Thunderbirds – the date controversy

Like many boys (and girls) in the 1960s, I was an avid fan of Gerry Anderson’s science-fiction ‘Supermarionation’ TV shows. The decade was spanned by Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet & the Mysterons, and Joe 90. With the exception of the last, all found their way into the legendary boy’s magazine TV 21. Girls had Lady Penelope, featuring the eponymous Thunderbirds London Agent. Joe 90 was briefly given his own magazine, but it was eventually merged with TV 21.

A question that has exercised enthusiasts for decades is, in what year was Thunderbirds set? It is commonly assumed to have been set a hundred years in the future (i.e. in the 2060s), as were Fireball XL5, Stingray, and Captain Scarlet. Indeed, TV 21 presented all four strips as if they were current events being reported in a 2060s newspaper. But is this assumption correct?

The only series to formally establish a date was Captain Scarlet where the opening sequence informs viewers that the year is 2068 AD. In Fireball XL5, the date is established through dialogue on several occasions as being 2062. The Stingray episode The Lighthouse Dwellers establishes the year as 2065 when a dedication plaque reveals that the newly-decommissioned Arago Rock Lighthouse was in use from 1890 to 2065.

With Thunderbirds, though, matters are rather less clear cut. On several occasions during the show’s run, we are shown mocked-up newspapers where a date can just be made out – dates include 1964, 1965, 2007, and 2065. The mock-ups have news item relating to the episode pasted over an otherwise standard 1960s newspaper. Some news items of the day (for example the approach of the bright comet Ikeya–Seki of 1965) can be recognised. The first time this device was used, obviously nobody bothered to amend the date. The dates are actually difficult to see without freeze-framing, which of course was unavailable in the 1960s. Possibly it was realised that a keen-eyed viewer might notice, so dates were subsequently altered.

The only date seen in clear sight is a calendar in the very last episode to be shown, Give or take a million, which aired on Boxing Day 1966. The calendar is dated 2026. On the face of it, this is no more and no less tenuous than the Arago Rock Lighthouse dedication plaque, which is the sole indication of a date given during the entire run of Stingray. The question is, can Give or take a million be classed as a proper Thunderbirds episode? The series was just six episodes into its second season when it was abruptly cancelled after ITC boss Lew Grade failed to obtain a deal with TV networks in the United States. Give or Take a million was a Christmas show rather than a regular episode. It did not feature a rescue and the plot revolved around Brains’ snow-making machine and a kid from a children’s hospital spending Christmas on Tracy Island. To provide something vaguely resembling excitement, after a failed bank heist two crooks take shelter in a rocket that is to be used to deliver toys to the children’s hospital. On Tracy Island, the kid is shown with some (actual) Thunderbirds toys – but given the Tracys’ aversion to their machines being photographed, such toys could not have existed in the world of the TV series. As such, the canonicity of this episode is suspect, but it has started a 2065 vs 2026 debate that continues to this day.

The 2065 camp will point to Zero-X, the spacecraft featured in the movie Thunderbirds are go that went on to appear in the first episode of Captain Scarlet & the Mysterons. Zero-X, which was also given its own strip in TV 21, is the only example of a continuity between two different Anderson shows, and it implies that Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet are set in the same universe (even if the other shows were not). Captain Scarlet, as we have seen, is set in the 2060s therefore, it is argues, so must Thunderbirds. The Anderson enthusiast blog Security Hazard makes the point “...unless the Zero-X program has been running, unaltered, for over 40 years that pretty much shuts down any thought of Thunderbirds taking place in 2026.” But given that the Zero-X project was “the most costly yet devised by man” it is entirely possible that Zero-X spacecraft could still be in service after 40 years. US Navy aircraft carriers such as the Forrestal and Kittyhawk classes remained in service for fifty years. The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress first flew in 1952 and is still in service – indeed it could remain so into the 2050s. Even the Space Shuttle was in use for thirty years.

I will now argue that both dates are wrong, and that Thunderbirds probably takes place no later than the 1990s. In the first episode, Trapped in the Sky, it is established that former astronaut Jeff Tracy was one of the first men to land on the Moon. The episode aired four years before the first actual Moon landing, but Project Apollo was well advanced by this time and a landing was planned for before the end of the decade.

Even if we ignore that reality, in the Captain Scarlet episode Lunaville 7 it is stated that humans first landed on the Moon in the 1970s (remember that Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds are set in the same universe). So Jeff’s Moon landing must have taken place around that time. Jeff is now in his fifties, and assuming that he was in his thirties as an astronaut, then some twenty years have passed since the first Moon landings. Notably, the first attempts are being made to reach Mars (the Martian Space Probe featured in Day of Disaster and Zero-X) and there is also a crewed sample-return mission to the Sun (Sunprobe). In the 1960s, it would have seemed likely that such efforts would follow about twenty years after reaching the Moon.

Even the 2026 timeline would put the early Moon landings in the 2000s, and the 2065 timeline would delay them to the 2040s. It is difficult to believe that Gerry Anderson believed that a Moon landing lay so far in the future; also, even at the glacial speed of post-Apollo crewed spaceflight programs, humans should reach Mars well before the 2060s.

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.


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 works 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 have been transported twenty thousand years into 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 by nuclear rim jets, are constructed for the purpose (they are identical to a spacecraft designed by Uncle Lachlan which 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 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 their 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.

Second Ending (1961), by James White

I read science fiction from an early age. Among the first works I read were a series of novels by the late Sir Patrick Moore, set on the Moon and on Mars. But much of what I read was short stories: by the age of ten I had read many of the classic short stories of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, and Isaac Asimov. Other stories I read are less well-known, and three stories I read as a schoolboy between 1970 and 1971 remained lost to me until the internet age three decades later.

One of these was Second Ending, a novella/short novel by Belfast-born British author James White, best known for his Sector General series. It was the first story he wrote, though not the first to be published. As was common at the time, it made its first appearance in magazine form, serialised in between June and July 1961 in the US publication Fantastic. In 1963, it was paired with Samuel Delany’s The Jewels of Aptor in an Ace Double paperback (F-173). An abridged version appeared in 1970 in the anthology Out of this world 8; and its sole appearance in a publication containing only work by James White was in the 1977 omnibus Monsters and Medics. It has been out of print ever since.

