Category Archives: Reading

Brian Stableford: The Hooded Swan Series

Covers of the 'Hooded Swan' series by Brian Stableford

I suppose that some people might consider it a great convenience to be sharing their skull with another mind, on the grounds that two points of view are better than one. They might even consider it to be especially convenient that the alien mind couldn’t stay alien, but had to organize itself along lines similar to their own—become human, in fact. It means, after all, that one need never be alone. It means that one never need be completely isolated from one’s own kind. It means the everpresence of a friend, which might be necessary in times of dire need […]. It means an extra force with which to oppose the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and illimitable seas of troubles, and an extra chance to end such troubles.
But as well as all that, it is also a bloody nuisance.

Brian Stableford Rhapsody In Black (1973)

Brian Stableford is a British science fiction and fantasy author, also active as a critic, translator and academic commentator. The Hooded Swan series of six novels, published between 1972 and 1975, is how he first caught my attention. According to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, (and certainly more importantly for Stableford) it also marks the point at which he significantly penetrated the American science fiction market. Since then, I’ve also enjoyed some of his fantasy alternate histories: The Empire Of Fear (1988), in which vampires are real; the David Lydyard trilogy (1990-1994), ditto werewolves; and the Empire Of The Necromancers trilogy (2008-2010), ditto Frankenstein’s monster.

But the Hooded Swan books, presented in Pan’s iconic silver-blocked titles with striking cover art by Angus McKie*, still hold a particular place in my memory, persisting across four decades. So it was clearly time I revisited them.

The novels are very much of their era—there are sprawling spaceports, dotted with starships poised for take-off, and rimmed with the inevitable spaceport bars, where arguments end in fist-fights. The aliens are all comfortably humanoid, and there’s that old reliable contrast between the civilized central part of the galaxy, and the Wild West out on the rim.

To this, Stableford brings a noir sensibility via his first-person narrator, a disillusioned and down-on-his-luck pilot called Grainger (no first name), who has a Chandleresque line in weary cynicism. Here he is, telling his aspiring engineer Johnny Socoro how he got into debt after crashing his previous spaceship:

‘An outfit called the Caradoc Company charged me for their services in rescuing me from a rock where I went down. They took me to New Rome and got me clobbered for twenty thousand.’
‘Hell!’ Johnny was suitably impressed. You can judge the social standing of man even now by the sums of money he reacts to.

And here he is assessing the credentials of a group of men who have just abducted him and his companions:

The heavy mob looks the same the universe over. They have never really escaped the influence of the clichés laid down by the earliest exponents of the art of strong-arming. They always have big shoulders and slack features, and a casual swing to their movements deliberately styled to suggest that they can—and maybe do—bend iron bars between their fingers. Our welcoming committee was trying hard—if subconsciously—to give this overall impression, but they weren’t very good at it. Gangsters may be born or made, but these men had had gangsterism thrust upon them.

Only when he’s talking about his ship, the Hooded Swan, does Grainger allow himself to approve of anything. Here, he describes how it feels to fly a spacecraft to which he is neurological linked:

We climbed and we circled and we fell and we zoomed in a gigantic arc. Slowly, almost languidly, I began to tighten the arc, to reduce the radius of the spiral. My body bent and my wings billowed, and I could feel in the tenure of my bones and the texture of my skin and the tonus of my muscles exactly how much she could take. I knew beyond all doubt what my ship could do, because I was she and she was me. My ship, was the Hooded Swan. Mine.
I could fly faster than light.
I could fly higher than the stars.
I could fly through clouds and through rainbows.

So that’s almost all the set-up you need to know. Grainger is in debt. In order to pay off his debt, he is contracted to fly a starship that he falls in love with.

Oh. And then there’s the alien mind parasite. While shipwrecked alone for two years, Grainger begins to believe the wind is talking to him. After a while, he realizes that the voice in his head is real. He has been infected with an entity that uses his brain’s processing power to run in parallel with his own consciousness. It knows everything that Grainger knows, and it cannot help but adopt Grainger’s world-weary attitude. So that’s what’s going on in the quotation at the head of this post. The story arc, across six novels, is about how Grainger reaches a grudging modus vivendi with the nagging voice in his head, and how the “mind parasite” (actually, we’re told in the second novel, a commensal organism) slowly proves its usefulness to Grainger.

So, to the novels. The first, Halcyon Drift (1972), is largely concerned with establishing the structure for the later stories—Grainger’s shipwreck, the mind parasite, the rescue, the incurred debt, and the resulting indenture to his new boss, Titus Charlot, who is a sort of prefiguration of what we’d now recognize as a manipulative and amoral tech millionaire. The supporting characters are assembled, in the form of the Hooded Swan and her crew, and Grainger flies his first mission, to retrieve the cargo of a lost starship, wrecked somewhere in a dangerous region of space called (you guessed it) the Halcyon Drift.

With Rhapsody In Black (1973), Stableford begins to use his two areas of expertise (a degree in biology and a doctorate in sociology) to good effect. Grainger’s next mission takes him the planet Rhapsody, where an isolationist religious cult, who live underground in near-permanent darkness, have stumbled on a piece of exotic biology with dangerous implications for the whole of galactic civilization. Grainger’s hostile relationship with his mind parasite, whom he refers to as “the wind”, slowly develops into a sort of brittle interior banter. And he begins to realize that the wind can do more with Grainger’s nervous system than merely inhabit it.

Promised Land (1974) finds Grainger in the rainforest of Chao Phrya, trying to find an abducted alien child. The human colonists of Chao Phrya view the planet as their Promised Land, and have marginalized the native alien Anacaona, imposing human culture upon them—there are clear resonances here with the way European colonists dealt with indigenous peoples, historically, but Stableford is too good a writer to have his characters explain all that to the reader. As Grainger and his little party push into the rainforest, and the mission descends into chaos, he slowly discovers how alien the thought process of the Anacaona are. There’s a genuinely tense finale featuring two-ton spiders, in which Grainger’s relationship with the wind changes permanently.

The Paradise Game (1974) takes Grainger to Pharos, a planet with a very strange biosphere, where he finds himself in the middle of a three-way stand-off between law enforcement, a mega-corporation intent on developing the planet for its own use, and an environmental activist group who are using ecotage to thwart the proposed development. (Given the advent of Greenpeace a few years previously, the conflict was a topical one at the time of writing.) As Grainger pieces together the nature of Pharos’s ecology, an unexpected crisis point is reached, and he again has to rely on the wind’s subtle ability to tweak his physiology.

In The Fenris Device (1974), Grainger must attempt to recover an ancient alien spacecraft from the dangerous surface of a storm-wracked planet. The spacecraft’s original purpose is mysterious, but it is rumoured to carry a weapon capable of destroying moons (the “Fenris device” of the title). The already hazardous process is complicated by the presence of several competing factions, including a hijacker, and Grainger’s reliance on the aid of his mind parasite reaches a whole new level. By the end of it all, Grainger is ready to quit his job.

Finally, in Swan Song (1975), Stableford deploys the “called out of retirement for one last mission” trope. But he does it knowingly and gleefully. Here’s Grainger, summarizing the situation to a friend:

“Intrepid rush into danger. Old man on brink of death. Mock-heroic space pilot and aging crony. Youngster in the engine room. Seemingly impossible rescue attempt set against a background of cosmic concepts sufficient to make the mind boggle. Isn’t quite what it was in Planet Stories, though, is it?”

The action takes Grainger and the Hooded Swan on a rescue mission into a bizarre pocket universe, and Stableford manages to weave together multiple interpretation of the phrase “swan song” while bringing the series to a satisfactory, if melancholy, conclusion.

What I liked about these novels, and still enjoy on re-reading, is how well Stableford mashes up the narrative furniture of 1970s planetary romance with the sensibilities of noir fiction from the 1940s. In my head, Grainger raps out his lines in the rapid-fire clipped manner of a cynical private investigator in a black-and-white movie. The novels are all short (150 pages of mass-market paperback), so the individual stories are necessarily quite simply constructed, but there’s a well-planned story arc that spans all the books, and Grainger is an engaging anti-hero. I’m not sure about some of Stableford’s more purple prose, and some of his word choices seem a little odd (see “the tenure of my bones” above), but overall I greatly enjoyed revisiting them.

And, as seems to be the case for most of my obscure-but-classic science fiction reviews these days, they’re all currently available as e-books from Gollancz’s Gateway collection.

* McKie’s interpretation of the spaceship Hooded Swan as an actual swan-shaped vehicle was inspired. It aligns perfectly with the spirit of Stableford’s writing, in which the Swan swoops and soars like no other spacecraft, under the control of its ecstatic pilot. But the physical descriptions in the novels suggest that the Hooded Swan has a rather stereotypical upright “rocketship” design, with fins and engines at the bottom and a control station at the top. And, as the first novel makes clear, the name of the ship derives from a direct translation of the Latin binomial Cygnus cucullatus, once applied to (of all things) the dodo. So we must all bless Angus McKie for his feat of imagination.

Stableford, who has a degree in biology, was of course aware of the difference between a parasite, which harms its host, and a commensal, which does not. But, oddly, he also used the word symbiote for the commensal state. Symbiote was an accidental coining by Hal Clement, in his 1950 novel Needle, which subsequently achieved a certain currency in science fiction, but the standard term in biology is symbiont.

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Ministry For The Future

Cover of The Ministry For The Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Possibly some of the richest two percent of the world’s population have decided to give up on the pretense that “progress” or “development” or “prosperity” can be achieved for all eight billion of the world’s people. For quite a long time, a century or two, this “prosperity for all” goal had been the line taken; that although there was inequality now, if everyone just stuck to the program and did not rock the boat, the rising tide would eventually float even the most high-and-dry among them. But early in the twenty-first century it became clear that the planet was incapable of sustaining everyone alive at Western levels, and at that point the richest pulled away into their fortress mansions, bought the governments or disabled them from action against them, and bolted their doors to wait it out until some poorly theorized better time, which really came down to just the remainder of their lives, and perhaps the lives of their children if they were feeling optimistic—beyond that, après moi le déluge.

I’ve written about Kim Stanley Robinson before—a science fiction writer with literary leanings and environmentalist preoccupations, probably best known for his Mars trilogy, about the terraforming of that planet over a period of centuries. I have reviewed his novels Red Moon here, New York 2140 here, and his Green Earth trilogy here.

In this one, he returns to the topic of anthropogenic climate change which was the theme of Green Earth, and formed the backdrop to New York 2140. I’d suggest he has also returned to the theme of the Mars trilogy, because this novel deals, in effect, with the terraforming of Earth—a decades-long race to reverse or ameliorate the effects of global warming, before the planet becomes uninhabitable for much of the human race. Mixed in with that, a necessary part of the project, is the righting of the inequality Robinson eloquently outlines in the three long sentences with which I’ve started this post.

