Tuesday, 23 May 2017

SF Books: CHRISTOPHER PRIEST 'INDOCTRINAIRE'



CHRISTOPHER PRIEST: 
BEYOND ‘INDOCTRINAIRE’ 


 ‘Indoctrinaire’ was Christopher Priest’s debut novel. 
And there’s an intriguing story about how it was written, 
 how it first appeared in print form… 
 and how it was then revised… 




THE CONCENTRATION 

‘Violent, like the furious breath of an ice-dragon, the gale howled across the frozen plateau,’ it first begins. The revised edition pares it down to just ‘the gale howled across the frozen plateau.’ Dr Elias Wentik is a scientist stationed at the Advanced Technique Concentration, a complex of research units located beneath the Antarctic ice-sheet. He experiments on tame rats – which die, and self-medicates himself with the same drug, producing lysergic acid hallucinogenic effects. But that’s not entirely the story. Instead, he’s promptly requisitioned by a mysterious American agent called Clive V Astourde, who beguiles him with film-frames of a strange unidentified aircraft. Then Wentik is in Brazil, accompanied by Astourde and a swarthy minder called Musgrave who – in a later deleted line, is ‘doing the heavy as Bogart used to.’ And he finds himself the subject of tight security.

Had Christopher Priest ever been to Pôrto Velho? Or did he just trace the journey with a finger on a map? He was born in Cheadle, an area of Greater Manchester – 14 July 1943, so it’s highly unlikely he’d been there. There was no Wikipedia back then to assist his research, and he admits to having ‘a limited fund of internal experience on which to draw’, yet the ‘muggy heat’ of his journey gives every impression of authenticity. A kind of Graham Greene dustiness, with the Kafka conundrum of a guiltless prisoner unaware of his supposed offence. Key words here are ‘disorientation’, ‘apprehension’, ‘unease’ and ‘displacement’. Now he’s being taken from his initial stay in a hotel – originally a ‘medium-sized’ hotel before this slight detail was omitted, on a long uncomfortable journey inland, in a truck escorted by twelve uniformed men, towards a place called the Planalto District. In response to his question he’s told ‘it’s a region of the Mato Grosso. In English it means ‘high plateau’.’ And what’s special about this destination? ‘You’ll see. It’s a part of the world where you can see in one direction but not in the other. A place you can walk into, but not out of.’


Christopher Priest writes about how ‘Indoctrinaire’ (1970) ‘was my first novel, and for this reason I am disproportionately fond of it.’ It tells of a zone in the Brazilian jungle mysteriously existing two-hundred years in the future. The novel started life as a short story – “The Interrogator”, submitted to editor and literary agent John ‘Ted’ Carnell who ‘said it was wonderful but that he didn’t understand it. He asked me to expand it and so I made it twice the length’ (a Christopher Priest interview with John Brosnan in ‘Science Fiction Monthly’ December 1974). The resulting 10,000-word novelette duly appeared in ‘New Writings In SF no.15’ in a June 1969 Dobson Books hardback, followed by the Corgi paperback edition in October. Carnell’s editorial welcomes ‘two more new authors to our pages’ – Michael G Coney, and ‘Londoner Christopher Priest, who plans to become a professional writer soon.’ According to this ‘Foreword’, Priest ‘presents a psychological study of a group of men trapped in an environment from which there is no escape. In “The Interrogator” he asks, who is the jailor, and who is the jailed under such circumstances?’ This unconsciously attunes with the volume’s ‘theme pattern’, which turns on psychology.

This original novelette text – which constitutes, roughly, the novel’s first six chapters, is more pronouncedly Kafkaesque in that it omits the novel’s later scene-setting completely. There’s only fleeting reference to Wentik being snatched from the Concentration ‘under the ice-cap of the Hollick Kenyon Plateau in Antarctica.’ Instead, it opens up decisively with the two-way interrogation games between Astourde and Wentik. In the novel, by the opening of chapter four – page nineteen, it’s already explained that the perfectly-circular Planalto District of Brazil’s Serra de Norte exists on two separate planes – the rain forests of 1979 (or 1989 in the revision), and the endless plain of 2189’s brittle stubble. And that it’s within this slice of futurity that the strange aircraft was seen.

The ‘New Writings’ text further specifies the location as ‘a high plain between two tributaries of the Amazon, the Aripuana and the Juruena rivers.’ Discovered by the American Government – or the CIA in the 1979 revision, ‘beyond an abrupt terminator in one of the densest jungles in the world’ there is ‘a plain of mown stubble that stretched beyond the horizon.’ In the novel it was Astourde himself who took the photo of the aircraft, not an Air Force Captain ‘at a time when no-one had been inside the District’, as in ‘New Writings’. There’s also a curious incident at the windmill, and then the interrogation-centre itself which is ‘a huge black-and grey cube standing in dereliction on the lonely windswept plain.’



REAL-TIME WORLD 

Despite John Carnell’s assertion, Priest was not entirely a new name, indeed, Harry Harrison had already called him ‘a young man well-known in British SF (fan-)circles’. In the more informal guise of Chris Priest he was a protégé on the late-sixties SF scene, appearing in the BSFA journal ‘Vector’ – with occasional letters of comment, as early as winter 1962, when he was aged around eighteen. He began contributing essays and book reviews soon after, reviewing novels by Lan Wright, Dan Morgan, Philip K Dick, and magazine issues of ‘New Worlds’ and ‘Science Fantasy’. There was also prose in ‘Zenith’, in Graham Charnock’s fanzine ‘Phile’, and in ‘SF Commentary’.

His earliest traceable fiction shot – “The Ersatz Wine” started out in November 1963, but remained unpublished until some considerable time later – in ‘New Worlds’ (no.171, March 1967). His debut proper had to wait until Kyril Bonfiglioni selected “The Run” for ‘Impulse’ (no.3, May 1966). A suitably-doomy Cold War metaphor, it parallels Senator Robbins’ role in the escalating nuclear conflict against the Pan-Asians, with hordes of Juvies who deliberately court death in their mass ‘chicken run’ onto the filter-strip road he’s using, ‘testing their bravery against his.’ Their menacing presence, and the tense plot-momentum predictably climaxes in atomic inferno. By coincidence Judith Meril has a story – “Homecalling”, in the same magazine issue, which perhaps helps when she collects “The Run” into the excellent ‘England Swings SF’ (1968) anthology that she edits.

“The Run” is also part of a selection of his short stories from this period that can be found in ‘Real-Time World’ (1974). Priest’s “Conjunction” followed in Michael Moorcock’s ‘New Worlds’ (no.169, December 1966). Leading inexorably towards his first ‘New Writings In SF’ contribution. ‘It came out of a very unhappy period in my life when I was living in a flat in London and, due to rather mundane circumstances, I was getting more and more paranoid’ he confides to John Brosnan. ‘I hadn’t written much at the time but I had heard that writing was therapeutic and that to write about a problem was a way of solving it, and so quite coldly and objectively I sat down and said – okay, I’m going to write a short story about a man in totally paranoid circumstances and see if it gets me out of this mess I’m in. Well, it didn’t.’ But it did result in planting the seed for his transition from the short form, to novels. Fulfilling Carnell’s other prediction, the former accountant and audit clerk turned full-time freelance pro a short time later, in 1968.


The New English Library paperback edition of ‘Indoctrinaire’ has Bruce Pennington cover-art to provide the edge of Cold War angst with the atomic mushroom erupting in the background, plus the predatory birdlike image of the glimpsed future-plane, yet bottom right is the surreal intrusion of a human hand apparently growing from the smooth-wood table-top. It gives the art the haunting quality of a Giorgio de Chirico or a Magritte. Yet the hand is very much central to all versions of the text. The interrogation, the vulnerable victim of seemingly omnipotent totalitarian forces is very much part of twentieth-century literature, from Arthur Koestler’s ‘Darkness At Noon’ (1940), through George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949). There are even touches of Ian Fleming at play, as Wentik repeatedly faces the circularity of Astourde’s questions across the table from which the hand sprouts – ‘your name, Doctor Wentik. Give me your name’. As well as the surreal contradictions of TVs ‘The Prisoner’ when he muses ‘I am a free man’, then ‘I am a prisoner’. That Wentik’s predicament, especially subject to sonic ‘psychotherapeutic’ irritants in his cell, has been carried over into the Guantanamo Bay detention camp adds a further unsettling twist.

