Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Death Guard (1939) by Philip George Chadwick

"A future history, supposedly written in the 1970's, detailing the destruction of civilization through global war after Britain develops a synthetic life-form into the perfect soldier. Bleakly anti-war, this novel was published on the eve of Britain's entry into World War II; rumor has it the edition was pulped. Only a handful of copies are known to have survived."
-KEW, 13 Best Science Fiction Horror Novels.


Grim and depressing, The Death Guard is one of those books which originated between the world wars of the 20th century. The author was a prominent Fabian Socialist who was active on the lecture circuit. There is even a rumor that it was one of H. G. Wells favourite books. The edition I was able to obtain was the 1992 ROC reprint. More rumors surround the books scarcity until the reprint: some say it was banned by the British government; others claim the publisher was bombed during a German air raid. There's even a notion the author died in combat during WWII, but my edition of the book claimed he lived till 1955.
Death Guard is the story of a renegade biochemist who hits on the idea of artificial life. A discharged soldier after the end of WWI, he hooks up with a large manufacturer and begins experimenting. His goal is to create the perfect soldier: a being who lives to kill the enemy. Such a creature would make any nation invincible, so goes his reasoning, because no one would dare attack. Thus, Britain will be safe from any future wars.
The book is told from the viewpoint of Gregory Beldite, the grandson of the industrialist who has sponsored the development of the Death Guard. He relates the first experiments by Gobel, the scientist who creates the life-form, to the eventual near destruction of Britain. Since Beldite opts to work in the production end of the process, he is able to recount the human cost of creating these things. We see the "Brothers", as they are known, start in fermentation trays, born as "pugs" and finally nursed into 7 ft. killing machines. The Guard is designed to fight with a metal spear and kill any moving object other than it's own kind. It's not quite an animal, although it resembles a biped, which has disastrous consequences in the latter half of the novel.
The main criticism of the book is the racism on display in the first third. Needing a private facility to create his perfect soldier, Gobel has the Beldite company build a compound in the Belgian Congo. The warm weather is perfect for his research. He's also provided with an endless supply of uneducated locals who know better than to ask questions about what they are doing. But rather than attack the exploitation of the African workers, Chadwick depicts them in the most vile, bigoted manner imaginable. The "N" word is constantly being used to depict these people and great lengths are taken to show them as a superstitious lot easily manipulated. Granted this book was written in the 1930's when such attitudes were routine in the West, but that doesn't excuse it. Even the 1992 introduction to the book, by British SF writer Brian Aldiss, describes this as "the most damaging aspect of the novel".
Death Guard heats up when a training cadre of the Brothers accidentally slaughter a village in the Congo. The world suddenly discovers the British government paying for the production of a super soldier in clear violation of disarmament pacts (which seem to be in force). The combined Continental European powers send a detachment of soldiers to shut down the research facility in the Congo, but the force is wiped out. By this stage, the company responsible for the creation of the Brothers has already relocated most of it's spawn to Britain. Threats begin flowing across the channel and war is imminent.
A lot of next section of the novel is given over to Beldite's observations as a supervisor in his grandfather's factory where the Brothers are being processed. There's a particular gruesome scene where an office worker is gutted by one of the creatures when, for sport, the plant decides to turn a Brother named "Bloody Omega" loose on a cow. The author may have shown his own sympathies by making a pacifist one of the major characters in this section.
When war comes, it shrieks down on Britain from the sky. Chadwick did have a bit of foresight in showing how air warfare would change the nature of combat. Although the Death Guard repels the Continentals' landing, the landscape is devastated by dive bombers, which the author terms "bomb-pluggers". Chadwick envisioned small bombers attacking the ground from a flying mother ship.
Across Britain, workers are in revolt and the country continues to be blasted from the air. Famine is everywhere. The Brothers are a lethal force against the enemy, but they have to be destroyed immediately after deployment. They cannot distinguish human friend from foe, so the army has to deploy tanks in the rear of every Guard detachment. The Brothers who survive the engagement are blasted apart from the rear. And starvation brings about the worst thing imaginable: spores. Since the Brothers are more plant than animal, they reproduce as they decompose. Soon, the battlefields are covered with tiny Death Guards, who will grow up to be stunted, but still deadly, adults.
And then Beldite learns of the British government's plans to launch Death Guard into Europe.....
The Death Guard is not a short book; my copy runs close to 400 pages. It's frighting and not easy to put down. If not for it's incidental racism, the book would probably have a larger following.
Finally, here is the blurb from KEW on the back cover:

"The Death Guard is a true "lost classic"...a terrifying novel if science fiction horror. It remains at the top of the ranks of all end-of-the-world novels written before or since. Read it, and you'll understand why the few who have read it in the past have not let it be forgotten."

5 comments:

  1. This is such a great news, it really like this, Your blog is nice and informative. Thanks for the article.

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  2. Thank you! I thought I was the only one who read this!

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. I... I'm his great grandson... I have a copy of this book too. My dad probably knows when he really died and all. I'd be happy to help. You don't have to beleive me, but then again, why would I lie?
    Thank you for writting this great article :)

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  5. A great book ..especially considering the scope for when it was written.

    Andy

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