One thread that runs through the narrative is the activities of the titular “Ministry For The Future”—a United Nations “agency with no financial power and little legal leverage”, created to push forward the goals of the Paris Agreement. We follow its director, Mary Murphy, as she tours the world attempting to persuade financial institutions to move away from petrodollars and to adopt a new cryptocurrency that rewards countries and organizations who leave fossil fuels in the ground, or actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The other principal character is Frank May, an aid worker caught up in the lethal Indian heatwave with which the book opens. Damaged by survivor guilt and plagued by PTSD, Frank seeks revenge on the wealthy vested interests who are resisting a switch to a carbon-neutral economy. The fragile and ultimately poignant relationship between Mary and Frank is the only linear narrative running through the book. Mary embodies the cerebral response to the climate crisis; Frank the emotional—and Robinson’s message seems to be that both responses are necessary.

Mainly, however, the story is told in short chapters from multiple points of view and in multiple styles. There are first person narratives that feel like diary entries or interview transcripts; essays on economics, the Jevons Paradox and the Gini coefficient; minutes from meetings; even short riddle passages in which the reader is invited to guess the identity of the writer—one “writer” is a photon, another a carbon atom. By doing this, Robinson conjures up a sort of frenzied collage of people and organizations all doing their own thing to achieve one vital outcome. There are glaciologists pumping water from the undersides of Antarctic glaciers, to stop them surging into the sea; geoengineers temporarily increasing Earth’s reflectivity by injecting aerosols into the stratosphere, and colouring the ice-free Arctic Ocean with yellow dye; complex rewilding projects to preserve Earth’s endangered fauna; efforts to level up the unequal distribution of wealth through social engineering … and, on the dark side, ecoterrorists conducting targeted assassinations and downing passenger aircraft.

it sounds all very worthy, but it’s constantly lightened by Robinson’s dry wit. Here he is on the annual World Economic Forum meeting at Davos:

With immense effort the percentage of women there had gone from six percent to twenty-four percent, we were told, and the organizers congratulated themselves on this progress and promised to keep working on the problem, which was difficult to solve, as most wealthy people and most political leaders are just by coincidence male.

One thing I found striking is how Robinson has his two main characters, Mary and Frank, pretty much stumble into the realization that animals might just possibly be interesting, about three-quarters of the way through the book:

“How was your day in the Alps?” Badim asked her.
“It was grand,” she said. “We sat in a meadow and looked at marmots and chamois. And some birds.”
He regarded her. “And that was interesting?”
“It was! It was very peaceful. I mean, they’re just up there living their lives. Just wandering around and eating. It looked like that’s what they do all day.”
“I think that’s right,” Badim said, looking unconvinced that this would be interesting to watch. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

An outdoorsman and environmentalist like Robinson could so easily have foisted his own attitudes on his characters. Instead, we get the clear impression that Mary and Frank want to fix the planet just because humans have broken it and people are dying, and it’s a moral imperative to put that right—for them, the benefits to nature are simply a side effect which turns out to be pleasant.

Some climate-change solutions go well, and some go badly, and the story ends with hope for the future and melancholy for what has been lost. Near the end of the book, Robinson revisits Frank and Mary’s revelation about the significance of animals being free to go about their business:

In a high meadow, wild bighorn sheep. Their lambs gambol. When you see that gamboling with your own eyes, you’ll know something you didn’t know before. What will you know? Hard to say, but something like this: whether life means anything or not, joy is real. Life lives, life is living.

That paragraph, I think, sums up what the other 563 pages are about.

Fred Hoyle: Two Coauthors

Coauthored books by Fred Hoyle
Click to enlarge

“Are you seriously proposing,” the Minister spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully, as though they were chocolates out of an assorted box, “that some other beings, in some distant part of the galaxy, who have never had any contact with us before, have now conveniently sent us the design and programme for the kind of electronic machine—”
“Yes,” said Fleming. The Minister sailed on: “Which we happen to possess on this earth?”
“We don’t possess one.”
“We possess the type, if not the model. Is it likely?”
“It’s what happened.”

Fred Hoyle & John Elliot A For Andromeda (1962)

I’ve already reviewed some of Fred Hoyle’s solo novels. But he worked most often with coauthors—two novels with screenwriter John Elliot; thirteen works of various lengths with his son, Geoffrey Hoyle. In all these collaborations, the narrative voice is quite different from Hoyle’s own writing style, and it appears that Hoyle provided some scientific aspects of the plot, while the co-authors did the writing.

His first collaboration was with Elliot, who was then working at the BBC. Hoyle provided Elliot with the plot for a science fiction television serial, which Elliot developed into scripts for the eight episodes of A For Andromeda, broadcast in 1961 and starring a young Julie Christie. This is one the BBC’s many “lost” dramas from that era—the tapes were subsequently reused, and only one episode survives. Elliot went on to write the tie-in novel, also entitled A For Andromeda and published in 1962, with Hoyle’s name above Elliot’s. A TV sequel, The Andromeda Breakthrough followed in 1962, and another tie-in novel with the same title appeared in 1964. Both novels have now been re-released under one cover, entitled The Andromeda Anthology, as part of Gollancz’s “SF Masterworks” series, in paperback and e-book formats.

The plot hook of A For Andromeda is more or less summarized in the quote at the head of this post. British radio astronomers detect a repeating signal coming from the direction of the constellation Andromeda. After much analysis, it appears to contain instructions for the design, program and data of a huge and complex computer. So they decide to build it. (What’s the worst that could happen?) This being in the midst of the Cold War, they build it secretly under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence, with oversight from the American military, in a remote research establishment at the fictional Thorness in Scotland. Once activated, the computer begins a dialogue with its builders, establishing the chemical and genetic basis of life on Earth. After a few plot elements that need not detain us, it then provides the genetic code for a (slightly tweaked) human—a young woman (the Julie Christie character) whom the scientists name Andromeda. Andromeda is the computer’s agent in the world—and the computer’s motives prove to be less than entirely benevolent.

The “construction manual in a radio signal from space” plot has been reused many times since—Carl Sagan used it in his novel Contact (1985); Donald Moffitt neatly inverted the idea in The Genesis Quest (1986); and the set-up for the 1995 film Species was essentially an uncredited retread of A For Andromeda.

Elliot’s writing is a little more evocative than Hoyle’s—I enjoyed his characterizations of languid British civil servants contending with a bullying American military presence. The description of a politician “choosing his words carefully, as though they were chocolates out of an assorted box” is typical of Elliot’s style. And there’s an extended metaphor involving the weather—the bleakly deteriorating situation in Scotland is reflected in the bleakly deteriorating Scottish weather.

Which makes me wonder how much of the sequel Elliot had in mind as he wrote A For Andromeda. Because quite early in Andromeda Breakthrough he has his male protagonist articulate the weather metaphor for us:

It was a day of abnormally high temperature for so early in the year. The air was saturated with moisture and the mist turned to a steady rain over the land. Out at sea visibility went from bad to worse. Even for Western Scotland, the weather was breaking every kind of record. Fleming normally ignored the climate, but now he found it oddly in tune with the melodrama of the crisis at Thorness.

And we notice that all the chapter titles make meteorological references: “Outlook Unsettled”, “Depression”, “Vortex”, and so on. It’s only in the second half of the book that we find the relevance of all that unseasonable and unsettled weather to the plot.

The sequel also picks up a number of plot elements from the first novel that were left hanging in an unsatisfactory way, and weaves them into a new narrative. So it all looks rather promising, as the action shifts from Scotland to a fictional Arab oil state which has built a copy of the alien computer, after which an end-of-the-world disaster starts to unfold. But for me, it all rather foozles after that. The motives of the Andromeda computer are muddied by an unconvincing piece of ret-conning, in a contrived twist that seems to have been put in place to deliver a moral message about science and scientists, rather than a convincing narrative. (Elliot is quite clearly not entirely on board with Hoyle’s idea that the world would be a better place if scientists ran the show.)

In summary, I’d say that A For Andromeda is a classic that still makes an interesting read today, despite its dated technology and dodgy biology; Andromeda Breakthrough, on the other hand, is a classic example of the “disappointing sequel”.

In 1963 Hoyle teamed up with his son, Geoffrey, to produce the novel Fifth Planet. Most of his fiction output over the next two decades was coauthored with Geoffrey Hoyle—seven novels, two novellas, and four short books for children. The novels and novellas are all now available as e-books from the ever-reliable Gollancz Gateway.

For reasons of symmetry, as much as anything, I’ve chosen to discuss the only series in their output—Rockets In Ursa Major (1969) and its direct sequel Into Deepest Space (1974). The closing paragraphs of the first novel are a cliff-hanger which forms the prologue to the second.

The first is based on a play for children that Hoyle père had written a few years earlier, and which was performed at the Mermaid Theatre in April 1962. A review in The Stage opened with:

With no less a personage than Professor Fred Hoyle as author, one assumes that the scientific side is beyond reproach, but theatrically “Rockets In Ursa Major” is considerably less advanced than, say, “Treasure Island”, and a great deal less exciting.

It goes downhill from there.

The plot of the novel largely follows that of the play. After being lost for thirty years, an exploratory ship returns to Earth unmanned, but with a warning message scratched into a metal surface:

If this ship returns to Earth, then mankind is in deadly peril—God help you—Fanshawe

(The expedition, being British and of a certain vintage, was commanded by a man known as Tubby Fanshawe.)

This is an excellent start, but during the course of the two novels it goes nowhere. We never get to hear what happened to Fanshawe and his crew, or why Fanshawe chose to be so non-specific with his warning. What happens instead is that the Earth in general, England in particular, and radar engineer Dr Richard Warboys especially, become embroiled in a galactic-scale war. A malignant group of aliens called the Yela are moving through the galaxy, destroying life-bearing planets, for reasons that are not adequately explained. Fleeing from the Yela are a small group of humanoid aliens who have come to warn Earth of the Yela’s approach, who rescue Warboys from the aftermath of a space battle in which Earth forces are roundly defeated by the Yela, and who subsequently land in England to advise the political establishment on how to deal with the Yela threat. Their advice can be summed up in a single word: “Flee!”

The Brits are, of course, not inclined to such a wimpish course of action. Warboys, with the help of the friendly aliens, finds a way to drive off the Yela threat … temporarily. At which point the first novel ends.

