Space Agent and the Ancient Peril (1964), by Angus MacVicar

I encountered this ‘juvenile’ science fiction novel by Scottish author Angus MacVicar in 1966 at the age of ten, about a year into my SF-reading career. You should never judge a book by its cover, but it was hard for me to resist the dramatic image of two men stranded on the top of an erupting volcano, with two flying saucers circling above, and the Moon apparently about to crash into the Earth. But like so many books I borrowed from local libraries as a boy, it subsequently remained lost to me until the coming of the internet.

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Space Agent and the Ancient Peril is the last book in a three-volume series about the UN’s ‘space agent’ Jeremy Grant. The series as a whole is a follow-up to the better-known five-volume ‘Lost Planet’ series which began eleven years earlier when Grant, then aged sixteen, left Australia to join his Scottish uncle Dr Lachlan McKinnon on an expedition to the ‘lost planet’ of Hesikos in the latter’s privately built spaceship. All the stories are written in the first person from Grant’s POV.

In the 1950s, just half a century had passed since the pioneering days of aviation, when the likes of the Wright Brothers, Louis Blériot, and A.V. Roe built and flew their own aeroplanes. It wasn’t perhaps unreasonable to suppose that space travel might develop the same way. But by 1964, when Ancient Peril was published, it was clear that only the two most powerful nations in the world – the United States and the Soviet Union – had the resources to send humans into space. It was utterly beyond the means of Scottish uncles, no matter how brilliant, to build spaceships. Hence we find Jeremy Grant now working for the United Nations. Uncle Lachlan doesn’t feature in this story; neither does space travel. All the action takes place on Earth.

Grant is recovering from a bout of flu when his boss, UN Chief Commissioner Earl Easterman talks him into accompanying archaeologist Spencer Johnson on an expedition to investigate the ancient city of Tiahuanaco on the Bolivian Altiplano. Located a few miles east of Lake Titicaca, the site is attributed to the Inca but it is so remote that only two archaeological expeditions have visited it in the past hundred years. Nobody has been there at all for thirty years. Prof. Johnson has requested Grant’s assistance as he is recognised as the world’s leading authority on space and interplanetary matters. He is interested in the controversial theories of two archaeologists – H. S. Bellamy and Arthur Posnansky.

After meeting in Florida, the two fly to La Paz, where a sympathetic army chief provides a helicopter to transport them to the site, along with a jeep and supplies. The night before the expedition, the helicopter pilot tells Grant that some indigenous people claim that their ancestors had lived in Tiahuanaco millennia ago. Strange godlike men had helped them to build the city, but it was then devastated by a terrible cataclysm.

The helicopter delivers Grant, Johnson, and their equipment to Tiahuanaco without event, and the two set to work. Of particular interest to Johnson is a great megalithic arch known as the Gate of the Sun. He believes that it depicts flying fishes and toxodons – the latter (a hoofed mammal) extinct for twenty thousand years. And how would the Inca have known about tropical flying fish? Johnson has a theory, but he refuses to say what it is. He wants to see if Grant independently reaches the same conclusions.

As Grant is about to articulate his thoughts, the pair are attacked by a group of hostile Urus – indigenous people apparently motivated by robbery. Outnumbered, they are saved by the intervention of a tall man, who commands the attackers to desist and requests that Grant and Johnson accompany him. The man is living in an Uru village about twenty minutes away in the jeep from the site. His house contains an extensive library of books including works by Wells, Steinbeck, Sartre, and Chekhov – but also by Bellamy and Posnansky on Tiahuanaco.

Grant has any number of questions, but feels unable to ask them, that his thoughts are somehow constrained by the presence of the stranger. Johnson thanks him for his timely intervention, and he is finally able to ask him who he is. The man says that for them to understand they must come with him on a journey to a time when the Earth was at peace. His words become pictures which become a living reality. They are standing on a quay in the port of Tiahuanaco, watching a ship enter the harbour. They are twenty thousand years in the past, when the city lay on the shores of an island and was home to a great civilisation.

