Category Archives: Reading

George J. Marrett: Cheating Death

Cover of Cheating Death by George J. Marrett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arthur Conan Doyle In The Arctic

Cover Of Dangerous Work by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

Arthur Conan Doyle, Arctic diary entry, 3 April 1880

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angus MacVicar, Return To The Lost Planet (1954)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poul Anderson: A Midsummer Tempest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Old Phoenix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arthur C. Clarke: Three Early Novels

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

Arthur C. Clarke, Earthlight (1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benjamin Dreyer: Dreyer’s English

Cover of Dreyer's English by Benjamin DreyerThis book [… is] my chance to share with you, for your own use, some of what I do, from the nuts-and-bolts stuff that even skilled writers stumble over to some of the fancy little tricks I’ve come across or devised that can make even skilled writing better.

Benjamin Dreyer was a copy editor at Random House, though he has now risen to occupy several more exalted positions in that publishing company. Copy editors are the people who police the text of an author’s work before it gets to the printers. They sort out errors of grammar and usage, and apply the “house style” of the publisher to things like hyphens and quotation marks; but they also tweak sentences to make their meaning clearer, remove redundant verbiage, and otherwise convert the author’s prose into a shinier version of itself.

I’ve been in awe of good copy editors ever since I first encountered their work, during a brief period when I wrote little columns about natural phenomena for the Scotsman newspaper. The sub-editor who copy-edited my work would often need to trim a line or two off what I felt was a pretty tightly written piece, so as to make space on the newspaper page for something else. These lines would disappear from my text, but everything I wrote was still there, and still recognizably in my style. And in fact it was usually clearer than what I’d written. Done well, copy editing is a skill that verges on magic. Done badly (and I’ve had experience of that, too) it’s at best a challenge to authorial equanimity, and at worst a way of finding your name at the bottom of a piece of text which utterly misrepresents what you originally wrote.

So this book, Dreyer’s first, is essentially about how to do copy editing well—it’s a guide to good writing. Dreyer’s English was published in the USA at the start of 2019; I’m reviewing the UK edition, which was published later the same year. There are, of course, many differences between American and British written English (I occasionally write about them in this blog), and it’s  thoughtful and thorough for Dreyer to have produced two slightly different books for two slightly different markets.

The subtitle is An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style—a tongue-in-cheek characterization that neatly skewers the pretensions of the prescriptivist school of style guides. It also encapsulates two things about Dreyer’s writing—he has a distinctly polemical approach, and he is given to gentle mockery. As here, in a discussion of Shakespeare’s writing:

Also, if you haven’t been dead for four hundred years and are planning on using the word ‘methinks’ in the spirit of roguish cleverness, please don’t.

Or here, writing about the old custom of typing a double space after a full stop:

Some older folk I’ve encountered are furiously insistent about the eternal propriety of sentence-dividing double spaces. Likely, they also advocate for the retention of the long s, and I wish them much ſucceſs. If you’re a younger person who’s only ever typed on a computer keyboard, odds are good you were not taught the double-space thing, so feel free to slide past this subject altogether with the head-shaking insouciance of your generation.

And here, writing about the differences in American and British spelling, in particular the -er and -re endings.

Some Americans dig their heels in re ‘theatre’, often insisting that plays are performed in theatres, but movies are shown in theaters […], or that a building is a theater but the theatrical art is theatre. And to them I say: You know you’re doing it because you think that the ‘-re’ spelling is fancier, and I’d like you to stop.

So he’s good fun, and he tells you a lot of good stuff.

The book covers the usual range of style-guide topics—punctuation, spelling and grammar—but adds a wealth of other material. Dreyer writes cogently about how to tighten up your writing, cutting out verbiage and constructing sentences that are unambiguous and easy to read. There’s a section on confusable words, a section on proper nouns that are often misspelled, and a section on words that are often misused (“enormity”, “fulsome”). And every now and then Dreyer launches into a pet peeve of his own—I don’t imagine many other style books deal with the misapplication of the phrase “Immaculate Conception”.*

Even when you disagree with Dreyer (and I don’t share his enthusiasm for the Oxford comma), it’s good to read what he has to say on the topic, because he has always put a lot of thought into arriving at his opinion.

And there are some jokes and funny stories.

Having read it through in a single sitting, I’d say it’s not the kind of book to read in a single sitting. One reason for this is the sheer amount of information that demands to be assimilated. Another is that, as Dreyer sweeps through a list of (for instance) words that annoy him, his pointed wit turns into something of an onslaught—I occasionally found myself wishing that he’d just shut up and let me concentrate. So I’d say the longer, slower sections on grammar and punctuation can be browsed and enjoyed for the big educational picture they provide; whereas the shorter, quick-fire sections on common errors are probably best dipped in and out of, aided by the book’s excellent index.

I’ll leave you with one last quote from Dreyer. Concluding a short dissertation on the orthography of Star Wars, he winds up with an example that has annoyed me ever since I first saw it in 1977:

[…] ‘A long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away….’ ends with a full stop and three ellipsis points, even though it is a fragment and not a complete sentence, because that’s how the Star Wars people like it. And if you challenge them on any of these points, they’ll cut your hand off. True story.