The second novel starts with the return of the Yela, and an abortive attempt to destroy the Earth. Warboys and his alien allies set out to investigate the Yela spacecraft, and through a series of largely unexplained (and largely inexplicable) incidents end up making a relativistic journey across millions of light-years to visit a quasar. When they arrive at the quasar, the reader braces for the Big Reveal, explaining all that has gone before—and the authors seem simply to run out of inventive steam and, in effect, A Miracle Happens.

I remember Into Deepest Space fondly because when it was first published it introduced me to the visual effects that appear when travelling at relativistic velocities, which I’ve written about here in my series of posts entitled The Celestial View From A Relativistic Starship. But I also remember being largely bemused by everything else in the book, and that sensation recurred on re-reading.

The hand of the older Hoyle is detectable in these two books in the discussions of radio technology, astronomy and relativity, which sometimes veer into excessive detail. But the writing and plot exposition seems to have been in the hands of the younger Hoyle—the style is certainly very different from Hoyle’s solo novels. Although the “about the authors” section of my copies of these novels suggest that Geoffrey “contributed the more ‘human’ side of their co-authored novels”, the characterizations are actually much less effective than those achieved by Fred working alone. Characters have long conversations about inconsequential things—every last word spoken to a taxi driver or a waiter is dutifully relayed—and then skip lightly over the massively consequential. Here’s Warboys returning to Earth after having trigger a massive solar flare in order to repel the Yela:

‘How’s everything here?’ I said.
‘Fine, but a little dangerous if you’re out and about. It’s been raining non-stop with tongues of flame darting through the clouds from time to time.’
‘And the radiation level?’
‘It’s been constantly above danger level, but most of the population is underground somewhere.’
‘Let’s get back to the main building. The world’s top brass will be coming to celebrate,’ Sir John Fielding said.
We all got into the lift.

And here, the characters realize there’s just a teeny-tiny problem with their journey to the quasar:

Betelgeuse began his pacing backward and forward again. Then he held up an arm in his characteristic dramatic gesture. “So it is like this, is it? Although we shall never see our own people again …”
“Why should that be?” broke in Alcyone.
“Because of the time dilatation again,” I explained. “Even if we manage to return, everybody on Earth, and everybody in your space fleet, will have aged by millions of years. Perhaps by hundreds of millions of years. In fact the human species will have evolved by that time into something else. Or become extinct!” I concluded, without too much enthusiasm.
“It is all this relativity. I do not like it,” Alcyone announced decisively.

The whole quasar journey ticks along like this—what could have been a real “sense of wonder” science-fictional outing is constantly undermined by the bathetic utterances of the characters.

The plot is problematic, too. It’s largely driven by unexplained actions and attributes of the mysterious Yela, and by contrived restraints on the actions of the protagonists. The Yela suddenly does some odd thing that endangers the lives of Warboys and his compatriots, and their problem is then compounded by some oddly random bit of engineering in their own spaceship. After a suitable pause to allow the protagonists to escape their near-death predicament, the Yela does some new odd thing, and the cycle repeats.

Given the marvellous things that were going on in science fiction writing during the late ’60s and early ’70s, these stories feel like they’ve been imported from a pulp magazine of 1930s. One does wonder if they would ever have been published at all, without Fred Hoyle’s name on the cover.

Note: The covers of the 1975 Corgi “SF Collectors Library” editions of the Andromeda novels (displayed at the head of this post) were something of a visual puzzle, which has undoubtedly become more puzzling with the passing years. Early, uncredited paintings by Patrick Woodroffe, they show a young woman (presumably Andromeda) in front of a complex background, apparently peering through a round window past some sort of odd pendulum. Or so it seemed to me at the time. It wasn’t until I looked at the covers again recently that I realized the “round windows and pendulums” are actually depictions of the old half-inch open reel magnetic tape drives used for data storage by mainframe computers in the ’60s and ’70s. Placing the two book covers side-by-side produces an image of the standard paired reels, with the tape running through a reading head between them, and Andromeda enigmatically superimposed.

Fred Hoyle: Three Novels

Covers of three Fred Hoyle novels
Click to enlarge

Now the Home Secretary made a mistake.
‘My dear Professor Kingsley, I fear you underestimate us. You may rest assured that when we make our plans we shall prepare for the very worst that can possibly overtake us.’
Kingsley leaped.
‘Then I fear you will be preparing for a situation in which every man, woman, and child will meet their death, in which not an animal, nor any plant will remain alive. May I ask just what form such a policy will take?’

Fred Hoyle The Black Cloud (1957)

Fred Hoyle was an astronomer, one of the first people to work out how nuclear fusion in stars worked. He was also a great champion of the now-discarded Steady State Theory of cosmology, which he preferred to the “Big Bang” Theory, which is now the standard model. (Hoyle famously coined the evocative name “Big Bang” during a radio interview.) In later life, he began to veer into eccentric byways—suggesting that viruses originated in passing comets, and that the Natural History Museum’s fossil Archaeopteryx was a fake. He is also produced a famously flawed argument against abiogenesis (the spontaneous origin of life from unliving chemicals), which is sometimes called Hoyle’s Fallacy, and sometimes the “Tornado In The Junkyard Argument“.

And he wrote science fiction novels. Sometimes alone, but more often with co-authors. In this post I’m going to deal with three of his solo works.

I’ll start with his first novel, The Black Cloud (1957), in which Hoyle used his astronomical knowledge to produce what starts off as a straightforward “disaster novel”, and then takes an intriguingly philosophical turn in its final few chapters. A cloud of interstellar gas is detected on the outskirts of the solar system, heading straight towards the Sun. It is dense enough to cut off all sunlight to the Earth during its passage, which will have disastrous consequences. And then the Cloud starts to decelerate, coming to a halt surrounding the Sun. It’s probably not giving too much away, sixty years on, to reveal that the Cloud eventually proves to be an intelligent life-form, of a sort common in the galaxy, who views planet-based life as rare and strange. (This is the germ of the idea that would eventually lead Hoyle to develop his own variant of panspermia, in which life originated in space and seeded the Earth from comets.)

The science, as you might expect, is well worked out, and Hoyle gives us a fairly realistic view of a group of scientists (the obvious heroes of the story) feverishly working towards an understanding of the Cloud, despite the interference of anxious politicians (the obvious villains of the story). This was a recurring theme in Hoyle’s writing—politicians are just too dumb to deal with the modern scientific age, and therefore scientists should immediately be put in charge of the world. Hoyle does award himself a “get out of jail free” card in his preface, declaring:

It is commonplace to identify opinions forcibly expressed by a character with the author’s own. At the risk of triviality, I would add that this association may be unwarranted.

But he returned so frequently to this theme in later novels, one can’t help but notice that little weasel-word, “may”.

The disasters as Earth first overheats and then cools very much happen “off stage”. We hear of millions dying elsewhere, but the story stays firmly with the team of scientists working around the clock in their haven on the estate of Nortonstowe, England—there are definite resonances with the codebreakers at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

And the characterization is well done—the brilliant (but irascible) Professor Chris Kingsley, who leads the Nortonstowe team, stays well away from the obvious cartoonish excesses, as does the brilliant (but taciturn and profane) Russian scientist Alexis Alexandrov.

My favourite passage in the whole book, and one that shows the subtlety of Hoyle’s narrative, occurs after the scientists have established radio contact with the Cloud. As they gradually impart the nature of life on Earth, there comes a point at which they introduce the Cloud to music—Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29, to be exact. The Cloud immediately asks for the music to be transmitted again, but with the first movement increased in tempo by 30%. After its first “hearing” of this work, the Cloud is instinctively restoring the tempo stipulated by Beethoven in one of his notoriously “impossible” tempo markings, largely ignored by modern performers.* This tells us something about the nature of the Cloud’s intelligence in a way that no amount of scientific discourse could have. (And also hints that Beethoven had some access to a deep musical truth lost on lesser mortals.)

The successor to The Black Cloud was Ossian’s Ride (1959). The title is a reference to the legendary adventures of the Irish bard Oisin—but unless you already know about Oisin’s trip to Tir na nOg, the relevance to the book’s ending will shoot right by you. The science fiction element is slight—it’s essentially a spy thriller with a science-fictional McGuffin, albeit one that Hoyle liked enough to make the theme of a later novel. It has been compared to the work of John Buchan, and it certainly has a Buchanesque theme, with a resourceful and mystified protagonist being pursued across country. But I can’t help but feel that it was also Hoyle’s response to the then-growing popularity of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books—there’s also a shadowy organization bent on world domination, an off-beat villain, and an exotic henchman stirred into the mix.

The story is set in 1970, a decade in the future at time of writing. Hoyle’s first-person narrator is a young mathematician, Thomas Sherwood, who is recruited by the British Secret Service to discover the secrets of ICE, the Industrial Corporation of Éire, which has set up its headquarters in County Kerry, in the southwest of the Republic of Ireland. ICE is what we’d now call a tech giant, except they’re churning out pharmaceuticals and engineering projects, rather than information technology. The Republic of Ireland is newly prosperous, funded by the technological outpourings of ICE, but has evolved into something of a police state. Sherwood must make his way across Ireland, opposed at every turn by enigmatic antagonists, to reach and penetrate the Barrier—the fortified border that surrounds ICE territory.

The novel is also something of a dig at CS Lewis, who had recorded his disagreement with Hoyle’s outspoken atheism and scientism. Hoyle’s ICE is clearly a nod to NICE, the shadowy scientific organization that provided the villainy in Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength (1945)—but as Hoyle’s story unfolds it becomes evident that his sympathies lie with ICE.

The plot rattles along. There are frequent chases (one of which memorably involves caterpillar tractors and bicycles), captures, escapes, death-defying adventures at sea and in the mountains, and a constant atmosphere of anxiety as the improbably resourceful Sherwood tries to puzzle out what is actually going on, while staying one step ahead of those who seek to thwart him.

On the down side, Hoyle cultivates his monstrously complicated plot by leaving many plot holes along the way. More than once the reader is left asking, “But why don’t they just kill him?” In the closing chapters of the novel the focus of puzzlement shifts to “But why would he do that?” and “Surely someone would have mentioned this earlier!” and “Hang on a minute, who is this person again?” And it’s not helped by the fact that Sherwood is as smugly unlikeable as any hero of a later Robert Heinlein novel. (Which is to say, very smugly unlikeable indeed.) So a mixed bag—fun and frustrating in equal measure.

Hoyle’s next solo novel (and the last I’m going to talk about here) was October The First Is Too Late (1966). In the five years since Ossian’s Ride, he had collaborated on three other novels—one with his son, Geoffrey Hoyle, and two with TV screenwriter John Elliot.

