Category Archives: Reading

Sydney Scroggie: The Cairngorms Scene & Unseen

Cover of "The Cairngorms Scene & Unseen" By Syd Scroggie

The Cairngorms lay beneath what was now a local bonnet of cloud. Everything else was in sunshine and dazzling with colours, cobalts and browns and bright greens, all the peaks around glowing with the pristine pigments of an illuminated manuscript, as far as distant Lochnagar and Beinn a’ Ghlo. Then even the interior gloom began to change, and a violet light stole over the nearby scene, so that my hands and my clothes reflected it, and behind me the Lurcher’s Crag turned as mauve as the most voluptuous ling heather. This was not so with Angel Peak, Cairn Toul and the Devil’s Point, which rose on the other side of Glen Dee, for these turned an emerald green, so that they stood there like vast jewels, soft and glowing, against that brilliant distant palette of incredible colour.
It lasted only a minute or two, long enough for a ptarmigan to croak, a golden plover to whistle and a discarded fag pack to stir in the breeze; then down came the cloud again and shut everything out.

That’s a young Syd Scroggie, standing on the summit of Ben Macdui one day in 1942. I chose this particular quote because it’s a companion of sorts to the quote with which I opened my review of Nan Shepherd’s Cairngorm memoir, The Living Mountain (1977). Both quotations mark the start of a long love affair with the Cairngorm massif; both describe striking visual experiences. But Scroggie’s lines are made particularly poignant by the knowledge that, when the lines were first published, in 1989, Scroggie had been blind for more than forty years.

Scroggie began his explorations of his beloved Cairngorm Mountains before the Second World War, and was able to fit in the occasional visit during his army training, which took place near Aviemore. He latterly served in the Lovat Scouts, a Highland regiment that fought in the Allied invasion of Italy. Two weeks before the end of the war, he trod on a “shoe mine” (the German Schützenmine-42), losing a lower leg and the sight in both eyes. After rehabilitating under the care of St Dunstan’s (now Blind Veterans UK), Scroggie went on to study at Oxford, learning Greek and Latin in Braille, before returning to his native Dundee to take up a job as a switchboard operator at one of the city’s major employers of the time, N.C.R. Works.

Then, in 1955, came the fateful moment when his friend Les Bowman proposed a trip to a remote bothy in the heart of the Cairngorms: “Young Scrog, let’s do a trip to Corrour.”

The idea was staggering, of my setting out and returning as a disabled person to the locality which more than any other for me is symbolic of the hills.

Scroggie’s response was, “You bet.”

And so he walked the eight miles in along the rough track by Derry Lodge and the boggy path beyond, his hand upon Bowman’s shoulder. His feelings can well be imagined—here’s how he recorded them in a moving piece of poetry:

The gods thus spoke, the gods of hill and glen:
This is our man, we know his face of old,
He has but slept, behold he comes again.

Scroggie lived about a mile north of my childhood home, and his place of work was a mile to the southwest, so he was a familiar sight for me in those days, striding along with his stick and his one white eye. And I met him once, during the seventies, in the hills above Glen Clova where he airily described the view to me from memory. He had a very characteristic pattern of speech—deprived of visual feedback from the facial expression and posture of the person he addressed, he delivered his thoughts in long, rattling paragraphs, punctuated by pauses to permit responses. You can observe him in conversation with Tom Weir in this classic episode of Weir’s Way, broadcast in 1987:

And I offered you that video because I was going to write that, in The Cairngorms: Scene & Unseen (1989), Scroggie wrote exactly how he spoke. But it occurs to me that this is perhaps no surprise—while the ever-undaunted Scroggie may well have mastered the art of longhand writing or typing while blind, it’s perhaps more likely that he dictated his memoir. But however the words got to the paper, the experience of reading them is exactly like sitting on a rock by a loch and hearing Scroggie speak—funny, clever and discursive, suffused with a deep love of the hills and the people who go there, anecdote heaped dizzyingly on anecdote until all chronology is lost, and the reader no longer remembers or cares whether Scroggie was sighted or unsighted at the time of the events he describes.

Recently republished by the Scottish Mountaineering Press, this is unfortunately the only piece of Scroggie’s writing currently in print. A number of slim booklets are documented by the University of Dundee, and Amazon seems to know of something entitled The Modern Ferla More (1963)*. His poetry collection Give Me The Hills (1978) is now vanishingly rare and I’ve yet to lay my hands on a copy, but there’s a decent sampling of his verse stirred into this memoir.

Scroggie ranges widely through his memories. There are stories here of wartime service, and of his son’s supernatural imaginings in Lower Geldie Lodge, and he’s not above gleefully relaying a good story borrowed from a friend. But in the main this is a narrative of “bothy culture” in the Cairngorms spanning (roughly) the decades between 1940 and 1980—of nights spent chatting and drinking whisky by the light of a bog-wood fire. Some of Scroggie’s bothies are gone now, like the Sinclair Hut; some are now inaccessible, like Derry Lodge; and some have a new lease of life, like Corrour, though Scroggie did not approve of its post-war restoration:

Then the bothy had been friendly and hospitable, and somehow mysterious in its ruin and dilapidation, pregnant with a sense of impending romance and adventure. […] Now [it] had a more clinical air, as if the planners had moved in, and though it was obviously wind and weather tight, and would remain so for decades, it had lost much of its character in the process.

And there are many stories here of the legendary Bob Scott and his bothy at Luibeg. (There’s still a bothy with Scott’s name on it, though it stands farther downstream than the original, below the confluence of the Luibeg and Derry Burns.)

As well as evocations of the Cairngorm scenery, and character sketches of people encountered among the hills, Scroggie also offers some laugh-out-loud anecdotes, beautifully told. One of my favourites is one he relays from his friend Les Bowman, who served with the Royal Engineers in North Africa during the war. One night, an unfounded rumour swept through his unit, that the German army was about to descend on their desert camp, intent on “slaughtering them to the last sapper.” As Scroggie and Bowman tell the story, panic immediately reigned, while the Commanding Officer was reduced to “darting about to and fro” and “gibbering with fear”. When pressed for a plan, the CO instructed his men to “Make for Algiers.”

It was a case of omne ignotum pro magnifico if ever there was one. ‘How’ll we get there, sir?’ The response to the CO’s suggestion—for it was a suggestion rather than a command—took the form less of a lusty shout than a concerted wail from the sappers who could see their chance of ever getting home diminishing in a kind of geometrical progression as minute succeeded minute in the confusion of affairs. There are moments of inspiration which come to every man, based on memories long buried under piles of succeeding experience, and something new stirred in the CO’s mind, paralysed though it was by conflicting emotions, which seemed to have in it the solvent of all their terrors—the perfect answer to the unparalleled exigencies of their situation.
Pale, distraught and pyjama-clad […] the CO made a dramatic gesture vaguely in the direction of Timbuktu, where Jupiter was a conspicuous object in the sky, gazing down with planetary indifference at a warring world below. […] ‘Follow the North Star,’ he cried.

Scroggie was in his sixties when writing this memoir, and like many hillgoers of a Certain Age (ahem) rather wished that things would just stay as they were—he preferred the comfort of a Primus stove to the newfangled gas, and would apparently rather crouch in a leaking hovel rather than countenance any rebuilding work on his remote bothies. He wasn’t that keen on tourists clogging up his favourite glens, and I think would probably have been reduced to tears of frustration if he’d lived to witness the mess now created in Glen Brittle by too many visitors encountering too little infrastructure. He reserves his particular ire, however, for the Scottish National Outdoor Training Centre at Glenmore Lodge, and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme.

Here he is, in full polemical flow, on the former establishment:

… this is a place dedicated to teaching people everything about the hills except what really counts. It is a kind of fascist training establishment from which intakes emerge to conquer the hills and in so doing, according to the theory, conquer themselves. Absent is the poetry, the philosophy, the metaphysics, the dreamy dwam, if you like, which are proper to the wooing of the hills. A cowering Macdhui, an alarmed Braeriach and a scandalised Cairn Lochain find themselves subject instead to a kind of criminal assault. Glenmore Lodge, in short, represents a machination of the Devil by which he seeks to corrupt the last refuge of sanity with notions proper only to the general lunacy which surrounds it.

(Come on Scroggie, stop beating about the bush and say what you really think … )

I believe it’s evident that here, and in other places, Scroggie is caught up with creating a dramatic effect. Elsewhere, for instance, shortly after an impassioned plea to rebuild Hadrian’s Wall in order to exclude tourists, he undermines his own position by commending two English visitors who were, he felt, clear exceptions to his own black-and-white rule. But there’s also a deep and heartfelt cry in there—he fears that the hills are becoming arenas for feats of mental or physical endurance, for “challenges”, rather than places to love and contemplate. Scroggie would, I think, agree wholeheartedly with Nan Shepherd’s observation (in The Living Mountain):

Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.

Shepherd and Scroggie are then, I think, unlikely soulmates—the one alarmingly delicate in many ways, the other tough as old boots; one full of lyrical mysticism, the other pragmatic and forthright to a fault; but both possessed by a deep need to be in the mountains, as a source of calm and solace.

I’ll leave you with another snippet of Scroggie’s poetry, which will resonate, I’m sure, with any hill-lover conscious of advancing years:

I will attempt the Capel Track,
Old, stiff and retrograde,
And get some pal to push me on
Should resolution fade.
For I must see black Meikle Pap
Against a starry sky,
And watch the dawn from Lochnagar
Once more before I die.

* “Ferla More” is undoubtedly a reference to the legendary Fear Liath Mor (“Big Grey Man”) of Ben Macdui—a supernatural creature said to haunt the slopes of that mountain. In Scene & Unseen Scroggie rather revels in the concept of “spookiness”, and evinces a keen interested in the Big Grey Man.
Your Reviewer confesses to a certain sympathy with Scroggie’s viewpoint on this. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme is nowadays one of the tick boxes completed by many applicants to Medical School, and I once made a point, during a day of interviews, of asking each award-bearing applicant what they’d taken away from the scheme. I heard a lot about resourcefulness and self-belief, of developing character, of rising to challenges and overcoming adversity; one even talked about “pushing on through misery”. Not one of them mentioned developing a love of the outdoor environment; several quite obviously now hated it with a passion.

R.A.J. Matthews: Tumbling Toast, Murphy’s Law And The Fundamental Constants

Dropped toast

In what follows we model the tumbling toast problem as an example of a rigid, rough, homogeneous rectangular lamina, mass m, side 2a, falling from a rigid platform set a height h above the ground. We consider the dynamics of the toast from an initial state where its centre of gravity overhangs the table by a distance δ0

Robert A.J. Matthews published this seminal bit of applied physics in 1995. The journal reference is European Journal of Physics 16(4): 172-6, and you can access the full paper at ResearchGate, here. For his efforts, he was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in 1996.

Matthews was the first (but by no means the last) to use mathematical physics to explore the popular claim that “dropped toast always lands butter-side down”. The usual “explanation” invoked for this perceived rule is Murphy’s Law—“If anything can go wrong, it will”—but Matthews sought to show that there were sound physical principles underlying the phenomenon.

