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The Captives

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New English Library, London, 1971
(price: 30p; 176 pages)
first published by Constable & Co, 1970

The blurb on the back:

For the sake of a sick science, two men and a woman become animals.
Dr Jacob Berg kidnapped Nathan to serve in a laboratory experiment. He justified his action with scientific arguments.
But when he adds the rich, beautiful Judith to his cage of specimens, the experiment becomes disgustingly different. Judith is a woman who has obsessed the doctor until he can no longer bear to see her free. Now the tables are turned...
Michael Fisher, author of NEL's widely acclaimed
The Executive, has written a fascinating new novel that reveals the animal instincts in us all.

This is a weird one. Let's get a couple of things straight right at the start: firstly, those cover notes don't even scratch the surface, and secondly, this book is way too short for its aspirations.

Okay, here's the set-up. Jacob Berg is a research scientist at the Gold Institute in New York, working on the problems of rejection in transplant surgery: in particular, he's looking at skin grafts between different species of animal. When a freelance journalist named Nathan King turns up, hoping to get a story on spec, Berg takes the opportunity to lock him up in one of the primate cages (he can't normally afford primates on his research grant) with the intention of trying out his techniques on humans.

At this stage you're still thinking along the lines of the 'sick science' promised on the back cover, and even when Berg goes a stage further and kidnaps Judith Gold, orphaned daughter of the founder of the Institute, and puts her in the cage next to King, it still seems that this might be the direction we should be concentrating on. But we now have a naked man and a naked woman in adjacent cages, and we are aware that Berg has already spent a night with the phenomenally wealthy and beautiful Judith. Gradually the focus starts shifting, and frankly you're not entirely surprised when the questions of science and vivisection and animal research disappear altogether.

Because now we're in power-exchange territory. Is Dr Berg in control of the situation or are the two captives starting to exert power from the bottom? Is there such a thing as liberation through restraint? Does responsibility for others impose greater restrictions on one's freedom than dependence on another?

In purely narrative terms, there is also the question of what happens to Berg's two captives when the experiment is completed. He's not a killer, and he has respect for one of his subjects and near-love for another. So when it is suggested that they should be entitled to get their own back - by keeping him imprisoned on Judith Gold's vast New England estate - he gratefully accepts the suggestion. And we move into the second half of the book with the control relationships still in place, albeit reversed.

So it seems that what we're looking at is a story of personal power being traded between three individuals. And indeed large bits of it are exactly that, with the relationship between Berg and Judith particularly interesting. Frankly that would have been sufficient material for a novel of this length, and it would have been sufficient - one suspects - for an NEL commissioning editor.

But there's more.

Because Michael Fisher has pretensions to state-of-the-species commentary. Partly this is the occasional depiction of what's going on in the wide world beyond the laboratory:

'Shall I tell you what the papers are saying? Something like this: Russia has perfected a new nerve gas which causes extreme agony in an enemy without actually killing him; to maintain the balance of power we are working on a gas which burns out an enemy's eyes; Cuba has developed a method of floating anthrax spores across the Atlantic on the Gulf Stream and is threatening the whole of western Europe; Guatemala has exploded its ticket of admission to the nuclear club; in south-east Asia the weekly total of dead has reached a new high, but out our side is pleased because there are twice as many northern dead as southern. Is that the sort of thing you want to read?' (p.29)

What we are effectively asked to do is to consider these three people - who have removed themselves from the world - as a microcosm of society, and to try to understand their interactions as being somehow indicative of the status of modern human society and its proximity to its underlying animal nature.

To be honest, this side of the thing simply doesn't work. There's a damn good story going on, with plenty of twists and turns, and - given sufficient room to live and breathe - the big philosophical questions would have flowed quite happily from the narrative. But it's only a little book and the result is that everything feels rushed. Still, all credit for the efforts made: it's flawed, but really rather better than you thought it would be.

Mr Fisher was also the author of The Executive (the picture below is from the back of The Captives, not the book itself I'm afraid), and possibly of The Dam, The Voyager and Of Love and Violence.

The Executive


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