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London. Early 21st Century. A Conservative government is in power in the UK, bringing increased wealth disparity, an ever-more militant police state, and rising civil discontent as the wealthy govern for themselves rather than the people.
But BREAKTHRU - a pharmaceutical company turned religious cult - have the answer. They call it Kairos.
Kairos allows the user to not just see a different world, but shape the world to their very will. Perfect for a cult of like-minded individuals. Disastrous when it gets distributed to the general public.
As disparate groups of people try to shape the world into their own image, reality itself is placed under threat. With society so divided, is there any way to pull the world back together?
Written in 1988, this remarkably prescient book received great critical acclaim including the 1992 James Tiptree Jr. Award.
Release date: November 11, 2021
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
Print pages: 400
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Sadly, there’s no role for living, breathing human actors in the End of the Universe show; whether it’s the Heat Death (hot favourite), the Big Bounce, Big Crunch, or some other variant. Even the handful of apocalypts, mystics and fictional characters2 who’ve seriously claimed to be present have been either long-since post human, or allowed in only as spectators. Whether you’re reporting from the full-colour, all-action spectacular in Revelations; or one of Michael Moorcock’s illusory Dancers at the End of Time; or H.G. Wells’s Time Traveller on that morose and sunless beach with the floppy thing – you can look but you can’t touch, and you absolutely have to be a very long way from the here and now.
But science fiction is all about respecting the unbreakable laws; appreciating their poetry, and then seeing how far they can be bent out of shape …
The Greek term kairos (or keros) is hard to pin down in English. It means now, as in right now. It’s the answer yes to any question of urgency. It’s connected with archery, and weaving. In modern Greek it usually refers to the weather. It can also mean preparation for the Second Coming of Christ (Parousia), an event that heralds the end of this world. In Kairos the novel, this now, this yes, is first described as a ‘reality changing drug’ – prized asset of a sinister and absurd millenarian organisation. As the action develops the ‘drug’ (which you don’t have to ingest, or even touch, it’s far more dangerous than that) is revealed as, or becomes, the outward sign of a phenomenon on a different scale entirely.
The story in which this phenomenon is embedded is about four friends, once a closely-knit and joyous quartet of outsiders. Otto (originally Jane) Murray is a left-wing politician’s daughter, lesbian activist and mother of a son she’s named Candide, who runs a second-hand bookshop, and helps poor neighbours deal with a callous world. Sandy Brize is her underclass girlfriend – clever enough to get into university against the odds, hopelessly unemployed thereafter. James Esumare, as a child, saw his parents killed by insurgents. Luckily, he never wants to go back to Nigeria, because the wealthy Esumare clan doesn’t tolerate homosexuals. He and his boyfriend ‘Luci’ Lytten have done pretty well compared to Otto and Sandy, but the prizes talent might have won for them are as out of reach, because of their openly homosexual relationship, as if they were equally grubby refuseniks.
At the turn of the 21st century, UK Inc. is a brittle, glittering success story, far away from the war that’s engulfing Africa. Variant sexuality does your career no harm as long as you keep it in the closet. The few rich and the many poor simply never meet, and all the civil liberties of the past are intact, until you try to claim them. Otto and James, friends who’ve grown apart, bump into each other at an anti-war demonstration. James is looking for his ne’er do well foster brother, Francis Xavier Howard – bound to be working this crowd, recruiting for BREAKTHRU, the fancy-dress ‘cult’ that preys on the clueless. When he learns he’ll be searched by armed police as he leaves, he’s appalled, because he’s carrying an item that belongs to Xav. He has no idea what it is, but it’s sure to be trouble. Otto is exasperated by James’s panic, but hasn’t forgotten why he’s terrified at the sight of guns. She pockets the stubby black plastic film tub, and then loses sight of him.