Grant and Johnson find themselves dressed in local costume, and able to speak and understand the Tiahuanacan language. They have a basic understanding of the world to which they have been transported: Tiahuanaco is one of twelve island states around the world – others include neighbouring Andea, and to the east are Lemuria, Thule, Hi Brazil, and (of course) Atlantis. Some months earlier, two ‘angels’ named Shamhazi and Azazel with ‘strange eyes’ had arrived in ‘chariots of fire’. These strangers had instigated a building program involving novel architectural techniques and requiring the import of large quantities of andesite (an igneous rock similar to basalt and rhyolite) from the quarries in Andea. Curiously, nobody seems to know just why the project has been initiated – not even council headman Chirguano.

Tiahuanaco is a peaceful, prosperous island state, but divisions are beginning to appear. The building program has made the shipowners and building contractors extremely rich – and greedy. They have banded together to keep wages low and hours long. While a ship is being unloaded of its andesite cargo, an overseer named Caingang assaults one of the dockers. Grant intervenes, and a brawl breaks out. It is abruptly halted when Shamhazi appears and introduces himself to Grant and Johnson. He appears to have stopped the fighting by telepathic command.

The pair accompany Shamhazi to the house he shares with his brother, Azazel. There they also meet a young Tiahuanacan woman named Ishtar, who is running a school for orphan children and has limited telepathic abilities. Grant and Johnson learn that Shamhazi and Azazel are from an Earth-like planet named Ophir. The planet is being affected by increasingly extreme seasonal temperature variations, and by quakes. Its inhabitants decide that they must evacuate to Earth. Advanced parties are sent out to make peaceful contact. Disc-shaped spaceships, powered nuclear rim jets, are constructed for the purpose (they are identical to a spacecraft designed by Uncle Lachlan that featured in an earlier story).

Soon after their arrival, the Ophir people learn of the existence of a rogue planet named Luna that on several occasions in the past approached the Earth, causing earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and floods. This last happened ten thousand years ago, but another close approach is due soon. In Tiahuanaco, Shamhazi and Azazel instigate the construction of a quake-proof city with the same architectural techniques used to resist the quakes on Ophir. The scientists of both Earth and Ophir are confident that the effects will be relatively minor and will be withstood by the new cities – but Shamhazi and Azazel are able to pick up the thoughts of somebody who does not agree, a brilliant mind superior to even the best minds of Ophir. The two ‘angels’ want Grant and Johnson to investigate, believing the Tiahuanacans might be more ready to share their thoughts with them than has hitherto been the case. The pair agree to help and are joined by Ishtar.

The group learn that there are only five astronomers in the city – a professor and four lecturers at the University of Tiahuanaco. Ishtar has also learned of an elderly man named Yurucaré, one-time head of the Andea Observatory. He is an expert on Luna, but his theories have long since been discredited. But Ishtar senses that one of the lecturers – a young man named Tamanaque – is holding something back. Grant and Johnson make arrangements with Chirguano to visit University of Tiahuanaco’s observatory.

When they arrive, however, they are told that nobody is available to show them around. Johnson hits on the idea of sending a message to Tamanaque, who replies that he will meet them that evening alone, with the telescope directed at Luna.

Soon after darkness, Grant and Johnson meet Tamanaque, who shows them the telescope. It is second only to the instrument in Andea. Tiahuanacan astronomers are aware of the existence of the planet Neptune and are apparently familiar with Newtonian physics. Through the telescope, Grant looks at the constellations of the Belted Warrior, the Little Toxodon, and the Wry-necked Swan, with Luna prominent in the latter (the Belted Warrior is presumably Orion but it is not clear what if any are the present-day equivalents of the other two; there is nothing resembling a wry-necked bird on the ecliptic near to Orion). Tamanaque then produces a series of unfinished and unverified calculations that suggest that instead of passing Earth, Luna will be captured into a permanent orbit and become a satellite. The gravitational effects of the initial capture will trigger a global cataclysm – in just three days from now. But nobody believes his theory, and he has been forbidden to mention it. Some time earlier, Yurucaré came to similar conclusions. Nobody believed him, and when he would not be silent the Tiahuanacan elite dismissed him from his post and imprisoned him. They feared that his tale of doom would spread panic and jeopardise their lucrative shipping and construction businesses.