He starts by dismissing the common physical explanations offered to account for this, principally airy claims relating to off-centre mass or aerodynamics effects created by the butter. He also dismisses those experiments that have claimed to disprove the rule—it’s unsurprising that buttered toast hurled randomly into the air* shows no particular preference for the side on which it alights, but this hardly reproduces the normal process by which toast falls.

Matthews starts with a static rectangle of toast, as described in the quotation at the head of this post. When its centre of mass moves beyond the edge of the table, it begins to tip over under the force of gravity. With any angle of tipping beyond zero (horizontal), gravity also produces a force that tries to slide the toast farther over the edge of the table. This is initially opposed by friction with the table edge, but eventually translates into a sliding motion. Gravity continues to accelerate the rate of rotation until the combination of sliding and rotation lifts the trailing part of the toast away from the table edge. Thereafter, the toast falls freely, and now rotates at a constant rate (neglecting air friction) until it hits the ground. If the toast rotates more than 90º but less than 270º on its way to the ground, it will strike butter-side down. Matthews appears to ignore the <90º regime during his initial analysis, presumably because toast falling from table height is observed to always rotate farther than that before hitting the floor.

In the quotation at the head of this post, Matthews sets the half-length of the toast to a, and the length by which the centre of gravity overhangs the edge of the table to δ. From these he defines an “overhang parameter”, η, equal to δ/a. The critical overhang parameter at which the tipping toast loses contact with the table edge is η0, and the tipping angle at which this occurs is φ. With g representing the acceleration due to gravity, he derives an equation for the constant angular velocity of the free-falling toast, ω0:

\omega _{0}^{2}=\left ( \frac{6g}{a} \right )\left ( \frac{\eta _{0}}{1+3\eta _{0}^{2}} \right )sin\phi 

The time, τ, it takes the toast to fall to the floor under gravity can be estimated using an approximation of the total distance it falls:

\tau =\sqrt{\frac{2(h-2a)}{g}}

And if the toast is to successfully rotate through “butter-side down” and into “butter-side up” during this time then:

\omega_{0}\tau > 270^{\circ }-\phi 

So that’s the story. Toast tips, slides, rotates free of the table edge, and then falls with a constant rate of rotation until it hits the floor after some elapsed time determined by the height from which it falls. If it rotates fast enough, or falls from high enough, it will manage to land butter-side up. But there will be a critical range of rotation rates and heights which will carry the toast into a butter-side-down impact.

The overhang parameter η0 is critical—if the toast has high enough friction with the table edge it will maintain contact with the edge for longer, allowing its rotational velocity to build up more before it falls free, maximizing the chance of a butter-side-up impact. Matthews derives a rather splendid formula for the minimum value of η0 which will generate sufficient rotational velocity for a butter-side-up landing.

\eta _{0}> \frac{2(h/a-2)\left ( 1-\sqrt{1-\frac{\pi ^4}{12(h/a-2)}} \right )}{\pi ^{2}}

(I’ve somewhat rearranged the equations in his paper, here, but the above is equivalent to those he provides.) For a table height h = 75cm and half-length of toast slice a = 5cm, it turns out that η0 has to be greater than 0.06.

Experiments involving bread, toast and kitchen Contiboard ensue, and Matthews finds that toast has a characteristic η0 of just 0.015, with untoasted bread only a little higher at 0.02. In his words:

This implies that laminae with either composition do not have sufficient angular rotation to land butter-side up following free-fall from a table-top. In other words, the material properties of slices of toast and bread and their size relative to the height of the typical table are such that, in the absence of any rebound phenomena, they lead to a distinct bias towards a butter-side down landing.

In fact, we can work out the minimum table height above which falling toast will have time to rotate far enough to land butter-side-up:

\frac{h}{a}=2+\frac{\pi ^{2}\left ( 1+3\eta _{0}^{2} \right )}{12\eta _{0}}

Plugging in the previously derived numbers yields an inconvenient minimum height of three metres.

Matthews then explores the effect of the horizontal velocity with which the toast departs the table edge—if fired over the edge with sufficient speed, the toast would have little time to start tipping over, would gain correspondingly little rotational velocity, and might stay relatively horizontal all the way to the floor. (That is, it would stay in the <90º rotation regime.) He concludes that the normal range of speeds with which toast is nudged off tables or tipped off plates is insufficiently high to prevent the butter-side-down landing.

Finally, there’s a section dealing with the fundamental constants of nature. In it, he builds on a paper by William H. Press, “Man’s size in terms of the fundamental constants” (American Journal of Physics, 48(8): 597-8), which you can find as a pdf here. Distilling down a more detailed argument, Matthews concludes that the upper height limit, LH, for humans is constrained by the ratio of the strengths of the electromagnetic force (which holds our bodies together) and the gravitational force (which breaks us if we fall from too great a height). If we got much taller than LH, we’d frequently sustain disabling or life-threatening injuries from simple trips and falls. After pushing around some equations, he concludes that:

L_{H}<\sim 50\times \left ( {\alpha /\alpha _{G}} \right )^{1/4}\alpha _{0}

Where α is the electromagnetic fine structure constant, αG the gravitational coupling constant for protons, and α0 the Bohr radius. These arguments are at best order-of-magnitude estimates, but Matthews plugs in the numbers and finds a surprisingly reasonable maximum figure of three metres for LH.

Matthews concludes that the frictional properties of toast set a limit on its rotation rate when falling from an edge, while the basic constants of the Universe set a limit on how tall humans are, which in turn sets a limit (about half LH) on how high useful tables are.

Our principal conclusion is a surprising one, given the apparently quotidian nature of the original phenomenon: all human-like organisms are destined to experience the ‘tumbling toast’ manifestation of Murphy’s Law because of the values of the fundamental constants of the universe. As such, we have probably confirmed the suspicions of many regarding the innate cussedness of the universe.

What to do? Reducing the size of the toast to match the scale of our tables is one solution, but the required size of ~2.5cm squares is (as Matthews remarks) “unsatisfactory”. He proposes instead the counterintuitive solution of speeding the toast on its way, to limit its opportunity to build up rotational velocity—flick it briskly over the edge, or snatch the supporting plate away, backwards and downwards.

So now you know.

* The BBC’s QED strand conducted just such an experiment in 1991.
Matthews’ work provoked a flurry of additional publications investigating the problem of tumbling toast. Analysis of video suggested that the free-falling toast rotates faster than Matthews predicted, probably because he had neglected the kinetic friction that occurs during the sliding phase. For more on the topic, take a look at the following:
Bacon ME, Heald G, James M. “A closer look at tumbling toast” American Journal of Physics (2001) 69(1): 38-43
Borghi R. “On the tumbling toast problem” European Journal of Physics (2012) 33: 1407-20

T.J. Bass: The Short Stories

Covers of If magazine containing T.J. Bass short stories

He stood up and walked to the still form of his assailant. A female. Her abdominal muscles were still twitching, but no breath moved through her open mouth. He felt no pulse. Between her breasts he saw his brown-stained heel print. The sternum was depressed and made gritty sounds when he palpated it. Fractured. And probably displaced into the mediastinum, cutting off venous blood flow back to the heart. He grabbed both of her wrists and jerked them over her head, levering the bone fragments up.
Her heart fluttered and began to beat as soon as the pressure was taken off the large veins. She gasped several times, mouthing like a dry fish. Her face pinked up.

T.J. Bass, “Star Seeder” (1969)

That’s T.J. Bass’s fairly typical take on what happens if you kick someone really hard in the chest. I’ve written about Bass before, in my post about his two “Hive” novels, Half Past Human (1971) and The Godwhale (1973). These were expanded versions of three shorter stories previously published in Galaxy and Worlds of If magazines (for more details, see my previous post). Both novels were fêted in their time, each receiving a Nebula nomination, but have now faded into the classic-but-largely-forgotten category that provides me with so much material to post about.

In addition to his two novels and the three stories on which they were based, Bass published only four other stories, all of which appeared in If magazine between 1968 and 1971. To my knowledge, none of these were ever anthologized or otherwise collected, so they fell into almost instant obscurity. But they’re all now available on-line, courtesy of the Internet Archive, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to read them, and then tell you about them.

Unsurprisingly, they have all of Bass’s stylistic trademarks—replete with medical jargon and a calculated dose of body horror, delivered in a rattling telegraphic style, all exemplified in my quote at the head of this post. More interestingly, they’re all set in the same “Hive” universe as his novels. But whereas the events of the novels largely take place on a grossly overpopulated far-future Earth, the short stories deal with the fate of human colonies planted in other star systems during an earlier, expansive period of human history, only briefly alluded to in the novels.

I’ve often felt that the sentient starship Olga, which has walk-on parts in the novels, seemed to have more of a back-story than Bass was letting us in on. In particular, there seemed to be no particular narrative reason for his Godwhale protagonist, Larry Dever, to be brought out of hibernation during the early star-colonization era to briefly interact with Olga, only to go back into hibernation for a couple of thousand years so that he can be woken up in the Hive and get the story properly started. And why was Olga written in all-caps, like an acronym, in The Godwhale? Why was the future calendar of Half Past Human based on “The Year of Olga”?

Something was clearly going on. And that something was, it turns out, Bass making reference to his own short stories, which might still have been relatively fresh in his readers’ minds during the early ’70s. Below, I’ll deal with each story in turn, and my links will take you directly to the story in the relevant magazine issue held by the Internet Archive.

First comes “Star Itch” (Worlds of If, September 1968), which is the only story that appears under Bass’s real name, Thomas J. Bassler. It introduces the artificial intelligence Olga, which is in charge of sending out colonization ships to distant star systems. She is about to send out Procyon Implant Two—a second mission to a planet of the star Procyon. (In The Godwhale, Bass would later describe how Olga had tried unsuccessfully to recruit Larry Dever for the first Procyon mission.) Two colonists are introduced—Ralph Eggers (an engineering student and long-distance runner), and Bob Zuliani (a medic and hedonist). And we learn that “OLGA” stands for “Optic, Lingual, Graphic, Auditory”, the modalities by which Olga can communicate with humans. (Which may well not interest you, but solves a forty-year-old puzzle for me.) The colony ship departs, the colonists enter hibernation for the journey, and Ralph has a truly horrible experience which contributes very little to the story, but seems to be included in the narrative purely because it’s truly horrible and Bass had a lot of fun writing it.

At Procyon, it becomes evident that the first colony mission has failed, and the story turns into a “What happened to all the colonists?” puzzle. Ralph is sent down to the planet to investigate, and has another truly horrible time. The disappearance of the colonists evidently involves a complicated and progressive disease, which Bass describes with considerable enthusiasm and detail. It falls to Bob to work out what is going on, and the story reaches a satisfactory conclusion, though Ralph might well disagree.

Next is “Star Seeder” (Worlds of If, September 1969), which immediately introduces another character named Zuliani, who turns out to be a great-great-great-grandson of Bob Zuliani, living in the now-successful Procyon Implant Two colony. This new Zuliani is involved in a sort of gladiatorial combat when we first meet him, which serves to establish his character and capabilities, and gives Bass the opportunity to describe some more trauma. Zuliani wears a belt imbued with artificial intelligence, which provides him with companionship and advice—another concept that Bass used again in The Godwhale. The belt save Zuliani’s life by warning him when he is about to be attacked by a humanoid alien, and then the story settles down into a problem-solving narrative. The aliens (whom the humans unflatteringly call “Dregs”) inhabit the rim of the galaxy, and seek to control Humanity’s expansionist impulses. They will not permit colony ships to travel out of the galaxy to Andromeda, but will permit an exploratory vessel with a single crew member. Zuliani is to be that crew member, and the “problem” Zuliani must solve is how to sneak the makings of an entire human colony past the vigilant Dregs.

