Originally serialised in two parts in ‘New Worlds’ magazine,
Charles Platt’s ‘The Garbage World’ (1967) remains a
startlingly confrontational – and effortlessly readable novel.
It’s well-worth revisiting.
‘Platt is a ‘writer’, and he doesn’t care for labels…’
(Philip José Farmer)
In his introduction to the ebook edition, Platt writes that ‘human colonies in the asteroid belt were a common feature of science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet in all the stories and novels that I ever saw, the writers ignored a fundamental problem. People generate trash. If you’re living on an asteroid, where are you going to put it?’ (‘A Scatological Singularity’, 2017). So Kopra becomes the garbage asteroid, a ‘foetid cesspool of a world’. Its name a play on coprophilia, coprophagia, coprology, coprolite and other words derived from the Greek ‘kopros’ for dung. ‘The asteroid is named Kopra, just in case anyone didn’t get it.’
The confrontation leads to a cultural stand-off represented by the hygiene-obsessed worlds represented by Captain Sterril (sterile), to whom Kopra is ‘a blemish in the flawless purity of the rest of the asteroid belt,’ and the Koprans contentedly wallowing in filth, ‘trapped at the anal stage of their development.’ The action hinges on a scheme to evacuate Kopra while vital upgrades are made to its ‘botched’ artificial-gravity, which is threatened by a century’s unwieldy build-up of waste. Or is this a pretext for something more sinister, as Lucian Roach begins to suspect? While there’s a star-crossed lover’s flirtation between Roach, the expedition’s Observer and Recorder, with the lovely Juliette, Isaac’s grubby daughter.
I frequently refer to Platt’s ‘Who Writes Science Fiction?’ (Savoy Books, 1980), a collection of interviews with writers he terms ‘the weirdest and most wonderful inhabitants of the literary worlds,’ across the SF spectrum from Isaac Asimov and EC Tubb through Robert Silverberg and Brian Aldiss to Philip K Dick and Harlan Ellison. Although he claims his own greatest influences were Alfred Bester – ‘the great innovator of the 1950s’ who ‘alone among science-fiction writers of his generation, seemed truly keyed into modern media, and the arts, urban style and fashion’, and JG Ballard – ‘the great innovator of the 1960s’. Born in London, 26 April 1945, he edited his school magazine through which he published early Michael Butterworth fiction, and freelanced his own photography. As early as December 1963 he was contributing letters-of-comment to the BSFA magazine ‘Vector’, to Graham Charnock’s ‘Phile’, and cover-art for the fanzine ‘Beyond’ (April 1964). His first fiction sale – “One Of Those Days”, appeared in ‘Science Fantasy’ (no.68, December 1964) under Kyril Bonfiglioli’s editorship. A brief niggling marital dialogue exasperated by heat and noise, leads to accidental domestic death.
At the same time, his ability as book-jacket designer, photographer and illustrator became an asset when the name ‘Charles Platt’ was added to the ‘New Worlds’ colophon as ‘Designer’. He also graduated to editing stints. ‘I just had to keep cranking out an issue of ‘New Worlds’ every month’ he tells me. ‘Sixty-four pages plus covers.’ He went on to co-compile the paperback-format ‘New Worlds 7’ (1975) with Hilary Bailey. ‘It didn't leave me with much time.’
Platt’s next appearance was with the two-part “The Garbage World”, trailered as ‘an entertaining new satire dealing with the very quintessence of capitalism’. Well, maybe. The concept had been bantered around ‘during one of many drunken evenings at Michael Moorcock’s London flat... we were taking a break from working on ‘New Worlds’ magazine, and I was sitting on the floor while he strummed an out-of-tune acoustic guitar.’ Platt recalls how ‘I mentioned that I was contemplating a novel set in a world of garbage,’ and, despite Moorcock’s amused incredulity, he went ahead and developed the idea.
In fact, there are differences between the slim magazine version, and the resulting expanded novel. In the serial even the Koprans wear air filters within their nostrils. And the muddy drunken orgy at the Garbage Impact site was originally set in the village itself where ‘they built a great bonfire in the road, and all the lights and all the TV sets were turned on, each one tuned to a different station. The people just seemed to like a lot of background noise.’ To Lucian, ‘the idea of such permissiveness was unsettling,’ although he’s wavering.
