Category Archives: Reading

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.

Ringworld
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.

Rebekah Higgitt (Ed.): Maskelyne

Cover of Maskelyne, Rebekah Higgitt

[D]espite Maskelyne being portrayed in popular literature as a self-seeking academic astronomer with a less-than-personable style, the stories of his interaction with the Nautical Almanac [human] computers reveals that he went to some lengths to provide stop-gap employment to mathematically inclined people, as well as providing long-term stable employment for those with families to support. However, as David Kinnebrook’s story and that of other Royal Observatory assistants show, Maskelyne was a hard taskmaster who did not suffer those he considered fools gladly.

Mary Croarken, “Nevil Maskelyne And His Human Computers” in Maskelyne (2014)

I’ve mentioned Rebekah Higgitt here before, when I reviewed Finding Longitude (2014), a book she co-authored with Richard Dunn. In that review, I described Finding Longitude as a sort of antidote to the historical distortions of Dava Sobel’s Longitude (1995).*

Higgitt is the editor of this essay collection, Maskelyne: Astronomer Royal, which, among other things, serves to correct Sobel’s depiction of Nevil Maskelyne as nothing more than a self-serving, privileged, academic villain, bent on thwarting her put-upon working-class hero, clockmaker John Harrison.

The collection consists of eight essays, by eight authors, illustrating aspects of Maskelyne’s life and times, interleaved with an introduction and seven “case studies” by Higgitt. I’m not sure what makes them “case studies”, since they’re essentially another seven essays dealing with another seven aspects of Maskelyne’s life and times.

Higgitt’s introduction provides a brief biography—an early interest in mathematics; a Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge; membership of the Royal Society; an expedition to the island of St Helena to observe the 1761 transit of Venus, during which voyage he carried out early tests on the “lunar distance” method of finding longitude; and election to the post of Astronomer Royal, which he held for more than four decades.

The first chapter, written by Higgitt, is entitled “Revisiting And Revising Maskelyne’s Reputation”, in which she sets out the source material that’s available to allow us to make a rounded judgement of Maskelyne’s character and contributions to science in general and the “Longitude Problem” in particular. She also tracks down the origin of Sobel’s peculiarly one-dimensional take on Maskelyne—a 1993 Harvard conference marking the tercentenary of John Harrison’s birth, which Sobel attended as a science journalist. Held to honour a clock-maker, this was primarily a horologist’s conference, and its content reflected that particular focus. The book of conference papers, The Quest For Longitude (1996), therefore contained little information about the astronomical methods of finding longitude (in which Maskelyne was expert), and portrayed Maskelyne largely as an impediment to the adoption of chronometers as a means of finding longitude. (I’ve dealt with the “Longitude Problem” and Maskelyne’s troubled relationship with Harrison in my review of Higgitt’s Finding Longitude, so I’ll refer you to that if you want more detail.)

In the next chapter, Jim Bennett gives a biography of Maskelyne’s one-time associate Robert Waddington, giving an insight into the career opportunities available to someone of mathematical bent at that time. Nicky Reeves’s “Maskelyne The Manager” lets us see how Maskelyne was instrumental in establishing the Greenwich Observatory’s national and international reputation—introducing a routine of testing and maintaining its instruments, and ensuring that the data the Observatory produced were made publicly available. (Previous Astronomers Royal had tended to look on their data as private property.) This segues nicely into Mary Croarken’s “Nevil Maskelyne And His Human Computers”, which deals with the huge coordinated effort Maskelyne organized to allow the timely production of the Nautical Almanac. Using teams of “computers” to calculate the position of the moon years in advance (and to cross-check each other’s results), Maskelyne was able to publish tables that allowed mariners to find their longitude using astronomical observations and about half-an-hour of calculation. From his correspondence, it’s also evident that Maskelyne was genuinely solicitous of the welfare of his team of computers.

Rory McEvoy then provides a chapter dealing with Maskelyne’s relationship with clocks—indispensable instruments for astronomical observation, for which Maskelyne seems to have had great respect, but a certain cluelessness about their appropriate care and maintenance. This combination was probably at the root of his problems with horologists seeking the Longitude Prize—he understood better than the clock-makers what was needed to make a timekeeping device into a useful navigational aid, but he wasn’t very good at looking after exceedingly delicate devices left in his care. So while he manage to incur the undying enmity of John Harrison, we also see Maskelyne championing the more robust and reliable marine chronometers later produced by Thomas Earnshaw.

Alexi Baker describes how Maskelyne steered the Board of Longitude on to a more professional footing; Caitlin Homes deals with the tempestuous relationship between Maskelyne and the president of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks; and Amy Miller sifts through Maskelyne’s personal records to provide an insight into his home life with his wife and daughter.

Higgitt’s interspersed “case studies” deal with the nature of science and astronomy in Maskelyne’s time; the interdependent roles of the Astronomer Royal, the Royal Society and the skilled instrument-makers who sought their patronage; and the artefacts relating to Maskelyne and his family which have been preserved at the Greenwich museums. So a lot of ground is covered—the only significant omission, from my point of view, is any account of Maskelyne’s 1774 gravitational experiments on the mountain Schiehallion, in Scotland.

The whole book is illustrated with relevant images of documents, instruments and paintings. Although it’s necessarily an episodic presentation, with some repetition between chapters, it adds up to a useful survey of Maskelyne’s important role in the advancement of science, particularly the science of navigation. His correspondence shows him to have been both conscientious and kind. He carried out his own very significant work on the Longitude Problem as a public service, without seeking reward, and seems to have borne the occasional enmity of horologists with quiet forbearance.

The brief uncredited coda to the book, summing up his legacy, takes its title from the text of Maskelyne’s memorial tablet: “A Life Well Lived”.


* See, for instance, Davida Charney’s critique of Sobel’s book in her article, “Lone Geniuses in Popular Science” (210KB pdf).

Three Books About The Franklin Expedition

Covers of three books about the Franklin ExpeditionThe riddle of the last Franklin expedition has all of the elements required to elicit and maintain widespread interest—struggle, shipwreck, murder, massacre, cannibalism and controversy. The story of the lost expedition has become a magnet for speculative historians, a mystery that far outstrips the contrived unfolding of fiction, and an inviting field for those who search for the elusive key, the unnoticed coincidence, or the overlooked connection which solves the problem and illuminates the truth.

David C. Woodman Unravelling The Franklin Mystery (2015)

 

Reading Michael Palin’s Erebus (which I reviewed here) inspired me to do a little more reading around the topic of Franklin’s lost expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. These are the three, very different, books I’ve been reading lately.