It’s an odd piece, and not particularly successful—the problem is deeply contrived, and there are several plot holes. But the solution is another bit of the “medical futurism” at which Bass excelled.

“A Game Of Biochess” (Worlds Of If, February 1970), introduces Olga again, though she seems to have undergone something of a demotion, now acting as the artificial intelligence for a starship operated by a single human named Spider. Spider is another of Bass’s physically unusual protagonists, suffering from a developmental shortening of his left arm and right leg. During a lay-over at Grus Satellite Station, Spider enjoys a chaste dalliance with a woman named Rau Lu, whom he encounters during the titular game of biochess.

Olga subsequently identifies a reduction in Spider’s efficiency, which she diagnoses as being due to unrequited love, and the remainder of the story involves Spider’s efforts to track down Rau Lu again. The ending introduces another character that Bass refers to opaquely in The Godwhale; and there’s a surprise twist, revealed in the final paragraph.

Finally, “The Beast Of 309” (World Of If, January 1971) introduces Caesar, whose earliest memory is of waking up in Orphanage 309 after undergoing surgery to remove his left eye. The story narrates Caesar’s quest to discover the identity of the father who abandoned him at the orphanage, to find out why his eye was removed at an early age, and to earn enough money to be able to afford a transplant eye, genetically compatible with his own body.

The story plays out in various locations recognizable from the story of Spider and Rau Lu. The final revelation that solves all mysteries is simultaneously clever and chilling. (Bass partially reused this plot element in The Godwhale, but I think it’s much more effective in the neat closed loop he constructs here.)

I enjoyed reading these. (I know, I almost always say that. That’s because I don’t bother telling you about stuff I don’t enjoy reading.) But they have the same delights and frustrations as Bass’s novels—full of biological inventiveness, crammed with narrative ideas, but also full of rushed sections, discontinuities and plot holes, as if Bass was simply too impatient to get his ideas down on paper.

Nor are they entirely consistent with each other, or with the novels. Bass didn’t write a coherent future history, but offers us a bundle of alternate future histories featuring common characters and locations.

I’d recommend trying “The Beast Of 309” first, for its interesting ending. “Star Seeder” is weak. The other two are good fun, though I’d say that “Star Itch” is perhaps “unsuitable for viewers of a nervous disposition”, as the television used to warn me when I was a child (albeit a child imbued with nerves of steel).

(Be the first)

Nan Shepherd: The Living Mountain

Cover of The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

[…] I toiled up the last slope and came out above Glen Einich. Then I gulped the frosty air—I could not contain myself, I jumped up and down, I laughed and shouted. There was the whole plateau, glittering white, within reach of my fingers, an immaculate vision, sun-struck, lifting against a sky of dazzling blue. I drank and drank. I have not yet done drinking that draught. From that hour I belonged to the Cairngorms […]

That’s Nan Shepherd describing her first view of the Cairngorm plateau, on a perfect winter day, in fairly typical style. Shepherd lived in the same house in Aberdeenshire for almost her whole life, and developed an emotional bond with the Cairngorms during decades of exploration. She taught English Literature at the Aberdeen College of Education for forty years, during which time she published three Scottish Modernist novels—The Quarry Wood (1928), The Weatherhouse (1930), and A Pass In The Grampians (1933)—which I confess I have not read. She also produced a slim volume of poetry, In The Cairngorms (1934). It had an initial very limited print run and then fell into obscurity, but has recently been republished. The poems are full of striking imagery, but tend to veer off impenetrably—I experienced the recurring impression that some key emotional element was present in Shepherd’s head at the time of writing, but didn’t quite make it out into the printed word. I’m apparently not the only person to be left disorientated; Robert Macfarlane, in his introduction to the republished collection, reports that:

‘Very few people understand them’, said Shepherd of the poems late in her life, ‘which makes me feel better’

(Which, again, of course, suggests a hidden emotional context.)

But I think it’s fair to say that Shepherd is known nowadays largely because of her lyrical love-letter to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain—written during the 1940s, but set aside after fellow author Neil Gunn expressed reservations about how publishable it was. It eventually saw the light of day in 1977, just a few years before Shepherd’s death.

It seems likely, though, that many Scots will recognize Shepherd’s face despite never having encountered her name or works, since her striking portrait (based on a youthful photograph) graces the current £5 note from the Royal Bank of Scotland—though the flapper-era headband conjures up Native-American connotations for the uninitiated.

Nan Shepherd portrait on Royal Bank of Scotland £5 note

Next to the portrait are a few lines from The Living Mountain, and Shepherd’s lovely epitaph: “It’s a grand thing to get leave to live.”

I first read The Living Mountain back in the early ’80s, when the original Aberdeen University Press paperback was thrust into my hands by a fellow hill-walker who told me, “You’ve got to read this!” So I did. I remember being deeply jealous of Shepherd’s easy familiarity with the hills, and impressed by her beautiful prose, but slightly concerned at how overwrought she could become at fairly slight provocation. And I didn’t read it again, until I was recently reminded of it in chance conversation. Forty years on, with forty more years of roaming the hills behind me, and now more of an age with Shepherd when she wrote the book, I wondered how I’d now feel about it. So I went out and bought the recent Canongate edition, which has a helpful foreword by Robert Macfarlane (and a supererogatory afterword by Jeanette Winterson).

I found much to enjoy, this time around. Shepherd’s summarizes her relationship with the hills in this passage:

Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.

This is completely antithetical to the approach of those whom Ian Mitchell has called the “Tickers and Timers”—those who treat the hills as more of a venue for sporting achievement, rather than an end in themselves. And it’s this habit of stravaiging, in its original sense of “wandering aimlessly”, that allows Shepherd to pay so much attention to the hill environment. Probably most hill-walkers have noticed, for instance, the intricate patterns and structures created by the battle between flowing water and freezing conditions. But Shepherd doesn’t merely notice, she stops to observe and reflect, and sets down the results of her observations and reflections in lucid prose. And it’s the poet in her that allows her to say that the waters of Loch an Uaine are not merely green, but have the “green gleam of old copper roofs”, which is exactly right.

And here’s the flight of a golden eagle, as observed by Shepherd:

And when he has soared to the top of his bent, there comes the level flight as far as the eye can follow, straight, clean and effortless as breathing. The wings hardly move, now and then perhaps a lazy flap as though a cyclist, free-wheeling on a gentle slope, turned the crank a time or two. The bird seems to float, but to float with a direct and undeviating force.

Yes, says anyone who has observed an eagle in flight. That’s what it’s like.

On a more philosophical level, she captures two mental experiences that will be familiar to many who have spent long days in the hills. The first is this:

This is one of the reasons why the high plateau where these streams begin, the streams themselves, their cataracts and rocky beds, the corries, the whole wild enchantment, like a work of art is perpetually new when one returns to it. The mind cannot carry away all that it has to give, nor does it always believe possible what it has carried away.

For years now I’ve been standing in high places, thinking, I need to try to remember this better. And failing. It’s somehow comforting to see that someone else has had the same difficulty, particularly someone with Shepherd’s undoubted powers of single-minded attention.

And then there’s this:

These moments come unpredictably, yet governed, it would seem, by a law whose working is dimly understood. They come to me […] most of all after hours of steady walking, with the long rhythm of motion sustained until motion is felt, not merely known by the brain, as the ‘still centre’ of being. In some such way I suppose the controlled breathing of the Yogi must operate. Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent.

In modern parlance, Shepherd is I think describing the state of mindfulness, or perhaps the related flow state codified by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

I think these two linked phenomena, the serene experience of “walking the flesh transparent”, followed by an inability to perfectly recall the experience, are what keeps many of us returning to the hills, again and again, as Shepherd did.

So how have my feelings changed, on rereading The Living Mountain after a gap of forty years? I’m no longer jealous of her familiarity with the hills, but certainly even more impressed by her writing—my own familiarity with the places and conditions she describes means that almost every page contains a phrase or passage that seems perfectly descriptive*. But I still find myself slightly concerned at the intensity with which she seemed to experience life, on occasion becoming almost overwhelmed by simple sensory experiences. So I’m glad she was so frequently able to walk her flesh transparent—it must have been something of a relief.

* I’m not exaggerating, here. It’s my custom, when writing these reviews, to mark pages containing striking phrases or illustrative passages with a slip of paper, for later reference. When I finish this one, the thickness of the book had been all but doubled by my paper markers.

More About “Anti-Agathic”

Artwork for Charles L. Harness's short story "Fruits Of The Agathon" (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Dec. 1948)

From beneath the bushy V of satanic eyebrows, Rachs’ jet eyes seemed to shower sparks at him. As usual, that immobile face was incandescent, and Toring fancied he could almost hear the creaking of a carbon-arc in the brain of his superior. The Hungarian’s incredible energies frightened, rather than soothed patrons, and for years he had worked solely in the advancement of extra-sensory mechanics.
“Toring,” he clipped. “I want you to kill a man.”
[Toring] swallowed rapidly, and he was conscious of a dark silence in the room.
“I take it that the Council has finally approved your agathon program?” he asked the eyes.

Charles L. Harness, “Fruits Of The Agathon” (1948)

Browsing through the bibliography of Charles L. Harness the other day (as you do), my eye was drawn to a very early short story entitled “Fruits Of The Agathon” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1948). It was, in fact, only his second piece of published fiction after “Time Trap” (Astounding Science Fiction, August 1948). Courtesy of the Luminist Archives, my links will take you to copies of the two magazines in which these stories appeared. Unlike “Time Trap”, which has appeared in numerous collections over the years, “Fruits Of The Agathon” fell into obscurity fairly rapidly, and perhaps deservedly—it’s a complicated little story, chaotically full of ideas, which seems to start off in one direction, then changes course several times.

Harness was underrated throughout much of his lifetime. He specialized (as “Fruits Of The Agathon” demonstrated to excess) in idea-stuffed narratives of the kind James Blish called “intensively recomplicated”, featuring the sort of sprawling plots Brian Aldiss called “widescreen baroque”. Some day I’ll write about his first novel, The Paradox Men (1953), which features time travel, sword fights, colonies on the Sun, and a protagonist with a variety of talents indistinguishable from superpowers.

“Fruits Of The Agathon” features a device that can predict the date of someone’s death, but not the circumstances. The satanic Rachs, in my opening quote, wishes to exploit this knowledge for the greater good of humanity, by ensuring that the deaths of certain prominent citizens occur “under the circumstances considered most beneficial to the world”. That is, a carefully planned murder is carried out, rather than leaving death to potentially embarrassing chance. This “death plan” is called the agathon, and Harness helpfully opens his story with the etymology of his coined word, using one of those fake “Encyclopedia Exposita” entries with which science fiction writers often contrive a data-dump.

AGATHON: (From Greek, agathos, good, and thanatos, death.)