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On a Sunday morning in the summer of 1970, I was working my way through the Out of this world 8 anthology, which I had borrowed from the local library. With the characteristic short attention span of a teenager, I had first read all the shorter stories in the volume. Even abridged, Second Ending was considerably longer than anything else in the book.

Second Ending is described by White as a story about the last man on Earth with an upbeat ending. If I remember correctly, this description also appeared in the anthology.

Ross (whose first name we never learn) is a 22-year-old medical student who is diagnosed with an incurable form of leukaemia and placed in Deep Sleep (suspended animation) to await the discovery of a cure. He enters Deep Sleep in 2017 (then 56 years in the future) and is revived 291 years later in 2308 to find that he is the last man alive. He is five miles underground, in the lowest level of a hospital designed to survive a nuclear war (the ‘nervous tendency to build down’ followed the First Atomic War, which killed 90 percent of the world’s population). A second war has indeed occurred, killing all life on the surface. His leukaemia has been cured by a treatment that required 75 years to take effect – but in the meantime, all the human staff in the hospital including Ross’s fiancée Alice have died of old age, leaving only robots.

Ross is constantly attended by 5B, a Mark 5 Ward Sister who was upgraded by a terminally-ill cyberneticist named Courtland. Taken out of Deep Sleep, Courtland  selflessly agreed to spend the last months of his life modifying the robot rather than go back into hibernation. After studying Courtland’s notes, Ross has the 5B modifications extended to all the other robots and equips them with trailers containing additional memory banks. He then sets about building robots that can search for survivors on the surface.

Ross forms a friendship with 5B and discusses telling lies, doing a kindness, and making puns with her. He explains that circumstances might arise in which the kindest course of action might involve telling a lie. 5B replies that it against her basic programming to give false or incomplete information. Ross spend three hours trying to explain puns, apparently without success.

After two years, Ross is forced to return to Deep Sleep when his food supply runs out. He instructs to robots to produce a new food supply from grass seeds that were caught up in the turn-ups of his trousers before he entered Deep Sleep for the first time. The project is successful, but it takes 43,000 years to complete. In the meantime, the robots have made considerable technical advances with the aid of books, engineering blueprints, and pictorial data salvaged from underground installations. Despite now being intellectually far superior to Ross, 5B explains that the robots still exist only to serve humans, and without humans they will have no reason to exist. Unfortunately, they have so far failed to find any human survivors or indeed life of any kind on Earth, the Moon, or Mars. Ross’s attempts to recreate intelligent life from the grass are only partially successful.

Ross becomes depressed and spends long periods in Deep Sleep while Sun heats up and the Moon spirals in towards the Earth where it breaks up after entering Roche’s Limit. Eventually Earth’s oceans boil away into space as the Sun enters a period of instability preceding a sub-nova detonation. Despite Ross’s seemingly hopeless situation, the story takes an unexpected twist leading to the promised upbeat ending (click HERE for spoiler).

I wanted to read the full version, but never came across it. The title Second Ending stuck in my mind, but the name of the author did not. In 1974, now a first-year science student, I read another of James White’s books, The Dream Millennium, which also features Deep Sleep (or in this case Cold Sleep) technology. From this, I correctly guessed that White was also the author of Second Ending, though it was not until 1988 that I conformed this after reading his entry in The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction (again borrowed from a local library). I then tried to buy Second Ending from the Science Fiction Bookshop in London. At that time, much of White’s oeuvre was still in print, but – as I now know – Second Ending was not. It was a further twelve years before the quest came to an end. In the first weeks of 2000, by now possessing a laptop and dialup internet access, I learned the publication history of Second Ending, and was able to source a 38-year-old copy of the Ace Double paperback.

The story hasn’t aged particularly well: the premise that Earth could be sterilised down to microbial level by a nuclear war seems implausible; White’s description of the war predates the discovery that it would trigger a ‘nuclear winter’; and his description of the long-term fates of the Moon and the Sun are now known to be inaccurate. There are numerous editing errors: for example, the earlier nuclear war is said to have occurred fifty years before Ross was born: he enters Deep Sleep in 2017 aged 22, which would put the war in 1945 (possibly an early draft of the story referenced the use of nuclear weapons at the end of WWII rather than a new conflict). Ross recalls working on the hospital’s 31st Level when he awakens, but we later learn that the hospital has only five levels. Courtland, the inventor of the 5B modification, suddenly has his name changed to Courtney.

Its limitations notwithstanding, Second Ending was shortlisted for a Hugo Award in 1962, but it had the misfortune to be up against Robert Heinlein’s magnum opus Stranger in a Strange Land. James White went on to be an acclaimed science fiction author, but he was never able to make enough from his writing to give up his day job at the aircraft company Short Brothers. He died in 1999 aged 71.

Space Patrol

Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski’s favourite TV show as a child

Anybody who was a child in the 1960s is likely to remember at least some of Gerry Anderson’s ‘Supermarionation’ science-fiction series, which included Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. In the same genre, but far less well known was Space Patrol. It was created and produced by British author and television producer Rita Lewin under the pseudonym Roberta Leigh, with cinematographer Arthur Provis. 

Provis was Anderson’s former business partner (the ‘P’ in their company AP Films Ltd.), and he and Anderson  had previously collaborated with Leigh to make The Adventures of Twizzle and Torchy the Battery BoyHowever, he felt that Anderson was taking too many risks with the business, so he eventually decided to leave. Anderson kept the name AP Films for the company until 1965, when he renamed it to Century 21 Productions Ltd.  

Space Patrol is credited to National Interest Picture Productions and Wonderama Productions Ltd, and was produced in 1962. As seems to have been a common practice at the time, 39 b/w episodes of 25 minutes each were produced in three blocks of 13.

In common with the Anderson productions, Space Patrol relied upon voice-synchronised puppets, although these were more realistic-looking than those used by the former in any series prior to Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. In contrast to the Barry Gray scores and incidental music associated with the Anderson productions, Space Patrol featured electronic music composed by Fred Judd, a pioneer in the field. 