Meanwhile Sandy Brize has defected from the demo and is visiting St Paul’s Cathedral (free entry with her Benefit card). In this quiet place, out of the August cold, and the bitter, stinging air of central London, she’s considering her position. She and Otto have been together since University. Once it was all wonderful, but the revolution never happened. Otto’s not a rebel now, she’s a crank, and Sandy’s an underclass girl who married for money, backed the wrong horse and has ended up on the scrapheap where she belongs. Yes, it will happen. She will leave Otto, not now but very soon. As she reaches this bleak conclusion, she sees one of the tall marble angels on a politician’s memorial, the angel of the end of time,3 abandoning her lily trumpet and walking off down the aisle. Was that a BREAKTHRU idiot? They dress up as porno-angels. Or just a hallucination? Sandy’s been having hallucinations. She suspects everyone’s suffering from them, only people don’t like to admit it.
And life goes on, in the shabby haven of Otto’s bookshop. Except that Sandy has moved out, the ‘war in Africa’ seems to be getting closer, and those hallucinations, labelled ‘transient psychosis’, are definitely on the rise. Then Candide’s Jack Russell terrier, Vera, disappears. Otto discovers that her son is being subjected to a sickening kind of blackmail, and finally remembers the little black plastic tub that has been lying in her cranky old wall safe all this time.
What the hell is in that film tub? Otto confronts James and bullies him into desperate action, with nightmare consequences.
Candide seeks out Sandy Brize, enlists her as his hired gun, and they set out to rescue the little dog, if she can be rescued. They may be on the right track; the fate of a little bitch called Truth might be significant at this timeless moment. But Sandy has fallen through the floor of clinical depression into a chaotic world that she seems to be creating, moment by moment, where all the rules are being broken one by one. It’s the only real world now, and the protean substance that might best be called change itself is sitting in Sandy’s pocket. What will she choose to do?
Is Kairos science fiction? Why not? If ‘time’ and ‘space’ are collapsing, and everything is becoming contiguous with everything else, why shouldn’t the end of the universe hit us tomorrow? Why shouldn’t it enter our minds, our senses, every perception, and be directed by our spooky abilities?
But it’s also a morality play, SF as allegory, suggested by the proposal that “It’ll never change unless you change the whole world”.4
In my first ‘end of days’ science fiction, Divine Endurance (1984) – set in South East Asia, because that’s where I’d been living – a new world is born in secret, and emissaries from the past help a moribund, mechanistic civilisation to die. In the second I tackled a Middle East or ‘Western’ version, the one where we’re trapped in a kind of black hole, until someone from the wide-open heavens arrives in our dark world and promises us there’s a way out. But it’s costly. The book is Escape Plans (1986), the décor is based on the original US Space Race, and the futuristic technology is from the birth of the computing/digital world. Kairos, the third and last iteration, spinning out to a cosmic, universal changing of the guard, was also written in the eighties, and has the stamp of that ‘brittle, glittering’ decade (with the terrible hair) running all through it.
A longer essay on Kairos and other apocalyptic ideas, including the Big Bang theory, can be found here: http://www.gwynethjones.uk/Kairos.htm
1. Entropy and time’s arrow observations from John Gribbin, In Search Of The Big Bang, 1986
2. Including, in one case, a nuclear-powered family home: ‘Nor Custom Stale’ (1959), Joanna Russ.
3. The politician is Viscount Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister; the memorial honours his younger brother too; also Viscount Melbourne. St Paul’s started charging admission in 1991, citing rocketing upkeep expenses.
4. James Tiptree Jr (Alice Sheldon) “The Women Men Don’t See” 1973, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction vol 45, no. 6
It was as cold as an August day can well be. Faint glimmer of sunlight lay like ice on the puddles outside St Paul’s. The hawkers of snacks and souvenirs were miserable, the huddled-up tourists looked smug: forewarned and well protected against the rigours of this climate. Sandy Brize threaded her way between the groups and past the news vendors’ placards of war news, rubbing her eyes and coughing in the bitter city air. She walked slowly into the great church, showing her Benefit card with a perfunctory gesture at the turnstile, and was swallowed up in a deep, shadowy whispering immensity.
