Monday 14 November 2005
Michael Greatrex Coney, writer: born Birmingham 28 September 1932; married (two sons, one daughter); died Saanichton, British Columbia 4 November 2005.
When Michael Coney learned earlier this year that he was fatally ill with asbestos-induced lung cancer, he put three novels previously unpublished in English on to his website as free downloads for his friends and readers. (It is a sign of the uncertainties of the current English-language publishing scene that one of these works had already been released in Russian in 1999.) The calm and open manner of this farewell gesture reminded those who had known him that they were going to miss another good person too soon.
Coney was born in Birmingham, educated at King Edward's School there, and began a career as a chartered accountant in 1949; but he did not settle into that profession. He worked for some time as a management consultant, managed a hotel in Devon from 1966 to 1969, then went to the West Indies with his wife, Daphne.
Together they managed the Jabberwock Hotel in Antigua until 1972, when they emigrated to Canada. Coney then worked for the British Columbia Forest Service until his retirement in 1989; Forest Ranger, Ahoy! (1989) is a lively account of the service, whose rangers patrolled the enormously complex British Columbia coast in wooden, flat-bottomed boats.
This full, professional existence, the life of a late-20th-century wanderer who finds job satisfaction in a beautiful venue far from home, may have taken most of his time; and, as his books about the British Columbia littoral clearly manifest, he cherished his resting place on the Pacific Rim. But it was not the whole story. As early as the mid-1960s he had begun to submit "radical" science-fiction stories to Michael Moorcock's controversial New Worlds magazine, none of which Moorcock took. Taking this lesson to heart, he began to write (and to publish) tales closer to the central concerns of 1970s science fiction. His first novel, Mirror Image (1972), neatly intensified the American genre's Cold War focus on impostors and secret invaders; in this case the "amorphs", who are indistiguishable from us, are themselves convinced that they are human.
Coney's amorphs reappear in Brontomek (1976), which won a British Science Fiction Award in 1977, and are effective images of the uneasy 1970s sense that the world was becoming less easy to decipher; this sense of boding insecurity marks other early Coney novels like Syzygy (1973), which is set in the same troubled planet as Brontomek; and Friends Come in Boxes (1973), a slice-of-life tale set in a near-future Axminster where the overpopulation crisis has been solved by a surreal and sinister system in which adult minds are imprinted into the brains of infants, androids embody specially privileged members of an inequal society, and real and unreal mesh dizzyingly.
After a first rush of dystopian tales, however, Coney began to shift his ground from the more overstressed regions of the Western world (and its analogues on other planets). The Girl with a Symphony in her Fingers (1975), set somewhere near the end of time, palpably dramatises a longing for a quieter realm; and his most successful later work - The Celestial Steam Locomotive (1983) and Gods of the Greataway (1984) - could almost be set on a transfigured Vancouver Island.
In these tales, and later connected fantasies, human beings have been exiled from any central role in running their lives or their planet. Their job is to live well, in harmony with other humanoid species, in a world whose violent but non-fatal complexities will remind 21st-century readers of the current vogue, in book and film alike, for tales set in Virtual Realities.
It is of course a common condition nowadays to travel far from one's origins, to experience exile as a norm, almost like an amorph in a world of humans. In his own life, Coney clearly experienced exile, but reaped the benefits of ending up in a kind of earthly paradise, where he stayed put for the last 30 years of his life. His fiction, too, after traversing the upheavals of our times, found a home and stayed there.
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