D. G. Compton begins his novel The Silent Multitude (Ace, 1966) with Tug, a tom-cat, scurrying through an unfamiliar Gloucester. The city, abandoned by its people, is disquietly quiet and amid the bright lights and decorations--it is Christmas Eve--seems almost desert-empty. Tug notices and pauses, but continues on, to satisfy his hunger and his lust.
Though Tug reappears at intervals, the novel is about people, about the lives of four strangers just before and through the disaster which befalls Gloucester. Compton, story-teller that he is, lets details out slowly. Why is Gloucester empty? Who are these lingerers and visitors? Why do they stay? Fortunately, even when these questions are answered, when fates can be surmised, the characters remain complex and compelling.
Throughout, the tension between personalities is presented against (and exacerbated by) the peril of the place. The tone is ominous. As we discover, the buildings will soon be crumbling, one-by-one--skyscraper, cathedral, and home--until the city is a mass of rubble. But each person, with his or her imperative to survive, must evade annihilation, to stay intact, in body and psyche, while witnessing it all. Of course, none was whole before. One of our inhabitants, Sim, even desires the forthcoming destruction:
He longed for the tall buildings to start, for the decorative cladding to peel away in huge patches like blistered skin, the cantilever beams to snap as if they were made of stale bread. He knew the stress points and liked networks of tiny cracks to spread as he watched them. In its moment of falling the shape of a block against the sky was significant; it was alive as at no other. And he was a child who had built a sand castle against the tide, a child feeling with a thrill the tug of the water at his ankles.
It is unfortunate that Compton's novels have been consigned to the dustbin of science fiction past. Over the last weeks, I have read several, including the Nebula award-winning The Steel Crocodile, and each adopts a unique voice and technique for its subject. The commonality are the development and subtlety of character and plot, that assured authorial hand behind the page. In a genre where so many authors (even well-respected ones) wrote the same novel again and again, Compton's oeuvre is almost unfamiliar.