There were marble plaques on the distant walls, there were two thousand five hundred straight-backed chairs set out in the nave. Her card didn’t cover the crypt or the galleries. Camcorders whirred faintly. The voices of tour-guides buzzed like bees. Crowds of brisk footsteps hurried over the pavement: stopped, and the buzzing started again. She was glad to be out of the cold. She had been prowling the streets of London for hours: an unhealthy occupation. Whenever she came up here Sandy wondered how Londoners managed to breathe at all.
Prowling and thinking: thinking mainly about her lover.
They had been together for more than ten years, lovers since Sandy was twenty-three years old, and the matrix of friendship out of which their love had sprung went back further than that. Sandy had not thought of herself as a child, when she left Brum to seek her fortune in the dazzling promise of a place at university. Looking back, she saw that her time with Otto covered the whole of her adult life. Take that relationship away, and there was nothing left of the person she was now.
It might have been all right if things had turned out differently. Unfortunately the revolution, Otto’s beloved revolution, which had been struggling bravely against the odds when they were all young, had faded ignominiously away. This was the age of sanitised newscasts; of a tough-minded acceptance of poverty and squalor as part of life’s rich tapestry; of pragmatic revival of the gender roles. Otto Murray was not a rebel nowadays. She was a crank, no more regarded than any old bloke in sandwich-boards who wanders up and down Oxford St, ranting about The Antichrist. Sandy hadn’t had a chance to die on the barricades: she could have managed that. She could not manage, could not sustain any longer, the long-drawn war of attrition. She had traded her determination to escape for a set of luxury ideals, and spent the last ten years unemployed, and hopelessly in debt. She was on the scrapheap, stuck here for life: and tired, tired, tired, of trying to share the poses of a disaffected aristocrat.
I married her for her money, thought Sandy. A brutal way to put it: but once you’ve said it obviously true, and then everything else collapses.
A rocking balance had finally settled. One possible interpretation of events became fact. The others vanished.
Staccato footsteps drifted around her. She stared up at the coruscating lame ceiling of the choir: strawberry and cobalt and emerald, like a rich woman’s evening dress. She was preoccupied, but oblivious of her surroundings; instead she felt an ironic sympathy with St Paul’s. Here it stood, still complete but empty as a vast fluted shell. No trace of the former occupant, only hissing echoes and a damp, faintly briny smell. She looked at the small board giving details of services that only sightseers would attend, and thought that this place was like herself. It had tried and failed to do something impossible. Now it was just waiting for an overdue announcement.
One of the memorials on the north wall took the form of an ornate doorway. Larger than life, its dark panels and lintel inlaid with polished metal, it had a substantial, early Victorian presence. It looked like the kind of door that might open to your touch one day, though for a thousand years on either side it remained a facade with blank stone behind. Sandy studied the three-metre tall white angels flanking it. The left-hand angel was on guard, leaning on a great naked sword. The other angel slept, half-shut eyelids drooping over blank, alabaster eyes. The wakeful angel was male, the sleeping one clearly female. Isn’t that the truth, thought Sandy. This is a man’s world: always was, and will be until the end of time. It’s so stupid, so tedious; trying to pretend that anyone can change that.
She was wondering is this the way something ends?
Pain, sorrow, the appalling business of disentanglement. The loss not only of a partner but of a complete mind and soul … A shiver ran though her. After months, maybe years of simmering unease, she knew that she was really contemplating this death. She stared at Viscount Melbourne’s memorial while around her failing love affair the failing world gathered: started and spoiled, tried and failed, until Sandy could scarcely tell the two apart.
Nothing dramatic had happened. Things could go on getting a little bit worse, day by day, for a long time yet, but the balance had fallen. What use was there in acting out the rest of the charade? It would be no bad thing if that right-hand angel, leaning on her lily trumpet through all the ten thousand million years, were to wake this very afternoon: and lift the brazen stem and blow.
