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Underground Reading: Calculated Risk by Charles Eric Maine

Calculated Risk Calculated Risk is a disaster novel written by Charles Eric Maine (David McIlwain), the dominant name in British apocalyptic fiction (well, behind Wyndham. And Wells. And...). 

Maine specialised in a specific sort of science fiction - he'd take a single scientific fact (or premise) and then extrapolate it until it reached the most dismal possible conclusion. As a result, over the course of 25 years, he destroyed the world in a thousand innovative ways.

The protagonist of Calculated Risk is Phil, a scientist from the distant future. He lives in the radioactive squalor of post-Armageddon London with his mistress, Kay. Fortunately, Phil has an escape route. Using quantum chicanery, he transports the minds of Phil and Kay into the past (1960s London). Two mid-century Londoners are brutally ejected from their own bodies, and Phil and Kay take over.

Brilliant - and quantum - so what could possibly go wrong?

For Phil, the experiment is a wild success. Leaving the diseased ruins of his body behind, he possesses a young ad man named Nicholas Brent. Nicholas is young, handsome and engaged to a sexy young heiress. Phil couldn't be happier.

Kay, however, winds up in the decrepit body of an aging old crone, who shares her lice-ridden flat (and bed) with her equally-decrepit old sister. Kay, understandably, isn't so pleased by this turn of events.

The book focuses around Phil's adaptation to 1960's London (apparently the future has better booze and cigars). He's torn between his new life and his old one, and is forced to make drastic and painful decisions.

The problem is, although the author tries to make Phil an empathetic character, he's really just a dick. He has brief, non-dickish moments, but recovers and returns to self-congratulatory dickery. Maine makes sure we understand that Phil is a stranger, he's from a wartorn land, he's fighting for survival, etc, etc, but still, Phil's a dick. The only empathy comes from oddly trivial events - for example, Phil trying to make a drink for someone he's "known" as Nicholas for years. Or even trying to take the bus, with no concept of how the money works.

The obvious comparison is to Life on Mars, in which a police officer from future-Britain is chucked back into the 1970's. Again, some of the most trivial scenes are often the most fascinating, but ultimately Life on Mars succeeds where Calculated Risk fails, in that it successfully creates an emotional connection between the viewer and the protagonist. In Calculated Risk, Phil's antics are interesting, but only in the purely rational sense. It is easy to appreciate the complex plot twists, but hard to care about how they resolve.

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