I won’t trouble you with the rest of the plot, which includes Freudian psychology, a mutually murderous family, extrasensory perception, telekinesis, and a set of artificial eyes which overheat after prolonged us.

The interesting thing about Harness’s agathon (for me, at least), is it predates James Blish’s use of the word anti-agathic, for a drug that prevents death, which first appeared in his story “At Death’s End” (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1954). Blish’s coining went on to become a science-fiction staple but (as I described in my original post on the topic) its etymology has always been a mystery, since agathic seems to lack a root relating to death. Instead, as Harness points out, the Greek agathos means “good”.

But Harness’s agathon pretty much elides the thanatos from which he claims it derives, so in his story we’re left with an agath- word that refers to death. Is it possible, then, that this is the origin of Blish’s idea that an anti-agathic would combat death?

It’s an appealing story, but there’s a sizeable fly in the ointment. As I pointed out in my original post, it took a while for Blish to settle on anti-agathic for his anti-death drugs. In his story “Bindlestiff” (Astounding Science Fiction, April 1950), he uses anti-agapic. The same word appears in “Sargasso Of Lost Cities” (Two Complete Science-Adventure Books, Spring 1953). In “Earthman Come Home” (Astounding Science Fiction, November 1953) it’s anti-athapic. Neither of these has any evident etymological connection to death. He only settled on anti-agathic in 1954, and later revised the text of his earlier stories to reflect that choice, when they were collected into the four novels of the Cities In Flight series.

So if we’re to invoke Harness as the origin of Blish’s usage of anti-agathic, we need a fairly convoluted scenario. Why would Blish have used a couple of similar words before eventually coming up with anti-agathic? Did he misremember Harness’s word, and only finally check back in 1954? But if so, why wouldn’t he have noticed Harness’s opening etymology of agathon (it’s right there on the title page of the story)? If he had noticed, he could readily have made the switch to the etymologically defensible anti-thanatic.

So. I’d love to claim that I’ve tracked down the origin of Blish’s word, but I’m afraid I’m unconvinced. I suspect we’ll never know where anti-agathic really came from.

T.J. Bass: The “Hive” Novels

Covers of the Hive novels by T.J. Bass

The [library] stacks contained only scant information on such things as sun, moon and stars—as if atrophy by disuse had allowed these items to be dropped. Hive flora included bountiful species of vermin—sharing the warmth and nutrition of Big Earth Society—lice, roaches, meaty rats (cross-indexed under game food), and insects. Nothing else. Nothing was reported swimming in the seas, flying in the air or walking the land. Fish, birds, reptiles and mammals—gone. Moses didn’t miss them, never having known them. He was just a little amazed that the total mass of protoplasm on the planet was concentrated in one species and his food chain. Man had proved to be a very successful creature indeed.

Thomas J. Bassler, MD, wrote science fiction under the pseudonym T.J. Bass. His publication history in that genre spans a mere five years, from 1968 to 1973, comprising two novels and a handful of short stories; but both his novels were nominated for the Nebula Award, although losing on both occasions to genre colossi—Robert Silverberg and Ursula K. Le Guin. These were the “Hive” novels, which is what I’m writing about today.

Bassler was a pathologist by profession, famous in some circles for his claim that marathon running induced an immunity to atherosclerosis, such that no-one who had run a marathon in under four hours would die a cardiac death in the next six years.

His medical knowledge sits front and centre in these two novels, which are deliberately layered with medical jargon to produce an effect (to borrow a phrase from James Blish) of intensive recomplication*. Here’s a typical bit of writing from Bass:

Kaia, the aborigine, sat hidden in the tall grain while he savoured the aromatic juices of fennel. Rich sharp flavors jolted pristine taste buds and stirred violent parasympathetic storms. Copious gastric juice flowed. Peristalsis gurgled.

His characters frequently lapse into med-speak, too, showing an easy knowledge of physiology and genetics. For instance, here are two men, faced with a woman who has secretly given birth to an “unauthorized” baby, and who is now bleeding heavily.

They both glanced down at the cooing infant. Dark eyes watched them. They smiled.
“The nipple-midbrain-uterine reflex,” said Tinker.
They carried the infant back to Mu Ren. She was trying to massage her uterine fundus, but the hemorrhage continued.
“Breastfeed,” said Tinker, handing her the infant.
She fumbled weakly, but the infant quickly locked on to the nipple—sucking strongly. Immediately she felt her fundus cramp and harden. The bleeding stopped.

With repeated episodes like this, Bass lets us see how his future society relies on the routine manipulation of human biology in the same way we current rely on, say, mobile-phone technology.

His writing also seems to tap into some of the values of the British New Wave in science fiction, which was peaking at the time Bass was writing. There’s the same weary pessimism, the same dystopian world-view, and the same experimental approach to writing—chopping up conventional plot and narrative structures, inserting odd bits of word-play. And then there’s another of the New Wave’s notable features—unappealing depictions of sex. Or perhaps, in Bass’s case, depictions of unappealing sex. There’s a fair amount of sex in his novels, and it falls entirely within a spectrum ranging from odd to frankly disturbing. Bass deepens that effect with his use of medical jargon and a sort of clinical detachment that is often shared by his … um … participants.

The “Hive” novels have a typical 1970s dystopian setting. When science-fiction writers of that era weren’t writing post-apocalyptic fiction, they were often preoccupied with the issues of overpopulation and ecological catastrophe. Bass imagines a future in which the population of the Earth has risen to three trillion. The entire fertile land surface of the world is given over to farmland that feeds this population, who cluster underground in crowded “shaft cities”. In order to tolerate this environment, the citizens have been subjected to genetic and physiological modifications, rendering them weak, passive and short-lived. Rigidly regulated from conception to premature grave, these members of “Big Earth Society” are called Nebishes (presumably a reference to the Yiddish word nebbish, “an innocuous, ineffectual, weak, helpless, or hapless unfortunate”. Their society is ordered for them by the CO—the Class One artificial intelligence that, in effect, runs the planet.

Outside the cities, a few hundred thousand wild humans of the old genetic stock eke out a marginal existence, living in the high mountains and sustaining themselves with raids on the farmland below. This makes them destructive vermin in the view of Big Earth Society, and they are regularly stalked and killed by hunters from the shaft cities. Bass calls these wild humans Buckeyes, a reference that is opaque to me. The neolithic culture of the Buckeyes is augmented by their ownership of pieces of ancient technology, including compact intelligent machines that can speak and advise them. Bass’s two novels chronicle conflicts between the Nebish “Hive” and these free-living humans of the “Outside”.

The first novel, Half Past Human (1971) consisted of interleaved parts of two novel-length stories that Bass had previously published: “Half Past Human” (Galaxy, December 1969) and “Song of Kaia” (Worlds of If, November-December 1970). You can read these on-line—my links take you to archived versions of the two magazine issues.

It’s difficult to summarize the seething plot of Half Past Human, which tends to shoot off in random directions fairly regularly. Along the way there’s cannibalism (as my quote at the head of this post describes, the world of the Hive is notably deficient in other sources of animal protein), and body horror (courtesy of Bass’s interest in pathology and trauma), straight-faced and tragic humour, and one excruciating pun that Bass sets up a hundred pages in advance.

He slowly builds the picture of his world by telling his story from multiple viewpoints: Nebishes within the Hive, Buckeyes outside, a few Nebishes who choose to leave the shaft cities and venture outside, and a sentient machine named Toothpick that describes itself as:

… just a leftover cyber from the period when man had many of us. It was an age of high technology and low population density—man and his machines were all over this planet, in the sea and air—even off planet—the moon, near space—even Mars and Deimos.

Oh, and there’s also a near-immortal dog with gold false teeth, who is probably the last canine in the world.

All these characters mill around for a while, having odd experiences and odd conversations, before Toothpick eventually leads a strange alliance of Buckeyes and Nebish defectors to find a vast repository of old-stock humans who have been kept in suspended animation for a thousand years, in an attempt to swell the ranks of the Buckeyes so that they can take the fight into the shaft cities of the Nebishes. The Nebishes fight back. And then there’s a deus ex machina ending involving a sentient starship called Olga, which has been lurking in the narrative background throughout the novel. (So it’s more of a machina ex machina ending, actually.)

The Godwhale (1973) is an elaboration of a previously published novelette entitled “Rorqual Maru” (Galaxy, January-February 1972). True to the form established in Half Past Human, Bass starts The Godwhale by cutting one of his main characters in half.

In a future nearer to our own than to the time of the Hive, Larry Dever (subsequently cheerfully referred to as “the hemihuman”) is crushed at the waist after becoming trapped in machinery, and undergoes a hemicorporectomy (amputation of the lower half of the body), a last-ditch procedure which had been performed only a few times in the years before Bass incorporated it into his novel. After the surgery, Dever elects to enter suspended animation, in the hope of being awoken in a future in which medical technology is capable of regrowing the lower half of his body. Instead, he’s revived by the Hive, and quickly classified as a potential protein source rather than a useful member of Big Earth Society. He manages to escape his fate in the recycler, and falls in with the Tweenwallers—rejects of Hive society who survive in the service tunnels and abandoned infrastructure of the shaft cities.

Another story strand involves the godwhale of the title—a cetacean cyborg named Rorqual Maru, which had once worked as an ocean harvester, but was abandoned after the seas became lifeless. We first encounter it as it beaches itself in despair.

Dever and one of the Tweenwallers (who turns out to have been cloned from cells taken from Dever’s lower half—don’t ask) eventually escape the shaft city, and discover the oceanic society of the Benthics. The Benthics, like the Buckeyes of Half Past Human, are old-genetic-stock humans who live a neolithic existence with the aid of ancient technology—in this case, a network of semi-sentient submerged dome habitats. And, like the Buckeyes, they are hunted by the Nebishes.

Bass has fun with the Benthics’ command of gas physiology. Here, for instance, they adopt a clever treatment for someone with a gangrenous arm wound:

“There may still be time,” said the shaggy old Benthic. “Notice how the finger pulps blanch on pressure. Then they pink up. The capillary beds haven’t clotted yet. If we can get him down four more levels the increased oxygen might kill off the organisms. Clostridia is an anaerobic bacillus. Oxygen kills it.”

Then, suddenly, plant and animal life begins to reappear in the ocean. The Rorqual Maru revives. Dever, Rorqual Maru and the Benthics team up with yet another clone of Dever (don’t ask) with two objectives—to fight back against the Hive, and to discover what has brought life back to the oceans. And the story ends with a couple of chapters containing a blizzard of ideas that would seem to lay the groundwork for several more novels. But I can’t do better than to quote the Science Fiction Encyclopedia at this point:

Though his control over the overall structure of a novel-length fiction was insecure, the abundance of his invention conveyed to readers of the 1970s a sense of Bass’s potential importance as an sf writer. But he fell silent, his series incomplete.

That about sums it up for me. While I enjoyed rereading these, Bass’s endless fireworks display of inventiveness is simultaneously delightful and infuriating. Delightful, because his ideas are fun and you want to read more about them; infuriating, because he keeps dashing off in new directions to the detriment of narrative structure.

