Several years ago, when I did my series about Patrick McGoohan’s landmark TV series, The Prisoner, I wrote about attempts to portray Number 6 in other media. I mentioned, in passing because I hadn’t then read it, a 2005 novel, The Prisoner’s Dilemma, written by Jonathan Blum and Rupert Booth and published by Powys Media, and intended to the the first of a series of new stories about everybody’s favourite Village.
Time has passed. The series never materialised. The anticipated book two, The Outsider by Lance Parkin, never appeared. Powys Media’s website list book three, Miss Freedom, written by Andrew Cartmel but not how to get it. Google turns up some mixed reviews of this, at GoodReads and Google Books, but a search of eBay, Amazon and BookFinder turns up no copies, and whilst Biblio.com lists a signed and numbered copy of the book, it is out of stock.
A mystery worthy of the series, perhaps?
Nevertheless, I had acquired and read a copy of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, and it’s time to supplement the series with a few words about it.
On balance, the book is worthy of its good reputation. It’s plot is complex and well-managed, springing from a single, ingenious action that involved Number 6 with Number 18, a tense, troubled young woman who is, in a completely different fashion, every bit as much a rebel against the Village as he is. The story starts with Number 6 on his ceaseless mission to monitor the Village’s ever-developing surveillance for blind and deaf spots, when he is almost witness to Number 18 murdering a man: her Observer, it transpires, but also someone who has been sexually abusing her for some time.
This trigger’s Number Six’s chivalrous instincts, as do similar but less serious situations in the series, but it also triggers the classic impasse that forms the title of the book, and its underlying theme. Two prisoners are held in separate custody, facing common charges: do they trust each other in order to prevail against their captors, or race each other to sell out and shift the blame onto the other? Trust only works if both come to the same decision, but they cannot communicate with each other, cannot agree to trust.
Number Six finds himself accused of the Observer’s murder, both by reason of who he is and where he was and because Number Eighteen has, allegedly, claimed he killed the man.
Neither is charged. This set-up is but a preliminary to the main novel, a more-than-McGuffin that serves not only to connect Numbers Six and Eighteen but to introduce the central dilemma of the entire novel: does Number Six learn to trust Number Eighteen? Can he?
That’s as far as I’m going to go in describing the story. This pairing, having been forced by the Village, is put through a long series of variegated tests, designed to work on that question, as they try to combine opposing approaches to the objective of bringing down a new Village system that infallibly controls people by accurately predicting their responses. Can Number Six trust Number Eighteen? I’m not telling you, but the book itself gives away the ultimate answer in nearly every page.
Blum and Booth are good, very good indeed, on the minutiae of Number Six’s Village life and the overwhelming paranoia with which he has to live in order to survive on the terms he has demanded for himself. The book is thick with detail of what the Prisoner thinks and does, the extent to which he is completely self-isolated by the approach he has chosen.
Number Eighteen’s approach is radically different, and Blum/Booth provide plenty of arguments in its favour as a viable approach. And the further we get into the book, the more those arguments become objections to the flaws of the persona Number Six has adopted, that blind him to any option that is not generated by himself in accordance with what are very narrow criteria. The Prisoner’s Dilemma.
It makes for a dense, very intense book, sometimes a bit wearyingly so. Number Six’s attitude is complete and fully coherent, but the endless vigilance, the refusal/inability to compromise even for a second on the most minor of things asks the reader to raise their game to an inhuman level. Nor does the undisguised contempt for any alternate concept help us ease into the story: inevitably, some of what Number Six says comes over as the most rigid egomania, and the longer the book goes on, the more despairingly and more often Number Eighteen points this out to him and us.
Can he really trust her? That’s where the ending is really clever, making her disappear in ambiguous circumstances that could be anything from escape to reassignment, leaving us with the same dilemma as Number Six.
I do have some specific complaints about this book. The first is that its Number Two never rises above being a cypher, and that too much of the book leaves him on the sidelines, depriving us of the direct clash of minds that underlines each of the television episodes. At different times and in different ways, Number Six’s battles are against Numbers Fifty-four (the honest cop) and Number One Hundred and One (the ultimate double agent), so that when Number Two begins to play a direct role, in the last phase, it comes too late to share the personal element so important to the rhythm of the series.
And I am seriously concerned at the uneven tone of the book in one serious aspect. The Prisoner was made and set in 1967/68, in an era of Cold War rigidity, in the still-living aftermath of a War that had turned on ideologies, spawning a world in which ideologies were even more prominent. It took its politics from that, it took its colours and concerns from the edge of the counterculture that was feeling its way into being, it pointed us towards the future that was bearing down, as a warning that we all ignored.
Blum and Booth were writing almost forty years on, in a world in which the Village has spread to encompass our lives. There have been massive leaps in technology and culture. Unfortunately, the authors try to have it both ways, trying to retain the ambience and the politics of the Sixties whilst folding in the computerised world of the Twenty-First Century. It sets up a tension that they can’t resolve, with a Reality Show employing fantastic technology that resembles nothing but state-of-the-art CGI switching to an attack on high-powered computers so primitive that their back-ups are still on tapes.
And what Blum and Booth don’t seem to realise is that by introducing their Reality Show (and a coy reference to The Kumars at no. 42), not only are they irretrievably mixing incompatible cultural periods but the defeat they concoct for Number Six is as crushing and final as they portray it as being. Number Six’s credibility on every level is shattered, he is completely defused, his privacy is destroyed, in a manner that cannot be reset.
The idea is too good.
Overall, though, I’d rank The Prisoner’s Dilemma as much more representative of the series than any of the official, contemporaneous tie-in novels, and in its incorporation of futuristic themes, tons better than the Shattered Visage comic. It’s a shame the series wasn’t continued as envisaged, especially as the ending of this book looks to be foreshadowing the non-existent Lance Parkin novel. Or is it?
That is, appropriately, a matter of trust…