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

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

Angus MacVicar, Return To The Lost Planet (1954)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 thoughts on “Angus MacVicar & W.E. Johns: Scottish Spaceflight In The 1950s”

  1. I am surprised that I can’t remember reading any of the ‘Captain’s’ Science Fiction books as a teenager when I read all of his Biggles books that I could find in the local libraries. MacVicar is someone that I can’t recall ever reading at all.

    Your mention of pacifism in the books surprised me a bit at first but as one had fought in WW1 and the other in WW2 they obviously knew the reality of the carnage that had occurred. And both were smart enough to realise what devastation a Nuclear War would cause. I also assume Macvicar’s familial connections would affect his point of view as well.

    Any more than a few women in the books would have just been a distraction from the daring-do and just slowed up the action :-). I do like the idea of being powered by “cosmic jets” far better than by a mere Warp Drive!

    We have actually driven past the Dounreay Reactor while it was still active and were due to visit the Harz Mountains in a couple of months – sadly not to be now.

  2. Yes, the fact that MacVicar was a “son of the manse” (to use a Scottish expression) shows up, very gently, in his writing. His characters quote the Bible occasionally (but then again, they also quote Browning and Montaigne), and there are occasional little philosophical discussions of Christian relevance, for instance about why evil exists in the world. But it’s all very low-key.
    I found myself vaguely wishing for a mash-up novel, in which MacVicar’s ccharacters meet Johns’s–I think the Clintons, father and son, would be a little impatient with all the “girl stuff”, and all that unhealthy thinking about things.

  3. I remember well the Kings of Space series by Captain WE Johns. As a lad I read the lot, courtesy of the local library and now, having reached a certain age I’ve recently acquired the full set of first editions by keeping an eagle eye on sites like eBay.

    I’m enjoying reading them again after a gap of nearly 50 years and don’t mind a bit that they contain more ‘fiction’ than ‘science’!!

    1. Yes, I acquired my ten “Kings Of Space” volumes in the same way, though I have to confess to a couple of book club editions mixed in with the first editions.

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