which hovered like a bird of paradise.

At the moment that Titus raised his hand, the sun came out again, and the little glittering globe with its colored entrails of exquisite wire slid out of range, and hovered again as though it were an eyeball watching every move.

Then, as though restless, it sped, revolving on its axis to the far end of the street where it turned about immediately and sang its way back to where it hung again five feet from Titus, who, fishing his knuckle of flint from his pocket, flung it at the hovering ball, which broke in a cascade of dazzling splinters, and as it broke there was a kind of gasp, as though the globe gave up its silvery ghost—as though it had a sentience of its own, or a state of perfection so acute that it entered, for the split second, the land of the living (115-117).

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