You can read these two books in any order. I read The Godwhale first, back in the seventies, and remained completely ignorant of Half Past Human for a couple of decades thereafter. Of the two, I recommend The Godwhale, which has something approaching a conventional narrative structure, while retaining Bass’s signature style and discursive invention. Half Past Human is a harder read, though—in part because the two original stories from which it’s constructed aren’t brought together satisfactorily in the merged form, but also because Bass’s style is more chaotic in the earlier work.

Both are available as Kindle e-books from Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series.

* I wrote more about the narrative technique that Blish called intensive recomplication when I reviewed his “Cities In Flight” novels.

(Be the first)

James White: The Outlying “Sector General” Short Stories

Original publication covers of James White "Sector General" short stories
Click to enlarge

Like a sprawling, misshapen Christmas tree the lights of Sector Twelve General Hospital blazed against the misty backdrop of the stars. From its view-ports shone lights that were yellow and red-orange and soft, liquid green, and others which were a searing actinic blue. There was darkness in places also. Behind these areas of opaque metal plating lay sections wherein the lighting was so viciously incandescent that the eyes of approaching ship’s pilots had to be protected from it, or compartments which were so dark and cold that not even the light which filtered in from the stars could be allowed to penetrate to their inhabitants.

James White “Sector General” (1957)

I’ve already introduced James White when I reviewed four of his stand-alone novels recently. At that time, I mentioned that he was best know for his series of twelve Sector General novels, and promised that I’d have more to say on Sector General in another post.

The Sector General series started life as a cluster of short stories (strictly, novelettes), published in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Almost all these stories ended up being incorporated into the early Sector General books, which were fix-up novels. That left only a few scattered stories sitting outside the novel sequence, which is what I’m referring to as the “outlying” stories in the title of this post.

But first, a little background. At the head of this post are the very first words of the first published Sector General story, which appeared in the November 1957 edition of New Worlds Science Fiction. It was introduced by the editor, John Carnell, with the following prescient words:

This month’s novelette is one of the most unusual and interesting plot ideas we have published for a long time. Undoubtedly, it is James White’s most powerful story to date and could well form the basis of further plots built round an intergalactic hospital ship.

Carnell eventually turned out to be right about the “intergalactic” bit, despite the complete lack of mention of anything beyond our own galaxy in the story he was introducing—after a few stories White did introduce visitors from another galaxy. He was certainly wrong about the “ship”—Sector Twelve General turns out to be a gigantic cylinder containing 384 decks, floating permanently at the edge of our galaxy. But he was undoubtedly right about the “further plots”—White went on to write Sector General stories for more than forty years, the last novel appearing in 1999, shortly before his death.

As the quote above makes clear, the multiple decks of White’s hospital station are designed to accommodate the many and varied species of the Galactic Federation. After a few stories, it becomes evident that, despite its name, Sector Twelve General Hospital is nothing less than the tertiary referral centre for the entire galaxy—there are other multienvironment hospitals, and other doctors trained in alien physiology, but Sector General takes on the trickiest cases.

In order to get a handle on the environmental requirements of patients (and staff), White’s medics assign each species four-letter physiological codes. In the first story we encounter the VTMX “energy eaters”, the elephantine FLGIs with their symbiotic OTSBs, the human DBDGs, the water-breathing AUGLs, the chlorine-breathing PVSJs, the low-gravity LSVOs … and so on. To accommodate all this different anatomy, physiology, pathology and psychology, the hospital’s medical staff use “Educator Tapes”—knowledge copied from the minds of alien experts, which is impressed temporarily on their brains so that they can deal with the illnesses of alien species. In his first Sector General story, White introduces the idea like this:

This was Conway’s first experience of an alien physiology tape, and he noted with interest the mental double vision which had increasingly begun to affect his mind—a sure sign that the tape had ‘taken’. By the time he had reached the Radiation Theatre he felt himself to be two people—an Earth-human called Conway and the great, five-hundred unit Telfi gestalt which had been formed to prepare a mental record of all that was known regarding the physiology of that race. That was the only disadvantage—if it was a disadvantage—of the Educator Tape system. Not only was the knowledge impressed on the mind undergoing ‘tuition’, the personalities of the entities who had possessed that knowledge was transferred as well. Small wonder then that the Diagnosticians, who held in their mind sometimes as many as ten different tapes, were a little bit queer.

In story after story, White went on to invent new pathological quirks for his burgeoning cast of aliens, which posed new diagnostic and therapeutic challenges for his medical staff (and sometimes put them in danger). And through all the stories runs White’s trademark sentiment that conflict comes from misunderstanding, and problems are solved when people (and aliens) work together with good intentions. Indeed, White was one of the very early proponents of “pacifist space opera”—although the military “Monitor Corps” features repeatedly in his stories, their job (prefiguring Star Trek by a decade) is one of peace-keeping and exploration. The stories are also suffused with White’s gentle humour, some of which might easily have graced Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy:

They were an old, wise and humble race, O’Mara concluded; intensely humble. So much so that they tended to look down on other races who were not so humble as they.

All the early Sector General stories appeared in New Worlds, and the relevant issues are all available through the Luminist Archives. (My links below will take you to the pdf files of the named issues.) The first five stories were “Sector General” (November 1957), “Trouble With Emily” (November 1958), “Visitor At Large” (June 1959), “O’Mara’s Orphan” (January 1960) and “Out-Patient” (June 1960). In these early stories, White introduced most of his major characters: the protagonist Dr Conway, who first appears as an intern, two months into the job, and who has reached the rank of Senior Physician by the start of “Out-Patient”; the constantly rude Chief Psychologist, Major O’Mara (“My job is to shrink heads, not swell ’em”); Dr Prilicla, the fragile, insectile empath from a low-gravity planet; and the elephantine Diagnostician-in-Charge of Pathology, Thornnastor. Even Conway’s later love-interest, Nurse Murchison, has a walk-on part (in “Visitor At Large”). These stories were fixed up into the first Sector General novel, Hospital Station, in 1962, with just a little light editing to provide linking text at the end of each story to lead into the next one. The story “O’Mara’s Orphan” was also bumped to the start of the novel (and renamed “Medic”), because it’s a prequel set during the construction of Sector General.

The next novel, Star Surgeon (1963) merged together the short story “Resident Physician” (September 1961) and the novel-length story “Field Hospital”, which had been serialized in the January, February and March issues of New Worlds in 1962. The stories work well together—the alien patient treated by Conway in “Resident Physician” goes on to precipitate the events of “Field Hospital”, in which Sector General becomes the focus of an intergalactic war (and Conway’s romance with Murchison blooms).

Shortly after the publication of Star Surgeon, John Carnell relinquished the editorship of New Worlds, and moved on to edit the paperback original-anthology series New Writings In SF. White’s outlet for Sector General stories moved with Carnell. Another series that followed Carnell from New Worlds to New Writings was Colin Kapp’s Unorthodox Engineers stories, which I’ve written about previously. And, as with Kapp’s work, it was my local public library’s regular subscription to New Writings In SF that gave me my first encounter with Sector General.

For New Writings, White produced a linked series of stories, all dealing with the unlikely denizens of the planet Meatball, which is entirely covered by continent-sized life-forms. These were “Invader” (New Writings 7, 1966), “Vertigo” (New Writings 12, 1968), “Blood Brother” (New Writings 14, 1969), “Meatball” (New Writings 16, 1969) and “Major Operation” (New Writings 18, 1971). By the end of that sequence, Murchison had managed to make an implausibly abrupt transition from nurse to senior pathologist, presumably because White wanted to give her a more major diagnostic role, and the role of nurses in hospital stories of this era was largely restricted to being caring, being alarmed, and handing things to doctors. It was “Vertigo” and “Major Operation” that first caught my teenage attention, and I was tantalized by the obvious fact that there must be more of these stories out there somewhere, while remaining ignorant of Hospital Station and Star Surgeon until their reissue by the Corgi SF Collector’s Library in 1976.

These five stories were brought together in the fix-up novel Major Operation (1971). White retained the format of interlinked episodes in his next two novels, Ambulance Ship (1979) and Sector General (1983), but the short stories featured in these novels were never individually published.

So that ends my gallop through the various short stories that White assembled to produce his first three Sector General novels. But there are other stories that link into the Sector General universe, and they’re what I really wanted to write about, since they’re a collection of curiosities.

The easiest one to describe is “Countercharm”. This is a comparatively short piece, written in haste to fill a slot in the hundredth issue of New Worlds (November 1960). There’s no diagnostic puzzle to be solved—it just describes Conway’s struggle with the personality he absorbs from an Educator tape, which not only turns him into an expert in ELNT medicine, but also leads him to fall in love with a crab-like alien, a predicament from which he is rescued with the aid of Nurse Murchison. Chronologically, the story lies between the end of Hospital Station and the start of Star Surgeon, and it provides the explanation for Murchison’s transformation from walk-on character in the former to love interest in the latter. But its light tone is inconsistent with the darker theme of Star Surgeon, and it’s clear why White, or his publisher, chose not to incorporate it.

Then there’s “Spacebird”, which appeared in New Writings In SF 22 (1973). This is a classic Sector General puzzle story, in which the crew of a Monitor Corps scoutship chance upon what appears to be a huge bird covered in barnacles, floating in interstellar space. And still, apparently, alive. Conway, Murchison and Prilicla are presented with this gigantic patient, and need to puzzle out not only what’s wrong with it, but how and why it ended up drifting between the stars. Depending on which edition of Ambulance Ship you buy, you may or may not discover “Spacebird” as its opening chapter. It wasn’t included in the first Ballantine editions in the United States, but turned up in the British Corgi edition of 1980. Then it disappeared again from the 1986 Orbit edition, before appearing again in the version of Ambulance Ship included in the Alien Emergencies anthology of 2002.

White also managed to draw a couple of his previous stories, unrelated to Sector General at the time they were written, into the Sector General universe retroactively. The first time he did this was with the opening story of the novel entitled Sector General. This was an “origins” story entitled “Accident”, which describes how Sector Twelve General Hospital came to be conceived, specifically as a way of promoting understanding between the different intelligent species of the Galactic Federation. It tells the story of two war veterans, one human and one Orligian, both painfully aware of how interspecies misunderstanding can lead to conflict, who are caught up in an major accident at a spaceport. The survivors, from multiple species, must cooperate to save the more critically injured, despite having next to no knowledge of how to administer first aid to alien beings. In this story White reuses characters from his story, “Tableau” (New Worlds May 1958). In this story, set many years prior to the events of “Accident”, the human and Orligian protagonists encounter each other on the battlefield. Both are severely injured, the human dying. They come to understand that they have been fighting a war based only on an interspecies misunderstanding, and then they become instrumental in ending the conflict. It’s a poignant and rather shocking story, albeit one that needs a rather contrived set-up to work. And I can see why White wanted to place these same characters, now allies championing the cause of peace, in the story of “Accident”—it works very well in narrative terms. But it sits uneasily as part of the history of the Sector General universe, invoking as it does a raft of exotic technologies that are absent from the other stories, including an interspecies telepathy device that would have made life a great deal easier for the medics of Sector Twelve General.

