I think I forgot all about Monica Hughes.
Early this week I found myself revisiting the council estates of Newton Aycliffe in County Durham, where I grew up. I wandered about these very neglected streets and there was mist hanging down all day. All the playparks had been stripped of climbing frames and their gravel was mildewed and mossy. There were hardly any lights in the building-blocky houses. Hardly any signs of life on the misty Agnews and Burnhill Estates. The Burn was practically dead in the middle of the day. It was like visiting pictures of Chernobyl, deserted these past thirty years.
The town precinct has been savagely redeveloped. Those marvelous concretized brutalist ramps and walkways and all the futuristic corridors of the Sixties have been replaced with contemporary retail park Tescos and whatnot. Where our tiny, cardboard-walled town library stood there’s an Aldi.
All the treasure in that town library. I still rack my brains to remember the books I read there in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Some names elude me. Others ping back into my head and I order copies of ex-library books from ebay. I’m reconstructing my own version of a small 1970s New Town library in my study and in my head.
Monica Hughes is someone who has come back to me, through the toxic mists. This week I read (reread?) ‘The Tomorrow City’ from 1978. Now, here’s a novel that should have come back into print with that vogue for dystopias of recent years. This story is chilling but quite believable. A vast city is put in the control of a super-computer called C-Three. Everything should be marvelous, but of course, perfection comes at a cost. We observe the action through the eyes of Caro, the inventor’s teenage daughter and her friends, as they come to realise that tramps are being removed from the streets and their bodies dumped beyond the city walls; essential life support machines are being switched off and the needy are being sacrificed for the sake of efficiency. All of these terrible, creeping, subtly unspoken changes are recorded brilliantly through the quotidian and ordinary. There are some superb moments – especially with the brainwashing and attempted rescue of Caro’s friend’s Gran.
The implications of the book are horrifying. This is what happens when you allow society to tend, almost without knowing it, towards fascism. And this is what happens when you follow efficiency and machine logic. This is what happens when computers are given everything to do.
And this was written in 1978. Back when I was a kid in misty Arncliffe Place on the Burnhill Estate. I read this then and there, I think – when surely the whole place didn’t look as run-down and hopeless as it does today? There’s been so much time since then, and so much has changed – but what a timely and relevant novel this is. And so beautifully written, too. I want to reread more of her.