(Paul Alexander’s cover for the 1977 edition)
3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)
I want it thick!
I want it quick!
I want something that’ll do the trick!
Use Stahlex! Use Stahlex!
A benevo-o-olent monopo-o-oly” (160).
Mark Adlard’s SF output consisted primarily of the Tcity trilogy: Interface (1971), Volteface (1972), and Multiface (1975). The domed (and doomed) city is a powerful scenario to explore a cornucopia of future social issues such as conformity, technology, and class . Examples of the genre I’ve read range from the atrociously banal Eight Against Utopia (1966) to Michael Bishop’s humanist masterpiece Catacomb Years (1979). Interface falls somewhere in between.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
Stahlex, an all-purpose material, plays the role of transformative catalyst: “The new science of manipulating atomic configuration in order to produce materials for specific purposes…” (31). Where once UK’s steel industry pulled its weight in politics and importance, the Stahlex Corporation takes over as the sole political and economic power. This is a future where decadence, caused by the idea that “all that has been achieved”, roots people to their class and replaces imagination with empty ideology.
Tcity, where the masses live and the executives partake of manifold pleasurable diversions, embodies the “interface” between humankind and machine. The Aphrocollege modifies women with Stahlex for the Pleasure Dome: “breasts were pumped with silicones until they satisfied the oedipal norm” (11). While the masses can only afford to visit the Pleasure Dome and the virtual reality scenes created by the Exotic Scenarios Corporation a few times in their lifetime, the executives visit daily—desperate for a “new” experience.
The city kills. The masses trample each other to death: “trampling had overtaken senescence as the main cause of death amongst the Citizens” (18). There are a handful of evocative scenes and disturbing scenes involving the implications of such a death—the automated scavenger system recovers only “rags and tatters” after curfew, the body itself dispersed by the stampeding of thousands unable to stop progress down the corridors under the fake sky (“a piece of blued stahlex,” 26).
The executives modify their bodies via genetic engineering—“The skin was so tightly stretched across the swelling cranium that it looked as if it would split, and the outlines of sutures and trepanning operations were clearly visible. Most Executives wore toupees to hide the evidence of neuronal amplifications, but Steinberg displayed his surgical blemishes as proudly as Heidelberg duelling [sic] scars” (52). In this state of technological progress, ennui interfaces executives with the obsessions of the past rather than visions of the future. An executive is described as “normal” with the following readout: “history of northumbria (fanatic). Meissen porcelain (collector of kändler figs. From monkey bands & it. Com.). Otherwise favorite period is fourth qtr of 18c: literature french (esp. Rétif de la bretonne, laclos, beaumarchais, chénier); painting also french (esp. Fragonard); music german; furniture english” (39).
The minimal plot follows the life of the executive Jan Caspol. Small errors appear in the readouts of the Stahlex Corporation—there is revolution afoot but no one sees it. Rather, the executives ruminate about their own individual obsessions, such as the joys of Newcastle Brown Ale and how technology has made its recreation possible. Jan Caspol meets a mysterious woman at the Pleasure Dome and he pursues her with abandon… And everything moves towards a cataclysm that with sever the interface between humankind and machine.
The most appealing element of Interface is the overwhelming fixation on the “taedium vitae, or melancholia, or Byronism, or Welschmerz, or ennui, or angst, or anomie, of whatever the hell the current vogue word is” (59) of the powerful denizens of the city. Stahlex allows the creation (from work of art to the bodily modification of the Aphrocollege graduates) of whatever object the powerful executive desires. It is in this mental state that the discovery that “there were still people who were capable of producing ‘works of art'” in Tcity so bewilders (yet intrigues) Jan Caspol (80). Of course, the “art” embodies the stark realities of the world: a figure of manipulated Stahlex, “it has its head thrown back, and it seemed to be in some kind of trance of ecstasy” (23).
That said, the fixation on a daily tedium—assuaged by an endless array of obsessions—creates an often tedious pace filled with odious people. The Stahlex Corporation executives are oblivious to the changes occurring within the city and thus the “revolution” only jolts forth in the last few pages. I found it hard to escape the conclusion that a parallel narrative—Jan Caspol paired with some Tcity resident—would be more compelling narratologically.
If you have some 1970s-SF-with-domed-city-obsession then I recommend Interface. Informed by Adlard’s career as an English Industrialist, Interface does contains an unusually vivid feel of how executives would run a future industrial complex. Other readers will be disappointed. Pick up Bishop’s Catacomb Years instead.
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(Uncredited cover for the 1971 edition)
(Peter Jones’ cover for the 1977 edition)