* Oh, well, since you ask—the Immaculate Conception is a theological doctrine that correctly applies to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and not to Jesus himself. She is said to have been conceived untainted by Original Sin, so as to provide a suitably pure vessel for Jesus.

Richard A. Lupoff: The Twin Planets Novels

Covers of Twin Planets novels by Richard A. LupoffAnything is possible. Everything is possible. Somewhere in God’s infinite universe there may be a system of planets sharp-edged and square-faced as ice cubes. There may be a solar system where worlds are hollow and illuminated by tiny interior suns. There may even be a family of spherical planets as solid as baseballs! Who can say? All we know is that there’s no reason to assume the planets of other suns are flattened toroids just because our sun’s planets are so formed. Think of it! Somewhere, an earth like our earth, complete with a Minnesota and a Morocco, a Pennsylvania and a Peru, an Emperor of Australia and a President of Japan. And yet that world is as round and solid as a baseball! Everything is possible.

Richard A. Lupoff, Circumpolar! (1984)

Richard A. Lupoff published this pair of novels in the 1980s, in the middle of a writing career that has spanned six decades so far. He started out editing a science fiction fanzine, Xero, during the early 1960s; he published an autobiography, Where Memory Hides, in 2016. Between-times, he produced a biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs, a series of detective novels, stories set in the worlds of Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft, mysteries, police procedurals, pastiches of various science-fiction authors written under the pen-name Ova Hamlet, and a not-inconsiderable output of science fiction / fantasy novels and short stories. Lupoff’s writing style is protean, shifting in tone from novel to novel, and gleefully adopting the tropes of other writers when it suits his purposes. And he clearly relishes originality, seldom doing the same thing twice. Both these traits have counted against him in developing a loyal readership for his multifarious science fiction and fantasy works—Robert Silverberg has described Lupoff as one of the most underrated writers in science fiction. The problem has been compounded because Lupoff kept running into difficulty with publishers (through no fault of his own), which has led to many of his books going quickly out of print. That situation has to some extent been remedied by Gollancz’s SF Gateway, which has now made many of his works available in e-book form at very reasonable prices.

The Twin Planets novels are complex pastiches, channelling the rollicking “planetary romance” stories of the 1920s and ’30s, with a cliff-hanger or a surprise at the end of every chapter. There’s more than a little Burroughs in there, certainly; but there’s a hint of Edgar Allan Poe, too, some E.E. “Doc” Smith, and a perhaps even a bit of W.E. Johns’s “Biggles” novels. At times the stories are reminiscent of the 1980 film Flash Gordon, if that film had taken itself entirely seriously throughout.

My first encounter with Lupoff came in 1984, when I read Circumpolar! I was amazed—I had never read anything quite so madly inventive, and (apart from its sequel Countersolar!) I’ve never read anything remotely like it since.

The books could be superficially classified as Alternate History—featuring a world like our own, with characters who are recognizable personalities from our own history, but for whom historical events have taken a different course. In the case of Twin Planets, the Jonbar Point, the moment of critical difference, occurs when presidential candidate Howard Taft is killed when he falls from a mule into the Grand Canyon. This clears the way for Theodore Roosevelt’s run for re-election as president in 1912, when he defeats Woodrow Wilson. The appointment of a president given to overseas intervention pressures Kaiser Wilhelm II into starting a war in Europe in 1912, before Germany is fully prepared. Roosevelt immediately throws US forces into the fray, and Germany is defeated in 1913, after what is called the One Year War. The Communist Revolution then fails. In 1927, when Circumpolar! opens, Europe still has a kaiser in Germany (but not Wilhelm), a tsar in Russia and an emperor in Austria-Hungary.

So far, so good. But in another respect, this alternate Earth is not like our planet Earth at all—it is disc-shaped. (I know, I know.) One side of the disc has the same geography as our Earth, albeit necessarily distorted by the reprojection from sphere to plane. The other side of the disc is, as the first novel opens, terra incognita. People from “our” side of the disc can, in principle, access the other side by two routes—either by travelling around the edge of the disc, which is blocked by an apparently impenetrable barrier of ice corresponding to the location of our own Antarctica; or by passing through a hole in the middle of the Arctic Ocean where the north pole should be (I know, I know). So Lupoff’s world is shaped a bit like a vinyl record, with our Earth and almost all its history reproduced on the A side, and somewhere else on the B side*. The moon, planets and asteroids are all similarly flat.

The Earth of Circumpolar! by Richard A. Lupoff
Click to enlarge
(Sketch by The Oikofuge using an original base map here)

Just let all that rattle around your head for a bit, and then the quotation at the head of this post may begin to make a little sense. Lupoff inserts these words at the start of Circumpolar!, and attributes them to “Stanley Grauman Weinbaum, December 14, 1946”. In the real world, Weinbaum was a science fiction author who died tragically young, in 1935.

Circumpolar! is the story of a circumpolar air race, with a prize of $50,000 offered by Victoria Woodhull Martin. The winner must complete a circumnavigation of the disc, passing through the Arctic hole, across the other side of the disc, around the Antarctic rim and back to the starting point (or follow the same route in reverse). The north polar hole is referred to as “Symmes’ Hole”, a reference to the Hollow Earth “theory” of John Symmes, who in Lupoff’s world is a visionary thinker rather than a fantasist.