Priest’s later revision of the novel updates the late-1970 references to the late-1980s. It strips the prose. ‘Now he stood with his arms apart, silhouetted by a light brighter than that which normally filtered down through the overhead foliage of the forest’ becomes ‘now he stood with his arms apart, silhouetted against brightness ahead.’ In the same way that ‘the guards stood round the perimeter and loaded their rifles with ammunition that looked decidedly live’ becomes ‘the guards stood round the perimeter and loaded their rifles with live ammunition.’ He tightens up the prose, razors down the descriptions and removes ambiguities. Although sometimes, the real world holds its own degree of pleasing ambiguity. He deletes some of the pauses, the pacing, the reflection – ‘his mental sluggishness extended to his movements, and he found himself content to lie still for a moment or two’, is gone. And the line about the fingers of the bizarre hand drumming on the tabletop ‘like those of a man kept waiting for an appointment’ survives the transfer for the ‘New Writings In SF’ text to the novel, but not to the subsequent revision.

This first novel section closes as the novelette does, with Wentik finally losing control, attacking one of his guards, and violently confronting Astourde across the interrogation table. There’s a tacked-on dénouement in the novelette’s very final paragraph to the effect that it was the results of Wentik’s Concentration research that had unwittingly infected ‘a whole continent’. He was not entirely the innocent victim he appears, and Astourde’s interrogation was based in some kind of moral legitimacy. But that to ‘reverse what he had inadvertently caused’ he had to return to the Time-past section of the world, even if that means killing Astourde. According to Priest, John Carnell ‘published it but still didn’t understand the ending… the last page was rewritten three times by Ted and I over the ‘phone, and he kept saying he felt there was more to come. And that’s how the novel came to be written. I solved the problems set up in the story.’


The second section of the novel began as a follow-up 10,000-word novelette called “The Maze”, documenting further complications in the maze-shack leading to Astourde’s death, but ‘Carnell saw through me at last, because he swiftly rejected it.’ Re-submitted to ‘New Worlds’, Michael Moorcock also returned it, which ‘was a blow… in those days, it sometimes seemed that the only way to publish in ‘New Worlds’ was to baffle everybody, but Mike Moorcock was actually more cunning than I had guessed.’ Despite these setbacks the 20,000-words of ‘wilfully obscure fiction’ came to the attention of Charles Monteith at Faber & Faber, who encouraged Priest to rework and reshape it into a novel, dangling the incentive of a waiting contract.

It’s a novel of interiors, circling and re-circling the prison. ‘A hand grows from a table, and an ear from a wall. A maze is constructed to sophisticated mathematical formula, yet is housed in a tumbledown shack. A minor official terrorizes me, and a man tries to fly a helicopter without vanes. Land exists in future time, though I feel and believe instinctively that I am in the present. Irrational behaviour creates a reaction pattern of its own. What else will this place do to me?’ Even when Wentik uses the restored helicopter to fly free, beyond the zone, he ends up similarly confined in a São Paulo hospital, albeit with nurses rather than guards. Once there he’s able to use a book to access the – for him, future history bridging the two time-zones, the nuclear war that left South America largely unscathed while devastating much of the world. With Brazil repopulated by refugee immigration during the ‘disturbances’ that follow.


The final section of the novel is concerned with solving ‘the problems set up in the story,’ with every question meticulously explained. Angling back to Wentik’s original project at the Concentration, and elaborating the hastily tacked-on closing paragraph from the ‘New Writings’ novelette. Snatched by the novel’s very machinations, Wentik’s research – completed by his tall Nigerian assistant Abu N’Goko, has been perverted into a weapon of disorientation, a gas responsible for the strange behavior inside the Planalto District, beyond ‘the chemistry of sanity’. As late as the short story “Whores” (in Robert Silverberg’s ‘New Dimensions: Science Fiction 8’, April 1978) the narrator suffers from the similar effects of ‘the enemy’s synaesthetic gas’, causing him to ‘taste the music of pain, feel the gay dancing colours of sound.’ To Wentik ‘it was all part of the permanent gulf between theory and practice, between the cold clinical light of a research-bench and the blinding heat of an interrogation-room. A scientist may develop a principle and produce something which is eventually used to ends totally abhorrent to the original scientist.’ He quotes Stalin’s misuse of Pavlov’s theories. Now he’s been summoned through time to ‘sort out the damage’ he’d ‘inadvertently caused’.

But if there’s a pattern to time-travel stories, Priest confounds each one of them. Travelling back to the Concentration to retrieve N’Goko, he finds the centre abandoned. Diverting to rescue his wife from the second wave of nuclear bombing that lays Western Europe waste, he arrives in England too late to save her. He fails to both un-invent the disturbance gas, or return to São Paulo to work on its elimination. There’s a degree of heroic adventure and resourcefulness, but the final resolution is a bleak kind of JG Ballard acceptance that ‘as time itself is unalterable, so is the progress of events’. There can be no triumph over adversity, no happy ending.

The novel was followed by ‘Fugue For A Darkening Island’ (1972), an account of three-way racial tension and civil war in a future Britain, a right-wing government is assailed by rising prices and unemployment, complicated by the arrival of refugees from an Africa destroyed by nuclear war. His third novel, what critic John Clute calls ‘his masterpiece’ – ‘Inverted World’ (1974), is a well-handled ‘slow perception of reality’ story also developed from a novelette first appearing in ‘New Writings In SF no.22’, although he explains ‘beyond a slight duplication of background and the inclusion of a few similarly named characters, there is not much between the two that is common.’ On reaching the age of six-hundred-and-fifty-miles Helward Mann is ready for initiation as a Future Surveyor, and to learn the secrets of the City into which he was born and grew up in. He discovers the City is constantly on the move to keep pace with the backward motion of the world. ‘The hyperboloid world on which the action takes place is perhaps the strangest planet invented since Mesklin in Hal Clement’s ‘Mission Of Gravity’ (1954)’ says Peter Nicholls (in ‘The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’).


OF SCIENCE AND CONSCIENCE 

But already he was growing further away from direct genre-SF, into his own identity. ‘The Space Machine’ (1976) is a deliberate pastiche of Wellsian proto-SF. Set in 1893 it takes full advantage of Priest’s developing facility for a kind of considered formal prose, sensitively skirting its way around the moral sensitivities of the age. In meticulously detailed set pieces commercial traveler Edward Turnbull meets and romances the emancipated Miss Amelia Fitzgibbon, bicycling through Richmond Park to meet her inventor guardian Sir William Reynolds, who just happens to have built a Time Machine, which owes as much to George Pal’s 1960 movie as it does to Wells’ great Scientific Romance. Mildly intoxicated on port and dry wine their playful experiments lead to a terrifying vision of Amelia’s death in a 1903 war. Fleeing ‘through the attenuated dimensions of space and time’, they arrive in a bleakness they first assume to be Tibet, only gradually realizing that they’ve reached the planet Mars, absorbed into the human slave-population harvesting the writhing red tentacular weed-banks that sustain Desolation City.

Seen through the narrator’s eyes, without subplots or contrasting viewpoint, with little conversation – particularly once Amelia has been snatched by Martian war-machines, Edward is isolated by language as well as distance, only emphasizing the bleakness of his plight. Although the space-gun that carries him across hemispheres to the embattled Martian city seems to owe as much to Jules Verne, it does furnish the apparatus by which the Martian projectiles will land on what they term ‘the warm world’, proposing links and plot-explanations for some of the narrative gaps left between Wells’ two seminal works.


There’s only a sideways glance at Mars in the 1898 ‘The War Of The Worlds’ novel, enhanced by Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s dramatic voice-over to Chesley Bonestell’s visionary art for George Pal’s 1953 movie. Priest fills in the background to the invasion, with the resourceful Amelia acting as the spark that ignites the human-Martian rebellion against the vampiric squid-like monster-creatures they’d genetically created, and then become enslaved by. Returned – not only to Earth but to Woking, smuggled inside the first of the invasion projectiles, HG Wells himself joins them as they row their way through the ensuing scorched desolation down through Walton-on-Thames. Weaving events from ‘The Time Machine’ novella into the narrative of the novel, Mr Wells with his ‘startling blue eyes’ that ‘shone like optimistic beacons’, constructs a flying bed-frame based on the time-travel principle to strike back at the already-doomed invaders. This time, by neatly avoiding the terrible fate that Edward had glimpsed for Amelia during their first time-trip to 1903, it seems that – unlike for Dr Elias Wentik, destiny can be circumvented. There can be triumph over adversity, and a happy ending.

