Category Archives: Reading

George Alec Effinger: The Marîd Audran Trilogy

Covers of the Marid Audran trilogy, by George Alec Effinger

All in all, my life had changed so much that my days of poverty and insecurity seemed like a thirty-year nightmare. Today I’m well fed, well dressed, and well liked by the right people, and all it’s cost me is what you might expect: my self-respect and the approval of most of my friends.

George Alec Effinger was a science fiction writer and humorist mainly active during the 1970s and ’80s. He was a prolific short story writer during those decades, but is perhaps best remembered now for his three exotic cyberpunk novels featuring the cynical and unfortunate antihero, Marîd Audran. Effinger had sketched out a character arc for Audran across five novels, but, dogged by ill-health, he was unable to write during much of the 1990s, and died tragically young. After his death his wife, Barbara Hambly, assembled some additional material from Audran’s story universe, and these were published, with notes by Hambly, in a collection entitled Budayeen Nights (2003).

Effinger had a sly sense of humour, which lurks constantly in the background of the Audran books, but which is placed front and centre in the two other novels of his I’ve read, the surreal time-travel romps The Nick Of Time (1985) and The Bird Of Time (1986). And you can probably guess that the theme of the short stories collected in 1993 as Maureen Birnbaum: Barbarian Swordsperson (which also graces my shelves) is not entirely serious. The eponymous and deeply self-absorbed heroine finds herself magically transported to a variety of fantasy and science-fictional settings (Barsoom and Pellucidar, among others), and then returns to breathlessly report her adventures to her best friend, Bitsy Spiegelman.

So it was characteristic of Effinger to take a well-worn subgenre and to rotate it slightly, making it into something new and different. And that’s what he did with the emerging tropes of cyberpunk, which had blossomed in the wake of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982) and William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984).

The Audran stories take place at the start of the twenty-third century, and are centred on the inhabitants of a walled enclave called The Budayeen, a seedy quarter of an unnamed Middle Eastern city, which had its origin in a mournful New Wave short story “The City On The Sand” published in 1973. The wider world has undergone a process of political fragmentation (much like the world of Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence, which I’ve previously reviewed), so the Budayeen plays host to an international cast of refugees and émigrés, as well as the local Arab/Berber/French population. Technologically, the main developments which drive the stories are twofold. Firstly, body modification is easy and routine—especially gender reassignment, which has become an unremarkable feature of Budayeen society. Secondly, neurological enhancement is similarly routine—people are fitted with skull sockets, wired into their brains, into which they can plug software and data. “Moddies” will modify your personality—so you can turn yourself into a more confident person, or a fictional detective, or something altogether darker. “Daddies” provide more basic functions—you can immediately have command of a new language, or make yourself immune to fatigue or boredom. Most of the inhabitants of the Budayeen spend much of their lives with moddies and daddies plugged into their heads.

When we first meet Effinger’s first-person narrator, Marîd Audran, he is a small-time hustler scratching a living in the Budayeen. He prides himself on surviving by his own native wit, without any neurological enhancement. He does, however, only manage to get through the day by using industrial quantities of drugs. He maintains a precarious independence from the two principal powers in the Budayeen—the corrupt local police, and the local equivalent of a mafia godfather, Friedlander Bey. The trilogy’s narrative arc sees Audran sucked into a succession of events that modify his relationship with all these major forces in his life.

So the context of these stories is reminiscent of the seedier side of New York in the 1970s, as depicted in the TV series The Deuce—a cast of characters hanging around in various sleazy locations, trying to make ends meet in various marginally legal ways, while staying out of trouble with both the law and the local crime lord. (Effinger reportedly based the society of the Budayeen on the French Quarter of his native New Orleans.) But the whole set-up is viewed through the prism of a Muslim Arab society as mannered and courteous as the Golden Age culture of One Thousand And One Nights. Characters quote the Koran to each other, agonize over their less-than-Islamic life choices, haggle histrionically, and exchange long series of courtesies and polite circumlocutions before getting down to business. Here, for instance, is Audran pleading for his life when wrongly accused of the murder of one of Friedlander Bey’s lieutenants:

[Friedlander Bey asked,] “Then, let me put this question to you: How does one revenge a murder?”
There was a long, glacial silence. There was only one answer, but I took a while to frame my reply in my mind. “O Shaykh” I said at last, “a death must be met with another death. That is the only revenge. It is written in the Straight Path, ‘Retaliation is prescribed for you in the matter of the murdered’; and also, ‘One who attacketh you, attack him in a like manner as he attacked you.’ But it also says elsewhere, ‘The life for the life, and the eye for the eye, and the nose for the nose, and the ear for the ear, and the tooth for the tooth, and for wounds retaliation. But whoso forgoeth it in the way of charity, it shall be expiation for him.’ I am innocent of this murder, O Shaykh, and to seek revenge wrongfully is a crime worse than the killing itself.”
“Allah is Most Great,” murmured [Friedlander Bey]. He looked at me in surprise. “I had heard that you were an infidel, my nephew, and it caused me pain. Yet you have a certain knowledge of the noble Qur’ân.”

But Effinger’s dialogue can also get straight to the point:

She looked lovely. I hated to bother her now with my news. I decided to put it off as long as I could.
“So,” she said, looking up at me and grinning, “how was your day?”
“Tamiko’s dead,” I said.

And Audran has an occasionally Chandleresque instinct for the well-turned phrase:

Her lipstick, for reasons best known to Allah and [herself], was a kind of pulpy purple color; her lips looked like she’d bought them first and forgot to put them in the refrigerator while she shopped for the rest of her face.

At the start of the first novel, When Gravity Fails (1986), Audran is in the midst of being hired to find a missing person when his client is shot dead in front of him, by an assassin who is apparently wearing a moddy that makes him believe he is James Bond. A succession of other murders follow, in a variety of violent styles. Some involve people who are friends of Audran and/or employees of Friedlander Bey—at which point Audran is given an offer he can’t refuse by “Papa” Friedlander, and finds himself obliged to undergo neurological modification whether he likes it or not. The story rattles along as the body count increases and we encounter the colourful cast of supporting characters—Saied The Half-Hajj, who became distracted halfway through his pilgrimage to Mecca; Laila the elderly and subtly deranged moddy dealer, her brain damaged by endlessly sampling her own wares; Chiri the East African club owner, who has filed some of her teeth to points; and Bill the taxi-driver, who has had his body modified to continuously infuse a hallucinogen into his blood. (It’s not clear why Audran habitually uses Bill’s services, given Bill’s tendency to swerve to avoid hallucinations.) And it’s a typical bit of Effinger humour that, when Audran first reflects on how to use his new neurological implants to track down the psychopathic murderer(s) roaming the Budayeen, he decides to use a moddy that will turn him into Nero Wolfe, the fictional armchair detective created by Rex Stout. His plan to sit at home thinking deeply while someone else does the dangerous stuff is foiled only by the the Half-Hajj’s point-blank refusal to wear the companion Archie Goodwin moddy.

The novel was sufficiently successful to spawn an Infocom game, Circuit’s Edge (1989).

Opening screen of Circuit's Edge (Infocom, 1989)

A Fire In The Sun (1989) finds Audran deeper in thrall to Friedlander Bey—comfortably installed in a wing of Friedlander’s palace, and the owner of a profitable night-club. He is also, by Friedlander’s machinations, embedded as Friedlander’s eyes and ears with the local police department. The situation is not one that either improves Audran’s self-respect or wins favour from his former friends. The plot rapidly becomes extremely complicated—Friedlander wants Audran to murder someone; Audran has another murder that he needs to avenge; he also needs to tease out the oddly complex relationship between Friedlander and a commercial rival, sort out a mystery surrounding his own parentage, and try to heal the rifts with his old friends. Effinger expands on the uses to which moddies can be put, some of which are deeply unpleasant, and leavens the narrative with dark humour. My favourite from this novel is the moment when Audran, caught up in a police emergency, pops in a moddy that will turn him into an efficient police-officer … and then has to sit through a coffee commercial inside his head before the moddy takes effect.

The Exil Kiss (1991) begins with the sentence, “It never occurred to me that I might be kidnapped.” So you know what’s going to happen next. Friedlander Bey and his now right-hand-man Audran are picked up by the police on trumped-up murder charges and (after a series of less-than-legal events) dumped in the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert and left to die.