At that moment, Chirguano and Caingang burst in, with the intention of arresting Tamanaque. The are accompanied by the Professor, who believes that Tamanaque is mad. With some help from Tamanaque, Grant and Johnson overpower the intruders and tie them up. They force the Professor to tell them that Yurucaré is being held in an underground prison known as the Methane Corridors, located by a natural gas reservoir that supplies the city’s heating and lighting. They have until dawn – when Chirguano, Caingang, and the Professor will be found – to spring Yurucaré from the high-security jail.

This proves ridiculously easy. Grant, Johnson, and Ishtar gain access to the Methane Corridors by climbing down a ventilation shaft. Tamanaque wants to accompany them, but Grant and Johnson insist that his knowledge of Luna makes him too valuable to risk. They soon locate Yurucaré’s cell, overpower a guard, free the elderly scientist, and climb back to the surface. After Yurucaré rests, he and Tamanaque review the Luna calculations in a shelter beneath Shamhazi and Azazel’s house.

The next day, Chirguano and Caingang, accompanied by armed guards, come looking for Grant, Johnson, and the escaped Yurucaré. Shamhazi uses his telepathic powers to convince Caingang that the suspects are not there. Meanwhile, Yurucaré and Tamanaque are still trying to complete and verify the latter’s calculations. Not until evening do they reach a conclusion – and find that the situation is even worse than they believed. Tamanaque’s timing was in error: Luna is approaching ten times faster than he originally supposed, and the capture is just hours away.

Shamhazi summons the citizens of Tiahuanaco to a public meeting, with Grant, Johnson, and Yurucaré in attendance; meanwhile Azazel, Tamanaque, Ishtar, and her pupils head for high ground. A large crowd soon gathers. Grant notices Chirguano and Caingang, who look watchful but take no action. Yurucaré’s warning about the imminent thread serves only to anger the crowd, who are about to riot when the sun sets and Luna is seen to be double its normal size. It is visibly speeding away from the Wry-necked Swan, and growing brighter every second. Shamhazi implores the crowd to come with him to the relative safety of the high ground, where most of their children can be evacuated to Ophir. But the crowd panics. Most of them rush back to the town to try to retrieve their possessions. Children are trampled in the rush

The group head for high ground. Not until they are halfway up the mountainside do any of the Tiahuanacans heed Shamhazi’s advice and start to follow. Shortly before they reach the summit, winds begin to increase, and the first earth tremors are felt as Luna draws nearer. Both increase steadily as they reach the summit and meet Azazel, Tamanaque, Ishtar, and the orphan children. Azazel tries to make telepathic contact with Ophir to summon help and is eventually successful. By now, volcanoes are erupting in the Andes and the noise of wind and earthquakes makes speech impossible. Tidal waves are sweeping towards Tiahuanaco, where people are still fleeing across the plateau. The whole scene is bathed in the bright-as-day light of Luna.

Grant senses that he and Johnson will not be joining the evacuation. Their time in this world is almost at an end.

Two spaceships arrive from Ophir, their nuclear jets somehow capable of making the journey across interstellar space in a matter of minutes.  Grant and Johnson are forgotten by all but Ishtar, who waves as she boards. The two craft depart, leaving the time-travellers alone on the mountain, as depicted on the book’s cover…

…and then they find themselves back in the home of the stranger who stopped the Urus from attacking them. He explains that the descendants of the evacuees waited for centuries. The moon-flood had destroyed Tiahuanaco and the other island-states, and although they receded and new civilisations eventually arose, these were too warlike to permit a return. Only now, he explains, has ‘the second great flood’ begun to drain and the Earth is again at peace. The book ends abruptly as Johnson asks if the people of Ophir are coming back, and the stranger confirms that yes, now they are.