The American team of aviators consists of Howard Hughes, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, flying an aircraft called Spirit of San Diego. The opposing team is formed by German air ace Manfred von Richthofen and his brother Lothar, along with a Russian princess, Irina Lvova, who has no counterpart in reality—her in-narrative father, Georgy Lvov, was childless in the real world. The Americans are (of course) fair-playing, resourceful adventurers who are handy in a fist-fight; the Germans are (of course) superlative aviators, but will cheat and kill if they feel it is required in order to win the race. The Russian alternates between haughty ice-maiden and superstitious coward, and her role in the story eventually peters out. The Americans cross the southern ice, and encounter a race who call themselves the Muiaians—apparently descendants of a South American civilization who fled the conquistadors, arriving on the other side of the disc after descending through a lake bed. They are benign and scientifically advanced, and the Americans infer that they have some connection to the story of the Lost Continent of Mu, retailed by James Churchward.

The Germans pass through Symmes’ Hole, and find themselves in Svartalheim, which has a mixed Nordic/Germanic population who are (of course) warlike and intent on World Domination on their side of the disc. (Although Lupoff doesn’t say as much, there’s a clear connection to the Svartalfheim underworld of Norse mythology.)

So conflict ensues. There are fist-fights and sword-fights and dog-fights, paralysing rays, levitating platforms, what seems to be some actual magic, and nuclear-powered, robotic, flying horses piloted by Valkyries. (I know, I know.) It all rattles along, and it’s probably giving nothing away if I tell you that good old American pluck and know-how triumphs after many vicissitudes and hair-breadth escapes.

Countersolar! features another race, but of a different sort. In this one, two spacecraft travel across the solar system to investigate a planet that orbits on exactly the opposite side of the sun from Earth. This Counter-Earth theme has a long history outside Lupoff’s work. In Countersolar! Lupoff’s characters attribute the Counter-Earth hypothesis to someone called Charlie Avison—apparently a reference to the hero of an obscure short story from 1916, written by Edison Tesla Marshall: “Who Is Charles Avison?” You can read it here. (Lupoff’s work is in fact full of references to the work of other authors.)

One team consists of Albert Einstein, the aircraft designer Jack Northrop, and two American athletes, Mildred “Babe” Didrikson and Josh Gibson. The opposition comes in the form of German aircraft designer Reimar Horten, Argentinian soldier Juan Perón and his partner Eva “Evita” Duarte, and the British fascist Oswald Mosley. The race this time is a political one—the American expedition is attempting to thwart their opponents’ effort to form an alliance with fascist elements on the Counter-Earth.

The Counter-Earth turns out to have been identical with the Earth of Circumpolar! until 1912 (for reasons too mind-mangling to relay here), after which their histories diverged. A fascist government is now in place in Counter-Earth America, under the presidency of William Dudley Pelley, allied with the Aryan supremacists of Svartalheim. The story plays out as the members of the two expeditions seek out their counterparts on the Counter-Earth, and form alliances with either the American fascists or the resistance movement led by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It’s impossible to do justice to the detail of Lupoff’s imaginings, here. The story is populated with so many historical characters, playing out slightly distorted versions of their real lives. There’s a side-plot involving a race of ancient Egyptians who have withdrawn to the asteroid Ceres (I know, I know). More connections are drawn between the peoples of the Other Side and mythological or fictional “lost lands” of our own world, including a nod to the Yu-Atlanchi of Abraham Merritt’s 1931 fantasy novel The Face In The Abyss (which you can read on Project Gutenberg here). And there are passages of disconcerting magic realism, when Evita seems to merge with the goddess Isis, when Einstein glimpses God, and in the distinctly strange denouement of the novel.

I love these stories for their mad imaginings and stacked weirdness, though they’re pretty evidently not to everyone’s taste. And there are occasional wobbles when it feels like Lupoff might just, for a moment or two, have been puzzled about how to move the story forward.

If you’re at all favourably disposed to Lupoff after reading my reviews here, I’d suggest you take a look at his 1996 short story collection Before 12:01 And After, which is cheaply available as an e-book from SF Gateway. It gives a broad sample of his styles and themes, and contains an insightful introduction by Robert Silverberg, together with biographical and story notes from Lupoff himself.

* Well, actually, Lupoff’s world is like a flattened torus with a small central opening—narrow around its central hole and rim, thicker in the region that would correspond to our Earth’s equator. In cross-section it would look something like this, to judge from some figures given in Circumpolar!:

Cross section of Earth disc from Circumpolar! by Richard A. Lupoff

Robert Sheckley: The AAA Ace Stories

Cover of The Mask Of Mañana, by Robert Sheckley
[Gregor] pushed the list aside, found a pack of tattered cards, and laid out a hopeless solitaire of his own devising.
Minutes later, Arnold stepped jauntily in.
Gregor looked at his partner with suspicion. When the little chemist walked with that peculiar bouncing step, his round face beaming happily, it usually mean trouble for AAA Ace.

Robert Sheckley “The Necessary Thing” (1955)


Robert Sheckley was certainly a forerunner to, if not a direct inspiration for, Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Indeed, when asked what the difference between himself and Sheckley was, Adams is reported to have said, “Sheckley writes better.” Adams notoriously found writing arduous; Sheckley, in his heyday, seemed to have found it easy, pouring out humorous short science fiction in the 1950s and humorous novels in the 1960s. But then he ran into a chronic period of writer’s block spanning the next two decades, only hitting his prolific stride again in the 1990s.