So the first half of this novel is spent in the desert, where Friendlander and Audran are rescued, after various misadventures, by a tribe of nomadic Bedu. There follow more adventures among the Bedu, and the pair eventually manage to return to their home city, to solve the murder mystery and wreak revenge, in the latter half of the book. The conclusion is oddly rushed and inconsistent, and for me the more enjoyable part of the book is Audran’s adaptation to Bedu culture, on which Effinger lavishes much detail—I think in part derived from Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (1959).

The two opening chapters of the planned fourth novel, Word Of Night, which were published in the themed collection Budayeen Nights, show tantalizing promise, with Effinger drawing together a number of plot elements that had been seeded into the previous novels. But sadly we’ll never know how all that would have turned out.

I enjoyed rereading these. Effinger’s unique evocation of a Muslim cyberpunk culture is skilful and always engaging—Hambly reports in her story notes to Budayeen Nights that Effinger had read a great deal about Islam, and was always careful to have his stories checked by Muslim friends. And his matter-of-fact treatment of gay and transgender characters was ahead of its time in many ways.

There are frustrations, however. The murder mysteries are rather loosely constructed, and Audran’s approach to solving them sits somewhere between haphazard and perverse. The latter problem seems to be largely deliberate, however. Here’s Hambly in her introduction to Budayeen Nights:

It amused George that many readers take Marîd at Marîd’s own evaluation of himself: cool, clever, street-smart, sharp. But in fact, George said, if you look at what Marîd actually does rather than what he says, he is in fact cowardly, not nearly as clever as he thinks he is, and has a major drug problem which he never quite gets around to addressing.

You can pick up second-hand paperback editions of the novels fairly cheaply. The original Bantam Spectra editions (shown at the head of this post) have cover art by Jim Burns and Steve & Paul Youll, much influenced by the visual style of Blade Runner. (There are, actually, no flying cars in the novels.) The current Kindle editions by Open Road Media are surprisingly expensive, and their digital edition of Budayeen Nights seems to be unavailable at present, which is a shame, because physical editions of that book are rare and expensive. Oh, and there’s also a hardback omnibus edition of the trilogy, grandly entitled The Audran Sequence, from the Science Fiction Book Club.

Two Unique Polar Crossings

Covers two books about long-axis polar crossings

And of what value was this journey? It is as well for those who ask such a question that there are others who feel the answer and never need to ask.

Wally Herbert, quoted in Across The Arctic Ocean (2015)

We repeatedly ask ourselves ‘why do we do this?’ It is impossible to say.

Geoff Somers, Antarctica: The Impossible Crossing? (2018)

In 1968-9, The British Trans-Arctic Expedition, led by Wally Herbert, made the first crossing of the Arctic Ocean, using skis and dog-sleds. The four men set off from Point Barrow, Alaska, on 21 February 1968, and made their next landfall at Vesle Tavleøya*, a tiny island in the extreme north of the Svalbard archipelago, on 29 May 1969, after crossing the Geographical North Pole and spending an astonishing 464 days on the Arctic pack-ice. They then trekked across the ice floes for a further 13 days before being picked up by a helicopter from their recovery ship, HMS Endurance. Only a very few people have made such a surface traverse since, and they’ve all done it the “easy” way, between Siberia and Arctic Canada—Herbert’s is the only expedition ever to have traversed the Arctic Ocean along its long axis. And it is likely that no-one will ever do it again, at least in the next few centuries, because the retreat of the Arctic pack-ice means that such a crossing would encounter open ocean on frequent occasions.

In 1989-90, the International Trans-Antarctic Expedition, co-led by Will Steger and Jean-Louis Étienne, crossed the long axis of the Antarctic continent, using skis and dog-sleds. The team of six set off from Seal Nunataks, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, on 27 July 1989, crossed the Geographical South Pole, and reached the Davis Sea coast at the Russian research base of Mirnyy on 3 March 1990, 6048 kilometres and 220 days later. This is the only long-axis crossing of Antarctica, and it is certainly unrepeatable in its original form, since dog teams were removed from the Antarctic in 1994. In addition, the early part of the journey avoided the mountainous, glaciated terrain of the Antarctic Peninsula by crossing the Larsen Ice Shelf—but large parts of the shelf-ice traversed in 1989 have now broken away.