Gillian Hutchinson’s Sir John Franklin’s Erebus And Terror Expedition (2017) is subtitled Lost And Found—signalling that it was published in the aftermath of the discovery of the Erebus and Terror wrecks. It is published on behalf of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, and is copiously illustrated with maps, drawings, paintings, and photographs of Erebus and Terror artefacts from their collection, making it the most visually pleasing of these three books. With the exception, that is, of the cover. I have previously complained about the erroneous sail plan of the ship depicted on the cover of Michael Palin’s book, Erebus, and there’s a similar problem here. The cover of this one reproduces Musin’s 1846 painting H.M.S. Erebus In The Ice, in which the artist mistakenly equipped the barque-rigged Erebus with a square mizzen topsail. Indeed, this painting may be the source of the erroneous ship depiction on Palin’s book, which not only has a square mizzen topsail but an erroneous spritsail—the jib sail sagging over the bowsprit in Musin’s painting could easily be mistaken for a spritsail. And, as with Palin, Musin’s Erebus seems to be recklessly battering under full sail into a narrow channel between jagged icebergs.

But, moving on from my personal grievances … this is a fairly short book, with its many well-reproduced illustrations occupying almost as much space as the text. Initial chapters introduce the background—the nature of the Northwest Passage; the biography of Sir John Franklin and his officers, and what’s known of his crew; the design of his two ships, Erebus and Terror. The use of contemporary maps is a great help when it comes to understanding why particular potential routes through the Arctic archipelago were chosen, and how a succession of expeditions by land and sea were slowly building a coherent cartography of the area—with Franklin and his men disappearing into one of the final blank spots.

There’s also a vivid description of what life would have been like aboard ship, including the following gem:

The quantity of tobacco taken on the voyage was almost double that of soap, which may give an idea of the atmosphere below deck […]

The second half of the book deals with the various expeditions sent in Franklin’s wake—at first with the intention of mounting a rescue; latterly to discover the fate of men who were presumed dead. Over the course of years, remains and artefacts were found scattered all around the shore of King William Island and the Adelaide Peninsula. A reproduction of  Gould’s 1927 chart of find-sites is particularly useful in getting one’s head around the complexities of the evidence. And at this point I was struck by the ingenuity of the rescuers’ attempts to communicate with the lost expedition—Arctic foxes trapped and then released wearing message collars; hydrogen balloons launched into the prevailing wind, carrying slow-burning fuses that dropped message capsules one by one.

The story is brought up to date with a chapter dealing with the recent discovery of the Erebus and Terror wrecks, and the book closes with a short list of “answers and questions”—what do we now know about the fate of Franklin’s expedition, and what puzzles remain?

All in all, it’s an excellent introduction to the story (and mystery) of Franklin’s lost expedition.


William Battersby was a Franklin researcher, who has previously tracked down the most likely source of the high lead levels found in the bodies of Franklin expedition sailors—you can take a look at his analysis here (350KB pdf).

His book James Fitzjames (2010) is a biography of Captain Fitzjames of the Erebus who, along with Captain Francis Crozier of the Terror, led the doomed escape attempt towards Back’s Great Fish River. The subtitle The Mystery Man Of The Franklin Expedition refers to the difficulty previous researchers have encountered in tracing records of Fitzjames’s birth, upbringing and early career—indeed, Fitzjames seems to have worked hard both to conceal the details of his birth and to obfuscate some of his early history with the Royal Navy. Battersby, digging through naval records and private correspondence, finally managed to tease out the truth. Fitzjames was the illegitimate son of the diplomat Sir James Gambier, who lived from 1772 to 1844, and is not to be confused with two slightly more famous James Gambiers (his father and his cousin) who served in the Royal Navy. (At that time, sons born out of wedlock were frequently given a surname formed from “Fitz-” and the father’s given name.) The identify of Fitzjames’s mother is unknown; he was raised in the family of the Reverend Robert Coningham, whom he addressed as “uncle”. Coningham’s son, William, was a lifelong friend of Fitzjames’s.

Fitzjames was determined to enter the Royal Navy, and his connection to the Gambier family (which seems to have been something of an open secret among naval captains of the time) got him an “in”—in 1825, at the age of 12, he was entered on to the books of HMS Pyramus as a Volunteer Second Class, serving under Captain Robert Gambier. His subsequent trajectory through the midshipman grade was complicated, and Fitzjames actually managed to pass his lieutenant’s examinations without having served the necessary time in approved posts—the reason he felt the need to slightly tweak his CV in later life.

But Fitzjames seems to have been almost an ideal navy man of the era—competent and energetic, given to saving the lives of drowning men, fluent in several languages and engaged with the technology of the day. Battersby follows him through his association with Chesney’s rather madcap Euphrates Expedition (from which Fitzjames emerged with more credit than Chesney), and the Anglo-Chinese Opium War.

Fitzjames then gained amazingly rapid promotion to Captain, apparently as a result of the patronage of Sir John Barrow, the hugely influential Second Secretary of the Admiralty. Battersby’s other great research coup is to have worked out why Fitzjames was so favoured by Barrow—details are hazy, and only hinted at in Fitzjames’s letters, but he appears to have helped Barrow’s son George out of some sort of potentially scandalous problem.

And it was Barrow’s patronage that led to Fitzjames’s fatal placement with the Franklin expedition, though Barrow would die before he could know that he’d signed Fitzjames’s death warrant rather than done him a career-advancing favour.

So this one isn’t so much about the Franklin Expedition—but Fitzjames’s story gives a vivid insight into the geopolitical situation that led Britain and its Royal Navy to embark on that Arctic adventure, and into the sort of plucky and capable individuals who sought to be a part of it.


David C. Woodman’s Unravelling The Franklin Mystery (2015) is subtitled Inuit Testimony, but it’s about a great deal more than that—Woodman attempts to weave together the physical evidence and the testimony of Inuit witnesses to produce a coherent narrative of the fate of Franklin’s men after they evacuated their ships and stepped ashore on King William Island. Although this is the second edition of a book originally published in 1991, it’s essentially a reprint with a new preface by the author, taking into account the discovery of the Erebus wreck in 2014, but obviously written in ignorance of the nature of the Terror wreck, discovered in 2016.

Woodman sets the scene using the reports of previous explorers in the area. Here is James Ross’s chilling description of the crushing power of the ice in the strait where Franklin’s ships were later beset:

[…] the lighter floes had been thrown up, on some parts of the coast, in a most extraordinary manner; turning up large quantities of the shingle before them, and, in some places, having travelled as much as half a mile beyond the limits of the highest tide mark.

