Originally published in 1967, Thomas M. Disch’s novel based on the surreal and cultish 1967 series, The Prisoner is an effective and hauntingly contemporary tale about the abuse of power. Disch, the first to pen a novelization of the series, managed to both honor and build upon the series, reaches a conclusion as definitive as any answer given in the show, entertains, philosophizes about identity, memory and free will, and provides a sci-fi tale that is no longer sci-fi because the world has caught up.
The series, a counterculture cult hit, followed the numerous escape attempts made by a man known as only Number Six from a quaint island resort prison placed in an unknown location by unknown forces. British actor Patrick McGoohan was the lead on a popular British spy-series called Danger Man. When he felt it was time to complete the series he proposed a follow-up series where the main character of Danger Man suddenly and for unknown reasons retires from the spy-game.
Unidentified forces drug and kidnap him, take him to what looks like an island resort from which he cannot leave, and rename him Number Six. The authority on the island, constantly changing in persona, is Number Two. Number One remains at a distance. Everyone on the island, numbered, vague in allegiance, either in conflict with or serving the unseen bureaucracy, or both, presents the same fatalist message to Number Six: there is no escape. When individuals can’t stop his attempts, absurd, giant, robotic balls that doggedly pursue by rolling across the ground or floating across water appear, and when they’ve recaptured him the mind games continue.
There are instances of altered or implanted memory, doppelgängers, promises that prove to be traps, traps made of honest promises, and the occasional fist fight. Thrown in too is a healthy dose of late ’60s British surrealism, a Yellow Submarine full of games of chess played with human pieces, control rooms with people mounted on rotating camera/computer equipment, and send-ups of democracy, commercialism, and middle-class modern living. Through this all Number Six tries to find out who has captured him, why, and most importantly to escape. He even occasionally does, but quickly winds up back on the island with Number Two, or a new Number Two, reminding him that he is Number Six.
The book repeats this tale, embellishes a bit more the main character’s pre-abduction, and even utilizes some of the scenes and story lines of the series, cleverly embedding them as surveillance tapes that the novel’s Number Six discovers but doesn’t recall. LIke the series, answers are rarely given and when they are, probably shouldn’t be trusted. This puts the novel in interesting territory — if one is a fan of the series, is the novel something to accept as part of the “reality” of the series?
This is a debate that rages on forums across the Internet when it comes to Star Trek novels. What the question has here that the Star Trek novels don’t is the added layer of deceit infused and made part of the stories. Not only can Number Six not trust what his memories and senses tell him, neither can we. Conflicts with the “true” events of The Prisoner mythos don’t exist because both the book and the series cast memory and identity into such doubt that we’re never fully certain the Number Six we root for is the same one, or even truly a hero for any reason other than someone in power is abusing him.
All this to say that Disch handles complex material brilliantly. He masterfully balances spy-thriller intrigue and action, dark humor, psychological and philosophical examinations of Number Six’s (our) predicaments. Most importantly, this is a novel for those who want a great book. Not knowing the series would detract not at all. Disch made the material his own.
Ultimately, Number Six and his attempts to prove that he is not a number are a thinly veiled metaphor for our own attempts to prove the same. I am not a number, I am (to use the phrase repeated throughout the show and in the novel) a free man.
Yet, I am a cell phone. I have to regularly list my social security number on applications. I drag around notes scribbled on the backs of old receipts to remind myself of my bank account number for deposits. God help me if I need to call the companies that provide my cable, gas, or electric service without my identifying number. I am, in fact, a large number of numbers, each one longer than the next, each one more oppressive for my lack of remembering, each one present, and here’s the punchline, to make my life easier.
Number Six’s imprisonment in The Village is no accident or twist of irony, any more than the situation castaways on Lost or Gilligan’s Island find themselves in. All are victims of paradise. We are tethering ourselves to long chains of labor saving devices and improvements which weigh us down and threaten to drown us. The oppressive Number Twos in our lives, the outsourced phone operator on the customer service line, the useless FAQ of website support pages, are our own making. We’ve chosen this. No less so than Number Six chose imprisonment through an act we can’t, and he won’t, have revealed. To reveal it would be to show him simply filling out a job application, request for a cell phone, or a tax return.
So nothing has changed in the 40 years since the show and novel appeared? On one level. On another what passes for science fiction has greatly shifted. A cell phone audience doesn’t find bugged rooms too surprising; that audience might be more shocked by the unbugged room. So, while the sci-fi gadgetry has evolved, the novel presents quaintly archaic spy-thriller tech that adds to instead of detracting from the story.
Who doesn’t love a scene where a spy watches surveillance on an actual film projector? Would anything be added by his viewing the films on an iPad? It would, in fact, provide for less action. He might never need leave the house in which he is “held” when he arrives in The Village. With modern appliances and gadgets Number Six might, like us, imprison himself willingly if he only had the Internet and an AppleTV. The Village could prove to be London, or New York, or Chicago, LA, Etceteraville. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must find a wifi spot so that I can get an IP address and upload this review.