1 September 2008

The Penal Colony

Blurb from the first edition

It is 1997. The British government now runs island prison colonies to take dangerous offenders from its overcrowded mainland jails.

Among all these colonies, Sert, 25 miles off the north Cornish coast, has the worst reputation. There are no warders. Satellite technology is used to keep the convicts under watch. New arrivals are dumped by helicopter and must learn to survive as best they can. To Sert, one afternoon in July, is brought Anthony John Routledge, sentenced for a sex-murder he did not commit. Routledge knows he is here for ever. And he knows he must quickly forget the rules of civilized life. But not all the islanders are savages. Under the charismatic leadership of one man a community has evolved. A community with harsh and unyielding rules, peopled by resourceful men for whom the hopeless dream of escape may not be so hopeless after all ...

I started this book in 1985, just after the miners’ strike was quelled by the Conservative government. The difference between Mrs Thatcher and her Labour predecessors was profound. It seemed that Britain, left in such a mess and so long due a correction, was lurching too far rightwards instead.

Then as now, violent crime and terrorism were high on the public-opinion agenda. Criminals are anti-social. The cost of their crimes usually goes far beyond that of the objects they steal or destroy, or even the human cost paid by their victims. By committing a crime, a man renounces the values of the society in which he lives. A heinous crime such as murder or rape is in effect a renunciation of society itself.

Capital punishment is barbarous; incarceration is expensive and often ineffective. Since criminals demonstrate by their actions that they wish no part of civilized society, it seemed to me logical that a future British government might want to isolate them, permanently, from that society. “Isolate” is derived from the Latin word for an island.

I enjoyed a holiday in north Devon in the spring of 1985, exploring the cliffs around Hartland. One sunny May afternoon, sitting among the thrift and overlooking the sea, I suddenly had the idea for The Penal Colony, got out my notebook, and started work. Those very cliffs feature in the story.

Synopsis: October 1985
Final draft: November 1986
Editor at Grafton Books: Patricia Parkin
First publication: October 1987
Revised for electronic publication: February 2008
Extent: 103,343 words

A movie based on this book, No Escape, was released in 1994.

List of printed editions

Grafton, London, hardback, 1987
William Morrow, New York, hardback, 1988
Grafton, London, paperback, 1988
Ballantine, New York, paperback, 1989
Heyne, Munich, paperback, 1991 (Die Strafkolonie)
Bastei Luebbe, Hamburg, film tie-in paperback, 1994 (Flucht aus Absolom)
Shinchosha, Tokyo, paperback, 1989
Proszynski i S-ka, Warsaw, paperback, 1994 (Kolonia Karna)
Grafton, London, film tie-in paperback (issued as No Escape), 1994

Reviews of paper-based editions

Herley follows his successful trilogy The Pagans with an intriguing, ultimately uplifting novel of man’s capacity for salvation, a twist on Lord of the Flies. In a not-too-distant future, the British government has relegated murderers, rapists, and others of society’s outcasts to the wild island of Sert, off the coast of Cornwall. Overseen only by satellite technology, the 500 men on the island have divided themselves into two communities: “the village” and “outside”. The village contains the most intelligent men who, rather than succumb to the savagery rampant outside its borders, try to retain what they can of civilization. “Outside” is ruled by two warring clans that despise and envy the villagers. Routledge, wrongly convicted of a sex murder, is told that he must spend a week “outside”; if he survives, he will be accepted as a member of the village. He quickly learns the meaning of survival and in the process, like the men in the village, he rediscovers dignity, respect for others and the moral satisfaction of working together for the common good. When the warring gangs outside finally combine for an all-out attack on the village, its leader, Franks, and the village council reveal a desperate but ingenious escape plan, and this fast-moving, intelligent thriller goes into top gear.
Publishers’ Weekly

Author Richard Herley has built a thriller as tight and disciplined as his inmate society.
Enid News & Eagle

A gripping novel, as thriller or novel of ideas.
Library Journal

... a well devised and gripping novel.
Yorkshire Post

It’s savagery - not civilization - that lies like a thin veneer on the human character. That’s the ironic theme of The Penal Colony, an absorbing, offbeat thriller by British novelist Richard Herley ...

Tension and philosophy artfully mix in this story, thanks to terse prose, plenty of action and a convincing milieu. Multiple battles of wits propel the plot as Routledge struggles with himself, his environment and bloodthirsty human adversaries to embrace his nature as a social animal and learn the values of his new society.

Herley explored similar themes in The Pagans (1978-84), a notable trilogy about the Stone Age now being published in paperback in the United States. The Penal Colony is the trilogy’s equal, casting the eternal love-hate conflict between individual and tribe in a modern context of solid adventure.
Vince Kohler, The Oregonian

... a well written and a memorable story of a chilling adventure.
Lake Oswego Review

Normally I shun such reviewer clichés as “a real page-turner”, “leaves you breathless”, “can’t put it down”, considering them to be empty substitutes for critical thought. Well, there’s always an exception: I’ve weighed those phrases carefully, and I believe that each of them accurately applies to a new novel, The Penal Colony by Richard Herley.

The Penal Colony is a gripping novel of suspense, terror, thrills and adventure. It raises your intellectual speculation while raising your heart rate. It has been a long time since I last encountered a book that so successfully blended those elements along with compelling characters.

... It is a marvelous plot, reminiscent of Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male in its rendering of helplessness, aloneness and vulnerability when Routledge is on the run. Herley is an expert at setting up this kind of story - heightening the reader’s suspense, easing it, backing into the resolutions of episodes.

But novels that depend almost exclusively on plot are generally not very interesting. This novel does not, and so this novel is captivatingly interesting. By setting his story only a few years in the future, Herley is asking what sort of society we are - and becoming.

Within this grand vision are other, subtle, supporting images, parables and metaphors. The Village, for instance, is like a monastic community: highly structured, obedient, non-democratic and headed by a beneficent man called “Father”. This is in contrast to the utter lawlessness of the Outsiders, one of whose dominant figures, named Martinson, has a fixation on Christ, Satan and crucifixion - and a violent hatred for Father.

Altogether, this makes a neat conceit. These are all (except Routledge) terrible lawbreakers, yet some have become law-abiding and others outlaws.

Significantly, on the island are the ruins of a monastery, one of those guardians of learning in the Dark Ages. Now we have, in Routledge’s estimation, “the new Dark Ages” with “Britain wallowing out of control”. There is more than one reference in the book to feelings of reincarnated lives and loyalties.

Is the Village, then, an example of how society can save itself, the way the monasteries once saved civilization? Maybe, maybe not. The book’s ending would seem to lead one away from such grand conceptualizations.

Yet it is true that, despite the primitive conditions, Routledge feels for the first time that he really belongs, which he never had felt in his comfortable middle-class existence. The Village offers “the opportunity to be a man”. These men deal honestly, squarely, fairly and kindly with each other, a way of interaction most of them had not experienced before.

If I could bring myself to put “perfect” in front of any noun, which I can’t, I’d be tempted to use it here. The Penal Colony came into the office absolutely unheralded, with little promotion or publicity, which usually means the publisher has few hopes for it. I really think this novel is in a class with Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, whose intellectual qualities it shares. I wish for it the same long-lasting fame and respect.
Roger Miller, Milwaukee Journal