Woodman then deals with the reliability of Inuit testimony, using their reports of known historical circumstances (for instance, their memories of Martin Frobisher’s activities in the Canadian Arctic) to illustrate how accurate such testimony can be. He also discusses the confused stories of the Greenlandic Inuit interpreter, Adam Beck, who has long been branded a liar—Woodman believes he has tracked down the second-hand stories about other expeditions which Beck had mistakenly woven together and recounted in the honest belief they related to the Franklin expedition. There are other difficulties, which Woodman summarizes adeptly—the earliest interviews with Inuit witnesses were carried out by men who knew little Inuktitut, using interpreters who knew little English; direct translation of some Inuit vocabulary, such as “mainland”, is problematic; Inuit people used multiple names during their lives, which were spelled in different ways by contemporary transcribers; Inuit renderings of British names sometimes bore little resemblance to the originals; and the Inuit often assigned their own names to British sailors, which were reused for multiple people.

Woodman now proceeds on two assumptions—firstly, that the Inuit testimony is true, unless there is evident reason for a mistake or prevarication; secondly, that Crozier’s men were not mad or stupid, and narratives that depend on madness or stupidity are likely to be mistaken narratives.

It’s a difficult read, at two levels—firstly, because so many people and places have so many different names, while some names apply to multiple people and places; secondly, because the narrative that emerges from Woodman’s research is even grimmer than the “standard reading” of the Franklin story. Instead of a the single escape attempt recorded in Crozier and Fitzjames’s famous Victory Point note, Woodman makes a case for some survivors returning to and reoccupying the ships. One ship, which we now know to be the Erebus, drifted or was sailed south with a few survivors on board, before sinking off the Adelaide Peninsula. Other survivors seem to have scattered across King William Island, some resorting to cannibalism. There are tantalizing hints of clues yet to be found—Inuit reports of papers being buried ashore under something that sounds like cement, and of a small group of survivors encountered a long way farther south than currently known traces would suggest.

It’s a shame that this reissue predates the discovery of the Terror wreck. In contrast to the Erebus, the situation of the Terror seems to differ from Inuit reports—it sits upright and apparently intact close in-shore, rather than being crushed and lying on its side in the open channel. But its location in Terror Bay opens up a whole new layer of possible interpretations for the survivors’ camp found on the shore of that bay. So I hope we see a new edition of this one once the two wrecks have been properly explored. In the meantime, you can read Woodman’s initial response to the Terror discovery here.


Of the three, I recommend Hutchinson’s book for those who would like an introduction, Battersby’s for background, and Woodman’s for detailed discussion.

Colin Kapp: The Unorthodox Engineers

Covers of anthologies containing Unorthodox Engineers stories

“In my youth I thought I was the world’s worst crackpot screwball. The I met up with you and found that, in comparison, I was merely a sane, sensible, hard-working engineer. I never got over the disappointment of that realization. […]

Colin Kapp, “The Railways Up On Cannis” (1959)

If you were a teenage science-fiction fan growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, reliant on the public library system for your regular fix of science fiction, the chances are that you’ve read, and vaguely remember, at least one Colin Kapp story about the Unorthodox Engineers.

Kapp’s stories were regularly anthologized, and public libraries (at least in my part of the world) seemed to put science fiction anthologies on their shelves fairly frequently. The stories were also distinguished by being fun, and genuinely funny, in a genre that often lacks these attributes. It put them in the same memorable category as Robert Sheckley’s “AAA Ace” series, or Frederic Brown’s “Placet Is A Crazy Place“.

Colin Kapp was a British electronic engineer who wrote science fiction novels and short stories between 1958 and 1986. He shares the distinction with Brian Lecomber (whose novels I have reviewed here) of being frequently credited with a “ghost title”—in Kapp’s case, a novel entitled The Timewinders which seems never to have existed. Kapp was never a major player in the science fiction field—his novels were patchy affairs and are now much dated. He is remembered, if at all, for his short fiction—particularly “Lambda I” (1962), “Hunger Over Sweet Waters” (1965), “The Cloudbuilders” (1968), and his five Unorthodox Engineers stories.

Tales of the Unorthodox Engineers appeared sporadically over a span of almost two decades. All five stories were eventually brought together in a compendium edition imaginatively entitled The Unorthodox Engineers (1979). Physical copies of that book now change hands for fairly hefty prices, but an e-book version is available from Gollancz’s Gateway Essentials. A more recent collection is The Cloudbuilders And Other Marvels (2013), in which the Unorthodox Engineers stories are bundled with three others.

The first story to be published was “The Railways Up On Cannis”, in the UK edition of New Worlds magazine in October 1959. (The US edition carried the story in May the next year.) It was anthologized in The Best Of New Worlds (1965). In this story we meet the main characters—Lieutenant Fritz Van Noon, the senior officer of the army’s “U.E. squad”; his second-in-command, Jacko Hine; his boss, Colonel Belling; and the unfortunate Colonel Nash, who disapproves of Van Noon and his Unorthodox Engineers, but who recurrently has to call upon them for help. The Unorthodox Engineers are called upon to repair the railway system on the planet Cannis after it has been extensively damaged in a recent war with Earth. Typically for Kapp, there are layers of problems—the odd botched-together nature of the original railway system, the absence of local steel, and a recurring problem with volcanoes. (Thin-crusted Cannis is bedevilled by the frequent, random appearance and eruption of small volcanoes, all across its surface.) Van Noon comes up with a lateral-thinking solution, not only delivering the repairs Nash requires of him, but protecting the railway from future volcanic eruption. Nash, however, is outraged at Van Noon’s disregard for the chain of command, and the fact that the Unorthodox Engineers’ “quartermaster” is actually a master thief, who has informally requisitioned a large amount of army property. At the end of the story we (and the fuming Nash) learn why the Unorthodox Engineers are effectively autonomous within the army command system, and why even their criminal quartermaster is untouchable.

Kapp continued the railway theme in “The Subways Of Tazoo” (1964) which, like all subsequent Unorthodox Engineers stories, went directly to anthology in the form of John Carnell’s New Writings in SF series. Van Noon and his team are called in by a reluctant Nash to revive a two-million-year-old abandoned alien subway system—the only way of getting around the planet of Tazoo while avoiding its singularly hellish surface weather. The U.E. squad are faced with restoring a technology they can neither understand nor properly recognize:

“That,” he asked finally, “is a train?”
“It can’t be anything else,” said Fritz, not very happily. “It doesn’t appear to be a signal box and there’s not much point in having a wrought-iron summer house this far underground. It appears to be the right shape to fit the tunnel, so it’s probably either a highly ornate tunnelling machine or else it’s a train.”