Space Patrol is set in the year 2100. The eponymous Space Patrol’s operating authority is the United Galactic Organisation, which despite the name encompasses only Earth, Mars and Venus (the series was prone to use the term ‘galaxy’ to describe planetary systems, a mistake which was repeated in the slightly later TV classic Lost in Space). Space Patrol is headquartered in a futuristic city, identified in the pilot as New York, but never so referenced again. The introduction states that “Men from Earth, Mars and Venus live and work there as guardians of peace.” A rhythmical clanking sound pervades the city at all times. Transport within the city is provided by single-person pods that move through a transparent travel-tube.

The series focusses on the adventures of Galasphere 347 and its crew, comprising goatee-bearded Captain Larry Dart, Venusian navigator Slim and Martian engineer Husky. The elfin Slim was the Mr Spock of the series; the burly Slav-accented Husky devotes a fair bit of time to thinking about his next meal. The trio will not hesitate to put themselves in harm’s way if the circumstances demand it, which they often do. In overall charge of operations is Colonel Raeburn, assisted by his super-efficient Venusian secretary Marla. Raeburn regularly threatens Dart with court-martial, but his bark is rather worse than his bite. Never hiding his anxiety when Dart and co are in peril, he frequently rewards them with extra leave when they return from a dangerous assignment.

The team regularly need to call on the services of eccentric Irish genius Professor Haggerty, his daughter Cassiopeia, and Gabblerdictum the Martian parrot. The appearance of this trio was generally preceded by an establishing stock shot of the then-new Empress State Building in West London. Recurring adversaries in the series include the plant-like Duos of Uranus and Tyro, ruler of Neptune. Anybody much younger than forty will be shocked by the pronunciation of Uranus.
The series was not entirely free of the sexism characteristic of that era, but the blonde and highly intelligent Marla would often remind Raeburn that “There are no dumb blondes on Venus.” It should be noted that Roberta Leigh was the first woman producer in Britain to set up her own film company.

Galaspheres have superseded rockets as the space vehicle of choice, but unlike Fireball XL5 they remain largely confined to the Solar System, with realistic travel times to the planets. Pluto is six months away, Jupiter twenty days. A galasphere consists of a ring-shaped crew section connected to a central stem by three spokes. They have three modes of propulsion: a primary drive for take-off and landing, an orbital drive for low-speed planetary operations, and meson power for interplanetary travel. Gamma rays and ‘yobba’ rays also need to be activated before a galasphere can take off.

Meson power can sustain speeds of up to 800,000 miles per hour (1.3 million km per hour), and in an emergency can be boosted to up to one million miles per hour (1.6 million km per hour) for short periods. However, boosting the meson power is risky. It is not clear why galaspheres cannot simply continue to accelerate once they reach a certain speed (presumably the writers were unfamiliar with Newton’s laws of motion). When in flight, galaspheres are surrounded by a rotating spherical field and emit a distinctive warbling sound. Galaspheres can hover above the surface of a planet, or even travel underwater. They are armed with a laser gun, but this has to be operated by setting it up in the airlock and opening the outer vacuum door before it can be fired. The term ‘galasphere’ (galaxy sphere) was possibly inspired by ‘bathysphere’ (deep sphere). If so, given that the spacecraft were not spherical, ‘bathyscaphe’ (deep ship) might have been a better choice, to give ‘galascaphe’ (galaxy ship).

During interplanetary travel, the crew go into a freezer for a pre-set period of time and a robot takes over. In the event of an emergency, the timer can be overridden from Earth by a faster-than-light ‘zirgon’ ray. Regardless of where a galasphere is at any time, instantaneous communications between it and Earth are apparently possible. A recurring problem for the Space Patrol is that galaspheres require a metal called plutonite for their construction. Plutonite is only found on Pluto, and stocks are all but exhausted. Fortunately, a supply is later discovered on an asteroid.

Hover bikes are used for surface travel similar to the type that were ubiquitous in the Anderson shows. The crew carry gamma ray guns but typically use ‘plastifoam’ guns to render an opponent immobile without harming them.

Although the number ‘347’ suggests that the Space Patrol operates large numbers of galaspheres, it only has landing facilities for one at a time: a pad atop a tall, broad-waisted building, which for some reason swivels through 180 degrees and extends upwards before a galasphere lands. The pad remains in the rotated and extended position until the galasphere takes off again, at which point it promptly returns to its original position.

Despite a very low budget, Space Patrol proved to be very popular. It was broadcast regionally in the UK on the ITV network, first appearing on Sunday, 7 April 1963 on ABC Television in the Midlands and North regions. In the London area, it was shown on weekdays by Associated-Rediffusion. ABC did not broadcast the final episodes until summer 1968.

Space Patrol was sold overseas and broadcast in the United States, Canada and Australia. It was retitled Planet Patrol in the United States to distinguish it from an earlier US series, which had also been titled Space Patrol. J. Michael Straczynski, creator of the 1990s science-fiction series Babylon 5 described Space Patrol as his favourite TV show as a child.

Unlike the Anderson shows, Space Patrol was never repeated in the UK, and it was considered lost until 1997, when Leigh discovered that she had a complete set of 16 mm prints in her lock-up garage. The series was subsequently released in VHS and later DVD formats.

Roberta Leigh continued to work until a year before her death in December 2014, a few days short of her 88th birthday. Arthur Provis made commercials until his retirement. He died in May this year, aged 91.


First broadcast on 19 January 1967, the Star Trek episode Arena is generally regarded as being one of the most memorable episodes from the Original series. The screenplay was written by Gene L. Coon and officially it is based on a short story of the same name by Fredric Brown, first published in the June 1944 issue of Astounding magazine. Brown receives a story credit at the end of the episode. However it has been claimed that the similarity between the short story and Coon’s screenplay was only noticed after the latter had been written and that Brown was totally unaware of this when he agreed a fee for the use of his work!

