The Godlike Genius of Nicholas Fisk
Nicholas Fisk, smoking a pipe, ages ago.
After my recent miserable experience reading Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, compounded by the traumatic memory of the time I found myself in a locked room with only a JK Rowling novel for company, I asked myself the question, ‘Why do people like this shit? Surely everyone’s just being silly and got it wrong. I remember children’s books being loads better than this when I was young.’
A children’s author I particularly remembered liking was science fiction writer Nicholas Fisk. His books still haunted me. Their concepts, as much as I could recall them, seemed pretty mind-blowing even after all this time.
I resolved to re-purchase all the books of his I remembered reading to see if they were indeed as good as I thought they were then. If so, I would make it my mission to tackle Rowling/Pullman worship at every turn, and erect statues of Nicholas Fisk outside all the branches of Waterstones in the land.
Now out-of-print, the books popped through my letterbox one at a time as they arrived from various online retailers. Excitingly, they all had the covers that I remembered them having, and some of them were the same print runs. I was even tempted to renew my membership of the Puffin Club using the coupon at the back. Anyway, I began to read.
Space Hostages (1967) is the story of a group of kids who are sent into space by a deranged RAF pilot, hoping to save them from nuclear war. It’s pretty darn exciting stuff, powered along by some excellent characterisation as the brainy kid and the school bully seek to win control of the spacecraft and stop them flying into the sun. It’s also notable for having a black main character, a rare thing in British kid’s fiction back then.
Trillions (1971) tells a less coherent story, but contains a central idea which is great. An alien race arrives on Earth that consists of tiny compatible elements. They fit together and build structures for mysterious purposes. It’s not often that aliens in kid’s books are truly alien, but they are here.
Grinny (1973) is, I think, Fisk’s most popular book. In it, an alien robot infiltrates a family in the form of an elderly relative in order to gain information about Earth prior to an invasion. I’m pretty sure they read this to us in school. There’s a paragraph about dogs ‘mounting’ that I think they might have skipped over though.
Robot Revolt (1981) features a charismatic religious cult leader who buys a robot servant that, in league with the leader’s children, ultimately seeks to overthrow him. The sci-fi aspects are a bit ordinary here, but the sheer scariness of the religion more than makes up for that.
On the Flip Side (1983) is the most interesting for me. A strange, ambiguous tale of communication with animals and parallel dimensions, it contains some pretty harrowing descriptions of society collapsing as animals go mad and inter-dimensional beings invade. One paragraph in particular, in which a girl telepathically communicates with her dog has stayed with me over the quarter of a century since I read it:
Yes, Duff could still fill her with loves she never felt of her own accord. The trouble was that these heartfelt loves became sickly and left a taste. ‘Fondest mistress, worshipful young mistress – I love you, and you love me.’ Followed, of course, by the inevitable anxious question – ‘You do, don’t you?’
Coming back to them, I can see that Fisk’s books do have notable flaws. Although he will invariably root the stories in a child’s viewpoint, they will often get too big, and the sympathetic protagonist’s perspective will get lost amongst various scientist and military types (this is perhaps why I remember the earlier chapters the best). Also, his conclusions sometimes feel arbitrary, and in his earlier books, girls are not presented well, interested only in attention and being like the kids on telly, while younger children are possessed by a strange logic incomprehensible from the outside.
Having said that, the books are imaginative, original, haunting and challenging, encouraging children to think about science and the role it plays in the world they are growing up in. So, all things considered, is Fisk a better writer than Rowling and Pullman? For me, yes he is. I am off to erect my first statue in his honour.