In the tenth Sector General novel, Final Diagnosis (1997), White introduced a protagonist named Hewlitt, and a centaur-like alien race called the Duthans. Hewlitt runs Hewlitt the Tailor, which is a “small but very exclusive company that can charge the Earth and moon for its services, which is to provide handcrafted, custom-built garments made from the original, handwoven or spun tweeds and fine worsted materials.” This is a reference to one of my favourite White short stories, “Custom Fitting” (1976), which first appeared in the paperback original anthology Stellar #2. (And inspired its memorable cover illustration by The Brothers Hildebrandt.) In this story the Duthan ambassador has arrived in London to welcome humanity into the Galactic Federation, but needs some appropriate formal dress to wear when attending the royal reception in his honour. And so a traditional tailor named Hewlitt finds himself designing a morning suit for a centaur. It’s a gentle tale, full of humour, and it draws on White’s experience working as a tailor in his early life. It’s nice to know that the original Hewlitt spawned a successful dynasty, and “Custom Fitting” sits slightly more easily in Sector General’s early history than does “Tableau”, though it’s not entirely consistent with the history of the Galactic Federation as depicted in the novels.

Finally, there’s the oddity of “Occupation: Warrior” (1959), which deals with a peace-keeping force called the Guard who seem to have a role very similar to that of Sector General’s Monitor Corps (and wear the same green uniforms). When interspecies conflict arises in the Galactic Union of the story (which seems to be similar to the Galactic Federation of Sector General) and cannot be resolved politically, the Guard oversees a sort of sanitized and carefully even-handed version of war, on planets carefully set aside for that purpose, fought by carefully picked soldiers who don’t really want to be involved, and subject to continuous psychological intervention by the Guards which is designed to highlight the horrors of war. The story is set during one such stage-managed war, between humans and Kelgians (a caterpillar-like race that also features in the Sector General novels), and features the efforts of one officer, Major Dermod, to turn the pantomime war into a real war. For those who know the Sector General novels, “Occupation: Warrior” is an oddly dislocating read, clearly not part of the Sector General story, but full of links to it.

The explanation for this comes in White’s essay “The Secret History of Sector General”, which appeared at the start of Ambulance Ship. In it he describes writing a long novelette entitled “Classification: Warrior”, intended to be the fourth of the Sector General stories. It explored the peace-keeping role of the Monitor Corps. Editor John Carnell thought it was far too serious a piece to accord with the established lightness and humour of the three previous Sector General stories, and persuaded White to lightly rewrite it. Carnell then placed it, retitled “Occupation: Warrior”, in the UK incarnation of Science Fiction Adventures, a magazine which he also edited—almost as if quarantining it from the main stream of Sector General stories running in New Worlds.

White doesn’t seem to have been happy with this outcome, and writes:

In “Occupation: Warrior,” which should have been the fourth Sector General story, “Classification: Warrior,” the leading character was a tactician called Dermod; and the same character turned up again as the Monitor Corps Fleet Commander who defended the hospital in Star Surgeon as well as having an important part to play in Major Operation. I don’t know why I went to the trouble of establishing this tenuous connection between the series proper and the Sector General story that had been deliberately de-Sector Generalized, but it seemed important to me at the time.

And that’s it. Those are the five “Sector General” stories that sit outside the run of twelve novels. “Countercharm” is a minor piece, but solidly part of the canon. You can find it in White’s short story collection The Aliens Among Us (1969), and also in the expensive hardback tribute to White from NESFA Press, The White Papers (1996), which is a book for White completists only. “Spacebird” is a typical Sector General story. As well as appearing in British editions of Ambulance Ship, it was included in White’s collection Futures Past (1982). Both “Tableau” and “Occupation: Warrior” are too bleak to sit easily in the Sector General universe. Both feel slightly contrived in their set-up, but both have striking endings that reflect White’s commitment to pacifism. They’re both also collected in The Aliens Among Us. “Custom Fitting” is a delight, and has very much the same light and humorous tone as the Sector General series—it’s included in Futures Past, as well as being widely anthologized elsewhere. So you can read all five of these stories if you track down copies of The Aliens Among Us and Futures Past. Unfortunately, unlike almost every other classic science fiction author I’ve written about here, White seems not to have been the subject of a major e-book revival, which I find rather sad. There is a Kindle edition of The Aliens Among Us, but not of Futures Past.

And if you’re looking for the novels in e-book format, some of the later ones are available for the Kindle in the USA, as well as three anthology editions which together include the first eight in the series, but these are mysteriously unavailable in the UK at time of writing, which is a shame.

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James White: Four Novels

Covers of four novels by James White
Click to enlarge

I usually respond well to editorial criticism, and I invariably take notice of a constructive review. Generally speaking, however, those people who like my stories show great sensitivity and intelligence—those who don’t, don’t.

James White, quoted by Graham Andrews

James White was a Northern Irish science fiction author, who deserves to be better known than he is. He had this to say about himself in the author’s note to the Ace edition of his novel The Escape Orbit.

I first started writing for fan magazines, and wrote my first story partly as a joke and partly because I was fed up with all the atomic doom stories which were current at that time and wanted to write one with a happy ending. Submitted this first story to Ted Carnell of New Worlds who said he liked it and had I any other ideas … I’ve been writing professionally as a hobby ever since.

White continued to “write professionally as a hobby” for the next twenty years, retaining his day job until he was forced to retire through ill-health, and writing in the evenings in his loft conversion—his stories never seem to have made enough money to make a full-time writing career an option. Most of his novels and story collections are now long out of print, and (unlike so many other science-fiction authors of his vintage) he has yet to be granted a second life in e-book form. Which is a shame. In my view the world needs more exposure to White’s gentle humanity, deeply felt pacifism, and wry wit.

He is now mainly remembered for his “Sector General” series of novels, featuring the activities of a huge multi-species hospital on the edge of the galaxy. Most of the early novels in that series were assembled from short stories—at first published in New Worlds magazine, and later in the anthology series New Writings in S.F. And it was in New Writings, which regularly appeared on the shelves of my local public library, that White first came to my attention, with memorable Sector General short stories like “Vertigo” (1968), “Meatball” (1969) and “Spacebird” (1973).

I’m going to write something about Sector General another time, but for now I’ve been re-reading four of his (now largely forgotten) stand-alone novels, spanning a decade beginning in the early 1960s. They all manifest the things that people of “great sensitivity and intelligence” like about White’s stories. For one, his characters have vivid internal lives—we share their stress, fear and confusion as White’s intricate plots buffet them around. For another, almost all his stories (Open Prison a partial exception) feature antagonists who mean well—in White’s stories, conflict arises because people misunderstand each other or their situation, and conflict is resolved by good people making their best efforts to reach mutual understanding. And finally, there’s White’s gentle humour, sometimes exquisitely timed to place a beat of relief into a rampingly tense situation. And, interestingly, three of the four feature medics as principal characters, despite the fact the drama comes from something other than medical practice.

Here’s a quick summary of the four novels I recently dug out of the attic. (White, in his loft conversion in the sky, might find that amusing.)

Open Prison (1965) was original serialized in 1964 in New Worlds. UK publishers retained White’s original title, while in the USA it appeared under the slightly misleading title The Escape Orbit (but with much better cover art). It was nominated for the inaugural Nebula Award in 1966, losing to Frank Herbert’s Dune, so no shame in that.

The premise of the story is that humans have been involved in an inconclusive interstellar war against insectile aliens, predictably called “Bugs”, for sixty years. The chlorine-breathing Bugs have addressed the problem of dealing with thousands of oxygen-breathing prisoners-of-war by simply dumping their prisoners to fend for themselves on an uninhabited planet with an oxygen atmosphere. The story starts with the arrival of a senior officer, Sector Marshal Warren, on the prison planet. He discovers that the humans have divided themselves into two groups—the Committee, who have devoted themselves to formulating some method of escape (which they’ve been working on for decades with little success); and the Civilians, who have simply abandoned all pretext to military organization, and started making the best life for themselves that they can, under the circumstances. Warren aligns himself with the Committee, and starts driving the escape attempt forward towards a definite deadline.

At first, I couldn’t work out why this one had been nominated for a Nebula—the first half of the novel is a very slow burn, largely taken up with political manoeuvring, as well as some breath-takingly blithe sexism which serves as a reminder that even the relatively recent past is a foreign country. But when the escape attempt begins, with the humans luring down and then storming a Bug shuttle-craft, using cross-bows and improvised spacesuits, it really starts to rattle along. And there are two twists in the final few chapters, each of which recasts the context of the narrative, leading to an ending that is simultaneously downbeat and hopeful.

I kept thinking of other novels while reading The Watch Below (1966). It reminded me in turn of Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure, then Andy Weir’s The Martian and then Robert Heinlein’s Orphans Of The Sky. (Heinlein’s novel, which predates White’s, gets an acknowledgement in The Watch Below when it is discussed, though not named, by some of the characters.)

The novel has two parallel story strands. The first, which dominates the narrative, involves the fate of five people (three men and two women) trapped below decks on a large oil tanker, the Gulf Trader, when it is torpedoed in 1942. The tanker is being transferred, empty of oil, from the USA to the UK, where it will be refitted for some vaguely hinted-at anti-submarine role. But for now its empty tanks have been crammed with food and equipment to aid Britain’s war effort. So the sunken survivors find themselves two hundred feet underwater, sealed into a very large watertight space that is packed with the necessities of survival. As they await rescue they set up a generator and lights, a still to desalinate water, and plant beans under artificial light to absorb carbon dioxide and replace oxygen. (While they wait for the beans to grow, they have access to cylinders of oxygen from multiple oxy-acetylene welding kits.) But rescue never comes.

The other strand deals with a crew of water-breathing aliens, fleeing the destruction of their home planet in a colony fleet. The flight to a new world will take many of their lifetimes, but the crew will spend most of that time in artificial hibernation, being woken only occasionally to serve watch duty and keep the fleet on course. Except they discover that repeated episodes of hibernation will cause brain damage, rendering the crew unfit to keep watch. Or indeed, feed themselves.

Both narratives then turn into distorted versions of the classic “generation ship gone wrong” science-fictional trope, of which Heinlein’s novel is a fine example. The alien crew decide to stay awake and produce children, who will, generation after generation, be trained to pilot the fleet and its hibernating passengers to their destination. And the five people trapped in the sunken tanker  … well, they start having children, too. And decades pass, and their children have children. (I know, I know. There is a point with this one at which you just need to take a deep breath and go along for the ride.)

The two stories then proceed in a sort of narrative lock-step, with successive generations of aliens and humans encountering progressively worsening problems as each group struggles to survive. Of course the two strands are going to converge eventually, and the rough outline of how they’re going to come together is fairly evident. But White pulls it all off neatly in a couple of chapters, with a fine plot development I didn’t see coming.

All Judgement Fled (1967) is a “First Contact” novel—a big mysterious spaceship enters the solar system, and a small band of humans travel out to investigate it and explore its interior. Yup, that is indeed the set-up for Arthur C. Clarke’s later and much more famous novel, Rendezvous With Rama (1973). Mike Resnick once wrote*:

I never knew quite how to describe [All Judgement Fled] until Rendezvous With Rama came out and won the 1974 Hugo. Now, I just tell people that if they want to read Rama done right (sorry, Arthur), pick up All Judgement Fled.

That’s a bit of a false dichotomy, I reckon—it’s possible to do “exploring giant mysterious alien artefact” right in more ways than one. Clarke’s beautiful “sense of wonder” novel won him a well-deserved Hugo award, but left his spacecraft as an open-ended mystery. White’s novel sets a puzzle, puts his characters through an emotional and physical wringer as they try to work out what’s going on, and then reaches a conclusion with the puzzle solved.