I’ve hunted around for a way to impart some sense of Sheckley’s particular style, and I can’t actually come up with anything better than the Publishers Weekly squib for his novel collection, Dimensions Of Sheckley (2002):

Brains get swapped, spots in heaven must be purchased, cities can think, and a squat ambulatory ‘shrub’ infects passersby with paralyzing metaphysical doubt …

Add to that a delight in invented words, an approach to plotting which involves the stacking of startlements one atop the other, and explanations that are simultaneous ludicrous and engaging—Sheckley in his pomp was a humorous force of nature.

In all the short fiction he wrote, he produced only one series—the eight stories of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service. Seven were written in a creative burst between 1954 and 1956; the last appeared in 1991, as he began to return to form.

The first six stories appeared in quick succession in Galaxy Science Fiction, and the seventh appeared soon after in the short-lived Fantastic Universe magazine. This is good news, since all the relevant issues are now freely available on-line, at the Internet Archive. I’ll give you links to each story as we go along.

In 1991, Pulphouse started to produce five volumes of The Collected Short Fiction Of Robert Sheckley, and the newly revitalized Sheckley placed his final AAA Ace story straight into the fifth volume of that collection.

Prior to Collected Short Fiction, the AAA Ace stories were only sporadically anthologized. Five of them appeared in two early collections of Sheckley’s short fiction: Pilgrimage To Earth (1957) and The People Trap (1968). Both of these were reprinted several times during the ’60s and ’70s, which is how I first encountered the AAA Ace stories in my local public library. Although they cry out to be collected in a dedicated single volume, this seems to have happened only in an Italian edition, Spettro V: AAA Asso Interplanetaria (1971), which of course lacks the final story. As far as I know, they weren’t all gathered together in a single volume until 2005, when the excellent NESFA Press produced a collection of Sheckley’s short fiction, under the odd title The Masque Of Mañana.

The AAA Ace stories record the misadventures of Richard Gregor and Frank Arnold, who are the owners and entire staff of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service. Despite having chosen a company name so as to place themselves first in the telephone directory (remember them?), they are doing very little business. Sheckley’s universe operates very much like the 1950s, except it is possible for two guys with a spaceship and some rented equipment to fly across the galaxy and “fix” a planet for their client—eliminating troublesome wildlife or chemical contaminants, altering the climate, or creating some new continents to order.

The stories are generated from two kinds of plot line—either Arnold accepts an ill-considered job that goes horribly wrong, or Arnold buys a cheap exotic machine from Joe the Interstellar Junkman, with unanticipated consequences. Gregor suffers through all of it grimly, while playing endless rounds of elaborate solitaire in the office between jobs:

Richard Gregor was playing a new form of solitaire. It involved three packs of cards, six jokers, a set of dice, and a slide rule. The game was extremely complicated, maddeningly difficult, and it always came out if you persisted long enough.

That, right there, is simultaneously a metaphor for Gregor’s life with Arnold, and for the sort of plots Sheckley constructs around the hapless pair.

In the brief synopses below, the links associated with each story will take you to the magazine copies held on the Internet Archive.

Milk Run” was the first story published, in September 1954, a month before “Ghost V“—but since “Milk Run” briefly refers to the events of “Ghost V”, we must assume that the editorial staff at Galaxy jumbled the order of the stories. In “Ghost V” Gregor and Arnold are hired to exorcise a haunted planet—and have to work out the origin of these supposed “hauntings” while being terrorized by products of their own imagination. In “Milk Run”, they try to make some money by agreeing to transport three different kinds of alien animal in a single spacecraft, piloted by Gregor. The habitat requirements for the three species turn out to be wildly incompatible with each other (and with Gregor’s own requirements) such that Gregor barely survives the journey. (As a side note, the woolly, snowball-shaped and eternally reproducing Queel of the story look very much like the inspiration of Star Trek‘s tribbles, to me.)

The Laxian Key” followed in November 1954, featuring the first of Arnold’s fatuous purchases—a Meldgen Free Producer which, once activated, continuously manufactures tangreese, “the basic foodstuff of the Meldgen people”. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a viable market for tangreese … or a way to turn the machine off again.

Squirrel Cage” (January 1955) is my personal favourite. AAA Ace are hired for a simple extermination job, but the client neglects to mention that the pests to be eliminated are invisible. Sheckley stacks up a teetering tower of successive complications for his heroes to sort out, some of which made me laugh aloud just because of their sheer unexpectedness.

In “The Lifeboat Mutiny“, (April 1955) Gregor and Arnold buy a second-hand intelligent lifeboat from Joe the Interstellar Junkman:

Not that Joe was dishonest; far from it. The flotsam he collected from anywhere in the inhabited Universe worked. But the ancient machines often had their own ideas of how a job should be done. They tended to grow peevish when forced into another routine.

So things go wrong. And the frantic bargaining that ensues between Gregor and Arnold and their self-willed lifeboat is reminiscent of the conversation between Doolittle and the philosophical Bomb #20 in the film Dark Star.