In the Star Trek episode, the USS Enterprise goes in pursuit of a Gorn warship which has made a seemingly unprovoked attack on the Federation outpost on Cestus III, but as the chase leads into an unexplored sector of space, both ships are brought to a grinding halt by omnipotent beings calling themselves the Metrons. Kirk is informed that he will be teleported to a life-sustaining planet together with the captain of the Gorn ship. He will have no weapons or means of contacting the Enterprise and he must fight the Gorn to the death. The winner and his ship will be allowed to go free, but the loser will be destroyed, together with his ship. He will be provided with a recording device and the planet will contain the resources needed to make weapons.

Without any further ado, Kirk finds himself facing the Gorn on the hot, arid surface of an unknown planet (actually Vasquez Rocks, California). The Gorn is a huge, reptilian being and it soon becomes clear that Kirk is no match for him. Kirk hurls a rock at the Gorn, who merely hurls a much larger one back. Kirk then rolls a huge boulder on top of the Gorn. This which seems to have done the trick – but the Gorn revives and pushes the boulder aside. Kirk runs, but falling into a snare set for him by the Gorn. He manages to escape, but is injured in the process. By now he is tiring and the Gorn – by means of the recording device which is also a two-way radio – appeals to him to give up and promises to kill him quickly. Kirk also learns that the Cestus III outpost had been set up in Gorn territory, and the attack was made because the Gorn feared it was the precursor to an all-out invasion.

But Kirk then realises that there are indeed enough natural resources on the planet to make a weapon. Using sulphur, coal and saltpetre he makes gunpowder; this he loads into a gun barrel made from a bamboo-like plant together with some extremely large diamonds – “the hardest material in the universe”.

Kirk manages to disable the Gorn with this crude weapon, but he then refuses to kill his enemy. The Metrons are impressed by this “advanced trait” of mercy and allow both ships to go on their way.

Possibly because they weren’t bad guys after all, the Gorn never again made a major appearance in any Star Trek series. But if the Gorn were never seen again, the plot-line to Arena most definitely was.

It appeared in a second-season episode of Space 1999 entitled The Rules of Luton, set on an alien planet called Luton. You are reading this correctly. There really was an episode of Space 1999 set on a planet called Luton, albeit pronounced with the stress on the second syllable.

Plants are the dominant form of life on Luton, and when Koenig and Maya are dropped off by Verdecci in an Eagle spacecraft and begin helping themselves to some tempting-looking berries, the locals aren’t amused. They are ordered to fight a group of three alien trespassers to the death. Maya’s shape-shifting abilities prove to be a two-edged sword. She turns into a lion, startling one alien to the extent that it falls into a river and drowns. A second alien is soon dealt with but after Maya turns into a hawk in order to carry out some aerial reconnaisance, she is captured by the remaining alien and shut up in a birdcage.

She can only hold her form for an hour, at the end of which she will return to human form and be crushed to death. Why she doesn’t simply escape by turning into an insect (as she did in a later episode) isn’t made clear. How Maya can turn into creatures of such varying sizes and of course masses also remains unclear, but as noted in an earlier entry the screen writers of Space 1999 never let the laws of physics get in the way of a good story, much less a crap one like this. Inevitably Koenig rescues Maya and soon has the remaining alien at his mercy, refuses to kill him, and is allowed to go free by the Judges of Luton.

The writers of Blake’s Seven obviously believed they could improve on this lacklustre offering and came up with Duel, a title that at least subtly acknowledges the story’s origin. In this incarnation, the Liberator is recharging its batteries when it is attacked by a battlegroup of Federation pursuit ships, with the villainous Travis and his Mutoid pilot (exclusively female blood-sucking cyborgs that foreshadowed Star Trek’s Seven of Nine) in charge of the lead ship.

With escape impossible, Blake and co have no choice but to fight, but the battle is soon brought to a halt by a bunch of bare-breasted women on a nearby planet, who intend to show the combatants “the meaning of death”. Blake and Jenna are transported to the planet and ordered to fight Travis and his sexy sidekick to the death. The winners will be allowed to go free, the losers’ ship will be destroyed, etc, etc.

Jenna is soon captured and tied up, and the Mutoid, who is feeling a little peckish, begins eying her up as her next meal. But Travis insists on keeping Jenna alive to act as bait for Blake. Needless to say the plan backfires when the Mutoid is forced to snack on local wildlife and finds it disagrees with her. Blake soon rescues Jenna, has Travis at his mercy, refuses to kill him and impresses the bare-breasted women, etc, etc.

That to the best of my knowledge was the last TV adaptation of Frederic Brown’s tale, and it is to this which I now turn.

Carson (who like most SF heroes of that era doesn’t appear to have a first name) is the pilot of a small one-man scout ship on the outskirts of a huge battle fleet that is about engage a fleet of alien vessels. The aliens, known as the Outsiders have been involved with a number of skirmishes with Earth ships and colonies.

All of a sudden Carson finds himself naked in a small enclosed, circular area. His opponent is a red, tentacled sphere about three foot across, which he refers to as a Roller. A voice informs him that the stakes are rather higher than those that will one day be set for Kirk, Koenig and Blake – should he lose the entire human race will be destroyed. The story then develops into a battle between Carson and the Roller, but there is one major difference between Frederic Brown’s short story and all the TV adaptations it inspired.

At the climax of the story, Carson does kill his opponent.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898)

Asked to compile a list of the ten most famous science fiction novels ever written, one might include 2001: A Space Odyssey by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Dune by Frank Herbert, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth – and no fewer than three works by H.G. Wells: The Time Machine, The First Men in the Moon and The War of the Worlds.

While most of the above have been filmed, The War of the Worlds has to date spawned two major motion pictures, a number of radio dramas – one of which launched the career of HGW’s near-namesake Orson Welles, a TV series and one of the most successful concept albums of the 1970s.

It has inspired numerous other dramatisations including the 1980s miniseries “V” (which picked up on the idea of humans as a food source for aliens) and the 1996 movie Independence Day (in which the aliens are defeated by a computer virus rather than earthly bacteria). Even Dr Who’s arch-enemies the Daleks can probably trace their origins back to the Martian tripod fighting machines and their tentacled occupants.

