“Are you seriously proposing,” the Minister spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully, as though they were chocolates out of an assorted box, “that some other beings, in some distant part of the galaxy, who have never had any contact with us before, have now conveniently sent us the design and programme for the kind of electronic machine—”
“Yes,” said Fleming. The Minister sailed on: “Which we happen to possess on this earth?”
“We don’t possess one.”
“We possess the type, if not the model. Is it likely?”
“It’s what happened.”
Fred Hoyle & John Elliot A For Andromeda (1962)
I’ve already reviewed some of Fred Hoyle’s solo novels. But he worked most often with coauthors—two novels with screenwriter John Elliot; thirteen works of various lengths with his son, Geoffrey Hoyle. In all these collaborations, the narrative voice is quite different from Hoyle’s own writing style, and it appears that Hoyle provided some scientific aspects of the plot, while the co-authors did the writing.
His first collaboration was with Elliot, who was then working at the BBC. Hoyle provided Elliot with the plot for a science fiction television serial, which Elliot developed into scripts for the eight episodes of A For Andromeda, broadcast in 1961 and starring a young Julie Christie. This is one the BBC’s many “lost” dramas from that era—the tapes were subsequently reused, and only one episode survives. Elliot went on to write the tie-in novel, also entitled A For Andromeda and published in 1962, with Hoyle’s name above Elliot’s. A TV sequel, The Andromeda Breakthrough followed in 1962, and another tie-in novel with the same title appeared in 1964. Both novels have now been re-released under one cover, entitled The Andromeda Anthology, as part of Gollancz’s “SF Masterworks” series, in paperback and e-book formats.
The plot hook of A For Andromeda is more or less summarized in the quote at the head of this post. British radio astronomers detect a repeating signal coming from the direction of the constellation Andromeda. After much analysis, it appears to contain instructions for the design, program and data of a huge and complex computer. So they decide to build it. (What’s the worst that could happen?) This being in the midst of the Cold War, they build it secretly under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence, with oversight from the American military, in a remote research establishment at the fictional Thorness in Scotland. Once activated, the computer begins a dialogue with its builders, establishing the chemical and genetic basis of life on Earth. After a few plot elements that need not detain us, it then provides the genetic code for a (slightly tweaked) human—a young woman (the Julie Christie character) whom the scientists name Andromeda. Andromeda is the computer’s agent in the world—and the computer’s motives prove to be less than entirely benevolent.
The “construction manual in a radio signal from space” plot has been reused many times since—Carl Sagan used it in his novel Contact (1985); Donald Moffitt neatly inverted the idea in The Genesis Quest (1986); and the set-up for the 1995 film Species was essentially an uncredited retread of A For Andromeda.
Elliot’s writing is a little more evocative than Hoyle’s—I enjoyed his characterizations of languid British civil servants contending with a bullying American military presence. The description of a politician “choosing his words carefully, as though they were chocolates out of an assorted box” is typical of Elliot’s style. And there’s an extended metaphor involving the weather—the bleakly deteriorating situation in Scotland is reflected in the bleakly deteriorating Scottish weather.
Which makes me wonder how much of the sequel Elliot had in mind as he wrote A For Andromeda. Because quite early in Andromeda Breakthrough he has his male protagonist articulate the weather metaphor for us:
It was a day of abnormally high temperature for so early in the year. The air was saturated with moisture and the mist turned to a steady rain over the land. Out at sea visibility went from bad to worse. Even for Western Scotland, the weather was breaking every kind of record. Fleming normally ignored the climate, but now he found it oddly in tune with the melodrama of the crisis at Thorness.
And we notice that all the chapter titles make meteorological references: “Outlook Unsettled”, “Depression”, “Vortex”, and so on. It’s only in the second half of the book that we find the relevance of all that unseasonable and unsettled weather to the plot.
The sequel also picks up a number of plot elements from the first novel that were left hanging in an unsatisfactory way, and weaves them into a new narrative. So it all looks rather promising, as the action shifts from Scotland to a fictional Arab oil state which has built a copy of the alien computer, after which an end-of-the-world disaster starts to unfold. But for me, it all rather foozles after that. The motives of the Andromeda computer are muddied by an unconvincing piece of ret-conning, in a contrived twist that seems to have been put in place to deliver a moral message about science and scientists, rather than a convincing narrative. (Elliot is quite clearly not entirely on board with Hoyle’s idea that the world would be a better place if scientists ran the show.)
In summary, I’d say that A For Andromeda is a classic that still makes an interesting read today, despite its dated technology and dodgy biology; Andromeda Breakthrough, on the other hand, is a classic example of the “disappointing sequel”.
In 1963 Hoyle teamed up with his son, Geoffrey, to produce the novel Fifth Planet. Most of his fiction output over the next two decades was coauthored with Geoffrey Hoyle—seven novels, two novellas, and four short books for children. The novels and novellas are all now available as e-books from the ever-reliable Gollancz Gateway.
For reasons of symmetry, as much as anything, I’ve chosen to discuss the only series in their output—Rockets In Ursa Major (1969) and its direct sequel Into Deepest Space (1974). The closing paragraphs of the first novel are a cliff-hanger which forms the prologue to the second.
With no less a personage than Professor Fred Hoyle as author, one assumes that the scientific side is beyond reproach, but theatrically “Rockets In Ursa Major” is considerably less advanced than, say, “Treasure Island”, and a great deal less exciting.
