Saturday 2 November 2013

A Plague of Pythons, by Frederick Pohl

As promised a few weeks ago, I have re-read this 1965 book in memory of the late author. Since it is just under 170 pages long I did that in one session. This was my first reading of it since the 1970s and I had almost entirely forgotten the plot, so read the story with fresh eyes.

A Plague of Pythons is set in the late 20th century, in a radically changed world. Three years earlier, people had begun to suffer at random from what appeared to be temporary demonic possession, during which they frequently committed appalling acts including murder and suicide. This had caused the gradual breakdown of society, with people closing in on themselves and their local communities. Services we take for granted such as air travel and television had almost entirely vanished.

Chandler is on trial for the rape of a teenage girl, something which he did while possessed. However, his explanation is not believed because the crime took place in a pharmaceutical company, one of the few locations which had been spared such incidents. An unexpected reprieve leads to him living a nomadic existence until he is possessed again and made to travel to a location where he discovers what is really going on and finds himself fighting for his life – and to end the plague of demonic possessions.

As usual for the period, this is fast-paced with the emphasis on plot and action and little time for characterisation. However, it is an unusually dark and thought-provoking story. Initially it seems to be a clear-cut good vs evil plot, but as the climax approaches some moral ambiguity begins to creep in and in the end Chandler himself faces the ultimate dilemma. It is the kind of ending which forces readers to consider; "well, what would I do in those circumstances?"

The basic plot idea strongly reminded me of John D MacDonald's 1951 story Wine of the Dreamers. Another old favourite I must read again soon.

1 comment:

Bill Garthright said...

Thanks for the review, Tony. That's one I missed, and it does sound interesting.