‘A Dream Of Wessex’ (1977) is set in a twenty-second century where earthquake has sheared England apart, a consensus-imagination vision of a half-submerged future-England with Dorchester a tourist centre with mosques and casinos in a Wessex separated from the mainland. By 1979 – and ‘The Infinite Summer’ short-story collection, the Pan Books revision of ‘Indoctrinaire’ had appeared, tidying the text. ‘There are a number of dangers facing a writer who revises his earlier work’ Priest admits, ‘not the least among them the risk that while removing what he sees as the bad he might, in the process, also remove what other people see as the good.’ Understandably the reference to the ‘finding of fissionable ores in the dead crust of the Moon’ is excised, Cape Kennedy reverts to Cape Canaveral, and ‘in an effort to recatch a glimpse of it’ becomes a simpler ‘in an effort to see it’. ‘I was taking the compound intravenously’ reduces down to ‘I was injecting myself.’ And if Astourde’s middle name is Victor, the sly in-joke that ‘that would have been inappropriate’ is deleted. But there’s even a very minor shuffling of words, Wentik being taken ‘to a destination unknown’ switches ‘to an unknown destination’.

The later ‘The Affirmation’ (1981) revisits Priest’s hauntingly sensitive ‘Dream Archipelago’ in a novel-form that is both wistfully nostalgic and infused by an affecting sense of loss, as Peter Sinclair becomes caught up in an ambiguity of what is real and what is fiction. Before moving into more edge-of-definition books with ‘The Quiet Woman’ (1990) and ‘The Prestige’ (1995).

Long-haired, part of the New Wave culture… but not quite of it, out of the SF field, but with a love-hate relationship with the genre that saw him gradually growing away from it, Christopher Priest nonetheless carries the New Wave impatience with established forms, conventional tropes and old verities into the next decade, and beyond. Disclaiming SF completely – he tells ‘The Observer’ ‘these days, I fear that SF is fast becoming a played-out, bankrupt form’ (16 April 1989), he continues expanding and pleasingly blurring its boundaries. Like the cult Indie-band which scores an unexpected Pop hit, and hence loses its subculture credibility, SF-fandom resents those who betray its tight restrictions by achieving mainstream acceptance. They’re no longer tribal property, no longer exclusively part of the extended fan-family. Christopher Priest not so much suffers from the backlash, as playfully rides it.

In the ‘Author’s Note’ appendaged to the 1979 Pan Books revision he writes that ‘if I had to write a first novel again, I don’t think that it would be ‘Indoctrinaire’ all over again, but I do think it might be a book rather like it.’ Needless to say, I prefer the raw energy of the original rough-cut version over the more streamlined focused revision. But that’s just me. That’s probably why Christopher Priest is a famous published novelist, and I’m not.



CHRISTOPHER PRIEST: 
BEFORE AND 
AFTER ‘INDOCTRINAIRE’ 


1963 – ERSATZ WINES: INSTRUCTIVE SHORT STORIES’ (GrimGrin Studios) published in November 2008, this volume collects his earliest, primarily unpublished fiction, with introduction and afterword. With ‘Going Native’ from November 1963, ‘Stranglehold’ and ‘Star Child’ from March and November 1964, ‘The Witch Burners’ (January), ‘Nicholson’s Repentances’ (October), ‘Combined Operation’ and ‘The Ostrich Seed’ both November 1965, and ‘Chance’ from April 1967

January 1966 – SCIENCE FANTASY no.80, editor Kyril Bonfiglioni devotes his editorial to debating a long letter from Mr Chris Priest about what Priest describes as the ‘eternally-lost golden moment when SF clicks and we’re sold for the rest of our life. In that infinite moment there is no need to rationalize the why’s and wherefore’s, it’s like converting to a new religion, you don’t need convincing’

January 1966 – VECTOR no.37 in the BSFA magazine Priest reviews the current issue of ‘Science Fantasy’, noting that ‘there is a wide gulf in this magazine at present, between the best and the worst’

May 1966 – IMPULSE SF no.3, edited by Kyril Bonfiglioni, includes ‘The Run’ as by Chris Priest, a relatively sophisticated fiction-debut, with genuine symbolist menace in its Juvie-horde, subsequently picked up by Judith Meril for her ‘England Swings SF’ (1968) anthology (Doubleday, 1968), and in the ‘Real-Time World’ collection (New English Library, 1974)

December 1966 – NEW WORLDS SF no.169, edited by Michael Moorcock, including ‘Conjugation’ as by Chris Priest, untypical compressed, fragmentary, cut-up style experimental piece around thread of spaceship ‘Outwarder II’ wreck, with diversion into the apostrophe in ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ as ‘The Wake Of Finnegan’, and extract from ‘unfinished novel by Kenneth G Robbs’, collected into ‘Ersatz Wines’


February 1967 – SF IMPULSE no.12, edited by Harry Harrison, includes ‘Impasse’ as by Chris Priest, rare traditional SF-themed flash-fiction length ‘mordant and satirical glimpse of a future’ as a Denebian intruder makes ultimatums to the Earth Field-Marshal who makes a counter-ultimatum, then shoots him! collected into ‘Ersatz Wines’

March 1967 – NEW WORLDS SF no.171, edited by Michael Moorcock, includes ‘The Ersatz Wine’ as by Chris Priest, Hawkins is pursued through a dark 1960s city haunted by random voices – a preacher, a Pop Singer (Gene Piney!), and advertising jingles, he has sex with a girl with a room warmed by a fan-heater. The last voice is the Surgeon saying ‘what right have we to keep this man alive?’

June 1969 – NEW WRITINGS IN SF no.15, edited by John Carnell, includes ‘The Interrogator’

January 1970 – VISION OF TOMORROW no.4, ‘Breeding Ground’ with art by Dick Howett, ‘Tentacular BEMS, weird monsters, and the like, are all part and parcel of the hoary traditions of SF to scarify the reader. Most of them have been happily laid to rest, but Mr Priest here gives us a fresh slant on the Things From Outer Space…’ Space-salvage pilot Luke Caston discovers the 200-year-old wreck of ‘Merchant Princess’ with its invaluable cargo of Procyon IV diamonds, but it’s crawling with horrible Space-mites! 

June 1970 – INDOCTRINAIRE (Faber and Faber, New English Library paperback November 1971, Pan Books revision, 1979) 


July 1970 – VISION OF TOMORROW no.10, edited by Philip Harbottle, short story ‘Nothing Like The Sun’, art by Eddie Jones. Frontier encounter on wind-swept Taranth between four lost soldiers led by sick Lieutenant Gracer, and the previously-unseen enemy Ghouls who at first give aid. Stripping a dead alien they discover that, due to short-sighted birdlike eyes, they steal human eyes and surgically graft them into their foreheads. Another regular SF story, untypical for Priest 

February 1972 – FUGUE FOR A DARKENING ISLAND (Faber and Faber, New English Library paperback, September 1973) novel 

May 1974 – INVERTED WORLD (Faber and Faber, New English Library paperback June 1975), Priest explains how the idea of the novel ‘first came to me in 1965’ and how he ‘talked out the idea to many of my friends’, including Graham Charnock who suggested the Guilds, Brian Aldiss ‘who wanted the city to go the other way’, plus Kenneth Bulmer and Christine Priest. An early version published as ‘The Inverted World’ in ‘New Writings In SF no.22’ in April 1973 

October 1974 – STOPWATCHedited by George Hay (New English Library), with ‘The Invisible Men’ in which Prime Minister Harold Murdoch, on the brink of his resignation, has a clandestine meeting with Charles Greystone of the Anglo-American Economic Recovery Program (AMERP) in Blakeney on the Norfolk coast as Britain severs its last ties with Europe and the Commonwealth, to become the fifty-first US State. Meticulous background detail of other, apparently casual characters, are the ‘invisible men’ of security. Anthology also includes Robert Holdstock (‘Ash, Ash’), Ian Watson (‘EA5000: Report On The Effects Of A Riot Gas’) and Andrew Darlington (‘When The Music’s Over’)