The Unorthodox Engineers not only render the subway operational, but manage to deduce why its builders died out.

“The Pen And The Dark” (1966) is the one I remember most clearly from first reading. Van Noon and his squad are presented, not with an engineering problem, but with a violation of the laws of physics, in the form of a huge alien artefact on the surface of the planet Ithica [sic]. A black cylinder seven kilometres across and thirty kilometres high (“the Dark”), seems to absorb all energy, up to and including nuclear weapons, directed against it. Surrounding it is a penumbra (“the Pen”) nine kilometres deep in which all energetic processes are progressively damped as one penetrates towards the Dark—light sources fade, kinetic energy decays, and there appears to be a phenomenon of “radiant cold” that sucks the heat out of warm objects (like people). Kapp’s loving description of an expedition into the Pen is what sticks in memory, as does Van Noon’s low-tech way of penetrating into the Dark itself. The ending is unsatisfactory, however—one has the distinct impression Kapp came up with an irresistible fun problem for his characters, but couldn’t see his way to a good dénouement.

In “Getaway From Getawehi” (1969), Kapp reached his pinnacle, I think—the interplay between Van Noon and Hine is well done, the one entirely insouciant in the face of an increasingly bizarre situation, the other reduced to a sort of seething fury at the Universe. Van Noon and Hine are sent to the planet of Getawehi to rescue a group of engineers stranded on its surface. Getawehi has a whole suite of strange characteristics—gravity that varies in intensity and direction over the course of minutes, mountains that glow in the dark, rocks in the desert that are at different voltages, and able to deliver dangerously massive current when connected to each other. And then there’s the small matter that, in the vicinity of Getawehi, one plus one doesn’t equal two. Hine demonstrates this by cutting a metre-long girder in half, then welding it back together again to produce a girder only point seven eight metres long.

“But I still don’t see how you can reconcile it with the law of conservation of matter,” said Jacko.
“Where do you keep the alcohol?” asked Fritz Van Noon.

Van Noon, of course, resolves all problems, and also invents a transport system powered by the variable gravity.

Finally, there was “The Black Hole Of Negrav” (1975). By the start of this story, Van Noon has earned the respect of Colonel (now General) Nash, who calls him in to set up a base on the equator of the asteroid Negrav. Unfortunately, Negrav (a monolithic lump of nickel-iron) spins fast enough on its axis that centrifugal force overwhelms gravity at the equator, producing a net outward acceleration. And Negrav also hosts a mini black hole in a precessing orbit a few centimetres above its surface (mini black holes were a hot science fiction topic back in the early ’70s). Nowhere in the equatorial region is safe from the destructive passage of the black hole, which has reduced Negrav to a sphere of mirror brightness.

Van Noon, for once, gets things wrong—but the failure turns out to be a success more complete than what he’d been aiming for, so all is well.

And Kapp wrote no more stories of the Unorthodox Engineers, despite their popularity at the time. The physics, as you’ll no doubt have noted, was pure handwavium—Kapp, like James Blish, adopted the technique of keeping moving very quickly while emitting a cloud of superficially plausible words. The pleasure, which is still there on re-reading, is in watching Kapp drop his characters into an utterly ridiculous situation, which they treat with full seriousness.

 

 

Lane Greene: Talk On The Wild Side

Cover of Talk On The Wild Side by Lane GreeneIt is perfectly possible to reconcile strong opinions on individual points of grammar and usage—including dislike of a particular usage, or fear that a change to the language might introduce confusion—with a belief that the language on the whole is built to adapt, to minimise confusion.

What do you think of that cover? I’d read the whole book before I realized that all those letters made up the face of a cat. Probably that’s just me, though.

Lane Greene is an American journalist who writes the Johnson column on the topic of language for The Economist. This is his second book about language—the first was You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity (2011). That dealt with language as a political tool—about how people use language to differentiate “us” from “them” (and how governments can use minority-language suppression to force “them” to be more like “us”). This book, Talk On The Wild Side (2018), is subtitled The Untameable Nature of Language. It covers some of the same ground (there’s a big section on identity politics and minority languages), but deals mainly with how languages, like species and ecosystems, evolve and adapt. Greene’s point is that it’s foolish to imagine we can stop that process, and also that we shouldn’t worry about it—all those young folk with their annoyingly repurposed words and their disregard for the good old rules of grammar aren’t going to break the language, because no language in the history of the world has ever been broken by its speakers. The meaning of words will slowly evolve, but we’ll never end up without a word for an important concept, and we’ll always adjust the way we speak to avoid ambiguity. And if the old rules of grammar aren’t being applied, that doesn’t mean there’s no grammar—simply that new grammar has replaced the old.

In particular, Greene wants to convince us that we should ignore the self-righteous posturings of the Grammar Police. He offers several reasons: 1) They are ignorant of real grammar; 2) There is not, and has never been, only One Right Way to say anything; 3) Language will continue to evolve despite efforts to stabilize it; 4) Absolutely nothing bad will happen if you commit the Grammar Crime of ending a sentence with a preposition, or using “which” in a restrictive relative clause—these are just invented notions (and in some cases we can even name the people responsible*).

Greene zeroes in on Nevile Gwynne (author of Gwynne’s Grammar) as a particular focus for his counter-arguments. Gwynne is a useful illustrative target—he’s high profile (at least, within the severely limited demographic of those interested in grammar), and he peddles all the well-loved but baseless old nonsense about avoiding split infinitives and the singular “they”, always putting possessives before a gerund and using the nominative pronoun in a subject complement. But such is the depth and breadth of Greene’s onslaught against Gwynne, one does get the creeping feeling there might be some history between them:

Gwynne has a reasonable grasp on some elements of traditional grammar, and it’s hard to take issue with his description of proper punctuation. But on nearly every complicated, contested or even interesting point, he gets it wrong, as if he had an unerring instinct for getting it wrong, a compass with a needle that consistently pointed any way but north.

But there’s a lot more to this book than the debunking of fusty old grammar myths. There’s a chapter on invented languages, including Loglan and its successor Lojban—languages constructed on strict logical principles which are puzzling difficult to speak fluently. And another chapter on the problem of teaching computers how to translate between languages—the current (moderate) success of translations software didn’t happen until programmers stopped relying on intricate rule-based systems, and instead started exposing adaptive systems to large amounts of real-world data. The lesson here, Greene suggests, is that natural languages simply aren’t logical constructs, as the Grammar Police would like to believe.