White’s astronauts are attacked on entering the alien spaceship, but are uncertain if they’re dealing with vicious alien animals or the builders of the craft, and their situation becomes increasingly perilous as some of their spacesuits are damaged, trapping some members of the exploratory group aboard the ship. They are forced to push deeper into its interior, fighting off repeated attacks with improvised weapons while attempting to understand what they’re dealing with. Meanwhile (in a marvellously prescient version of today’s social-media hate-storms), public opinion back on Earth turns against the astronauts, who are accused of slaughtering the ambassadors of an alien race. White evokes the emotional strain this imposes on the exploratory team very well, as they simultaneously fight for their lives, doubt their own decisions and deal with increasingly fatuous and bullying messages from their controllers on Earth. The whole thing eventually builds to an almost cinematic climax (and I’d certainly pay to see the film adaptation of this novel, if one is ever made).

Dark Inferno (1972) originally appeared in serial form in the magazine Galaxy Science Fiction, then had its title changed to the more literal Lifeboat when published in the USA by Ballantine. UK publishers retained White’s original (and in my view more pleasing) title.

This one made me think of the film Airport (1970), and I’m pretty sure that’s not merely a coincidence. White’s novel similarly introduces a cast of characters and then loads them aboard a doomed flight—on this occasion, the spaceship Eurydice, bound from Earth to the Jovian moons. (The spacecraft’s name refers to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and, like White’s original title, hints that its passengers are destined for a hellish experience.)

The point-of-view character is Mercer, the ship’s doctor, who mixes freely with both the crew and the passengers, and its through him we experience the gently ramping tension as the Eurydice‘s systems go from nigglingly not-quite-right, to very slightly wrong, to really pretty badly wrong, and then to an acute failure that precipitates the sudden chaotic abandonment of the ship in a tiny fleet of lifeboats. The crew are housed in individual cabins, detached from the body of the ship—Mercer’s “lifeboat” is the original ship’s sick-bay, in which he is tending the severely injured captain of the Eurydice. The passengers are housed in fragile inflatable pods, each designed to keep three people alive for a couple of weeks—but in the chaos of departure, some are overloaded with four passengers, and one contains only a ten-year-old boy.

The lifeboats must first move away from Eurydice while waiting for it to explode, but then turn around and make rendezvous in a group so that they can be picked up by a rescue mission. It’s Mercer’s job to talk the panic-stricken passengers through that complicated process, as well as helping them deal with a succession of emergencies, using a radio that broadcasts on an open channel to all the lifeboats simultaneously. The Eurydice‘s course had taken it inside the orbit of Venus, so the temperature starts to rise in all the lifeboats, particularly the overcrowded ones. And when the Eurydice takes longer to explode than anyone had predicted, resources begin to run low …

Again, White really ramps up the tension in the closing chapters, with a succession of skin-of-the-teeth rescues.

Although I enjoyed rereading all of these, I was least engaged by Open Prison. The alien Bugs, who serve little other purpose than to be shot, are a serious departure from White’s usual approach. Instead, his trademark “search for mutual understanding” is confined entirely to the opposing human factions on the prison planet. But it’s full of nicely observed moments, like this one:

With gestures which were an improbable combination of salute, cheery wave and thumbs-up sign, Kelso and Sloan disappeared into the mouth of the tunnel heading for Number Two Attack Point

The Watch Below is certainly strange, but oddly compulsive. The human decision to found an informal underwater colony is obviously bonkers, and it wouldn’t actually work, but White manages to usher his readers past all that, and engage them with the dramas that arise from the crazy premise. And in the middle of all the grim stuff, there’s always a little glimpse of humour:

With the passing years the doctor’s hair had gone white, Dickson’s had gone gray, and the lieutenant commander’s had gone completely.

All Judgement Fled is psychologically the most intense, as the humans fight for survival while being undermined by their own Mission Control. White constructs an exponential rise in tension, showing us in a series of cameos that the starfish-like aliens attack from ambush, that they are able to clutch a human being tightly in their tentacles, and that they also possess a central, stabbing horn at the base of those radiating tentacles. So the reader knows exactly what’s going to happen, but not when. The inevitable fatal attack occurs in zero gravity, and White stages it so that it’s almost off-screen, letting his readers draw their own pictures. This reader has had the picture in his head now for thirty years:

There were shouts, curses and a scream that jerked on and off regularly, as if someone was trying to hold a high note while his back was being clapped. McCullough swung round and raised his weapon, but the center of the room was a confused mass of twisting, struggling bodies which were rapidly becoming obscured by a growing red fog and there was nothing he could do.

But Dark Inferno is still my favourite. It has its problems—the organization of the lifeboats into well-appointed crew quarters and marginally equipped passenger compartments is designed to serve the needs of the story and doesn’t bear close examination; and there’s a little problem with conservation of angular momentum that drove me mad on first reading, back when I was a judgemental teenage physics nerd. But it’s beautifully paced and genuinely tense, shot through with memorable moments. The scene in which the doctor, Mercer, listens helplessly on his radio while two men start a murderous fight in one of the lifeboats, sticks in the mind, as does a classic “defuse the tension” moment during the fraught rescue sequence. Here’s the radio exchange between Mercer and one of the other crewmen, who is returning to the rendezvous point after being out of touch for hours while chasing down an errant lifeboat:

‘That was quite a chase, Mercer. It will take me five hours to get back there, but I have them aboard.’
‘Are they all right?’
‘Two of them are doing fine. But the other man, Saddler, is running a bluff with a pair of threes.’

So I’d recommend both All Judgement Fled and Dark Inferno as exciting and well-constructed reads, though a modern reader will wince from time to time at the authorial Male Gaze to which female characters are subjected. The Watch Below is marvellously odd, but probably not for everyone. And Open Prison is really too much of its time—although cleverly constructed and pacey in its second half, it very much shows its age.

* Resnick was writing in the introduction to NESFA Press’s The White Papers (1996), a celebration of White’s work

. I’ve now written about the “Sector General” stories, here.

Jack Williamson: The “Seetee” Novels

The "Seetee" novels, by Will Stewart (Jack Williamson)

[T]he same men who split the terrene atom had also written the theory of contraterrene matter—of atoms inside out, with negative nuclei and orbital positrons. Duplicating every element and property of the matter all men know, that other stuff is entirely stable, the theory shows—until it touches something terrene.
But contact between these two types of matter ignites pure fury. Unlike charges are attracted. Unlike particles collide and cancel out. Einstein calculated the energy released—some twenty-five billion kilowatt hours—for every kilogram of matter consumed.
Undismayed by that untouchable stuff, the spatial engineers have named it familiarly seetee, and they are reaching daringly to grasp it now.

Jack Williamson, Seetee Shock (1950)

Jack Williamson, one of several writers to rejoice under the informal title of “Dean of Science Fiction”, was born in 1908 in what was then Arizona Territory, and amazingly published works in the fantasy and science fiction genres over a span of nine decades, from the 1920s to the 2000s.

On my shelves I have a smattering of Williamson in paperback. The Legion of Space series is a rollicking bit of space opera, in the 1930s style of E.E. “Doc” Smith, but enhanced by its whining Falstaffian antihero, Giles Habibula. The Legion of Time (1938) took much the same approach to time travel, and gave us the concept of the “Jonbar point”—a critical point in history at which a very slight tweak to a single event will resonate and magnify to produce an entirely different future. And Darker Than You Think (1948) was an innovative take on the werewolf story, in which a journalist discovers a secret history of conflict between Homo sapiens and Homo lycanthropus.

But my hardcover first editions of Seetee Ship and Seetee Shock are not the first copies of these novels that I’ve owned. I first encountered them in the Lancer paperback editions of 1968, and had my eleven-year-old mind blown by Seetee Ship. The impression from that novel is so vivid that I can recall the exact circumstances of the purchase—my mother bought me a bundle of four science fiction paperbacks from a “reduced to clear” bin in what at that time was pretty much the only bookshop in Dundee, a rather pokey little outlet of John Menzies on Whitehall Street. The “Seetee” novels were bundled with a rather nice anthology, An ABC of Science Fiction (1966), and a deeply forgettable item entitled The Throwbacks (1965), by Roger Sarac ( which, as it turns out, was a well-advised but rather transparent pseudonym for the wildlife photographer and conservationist, Roger Caras).

With that bit of personal history out of the way, we now have two puzzles to address: why are the books illustrated at the head of the post authored by “Will Stewart”, and what the heck is “seetee”?

“Will Stewart” was a pseudonym adopted by Williamson, derived from his full name, John Stewart Williamson. The two novels were based on short stories and a serial originally published in the magazine Astounding Science-Fiction, and it was common practice at that time for prolific authors to assume pseudonyms for some of their stories, which gave editors more flexibility in putting together their magazines without having to run two stories under the same byline in a single issue. Seetee, as the quote at the head of this post hints, is a phonetic rendering of “C.T.”, for Contra-Terrene, an old adjective for what we now call antimatter—matter composed of anti-particles which will annihilate with regular (“terrene”) matter, releasing a very large amount of energy.

Williamson (in his guise as Will Stewart) started writing about antimatter in 1942, and was one of the first science-fiction authors to do so. First came three novellas: “Collision Orbit” (July 1942), “Minus Sign” (November 1942) and “Opposites—React!” (January & February 1943). Astounding later published a three-part serial novel, Seetee Shock, in February, March and April 1949. You can read all of these on-line—my links take you to the relevant issues of Astounding held on the Internet Archive. Seetee Shock was picked up in largely unaltered form by Simon and Schuster, and published in 1950. Williamson then mashed up the plots of his three earlier novellas into a coherent novel, which was published by Gnome Press as Seetee Ship in 1951. The novels should therefore be read in reverse order of publication—Seetee Shock is very much a sequel to Seetee Ship.

The stories are set in the late twenty-second century, but much coloured by the politics of the 1940s. Planetary colonies have been founded—the Japanese and Chinese are on Venus, Germans on Mars, and Russians inhabit the larger moons of Jupiter; the latter two referred to as the “German Reich” and the “Jovian Soviet”. The resource-rich asteroid belt, thinly populated by hardy asteroid miners (the asterites), is under the effective control of a mega-corporation called Interplanet, whose exploitation of the asteroid miners is backed up by the military forces of the High Space Mandate. The parallels with the East India Company and the Royal Navy in British colonial America are fairly obvious. Indeed, Williamson was one of the originators of the now well-worn science-fictional trope of asteroid miners as tough-minded, resourceful and oppressed, and therefore ripe for rebellion.

But Williamson introduces two interesting plot elements, which set these stories apart from the works that have followed. The first is the idea of paragravity—a force that is a hybrid of magnetism and gravity. His asteroid colonies sit on top of buried paragravity generators, which give them Earth-like gravity and let them retain an atmosphere. The main asterite city on Pallas sits on a shallowly buried paragravity generator, and Williamson has fun describing how quickly the local gravity vector changes, so that anyone walking away from Pallasport across the flat surrounding terrain finds themselves apparently climbing a progressively steeper slope into thinner and thinner air. He coined the word “terraforming” for this method of giving asteroids Earthlike gravity and air pressure, and the word is now a technical term for proposed methods of converting lifeless planets into Earthlike environments.