The novel opens with the famous line “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s”. No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century just how many times that line would have to be updated.

The original novel is actually set at the beginning of the last century, a few years ahead of the time it was written. The unnamed narrator is what would now be known as a popular science writer who lives with his equally nameless wife in Horsell near Woking in Surrey. They apparently have no children.

The narrator meets the renowned astronomer Ogilvy at his observatory in Ottershaw and observes a disturbance on Mars which turns out to be the launching of a Martian projectile. In all, ten projectiles are launched at almost exactly 24 hour intervals. (This would not in fact result in them all landing in the same place, as both Earth and Mars are in motion around the Sun.)

Wells followed Jules Verne 35 years earlier in using a space-gun to travel between worlds though for his later (1903) novel The First Men in the Moon he sent his travellers to the Moon in a spacecraft using a “Cavorite” anti-gravity screen, and was roundly criticised by the by now elderly Verne for so doing!

Some time later, the first Martian projectile lands on Horsell Common and attracts a crowd of curious onlookers, including the narrator. But the cylinder unscrews, tentacled creatures emerge and blast an approaching delegation, including Ogilvy, with a heat ray. The narrator hires a horse-drawn vehicle from a local publican and takes his wife and their valuables to stay with relatives in Leatherhead. Unfortunately he has to return the carriage and before he can return to Leatherhead he is caught up in the invasion as the Martians have now deployed tripod fighting machines and have broken though army units surrounding their projectile. The narrator meets up with an artilleryman whose unit has been wiped out and learns that more Martians have landed at Addlestone, making a return to Leatherhead impossible.

The narrator witnesses a battle at Shepperton, during which one Martian tripod is destroyed and a second is damaged by artillery fire. During the battle the narrator is separated from the artilleryman. The Martians regroup and change tactics, flooding areas where artillery batteries may be concealed with a chemical weapon known as Black Smoke.

As more projectiles land across South East England, the first signs that things are awry are seen during the Sunday afternoon as people on day trips to the suburbs begin returning by train unusually early and a few refugees are seen in Oxford Street. However panic breaks out early on Monday morning and millions of Londoners flee the Martian advance, including the narrator’s brother, a medical student, who together a woman named Mrs Elphinstone and her sister reach the coast and board a paddle steamer bound for Ostend.

Off the Essex coast they witness the battle between the warship HMS Thunder Child and the Martians. The Thunder Child goes to the aid of a ferry being menaced by a group of Martian tripods and destroys two of them before succumbing herself. The ferry escapes.

Thunder Child is described as an “ironclad torpedo ram” by Wells. The Royal Navy only ever had one ship of this type, HMS Polyphemus – a coastal defence ship armed with torpedoes, a ram and machine guns. She had no armaments capable of engaging a Martian fighting machine.

It was common practice at the time to equip warships with rams, but the tactic was little used after the Battle of Lissa in 1866. In 1893 – in what was probably the most spectacular own goal in naval history – the battleship HMS Victoria was sunk in a collision with HMS Camperdown as a result of a botched manoeuvre ordered by Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon. Camperdown’s ram inflicted fatal damage on the Victoria, which foundered in a matter of minutes. Tryon was among the 358 who lost their lives in the disaster. Rams were abandoned thereafter. It seems more likely that Thunder Child was an armoured cruiser or a battleship. She is indeed depicted as the latter on the album cover of the Jeff Wayne musical version, more of which anon.

The battle between HMS Thunder Child and the Martians concludes the first part of the novel.

The focus then switches back to the narrator, who takes shelter in a house in Halliford, accompanied by a curate. The building is almost destroyed when a Martian projectile lands close by and the pair are unable to escape for fear of attracting the Martians. They are able to see the Martians going about their business and see humans being drained of blood, which the Martians inject directly into their bodies for sustenance. The humans have been collected by fighting machines, some of which are equipped with baskets for the purpose. Thus the narrator learns what the future holds for humanity under Martian rule. The curate – already traumatized by the invasion and behaving erratically – begins making so much noise that the narrator is forced to kill him before his ravings attract the Martians.

The Martians leave after 15 days and the narrator emerges to find red Martian weed everywhere. He falls in with the artilleryman he met earlier. The artilleryman is delusional, believing he can singlehandedly rebuild civilization and retake Earth from the invaders. The narrator leaves him and makes for London, which is deserted and fully under the control of the Martians. But soon afterwards both the Martians and the red weed begin to die. They have no immunity to Earth’s pathogenic bacteria and viruses – “slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon the earth.” This is the only reference to God having anything to do with the defeat of the Martians.

The narrator learns that Leatherhead was destroyed by the Martians and believes his wife to have been killed but on returning to Woking, finds her alive and well in his house.

Speculation that the Martians may try again, but astronomers suggest they may have mounted an invasion of Venus.

Belief that Mars was a dying planet was widespread at the time. The then-prevalent model of the formation of the Solar System, put forward by Pierre-Simon Laplace in 1796, proposed that the planets had been formed from a contracting cloud of proto-solar matter. As the cloud contracted, planets condensed out of material, with outermost planets being formed first. Thus Mars was believed to be older than Earth, and probably dying; and Venus was younger and possibly habitable. The Laplace model had to be abandoned, because it did not account for the observed distribution of angular momentum within the Solar System, but not until the 1960s was the true nature of Mars and Venus revealed when they were first visited by unmanned US and Soviet space probes.

The War of the Worlds was influenced by fear that Britain would be invaded – like later versions, the original novel reflected contemporary fears.

Orson Welles notorious 1938 adaptation for radio was an episode of the American radio series Mercury Theatre on the Air, broadcast by CBS on October 30, 1938. It was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which led many listeners to believe that an actual Martian invasion was in progress, though the actual degree of panic has almost certainly been exaggerated.

The location was changed from South East England to Grover’s Hill, NJ and Welles plays the “famous astronomer” whose name is changed from the quintessentially English Ogilvy to Pierson. The Martians advance on New York City and are opposed by artillery and bombers. The gunners damage one tripod and another is destroyed by the bombers, but more Martian cylinders are landing all over the country.