Either there was a service going on, far in the eastern recesses, or else the choir was practising for a show. Tour groups sat down to listen to the music. Sandy joined them, at the end of a row so she could watch her angels. A party of young Italians beside her started to make too much noise. A man in a long black skirt came to quiet them – SSSh! Somebody nudged Sandy in the ribs, she turned to see a rosy, tanned face grinning at her: one rebellious youth expecting sympathy from another. Sandy glared. Don’t count on me, she muttered. I’m just a poor native. Then she was annoyed at having seemed to support the churchman. She returned to her angels just in time to see a tall, shining, winged figure walking away down the aisle, towards St Paul’s Churchyard and Ludgate Hill. Involuntarily, she glanced to see if both white statues were still in place: looked back in time to catch a last glimpse as the figure disappeared behind a large group of dark clothed Japanese. She sat a while longer. The hallucination did not surprise her. She was used to symptoms of this kind; sometimes she thought everybody was suffering them, only people didn’t care to admit it. There were plenty of possible causes – clinical depression, air pollution, contaminated food. It was nothing to worry about. She noticed as she passed them on the way out that the Japanese were all wearing full-face smog masks, with goggles. Cheek, thought Sandy. You’re better off here than you’d be at home. You could die from walking down the street barefaced in Osaka, according to the news on the TV. She wondered, amused, if they were protected from seeing angels.
Outside, London seemed to be carrying on as usual. If anything exciting had happened it hadn’t spread to the City yet. On a bench in the Churchyard gardens, under a bower of gritty laurels, she put on her sunglasses and then took them off again – a gesture meaning, I don’t care what happens to me. She was better dressed for the weather than some, because Sandy’s wardrobe did not allow for half-tones. The coat was the coat, a thick, square black garment in a style from about fifteen years ago. She drew her knees up and wrapped its folds around her, humming faintly under her breath.
Dovo sono i bei momenti Di dolcezza e di piacer …
Sandy was very white skinned, with small, delicate features and a cap of fine dark hair that lifted and fluttered in the wind. Her old coat and her bare head made her look young, a pretty girl indulging the perennial youthful fashion for nostalgia, but there were reproachful lines round the orbits of her blue eyes and her mouth was set forever now in an etched frame of fatigue, and hope too long deferred. Sandy’s looks were turning sour along with everything else, so that even mirrors told her it was too late.
Where have they gone, those lovely moments of sweetness and pleasure?
They are worse than far away, they are undone, they never were. It could be true, she thought, frightening herself. I’ll go home tonight, oh yes, and I won’t start packing my bags. But it must be just a day like any other, when the end begins.
The city of London went bustling on, apparently still full of life. Sandy watched the passers-by, listlessly, half dozing in a chilly dream. Killing time.
Sandy Brize emerged from the tower block of the hospital into cold darkness, huddling her big black coat around her. The door of the Stag opened as she walked up, and she clambered in. She clenched her teeth to stop them from chattering: she felt dizzy and lost. It was only a few minutes ago but she could not remember leaving Otto. She was sure now she ought to have stayed, or else somehow brought her lover away. Did I kiss her? Did I dare, in that public place? I don’t think I did. The two young men in the front seats turned their heads eagerly, bright Luci and dark James.
‘What’s it like in there?’
‘Did she get my hamper?’
‘I didn’t see any cockroaches. Yes, it arrived. She promises not to eat any hospital food.’
‘Damn right,’ said Luci. ‘If you’d seen those kitchens …’ He had worked as a porter, last summer.
‘We could go back in, and try to get to see her?’
Luci and James lived in London these days. Sandy had summoned them hours ago: Flag at Beckfoot, start for the Pole sort of number, as James described this arrangement. They’d been waiting at Sandy and Otto’s house for news. Sandy had taken over all the telephoning, it seemed the least she could do: but she was afraid she’d let herself be intimidated by the Ideological State Apparatus again. Otto wouldn’t have left the boys in the car park. She’d have insisted on having them up to the ward, never mind what the hospital thought. Her suggestion caused a silence, in which all three of them thought of meeting Otto for the first time in this new mode; and though Sandy had been with her in the midst of it all, still, it would be different going back, now, to the accomplished fact.
