“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.