Here, I’m reviewing two recent books dealing with these two journeys. Wally Herbert’s original memoir of the journey was entitled Across The Top Of The World (1969); he also wrote a more technical report for the The Geographical Journal in 1970, entitled “The First Surface Crossing of the Arctic Ocean”. The book I’m writing about here is Across The Arctic Ocean, published in 2015. It’s subtitled “Original Photographs from the Last Great Polar Journey”, and lists Huw Lewis-Jones as a co-author with Herbert. As the subtitle suggests, it’s a collection of Herbert’s photographs from the journey, combined with a short new narrative written by Herbert shortly before his death in 2007. Lewis-Jones, as well as being a historian of polar exploration was also Herbert’s son-in-law, and he has not only seen the work into print but has expanded it into a festschrift for Herbert, with the core narrative bracketed by contributions from other explorers, who reflect both on the hardships of polar travel, and on the lasting influence of Herbert’s pioneering journey.

There have been a number of memoirs relating the International Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Jean-Louis Étienne produced Transantarctica: La Traversée Du Dernier Continent in 1990, and Will Steger followed with Crossing Antarctica in 1991, in cooperation with Jon Bowermaster. All the other expedition members have now produced their own accounts in their own languages, but it was almost thirty years before the Briton, Geoff Somers, finally pulled out his old journals, realized that they “weren’t too bad”, and compiled them into Antarctica: The Impossible Crossing? (2018).

So both books have the advantage of a historical perspective. We can now appreciate the uniqueness of the two journeys better than might have been understood at the time. And we can now see them as having taken place during a narrow window of polar exploration—after the Heroic Age (because rescue by aircraft was at least theoretically possible), but nevertheless at a time when navigation was still largely being done with compass and sextant and a surveyor’s wheel at the back of the dogsled.


Route of British Trans-Arctic Expedition 1968/69
Click to enlarge
(Source of base map)

The photographs in Herbert’s book are the main focus—some distributed through the text, but many gathered together in groups (grandly labelled “portfolios”) between the chapters. The reproduction is good, and the best images are spread over one or two pages. The subject matter ranges from informal blurry snaps, to well-composed illustrations of what life was like on the ice, to beautifully composed vistas and portraits, and each carries a paragraph of explanatory text. Perhaps the most striking image, for its implications rather than its content or composition, comes early in the book—an unassuming lump of granite, picked up on the shore of Vesle Tavleøya at the conclusion of the crossing. Herbert wrote:

That modest piece of rough, wet rock was worth more than anything on this Earth at that moment.

Herbert’s text occupies three central chapters. The first describes his early adventures in the Antarctic, during which he did extensive mapping work on the Antarctic Peninsula (which involved the first ever crossing of the peninsula), made the first ascent of Mount Fridtjof Nansen, and descended from the Polar Plateau through the icefalls of the Axel Heiberg Glacier, reconstructing the route Roald Amundsen used when he returned from the South Pole. The latter two chapters describe the Arctic crossing itself. Although brief, they’re effective at conjuring up the dangers of spending more than a year afloat in the Arctic Ocean, supported by a few inches of ice that’s in constant motion. Floes suddenly fracture and open up leads of open water almost underneath the party’s tent; pressure ice builds up into chaotic walls at the edge of each floe, over which sleds must be laboriously hauled; open water in the middle of the pack must be circumvented, or sleds and dogs floated across. Travel across the ice becomes impossible both at the height of summer and in the depth of winter, so the travellers must make long-term camp in these seasons. Herbert had hoped to make his winter camp in a location at which the flow of the ice would carry his expedition northwards while they rested. But a back injury to one of his team means that they can’t get to the right location before darkness closes in, and they lose the benefit of the drift. And of course no supply caches can be laid in advance, after the fashion of Antarctic travel—the moving ice would make them impossible to find. So Herbert’s team are supported by air-drops. There’s probably no better way of showing the problem of trekking across drifting ice than by quoting the distance actually travelled. For a direct journey, Barrow-Pole-Svalbard, amounting to about 2700 kilometres, the drift of the ice and the constant route-finding deviations meant that the expedition actually covered 5987 kilometres.

The additional commentary by knowledgeable contributors means that the book is not just a gripping and beautifully illustrated account of a unique journey, but also a fine tribute to Wally Herbert himself.


