Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Prisoner - Thomas M. Disch

' I am not a number, I am a free man '.

Number 6 to number 2.

 The novel The Prisoner is quite unique in that it is based on television series. Most movies or television series are based on novels so this is very unusual. It is of course not totally unknown as many of the Doctor Who episodes were written into novels. If you know your music you will know Iron Maiden wrote a song called The Prisoner which opened with the quote above, and appears on The Number of the Beast album. They also wrote The Village which appears on their next studio album Powerslave.

 The television series played in the late 1960's and starred Patrick McGoohan in the lead role. I vaguely remember re-runs of it in the 1970's as a kid but found it somewhat bizarre and never got into it. As a series it was well received and very popular in it's day. ( It was almost re-made in 2008 and stared Ian McKellan as number 2 ). I suppose the positive reception lead to the sanctioning of this novel to cash in on that success. Fair enough, but is it any good?

 First off I can't compare it against the series because as stated I haven't really seen it. But I can critique it as a stand alone novel. Thomas M. Disch was an American author born in Iowa who wrote predominately science fiction novels. Why he ended up writing this I haven't been able to find out. It is just one of those small pieces of information that is of interest even though it is somewhat obscure. After reading the novel I am very keen on watching the series just to compare the two and see how much, if in anyway, Disch has added or changed anything.

 As a novel I liked it as Disch uses a very interesting writing style. It isn't difficult to read but he still uses words in an intriguing way which adds to the sci-fi feel of the novel. As sci-fi this is a type I particularly like. It isn't overly technology heavy having only two sci-fi moments, namely the rubbery balls that guard the village and Number 1 as a replicant. The rest is based around the brain washing of the villagers which is quite a chilling premise. I can only compare it to George Orwell's sci-fi masterpiece 1984. It has the same nightmare quality to it and for the first part of the book ( which is divided into three ),  it is really creepy as Number Six, who is never named throughout as anything else, finds himself in a village where things are annoyingly vague. This leads to him and the reader asking a multitude of questions, just what is going on?

 I really enjoyed the first part of the novel. The questions and lack of answers are frightening. Disch uses language beautifully to give an air of vagueness and quiet annoyance ( through Number 6 ) at not being able to fathom what is going on. This is sci-fi at its very best. The second part racks up the questions and tension, and provides a stunning escape by Number 6 whilst Number 2 tries to prevent him. This scene is the best part of the book and I found myself totally enrapt in it. So many questions rush through your mind and yet none of them are ever answered. It is funny because I never felt like I wanted to know as much as I wanted Number 6 to get out!!

 The third part is an anti-climax and a bland, flat disappointment though. After the build up the last part is filled up with a play, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. This last part is relatively short and the play takes up too much time and I found myself bored by it. After the tension of the first two parts this fizzled and I feel it was out of place. Sure it was used as a cover for an escape but it was just too long. Thankfully though this mistake is somewhat rectified at the end of the play when Number 6 is made Number 2.

 Becoming Number 2 though is an incredibly well conceived red-herring. At first it appears he won't resist, and yet he seemingly does. In hindsight there are a few cunning clues to show it was a charade. As it all unfolds, and number 6's seeming pliant behaviour is revealed to be an act, the reader knows how and why they, along with Number 1, were so easily sucked in. For all his brain washing and confusion Number 6/2 has an incredible ability to hold on to who he is. In the series some didn't like the end as it didn't clear up the unanswered questions. Many don't like this type of premise but in this case it is perfect. It is meant to be like that as it adds mystery and a feeling of mental imprisonment. The reader can hence palpably feel the desire of Number 6 to just escape and be himself. He really doesn't want to know anything as his id is more important than the whys.

 The Prisoner then is an unusual and intriguing sci-fi novel. Very Orwellian in scope and premise it is both chilling and nightmarish, not withstanding the brilliant fact that nothing is ever answered or clarified. The first two parts are excellent but the third falls a bit flat with an over long play. Fortunately though the ending rectifies this flat spot. This third part also saw a drop off of the writing style. The first two parts are written in an unusual prose which is genuine literature in the process, but for the last third it was just common run of the mill prose and an unfortunate let down.. As a novel it is both a story and literature, for which the reader wins in both regards.

 A well worth while read if you like sci-fi of this style, which I most certainly do. If are looking for something that is just a little bit different, being off beat in its prose and delivery, then this is the novel for you. Not perfect, just different. ( Amazon has this novel rated with 3 1/2 stars out of 5 which I think is fair ).


  1. I love the honesty of your reviews, very good.

  2. Thanks!! I try to critique rather than just go it was rubbish or great. There has to be a reason why?