October 1974 – REAL-TIME WORLD(New English Libraries) collection includes: 
The Run’ (from ‘SF Impulse no.3’, May 1966) 
The Perihelion Man’ (from ‘New Writings In SF no.16’, 1969), almost traditional SF-thriller, when aliens from Venus retrieve former Cold War orbital nuclear warheads to use against Earth, it’s left to washed-up astronaut Jason Farrell – who’d been in closer to the Sun than any other human, to save the day 
Breeding Ground’ (‘Vision Of Tomorrow no.4’, January 1970) 
Double Consummation’ (from George Hay’s ‘The Disappearing Future: A Symposium Of Speculation’, June 1970) 
Fire Storm’ (from anthology ‘Quark no.1’, November 1970), to David Wingrove in ‘Legerdemain: The Fiction Of Christopher Priest’ is is ‘a study of the controlled destruction of a city by a man obsessed with his job and, ultimately, driven to a spectacular suicide. It reads like power fantasy’
Real-Time World’ (from ‘New Writings In SF no.19’, June 1971), although the Observatory looks outwards, the story turns inwards on the psychology and news-management of its crew, ‘what was observed at the observatory was the observer’, is it on an alien planet time-phased one nanosecond by the elocation-field? is it a closed experiment on a nuked Earth? or in the Joliot-Curie crater on the lunar line of libration? Intelligent mature speculative fiction 
Sentence In Binary Code’ (from ‘Fantastic vol.20 no.6’, August 1971) 
The Head And The Hand’ (from ‘New Worlds Quarterly no.3’, 1972), ‘a powerful tale of obsession, and its impact is considerable. It is a genuine horror story, with its own cool, implacable logic. Unlike anything in Priest’s work preceding it, the story is densely written, each image crucial to the overall effect. It concerns Todd Alborne, the ‘Master’, a man suffering from some deep psychological blight. He hates all signs of life and visits his hatred upon both his own body and upon all that surrounds him’ (David Wingrove) 
A Woman Naked’ (from ‘Science Fiction Monthly no.1’, January 1974), a future society imposes a system of rigid morality upon women – who are, incidentally, outnumbered by men in a ratio of four to one, and punishes offenders by making them ‘a woman naked’ and made to go unclothed and unprotected in public. The ‘trial’ here is not to ascertain a woman’s guilt or innocence, but to provide vicarious pleasure for the male ‘audience’. ‘The rape had begun’ Priest ends, in a brutally effective conclusion 
Transplant’ (from ‘Worlds Of If no.170’ January 1974), a man’s brain, kept alive artificially after his death, creates for itself a kind of pleasurable dream world. ‘His mind is liberated, you see. Anything he imagines, wishes or expects would be entirely real to him. He could build a whole world, I suppose, and it would be totally real and have substance and existence. In some ways, it’s man’s oldest dream. But in others… it’s a hell we cannot conceive.’ In ‘Vector no.93’ (May/June 1979) David Wingrove uses the idea as a metaphor for the writer who also builds imaginary worlds purely from imagination 

August 1975 – NEW WRITING IN SF no.26 edited by Kenneth Bulmer (Sidgwick and Jackson) short story ‘Men Of Good Value’, in a teasing fiction-autobiography blend Priest is writer and writer-protagonist in Cornish village inveigled by TV-producer Frank Mattinson, right-wing but subject to Partiality Agreement 


March 1976 – THE SPACE MACHINE (Faber and Faber, Orbit/Futura, September 1977) novel, in 1893 the workaday life of a young commercial traveler is enlivened only by his fervent – if somewhat distant, interest in the new sport of motoring. It’s through this that he meets his ladyfriend, a chance encounter in a dingy hotel and a compromising incident in a bedroom that lead to an unexpected adventure in Time and Space. She takes him to Sir William Reynolds’ laboratory, where the most eminent English scientist is building a Time Machine, and from this discovery it’s but a small step into futurity. As the young couple emerge into the Twentieth Century, they find a ferocious war devastating England. But the 1903 world war is only the start of a series of adventures that culminate in a violent confrontation with the universe’s most ruthless intellect… 

May 1976 – ANDROMEDA 1 edited by Peter Weston (Futura Publications) includes ‘An Infinite Summer’, in hauntingly beautiful immaculately-wrought Jane Austen precision of formal prose, Thomas James Lloyd is time-locked in Edwardian June 1903 Richmond on the point of proposing to younger sister Sarah Carrington – to unfreeze in August 1940, endlessly awaiting her to ‘erode’. Freezers from ‘some unknown period of the future’ take living tableaux as we take art-photography, regardless of the separation and aching loss it causes. Vivid images include the German aviator parachuting into the Thames 

October 1977 – A DREAM OF WESSEX(Faber and Faber, Pan Books paperback novel, November 1978). Dorset in the near and no-so-near future. Through the government-sponsored Ridpath projector, thirty-nine scientist-members of the Wessex Project engage in communal dreaming from large metal drawers beneath Maiden Castle, in order to create an alternate fantasy-future. Both Dorset’s are convincingly detailed, the grim ‘real’ world of 1987, with army checkpoints and urban terrorism, and the ‘unreal’ island of 2137 Wessex where Dorchester is a fishing port and beach resort, the Soviets rule and Islam is the major religion. Julia Stretton is given the task of retrieving project-member David Harkham, but their fantasy-world personas fall in love 

April 1978 – NEW DIMENSIONS: SCIENCE FICTION no.8edited by Robert Silverberg (Harper and Row) includes “Whores”, a richly-detailed prose-poem with the SF-elements – the enemy’s synaesthetic gas he’s convalescing from which causes him to ‘to taste the music of pain, feel the gay dancing colours of sound’, an excuse for surreal perception. He searches for the whore Slenje, but takes Elva instead 

April 1978 – THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SF Vol.54 no.4 (all-British issue with Keith Roberts, Kenneth Bulmer and Brian W Aldiss) includes the voyeuristic-novella ‘The Watched’, on the Dream Archipelago island of Tumo Yvann Ordier is the inventor who then rejected the tiny scintilla spy-lenses used during the ongoing war. From his folly on the Tumoit Mountain ridge he watches an erotic ritual enacted by the secretive Qataari refugee-community in their valley. Are they also watching him, seeding their own scintilla? The enigmatic close in which he becomes observer and also the watched in the narcotic sweetness of rose-petals is vastly effective 

September 1978 – ANTICIPATIONS (Faber and Faber, Pan Books paperback, 1980) anthology edited by Christopher Priest including his introduction and ‘The Negation’ a bleak Eastern European totalitarian Dream Archipelago story, with conscripted Border Constable Dik meeting his idolized Moylita Kaine, author of ‘The Affirmation’ (title of a 1981 Priest novel!). With Trump-prescience she tells him ‘There have always been walls, Dik!’ Also Ian Watson (‘The Very Slow Time Machine’), Robert Sheckley (‘Is This What People Do?’), Bob Shaw (‘Amphitheatre’), Harry Harrison (‘The Greening Of The Green’), Thomas M Disch (‘Mutability’), JG Ballard (‘One Afternoon At Utah Beach’), Brian W Aldiss (‘A Chinese Perspective’) 

January 1979 – THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SF Vol.56 no.1, “Palely Loitering” an elaborately convoluted romance around the Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow bridges of the Flux Channel Park which lead Mykle in an endless quest for a glimpsed Estyll, meeting numerous selves on the way. An answer to the question ‘what advice would you give to your younger self?’ 

October 1979 – AN INFINITE SUMMER (Faber and Faber, Pan Books paperback, June 1980) collection with ‘Introduction’, ‘An Infinite Summer’ and ‘Palely Loitering’ (‘Magazine Of Fantasy And SF’, January 1979) plus the Dream Archipelago tales ‘Whores’, ‘The Negation’ (‘Anticipations’, 1978) and ‘The Watched’ (‘Magazine Of Fantasy And SF’ April 1978)


Friday, 28 April 2017

Poem: HELENA TWILIGHT



HELENA TWILIGHT 
(informed by the short fiction 
of John W Campbell 
and Lester del Rey) 


i’m old now, yet see you then, eyes
splinters of sky, still, a rage inside
that alights for the one night we share,
my loving machine, blessed are
those beats that intrude but slightly,
blessed your touch that burns me, blessed
the poems that bleed, lies that breathe,
cells that shed, seeds that trade
in this passionate blackness,
air charged and urgent, Helena,
Helena Twilight, beside me…

chemicals choke my bloodflow, torn adrenalin
as your fingers grow white knives, your tongue
a stilting blade, the thread of hot needles
that skewer my eyes, killing me blind,
your terrifying love gifting me glimpse of
the world you come from, awaking now to
blood-glow horizon along severed retina
red sands blow as flame, spraying fire,
a burning world where senile
gravity slows, disconnecting in
stretched terrors of silence, not dream
not yet termination, but as real, no fern
no moth, no spores, no living cell,
no flesh in screaming shadow curves
of three moons – no, worlds once drawn close,
then entropy-sundered in leaking tides,
life long-broke and expired, emptiness only, &
the world’s final towers of self-spun machines
that drone for purpose, lonely for divine creators
a sickness virus-deep, a yearning loneliness
reaching across time…

i’m old now, and begin to understand,
Helena, Helena Twilight, my loving machine,
you wait a billion years ahead of me,
this slow travel through each day
only brings us closer, all I must do
is wait…


Published in:
‘OMEGA no.4’ (UK – April 2006)


Thursday, 27 April 2017

Comicbook Heroes: ADVENTURE: THE WORLD OF TOMORROW



ADVENTURE:
THE WORLD OF TOMORROW

Notoriously secretive DC Thomson produced ‘Beano’ and 
‘Dandy’, but they also created ‘Hotspur’ and ‘Adventure’
They specialised in Sports stories, School stories and 
War stories, but also, occasionally, there was SF too...