And there’s a fine chapter on how languages change over time—sounds shift, meanings shift, grammar mutates. Greene talks us through the Great Vowel Shift in English, which accounts for why our spelling now so poorly matches our pronunciation. And he deals with the many incarnations of words like buxom and nice, the meanings of which are now a very long way from where they started (“flexible” and “stupid”, respectively). And finally, there’s a fascinating introduction to the theory that the grammatical structures of languages cycle continuously between synthetic and analytic forms. Modern English is largely analytic, relying on placing individual words in a particular order so as to convey meaning; Old English was synthetic, embedding complex meaning in single words by the use of noun cases and verb declensions that have now all but vanished. By gradually eliminating most of the word-endings that did grammatical duty in Old English, we’ve become more reliant on word order in Modern English to tell us (for instance) which noun is the object and which is the subject of a verb.

These changes are slow, and writing has only been around for 5000 years, so we need to look back to the most ancient texts in order to see a language pass through a complete cycle:

Old Egyptian had a complex verb structure with suffixes and prefixes, Late Egyptian lost most of these and uses multi-word phrases instead, and Coptic, Egyptian’s descendant, has developed complex verbs again.

There’s a nice chapter on code-switching—how we all switch registers between conversational and formal usages, all the time, according to our situation and our audience, and another on “framing”—using particular word choices to attempt to influence the mental metaphor a listener will adopt. So arguments are framed as being “pro-life” or “pro-choice”, because no-one wants to think of themselves as “anti-life” or “anti-choice”.

If that all sounds like a gallop through a lot of loosely related topics, that’s because it is. But it’s an entertaining and informative gallop, and at its heart is a cogent argument that we should stop trying to tame language by imposing spurious rules upon its speakers, and instead take delight in observing its behaviour in the wild.


* Greene tells us that John Dryden is responsible for the alleged rule against the “stranded preposition”, and H.W. Fowler for the idea that “which” should only be used in non-restrictive relative clauses.

For another damning critique of Gwynne’s Grammar, see the clever and entertaining review at Stroppy Editor.

Michael Palin: Erebus

Cover of Erebus by Michael PalinThey might have had monogrammed dinner plates and personalised silver cutlery, but the didn’t have very good maps.

Michael Palin needs no introduction from me. He rose to fame with Monty Python in the 1970s, and then in 1989 began a career as a presenter of more-or-less gruelling travel documentaries, starting with Around The World In 80 Days. He has written fiction, published a number of volumes of autobiography and numerous books to accompany his travel documentaries, but I think this is his first venture into writing popular history. I’m hoping it won’t be his last. Erebus tells the story of the expedition ship that took James Ross to the Antarctic and John Franklin to the Arctic. Franklin’s expedition, to Arctic Canada in search of the Northwest Passage, famously failed. All hands were lost, along with the Erebus and its sister ship Terror, under still-mysterious circumstances. The wreck of the Erebus was discovered in relatively shallow water in 2014, off the Adelaide Peninsula (known as Iluilik by the Inuit)—and that’s what prompted Palin to write this book. The Terror turned up in a bay on King William Island (Qikiqtaq in Inuktitut) in 2016*.

Location of Erebus and Terror
Click to enlarge
Location of the Erebus and Terror wrecks (prepared from a public domain map)

The UK edition of this book is succinctly subtitled The Story of a Ship. By contrast, the subtitle of the US edition drizzles on a bit, going with One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time. I suppose that lets you know what you’re getting into, but where do you stop? One Ship, Several Other Ships, Two Epic Voyages, A Whole Bunch Of People Who Were Involved To A Greater Or Lesser Extent, Some Interesting Historical Context, Some Personal Reminiscences, And The Greatest Naval Mystery Of All Times. That about covers it.

I confess I judged this book by its cover a couple of times before eventually buying it. The cover illustration of a ship recklessly proceeding under full sail into a jagged icefield doesn’t inspire confidence. And the depiction of a ship sporting a spritsail and square mizzen topsail (both of which the Erebus lacked) made me heave a sigh and put the book back on the shelf more than once. Even the horror-fantasy television series The Terror managed to produce a better depiction of the barque-rigged vessels used on the Franklin expedition.

Still from The Terror (2018)
Click to enlarge

But I’m glad I cracked and bought the book in the end—Palin’s punctilious research belies the careless cover.

He starts with the launch of Erebus, commissioned as a bomb vessel, in 1826, and charts its early and forgotten activities in the Mediterranean, before it was repurposed as an ice-strengthened exploration vessel for Ross’s Antarctic expedition in 1839. In a parallel narrative strand, the story of the contemporary search for the Northwest Passage is introduced, along with a cast of naval characters that we’ll encounter again as the story progresses.

These tales have been well-told in the past. I can recommend M.J. Ross’s Ross In The Antarctic (1982), and Fergus Fleming’s Barrow’s Boys (1998) if you want to delve more deeply into either story. What distinguishes Palin’s narrative is his interest in bringing the people alive—by quoting their own words, or by taking descriptions from contemporary sources, or even just by describing the sort of accommodation and entertainment they would have had aboard ship. After a while you begin to feel you know the jaunty naturalist Robert McCormick, the self-doubting Captain Francis Crozier, the wickedly humorous Captain James Fitzjames, and the intensely loyal but (one suspects) distinctly annoying Lady Jane Franklin. He has a real eye for the telling phrase in someone else’s writing. We find out a great deal about poor Francis Crozier’s hope for love with Sophia Cracroft when she privately describes him as:

a horrid radical and an indifferent speller

We learn a lot about the quick-thinking Second Master of the Terror (and accomplished artist), John Davis, when he records that, when all hands are called on deck as Erebus and Terror are about to collide during a storm:

I opened my door to prevent it being jammed, and hurriedly put on two or three articles of dress and jumped up the hatchway […]

We can also appreciate the evocative writing of Captain Fitzjames:

The sea is of the most perfect transparency—a beautiful, delicate, cold-looking green, or ultramarine. Long rollers, as if carved out of the essence of glass bottles, came rolling towards us; now and then topped with a beautiful pot-of-porter-looking head.

And with our foreknowledge of what will happen to Erebus and Terror in the Arctic, who could not be moved by the letter of carpenter Alexander Wilson, sent from Stromness to his wife, as the ships are about to depart for the Northwest Passage:

If it is God’s will that we should not meet again I hoop we will meet in heaven their to enjoy life everlasting. Dear Wife every night I lay down in my hammock I offer up a silent prayer for you and my Dear children.

