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.

book cover of   Space Hostages   by  Nicholas Fisk

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.

book cover of   Robot Revolt   by  Nicholas Fisk

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.

book cover of   On the Flip Side   (Flip Side)   by  Nicholas Fisk

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.

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4 Responses to “The Godlike Genius of Nicholas Fisk”

  1. What an incredible post. THANK YOU. I appreciate that you fearlessly dismantle the new mainstream sensations and draw attention to a legitimately inventive writer. (Granted, I have heard good things about Pullman and at least he had some audacity, but JK gives me hives).

    Without warning I discovered that I am a vintage science fiction paperback collector – there is a cottage my family visits in Canada and nearby an old nunnery that sells used thrift and vintage items on weekends to raise money for the local church. There are always dozens of incredible vintage science fiction paperbacks for less than a dollar and I feel like a criminal walking out with shopping bags full every time I visit. But the writing is so excellent and fun and inspiring and unusual.

    You have represented a portion of that catalog here. So again, thanks, it was good reading.

  2. Glad to be of service. Good luck with your collecting!

  3. I grew up on the works or Roald Dah and Willard Price l, and, as I got slightly older, discovered Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising’ series and frankly, feel that kinds nowadays are being short-changed. Sure, they’re getting 700 pages door-stops instead of 150 pages of taught and exciting accessible narrative, but enough with this whole ‘perceived value for money’ deal that means publishers won’t consider anything under 400 pages long, quality beats quantity any day… bollocks to Rowling, let’s hear it for the old school!

  4. I know I’m late on this, but Nicholas Fisk was amazing. I read him avidly as a child. Last night, a random passage of haunting, lyrical writing entered my head as I was trying to get to sleep. Something about a web that had to be sustained at all costs or the planet would fall apart, and some beings with an innate pseudo-mystical connection trying desperately to stop its disintegration. I stayed awake trying to figure out where the hell it was from. Diana Wynne Jones? Monica Hughes? Close, but no. Finally I figured out it was from Trillions.

    It wasn’t actually much of the wording I remembered, hence why it was so hard to figure out the source. It was the emotion – sheer beauty and primal fear simultaneously. Strange how a book can cause such emotion, and haunt me after twenty years. I looked him up today, trying to find out an email address, and found your blog instead. Thank you for the article; it’s rekindled my passion.

    I’ll carry on searching for an email. (Yes, he’s still alive! And I know it’s a pen name).

    Lia

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