Reviewed by Jason Fisher
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:3 (#332) in March 2010.]
Night Operation, a novella dating from 1974 or 1975 (depending on whom you ask), is apparently the only work of science fiction Owen Barfield ever wrote. It has appeared in print on two previous occasions: first, serialized across two successive issues of the journal Towards (2.4 and 2.5, Fall/Winter 1983 and Summer/Fall 1984); and then in A Barfield Sampler (1993), edited by Jeanne Clayton Hunter and Thomas Kranidas. This new standalone edition is published by The Barfield Press UK, under the aegis of the Estate of Owen Barfield, and brings the novella to a wider audience than ever before. The Press has been busily reissuing Barfield’s works, with Eager Spring already released and five more titles coming this year.
Jane Hipolito, Barfield scholar from the California State University at Fullerton, opens this slim volume with a short but astute Introduction to Night Operation. For those who have not read the novella before and do not wish to have elements of it revealed ahead of time, I recommend skipping these introductory remarks and coming back to them later. But do read them. Hipolito has valuable insights which will enrich readers’ appreciation of the story, particularly regarding the relationship between the three principal characters – Jon, Jak, and Peet – and its seeming reflection of the relationship between Barfield, C.S. Lewis, and A.C. Harwood. Hipolito suggests a correspondence between Barfield himself and the logocentric Jon, and while I do not disagree, another possibility occurs to me. I would hazard that a correspondence with John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is equally plausible; after all, Jak is pretty clearly C.S. (“Jack”) Lewis. Consult pages 25–35 to form your own ideas. If it’s not obvious enough, even the word “inkling” conspicuously appears during this portion of the book (29).
Turning to the novella itself, it is quite a remarkable piece of writing. Without saying too much about the plot, I will note that it is set in the 22nd century, in a society driven underground into the sewers out of fear of invasion and bio-terrorist attacks. Once there, the society develops ever more inevitably to reflect the original scatological purpose of their abode. The novella recalls at different points George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s Logan’s Run (1967). The latter, in particular the 1976 film adaptation (contemporary with Night Operation), has a great deal in common with Barfield’s work. Cross any one of these with Poetic Diction (1928), and you’ll have a good sense of what the novel is like: a futuristic story, punctuated by extended meditations of philosophy, culture, and language.
Some readers may find aspects of the subject matter startling or even objectionable. The underground society of the novella is obsessed with its own biological processes, and with the unrestrained hedonic indulgence of each or all of them, accompanied by piped-in rock music twenty-four hours a day. Satirizing traditional public education, Night Operation counterposes against the outmoded Three R’s (“Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic”) a new world order: the Three E’s (“Ejaculation, dEfection, and Eructation”), or as Barfield dysphemistically terms them on one occasion: “fucking, shitting, and puking” (6). Barfield also bitterly satirizes the notion of Progress (capital P) by redefining it in Night Operation as merely the transition from one kind of excretion to another. Yes indeed, the subject matter is bound to raise a few eyebrows, but readers who persevere will find the experience rewarding in the end.
Set against this backdrop of “cultural diarrhoea” (30) is the story of three friends – Jon, Jak, and Peet, mentioned previously. The first half of the novella centers on Jon and his quest to “dig” into language and history (14–5), all but suppressed in a dystopian society at times alarmingly reminiscent of our own. Mingled in with his quest are many thought-provoking ruminations on language, philosophy, and sociology – it is at this point that Barfield will most remind one of Orwell. One particularly droll moment comes in the narrator’s allusion to “Barfield’s Law of literary endeavor (when a book appears with anything upsetting in it, the few who read it don’t need it, and the many who need it don’t read it)” (61). He might have been thinking of Night Operation itself.
Eventually, the triumvirate decide it’s time to pay a visit to Aboveground. Why? Because “Society’s passive acceptance of unridiculed absurdities, increasing as it did every day, was a symptom that could not be overlooked. When the velocity of progress increases beyond a certain point, it becomes indistinguishable from crisis” (34). Pronouncements like these, so prescient as they are of our own culture, more than a decade after Barfield’s death, will give the reader pause, as they do the protagonists of the story. Jon, Jak, and Peet feel they have no choice but to pursue their answers elsewhere, and their explorations outside the insular Underground world comprise the second part of the novella. I will not spoil what happens there, but suffice to say that the conclusion is a surprising and a satisfying one.