‘No,’ said James softly, at last. ‘We’ll come back tomorrow. I mean later.’ He stared broodily into his own dark eyes in the driving mirror. ‘Did you phone Colin?’
‘Yes. She didn’t want to speak to him, her only sign of weakness. Otherwise she’s ready to take on the world.’
Colin was the child’s father, the obliging donor. He had left Brighton shortly after finals and lived on an organic smallholding in Devon.
‘Um, Sandy, considering – is the display still in order?’
‘Of course it is. What do you take her for?’
‘It does sound like your piston rings,’ remarked Sandy as the Stag roared showily up the hill. ‘I told you not to buy this thing.’
It was November. The waste ground above the racecourse had been suppurant with bonfires since well before the fifth, and was still covered in smouldering mattresses and old tyres. The suburban riding horses in the field across the road snorted and thumped noisily to their gate when they heard a car draw up. Luci turned to them as if drawn by a magnet. Poor bloody gees, he muttered. Out in all weathers, half-crazy with pollution poisoning. There oughter be a law …
Black broke to red underfoot, as if they were walking on crusted lava. They took the graffiti-splattered tunnel, and settled with their backs against the mesh fence: a white moon above, the constellations of Brighton spread below, and the sea a darkness beyond.
When Sandy Brize first arrived at Sussex University she had blushed whenever she heard the word lesbian; or even thought of it (which was frequently) – while Jane (Otto) Murray was the epitome of Campus Cool. Sandy had watched them from afar: Otto and her great friend James Esumare, and James’s great friend who came down for weekends – with the shining platinum crop and the amazing eye makeup. Mysterious lines of connection had brought her to the edge of Otto’s sphere. She went on watching, pressing closer or being drawn in, it was hard to say which, until at last she was over the boundary, and they were rushing and falling together, the four of them merging into one lovely, unlikely whole.
Sandy was still a little frightened of James, not just because of his Public school accent but because he was black. Whenever she spoke to him she could feel her parents and her brothers trying to climb out of her mouth. (They smell funny, they take our jobs, they breed like rats: when are you going back to Africa, nignog?) He was Nigerian, his parents were dead: he lived in Hampshire with his guardians in a house that was practically a stately home. He refused to have anything to do with Black Consciousness, the same way as he crossly resisted Otto’s attempts to bully him into Gay Activism. But even so safe and so aloof, he made her nervous …
She was wary of Luci for different reasons. He had lost the accent, or cunningly never acquired one. He was defiantly weird in every way that James was defiantly normal; sharp in every way that James was gentle. Luci laid traps. When they first met he used to call her Alexandra (her name was Sandra). What’s Luci short for? she countered: Lucifer, her told her. Sandy, as innocent of Judaeo-Christian mythology as if she had been an Ancient Egyptian, called him ‘Lucifer’ for weeks, before she found out what everyone thought was so funny.
They were not often alone together, these three. Otto was the missing connection: lost leader. They glanced at each other shyly in the moonlight. So strange, thought Sandy. Not my class and not my world but I belong here with these people, as I belong nowhere else.
‘Yours truly will be i/c fireworks!’ cried Luci suddenly, and leapt away with a tall package and a clinking binbag of empty bottles.
‘What does eyecee mean?’ asked Sandy.
‘In charge of. It’s a Structuralist term, I believe.’
‘I thought it was more Middle Class Homosexual slang. I’m trying to improve my vocabulary.’
James snorted. ‘Still having trouble with those chips on your shoulder, Brize?’
‘Not a lot, Sir. They’re very tasty really.’