 ‘SUPERSPEED EXCITEMENT WITH 
THE MEN OF THE PLANET PATROL…!’ 

The dramatic cover illustration of ‘Adventure’ dated 5th October 1940, shows the ‘Wardens Of The Worlds In Space’, two grim space-suited figures on a lunar world, with a spaceship marked ‘Space Patrol 41’ standing in the background. The blurb announces the all-text story to be found within as ‘The Amazing Story Of Life As It Will Be In The Year 2040’. Oddly, we are now closer to that speculative future date than we are to the time of the story’s publication. And yes, we’ve witnessed figures moving on a lunar landscape not unlike the one the uncredited DC Thomson artist visualised. Their future happened. If not always exactly in the way they envisaged. Operating from Dundee, the notoriously secretive anti-union DC Thomson most famously invented ‘Dandy’ (no.1, 4 December 1937) and then ‘Beano’ (no.1, 30 July 1938), but before that they’d created ‘The Big Five’ story-papers that kept boys enthralled for nigh on three decades.


Fan and archivist Terry Jeeves recalls ‘how ‘Adventure’ hit the newsagents every Monday, ‘Wizard’ arrived on Tuesday, ‘Rover’ on Thursday, ‘Hotspur’ on Friday, and ‘Skipper’ on Saturday’. Apparently some other company had staked out Wednesday for the pale blue ‘Boy’s Cinema’ retelling film plots complete with stills and star pin-ups, while some Lord’s Day Preservationists probably put the frighteners on publishers to deny them Sunday. But prior to TV – never mind games-consoles, those two-penny story-weekly’s appeared chock-full of solid-text exploits, each issue made up of intimidating prose-blocks extending to full novel-length. Largely they specialised in Sports stories, School stories and War stories, but occasionally there were forms of SF too.


Of course, readers would not necessarily be expected to be as familiar with the conventions of SF as they are now. So it could be argued that fantasy story-elements were more usually introduced as plot-gimmicks into conventional settings rather than as pure SF. After all, for most of the period concerned, Britain did not have its own dedicated SF magazine. The pioneering juvenile ‘Scoops’ lasted for twenty issues in 1934, then ‘Tales Of Wonder’ survived for just sixteen, from 1937 to 1942. As a result, for DC Thomson’s ‘Big Five’, unfamiliar extraterrestrial themes were introduced obliquely, cushioned by means of genre cross-over’s.


In ‘S.O.S From Planet X’ (‘Hotspur’, 1954), two young disgruntled Scotland Yard police sergeants, John Horton and Scottie Grant, answer a newspaper ad for ‘experienced, keen police officers with modern ideas… to combat a crime-wave on Planet X’. Suspecting some kind of hoax they nevertheless rendezvous with Mr Monuk, an enigmatic ‘foreign gentleman’ in Room 456 of the Trebizon Hotel. He offers them £200 a month – several times what they were now getting, for their services. To their amazement his spaceship ‘Planet-rover’ then takes them to Maxos, capital city of a previously crime-free planet, which is inexplicably enduring a reign of criminal terror. They solve the murder of Senator Carasos, then, ‘this is where our job really begins’ says Horton, neatly combining crime-detection with SF.


A similar kind of fictional conjuring lay behind a curious hybrid extravagance called ‘Bull Raiders From The Red Orb’ (‘Adventure’, 1945), which was billed as ‘A Wild West Story A Million Miles From The Wild West!’ Readers might not be too familiar with SF, but they certainly knew all about Cowboys. Hence four men from the Circle-7 Ranch in Texas pursue pesky cattle-rustlers who just happen to come from ‘one of the lesser-known planets’ known as the Red Orb, which lies ‘nearly a million miles away’. A million miles probably sounds like a long way to an impressionable 1940’s schoolkid, although in solar system terms it’s practically our backyard! The odd adventurers use a crashed alien ship re-equipped by scientist Professor Hamilton, and – to represent the reader’s juvenile point-of-view, they unwittingly carry fourteen-year-old stowaway Davie Baird with them.

 
While a somewhat intriguing new twist on the war story also made its appearance in ‘Adventure’ – in fourteen hefty text episodes from 24 March 1945. ‘They’ll Try It Again’ tells of a resurgent Nazi Army invading America in the then-far-future of 1965, the heading illustration showing a column of World War II-style Wehrmacht winding their way from a burning city, while slim war-machines anticipating those from George Pal’s ‘War Of The Worlds’ movie hover above them. In what would now be considered an ‘alternative history’ tale there are obvious comparisons to be made with Philip K Dick’s ‘Man In A High Castle’, or the Robert Harris novel ‘Fatherland’ (1992), and maybe the John Milius 1984 film ‘Red Dawn’ which also conjectures an invasion of the USA, albeit by Russians. Or maybe such analogies are to rate the story too highly? After all, it’s essentially a war-story, with a twist. And even at that time the theme of invasion was hardly new.


It could be traced back at least to George Tomkyns Chesney’s agitational 1871 novel ‘The Battle Of Dorking’, intended as a fictionalised warning to a complacent populace about the dangers of Prussian militarist ambitions. In ‘Britain Down – But Never Out’ (‘Skipper’, 1937), Britain is invaded by an eastern race called the Mangoths, following a devastating plague that has weakened national defences. With ‘Britain In Chains’ Bill Hutton leads the fight-back against Dictator Genghis… much as Bill Savage would do against occupying Volgans in ‘2000AD’ many years later. Because conservative, and conservation-minded publishers, seldom waste a strong story-idea. ‘Hitler Lives’ was a strip that ran in ‘The Crunch’ (until 14 July 1979) in which Nazi fanatics raise the Fuehrer from suspended animation to wage war anew, and ‘regain world domination’.


The marked preference for gadget stories, when combined with a school setting, forms a ‘perfect storm’ of familiar-plus-novelty elements. The ‘At School In 1975’ series in ‘Hotspur’ (1936) was set in Bankfield College where teachers have been replaced by desk-screens that notify pupils ‘Do One-Hundred Lines’. Or the cover-story ‘The World Of Tomorrow’ (for ‘Adventure’, 1944) which predicts ‘moving pavements will abolish walking’, ‘the breakfast of the future! two highly-concentrated pellets’, and ‘this is what the servants of the future will look like’ showing a rather clunky robot. But the schoolroom is there too, where ‘Teachers will give lessons at school through two-way television sets, controlling hundreds of pupils at one time’.


‘Hotspur’s ‘Lost School On The Whirling Planet’, running through the first half of 1941, transports schoolboy Neil Bain and his pals to the ‘whirling planet’. Once there they seek the assistance of Qu to aid their friends the Frankites’ in a ‘great revolt’ against Molok and the Masters. But it is the alien-slanted school structure that is central to the serial. The long-running ‘Iron Teacher’ best typifies the equation, beginning with ‘The Iron Teacher Speaks’ debuting in ‘Hotspur’ in 1941 with the vaguely western setting of Comstock, Nevada. It was successful enough for him to return battling Nazis, then a 1950 cover shows him fighting a sabre-toothed tiger. It was reconfigured into strip-form in 1972, but was subject to evolutionary upgrades in the process, until the robot teacher is radio-controlled by Special Agent Jake Todd, and his adventures take him as far as a hidden South American valley where prehistoric beasts prowl.


There were to be numerous other robotic variants throughout the evolution of DC Thomson’s spread of titles, from Doctor Doom’s invincible ‘Smasher’ set on world domination, or ‘Starhawk’s Droid companion in 1979, through to the straight comedy of ‘Tin Lizzie’ and ‘Clanky The Cast-Iron Pup’. Of course, to call them all Sci-Fi is to stretch definitions a little too far, even as a validating excuse for introducing novelty. After all, elsewhere, no such excuse is needed. A chimpanzee for a sheriff? why not (‘The Hairy Sheriff’ in ‘Skipper’, 1940). A walrus for a Teacher? of course (‘Our Teacher’s A Walrus’ in ‘Dandy’, 1939).


But where novel-technology was concerned, one of the most popular recurring characters was ‘The Black Sapper’, a caped black-clad criminal genius who, with his mechanic Marot, invents an amazing mechanical mole equipped with diamond-hard drills which he uses to commit his crimes. No bank-vault is safe against his Earthworm. He debuts spectacularly in ‘Rover’ in 1929 by robbing the Bank of England. He reappeard – in picture form, pursued again by the dogged Commander Ben Breeze of Scotland Yard in ‘Beezer’ in 1959 when he steals the Crown Jewels, only to return to the revamped ‘Hotspur’ in 1971. Later, he saw the error of his ways, reformed and used his formidable talents on the side of law, and even to battle alien invaders from the planet Khansu. ‘The Bubble’ was another weird tale that first appeared as a text-story in 1951 in ‘Adventure’, only to re-appear as a picture-strip drawn by Leo Rawling in ‘Victor’ in 1968.


