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Magnus Mills more or less exploded onto the literary scene in 1988, at age 34, with a first novel titled The Restraint of Beasts. Since then, he has gone on to a total of 14 novels and one book of short (very short) stories.
Mills’ novels are hard to categorize: they vary from overtly fantastic through surreal to merely quite odd. Mind, his novels that I call, for lack of a better single word, “surreal” aren’t exactly that: they are set in imagined worlds that are close but not exact versions of ours. While that doesn’t automagically make them “speculative fiction” any more than The Prisoner of Zenda would be just because it is set in a fictitious “Ruritania”, it does meet the test of using an imagined somewhat different setting not to merely tell a tale of action but rather to use the subtle differences in that setting to make especially pointed comments on Life, the Universe, and Everything. And that is what Mills does in all his books.
Most of his books have a lot in common. The prose is notably terse, light on description and heavy on dialogue, and usually screamingly funny in a distinctly deadpan fashion. That is true even in his mostly serious novels, which is, I suppose, a further way of making implied comment.
His most overtly fantastic novel is his third, Three to See the King, which is serious with little to no humor: a society of folk living each alone in a house made wholly of tin on some desolate, wind-swept sandy plain. His fourth novel, The Scheme for Full Employment, has been aptly and cleverly described as “economic science fiction”; it is a caustic parody on political economics and human folly. While set in “the real world”, it deliberately stretches plausibility past the event horizon of reality. (The “scheme” is to have a fleet of vans whose whole purpose is to deliver repair parts for those vans to service centers—a sort of “cat and rat farm” notion.)
I estimate that of his fourteen novels to date (April, 2023, which includes The Cure for Disgruntlement), there are probably nine that could be considered speculative in the sense this site uses the term; of the others, all save perhaps one fit into what I have elsewhere here called “The Book on the Borderland” category—books that are not true fantasy but that read a lot like fantasies.
Let’s see a sampling of Mills’ prose:
‘Very nice,’ I said. ‘Is this where you’re going to live?’
‘When it’s built, yes,’ he replied.
‘Well, shouldn’t you be carrying some tin along with you?’
‘I’ve got some friends coming along behind,’ he said. ‘They’re bringing the tin with them.’
‘Then they’ll be going back, will they?’
‘No, they’ll be staying.’
‘But what about their own tin?’ I asked.
‘Their own tin?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘If they’re bringing the tin for your house, they won’t be able to bring their own as well, will they?’
‘On no,’ he said. ‘It’s not like that. We’re going to be sharing.’
‘Sharing? What, all in one house?’
‘Yes, of course. Wht not?’
‘Well...’ I began, but then trailed off. One look at Patrick Pybus told me it would be futile trying to explain the finer points of living in a house of tin. He was simply too enthusiastic to understand that primarily you needed to be alone, and miles from the next person. Maybe in time he would learn this, and certainly there was room enough on this vast and empty plain for any amount of tin houses. Meanwhile, I just couldn’t bring myself to blunt his fervour. ‘Well, good luck,’ I said.
We see there several things: the terseness of his prose, the emphasis on dialogue, the curiously symbolic (but not allegorical) quality of the imagined environment—is it politics, or religion, or simply human nature that we are exploring? Any or all, really: that is a good part of Mills’ strength—we get commentary and insights on pretty much whatever we choose to think we are seeing depicted.
Let’s look also at his more normal comic style:
Yet there was one rumour that appeared to have some degree of credence. It began circulating sometime during the third week of the strike and I heard it from more than one source. Seemingly, a group of enthusiasts had approached the management and offered to drive the UniVans until the dispute between the two camps was settled. This would be on a strictly voluntary basis, the work being unpaid, and they were ready to start right away. According to the rumour, their offer was ‘under consideration’.
Now it should be said that even though the strike was nationwide, it actually had little or no effect on the economic life of the country. It caused no shortages or disruption, and was even welcomed by the majority of road-users, who were no longer impeded by processions of sluggish UniVans. The purpose of the campaign was merely to draw attention to a perceived problem within the Scheme, but the enthusiasts’ proposal threatened to expose it to all manner of unwanted scrutiny. After all, if people were prepared to drive UniVans for nothing, then why pay wages to those who weren’t?
As a result, the rumour was accompanied by mounting disquiet. I first heard it on one of my rare visits to the canteen, where there had been some recent changes. During the preceding days the Strike Committee had been accused of monopolizing the tea urn, and giving preference to flat-dayers over swervers. Furthermore, they were shown to be thoroughly incompetent, running first out of sugar, then milk, and finally tea itself. At this point George had come forward and offered his services as provisional catering manager, much to the relief of the beleagured committee, who’d accepted at once. It was his second day in his new role, and I’d decided to go and see how he was getting on. By now the canteen had become a crucible of ideological ferment, and it wasn’t long before I’d heard about the enthusiasts volunteering their services. Then I found an empty table and sat down.
‘Now as you know,’ said a voice nearby, ‘It’s my opinion that all voluntary work should be banned.’
Now that is a surgically precise job of making near-total insanity seem flat and normal behavior…or vice-versa, depending on how you look at it. It is, if the reader is paying attention, at first utterly hilarious, then, as it really sinks in, a scathing critique of…what? Unions? Goofy volunteers? Politics? Or just all of human nature?
That is of the essence of Mills’ tales: they feature bland, ordinary men (rarely women) doing seemingly bland, ordinary work (almost all his stories deal with working men) that we come to see as somewhere from comic to outright insane. The term “Kafkaesque” appears in discussions of his works, as do references to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast; both are, I think, illuminating comparisons.
The accolades from reviewers both professional and amateur for Mills’ are nearly unanimous in praise (see the links farther below on this page). Read him and see why.
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Curiously—he is a literary lion, at least in Britain—there is no dedicated Mills web site. Indeed, there is not much cohesive Mills material: mostly it’s just brief overview bios, one-off book reviews, and the usual few interviews.
Of Mills pages, clearly the best is Magnus Mills at The Complete Review; there is also a collection of reviews of his books at the Reading Matters site. And the Albion Magazine Online site has a nice overview Of Mills’ career (through 2010).
Also worth noting is an interview at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The writings of Magnus Mills (click the Transcript bar there).
There are a couple of acutely perceptive reviews by Rick Kleffel at The Agony Column of Mills novels, well worth reading: of Three To See the King, and of The Scheme For Full Employment (which Kleffel is perceptive enough to see as speculative fiction, something not all reviewers got). There are certainly many, many more one-off reviews of those and other Mills books, and here Google Is Your Friend.
There are the usual occasional interview pages, too; check out the links list at the above-cited Complete Review site.
And if you want to know what Mills’ own “Top 10” favorite books are, you can find out (as it happens, two of them are in the lists here).
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I could find none.
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