The story is well-told. Palin conveys the excitement and danger of Ross’s three years in Antarctic waters, and also the slow descent into weariness and a yearning for home. And then when the crew assignments are made for Franklin’s Arctic venture, we feel a sense of foreboding as the dramatis personae are assembled. By the time Erebus and Terror sail off into oblivion from Disko Bay in Greenland, there’s a real feeling of loss. And Palin handles the subsequent piecemeal discovery of the puzzling remains of the expedition very well. A row of graves, a message left in a cairn, scattered skeletons, a garbled notebook, abandoned sleeping gear and cooking equipment—and a boat that seems to have been hauled overland in the wrong direction, containing a strange selection of objects including silver cutlery and a copy of The Vicar Of Wakefield. And threading through all that the local Inuit testimony, which was at first dismissed, but which has been proven accurate repeatedly.

And there are maps! Good maps, properly labelled, conveniently placed relative the text. That’s a real joy in this sort of narrative.

All in all, it’s an excellent introduction to the early days of polar exploration. And even if (like me) you’ve been reading about this stuff for years, I suspect you’ll still find something new and fresh in Palin’s approach. I’ll leave you with a quote from Robert McCormick, which demonstrates how a naturalist went about his business in the nineteenth century:

This evening I tried the effects of hydrocyanic acid on three penguins, to ascertain the speediest and most humane method of ending their existence. One dram of the diluted acid destroyed a bird in one minute and fifty seconds.


* By a remarkable coincidence, the bay in which the Terror lies was named Terror Bay in 1910. The Inuit name is Amitruq.

Peter Berresford Ellis & Jennifer Schofield: Biggles!

Cover of Biggles! by Peter Berresford Ellis & Jennifer Schofield

It seems a tragic thing, and one that I cannot regard without distress, that a country which can send out such delightfully worded bulb catalogues as does Japan, can at the same time unload an inferno of death and destruction on unhappy people, most of whom could not have been in the slightest degree responsible for the incident that provoked the outrage.

W.E Johns, My Garden October 1937
(Commenting on the onset of the Second Sino-Japanese War)

 

Best. Cover. Ever.

Well, actually, the cover illustration for this book seems to have been borrowed from a 1993 Red Fox edition of W.E. Johns’s Biggles of the Fighter Squadron, which was a retitled edition of Biggles of the Camel Squadron, originally published in 1934. (Presumably the editors at Red Fox felt that the Sopwith Camel aircraft of the original title might be confused with … well, a camel.) Red Fox went on to publish a couple more editions of Biggles of the Fighter Squadron, with different (but vastly inferior) cover art.Red Fox covers of Biggles of the Fighter SquadronThis book, Biggles!, a biography of author W.E. Johns, was published in 1993 (the centenary of Johns’s birth), but it’s actually a revised and expanded version of a previous book, By Jove, Biggles! (1981), by Peter Berresford Ellis and Piers Williams. But Piers Williams turns out to have been a pseudonym for Jennifer Schofield, so the authors are actually the same. This new edition was published by Veloce, an automotive publisher. Ellis is a Celtic historian and novelist; Schofield is something of an expert in W.E. Johns’s work, particularly his Biggles stories, and worked with Red Fox in the preparation of their various reissues of Biggles novels.

So here we have the biography of an aviation author, published by a publisher that generally deals with cars, co-written by a historian and someone whose name has changed since the first edition, which also had a different title. But with cover art taken from a different book issued by another publisher (with whom one of the co-authors worked), which also had a different title from the original work, and which went on to be published by the same publisher under different covers.

Got that? Good. Now we can move on.

Although nowadays remembered primarily (if at all) for his stories about his pilot hero Biggles, W.E. Johns was a marvellously prolific author, with works scattered across many magazines, using several pseudonyms. So the great success of Ellis and Schofield’s biography has been to draw together samples of his writing, so that his life story can be narrated in his own words. It also gives Johns the chance, as it were, to respond to those critics (writing chiefly in the 1970s and ’80s) who have labelled his work as racist, misogynist or glorifying war.

On the charge of glorifying war, Johns is clearly innocent—having served in the trenches of Gallipoli and Salonika before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps, having seen friends shot dead by snipers or spinning away in burning aeroplanes, it is evident from Johns’s writing that he loathed war. This is particularly evident in his early Biggles books, set during the First World War. In Biggles of the Camel Squadron, he has Biggles reflect:

It was hard to believe that within a few miles thousands of men were entrenched, waiting for the coming dawn to leap at each other’s throats. War! He was sick of it, weary of flying, and the incredible folly of fighting men that he did not know …

In the 1930s, Johns used his position as editor of Popular Flying to produce several editorials critical of the UK government’s policy of winding down the aircraft complement of the RAF. (With flying contacts on the continent, he was well aware that Germany was furiously expanding its own air force.) For this, he was accused of “war-mongering”, to which he responded:

Our recent editorials, it seems, have led one or two people to believe that we, or I, personally want war. What utter nonsense. No one in his right mind wants war. Paradoxical though it may seem, it is my fear of war that makes me plead for more aeroplanes.

At the time he wrote those words, Johns felt that the only way to stay out of the coming war in Europe was to have a protective “ring of aerodromes around the coast.” Later, the fall of Republican Spain to the Fascists, and Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, convinced him that Britain had an obligation to become involved in war, and that the need for aeroplanes was even more urgent. His outspoken editorials on this topic eventually led to the publishers of Popular Flying coming under (successful) pressure from the UK government to have Johns removed from editorship.

So it was ironic, then, once the Second World War had started, that the Air Ministry should realize that Johns’s early Biggles books had helped recruitment into the RAF. They approached him to ask if he would write something that might encourage women to join the Women’s Auxilliary Air Force. Worrals of the WAAF was the result, and something of a counterblast to those who claim Johns disliked women. The intrepid Worrals is a female ferry pilot who becomes involved in various adventures and missions through 10 subsequent novels. Throughout it all, she is coolly dismissive of the patronizing and paternalistic attitudes of “pilots in pants”.

It seems that Johns is accused of disliking women solely on the basis of the Biggles canon, in which women hardly ever make an appearance. This was, however, a specific policy Johns applied to the Biggles books, in the belief that his young male readership were put off by female characters. That may well have been misguided, or nowadays might be seen as pandering to a preference that should not be encouraged in prepubertal boys, but it’s very far from the misogyny of which he is sometimes accused.