The Necessary Thing” (June 1955) is another of Arnold’s purchases, this time a Configurator, which can instantly manufacture any desired object. Only when they have to rely on it in an emergency do our heroes discover that it gets bored easily, and is only prepared to manufacture one example of any given category of object.

The Skag Castle” (March 1956) is a fairly conventional comic mystery, in which Gregor and Arnold have to figure out who is attempting to frighten a young woman into abandoning the home (and small planet) she recently inherited.

By the time he came to write “Sarkanger” (1991) Sheckley had moved into a more absurdist and satirical mode of writing. The story is a tight little exercise (only six pages long), in which AAA Ace are contracted to exterminate vermin again—but these “vermin” turn out to have reasoned arguments as to why they should not be exterminated. The tone is different, and the action so condensed that Gregor and Arnold are more tools of the plot than characters within it. Of the AAA Ace stories, certainly the one I enjoyed least.

For me, the three stories from 1955 mark the peak of AAA Ace; the three preceding stories are fine things in themselves, but not quite up to the highest standard; and a decline sets in with the last two stories. But there’s no need to take my word for anything—click on a link and see what you think yourself.

Edgar Pangborn: The Darkening World Cycle

Covers of Edgar Pangborn's Darkening World cycle
Click to enlarge

And still I persist in wondering whether folly must always be our nemesis.

Edgar Pangborn, “My Brother Leopold” (1973)

Edgar Pangborn had a great name—not enough people mention that, I feel. He’s the latest author to feature in my intermittent project of rereading classic-but-not-now-famous science-fiction stories from my formative years—the sort of stories that some people recall fondly without recollecting the author’s name, or without knowing that there are more stories set in the same imagined world.

Pangborn was a New Yorker, with a background that included musical training and farming. He wrote in a number of genres—his courtroom drama The Trial Of Callista Blake (1961) and historical novel Wilderness Of Spring (1958) are both out of copyright and available as free downloads from Project Gutenberg, as are his first science fiction novel, West Of The Sun (1953), and three of his early short stories (one of which I’ll return to later).

Here, though, I’m going to write about his Darkening World cycle—three novels and ten short stories, written between 1962 and 1975, set in the aftermath of a near-extinction event for humanity, and spanning seven centuries of “future history”. I’m calling this set of stories a “cycle” because they’re not really a series, in the sense of tracking the stories of a particular set of characters, and they’re not even a sequence, since successive stories do not follow any internal chronological order. But Pangborn quite consciously constructed them as a set of interlinked legends—most overtly in The Judgment of Eve, “The Legend Of Hombas” and “Tiger Boy”. So by analogy with the Lancelot-Grail Cycle or the Ring Cycle, I’m going for the Darkening World Cycle.

In Pangborn’s imagined world the Twenty Minute War (a brief nuclear exchange, which goes by different names in different stories) occurs in 1993. Those who survive in rural areas and bomb-shelters begin to rebuild civilization, but are visited by a sequence of devastating plagues. The few who live through that then find that they can bear few healthy children—mutations caused by radiation and disease are common in their offspring.

Within a couple of centuries, the surviving humans inhabit a resource-poor mediaeval world—living in stockaded villages, oppressed by fundamentalist religion and superstition, and hemmed in by rising seas* and encroaching wilderness. All but one of the stories is set in the much-altered landscape of New England and the flooded Hudson River valley (now the Hudson Sea). The area becomes balkanized into tiny warring territories and city states. Over later centuries a renaissance of sorts takes place, aided by access to the few books that have survived a long period of destruction, loss, neglect and religious suppression. But the potential for recovery is limited by the much-depleted natural resources accessible to future humanity.

It’s a feature of Pangborn’s writing that his stories are fundamentally about flawed humans who are trying their best to get by in an uncertain world. The science-fictional setting is  interesting, and provides anchor-points from which to hang his narratives—but some short stories, such as “The Night Wind” and “The Legend Of Hombas”, could have been told without any sort of science-fiction setting at all.

Pangborn’s central characters are often middle-aged men, oppressed in some way, but cynically and wittily observant of the foibles of others, and of themselves. Failing such a character, Pangborn’s own narrative voice often provides a similar viewpoint. Here, for instance, is an observation from “Harper Conan And Singer David”:

Councilman Oren of Donsil remarked, during those first three days when David of Maplestock visited Donsil alone, that when this young man was singing a person dying in agony of a mortal wound or illness would hold off death until the song ended. The Councilman was an honest old fellow not thought to be very imaginative, and since at that time he was suffering an illness that did prove mortal, his words were remembered with a bit of keenness.

And on a lighter note, the narrator of “Mam Sola’s House” makes his views clear when describing a particularly ugly frieze of painted cherubs:

The late husband of the landlady Mam Gebler had paid 300 Penn dollars, pre-Convention value, inciting a journeyman artist to commit those cherubs.

He is also adept at introducing his characters with a few telling words. Here, for instance, he describes Demetrios, the story-teller protagonist of The Company Of Glory:

His gray hair, lightly silvered, fell straight to his shoulders. He was sixty, not old but seasoned, like his walnut stick, like a wine held long enough in the cask to have ripened in a way that might not suit everyone.