A news reporter broadcasting from the CBS building describes the Martian invasion of New York City — machines wading across the Hudson River, poison smoke drifting over the city, people running and diving into the East River “like rats”, others “falling like flies” — until he, too, succumbs to the poison gas.

Following an intermission, Professor Pierson describes the aftermath of the attacks, which ended when the Martians were killed by terrestrial pathogens as in the novel.

The broadcast and its attendant panic was itself the subject of the 1975 TV movie The Night that Panicked America.

The 1953 movie was produced by Hungarian-born George Pal, who had previously produced the 1951 doomsday epic When Worlds Collide. Screenplay was by Barre Lyndon. It starred Gene Barry, Ann Robinson (no relation) and Lewis Martin.

The film opens with an updated version of its famous opening sentence, spoken by Cedric Hardwicke. “Nobody would have believed in the middle of the twentieth century…” Hardwicke then describes the Martian deliberations as to where they could go to escape from their dying world as they consider the Solar System’s other planets, accompanied by memorable art-work by Chesley Bonestell. For some reason, though, Venus is not mentioned.

The location this time is southern California. What is at first believed to be a meteorite lands near Linda Rosa, near Los Angeles, and is investigated by physicist Clayton Forrester (Barry) and local residents including Sylvia van Buren (Robinson) and her uncle, Pastor Dr. Matthew Collins (Martin). The object is too hot for an immediate investigation, so Forrester decides to return to the town while it cools down.

Three men are left by the local sheriff to guard the object, but it unscrews and deploys a Heat Ray device which kills the men as they approach it. The blast also brings down pylons, plunging Linda Rosa into darkness and starting fires. Everybody’s watch stops. Forrester returns with the sheriff to investigate and discover the remains of the three men. Their driver panics and drives off without them – but is blasted by the Martian heat-ray. A second inbound Martian spacecraft is seen passing overhead.

Forrester recommends calling in the military and a force of Marines surrounds the impact site. The Martians deploy three fighting machines.

The tripods are replaced by sleek copper-coloured manta-ray like machines, which float above the ground on beams of electromagnetic force. They are armed with a heat-ray mounted on a cobra-like projection, and wingtip-mounted secondary weapons shooting green bolts that cause their targets to disintegrate.

The curate of the original becomes Sylvia van Buren’s kindly uncle, Pastor Dr. Matthew Collins, an altogether more sympathetic character who goes out to meet the Martians, Bible in hand, reading the 23rd Psalm. He is promptly blasted with a heat-ray – to Sylvia’s predictable horror, and setting a strongly religious tone for the rest of the movie.

The Marines open fire, but their concentrated bombardment is completely ineffective. Unlike Wells’ original fighting machines, which could be taken out by early 20th Century weaponry, these machines are seemingly invulnerable.

Forrester and the distraught Sylvia van Buren flee in a light aeroplane, ahead of an attack on the Martian nest by the USAF. They fly too low in order to avoid the incoming bombers, clip a tree and crash. They are unhurt and take shelter in a deserted farmhouse. Meanwhile the Martians destroy the force of bombers.

A Martian spaceship lands near the farmhouse, partially destroying it. While Forrester and van Buren hide, a Martian – who bears more than a passing resemblance to Spielberg’s ET – investigates the farmhouse. A remote camera spots the pair. Forrester hacks off the camera and the pair flee the farmhouse just before the Martians blast it. They also have a sample of Martian blood. They make it back to LA safely and rejoin their colleagues. The blood turns out to be anaemic, suggesting the Martians might be rather less mighty than their machines.

But by now the Martians are causing devastation on a global scale with all attempts to halt them ending in defeat. A decision is made to use nuclear weapons. A flying-wing aircraft drops a free-fall atomic bomb on the group outside LA, but the fighting machines are not damaged. Forrester realise that mankind’s only hope is to fight the Martians, not their machines.

The Martians begin to move towards the city. Forrester’s colleagues evacuate in a bus with Forrester following with the vital blood samples in a pickup truck. They are attacked by panicky residents trying to get out of the city. Forrester tries to find Sylvia. He remembers that as a child her uncle, Matthew Collins, once found her hiding in a church, and he figures that’s where she’ll be.

The Martians have by now entered Los Angeles, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake and blasting the iconic City Hall. Meanwhile the churches are doing a roaring trade, packed out with Los Angelinos praying for deliverance. Not until the third one does Forrester locate Sylvia. By this time the Martians are close at hand. The building is blasted by a heat-ray, shattering stained-glass windows and causing part of it to collapse. But suddenly the attack is halted. The fighting machines begin falling to the ground. A hatch opens one one of the downed machines, but when Forrester investigates he finds its occupant dead.

Hardwicke’s voice-over explains that the Martians had no defence against earthly bacteria, but the ending, with its church bells and hymns, implies that that it was God who really deserved the credit and that the attack on a church was the last straw that convinced Him to put the boot in on the Martians.

Like the original, this movie was strongly influence by contemporary fears and its religiousness is undoubtedly a Cold War reaction to the atheism of the USSR. (In addition there was an obvious connection between Communists and hostile beings from the Red Planet!)

It is often said that the 1953 movie bears little resemblance to the original novel but common elements can be recognised: Forrester is a conflation of the narrator and Ogilvy; in both versions a delegation of three men try to make friendly contact and are wiped out; military surround the initial landing site; and both versions have a scene in which the main character is trapped in the basement of a building partially destroyed by the landing of a Martian projectile.

A quarter of a century later, in 1978, rock musician Jeff Wayne released a musical version, a double album that was narrated by Richard Burton. It remained in the UK album charts for 290 weeks and remains popular three decades later, with a live tour in 2006.

A TV series of The War of the Worlds appeared in 1988. Intended as a sequel to the 1953 movie, it was hamstrung by the ludicrous idea that due to a government cover-up and a condition known as “selective amnesia”, nobody could remember the invasion of 1953, despite the devastating attacks on Los Angeles and other cities around the world. The aliens – who it turned out were not from Mars but a distant planet called Mortax – had merely been put into suspended animation by Earthly bacteria. Why nobody noticed this in 1953 is among the many things this series left unexplained.

