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April 2004
 
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Tom's A-Cold by John Collier (1933)

JOHN Collier is remembered today for brilliant fantasy short stories like "The Chaser" or "Thus I Refute Beelzy" or "Green Thoughts," cheerfully ironic miniatures with stings in their tails about magic shops and deals with the devil and man-eating plants in domestic greenhouses.

In Tom's A-Cold (published in the U.S. as Full Circle), Collier's only attempt at what might be called science fiction, the ironies are dark indeed, and have a real human cost.

The novel takes place in 1995, in a post-holocaust England which has regressed to a medieval level, divided into townships that are in most cases little more than gangs. Young Harry has grown up in a valley in Hampshire, under the egotistic rule of the Chief. Harry is the most charismatic of the young men of the village, and his best friend Crab is the most subtle thinker. Harry's grandfather, called Father by all, has ambitions to restore civilization if he can maneuver Harry into power, despite the young man's ambivalence. The opportunity comes when the men of the valley raid a town near Swindon to steal away women for the young men. In the course of summer and fall Harry becomes Chief, but at the cost of everything he cares about.

Harry's love for Rose, one of the captured women, and her reluctant love for him, has heartbreaking force. Against a vivid portrayal of the English landscape, the characters work at tragic cross purposes. From a harrowing scene of the use of an ancient hypodermic to attempt to cure the wounded Chief, to the final conversation between Father and Harry about the unknowability of the human heart, Collier limns a tragedy of Shakespearian overtones, one of the great unknown works of twentieth-century future fiction.

—John Kessel

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