Saturday, February 13, 2016

Book Review: The Hero of Downways

© 1973 by Michael G. Coney

Michael G. Coney is one of the most creative, out-of-left-field SF authors I have ever read. Was, I should say, the man having died of mesothelioma in 2005. A child in Britain during World War II, he prospered mainly in the 70s and 80s with a dozen or so novels progressing from claustrophobic dystopic tales to mind-bending science fiction and fantasy.

Now, truth be told, I have read only one other one of the man’s novels: The Celestial Steam Locomotive, during my SF dry spell. From the mid-80s to the turn of the century, my main literary fodder was horror and technothrillers. Littering that landscape were a few Silverbergs, a Clarke or two, and perhaps two or three others. That was it. So CSL really shook me up. Published in 1983 it was unlike any of the other 60s and 70s SF I had ever read. Don’t remember much about the plot or characters, but it left an impression of greatness upon me, and I will reread it someday.

In November of 2011, browsing a used book store, I came across The Hero of Downways, by that same author of The Celestial Steam Locomotive (though this was written ten years prior). Based on that single fond memory I bought the book.

And it sat on the bookshelf On Deck Circle for half a decade.

What a waste, for I could not set the thing aside once I began it. It was an amazing piece of writing. I burned through it in three hours over three days.

How to describe The Hero of Downways? Every time I thought I had it nailed down, it morphed ninety-degree-angle-wise into something slightly different, slightly better.

We start out among some type of primitive tribe, with typical primitive tribal religions – a “Hero” who slays the “Daggertooth,” and in slaying the beast, is himself slain. These creatures are manlike, yet live underground, eat maggots, burrow in narrow dark tunnels and see with some type of infrared vision. The Daggertooth appears to be a giant rat-like monster – or are Downways people little miniaturized humans?

Then, there’s technology. Among the fungal glowglobes a new water distribution system is being developed. Apparently we’re in the midst of a technological renaissance. More so, there is the Vat – an ancient device that brings forth living beings after a tissue sample is supplied. Ergo, trukids, natural-born children, and vatkids, those made in the Vat. But only one person is made in the Vat during the tale, John-A, the new “Hero” to combat a new Daggertooth menace.

This is but the tip of the iceberg, as they say.

We soon meet the “Oddlies,” those trukids born with genetic anomalies who are immediately exiled from the tunnels of Downways. They’ve banded together over the years under the menacing personage of one Threesum, a genetic mutation truly horrifying – and clever, it must be admitted – even to the most seasoned SF reader. The Oddlies and the Downways exist in an uneasy truce, and are brought to the verge of war under the harsh, overbearing and belligerent leadership of John-A. Fighting each other when the greater menace, the Daggertooth, has a habit of quietly showing up at the most inopportune times to slaughter uninhibited.

Shirl, a spunky female whose lifespan we follow in the short novel, is tasked to teach the vat-born John-A, tame him and, perhaps, try not to be destroyed by him. For John-A was created to deal with the Daggertooth menace, a job he’s ostensibly up to, when he’s not murdering and scheming to dominate the hive.

The book really takes off in the final third. A battle between the Oddlies and John-A’s forces, launched in a way I did not anticipate and concluded in a similarly surprising fashion, leads to one of the best denouements I’ve recently read. And to cap it off, the conclusion of the book, the final six or seven pages, turns everything that I assumed about the novel on its head. A single sentence

She wanted to look at the stars

brought shivers to me as I realized the courage this little post-Apocalyptic underground hamster-human possessed to brave the raging surface radioactivity, and as we follow her upwards to her first view of the sky, we learn

That she may not even be human, and that the whole novel may not even have taken place on earth.


I’m not sure I entirely understood the final chapter, despite reading it twice, because it was very late at night and I was very tired but I had to finish it.

Seek out George R. R. Martin’s novella “In the House of the Worm,” (it’s part of his infamous Sandkings anthology), published three years after Downways, if you want to get a feel for this story. Though Martin’s tale is factors ickier and more claustrophobic. I also detected hints of the Martian downtrodden from Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Total Recall, particularly a mutated fellow named Kuato that paid more than requisite homage to Threesum, if Coney’s novel was even known to those screenwriters.

If I had all the time in the world, I’d re-read The Hero of Downways in a year or two. But I’ll more likely explore some other of Coney’s works. I have his fantasy Fang the Gnome sitting in the On Deck Circle behind me (purchased in 2012) and I’d like to check out his take on the Arthurian legend in King of the Scepter’d Isle, which immediately and henceforth gets placed on the Acquisitions List.

Grade: Solid A.

Note: the “G” in Michael G. Coney stands for “Greatrex” – what an awesome name! Might show up as a character in a future Hopper novel …

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