This one is a sort of unconventional time-travel novel—the Earth, for reasons not explained, suddenly becomes divided into regions which are each at a different stage of history. Britain in 1966 is contemporaneous with a 1917 Europe in which the First World War still rages. Greece is enjoying the ascendancy of Periclean Athens. Most of Asia is a vast plain of glass, dating from Earth’s far future, while most of North America has suddenly become depopulated wilderness. The first-person narrator is a professional musician who meets up with an old friend, mathematician John Sinclair, for a week’s walking in the Scottish Highlands. Mysterious events occur, and our narrator ends up trailing after Sinclair as he, and a group of scientists based in Hawaii, attempt to unravel what has gone wrong with the world. The plot allows Hoyle to indulge two of his great passions—hillwalking and music. I am too ignorant to comment on the musical part, but I do feel certain that the slightly dodgy day out on Bidean nam Bian, narrated near the start of the book, must be based on a real-life experience of Hoyle’s.

The sense of growing unease is well done. Sinclair goes missing for much of a day, and returns without memory of where he has been … and without the birthmark on his back. There is a haunting sequence in which scientists from Hawaii fly over North America, to discover that the continental United States has simply disappeared, to be replaced by thinly inhabited forest and grassland. Meanwhile, the British government is faced with trying to stop the trench-warfare slaughter taking place in Western Europe.

There also a philosophical discussion of quantum mechanics and the nature of consciousness, which turns into a life-or-death dilemma at the end of the book. And here I parted company with Hoyle. I didn’t mind that there was never more than a tenuous connection drawn between unusual solar activity at the start of the book, and the temporally fragmented Earth that ensued. But I did mind when a bit of baseless speculation sketched out by the character Sinclair was suddenly transformed into certain knowledge of the Nature of Reality a hundred pages later, without so much as a by-your-leave. So—as with much of Hoyle’s writing—there is a definite sense that several good ideas have been lightly cobbled together into a slightly incoherent whole, and with no clear idea of how to wrap it all up at the end.

Of these three, I’d say Black Cloud was the best thought-out; Ossian’s Ride was the most fun; and October The First was the most atmospheric.

* For more on Beethoven’s strange tempo directions, take a look at “Was Something Wrong With Beethoven’s Metronome?” (Forsen et al. Notices of the American Mathematical Society 2013 60(9): 1146-53.)
The Barrier protecting ICE’s Irish territory inspired a splendid pun from the anonymous writer of the back-cover text for the 1961 Berkley edition, who referred to it as the “Erin Curtain”. Reviewers and commentators have been stealing it ever since.

RAF “Special Duties” Pick-Ups In France: Three Memoirs

Covers of three books about Lsyander pick-ups
Click to enlarge

The whole of the effort put into pick-up operations in France throughout the war—measured by aircraft and personnel costs—was minute. In a well proportioned history of World War Two it might deserve a sentence or a footnote. And yet it is hard to imagine how the irregular forces in France could have developed to anything like the same extent without these two-way air links.

Hugh Verity, We Landed By Moonlight (revised edition) 2000

The Special Duties Squadrons of the Royal Air Force were highly secret operations, tasked with moving people and equipment in and out of occupied territory during World War II. Their major role was in Occupied France, in support of local resistance networks. They originated with Flight 419 (later 1419) in 1940, were expanded to form 138 Squadron in 1941, and then split into 138 Squadron and 161 Squadron in 1942.* Aircraft of 138 Sq. and the “B” flight of 161 Sq. were responsible for parachuting in agents and making supply drops to the French Resistance. But there was a frequent need to get people out of France, too, sometimes urgently. That’s where 161 Squadron’s “A” flight came in—a small group of pilots who would fly at night, often in bad weather, to land their modified Westland Lysanders and Lockheed Hudsons in farmers’ fields, the landing zone marked out for them with three flashlights tied to sticks. Their main purpose was “pick-ups”—extracting Resistance fighters (and their families) whose cover had been blown, evacuating people for respite or specialist training, ferrying spies with urgent information or documents, and repatriating Allied pilots who had been shot down in enemy territory. But they also moved people and equipment into France—resistance organizers trained by the Special Operations Executive, spies for the Secret Intelligence Service, radios, weapons, and wodges of currency to fund clandestine activities.

The first of these very different memoirs is We Landed By Moonlight, by Hugh Verity. It was first published in 1978, after which Verity was contacted by a number of people, including members of the French Resistance, who provided him with much additional information which he incorporated into a revised edition published in 1995. Verity held the post of squadron leader with 161 Sq. from 1942-3, and flew many Lysander pick-ups himself. So part of this book is an account of his hair-raising personal experience. But he also set himself the task of reconstructed the detailed history of the French pick-up flights. These were so secret that very little was ever written down in pilots’s log-books or squadron records—the pilots knew only how many “bods” or “Joes” they were supposed to collect, from a particular field, at a particular time of night. Sometimes they were surprised to find themselves ferrying heavily pregnant women, children, and babies. So Verity pieces things together from the code-names of agents who were picked up or dropped off, histories of the Resistance and the SOE’s activity in France, and the personal accounts of pilots and agents who had written memoirs or offered their stories directly.

So it’s a complicated read—waiting in the field (code-named A) are agents with code names B and C (later code-named D and E), whose real names are F and G, and who ran resistance networks (“circuits”, in the jargon) code-named H and I. And aboard the aircraft, we have a similar group. Verity tells us their fates, when he can—many were later captured or killed; a few went on to illustrious postwar careers; some (like Henri Déricourt) transpired to be double or triple agents. Appendices contain maps, notes, mission tables and a glossary, among other things—so its a real reference work. But the accumulated effect of all the detail is also to convey how complicated and dangerous the task of mounting and maintaining the French Resistance movement was.

It’s also a vivid personal account of madly stressful flights, both from Verity himself and the verbatim accounts of other pilots which he includes in the text. Despite efforts to train French agents in the correct choice of landing ground, in the panic and fog of war the chosen fields were sometimes dangerously inappropriate—aeroplanes encountered trees and hedges, lavender bushes and power lines, stampeding cattle, people standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, and mud. Lots of mud, necessitating frantic efforts to dig or drag out a bogged aircraft and get it on its way so that it could get back to the English Channel before daylight. Here’s Robin Hooper describing the dénouement of one such episode, when it becomes apparent that the plane is going nowhere, and neither is Hooper or his pick-up agent, code-named “Georges”.

“Georges” burst into tears on my shoulder. I patted him on the back, said, “there, there,” “Allons, voyons mon vieux,” and generally tried to convey the impression that mucking around in several inches of mud, some hundreds of miles inside enemy territory, with a bogged Lysander, four bullocks and thirteen excited Belgians and Frenchmen was an experience that any officer of the Royal Air Force would take in his stride.

The atmosphere of the time is well conveyed—the Germans pound stakes into suitable meadows, to prevent landings; the Resistance perfect a stake-extraction tool (and replace the stakes by morning); the local gendarmes make a point of heading away from any aircraft noise they hear, so that they can protest their ignorance to the Gestapo later. There’s a well-rehearsed routine in which inbound passengers and luggage are unloaded, and pick-up passengers loaded, in the space of a few minutes, with gifts of champagne and perfume handed up to the pilots during that frantic time; a perilous voyage back through the flak and night-fighters along the French coast, the passengers sitting on the floor of the aircraft, without parachutes; and then slap-up breakfasts laid on for returning pilots and their passengers.

And there’s tragedy, of course—aircraft, pilots and passengers were lost, on more than one occasion, when they crashed on English soil, attempting to land on runways blanketed in thick fog.

John Nesbitt-Dufort’s Black Lysander (1973) is entirely autobiographical, covering his flying career from 1930 to the early 1960s. The title references the overall black camouflage paint applied to Special Duties Lysander aircraft during the early period of Special Duties activity—Hugh Verity would later change the scheme to include a green-and-grey standard pattern on the upper surfaces, making the low-flying aircraft harder for night-fighter pilots to pick out against the moonlit terrain below. Despite the choice of title, only about a quarter of the book deals with Nesbitt-Dufort’s time in Special Duties. But they’re a fine read. He takes us through his experience in England, training agents in the vital skill of selecting appropriate landing fields; he accompanies agents on their flights to parachute into France; and then he begins flying pick-up flights. The chapter entitled “On The Run” takes us through the occasion on which Nesbitt-Dufort, carrying two French agents in the back of his Lysander, encounters “the most wicked-looking and well defined active cold front I have ever seen” as they fly back towards England. Vicious turbulence and icing conditions force him to attempt a landing in occupied France, where his aircraft up-ends into a ditch. He and the agents flee the crash site, and later open Nesbitt-Dufort’s survival package, which contains food, maps and currency:

Slowly and painfully I undid the pack and carefully unfolded the tissue paper map. Roger shone his torch down on this prized possession and for a second we were speechless; with our heads together and surrounded by the dripping hedge at 5 am on a freezing January morning slap in the middle of France, we peered down at a flimsy but detailed map of Germany! A hurried search of the remainder of the little escape kit revealed a substantial wad of reichsmarks, but not a single franc.

They are subsequently aided and concealed by a French family, and eventually evacuated by another pick-up flight.

The rest of the book strikes much the same tone, by turns entertaining and gripping—Nesbitt-Dufort was a master of the amused, off-hand account of hellish situations that seems to have been taught to all wartime pilots. We read of his early days in pilot training, his time as a pre-war instructor, his post-war experience during the Berlin airlift and as a commercial pilot, flying all sorts of cargoes in and out of Lebanon during the 1950s. The chapter entitled “Two Red Lights”, dealing with a disastrous flight through an electrical storm while carrying ten tons of 20mm high-explosive cannon shells in the back of an elderly Avro York with an undercarriage fault, reads like something out of a Brian Lecomber aviation thriller.

Barbara Bertram’s intriguingly named French Resistance In Sussex (1995) offers a completely different perspective on events described by Verity and Nesbitt-Dufort. She was the wife of Major Anthony Bertram, who during the Second World War worked as an “Escorting Officer” for French agents travelling on 161 Squadron’s pick-up flights. The Bertrams at that time lived in Bignor Manor, an isolated country house a relatively short drive from 161 Squadron’s operational base at RAF Tangmere. The manor house was pressed into service as a secret forward base for French agents—they would stay overnight on arrival in England, or before departure for France, with Barbara Bertram playing host to anything up to twenty agents in her four-bedroomed house (as well as her two small sons and a variety of pets). French Resistance In Sussex is her short (76 pages) account of her life in those years. Various cover stories were contrived for the comings and goings at Bignor, and the occasional appearance of Frenchmen playing darts in the village pub, but one does come away from the narrative with the feeling that the villagers probably had a pretty shrewd idea of what might be happening at the manor house, but kept a judicious silence.