The story is loosely based on a fringe theory put forward by Austrian engineer Hanns Hörbiger in the 1920s and popularised by fellow Austrian H. S. Bellamy after World War II. The late Sir Patrick Moore said that “it is generally agreed that he was an odd character by any standards”. The theory was known as the Welt Eis Lehr (WEL) or Cosmic Ice Theory. Hörbiger suggested that with the exception of the Earth and the Sun, the whole universe is composed largely of ice. The stars are blocks of ice, and Mars is covered in ice to a depth of 400 km (250 miles). Space is filled with rarefied hydrogen, which results in the orbits of Solar System bodies decaying over a long period of time. The Earth will eventually fall into the Sun, but more immediately, the Moon (also composed of ice) is spiralling in towards the Earth and will eventually share the fate of at least six predecessors. Each of these in turn spiralled ever closer to the Earth, causing violent cataclysms as tidal forces pulled the Earth’s oceans into a ‘girdle’ around the equator. The looming presence of these ice-Moons in the sky gave rise to legends about dragons and the like. As the ice-Moons entered Earth’s Roche limit, they were torn apart by tidal forces. Ice and rock bombarded the Earth, and the relaxation of the tidal stresses around the equator triggered earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The oceans flowed back to higher latitudes, causing floods around the world. After Hörbiger’s death, Bellamy developed the theory further, postulating that our current Moon arrived in Earth orbit about 13,000 years ago. For some reason, WEL became extremely popular with the Nazis in pre-war Germany; I suppose it could be said that in comparison to some of the Nazis’ other beliefs, Hörbiger’s theory was more-or-less benign.

Angus MacVicar also refers to the Hörbiger theory in an earlier novel, Peril on the Lost Planet, in which the planet Hesikos is threatened by an asteroid.

Tiwanaku (to use the modern spelling) actually dates to around AD 800 and lay at the heart of one of South America’s great pre-Incan empires. But it was once thought to be much older. For example, The World’s Greatest Wonders – published by Odhams Press Limited in London before the war – gives its age as between 12,000 to 14,000 years old. Before the introduction of radiocarbon dating, another Austrian – Arthur Posnansky – spent many years studying astronomical alignments at Tiwanaku. After considering cyclical changes in the Earth’s axial tilt, he calculated that the alignments matched the solstitial sunrise and sunset in around 15,000 BC. The problem with this approach is that so many statues, stelae, and monoliths have been moved around the site or removed altogether that it is just about impossible to reconstruct accurate sightlines and identify solstitial markers.

Posnansky also claimed that Tiwanaku was once a port on the shores of a Lake Titicaca more than 30 m (100 ft.) deeper than it is today, and he investigated structures that he believed were piers or wharves. According to Posnansky, Tiwanaku served as a port for around 5,000 years until a violent earthquake overwhelmed it in the eleventh millennium BC. Subsequent quakes caused Lake Titicaca to drain, leaving Tiwanaku high and dry. Here it is probably simpler to assume that Posnansky’s ‘wharves’ were actually something entirely different than to postulate a geological upheaval that seems to have left no other evidence.

The carvings on the Gate of the Sun (referred to as the Calendar Gate in the book) include a figure holding a staff in each hand; this motif occurs frequently in the iconography of pre-Columbian South America and is thought to represent a weather god. Professor Johnson’s claims that flying fish and toxadons were depicted are popular with ancient civilisation believers and flying saucer enthusiasts, but they are not widely accepted by mainstream archaeologists.

Tiwanaku is certainly not as isolated as MacVicar suggested. Far from only ever having been visited a handful of times, the site has been extensively studied since the mid-nineteenth century. It is a ninety-minute drive from La Paz, and it has been a major tourist attraction since the 1960s.

Space Agent and the Ancient Peril was not that easy to track down, as I could remember only part of the title – Space Agent and the… which told me that it was one of a series of books featuring “Space Agent” but not a lot else. A Google search on the words ‘space agent’ will bring up over 750 million hits including estate agents, NASA, and the European Space Agency. Add ‘Tiahuanaco’ to the search and you will obtain hits on travel agents offering tours of the site. I suspect it was by sheer luck that I tracked down the full title of the book and the name of its author. A further search brought up a picture of the long-remembered cover. I seem to have also been lucky in sourcing a good condition copy at a reasonable price. At the moment, you will not find one for much under £100.

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