What set DC Thomson’s adventure yarns apart from their rivals were ‘the writers’ and editorial staff’s refreshingly improbable and often outrageous storylines, which truly stood the test of time by being revived, sometimes repeatedly, in strip form for decades after’, according to Paul Gravett (in ‘Great British Comics’, Arum 2006). Gravett singles out the black-clad Wilson, in ‘Wizard’ (1943) as a prime example of this longevity. Billed simply as ‘The Greatest Boy’s Story Ever Written!’ – Wilson is a barefoot champion runner in knitted long-johns who prefers living rough on the Yorkshire Moors to a celebrity lifestyle. He ran the three-minute mile long before the four-minute barrier had been broken!


Wilson’s only possible rival would be Alf Tupper, the ‘Tough Of The Track’ in ‘Rover’ (1949). A ‘hard-as-nails’ working-class athlete from industrial Greystone, he prefers his fish ‘n’ chips to posh nosh. And just like its legendary star, the stories also ran and ran, with Tupper’s tales retold in ‘Victor’ into the 1990’s. Then there was HK Rodd, the ‘Wonder Man’, another ‘Rover’ super-sportsman raised by scientists Professor William Graves and Dr Erasmus Codrington to be physically and mentally perfect. From yet another angle ‘Morgyn The Mighty’, the thrill-a-minute ‘Strongest Man In The World’, is a kind of Tarzan on steroids. Shipwrecked onto Black Island when the schooner ‘Hebrides’ founders, his superior strength saw him triumph over adversity in many adventures. While ‘Strang The Terrible’, over in ‘Adventure’ (from 1936), was a kind of Conan-esque rival with a big club who began by being carried down an underground river into the gruesome South American Valley Of The Giants where prehistoric beasts and hairy man-apes roam, and where he searches for lost cities of fabulous golden treasures. By 1951 he transferred to a cover picture-strip in which a ‘Black Sapper’-style boring machine takes him into the subterranean realm of the Tramons. All such characters enjoyed reincarnations as picture-strips. But so did Battle of Britain air-ace ‘I Flew With Braddock’!


But ‘Rover’ also ran future-war tales. ‘The Frightened Year Of The Fireflies’ was a 1958 text-serial set in 1986 when an invisible electrical ‘ceiling’ protects Britain from world-dominating Klovanian ‘firefly’ rockets. A counter-attack ‘sparkler’ launched from Gibraltar defeats the bad guys with a single shock-and-awe Hiroshima rocket-strike, after which the bad guys sue for peace, ‘once more Britain had stood alone, and once more Britain had won’. So who were these mysterious Cold War foreign invaders from the East who persist in threatening our freedoms? Which aggressive power-block is being alluded to? Maybe, as in BBC Light Programme’s ‘Round The Horne’, the Klovanians, Mangoths and Volgans all represented ‘an unnamed foreign power we’re not allowed to mention, Russia’?


However, in ‘The Ninety-Nine Deadly Days’ from 1950 the attack comes from space, as Y-rays from the star Nimbis start melting the ice-caps. Working from a Hope Valley base in the Arctic, scientists have ninety-nine days to save the world from inundation by flooding. They construct pylons with reflector-dishes, but still find time to break for a Yorkshire-vs-Lancashire cricket match (resulting in a draw). Finally they ‘bend’ the hostile rays back into space. Nimbis is destroyed. But Earth could also be the unwitting aggressor. In ‘Experiment X’ Professor Peter Orr carries out research into ‘celestial navigation’ from a massive reinforced Atom City installation in remote Westmorland. He shoots an unmanned rocket into the moon primed to explode on impact so that its success is visible to Earth observers. Then he plans a more ambitious shot, to Saturn, for which a bigger more brilliant explosion will be necessary. Naturally, this prospect doesn’t particularly appeal to native Saturnians, and soon the experiment is troubled by an invisible saboteur.


During its 1937 peak, the third of the ‘Big Five’ – ‘Wizard’ was selling 800,000 copies a week, at just two shiny pennies each. It ran a number of more ambitious sci-fantasy tales. ‘Crimson Comet’ from 1946 opens with Clive Warren hiking in Wales when he stumbles upon secretive military installation ‘Zone X’ near Snowdon. There he meets Sir Gavin Hamilton, the ‘leading British astronomer of the day’ who gives him a crash-course in the structure of the solar system, including ‘recently-discovered Pluto’.


Hamilton then reveals that Earth is threatened by the approach of a planet-sized Crimson Comet, and that Zone X is an emergency project designed to ‘move the Earth’ to avoid the imminent collision. The situation is further complicated when, at the same time, an experimental spheroid crashes nearby, and a Venusian emerges. Argol is an arrogant, but not unfriendly Venusian nobleman who explains that ‘almost every educated Venusian knows English in order to listen to your radio’. Although they probably neglect to pay the BBC licence fee, he and his companion Beltair have become ‘electrically-charged by their voyage through space’. The obvious parallel to the tale is ‘When Worlds Collide’, but although the high-profile George Pal movie didn’t emerge until 1951, the novel on which it was based, by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer was first published in 1933, and its ideas had already influenced Pop-culture to the extent that Flash Gordon’s first adventure began with the world threatened by imminent cosmic collision.


Planetary extinction also threatens the world in ‘Last Rocket To Venus’ (‘Hotspur’, 1939), announced on the cover as ‘The Most Astounding Story Ever Told!’ and set in the ‘terrible fear-ridden days’ of the year 9939, as a new Ice Age encroaches and ‘everyone knew the end of the world was near’. There’s a strange mish-mash of visionary far-future imaginings, the Earth’s rotation has slowed so that days are 48-hours long, the moon is orbiting ever-closer, and a fortified enclave in Wales stands against the ‘maddened hordes’ of surrounding anarchy. ‘There was no normal landscape. There were no trees or buildings, no telegraph poles, no roads or railways to be seen. Here and there the top of a building pushed a few feet out of the snow-drifts’.


Yet in this bleakly nightmarish deep-future the characters have reassuringly solid Anglo-Saxon names, Toby Greaves and ‘brilliant young engineer’ Gavin Ainsworth, who even take their snow-cat for a trip into nearby Merthyr! From their enclave they have constructed a kind of mighty space-gun reminiscent of the one seen in the HG Wells/ Alexander Korda film ‘Things To Come’ (1936), a giant steel tube sunk into the Snowdon mountainside which fires rocket-probes to ‘Mercury, to Mars, and to Jupiter’, and eventually decides to establish a base-colony of British pioneers on Venus. The cover illustration shows the great projectile surrounded by a gantry of scaffolding, as the evacuation to resettle the new world is threatened by the arrival of the barbaric Black Burrell, Conqueror Of The Midlands, and then by the richest man in the world Herman Baskerville who demands passage to Venus – just as a fiery rain begins falling as the Moon disintegrates.


Venus was also the refuge of choice in ‘I Saw The End Of The World’ (‘Wizard’, 1951) when the accidental explosion of a cargo of hydrogen bombs in San Francisco harbour ignites a tremendous fire that could not be extinguished and threatens to incinerate the world. Spaceship ‘Thunderbolt’ reaches our jungle-world neighbour where its crew encounter giant ants and snakes, as Captain Townsend plants the Union Jack on an island in the Venusian ocean and solemnly declares ‘I hereby name this island New Britain’. Narrator Peter Howard is there as a planetary Noah’s Ark transfers examples of Earth-fauna to its new home. He ‘saw a red ball blazing in space like a huge exploding star. The Earth was finished, but on Venus a new life was about to begin, and the skies were bright with the promise of the future’.


Exploited hack staff-writers were churning out thousands-of-words of such prose without ever seeing the satisfaction of their names in the by-line. It’s easy to conjecture their ideas being commissioned, switched around, lifted from whatever sources came to their attention, and pressed into service for the next epic. There’s an ‘Ark Of Space’ cover to the US pulp-title ‘Startling Stories’, dated November 1939, showing animals going two-by-two up a curved ramp – lions, elephants, giraffes, into the hold of a giant rocketship, as armed troops hold a mob at bay. A glimpse of this cover alone could have prompted the inspiration for either tale. Or maybe the idea was just in the air at the time?