On the topic of racism, Ellis and Schofield conclude that casually racist remarks are lightly scattered among the Biggles books, as they are in the writings of most of Johns’s contemporaries. But there are intriguing counterbalancing passages. Biggles holds forth on the evils of imperialism on several occasions, and sticks up for the rights of indigenous people on several more. And a Chinese character whom Biggles addresses with “Speakee English?” replies wearily, “Not that sort,” in a cultured English accent.

The charge that a large number of Biggles villains are of mixed race is (Ellis and Schofield respond), “… to put it mildly, exaggerated.” They present figures culled from every Biggles book. In the Air Police stories of the 1950s and ’60s, for instance:

A countdown of the principal villains reveals that in eighty-two tales there are 31 British, 17 of whom are ex-RAF; 12 Germans; 11 Americans; 33 miscreants of assorted origins; and 2 half-castes!

As Ellis and Schofield point out, a better theory based on these figures would suggest that Johns was prejudiced against RAF personnel.

But their own casual use of the word “half-caste” above serves to illustrate the concern of modern librarians—Johns does use expressions that are nowadays considered offensive. In Biggles Flies Again (1934) we encounter “mulatto”, “half-caste”, “Chink”, “dago” and what I’ll here call “the n-word”, so as to avoid some mindless search bot flagging this blog as racist. One may argue that all this was common at the time Johns was writing, and that Biggles Flies Again also includes the Oxford-educated Chinese pirate, Li Chi, who so neatly subverts Biggles’s patronizing assumptions. And one could point out that many of his books lack any such references—I think it’s no coincidence that Red Fox skipped over Biggles Flies Again when republishing some of Johns’s work—but there is nevertheless a feeling that one could not offer a Biggles book to a child today without vetting it first.

What else is on offer in this lively biography? There’s Johns’s poignant writing on his own wartime experiences; his love of gardening (evinced in the quotation at the head of this post); his work as an aviation illustrator; his thriller and romance novels aimed at an adult audience, and now long forgotten; the long, happy years he spent writing, hunting and fishing on Speyside; the story of how, as an RAF recruiting officer, he once knocked back T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) in a way rather different from that recorded in Lawrence’s own memoirs; and how he came to be  universally known as “Captain W.E. Johns”, despite having retired from service with the rank of Flying Officer.

Essentially, it’s the story of what seems to be a thoroughly nice man (albeit very much a product of his own particular culture and time) who had many interests, who lived a largely contented life while writing many, many books for which he is fondly remembered by many, many people. That’s got to be good, doesn’t it?

Dave Hutchinson: Europe At Dawn

Cover of Europe at Dawn by Dave Hutchinson

Obviously, the world and everything in it had been stupid since the dawn of time. It was just that, every now and again, there seemed to be a surge in stupid and there was nothing anyone could do about it except hang on and hope things would get better soon.

This is the fourth novel in Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe Sequence. I’ve previously reviewed the first three. Europe At Dawn weaves itself around the storylines from those earlier novels, reintroducing many characters, providing background to events from the previous books, and culminating in a resolution to some of the plot strands. The publisher’s blurb on the back hails this one as, “The phenomenal conclusion to the Fractured Europe series”, and Hutchinson, too, seems pretty clear that he’s winding things up. In the acknowledgements at the back of the book he writes:

And here we are, finally. End of the Line. It’s been a wild ride; I certainly had no idea, when I finished [Europe In] Autumn, that it would take us so far or involve quite so many books. But now it’s done.

(You need to have read the books to understand the pun underlying that capitalized “Line”.)

And yet. The resolution in the last few pages of this novel introduces a whole new layer of complexity to the story, and leaves things in a state of tension and potential instability. Should Hutchinson ever wish to come back to this world, he has ample scope to continue the sequence.

The backdrop to these novels is a near-future Europe, fractured by internal disputes as the European Union falls apart under the combined impact of a worsening refugee crisis and a devastating flu pandemic. Borders are closed by anxious governments, and a wave of nationalism and populism sweeps the continent, with tiny new nation-states declaring independence everywhere. The old free movement of people and goods is ended—creating a market for any organization that has the ability to move “packages” from one country to another, no questions asked, without having them exposed to multiple customs checks. This is what the anarchic Coureurs des Bois do, using a combination of spy tradecraft and smuggling tricks, lovingly described by Hutchinson (who appears to be a serious John le Carré fan).

The Coureurs have been one narrative thread running through Fractured Europe—by their very nature, they tend to get caught up in major geopolitical events. One Coureur in particular recurs throughout the books—Rudi, an Estonian chef working in Poland, and a more-or-less reluctant recruit to the Coureurs, provides an increasingly disillusioned but nevertheless determinedly honourable point of view.

But Hutchinson’s narratives have always shifted from one point-of-view character to another. In the first few chapters of this novel he introduces us to Pete and Angie, who own a canal narrowboat, and who very occasionally are asked to pick up people at odd locations in the canal network; Alice, working at the Scottish Embassy in Estonia, who becomes embroiled in a situation that starts with a fractious folk group and a jewelled skull, and ends in murder; and Benno, a North African refugee who has been stuck in a UN camp on a Greek island for years without hope—until one day a body washes ashore, bringing with it a mobile phone and a gun.

The other narrative thread in these novels has been the existence of the Community—the inhabitants of a different version of Europe, which exists in a parallel universe. Travel between the two different versions of Europe is only possible in certain places—the means of creating and controlling these access points became a significant plot element in the previous novels, and Hutchinson further explores the consequences in this one.

You’ll have gathered by now that the Fractured Europe narrative is now so complicated that you really shouldn’t even attempt to dive straight in to this fourth novel. Even if you’ve been reading them all as they were published, you’d be well-advised to go back and re-read the first three before getting into this one.

Like its predecessors, this one can be read as a good spy thriller, full of tradecraft, chases and escapes. And it’s a wry reflection on human nature, about how good people can end up doing bad things. And it’s an allegory of sorts, too. Hutchinson relishes European diversity (the varied architecture and cuisine of the locations in his novels are lovingly described) and mourns the retreat into nationalism and populism that is so evident in today’s politics—his Fractured Europe is just our Europe, except with the control knobs twisted a little farther over. And the Community, an empty alternate Europe colonized from our England centuries ago, is a vehicle for Hutchinson’s bleak view of the potential fruits of populism:

Rupert picked up the other photos and sorted through them, frowning. “He’s got other problems, over there. A lot of English people are emigrating to the Community. English English people.”
“Ah.” For a certain type of English person, the Community was a wet-dream of Return, a place where tricky concepts like ethnic diversity and political correctness and sexual equality had never taken root, and gay rights were a misty fantasy. By any number of modern standards it was an awful place, and that was probably why so many of the English wanted to move there.