And here are two men encountered in the wilderness, in The Judgment Of Eve:

[…] the boy’s face had the sweet-sickly, poisonous quality of one who found pleasure in cruelty and boredom in everything else. The black-bearded man’s voice was strong but with the suggestion of a whine, as though he were carrying on some unappeasable quarrel with himself […]

Pangborn loves words and lightly turned phrases, and enjoys gathering them together into sharp little observations. Sometimes he seems to relish this almost too much, which has irritated some of his readers (but delighted many others). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction even goes so far as to accuse him of “not infrequent descents into uneasy bombast”, which seems harsh—Pangborn’s bombast is never uneasy, and usually entertaining.

He also seems to enjoy complicated narrative structures, which appear in all three novels. I first encountered Pangborn’s writing in his last novel, The Company Of Glory, and was delighted by the audacity with which the narrator simply leaned into the story from time to time to inject a little personal note. Here, for instance, we receive an update on a minor character whose contribution to the story has just ended:

—Here I who wrote this book must intrude an instant—no more than an instant I promise you and then I’m gone, out of sight—to say that this woman is no fiction (O stars in daytime, what is fiction?)—indeed, I stayed a day or two at her house on my last return to Nuber, and wasn’t she full of peace and quiet and pregnant again, wouldn’t you know it? Real, yes, but sensitive, does not wish her name to be used. Now I’m gone—

The Judgment Of Eve has an omniscient narrator who nevertheless seems to be a future historian, who intrudes from time to time to discuss the sources on which his narrative is based. He is snarkily dismissive of the work of other historians, but coy about how he could possibly have come to know the intimate thoughts of his protagonists.

And Davy takes the form of a Bildungsroman, with the eponymous character as narrator. But the 35-year-old Davy who is telling us the story of his formative years is distractable, intruding from time to time to relay the circumstances under which he is writing. And his friends, acting as proof-readers, also add their own views in occasional footnotes.

There are recurring themes throughout the stories. At a physical level, almost all the narratives at least make reference to “brown tigers” roaming the wilderness; sometimes (as in “Tiger Boy” and Davy) they have a major role to play. These, we are told, are Manchurian tigers descended from a pair released from the Chicago Zoo at the time of the Twenty Minute War—but they are clearly symbolic of the resurgent wilderness that threatens humanity, simultaneously alluring and deadly. A primitive clay idol also appears in several stories, to the fascination of the characters who handle it. Here, it’s described in “The World Is A Sphere”:

[…] a crude two-faced image of blackened stonelike substance, probably clay, male on one side, female on the other, which surely belonged to some period earlier than the Age of Sorcerers, although the mere notion was heresy.

It always seems to be associated with acts of transgression or subversion, though its specific significance eludes me.

Also, at a philosophically level, Pangborn returns again and again to certain themes. Firstly, to the power of music—building on his own background, he writes movingly about his characters’ relationships with musical instruments. He also comes back repeatedly to themes of religious intolerance and oppression, using his fictional Abramite religion as a stand-in that nevertheless bears a remarkable resemblance to Christianity. And finally, there’s love. Pangborn’s characters strive to love each other, despite their flaws, and struggle to suppress jealousy. Polyamorous relationships are common. Homosexuality is treated as entirely unexceptional—common enough in today’s writing, but it’s remarkable to see the topic treated without any kind of fuss or fanfare in the 1970s.

So why did I decide to reread Pangborn? I enjoy his use of language, I enjoy his sly humour, I enjoy his elaborate and eccentric narrative style. There’s a deep human warmth to his stories, although often suffused with melancholia. And then there’s the game of working out the geography of his future world. Pangborn’s place-names are often distorted versions of present-day locations, so there’s a puzzle involving words and maps that I find irresistible (as you might well have guessed, if you’ve visited this blog regularly).

If you like plots with heroes and villains and problem-solving and no loose ends, then Pangborn is not for you. Stuff happens in his stories, characters share their thoughts, Pangborn makes his weary, gentle points … and then the story finishes, often with a sort of half-grasped potentiality rather than a dénouement. Of the novels, I rate The Company Of Glory most highly, for its interesting characters and satisfying trajectory. The Judgment Of Eve is fascinating, with a semi-mythic construction, irascible narrator and knowing nods to Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm, but it does feel a little stilted compared to his other works. And Davy, though perhaps Pangborn’s most popular novel, only works for me about 75% of the time—there’s some splendid dialogue and humour, but the picaresque Davy and his homespun wisdom could sometimes do with a bit of a slap, in my opinion. And Pangborn also stumbles unpleasantly with Davy’s jack-the-lad attitude to sex, which is precisely the opposite of endearing.

You can pick up second-hand physical copies of all the novels fairly cheaply. The Company Of Glory is available as an e-book from Gollancz’s increasingly impressive Gateway collection; they also distributes a Pangborn omnibus that includes Davy.

The Darkening World short stories were distributed across numerous science fiction anthologies, most notably some of the early Universe collections by Terry Carr, and Roger Elwood’s Continuum series. Seven of them were collected and prepared for publication by Pangborn shortly before he died, and published in a posthumous collection entitled Still I Persist In Wondering, with an insightful and moving foreword by Spider Robinson. (The title refers to the quotation with which I opened this post.) This one is also available as an e-book from Gateway, which offers the immense advantage that you will never have to look at the truly hellish cover illustration of the original paperback. (Even in the seventies, a decade renowned for its hellish covers, Dell really pushed the hellish-cover boat out on that one.)