Route of International Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1989-90
Click to enlarge
(Source of base map)

Geoff Somers’s story has more immediacy, constructed as it is from his daily journal entries, which he supplements with biographical, historical and geographical context. The present-tense narrative immerses the reader in the daily grind of living in the Antarctic. Anything laid on the floor of the tent chills to ten or twenty degrees colder than the warm, humid air higher up. When lifted off the floor, it immediately becomes coated in frost, and then soaking wet once thawed. If this is to be avoided, every single item must be put inside a plastic bag before it is set down. Then when the object is retrieved the frost that forms on the bag must be brushed off (but not inside the tent) before the warmed and still-dry item can be removed from the bag.

Somers’s principal duty was as a dog-handler. His love of the dogs shines through on almost every page, but it has to be said that the dogs suffered miserably, despite Somers’s solicitude and the fact that injured or sick dogs could be airlifted out. While the humans knew what they were getting into, the dogs had no say in the matter, and were operating over distances and under conditions that were well beyond their usual working environment. In a telling moment, two members of the expedition who have become separated from the others in a white-out try to discover the route taken by their team-mates by looking for the spots of blood left in the snow by the dogs’ paws.

A trans-Antarctic expedition has some disadvantages when compared to the Arctic—crossing crevassed areas and operating at the high altitude of the Polar Plateau, for instance. But there are advantages, too. The ground doesn’t drift below one’s feet, so all distance made good stays made good. It’s also possible to lay out supply caches along the route and have them stay where you put them—though there were still huge difficulties in actually finding some of the caches in confusing terrain and drifting snow. And finally, there are human habitations. The expedition made a huge detour around the Ellsworth Mountains to visit the privately operated Patriot Hills Base Camp to rest and resupply. At the pole they arrived at the American Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, where they received the notoriously lukewarm welcome mandated by the National Science Foundation. In contrast, when they arrived at the various Soviet bases along their northward course, they were made almost too welcome, with some expedition members paying the penalty in hang-overs the next day.

Somers is frank about the irritations of expedition life—exhaustion, cold, anxiety and forced proximity make everyone irritable, and his journal entries frequently brood over the annoying habits and character traits of his companions. And the intermittent contact with documentary film crews and journalists drives him to distraction, as the expedition schedule is disrupted by the requirements of filming—towards the end of the journey, as impending winter brings plummeting temperatures and frequent bad weather, they’re told they’re travelling too quickly, and need to delay their arrival at Mirnyy until the documentary film-makers are ready. While accepting that expedition sponsors need pay-back in the form of publicity, Somers points out that such a delay actually put human and animal lives at risk.

The book is let down somewhat by the poor reproduction of Somers’s photographs, which are printed muddily on the same kind of plain paper as the rest of the book’s pages. But making a comparison with Herbert’s book, which was specifically produced to show photographs to their best advantage, would be unfair.

They’re both fascinating books, and the personal detail of Somers’s account in many ways is complementary to the photographic record of Herbert’s.


* Vesle Tavleøya is a remote and lonely place, rarely visited. The Boon Companion and I sailed past it in the late summer of 1999, by which time it was surround by open ocean, the edge of the pack ice lying many miles to the north. I dug through our old photographic slide library and scanned in this telephoto view for you.

This is the Romanization of Cyrillic Мирный used by Somers. Depending on the scheme used, it can also be spelled Mirny, Mirnyj or Mirnyĭ.

Brian Stableford: The Hooded Swan Series

Covers of the 'Hooded Swan' series by Brian Stableford

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

Brian Stableford Rhapsody In Black (1973)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Ministry For The Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fred Hoyle: Two Coauthors

Coauthored books by Fred Hoyle
Click to enlarge

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

Fred Hoyle & John Elliot A For Andromeda (1962)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

It goes downhill from there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Fred Hoyle: Three Novels

Covers of three Fred Hoyle novels
Click to enlarge

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

Fred Hoyle The Black Cloud (1957)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

George J. Marrett: Cheating Death

Cover of Cheating Death by George J. Marrett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arthur Conan Doyle In The Arctic

Cover Of Dangerous Work by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

Arthur Conan Doyle, Arctic diary entry, 3 April 1880

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angus MacVicar, Return To The Lost Planet (1954)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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