The Bertrams also have the task of checking that departing French agents have absolutely nothing in their clothes or baggage to connect them to England, and a supply of real, or fabricated, French items and documents. Bertram tells us that even a partially used bar of soap could be a potential give-away, since British soap produced a better lather than the gritty wartime French equivalent; and that the British attempt to counterfeit Gauloise cigarette packets was an initial failure because they didn’t disintegrate in use as quickly as the real thing. She also regales us with a description of being deliberately tear-gassed in her own bathroom by a couple of agents who were doubtful about the potential effectiveness of their secret-agent-style “tear gas fountain pens”. (The tear gas, Bertram reports, worked very well.)

And she describes the hideous tension these agents were under, and how this was magnified by the fact that they often had to cool their heels at Bignor for several nights before the weather permitted a flight to France. Some would read, some would help Bertram with her garden, and one of them went shooting on a neighbouring estate, where he was told he could shoot only rabbits. On one occasion he returned with a pheasant, which he claimed had flown between him and a rabbit. Then:

On the last day of the moon when they either would have to go or return to London he asked me what I would really like if he had been allowed to shoot anything. Knowing what there was likely to be I said “Wild duck.” Sure enough four ducks flew between him and a rabbit.

The agents, particularly returning agents, clearly have an immense affection for Barbara Bertram and the haven she created at Bignor. Many of them bring gifts with them on their return flights—including a set of French stamps for her stamp-collecting son, which she withheld until the end of the war as a potential security risk if they turned up in her son’s album.

And the book is full of fascinating detail about the Lysander landings themselves—how agents were able to pace out the dimensions of fields without arousing suspicion if they waited for the mushrooming season; and how the number of baggage items was carefully chalked on the black side of the Lysander, so that nothing vital would be mistakenly left aboard during the hectic minutes on the ground in France.

By turns amusing and poignant, it’s a great little read. If you’re interested, you can hear the lady herself reminiscing about those days in the Imperial War Museum’s oral history collection.

* Later in the war, Special Duties squadrons also operated in the Mediterranean and South-East Asian theatres.

George J. Marrett: Cheating Death

Cover of Cheating Death by George J. Marrett

Of the eight pilots in the rescue force, three would be killed on rescue missions in the next three months and one would be shot down and survive. A fortune-teller could predict that real bad days lay ahead for the 602nd squadron.

I’ve written about George J. Marrett before, when I reviewed his third volume of autobiography, Contrails Over The Mohave: The Golden Age of Jet Flight Testing at Edwards Air Force Base (2008). That volume dealt with his time as a test pilot in the Fighter Test Branch of Flight Test Operations at Edwards Air Force Base during the 1960s. He wrote his memoirs out of chronological order, and this volume, Cheating Death: Combat Air Rescues In Vietnam And Laos (2003), is the immediate sequel to Contrails Over The Mohave, despite having been written five years earlier. Between those two volumes, he wrote Testing Death: Hughes Aircraft Test Pilots And Cold War Weaponry (2006), which deals with his career as a civilian test pilot after he returned from his tour of duty in the Vietnam War. He has also written a biography of Howard Hughes, and, according to his Wikipedia page, a self-published work with the splendid title If God is your Co-Pilot, Swap Seats (2019). I know nothing about this latter work, beyond noting that the title is a joke at the expense of Robert L. Scott Jr.’s memoir, God Is My Co-Pilot (1943).

This volume begins in 1967 with Marrett, an experienced fast jet test pilot, receiving his orders to begin combat flight training in preparation for service in the Vietnam War. He is bemused to discover he’s going to train on the A-1 Skyraider—a design hangover from the Second World War, with a piston engine and a tail-wheel undercarriage, now well into its senescence. He is posted to Thailand, to join the 602nd Fighter Squadron (later the 602nd Special Operations Squadron). The A-1s of this squadron had two main roles—supporting HH-3 Jolly Green Giant helicopters during Combat Search And Rescue missions in enemy territory; and providing Forward Air Control for fast jets (F-4 Phantoms and F-105 Thunderchiefs) carrying out strikes on enemy positions.

Marrett has a spare, “this happened and then this happened” style, but his subject matter is tense enough without verbal flourishes. As with Contrails Over The Mohave, most people are introduced by their full name and rank, a sentence of biography, and a brief physical description. Character assessments are mainly reserved for those Marrett admires: “straight arrow” and “can-do attitude” are high praise. In contrast, when Marrett has reservations, he generally lets a person’s deeds speak for themselves; and those he doesn’t rate at all are kept decently anonymous.

I didn’t know a lot about the Vietnam War going into this, but I came away with a better grasp of the nature of America’s “secret war” in Laos—clandestine jungle strips and radar installations; CIA advisers working with Hmong militia against communist Pathet Lao forces; and endless efforts to shut down the heavily defended Ho Chi Minh Trail. The US presence in Laos was so “secret”, Marrett tells us, that airmen who crashed and died in Laos had their place of death listed as “Vietnam” on their military tombstones.

Marrett and his fellow pilots from the 602nd spend a lot of time flying low and slow over Laos’s mountainous jungle, either marking the location of enemy positions so that they can be attacked by “fast mover” jets, or providing support for rescue helicopters coming in to retrieve downed airmen. Since the jungle is full of Pathet Lao forces with antiaircraft weapons, this puts them in a distinctly dangerous position.

Marrett developed an antipathy to the F-4 Phantom when he flew it as a test pilot, and that antipathy continues in combat—the F-4s are always late to target, he tells us, and inaccurate in their bombing; the F-105s, on the other hand, are always timely and precise.

The predicament of downed pilots is evocatively described. Surrounded by hostile forces who will simply kill rather than capture them, they need to find a place of concealment and use a UHF radio to call in their rescue team. Many spend the night strapped to trees, high among the branches, while waiting for their daylight rescue. Some see the rescue aircraft driven away or shot down by enemy fire; some are even rescued and then shot down again.

We learn a lot, too, about the A-1 Skyraider. It can carry more ordnance than the huge B-17 Flying Fortress, famed for its daytime bombing raids over Germany during World War II. It consumes a ridiculous amount of oil, getting through a 37-gallon tank of the stuff on extended-duration missions. It’s horribly unforgiving on a go-around—a pilot who reconsiders his landing and pours on power at the last minute will find himself unable to compensate for the massive engine torque, flipping upside-down and crashing inverted. Oh … and if you’re going to crack open the cockpit in flight to spit out a bit of rotten banana (as Marrett did) you should always spit out the right side of the cockpit (as Marrett didn’t). The airflow from the clockwise-rotating propeller will shoot the mushy banana straight back into your face at very high speed if you spit to the left.

Marrett loses a lot of colleagues and friends, as the quote at the head of this post makes clear, so this can be grim reading. But there’s a leavening of humour. Marrett’s son thinks his father has been posted to Toyland, not Thailand. And Marrett’s flight home at the end of his tour of duty is twice delayed while unconscious soldiers are removed from the aircraft, having drunk themselves insensible in celebration of their own demobilization. As Marrett says, these combat veterans were going to be “extremely disappointed” when they woke up.

One, I think, for the aviation enthusiast. But if you are an aviation enthusiast, then Marrett’s narrative will hook you right in.

Arthur Conan Doyle In The Arctic

Cover Of Dangerous Work by Arthur Conan Doyle

It is bloody work dashing out the poor little beggars’ brains while they look up with their big dark eyes into your face.

Arthur Conan Doyle, Arctic diary entry, 3 April 1880

In February 1880, a third-year medical student from Edinburgh abandoned his studies, temporarily, to sign on as the ship’s doctor of the S.S. Hope, a Greenland whaler sailing out of the Scottish port of Peterhead. The medical student was Arthur Conan Doyle, who would later go on to earn lasting fame with his stories of a fictional “consulting detective” named Sherlock Holmes.

Conan Doyle kept a diary during his voyage, and ‘Dangerous Work’ (2012) is a handsome volume from the British Library, containing the 200 facsimile pages of that diary, complete with Conan Doyle’s many drawings and paintings. Since Conan Doyle was not yet a doctor, his handwriting is actually fairly legible—but the facsimile pages are helpfully followed by a transcript, copiously footnoted by Jon Lellenberg, a Conan Doyle and Holmes scholar, and Daniel Stashower, a Conan Doyle biographer.

The diary entries are bracketed by essays co-written by Lellenberg and Stashower—an introduction sets the scene and briefly summarizes Conan Doyle’s voyage; and, after the diary concludes, there’s a description of his early life in medical practice, and how he used his Arctic experience in his writing and lectures. The book is then completed by four samples of Conan Doyle’s “Arctic” writing—two essays, “The Glamour of The Arctic” (1892) and “Life on a Greenland Whaler” (1897); and two short stories, “The Captain Of The ‘Pole-Star'” (a ghost story published in 1883) and a Sherlock Holmes case involving a murdered whaling captain, entitled “The Adventure of Black Peter” (1904). (All my links take you to the full text of these pieces, at the splendid Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia.)

The twenty-year-old Conan Doyle of the diaries is rather different from the rather stuffy-looking elderly man we’re used to seeing in photographs. He is hugely enthusiastic, cheerfully self-mocking, and keen to get involved in all the activities of the ship. He takes two pairs of boxing gloves on the voyage with him, and quickly establishes a reputation as “the best surgeon the Hope had had” after giving the steward a black eye during a boxing match. He also refuses to assume the role of an “idler” (a member of the crew who does not get involved in sealing and whaling duties), and puts himself in the thick of the action whenever he can.

He seems not to have had much to occupy his time in a medical capacity. One elderly seaman did die of a bowel obstruction during the voyage, and his burial at sea probably informed a poignant scene in “The Captain Of The ‘Pole-Star'”. As ship’s doctor, and therefore out of the chain of command, he was expected to provided companionship for the captain, John Gray, with whom he seems to have got along very well. Surprisingly, there was a good supply of wine and champagne aboard ship, which must have helped the conviviality along.

The Hope sails north, and reaches the pack ice in late March. As far as the eye can see, breeding seals are hauled out on the ice. But, under the terms of a treaty between Britain and Norway, sealing cannot commence until the 3rd of April. So ships from Peterhead, Dundee and Norway sail jealously up and down along the edge of the pack, waiting for the day when slaughter can commence. Conan Doyle pronounces himself extremely bored.

And then carnage follows—the opening quotation is Conan Doyle’s description of clubbing a seal pup to death. He was not at first particularly nimble on the shifting ice floes, and fell repeatedly into the Arctic Ocean, earning himself the nickname “the Great Northern Diver”. On one occasion he was only able to haul himself out of the water by gripping the tail of a seal he had been skinning:

The face of the ice was so even that I had no purchase by which to pull myself up, and my body was rapidly becoming numb in the freezing water. At last, however, I caught hold of the hind flipper of the dead seal, and there was a kind of nightmare tug-of-war, the question being whether I should pull the seal off or pull myself on.