The comatose aliens were stored in metal drums in various army bases around the world; in the case of those in United States these drums happened to be stored near some radioactive waste that was released when the base was attacked by terrorists. This killed off the bacteria and revived the aliens, who far from being the puny, anaemic creatures of the movie possess considerably more upper-body strength than a human. Rather more worryingly, they can also take over human bodies. They start with the six terrorists.

The government form a group to tackle the threat, headed up by Dr. Harrison Blackwood (Jared Martin), adopted son of Clayton Forrester. The top-secret Blackwood Project also includes microbiologist Suzanne McCullough (Linda Mason Green), her daughter Debi (Rachel Blanchard), wheelchair-bound computer wizard Norton Drake (Philip Akin) and Native American military man Lt. Col. Paul Ironhorse (Richard Chaves). Ann Robinson made special guest appearances reprising her role of Sylvia van Buren.

The aliens were led by a ruling triumvirate known as the Advocacy, whose catch-phrase was “To Life Immortal”. Early on, they established a base of operations in the Nevada Desert, where radiation from bomb testing kept earthly bacteria at bay. Their objective was to continue their 1953 mission of eliminating humanity, to make way for three million colonists en-route from Mortax.

The series was notable for its level of violence. Discarded human hosts would simply disintegrate into a mess of steaming slime and episodes frequently dwelt on the terror of human captives – the equivalent of Star Trek’s “redshirts” – waiting to be used as hosts or in one of the Mortaxans’ fiendish experiments. Rarely did this add anything to the story; one exception was when Blackwood fell in love with a woman who had (temporarily) escaped the Mortaxans’ clutches.

Blackwood and his team rarely came out on top, though they did succeed in thwarting every attempt by the aliens to recapture their fighting machines. Three of these had been stored at Area 51; another was buried at Grover’s Mill after the abortive 1938 invasion (Orson Welles’ broadcast was part of a government cover-up); and an earlier tripod model had been left on Native American land. To deal with the latter, Blackwood called on the aid of a shaman, who used supernatural power to destroy it.

For the show’s second season, the format was changed considerably. After a battle with the aliens that left Lt. Col Ironhorse and Norton Drake dead, the Blackwood Project was disowned by the government and the survivors were forced to go underground, where they were joined by John Kinkaid (Adrian Paul). Meanwhile, a second group of Mortaxans (the Morthren) arrived and began executing the first lot, who passively accepted their fate despite outnumbering the newcomers at least ten-to-one. The Morthren cloned humans rather than take over their bodies as their predecessors had done.

Innumerable loose ends from the first season remained unresolved – these included the fate of Quinn, a duplicitous survivor of the 1953 invasion who was immune to infection; and that of the Synth, a sexy punk female android who zapped Mortaxans at will, but only to preserve humanity as a source of food. Also unexplained was how the world had apparently deteriorated into a post-apocalyptic society overnight.

Towards the end of the second season, the show was cancelled and a concluding episode had the majority of the Morthren killed off in various battles, and the remainder suing for peace and agreeing to work with mankind to restore Earth.

The most recent outing for H.G. Wells’ now venerable tale was the 2005 movie by Stephen Spielburg, which starred Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin and Tim Robbins. Morgan Freeman speaks the opening voice-over, now updated to “the early years of the 21st Century”. The definite article is dropped from the movie title.

Although again set in the US, this version is truer to the original novel, following an ordinary man and his family trying to survive the invasion. Spielberg has however worked in elements from both the 1938 radio broadcast and the 1953 movie. The movie makes extensive use of Spielberg’s trademark lighting effects and a Hitchcock-like soundtrack (by John Williams) and draws on his earlier works involving (considerably more friendly) aliens. Those familiar with the 1953 version will recognise several lines of dialogue lifted from it. Early in the movie a van Buren Street is seen (albeit presumably named for President van Buren) and Gene Barry and Ann Robinson from the 1953 movie make cameo appearances.

Like the novel and the 1953 movie, this version plays on contemporary fears – in this case those of America a little under four years after 9/11.

Ray Farrier (Cruise) is a dock worker from Newark NJ (the 1938 Martians also landed in New Jersey). His young daughter Rachel (Fanning) and rebellious teenaged son Robbie (Chatwin) are staying with him for the weekend, having been dropped off for the weekend by his ex-wife Mary-Anne and her husband Tim, with whom he remains on reasonably good terms. Mary-Anne and Tim are going to Boston for the weekend to stay with the former’s parents (Barry and Robinson).

The fighting machines of the invaders revert to tripods, but instead of arriving from out of space they were buried in the ground thousands of years ago and are activated by freak electrical storms occurring all over the world. It later emerged that the storms were energy discharges produced by pods containing the aliens being inserted into their fighting machines.

The invaders’ homeworld is never revealed. At the start of the movie, a shot of Earth seen from outer space fades to a red disk, suggesting Mars – but it then turns out to be a red traffic light. Some have taken this to mean Mars but I’d take it to mean the opposite, deliberately rejecting a connection with Mars.

Electro-motive pulses from the storm causes Ray’s vintage Omega to stop – a double reference to the 1953 movie where watches were found to have stopped and that the watch itself (a gold manual wind chronograph) dates to the 1950s. In fact a watch from the pre-quartz era is probably one thing that would not be affected an electro-motive pulse. Also it would take rather more than changing the solenoids (as Ray advises a mechanic) in any car more recent than 25 years old to get it going again.

With Tripods blasting everything in sight with heat-rays, Ray and his children steal the re-energised car, now the only one in the neighbourhood that is working, with the intention of making for Boston. They stay overnight at Mary-Anne and Tim’s house in Bayonne, NJ. During the night a jumbo jet is shot down and crashes nearby. After an encounter with a TV crew they continue on to Boston, but Robbie is increasingly anxious to join soldiers who are fighting the invaders.

Near Athens, NY, they are attacked by a mob which seizes the car. They press on on foot. Everywhere posters of missing people have been put up – recalling New York in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In a dramatic sequence a train burning from end to end hurtles through (how it is still going isn’t clear). An uneasy crowd is waiting to board a Hudson River ferry. Rachel notices birds fleeing and a glow on the horizon. It is clear the tripods are close at hand. Ray, Rachel and Robbie board the ferry just as Tripods appear over horizon.