It goes downhill from there.
The plot of the novel largely follows that of the play. After being lost for thirty years, an exploratory ship returns to Earth unmanned, but with a warning message scratched into a metal surface:
If this ship returns to Earth, then mankind is in deadly peril—God help you—Fanshawe
(The expedition, being British and of a certain vintage, was commanded by a man known as Tubby Fanshawe.)
This is an excellent start, but during the course of the two novels it goes nowhere. We never get to hear what happened to Fanshawe and his crew, or why Fanshawe chose to be so non-specific with his warning. What happens instead is that the Earth in general, England in particular, and radar engineer Dr Richard Warboys especially, become embroiled in a galactic-scale war. A malignant group of aliens called the Yela are moving through the galaxy, destroying life-bearing planets, for reasons that are not adequately explained. Fleeing from the Yela are a small group of humanoid aliens who have come to warn Earth of the Yela’s approach, who rescue Warboys from the aftermath of a space battle in which Earth forces are roundly defeated by the Yela, and who subsequently land in England to advise the political establishment on how to deal with the Yela threat. Their advice can be summed up in a single word: “Flee!”
The Brits are, of course, not inclined to such a wimpish course of action. Warboys, with the help of the friendly aliens, finds a way to drive off the Yela threat … temporarily. At which point the first novel ends.
The second novel starts with the return of the Yela, and an abortive attempt to destroy the Earth. Warboys and his alien allies set out to investigate the Yela spacecraft, and through a series of largely unexplained (and largely inexplicable) incidents end up making a relativistic journey across millions of light-years to visit a quasar. When they arrive at the quasar, the reader braces for the Big Reveal, explaining all that has gone before—and the authors seem simply to run out of inventive steam and, in effect, A Miracle Happens.
I remember Into Deepest Space fondly because when it was first published it introduced me to the visual effects that appear when travelling at relativistic velocities, which I’ve written about here in my series of posts entitled The Celestial View From A Relativistic Starship. But I also remember being largely bemused by everything else in the book, and that sensation recurred on re-reading.
The hand of the older Hoyle is detectable in these two books in the discussions of radio technology, astronomy and relativity, which sometimes veer into excessive detail. But the writing and plot exposition seems to have been in the hands of the younger Hoyle—the style is certainly very different from Hoyle’s solo novels. Although the “about the authors” section of my copies of these novels suggest that Geoffrey “contributed the more ‘human’ side of their co-authored novels”, the characterizations are actually much less effective than those achieved by Fred working alone. Characters have long conversations about inconsequential things—every last word spoken to a taxi driver or a waiter is dutifully relayed—and then skip lightly over the massively consequential. Here’s Warboys returning to Earth after having triggered a massive solar flare in order to repel the Yela:
‘How’s everything here?’ I said.
‘Fine, but a little dangerous if you’re out and about. It’s been raining non-stop with tongues of flame darting through the clouds from time to time.’
‘And the radiation level?’
‘It’s been constantly above danger level, but most of the population is underground somewhere.’
‘Let’s get back to the main building. The world’s top brass will be coming to celebrate,’ Sir John Fielding said.
We all got into the lift.
And here, the characters realize there’s just a teeny-tiny problem with their journey to the quasar:
Betelgeuse began his pacing backward and forward again. Then he held up an arm in his characteristic dramatic gesture. “So it is like this, is it? Although we shall never see our own people again …”
“Why should that be?” broke in Alcyone.
“Because of the time dilatation again,” I explained. “Even if we manage to return, everybody on Earth, and everybody in your space fleet, will have aged by millions of years. Perhaps by hundreds of millions of years. In fact the human species will have evolved by that time into something else. Or become extinct!” I concluded, without too much enthusiasm.
“It is all this relativity. I do not like it,” Alcyone announced decisively.
The whole quasar journey ticks along like this—what could have been a real “sense of wonder” science-fictional outing is constantly undermined by the bathetic utterances of the characters.
The plot is problematic, too. It’s largely driven by unexplained actions and attributes of the mysterious Yela, and by contrived restraints on the actions of the protagonists. The Yela suddenly does some odd thing that endangers the lives of Warboys and his compatriots, and their problem is then compounded by some oddly random bit of engineering in their own spaceship. After a suitable pause to allow the protagonists to escape their near-death predicament, the Yela does some new odd thing, and the cycle repeats.
Given the marvellous things that were going on in science fiction writing during the late ’60s and early ’70s, these stories feel like they’ve been imported from a pulp magazine of 1930s. One does wonder if they would ever have been published at all, without Fred Hoyle’s name on the cover.
Note: The covers of the 1975 Corgi “SF Collectors Library” editions of the Andromeda novels (displayed at the head of this post) were something of a visual puzzle, which has undoubtedly become more puzzling with the passing years. Early, uncredited paintings by Patrick Woodroffe, they show a young woman (presumably Andromeda) in front of a complex background, apparently peering through a round window past some sort of odd pendulum. Or so it seemed to me at the time. It wasn’t until I looked at the covers again recently that I realized the “round windows and pendulums” are actually depictions of the old half-inch open reel magnetic tape drives used for data storage by mainframe computers in the ’60s and ’70s. Placing the two book covers side-by-side produces an image of the standard paired reels, with the tape running through a reading head between them, and Andromeda enigmatically superimposed.