With the power-source and radio sabotaged, they’re wrecked in a mud-lake where they’re attacked by a giant predatory slug. In the novel, they’re rescued by junk-hunting nomads, only to fall into a fissure opened up by storm-lightning, garbage-tremors and blimp impact, to be rescued again by nomads using long roots as cables. In the serial they encounter no wild nomads at all. Either way, they must trek back on foot through a deluge of piss-yellow rain, while Lucian and Juliette overcome their cultural differences sufficient to get it together in romping love-making, splashing around in an oozing muddy pool.
In correspondence Platt points out that ‘you will also find numerous tiny differences between the text of the US novel and the UK novel, because the US editor, Damon Knight, believed in doing a lot of line editing. He showed me a few sample manuscript pages, and I said ‘Go ahead, do whatever you like.’
Although obviously related to the “The Failures”, and to the passages in the novel that mirror it, “The Total Experience Kick” story is a stand-alone spin-off, a music-technology satire where Joe Forrest of Sound Trends infiltrates Harry King’s laboratory intent on learning its secrets. The ‘Total Experience Kick’, he discovers, is a kind of sensurround psychedelic-feelie emotional-feedback projection that has propelled Marc Nova to overnight stardom and evolved the industry in ways that subsequent real-life developments only in part reflect. SAM – Statistically Average Man operates as a test-audience now does for new movies.
A bridging sequence about Julius and Hilary in their rural retreat, torn apart by city revelers, takes the narrative over into the vast urban emptiness of Lone Zone, where the city has become a ‘giant concrete graveyard’. With Part Four shunting further into a final orgy of destruction as The Last Generation devolution hold riot nights with Mad Max autos between ‘the tall apartment blocks, empty and dead, but magnificent in their stark bare symmetry’. Essentially the story from no.176 – the Twenty-First Anniversary issue of ‘New Worlds’, its stark photo-art catches the mood as survivors Manning and Carole abandon urban living, walking ‘on slowly along the street, heading northwards, towards the city limits and the countryside.’ Despite its fragmented structure the novel builds into a genuinely affecting vision of entropy and slow depopulation.
With guile and resourcefulness the Koprans use the Survey Ship to escape, as Norman’s tampering with the charge results in the ‘garbage world exploded into a million muddy fragments in a burst of red-hot fire, while a thousand sterile pleasure worlds cowered before a vast cloud of filth.’ As Lucian and Juliette make love on the control cabin acceleration couch, the partying evacuees have any number of befouled new Kopras to settle. In a happily messy conclusion.
The conventional writer-evolution from short-stories into novels was ruptured by Platt leaving England in 1970, and settling in New York – into a ‘horrible five-feet-by-ten-feet $30-dollar-a-month room’, where he ‘wrote some undistinguished novels in order to finance an itinerant life-style’ including – according to a book-blurb, a handbook on outdoor survival, ‘a biography of a striptease artiste, and an intercourse positions guide’. He was then appointed consulting editor at Avon Books where he was instrumental in their ‘rediscovery’ list of SF classics, before he claims ‘science fiction diverged from me.’
Humans are a garbage-producing species. The earliest evidence that archaeologists find of cave-habitation is the midden spoil-tip. The legacy we leave for future generations is landfills and oceans of floating plastic junk-islands. In Platt’s fiction, it’s possible to make a case for a shared tendency towards direct fleshy responses over literary intellectual ones. In ‘The City Dweller’ Cathy gives up her tainted luxury life-style, to surrender into the drugged sleazy sensuality of the Slum Zone. In ‘The Gas’ repressed libidos are released with orgiastic results. Just as Lucian is seduced into seeing the muddy virtues of the Kopran life-style. But although Earth itself has become a ‘Garbage World’, as a comment on our urban over-obsession with antiseptic germ-free hygiene, if anything the situation has intensified. Because contact with dirt – as Lucian discovers, can occasionally be beneficial.