Novelist and TV writer Margot Bennett was hardly prolific but it’s still a surprise to discover that most of her books, though inventive and respected by critics, are out of print. Tempering a macho prose-style with cool wit, Bennett’s writing is passionate, funny, and savage by turn, often forcing the reader to confront a horror that the author herself doesn’t care to reflect on, lest too much sentiment is shown. Such steely pragmatism is, perhaps, not unduly astonishing from a woman who, early in life, eschewed university to work on a New Zealand sheep station and, as a volunteer nurse, witnessed first-hand the Spanish Civil War.
Bennett only rarely wrote science fiction and was known primarily for her crime novels – she was admired by the likes of Graham Greene and Julian Symons; the latter called her the “most stylish and wayward of English [Scottish, actually] crime writers” and compared her to Raymond Chandler. But the science fiction genre and its subversive potential clearly appealed to a certain lingering radicalism: identifiable in works such as The Long Way Back, published in 1954, and her non-fiction The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Atomic Radiation ten years later (a nod to George Bernard Shaw’s progressive and pugnacious The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism).
In The Long Way Back, Bennett presents a dystopian post nuclear-war future. The global North has long since been laid to waste and now history is poised to repeat itself as a nuclear-armed Africa competes, Cold War-style, with South America. A team of African scientists is dispatched to the little-known British Isles to seek out exploitable resources – a case of colonial history in reverse. It soon becomes evident that, if Britain proves rich in coal and other assets, the new imperialists will show about as much consideration to the island’s indigenous population (stuck in a stultifying stone-age of wild killer dogs, mutant ants and homicidal cavemen) as they do to the poverty stricken white Boers back home.
Apparently the idea of Black protagonists was beyond the grasp of the book’s New York Times reviewer, who described the colonialists as “tanned” and assumed their civilisation had settled in Africa instead of developing there. Apart from an off-stage part for the Boers, it’s true that Bennett doesn’t dwell on race as much as, say, the novelist AM Lightner, who used a similar plot in her 1969 story Day of the Drones. But there’s no mistaking the dominant class of The Long Way Back as anything but Black Africans, descended from their twentieth-century predecessors – even if their knowledge of that distant epoch has become a little knotted: “legend says white slaves were once imported to this part of Kenya to work on our own primitive farms.”[p. 17] The US-based reviewer may have missed the irony in this fable – the book was published during the Mau Mau uprising in the dying days of British imperialism.
Bennett endeavours to expose the cynicism and self-interestedness of her colonial adventurers and, by extension, of colonialism as such. After intimidating a local tribesman one explorer reflects that he “didn’t know whether he’d made him into an enemy or a slave. When he thought about it, he was afraid that the two were the same.” She also takes aim at South African apartheid, using the downtrodden Boers to make her point. The rise of Black Africa is, in itself, a mild argument against the grotesque fiction of white supremacy. But Bennett is not interested in racism so much as the fall-out of an atomic conflict. That the structure of the world could flip, at the touch of a nuclear button, the colonised into colonisers seems more intended to shock her (presumably white British) readership rather than instruct them in the absurdity of racial prejudice. And there is a worrying vein of essentialism running through the book. The native Britons are backward, not just because their civilisation has collapsed, but because they are suffering from radiation poisoning.
Then there are the sexual politics. The female commander Valya comes from a governing class that prizes women for their ability to organise and manage, as long as they remain celibate. But even before we witness her sexual awakening (a familiar enough trope), Valya is already displaying emotional impulsiveness and poor decision-making. Unable to keep her trigger finger quiet she wastes the group’s ammunition in temper and fear, leaving them with little protection from Britain’s slavering canine predators (man’s best friend no more). Arguably a worthier expedition leader would have been the man from whose perspective we follow much of the action. Grame, a working class boy done good, consistently proves himself more intellectually rounded than his better-educated companions. He is the only member of the mission to strike up a reasoned discourse with local chieftain Brown, one of the few intelligent Britons. “For an illuminated moment, that faded too quickly for understanding, Grame saw that what he liked in Brown was himself.” [p.188] So it is troubling to learn that Grame – one suspects, Bennett’s great hope for the future of humanity – is pretty unreconstructed in his attitude to Valya. Devastated to learn the expedition will be directed by a woman, he finds himself attracted to her only when she’s silent: “There were moments when he had loved her; but these moments had never occurred when she was speaking to him.” [p.104]
Bennett’s own view was that women and men are equal but different. She addressed her scientific reader in atomic radiation (The Intelligent Woman’s Guide) to women because of what she saw as their fundamental nurturing role, as mothers: “It is man’s nature to accept discoveries and profit by them. It is our responsibility now to see that they are used for and not against the human race.” It is ludicrous to state that only half the population has a stake in the future, but Bennett’s target is the spectre of nuclear warfare and she’s using the mores of her time to issue her warning.
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