Space was not the only place for thrills. Subterranean journeys had been a setting for fictional adventure at least since Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. In ‘The Fires Beneath The Desert’ (‘Wizard’, 1943) two geology students, Jess Warden and Doc Stratton use asbestos ‘Stratton Heat-Resisting Suits’ to enter the Bernadino Caves in the Colorado Desert earthquake-zone, penetrating down into realms of volcanic fire, and the ‘Demon Of The Flame’. Then, in ‘Neptune’s Chimney’ (‘Hotspur’, 1952) the mutinous crew of the Anglo-American research vessel ‘Sea Roamer’ casts our heroes ashore on a remote unnamed Pacific volcanic island. Once there, young Ken Palmer finds webbed footprints on the sandy beach. Then Jim Cook, Dan Gilbert and Captain Blake warily return to the ship which is still moored in the bay, to find it abandoned and the mutineers vanished. They take the research helicopter from the deck, and while ascending over the island’s peak they notice a strange green glow emanating from the crater interior, and investigate. Deep inside the mountain the shaft opens out into ‘a cavern so enormous that they could not see the limit of it’. It contains a city built of red rock, or coral. This, they discover, is a city of fishmen whose skins shine like scales. Although not SF, it is a classic fantasy adventure.


And there are intriguing one-off stories within the DC Thomson fictional multiverse, such as ‘The Boy Who Slept 100 Years’ (‘Skipper’, 1934), a juvenile take on HG Wells’ dystopian 1910 novel ‘The Sleeper Awakes’ – or maybe just Rip Van Winkle? Young Bob Gable goes to sleep in a cave in 1934, and wakes up in May 2034. Much as the first ‘Buck Rogers In The Year 2429AD’ had done, in his January 1929 US newspaper strip. Leaking gas had put them both into a suspended animation state. ‘I must be going dotty’ he says as he wakes with his clothes reduced to ageing tatters. Emerging from the cave, he discovers rubber roads that lead towards the gleaming lights of Bradford, and bullet-shaped cars that flash past ‘at something over sixty miles per hour’ (was that considered fast in 1934?). Soon, he meets young Frank Holmes in his zippered grey one-suit. After they exchange a few Biffs to the nose prompted by their mutual suspicions – something that was obviously regarded as a kind of bonding ritual, Bob accepts that he’s become ‘a vagrant from another century’. Yet there’s less futuristic thrills as there are chases and encounters with criminal bad guys in the ensuing instalments...


Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Comicbook Hero: NICK SWIFT OF THE PLANET PATROL



NICK SWIFT OF 
THE PLANET PATROL 

 ‘SPACE, DETECTIVE, TRAVEL, FOOTBALL
 AND WAR-TIME THRILLS – 
‘ADVENTURE’ HAS THEM ALL’ 
(‘Adventure’ no.1466, 21 February 1953)


Three decades on from the launch of ‘Adventure’, the sudden explosive emergence of ‘Eagle’ shook up the cosy DC Thomson monopoly. ‘A is for ‘Adventure’ and ‘Adventure’ stands for the best reading you can get’ announces the promotional ad panel. The advert drew attention to three text-tales running in the current issue. The first one features Detective Dixon Hawke. Then there’s the Jungle adventures of ‘Tajar The Giant-Killer’. And thirdly the ‘Champ From The Covered Waggon’, a Cowboy Boxer tale. But there’s also ‘Two Terrific Picture Stories’. ‘The Fighting Falcon’ War-drama. And the ‘superspeed excitement’ of ‘Nick Swift Of The Planet Patrol’. Hulton’s new kid on the block also ran a mix of text short-stories and serials, including SF by Arthur C Clarke. Clarke’s involvement materialised most obviously in the inclusion of his short story “The Fires Within” in ‘Eagle no.17’ – 4 Aug 1950, an adaptation of an earlier story in which the discovery of a vast subterranean civilisation beneath the Earth has accidentally disastrous consequences. It appears as by ‘Charles Willis’ with some judicious Chad Varah’s sub-editing.

But soon Clarke was also there under his own name, contributing an article ‘Is Space Travel Possible? It Certainly Is!’ for the 1953 ‘Dan Dare’s Space Book’, illustrated by the influential Chesley Bonestell. Clarke also continued anonymously as a guiding force behind ‘Professor Brittain Explains...’ an illustrated facts-and-information column with educational texts on radar, telescopes, X-Rays, and Deep-Sea Diving. There were also text ‘Biggles’ tales by celebrated writer Captain WE Johns. Neverthless, it was the debut of ‘Eagle’ that switched the emphasis of boy’s adventure comics decisively away from dense pages of prose towards vivid picture-serials. With the glossy high-quality artwork of Dan Dare as the poster-boy of the new revolution.


DC Thomson was slow to react. Yet as early as March 1952 they devised ‘Nick Swift Of The Planet Patrol’, and promoted it in colour picture-strip form to the cover of ‘Adventure’. Set in the year 3023, the exploits are set within a federation of the five solar system planets inhabited by ‘thinking beings’, united by ‘Durando, the universal language’. The federation consists of Earthmen working in harmony with Neptunians, Venusians, Plutonians, and Martians who, due to ‘the terrible climate’ of their world, are ‘forced to live underground’. ‘It was hundreds of years since the governments of the various planets had combined together to smash the piracy which was then rife. At first their agreement had been only to put down those adventurers who, in swift spaceships, were preying on the great cargo-carrying space-transports which carried on trade between the planets. Gradually the agreement had been extended, until an interplanetary police-force was established – the Inter-stellar Police’.

So far, so promising. But actually, the strip appears in that curious hybrid form with rows of square-box speech-bubble-free illustrations with numbered text-boxes below running a full narrative commentary. In the evolution – some might say ‘devolution’ from solid-text to picture-strip format, it was most definitely a brief half-way house transitional stage. And, unlike the innovative colour-detonations splashed across ‘Eagle’ covers, the art-style for ‘Nick Swift’ is restrained and naively conventional. Even clunky. Their stubby red snub-nosed PP41 rocketship with its curved fins, ‘its rocket engines belching long tongues of flame through the astral void’, is clearly modelled on those in Dick Calkins ‘Buck Rogers’ strips. But they use an imaginative array of futuristic weaponry, such as solex-rays, Z-guns, neurite tube-guns, ray-rifles that touch off a lethal stream of electrons, and Nick’s ‘pellet-sized atomic grenades’ which cause ‘little or no explosion, but the charge of released neutrons blasted the (target) into instant senselessness’.


And the four-man personnel exhibit all the diversity of the crew of the ‘Enterprise’. In their matching red tunics emblazoned with yellow lightning-flashes-in-a-clenched-fist logo, as well as dashing hero Nick himself – a ‘keen-eyed husky young man with a shock of unruly hair’, there’s burly second-in-command Sergeant Bill Logan, plus a green-skinned Venusian called Triton, and Inky Johnson the tall jovial ‘negro radio-operator’. Despite his wince-inducing nickname it was innovatory to have a black character in a major role. And it was Inky’s spanner that saves the ship from disaster as early as the second instalment, and his solo venture on Jupiter’s moon Fragg that finally outwits the Venusian pirates.

But first, the opening panel sets the scene. ‘At 100 miles per second the rocket-ship Planet Patrol 41 hurtled through space on one of its routine flights. With ten million miles of space-ways to patrol, the Inter-Stellar Police had no easy task. It took the toughest and smartest of men to hold down the job and the crew of PP41, led by Lieutenant Nick Swift, was reckoned to be the finest bunch of cops in the whole of the universe’. They answer an SOS from the small planet Draco where an Earth weather-station has come under attack from giant apemen. Where Draco is supposedly located is never quite clear, but shortly afterwards the hulking Sygno and ‘his savage mates looked up to see PP41 swishing in to make a landing’. After the Space Cops’ ray-guns swiftly quell the attack, they chain Sygno and prepare to take him to Mars where ‘a spell in jail will teach him not to make attacks on weather-stations’. After all, how dare a native species have the temerity to oppose human imperial expansion across the galaxy? But as Nick skilfully navigates the ship around Meteorite Z9 where ‘chunks of molten matter were continually being flung into space’, Sygno exerts his superhuman strength to break free. In the ensuing tussle ‘with no-one at the controls, the space-ship swings off course towards the exploding meteorite…’ and the plot momentum gathers.