Luci flapped about in his black PVC vampire cloak and the genuine Courrèges boots, planting firedrakes. He was a research assistant now, and James was in a serial advertisement on the telly: something he was not proud of, but the money would set him up while he was getting into real acting. The boys were so sensible about their careers: it made Sandy laugh. She couldn’t stand the idea of a straight job herself. She wanted simply to live this good life she had discovered: books, music, drugs, sex, nice food – in whatever order, and if possible all at once. She giggled, and at once, from nowhere, her eyes flooded with tears. Otter! Otter! How can I go home without you?
James was watching her, very kindly. ‘I expect that was quite an experience.’
‘It was, James.’ Her voice wobbled dangerously.
He wrapped his arms round his long legs: a meditative black spider.
‘Are you still signing, Sand?’
He was changing the subject to spare her feelings: terrified of emotional outbursts himself, he assumed everybody felt the same way. She fished in her pocket, and scrubbed her eyes with a dirty tissue. James had never been happy about Otto’s decision. He hated changes.
‘I wish you wouldn’t.’
‘Got no choice James. You can’t do much with a third class degree in Business Studies, if I even wanted to. And if I don’t pay off something on my cards every month, I’ll be in dead trouble anyway.’
‘How much do you owe? I mean, altogether.’
‘None er your business, James.’
‘Sorry.’ He heaved a sigh. ‘Sandy, why did she do it to us? I mean really?’
Oh, it’s never going to be the same … Sandy took a can of strong lager from one of the carrier bags and cracked it.
‘Don’t get morbid James. I hate it when you get morbid. Have a drink.’
He didn’t like the taste of any kind of beer. He opened a bottle of Burgundy instead.
‘How’s Xav getting on with his wonder job?’
‘Still at it. They’ve got him devising new marketing concepts now.’
Francis Xavier was James’s foster brother, son of his English guardians, and a no-good, no-account workshy wastrel just like Sandy. His latest venture was unusually innocent: it involved selling some shady kind of vitamin supplements. Down in Hampshire, Sandy had ridden a horse, eaten roast pheasant; been taken along a mediaeval haunted secret passage and attended a Christian Midnight Mass (RC rite). She was fascinated by this cornucopia. You never knew what might fall from it next. Maybe even a job, with lots of money and very little to do.
‘Is there anything for me in it? Could he hire me to lick envelopes or something?’
‘Don’t waste your time. The whole thing’s barely legal, and probably about to go bust.’
‘I s’ppose you’re right. A firm that would take on your brother must be well iffy.’
‘Well indeed. Definitely unsafe. But I wish you’d either stop working or stop claiming Benefit. You’re bound to get caught.’
Luci returned, and squatted to burrow into more plastic carriers for the rest of the feast: a good pork pie with decent mustard, tomatoes; choclatinas, a buttered lardy cake. He glanced up quizzically, feeling the prickly field of James’s gloom.
‘What’s eating my James? Spot of the mono no awares?’
James laughed. ‘Leave me alone both of you. It’s not going to be the same.’ He accepted a choclatina. ‘But whatever Ottoline-The-All-Right does, is all right with me.’
‘That’s the attitude my son. Have faith in yer political officer.’
They sat munching and drinking and smoking in the cold and dark, Luci occasionally running out to light another firework. He put on a good show. Somewhere near here was the Neolithic camp, home of the oldest inhabitants of Brighton. The four of them had come to search for it, one memorable acid-tinged night: failed to find any Stone Age relics but discovered instead a fellow-feeling that had made this spot sacred. They were the Nouveau Primitives, or Nouprims, as the Movement would come to be known – a school of revolutionary thought embracing Radical Socialist Feminism, the desire to live on cake and chocolate ice cream; the desire to ride in the Grand National wearing silver lame with a little mermaid train; and the knowing by heart of every Gilbert and Sullivan chorus.
It was a tough life, struggling towards civilisation while the other proto-apes, in their tree houses, threw rotten fruit and organised Moral Majority legislation.
‘The Nouprims will need to i. . .
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