As the season progresses and the pack recedes, the ships move northwards and towards Greenland, hunting the North Atlantic right whales which were their principal quarry in those days. The whales were still pursued in open boats, which were rowed right up on to the whale’s back so that a harpoon could be driven in at point-blank range from a gun mounted in the bows. The grim business then proceeds, and a modern reader will probably find little to identify with in Conan Doyle’s delight in the bloody “sport” afforded by a dying whale.

And yet, he also delights in the sight of living whales. The humpback whale (which Conan Doyle calls the “hunchback”) was not yet considered to be a worthwhile catch, and so they were left undisturbed:

Was called up about 11 PM by the Captain to see a marvellous sight. Never hope to see anything like it again. The sea was simply alive with great hunchback whales, a rather rare variety, you could have thrown a biscuit onto 200 of them, and as far as you could see there was nothing but spoutings and great tails in the air. Some were blowing under the bowsprit, sending the water on to the forecastle, and exciting our Newfoundland [dog] tremendously.

Rarity, unfortunately, was not necessarily any protection from sudden death at the hands of the whalers, however.

Two very rare ducks were seen behind the ship this evening. The Captain went off himself in a boat and nailed them both with a right and left barrel.

Footnotes by Lellenberg and Stashower are highly informative, giving background detail, explaining references to card games and Shetland hotels, sailors’ jargon and literary references. They draw the line, however, at explaining the name “John Thomas” which Conan Doyle bestows on a Clio sea snail he keeps as a (short-lived) pet.

This one, I’d say, is not for the squeamish—like many of his contemporaries, Conan Doyle finds “sport” in what most modern readers would view as wholesale cruelty and indiscriminate slaughter. But if you can get past that, this book is a fascinating insight into the final days of Greenland whaling, and into the mind and character of the young Conan Doyle.

Angus MacVicar & W.E. Johns: Scottish Spaceflight In The 1950s

Covers of books by Angus MacVicar and W.E. JohnsApprehension flickered in his eyes. “The oxygen is escaping faster than it is coming in. I am sorry to put it so bluntly, but unless we can repair the damage there will soon be no oxygen left in the ship.”
“How soon?” I said.
“Three minutes.”
Janet’s face paled, and I didn’t feel too good myself.

Angus MacVicar, Return To The Lost Planet (1954)

I’ve chosen to write about these two series of science fiction novels dating from the 1950s, both aimed at the juvenile-to-young-adult market, mainly because they’re a happy memory for many of us of a certain vintage, but also because of their curious similarities.

W.E. Johns, almost always styled as “Captain” by his publishers, was of course the English author of the long-running “Biggles” series of aviation novels. I’ve written before about the excellent biography of Johns, by Peter Berresford Ellis and Jennifer Schofield. Angus MacVicar was a Scot, who started off writing crime thrillers but branched out both into autobiography and children’s science fiction in later life. Each author produced a series of science fiction books beginning in the early ’50s—MacVicar published the first of the “Lost Planet” novels in 1953, finishing the series with the eighth volume in 1964; Johns produced ten “Kings Of Space” novels between 1954 and 1963. Both authors seem to have spotted a potential market among young people fascinated by the coming Space Age; both retired from the scene when the reality of spaceflight overtook their imaginings.

And it has to be said that neither of them had much grasp of the science underlying spaceflight. MacVicar’s “lost planet”, known to Plato as Hesikos (or so we are told), simply turns up after having been missing for ten thousand years, and parks itself three hundred thousand miles from Earth. MacVicar does give a nice description of how his explorers’ rocket rotates on its long axis during flight, to produce centrifugal gravity, but otherwise simply handwaves his way through some sciency claptrap jargon.

And although Johns occasionally has one of his characters deliver a lecture on astronomy, much of what he writes is complete balderdash—including this gem, describing the propulsive system of his imagined spacecraft:

[…] With unlimited power one can do anything. We are now on the cosmic jets at one twentieth exposure. At full exposure you would be travelling at not less than twelve gravities, which in terms of speed would be very fast indeed. […]

Johns also perpetuates a rather wilful confusion between stars and planets, and between the solar system and the galaxy.

And both authors contaminate their narratives with pseudoscientific catastrophism—Johns dips into Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds In Collision (1950) for some of his background; MacVicar has a perilous flirtation with Hanns Hörbiger’s “Cosmic Ice Theory” in one of the later “Lost Planet” novels.

But both produced rattling adventures, full of peril and setbacks and mysteries, which engaged the relatively naive readership of the day.

Both series feature private-enterprise spaceflight based in the Scottish Highlands. MacVicar’s interplanetary flights depart from the fictional Inverard Estate, ten miles outside Oban, where scientist Dr Lachlan McKinnon has assembled a team of engineers to build an atomic-powered rocket. He is engaged in a race to be first to Hesikos; his rivals are shady Europeans from an unnamed country, but they all seem to have German or Russian names. Johns, meanwhile, gives us a reclusive and eccentric inventor, Professor Lucius Brane, who mounts a mission of space exploration from the fictional Glensalich Castle, in the equally fictional Glen Salich, somewhere in the Monadhliath Mountains. (Not too far from Ballindalloch, then, where Johns spent a few happy and productive years during the late ’40s and early ’50s.)

Both series feature a point-of-view character in his mid-to-late teens—MacVicar’s first-person narrator is Jeremy Grant, a sixteen-year-old Australian, who arrives in Scotland to stay with his uncle, the aforementioned Lachlan McKinnon, just as McKinnon’s space mission is due to commence. Johns’s hero is Rex Clinton, an RAF Air Cadet, who (together with his aircraft-engineer father, Timothy “Tiger” Clinton) stumbles into Glensalich Castle after having become lost in the hills … just as Professor Brane is about to make his first manned test flight with his own spacecraft.

Both authors seem to be pretty sure that an actual extant mother could only be an impediment to their heroes’ adventures. Jeremy Grant has been orphaned; Rex Clinton’s mother has died.

Both scientists are incongruously aided by devoted household retainers. Brane has his unflappable butler Judkins, who is largely restricted to operating levers on command, and being left behind to look after stuff while the others go adventuring; he is increasingly sidelined in later stories. McKinnon is accompanied on his voyages by his irrepressible housekeeper, Madge, who has her own kitchen aboard the spacecraft, and dispenses a regular diet of ham and eggs during flights, accompanied by comic Cockney observations. She likewise is absent from the later books.

Both sets of characters encounter a wise, ancient, and peaceful race of essentially human “aliens” during their explorations—for MacVicar, it’s the telepathic inhabitants of Hesikos; for Johns, it’s the remnant of a Martian civilization, who have evacuated their dying planet to live among the asteroids (many of which are conveniently furnished with atmospheres and biospheres). But in both cases, the aliens are a bit too peaceful for their own good, and have problems that only the robust and proactive humans can sort out for them.

And, oddly, both series involve the discovery of a useful metal unknown on Earth. On Hesikos, this is “iridonium”, which has a number of properties (including turning lead into gold!) that make it a useful plot element in several stories. Johns’s Martians, on the other hand, have mastered the use of orichalcum (a legendary metal supposedly used by the inhabitants of Atlantis), which they use to build their spacecraft.

Both series are distinctly pacifist in their preoccupations. Johns’s characters explicitly reference the “atomic spies” of the early Cold War, and fret about the threat of nuclear war. Both series feature aliens who have had past bitter experiences with nuclear weapons. And MacVicar’s The Lost Planet opens with a quotation from the first edition of Arthur C. Clarke’s Interplanetary Flight (1950):

The crossing of space — even the mere belief in its possibility — may do much to reduce the tension of our age by turning men’s minds outwards and away from their tribal conflicts … One wonders how even the most stubborn of nationalisms will survive when men have seen the Earth as a pale crescent dwindling against the stars.

But both are, of course, products of their times. There’s a lot of smoking (pipes, cheroots, cigarettes), a hunter keen to bag a specimen of an endangered animal before it becomes extinct, an episode in which the contents of the spacecraft’s waste bins are simply tipped out on to the surface of a newly explored planet, and a supposedly comic episode in which Madge essentially tricks a vegetarian into eating steak and kidney pie. Women, as usual, hardly feature in Johns’s robustly masculine world—Rex has a desultory girlfriend who does little but walk on, delivers a plot element, and then walk off again. But MacVicar does a much better job with Janet, McKinnon’s nineteen-year-old secretary—although much given to screaming and/or sobbing during a crisis (in the aftermath of which she can be relied upon to fuss with her hair), she studies science at Glasgow University, mentors the anxious Jeremy, makes useful observations which are accepted by her male companions, can drive a jeep fast along country roads at night, and knows how to change a wheel. Sadly, Janet (like Madge) is sidelined out of the later stories.

I feature only the first three novels in each series here. MacVicar’s trio, The Lost Planet (1953), Return To The Lost Planet (1954) and Secret Of The Lost Planet (1955), seem to have been conceived as a trilogy. Each novel is a self-contained story, but there is a story arc across all three. In first novel, the explorers from Earth make an initial foray to Hesikos; in the second, they return and encounter the native Hesikians; in the third, they help the Hesikians fight off a truly unpleasant villain in the form of wealthy arms dealer Otto Schenk. At the conclusion of the third novel, we find that Hesikos is about to wander off into the void again, and fond farewells are taken before the explorers return to Earth. The later novels simply ignore this conclusion, and resume Jeremy Grant’s narration several years later, with Hesikos still in position, Grant employed at the (then newly opened) Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment in Scotland, his uncle heading up a European space programme based in the Harz Mountains, Janet and Madge nowhere to be seen, and a shifting cast of new characters in place. In the last three novels, Grant becomes a “Space Agent”, and the final two books abandon Hesikos entirely. (I confess I haven’t read the Space Agent stories).

Johns’s first three novels serve as something of a trilogy, too, though I doubt they were conceived as such. In Kings Of Space (1954) we encounter the dramatis personae, and follow an initial foray into the inner solar system. In Return To Mars (1955), Professor Brane and his team … um … return to Mars and encounter Vargo, who is a member of the remnant Martian civilization that now inhabits the asteroid Ceres, which they call Mino.  We also discover that Brane’s steel spaceship cannot long survive exposure to the radiation of space—only the Minoans’ orichalcum vessels are spaceworthy. And we encounter the recurring villain of the series, Rolto, who believes that the Earth is a danger to the rest of the solar system because of its nuclear weapon tests. In Now To The Stars (1956) Brane and his team are picked up from Glensalich by a Minoan spacecraft, and very much not taken to the stars—the worlds they explore are scattered through the asteroid belt. This establishes the theme for the rest of the series—Brane and Co. are obligingly shuttled around by a small cast of Minoan characters, getting into scrapes on an endless supply of asteroidal worlds, and occasionally being obliged to foil Rolto’s latest plan to conquer and/or destroy the Earth.