But his main narrative innovation is the way he treats antimatter—his version of the asteroid belt is full of antimatter asteroids, which the asterites call “hell in chunks”, as well as orbiting clouds of antimatter dust, the “seetee drift”. I don’t know of any other science-fiction writer who has placed his characters within arm’s length of stonking great lumps of antimatter, and set them the task of controlling and exploiting it. However, in his original stories, Williamson severely underestimated the amount of energy that would be liberated when even the microscopic dust of his seetee drift came into contact with regular matter. In reality, a speck of antimatter weighing about as much as a pollen grain would release the energy of a stick of dynamite, if it annihilated totally with matter. But Williamson seems to have initially imagined something no more energetic than a conventional chemical reaction. In an early short story, for instance, he has a character use a long length of wire to test whether a chunk of metal is matter or antimatter, just by giving it a cautious poke and seeing if there’s a blue flash. But by the time that scene found its way into Seetee Ship, the character uses a seetee detector that fires a single alpha particle at the target and then detects the gamma rays produced by annihilation.

In reality, Williamson’s asteroid belt would be a lethal zone of massive explosions and intense radiation—but it’s a marvellous setting for his tales of adventure and engineering derring-do. His asterite heroes seek to control seetee, with the eventual aim of harnessing it as an effectively unlimited source of power. Their plan is to eventually build seetee machines that can process and control a flow of seetee particles, directing them into an annihilation chamber from which power can be extracted. But first they have to find a way to build seetee machines …

That quest, for a way of building a crude seetee machine that can construct a more complex seetee machine, is one plot strand of Seetee Ship. The “spatial engineers” desperately need a seetee bedplate—some method of safely and securely anchoring a piece of seetee within a workspace made of conventional matter. The other plot strand is the investigation of a damaged alien spaceship, which seems to have simply materialized out of a sudden explosion in the asteroid belt. The two strands come together as the spaceship is explored, with paragravity stirred into the mix for a satisfying conclusion. Oh, and there’s time travel. The novel also introduces what feels like one of the earliest sympathetic and positive depictions of autism, in the form of the socially awkward spaceship pilot, Rob McGee, who has an intuitive understanding of orbital mechanics—the name Rob is in fact a cruel nickname, short for “robot”.

“But please don’t think I’m any sort of robot.” His low voice was suddenly bitter. “I know I’m different. Not smarter—I can see I’m not as smart as lots of ordinary people, in most ways. Just different. And that gets pretty lonely.” He coughed and looked away. “Go ahead and call me Rob, but please forget what it means.”

One of the big changes I see, when comparing Seetee Ship to the short stories on which it is based, is how much Williamson’s writing style changed during the 1940s—Seetee Ship loses a lot of the more purple prose from the short stories, and is a more enjoyable read as a result.

Seetee Shock starts up a few years after the events of Seetee Ship, and centres on a new character, the spatial engineer Nicol Jenkins. As a result of events described in the previous novel, the asterites are closing in on their goal of harnessing seetee and using it to generate power too cheap to meter. However, the control of seetee brings with it the threat of seetee weapons, too. The analogy with the nascent nuclear arms race at the time Williamson was writing is pretty evident.

After a bit of scene-setting in the first three chapters, Jenkins and about half the cast of characters from the previous novel are exposed to a lethal dose of radiation from the explosion of a seetee bomb. There are forces at work who do not want the asterites to succeed in distributing free power across the solar system. Leaving the other casualties in hospital, Jenkins sets out to complete the project in the short period of time he has left before radiation sickness (the “seetee shock” of the title) incapacitates him.

Jenkins had no time for radiation sickness. Not even time to die. For the traitor Lazarene and the unknown power behind him must be already preparing to spread the deadly venom of seetee war through the Mandate and the planets, and he thought the unfinished Brand transmitter on poisoned Freedonia held the only hope of stopping them.

It turns out to be less exciting than you might think, however. There are betrayals, revelations and narrow escapes, but Williamson also spends a lot of time revealing the detailed history of his imagined future, and having his characters meditate on the desirability (or otherwise) of what he calls the “Fifth Freedom”, free access to electrical power. (His American readers in 1950 would immediately have picked up on the reference to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech of 1941.) And, disappointingly for me at least, Rob McGee’s talents suddenly expand to include telepathy. (Science fiction was at the start of its notorious “psi-boom” at the time, under the influence of editor John W. Campbell.) And another remarkable new attribute for McGee provides the novel’s deus ex machina ending.

I enjoyed re-reading these. Seetee Ship is a marvellous pile of innovative ideas, and rattles along fast enough that the reader doesn’t have time to wonder at the improbable lapses in curiosity among the major characters, at critical moments during the plot development. As a child, I found Seetee Shock impossibly bleak and too full of exposition, but I enjoy it now both as a glimpse of what preoccupied 1950s science-fiction writers, and for the moral ambiguity of some of its central characters.

Both novels are, it almost goes without saying, available as e-books from Gollancz’s SF Gateway publishing arm.

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John Warwicker: Churchill’s Underground Army

Cover of Churchill's Underground Army by John Warwicker

In order to stay behind, we needed somewhere to stay: and by sucking up to the Sappers we had already brought into being what might very loosely be called a network of subterranean hide-outs in which not only the striking force—[myself] and about fifteen other idiots—but our far-flung, hand-picked collaborators in the Home Guard, would bide their time before emerging to wreak, in a variety of ill-defined ways, havoc among the invaders.

Peter Fleming, The Spectator 8 July 1966

That’s Peter Fleming, elder brother of the James Bond creator Ian, writing about his role in the creation of what would become the secret Auxiliary Units of wartime Britain—a resistance organization established in 1940 in anticipation of a German invasion of the British Isles.

I first found out about the Auxiliary Units in an episode of Rob Bell’s excellent television documentary series The Buildings That Fought Hitler, which explores the Second World War infrastructure that still litters the British countryside. I knew about the coastal defences and stop-lines, the radar stations and underground factories, but I’d never heard of the Auxiliary Units and their elaborate and secret underground “hideaways” (officially, Operational Bases). So Bell’s programme inspired me to track down a book devoted to their history. John Warwicker’s Churchill’s Underground Army (2013) appears to be a successor to a previous work on the same topic, With Britain In Mortal Danger (2005), which he edited.

I can’t tell you much about John Warwicker. I suspect he’s not the British graphic designer of the same name, but wonder if he might be the man who commanded the Special Branch protection team at 10 Downing Street during the 1970s, who published a memoir in 2015. Certainly the Warwicker of Churchill’s Underground Army seems to be very much acquainted with firearms, explosives and terrorist tactics.

The Auxiliary Units originated when, after the evacuation of Dunkirk, the prospect of a German invasion of Britain could not be discounted, and thoughts began to turn to how Britain might continue the war even under German occupation. Plans were quickly drawn up for the recruitment, training and equipping of a network of secret civilian resistance groups, originally called the Home Defence Organization, and formed under the auspices of Section D, the Secret Intelligence Service’s “dirty tricks” department. Such civilian resistance fighters would have no protection under the Hague Conventions, and in the event of capture would most likely be interrogated and executed.

Warwicker steers us initially through the complex and ever-shifting organizational structure of the Auxiliary Units—so complex, in fact, that ex-members of these Units (styled “Auxiliers”), have scant idea of who was actually in charge. This was, of course, important—ideally Auxiliers knew only the members of their own unit, and the “Intelligence Officer” responsible for their recruitment and orders, because the less about the organization they knew, the less they could betray under interrogation. They were also required to keep their true roles secret from family and friends, and many were given cover stories involving attachment to the Home Guard, to account for their repeated absences for training.

The Auxiliers were necessarily recruited from professions exempt from conscription—someone eligible for military service who was not visibly in service would immediately arouse suspicion and comment in the local community, a real risk to the security of the whole enterprise. Certain occupations were favoured: quarrymen and miners, for knowledge of explosives; gamekeepers for their knowledge of firearms and the local landscape … and the occasional poachers, too, who had a grasp of the importance of silence and stealth.

A chapter on Operational Bases describes the underground hideaways constructed by the Auxiliers. Initially informal, unventilated, prone to flooding and occasionally discovered by small boys, these soon become more standardized structures, equipped with elaborate counterbalanced trapdoors cover by a metal tray full of soil and turf that blended in to the local vegetation. An Auxilier wanting to gain access would alert those underground by dropping a marble down a fake mouse-hole near the trapdoor. This rolled down a buried section of gas-pipe and then clonked noisily into a biscuit tin inside the hideaway. Because of the independent operation of each Unit, and the secrecy surrounding Base locations, there is no record of where all these hideaways were built. Some are probably still out there, unvisited for seven decades.

Auxiliers were trained in “thuggery” (close-quarters combat) by Brigadier Geoffrey Beyts, using fighting techniques developed by William “Dangerous Dan” Fairbairn and Eric “Bill” Sykes, who had developed their techniques while serving with the Shanghai police, and who went on to develop the Fairbairn-Sykes Command Knife.

The sabotage and booby-trap techniques taught to the Auxiliers were collectively referred to as “scallywagging”, and Warwicker’s chapter on this topic is full of grim but fascinating detail. Scallywagging involved, among other things, a positive shed-load of explosives. Warwicker recounts the story of the Auxilier who, twenty years after the war, eventually breached the Official Secrets Act and phoned the police to report that he had 14,000 rounds of ammunition and a half-ton of explosives hidden in his milking shed, but it seemed likely that the Army had forgotten they needed to come and collect it.

Eventually, as the threat of invasion receded and the Army massed for the Invasion of France, many of the Auxiliers found themselves conscripted—some going on to serve with the Special Operations Executive.

The Auxiliers signed up for what would, for many, have been a suicide mission if a German occupation had every occurred. They also maintained a list of local people that they would be tasked with killing at the start of any German invasion, as potential collaborators or as risks to the security of the Auxiliary Units. Warwicker quotes one Auxilier on this topic:

If we had received an order to kill a collaborator, would we have done so without compunction? Yes! Without compunction.

In other words, the Auxiliers signed up for a ghastly job that was very likely to end in their own deaths—but the secrecy surrounding their existence means that they have received scant recognition in the years since the war ended.

On the face of it, it’s difficult to see why the existence of the Auxiliers should have been kept secret for so long—knowledge of their prior existence seems hardly a risk to national security. Warwicker ends the book with his own speculation on what might have made the Auxiliers fall into the category of “state secret”—one involves the infamous Operation Basalt Commando raid on Sark; the other buys wholeheartedly into the conspiracy theories that swirl around Rudolph Hess’s bizarre flight to Scotland in 1941.

I enjoyed reading this. The personalities involved in establishing “irregular warfare” are fascinating, and the British seem to have had a curiously early aptitude for dirty tricks. Warwicker’s narrative ranges widely, full of drama abroad and ingenuity at home. As well as having an insight into a part of Britain’s wartime history that has gone largely unrecognized, I now know a great deal more about rivalry between intelligence services, handling plastic explosives, covert radio transmission, and the design of “dead drops” for secret messages. So that’s bound to be useful, sometime.