The three omitted Darkening World stories are “The World Is A Sphere”, which is the only story set outside Pangborn’s core territory around the Hudson valley, and two light and humorous pieces, “Mam Sola’s House” and “The Freshman Angle”, which do not sit well with the tone of the other works. (They also try just a bit too hard with their arch polysyllabic wit, in my opinion—a little of that stuff goes a long way.) The Internet Speculative Fiction Database provides a useful Darkening World bibliography and publication history for those trying to track down copies of these outlying stories.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Pangborn’s short story “The Music Master Of Babylon” is available for free download from Project Gutenberg. It predates the Darkening World stories by nearly a decade, and is not set in quite the same world, but it prefigures many of the ideas that Pangborn would work out more thoroughly in the Darkening World. If that story appeals, then I’d suggest finding a copy of The Company Of Glory, and taking it from there.

Here’s a full list of the stories in order of their internal chronology, with elapsed years since the Twenty Minute War in brackets:

The Judgment of Eve (26)
Three men arrive at an isolated farmhouse, inhabited by a young woman (Eve), her blind mother, and a young man with learning difficulties. All the men fall in love with Eve in a single night, and Eve sets them a task to complete in order to prove their worthiness.

“The Children’s Crusade” (30)
The Prophet Abraham leads a group of children on a hazardous journey, ending in martyrdom.

The Company Of Glory (47)
Driven out of their home town by religious persecution, an ill-assorted group heads westwards into the unknown.

“The Legend Of Hombas” (~100-200)
A tribal elder encounters a blind bear that he believes to be the embodiment of Death.

“Harper Conan And Singer David” (>200)
A blind harper and a singer go in search of a cure for blindness, visiting a group who are striving to recover lost medical knowledge.

“The Witches Of Nupal” (266)
An ecclesiastic recalls his teenage years, when a make-believe witches’ coven turns into something nasty.

“The Night Wind” (~300?)
A young man, running away from his village, encounters a bed-bound woman in an isolated cottage.

“The World Is A Sphere” (chronology difficult—~300??)
A government official in the empire of Misipa buys an artefact dating from before the Twenty Minute War—a globe of the Earth, which contradicts the official teaching that the Earth is flat.

Davy (317-339)
Thirty-five-year-old Davy looks back on his teenage years spent roaming both sides of the Hudson Sea, first as a runaway and then as a member of a group of travelling entertainers, and explains how he now comes to be sailing into exile in the Azores.

“My Brother Leopold” (427-465)
The story of a man burned at the stake for heresy, only to be later beatified as a saint.

“Tiger Boy” (488)
A mythic story about a mute poet who encounters a boy who roams the forest in the company of a tiger.

“Mam Sola’s House” (635)
Two academics and a carpenter try to settle a bet in a brothel. (Pangborn has something of a thing about cheerful and fulfilled prostitutes—this is the most egregious example.)

“The Freshman Angle” (713)
A freshman student attempts to write a history of the 20th Century in 2000 words.

* Pangborn, writing in the early 1960s, was already worrying about the ice-caps melting.
The novel Davy was assembled from two novelettes, “The Golden Horn” and “A War Of No Consequence”, both previously published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1962, marking the genesis of Darkening World.
Continuum was a nice idea that never took off. Elwood recruited eight science fiction authors who each undertook to write four linked stories to appear in four Continuum volumes. Patrick Woodroffe produced a series of covers featuring characters from the stories, which linked together into a sort of frieze if the books were placed side by side.

Relativistic Ringworlds

Cover of Xeelee Redemption by Stephen BaxterNo matter how many times he considered it, Jophiel shivered with awe. It was obviously an artefact, a made thing two light years in diameter. A ring around a supermassive black hole.

Stephen Baxter, Xeelee: Redemption (2018)


I’ve written about rotating space habitats in the past, and I’ve written about relativistic starships, so I guess it was almost inevitable I’d end up writing about the effect of relativity on space habitats that rotate really, really rapidly.

What inspired this post was my recent reading of Stephen Baxter’s novel Xeelee: Redemption. I’ve written about Baxter before—he specializes in huge vistas of space and time, exotic physics, and giant mysterious alien artefacts. This novel is part of his increasingly complicated Xeelee sequence, which I won’t even attempt to summarize for you. What intrigued me on this occasion was Baxter’s invocation of a relativistic ringworld, briefly described in the quotation above.

Ringworlds are science fiction’s big rotating space habitats, originally proposed by Larry Niven in his novel Ringworld (1970). Instead of spinning a structure a few tens of metres in diameter to produce centrifugal gravity, like the space station in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Niven imagined one that circled a star, with a radius comparable to Earth’s distance from the sun. Spin one of those so that it rotates once every nine days or so, and you have Earthlike centrifugal gravity on its inner, sun-facing surface.

If we stipulate that we want one Earth gravity (henceforth, 1g), then there are simple scaling laws to these things—the bigger they are, the longer it takes for them to rotate, but the faster the structure moves. The 11-metre diameter centrifuge in 2001: A Space Odyssey would have needed to rotate 13 times a minute, with a rim speed of 7m/s, to generate 1g.