Soon, the Spaceways cops are speeding to confront green-hued Venusian slave-trader Vaska and his evil scientist ally Terro, who are kidnapping Altairians to work his asteroid plutonium mines. ‘I’ll get that rat yet!’ grits Nick as he faces ‘The Menace Of The Phantom Globe’ and ‘The Torture Of The Petrifying Death’ in his battle with the ‘Lawless Bandits Of The Cosmos’. The exploit continues on Mersa, capital city of the nine moons of Jupiter where Nick assists King Soltan to triumph over his evil rival Narka – who is in league with Vaska’s pirates, in a quest to find the nine missing jewels of the State Crown. As Vaska operates from his giant orbiting spacecraft-carrier, there’s a final double-panel space-battle over the city of Ulid on the moon Fragg. It closes an episodic tale – made up of at least three distinct stories within its arc, and if it’s occasionally rather silly – especially the over-extended ‘living statue’ sequence, it’s relieved by humour such as Nick riding a flying bicycle through the skies of Mersa. But Nick will return, after a well-deserved break, the following year.

 Again there’s a segmented story-structure. First, fed up with their period of leave, the four members of the Planet Patrol join elderly bearded research physicist Professor Cavendish as bodyguards on his expedition to Veerdon, the Peril Planet. Major Mann’s briefing warns them that it ‘lies in the zero belt, so beware of aerial ice-bergs’. This turns out to mean avoiding – or blasting their way through a ring of ice-asteroids, then gliding in for a safe pancake landing on the hazardous, but terraumin-rich world. ‘Hey, come and take a squint at this!’ says Nick as they look out in awe over the ‘grotesque rock shapes and weird tropical growths’. Then the ship is encircled by a hideous alien serpent. Nick uses the 200,000-volt asteroid-repeller to give its writhing coils ‘a hot reception’. With oddly coincidental timing, a terraumin tower they’ve spotted begins spitting ‘a deadly hail of rockets’ to bombard London. 

‘Let’s get cracking – pronto!’ urges Nick, and they drive an amphibious mobo-sledge, braving attacks by a giant shaggy apeman, a monster crocodile, and a tregosaurous to reach the ‘roman candle’, use rotor-packs to descend into its nerve-centre and arrest the dwarf-aliens responsible. Pausing only for a football game on prison asteroid Astrid, and tackling a flock of giant eagles menacing astro-messengers, they’re off to investigate the disappearance of planet Terro. Tracking the deadly green ray to Frankel ‘the planet of the dead’. ‘Thick banks of mist ahead of the speeding machine parted to show the cruel outline of Frankel’s needle-pointed peaks’. They locate and short-circuit the beam-gun just as Vaska ‘arch-criminal of the universe’ – for it is he, targets Earth. A ‘blinding flash of light ripped apart the dark void’ and its curtains for Vaska and his planet… or is it?


The adventure was followed by a long text serial, demoting our heroes from cover-star status into dense interior spreads, but carrying them through to the end of 1953. It opens dramatically on the orbital Astroglobe One HQ of the Inter-Stellar Police, where Earth receives an ultimatum from ‘Galaxion, Lord Of The Cosmos’. To prove his mighty powers, and as a warning demonstration, the ‘power-mad super-crook’ turns his super-science on Asteroid 37, a ‘miniature planet’ boasting vegetation and two lakes. In the Cosmora, a new ship fitted with an atomic-converter drive, and carrying Nick’s stowaway fourteen-year-old schoolboy brother Ed, the Space Cops investigate, to find the worldlet’s Martian colonists petrified into ‘marble statues’. Piecing clues together, Nick ties in Galaxion’s ultimatum with a spate of missing scientists, including Professor Zed and British Dr Renson, and is given ten weeks to thwart the cosmic megalomaniac’s tyrannical ambitions. Soon, they’re pursuing a mystery ship towards Nebula 14 located in ‘some unknown star-system far beyond Earth’s own familiar planets’. They find a secret domed base on barren Asteroid X with a huge saucer-shaped disc for projecting the paralysing ray.


When his saucer crashes Nick gets an unexpected ally in Mutus, a silver spider from Aranda, ‘beyond the galaxies you know’. By hiding himself aboard Galaxion’s ship Nick captures the brown six-fingered hump-backed Plutonian, but the ship is holed by a ‘fragment of star-dust’. In the confusion it is explained that, although Nick ‘had dived into space, he did not fall. A man could not fall in space’. Spread out across fourteen-weeks the full word-count of the single linear adventure must surely total almost a novel’s-worth of thrills before Nick rescues the captured scientists. But details of which writer should be given credit, and the name of the artist who contributes the spot-illustrations are probably, unfairly, lost forever as, in the nick of time, the Space Cops escape before Minor, the tiny moon of X is drawn down out of its orbit by Galaxion’s gravity-ray. In the final catastrophic collision that brings his evil ambitions to an end, Asteroid X, Minor, and Galaxion himself are shattered into space-fragments. The crew of PP41 head back to Earth for some well-deserved juicy steaks.


For the fourth and final adventure the ace cosmic investigator and his crew are reinstated to the front-and-back cover-spread in picture form. A return announced as ‘Your Picture-Story Space Hero Is Back Today, In The Thrilling Story Of His Battle To Save The Universe From Disaster!’ In a new more streamlined ‘dart-like’ atomic-powered ship the foursome jet home after a six-month mission in outer space to find mid-summer London blanketed in ice. Earth has been forced off its axis so that ‘London’s now where the North Pole was!’ They back-trace the disturbing planetary influence to a giant space-station, a bulbous hulk of gleaming red metal which is using a latticed spider’s-web dish to ‘trap cosmic rays from the sun’ and beam them at Earth.


Before they can disable the mysterious Ray Station they’re attacked by Flying Saucers which emits lethal ice-weapons. They hunt down the troublesome yellow-skinned Volcans responsible to planet Hespia. The attached text-box tells how, with ‘powdery snow fountaining upwards, the skis of the space cruiser touched down amid the crags’. Once down Nick calls ‘Okay blokes, get into your space togs and we’ll see about finding the wise guys with the freeze-up beam’. As they explore, Nick saves a Hespian native from attack by a prowling Brontyl, the armour-plated cat-like sabre-toothed scourge of the planet’s polar regions. This heroic rescue makes allies of the initially hostile sparsely-clad ‘planet-dwellers’. Led by Gec, the grizzled old Hespian leader, they’re led to a vast cavern for a council of war, forming an alliance, and using fifty-ton dinosaurian Hurodons to fight back against the invading Volcans. More thrills follow as the aliens retaliate by deploying Saucers armed with coiling metal tentacles to snatch the pals, and whisk them away to their ‘modernistic’ city to confront the Five Giant Ruling Brains. The Overlords’ bodies so atrophied they must be carried on litters by their bearers. Escaping the Volcans execution vault, and fleeing the city in a stolen rocket-car, Nick crashes into a crevasse only to be carried off by a giant vampire bat, but survives to lead his Hespian allies as ‘the battle for the city was on!’


The Space Cops explode the powerhouse where technicians feed atomic fuel to the burners, then ‘borrow’ a rocket interceptor to destroy the ray-station, hence saving Earth too. But, ‘from amidst the debris of the shattered blockhouse, the sphere of armoured metal staggered aloft, flames flashing from the two rocket units which provided both upthrust and forward movement. Flashes of a more deadly kind came lancing from the numerous gun-turrets studded into the flying tank, scything into the advancing ranks of the Hespian battlers. The last of the Volcan invaders, their city destroyed and over-run by the rebels, had sprung this surprise weapon on the Hespians in their very moment of triumph’. The last Brain escapes, but is defeated by Nick in single combat on the outer skin of the space station over Earth, and drifts off into the void. ‘Right! Next mission – a month’s leave’ grins Nick. But although the single more-integrated story-line allied to improved art makes Nick Swift’s swansong probably his finest moment, he was never to return to active duty on the pages of ‘Adventure’.


Of course DC Thomson’s speciality had always been Sports stories, School stories and War stories. That wouldn’t change. Now declaring itself ‘The Boys Paper With Punch, Thrills In Print And Pictures’, there would continue to be occasional forms of SF too, and they’d certainly evolved since the dramatic 1940 cover illustration of ‘Adventure no.988’, showing the grim space-suited ‘Wardens Of The Worlds In Space’ on their lunar world. Nick Swift Of The Planet Patrol, even in his already-anachronistic hybrid form, was their first determined leap into genuine picture-strip SF. In truth though, his ‘Amazing Stories Of Life In The Year 2040’ lacked the authenticity – if that’s the appropriate term, which made rival-strips Dan Dare, Jet-Ace Logan, Captain Condor or Rick Random seem convincing. And DC Thomson would not evolve a wholly satisfying Space Hero until some years later, with Starhawk.

 We of the twenty-first century might have witnessed figures moving on a lunar landscape not unlike the one the uncredited DC Thomson artist visualised. But a funny thing happened to us on the way to that future. Their future happened. If not always exactly in the way they envisaged.