MacVicar’s novels feature well-developed narrative arcs—there’s a problem to be solved; various impediments and dangers are put in the characters’ way; and there’s a tense last-minute climax. Johns’s books are highly episodic, usually featuring a series of very short mysteries or dramas as his characters explore a succession of odd worlds. MacVicar’s books have recently been patchily reissued as e-books by Venture Press (now Lume Books); Johns saw partial reissues from Armada in 1970 (two paperbacks) and Piccolo in 1980 (six paperbacks), but there are no cheap electronic editions available.

If you’ve glanced at the titles displayed at the head of this post and cried, “I remember them!” then you may well want to look into pleasantly reliving childhood memories. If not, I suspect they hold no appeal for an adult twenty-first century reader.

Poul Anderson: A Midsummer Tempest

Cover of A Midsummer Tempest by Poul AndersonValeria whirled. Her finger stabbed at Rupert. “You talked about Hamlet and Macbeth—as if they were both real,” she cried. “Contemporaries, even. You said you’d met Oberon and … Titania … yourself. Well, did Romeo and Juliet ever live? King Lear? Falstaff? Othello? You mentioned cannon in Hamlet’s time. How about, by God, how about a University of Wittenberg already then? Did they have clocks that struck the hour in Julius Caesar’s days? Was Richard the Third really a hunchbacked monster? Did Bohemia ever have a seacoast? Does witchcraft work?”
To each flung question, Rupert nodded, as if these were blows hurled upon him.

I’ve written about Poul Anderson before, when I reviewed a pair of his fantasy novels, Three Hearts And Three Lions and The Broken Sword. A prolific and inventive science fiction and fantasy writer with a very distinctive, consciously archaic style of writing, he’s probably still my favourite genre writer. And this is probably my favourite of his novels. I’ve reread it many times, and always found something new in it that I hadn’t noticed before.

A Midsummer Tempest was published in 1974, when Anderson was entering his long heyday, which spanned the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. My own copy is the hardcover Severn House edition of 1976, which was a reissue of the 1975 Orbit edition. These two share the same cover art (uncredited in my copy), which is certainly the best of all the editions of this book, and fairly screams its Seventies credentials.

The title echoes two of Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Which is a hint about what’s to follow.

The story opens in 1644 at the Battle of Marston Moor during the English Civil War, where we encounter two of the novel’s main characters: the historical Prince Rupert of The Rhine and his fictional attendant, the dragoon Will Fairweather, fighting on the side of the Royalists. We get another Shakespeare reference in the title of the first chapter: “Thunder And Lightning. A Heath About To Be Blasted”. The battle proceeds in historical detail until the Royalist defeat, when Rupert is captured by the Parliamentarian forces. (In reality, he managed to hide in a beanfield and evade capture; in the novel, he is captured in a beanfield after his horse breaks a leg.)

And the alert reader (I confess I was not this alert when I first read the book) will also notice that, as the chapter draws to a close, the characters break into rhyming iambic verse:

“Mesim ’twar wise we haul our skins from heare.” panted the dragoon, “while still they may hold wine.”
“And while I yet may hope to bring together men enough that they can cover their retreat … and mine,” Rupert said.

The pun about wine skins, issued in comic dialect by Will Fairweather, feels Shakespearean too.

Will flees the approaching Parliamentarians, leaving Rupert to be apprehended. Rupert is then held captive on the estate of Parliamentarian Sir Malachi Shelgrave, where he meets the third major character, Shelgrave’s niece and ward, Jennifer Alayne. At this point, we also discover something else strange about Rupert’s world—the Industrial Revolution has arrived a century early, with steam locomotives and coal-powered factories embraced by the Puritan Parliamentarians. And we learn something about why Shakespeare is so ever-present in the narrative. Here’s Sir Malachi explaining to Rupert that we’ve long known the Earth to be a sphere:

[…] It has indeed been known since ancient times. Why, even in a dim and pagan Britain, before the Romans came, the fact stood forth.”
Rupert’s resentment drowned in interest. “How so?”
“Did not the anguished Lear cry out, ‘Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!‘? I dare not claim the great Historian divinely was inspired; but with most scholars, I do believe he rendered truth exactly.”

In Rupert’s world, Shakespeare’s writings are not fictional, but matters of historical record! And this is the central conceit of Midsummer Tempest—that everything Shakespeare wrote is true, including his idea that Bohemia had a coastline, and that there were chiming clocks in Ancient Rome. This latter (along with several other Shakespearean anachronisms) means that technology advanced more quickly in the world of Midsummer Tempest, shifting the Industrial Revolution into the midst of the English Civil War.

Will and Jennifer team up to spring Rupert from captivity. The three then encounter another consequence of Shakespeare’s historicity in their world—fairies exist. Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies described in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are opposed to Parliamentarian rule, both because the Roundheads’ dour Puritanism denies the pagan supernatural, and because the nascent Industrial Revolution is destroying the natural world the fairies inhabit. To combat the Parliamentarians, they ask Rupert and his friends to retrieve the book of magic that the magician Prospero threw into the sea, as recorded in The Tempest.

And from there, it’s a rollicking adventure as the protagonists are chased across Europe by Puritan forces, trying to reach Prospero’s elusive island in the Mediterranean, retrieve his book of spells, and get back to England in time to bolster the Royalist cause. There is romance, deception and betrayal, stolen trains and peril at sea, and a surprisingly technological solution to retrieving Prospero’s book. The characters continue to break into blank verse, rhyming couplets and even (in Jennifer’s case) manage to declaim an entire honest-to-god sonnet in conversational tones. Will, the obligatory Shakespearean comic relief, is a fount of puns and double entendres. Other characters unconsciously deliver distorted versions of famous Shakespearean lines, as when Will complains that the construction of their boat makes it difficult to steer, and Rupert responds:

“The fault, brute steersman, lies not in her spars but in thyself.”

And there are nods to other sources, too. A minor character has the same name as a major character in Robert Heinlein’s novella “If This Goes On—“. There’s a walk-on part for a character from Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. And (perhaps most strangely) a magic spell that echoes the mysterious coded words that appear in Rembrandt’s etching “A Scholar In his Study“.

And it all builds to a climax that feels like a pagan version of Arthur Machen’s famous short story, “The Bowmen”.

So it’s clever and delightfully complicated, and all delivered in Anderson’s ringing prose. Exactly my kind of book, really.

The Old Phoenix

Another plot element deserves a mention. I thought I’d hive it off into its own section, since it’s too complicated and extraneous to plonk down in the middle of an already cluttered review.

Anderson had a problem with this narrative. He had this lovely idea, in which the works of Shakespeare give rise to a world in which Cavaliers embrace nature magic so as to overcome Roundheads armed with industrial technology. But how could he explain this to his readers, when his characters are necessarily completely unaware of the unusual nature of their own world? In Three Hearts And Three Lions (1961) he had described a world in which Carolingian legend is true—but his protagonist was transported there from our world, and was able to figure out what was going on, thereby informing the reader. And in his novel Operation Chaos (1971) he described an alternate America in which magic works, but his characters were able to speculate (for the benefit of the reader) about how their world might have been very different if the principles of magic had not been discovered and codified.

Neither of these options was available for this one, but he somehow needed to give the reader a little lecture before too much of the plot elapsed. Enter the Old Phoenix, a sort of inter-dimensional tavern that flits between Anderson’s alternate worlds. If you are a key player in your world’s history, and if you need shelter where none exists, the Old Phoenix will turn up. You can stay there for one night, but must leave in the morning, and the only fee charged is for you to tell your story. It’s a traditional old pub, full of oak panelling and brass, run by a cosy couple who are known by different names to their various guests, and who speak all languages that have ever been spoken. In a corner stands a globe of the world, “marking in special colors places like Atlantis and Huy Braseal”.

Cover of Losers' Night by Poul AndersonAnderson enjoyed the idea of the Old Phoenix enough to return to it in two short stories, “House Rule” (1976) and “Losers’ Night” (1991), and it’s from that latter story I take this description:

Space-time is many-branched, perhaps infinitely so. There seems to be little we can imagine which is not reality somewhere among yonder histories. Out of them, into the Old Phoenix, for a night, have come—I have heard, or seen for myself—not only the likes of Theseus, Scheherazade, Falstaff, Holger Danske, Huck Finn, Irene Adler, Red Hanrahan, blind Rhysling—but a Zenobia who won free of Rome, an Abélard who remained a whole man, a Rupert of the Rhine who outfought Cromwell, a Tecumtha who preserved his nation—

So when Rupert and Will are on the verge of capture by the Parliamentarians, The Old Phoenix appears to them. And among the guests that night are Valeria Matuchek, from the world of Operation Chaos, and Holger Carlsen, the protagonist of Three Hearts And Three Lions. Valeria eventually figures out the nature of Rupert and Will’s world and explains it to them (and us)—and that’s what’s going on in the quotation at the head of this post.

Harry Turtledove paid the place one last fond visit after Anderson’s death, in his short story “The Man Who Came Late” (2014), part of a festschrift in Anderson’s honour, entitled Multiverse.

Arthur C. Clarke: Three Early Novels

Cover of An Arthur C. Clarke Second OmnibusAll human communities, wherever they may be in space, follow the same pattern. People were getting born, being cremated (with careful conservation of phosphorus and nitrates), rushing in and out of marriage, moving out of town, suing their neighbours, having parties, holding protest meetings, getting involved in astonishing accidents, writing Letters to the Editor, changing jobs…. Yes, it was just like Earth. That was a somewhat depressing thought.

Arthur C. Clarke, Earthlight (1955)

I was just about to write that Arthur C. Clarke required no introduction, but these days he perhaps does—a generation has reached maturity in the time since the publication of his last solo novel, 3001: The Final Odyssey, in 1997.

Clarke was for decades one of the “Big Three” science fiction writers (the others were Asimov and Heinlein), and was the only one of that trio I’d have been eager to dine with. I’d certainly have given Asimov a go, if invited; but I’d have travelled long distances to avoid Heinlein. There was a constant gentle humanity to Clarke’s writings, largely missing from the brash Asimov’s and the deeply self-satisfied Heinlein’s.