Estimates vary for the “real” size of the space station in the same movie, but if we take the diameter of “300 yards” from Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, it would need to rotate once every 23.5 seconds, with a rim speed of 37m/s.

Space Station V from 2001 A Space Odyssey
Niven’s Ringworld takes nine days to revolve, but has a rim speed of over a 1000 kilometres per second.

Image by Hill, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

You get the picture. For any given level of centrifugal gravity, the rotation period and the rotation speed both vary with the square root of the radius.

So what Baxter noticed is that if you make a ringworld with a radius of one light-year, and rotate it with a rim speed equal to the speed of light, it will produce a radial acceleration of 1g.* In a sense, he pushed the ringworld concept to its extreme conclusion, since nothing can move faster than light. Indeed, nothing can move at the speed of light—so Baxter’s ring is just a hair slower. By my estimate, from figures given in the novel, the lowest “deck” of his complicated ringworld is moving at 99.999999999998% of light speed (that’s thirteen nines).

And this truly fabulous velocity is to a large extent the point. Clocks moving at close to the speed of light run slow, when checked by a stationary observer. This effect becomes more extreme with increasing velocity. The usual symbol for velocity when given as a fraction of the speed of light is β (beta), and from beta we can calculate the time dilation factor γ (gamma):

Formula for relativistic gamma

Here’s a graph of how gamma behaves with increasing beta—it hangs about very close to one for a long time, and then starts to rocket towards infinity as velocity approaches lightspeed (beta approaches one).

Relationship between relativistic beta and gamma
Click to enlarge

Plugging the mad velocity I derived above into this equation, we find that anyone inhabiting the lowest deck of Baxter’s giant alien ringworld would experience time dilation by a factor of five million—for every year spent in this extreme habitat, five million years would elapse in the outside world. This ability to “time travel into the far future” is a key plot element.

But there’s a problem. Quite a big one, actually.

The quantity gamma has wide relevance to relativistic transformations (even though I managed to write four posts about relativistic optics without mentioning it). As I’ve already said, it appears in the context of time dilation, but it is also the conversion factor for that other well-known relativistic transformation, length contraction. Objects moving at close to the speed of light are shortened (in the direction of travel) when measured by an observer at rest. A moving metre stick, aligned with its direction of flight, will measure only 1/γ metres to a stationary observer. Baxter also incorporates this into his story, telling us that the inhabitants of his relativistic ringworld measure its circumference to be much greater than what’s apparent to an outside observer.

So far so good. But acceleration is also affected by gamma, for fairly obvious reasons. It’s measured in metres per second squared, and those metres and seconds are subject to length contraction and time dilation. An acceleration in the line of flight (for instance, a relativistic rocket boosting to even higher velocity) will take place using shorter metres and longer seconds, according to an unaccelerated observer nearby. So there is a transformation involving gamma cubed, between the moving and stationary reference frames, with the stationary observer always measuring lower acceleration than the moving observer. A rocket accelerating at a steady 1g (according to those aboard) will accelerate less and less as it approaches lightspeed, according to outside observers. The acceleration in the stationary reference frame decays steadily towards zero, the faster the rocket moves—which is why you can’t ever reach the speed of light simply by using a big rocket for a long time.

That’s not relevant to Baxter’s ringworld, which is spinning at constant speed. But the centripetal acceleration, experienced by those aboard the ringworld as “centrifugal gravity”, also undergoes a conversion between the moving and stationary reference frames. Because this acceleration is always transverse to the direction of movement of the ringworld “floor” at any given moment, it’s unaffected by length contraction, which only happens in the direction of movement. But things that occurs in one second of external time will occur in less than a second of time-dilated ringworld time—the ringworld inhabitants will experience an acceleration greater than that observed from outside, by a factor of gamma squared.

So the 1g centripetal acceleration required in order to keep something moving in a circle at close to lightspeed would be crushingly greater for anyone actually moving around that circle. In Baxter’s extreme case, with a gamma of five million, his “1g” habitat would experience 25 trillion gravities. Which is quite a lot.

To get the time-travel advantage of γ=5,000,000 without being catastrophically crushed to a monomolecular layer of goo, we need to make the relativistic ringworld a lot bigger. For a 1g internal environment, it needs to rotate to generate only one 25-trillionth of a gravity as measured by a stationary external observer. Keeping the floor velocity the same (to keep gamma the same), that means it has to be 25 trillion times bigger. Which is a radius of 25 trillion light-years, or 500 times the size of the observable Universe.

Even by Baxter’s standards, that would be … ambitious.

* This neat correspondence between light-years, light speed and one Earth gravity is a remarkable coincidence, born of the fact that a year is approximately 30,000,000 seconds, light moves at approximately 300,000,000 metres per second, and the acceleration due to Earth’s gravity is about 10 metres per second squared. Divide light-speed by the length of Earth’s year, and you have Earth’s gravity; the units match. This correspondence was a significant plot element in T.J. Bass’s excellent novel Half Past Human (1971).

Baxter’s novel is full of plot homages to Niven’s original Ringworld, including a giant mountain with a surprise at the top.

As Baxter also notes, this mismatch between the radius and circumference of a rapidly rotating object generates a fruitful problem in relativity called the Ehrenfest Paradox.