But, like the previous novels, it’s also funny. The idea that an independent Scotland is run by a terrifying woman known as “Big Mo” is both amusing and strangely plausible. And the characters are much given to wry observations on their own predicaments:

Ben nodded. “Okay. We’re going to check out of here, then one of us will go with you while you check out of your hotel, then we’re going to find somewhere else to stay.”
“You’re making all this up as you go along, aren’t you?” Elsie said.
“It’s what we usually do,” said Ben.

So. If you’ve already read and enjoyed the previous Fractured Europe novels, you must just go straight out and buy this one. (But you knew that anyway, didn’t you?) But if you haven’t read any of these books before, you should probably start at the beginning, with Europe In Autumn.


One final note: the empty alternate Europe occupied by the Community in Fractured Europe has an origin story, “On The Windsor Branch”, previously published only in a now-defunct Polish science-fiction magazine, Fenix (1994), and in a volume of short stories, now long out of print and rare, As The Crow Flies (2004). The crowd-funded publisher Unbound are currently taking contributions to reissue As The Crow Flies, with a couple of additional stories, here. If you like Hutchinson’s writing, you might care to contribute.

Christoph Baumer: The History Of Central Asia, Vol. 4

Cover of The History Of Central Asia Volume 4 by Christoph Baumer 

After the Soviet occupier and its vassal Najibullah were defeated, it was not long before the loose partnership of convenience among Afghan resistance fighters disintegrated along ethnic divides. The Pashtuns rallied around Hekmatyar, Khalis and Sayyaf; the Tajiks around Massoud, Rabbani and Ismail Khan; the Uzbeks around Dostum’s Junbesh-e Milli Islami (National Islamic Front) party; and the Shiite Hazaras around the Hezb-e Wahdat alliance. Their sponsors, respectively, were Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates for the Pashtuns, India for the Tajiks, Uzbekistan for the Uzbeks and Iran for the Hazaras.

This is the final volume in Christoph Baumer’s monumental history of Central Asia. The publisher, I.B. Tauris, has done good work in maintaining the look and feel of these books, over six years and four volumes. I have previously reviewed the first three volumes, and this one has the same solid heft, the same glorious images, and the same sweeping scope.

Subtitled The Age of Decline and Revival, it takes up where Volume 3 left off. At the start of the sixteenth century, the Mongol and Turkic nomads who had dominated vast swathes of central Asia were entering a period of decline. The wealth that had flowed along the Silk Roads was now being moved, increasingly, by sea, and the economy of Central Asia suffered as a result. The empires of Genghis Khan and Timur disintegrated into squabbling successor states, albeit spawning the short-lived Mughal dynasty in India. Russia encroached from the north, China from the east, and the British Empire from the south, each of them exploiting the shifting allegiances of the warring khanates and hordes, while attempting to secure their own borders and pursuing a larger geopolitical game. While I was familiar with the Great Game played out in this area between Russia and Britain during the nineteenth century, I was unfamiliar with many of the more ancient machinations Baumer describes. The Chinese, for instance, actively promoted the dissemination of the pacifist Buddhist religion among their Mongol neighbours during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in an effort to curb some of the Mongols’ notorious warlike tendencies. The policy backfired on them when the reincarnation of the Third Dalai Lama was identified, not in Tibet, but in Mongolia. This Fourth Dalai Lama, Yontan Gyatso, was a descendant of Genghis Khan through both his mother and his father. Suddenly China faced the threat of a Buddhist-Genghis-Khanid theocracy that could pull together all the bickering Mongols and unite them with Tibet. Perhaps no surprise, then, that the only ever non-Tibetan Dalai Lama met his death early and “under suspicious circumstances”.

Baumer is good at pointing out how the machinations of the Great Game foreshadowed many things we think of as modern political inventions. For instance he quotes Palmerston, writing in 1853:

The policy and practice of the Russian Government has always been to push forward its encroachments as fast and as far as the apathy or want of firmness of other Governments would allow it to go, but always to stop and retire when it met with determined resistance, and then to wait for the next favourable opportunity to make another spring on the intended victim. In furtherance of this policy, the Russian Government has always had two strings on its bow—moderate language and disinterested professions at St. Petersburg and at London; active aggression by its agents on the scene of operation.

Sound familiar?

And he tells us how the British invasion of Tibet in 1904 was approved by Lord Curzon on the basis of “fake news”—a report by a Scottish missionary that the Tibetans had gained access to Russian weapons and military support. But, after the invasion, it transpired that:

In Tibet, there was neither trace of Russian weapons nor of Russian Cossacks or agents, nor was there a Russian-Tibetan Friendship Treaty.

Those pesky vanishing Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The second half of the book takes Central Asia through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. There’s a flicker of the potential for independence in Central Asia as Russia undergoes its Communist revolution, but it doesn’t last long.

Baumer’s description of Afghanistan’s bleak recent history is excellent, teasing out both the complexities of internal alliances and disputes, and the motivations of the geopolitical players who stir the pot in this revival of the Great Game. (The illustrative quotation at the head of this post is the opening of Chapter VIII: Afghanistan Forces the Three Major Powers to Engage in a Joint Struggle against Islamic Extremism.)

The final chapter, dealing with the five Central Asian republics that became independent with the fall of the Soviet Union, is also exemplary. The web of interdependence maintained by the USSR fell apart, and had to be cautiously rebuilt. The mountainous states of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan control the water that downstream farmers in Uzbekistan need—but if they release water in summer, to water Uzbek fields, they will not have it in their reservoirs in the winter, when they most need hydroelectric power for domestic consumption. The oil and gas produced in these states can only flow along pipelines that pass through Russian territory—Russia can potentially throttle the flow to hold either the Central Asian producers or the European consumers to ransom. So the Central Asian producers would prefer to be able to get their product to the sea, to be loaded on to tankers—but the USA, keen to isolate Iran, will not countenance a pipeline through that country; and the alternative route, through Afghanistan, is fraught with difficulties.

All in all, it’s a fine concluding volume to a very fine series—clearly written, beautifully illustrated, and handsomely produced. If you have any significant interest in Central Asia, and a vacant five-inch space on some stout bookshelves, you should be feeling the urge to invest in the whole set.