Clarke’s heyday was probably from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties—from the time he cooperated with Stanley Kubrick in the production of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) through to the publication of The Songs Of Distant Earth (1986). That period saw the publication of his classic novels Rendezvous With Rama (1973) and The Fountains Of Paradise (1979). In later years, he moved on to co-authoring novels with other writers. Some of these cooperations were successful, like his work with Stephen Baxter; some less so, like the execrable Rama sequels penned with Gentry Lee.

Clarke has also left us a legacy of stunning short stories: “The Sentinel” (1951), “The Star” (1956), “The Nine Billion Names Of God” (1953) and “Sunjammer” (1964) being only the first four that came to mind as I was typing this paragraph.

The three novels I’m going to write about here date from the same period as those classic short stories: The Sands Of Mars, Earthlight and A Fall Of Moondust. My own copies are collected in a Sidgwick & Jackson hardback edition from 1968—the clumsily titled An Arthur C. Clarke Second Omnibus.* But all are readily and cheaply available in e-book form. They’re of interest (to me at least) because they’re Clarke’s take on the future exploration of the Moon and Mars, written before or during the very early days of spaceflight, years before humans had actually set foot on the Moon.

For reasons best known to themselves, Sidgwick & Jackson arranged the novels in reverse order of original publication, but I’ll review them in chronological order.

The Sands Of Mars (1951) follows science-fiction writer Martin Gibson as he travels from Earth to Mars on the inaugural voyage of the passenger vessel Ares. Gibson is the only passenger for the trip, acting as what would now be called an embedded journalist. Otherwise, Ares is operated by a small shakedown crew, who view Gibson with a mixture of amusement and suspicion. Amusement, because Gibson’s early science-fiction writings about space travel in general, and Mars in particular, have now been overtaken by reality; suspicion, because they’re not sure what sort of story Gibson will write about his voyage. Clarke develops the flawed character of Gibson with a real warmth and humour.

Almost a hundred pages elapse before Gibson actually gets to his destination, the small Martian colony of Port Lowell. During those early pages, Clarke plays amusingly with Gibson’s anxieties and embarrassments as he finally participates in the reality of spaceflight, which is rather different from what he had imagined in his writings twenty years previously. There’s very definitely a knowing wink from Clarke in this section, as if to say, “Yes, and of course I’m pretending I know how it will really be. But what sort of things am I getting wrong, right now?”

The dynamic between the crew and Gibson becomes particularly amusing when the crew realize that the Ares has been pierced by a tiny meteor, no larger than a grain of sand, which has produced a very slow leak of air. This is an entirely routine event for them—but unfortunately the hole is in Gibson’s cabin. Fearing the dramatic spin Gibson would put on such an event, the crew come up with a distraction for him (a spacewalk), so that they can swiftly put a rivet into the tiny hole without Gibson ever knowing what happened.

But there are also characteristic Clarkean “sense of wonder” passages during the space flight:

The Ares was not, unfortunately, passing very close to the Moon, but even so it was more than ten times as large as Gibson had ever seen it from the Earth […] And surely—Gibson bent suddenly forward, wondering if his eyes had tricked him. Yet there was no doubt of it; down in the midst of that cold and faintly gleaming land, waiting for the dawn that was still many days away, minute sparks of light were burning like fireflies in the dusk. They had not been there fifty years ago; they were the lights of the first lunar cities, telling the stars that life had come at last to the Moon after a billion years of waiting.

When the story finally reaches Mars, it begins to show its age, since this is Mars as understood in the 1940s—with a denser atmosphere than we now know it has, and plant life on its surface. Gibson has various adventures, and gradually comes to respect and admire the resourceful Martian colonists. There’s a plane crash and a rescue, a benign conspiracy, a surprising discovery, and even a romance. It’s all rather satisfying, in a low-key sort of way, but it spends a lot more time on the nuts and bolts of space travel than would any contemporary novel.

And there is always Clarke’s eye for quirky detail. Here’s his description of the little domed Martian colony (which grandly names its few narrow streets after famous streets on Earth):

With its rows of uniform metal houses and few public buildings it was more of a military camp than a city, though the inhabitants had done their best to brighten it up with terrestrial flowers. Some of these had grown to impressive sizes under the low gravity, and Oxford Circus was now ablaze with sunflowers thrice the height of a man. Though they were getting rather a nuisance no one had the heart to suggest their removal: if they continued at their present rate of growth in would soon take a skilled lumberjack to fell them without endangering the port hospital.

Earthlight (1955) is set on the Moon in the twenty-second century. Colonies on the Moon and inner planets are well established, and there is a human presence in space out as far as Saturn. A resource war is brewing between the Earth-Moon system on the one hand, and the planetary colonies on the other. The action takes place in and around an astronomical observatory in Plato crater, a lunar settlement called Central City, and a secret research base in the Mare Imbrium. The main point-of-view character is Bertram Sadler, a counter-espionage agent assigned to hunt down a spy among the staff of the Plato observatory.

This one, too, was written before the dawn of the Space Age, and Clarke spends more time describing the nuts and bolts of lunar colonization than a modern author would feel necessary. But Clarke, of course, always has his own unique take on things:

The view was now rather disappointing, as it usually is when one descends to the lunar lowlands. The horizon is so near—only two or three kilometres away—that it gives a sense of confinement and restraint. It is almost as if the small circle of rock surrounding one is all that exists. The illusion can be so strong that men have been known to drive more slowly than necessary, as if subconsciously afraid that they may fall off the edge of that uncannily near horizon.

The first half of the book is largely devoted to Sadler’s efforts to identify the spy, combined with a sort of guided tour of lunar life and installations. The second half revs up into a series of set pieces—a battle between space-borne forces and a lunar fortress; the rescue of the crew of a damaged spacecraft; and the final, long-delayed unmasking of the spy.

In particular, the story is distinguished by the earliest dramatic introduction of one of Clarke’s narrative preoccupations—that fact that human beings can survive brief exposure to the vacuum of space. In Earthlight, Clarke gets a few things wrong—he has his characters hyperventilate with oxygen before their exposure to vacuum, which would do essentially nothing to prolong their survival; and his characters stay conscious for far longer than would be possible once they undergo decompression. He would revisit the topic in a very short story entitle “Take A Deep Breath” in 1957, and then again in the novel and film of 2001: A Space Odyssey (by which time he was correctly assuming a time of useful consciousness of only ten to fifteen seconds during vacuum exposure).

There’s also a fraught encounter with a lunar “dust bowl”—a concept that Clarke would later use as the basis for his novel A Fall Of Moondust.

There are, as ever, failures of prediction. In this one, Clarke assumes we’ll still be developing photographs in a darkroom in the twenty-second century, and there’s a certain irony in the way he describes the situation:

Jamieson was still wiping developer from his hands when he arrived. After more than 300 years, certain aspects of photography were quite unchanged. Wheeler, who thought that everything could be done by electronics, regarded many of his older friend’s activities as survivals from the age of alchemy.

And the role of women in Clarke’s vision of the Moon is limited, to say the least:

It was merely to be expected that all six of the girls in computing, after some weeks in a largely male community, now had reputations that could only be described as fragile.

A Fall Of Moondust (1961) is based on an idea, briefly explored in Earthlight, that was a real source of concern for early spaceflight engineers—the possibility that the smooth, flat areas of the lunar “seas” might represent accumulations of extremely fine dust; dust so fine that it would flow like liquid in the hard vacuum at the lunar surface, and simply engulf any spacecraft that landed on it.

Clarke’s story, set on the Moon after human settlement there, features a “dust-cruiser”—a vehicle that floats on a lake of such dust, moving around with the aid of submerged propellers. The dust-cruiser Selene, taking a group of tourists sight-seeing on the fictional Sea of Thirst, is struck by an earthquake which cases it to “sink”—falling into a transient hollow in the dust surface, which then fills and flows over the vehicle, leaving it buried fifteen metres deep. The story then unfolds in two strands: below ground, the plight of the 22 buried passengers and crew; above ground, the efforts to locate the missing Selene and then to rescue its personnel before their air runs out. It is, in essence, a science-fiction “disaster movie”, vaguely reminiscent of Airport ’77.

It has a lot of what were now becoming the usual Clarke ingredients. He messes with his readership’s expectations of how the future should be, for instance when he gives the reason the Selene‘s captain is keen to call his craft a “boat”:

When he used that word, no one would mistake him for the skipper of a space-ship—and space-ship captains were, of course, two a penny.

Another example of Clarkeish subversion occurs when he allows the story of one of the trapped passengers, an Australian scientist named McKenzie, to continue for some time before he reveals that the character is a full-blooded Aborigine. Those of us who remember the casual racism of the 1960s will be able to appreciate what a startling effect that achieved, back when it was first published.

Then there is Clarke’s trademark wry humour. Here, he teases those over-wrought space artists who had depicted the lunar surface dotted with cliffs and towering mountains:

There was not a single lunar crater whose ramparts soared as abruptly as the streets of San Francisco, and there were very few that would provide a serious obstacle to a determined cyclist.

Cover of Earthlight, by Arthur C. Clarke(Perhaps Clarke was later amused to see exactly the wrong kind of lunar mountains depicted on the cover of the Pan paperback edition of Earthlight.)

Elsewhere, he describes the annoyance of the television-camera operator who is obliged to use electronic trickery to add visible stars to the lunar daytime sky, because the public on Earth expect to see them—despite the fact that the bright reflected light from the lunar surface makes them invisible to either human eye or camera lens. Remember, Clarke was writing this before anyone had ever set foot on the Moon—but he presciently spotted the ignorant “Where are the stars?” question beloved of those who, in the teeth of the evidence, imagine that the Apollo landings were faked.

There are the usual incongruities for those of us living sixty years after Clarke wrote this story. In Clarke’s future, people are happily smoking inside lunar habitats and stomach ulcers are still an intractable medical problem. And the female characters fare little better than the “girls in computing” of Earthlight—in this one, they are either wives, fretful old maids, or pretty stewardesses.

These are all good fun—full of incident, plot twists and wry observation of the foibles of humanity. The Sands Of Mars certainly has the most humour, but is the most dated. A Fall Of Moondust is genuinely tense in places. But all are worth (re)reading for the glimpse they give of a clever and kind man, speculating on humanity’s future in space.

* I wrote about the first Arthur C. Clarke Omnibus when I reviewed his novel Childhood’s End (1953).

Clarke previously mentioned a person surviving vacuum exposure in The Sands Of Mars; but given that the person is a fictional character in Gibson’s early writing, it’s not clear if we are meant to take this as a serious proposition.
I‘ve previously written about the physics and physiology of vacuum exposure. See my posts Human Exposure To Vacuum Part 1 and Part 2 for a full discussion of the underlying science.)