Cars are tipped off the ferry to make way for more people – reminiscent of the helicopters that were dropped overboard from aircraft carriers during the final frantic US retreat from Saigon in 1975. Thus the scene references two occasions when the most powerful nation in the world was reduced to impotence.

The Hudson Ferry scene echoes the scene in original when HMS Thunder Child destroys two Martian tripods and permits a ferry to get away, but in this version help does not come. The ferry is attacked by a submerged Tripod, which begins scooping people out of the water. However Ray, Rachel and Robbie swim to safety. They witness Tripods pursuing crowds of panicked humans, blasting them with heat-rays.

In Massachusetts, the Marines are trying to keep the Tripods at bay long enough to permit refugees to get away. At this point Robbie runs off to join the battle. But the Marines have no more luck than their 1953 counterparts and Robbie is believed to have been killed. A man named Ogilvy (Robbins) beckons to Ray and Rachel and they take shelter in his cellar. The man is a conflation of Ogilvy, the curate and the artilleryman from the original novel. The Tripods are broadcasting Red Weed, fertilized with human blood. Ogilvy flips and Ray has to kill him, as in the novel.

Ray and Rachel leave but are threatened by a Tripod which scoops up Rachel and puts her in a basket with some other humans. Ray finds some hand grenades abandoned in the heat of battle and hurls one at the Tripod, without effect. Ray is then scooped up himself. An arm periodically grabs humans and transfers them to the interior of the machine for processing. Ray is grabbed but the others pull him back – not before he leaves behind a couple of hand grenades, which detonate, destroying the Tripod and freeing the captives.

Ray and Rachel reach Boston where the red weed is apparently dying. The Tripods are also behaving erratically. Birds are circling near the hoods of one the machines, suggesting its shields are no longer operating. Ray urges a group of Marines to fire on the machine. They do so, taking it down. In another reference to 1953 a hatch opens and an alien hand reaches out. Instead of Forrester, it is greeted by gun-toting Marines, but it dies almost immediately.

In an ending that echoes the book, Ray finds Robbie and his ex-wife alive and well at the home of his former in-laws.

The defeat of the invaders is given as a more or less verbatim reading by Freeman Morgan the original novel, against a backdrop of the devastated Boston, but without the strongly religious undertones of the 1953 movie.

The DVD release references many chapter titles from the original novel.

The movie was actually one of three released in 2005 based on The War of the Worlds; the other two were both made for DVD. One of these, by Pendragon Pictures, was set in the UK at the time envisaged in the novel.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Evolution, by Stephen Baxter (2002)

Published in 2002, Evolution is an ambitious attempt by British science-fiction writer Stephen Baxter to chart the whole of mankind’s career, from earliest primate origins to final extinction, 500 million years from now. Inevitably there are those who will draw comparisons with Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, but these are misplaced. Evolution concerns itself primarily with the anatomical and social development of humanity rather than the cultural and philosophical considerations of Stapledon’s classic work. The book is – in common with all Baxter’s work – firmly based on hard science and the pre-human and human primates featured are described in some detail, though Baxter points out that it is not intended as a textbook.

Evolution draws extensively on current theories about primate social dynamics and the origins of modern human behaviour, for example Steven Mithen’s “cognitive fluidity” (Mithen, 1996) and Robin Dunbar’s compelling theory connecting grooming with the origins of language (Dunbar, 1996). The book also appears to be influenced by works as diverse as Richard Fortey’s 1997 highly acclaimed Life: An Unauthorised Biography and Brian Aldiss’s 1962 Hugo-winning novel Hothouse.

Evolution has three parts, covering pre-human primates, humans (Homo ergaster through to H. sapiens), and post-humans (following the fall of modern man). Through this runs a narrative thread following 34-year old palaeontologist Joan Useb and her companions in the year 2031, as civilization unravels following a massive eruption of the Rabaul caldera in Papua New Guinea.

The book opens with heavily-pregnant Joan en route by private jet to a biodiversity conference in Darwin, Australia. She is accompanied by primatologist Alyce Sigurdardottir, genetic programmer Alison Scott and the latter’s two genetically-enhanced daughters. The skies around the aircraft are full of smoke from seasonal forest fires in Indonesia and the eastern coast of Australia, which now burn for months each year. There is also concern aboard about Rabaul, which has been causing earthquakes for the last two weeks.

Joan recalls a childhood field-trip to Hell Creek, Montana with her mother (also a palaeontologist) and her discovery of a tooth of an early primate known as Purgatorius. The book then jumps back 65 million years to follow the story of the tooth’s owner, a mouse-sized female called Purga. She is living in the last days of Cretaceous Period, shortly before the Chixulub impact event that brought about the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Part One: Ancestors
Chapter 1: Dinosaur Dreams
The night sky is dominated by a comet, which is becoming steadily brighter as it approaches Earth on a collision course. I assume this is done for dramatic effect, as the object responsible for the Chixulub impact crater was an asteroid, not a comet. A comet would not have produced the anomalously high levels of iridium associated with the impact that led Luis and Walter Alvarez their 1980 theory of a meteorite impact being responsible for the dinosaurs’ demise. Recent work (Bottke, Vokrouhlicky and Nesvorny, 2008) suggests the impactor was part of a much larger body that was broken up by a collision 160 million years ago, again ruling out a comet.

NOTE: 24/03/2013 – Baxter vindicated –

Like most of the characters that feature in the first part of the book, Purga’s life is largely about the Three Fs – feeding, fighting and reproduction. She has more than her fair share of problems with the last of these – three of her mates are killed (only one as a result of the impact) and she loses two of her three litters. Fortunately for her – and indeed every subsequent species of primate, including Homo sapiens – one of Purga’s offspring survives to maturity.

This episode differs from subsequent tales in that the story is presented from multiple points of view, ranging from that of a moth eaten by Purga to an “air whale” – a pterosaur with a hundred-metre wingspan living in the stratosphere and feeding on the aerial “plankton” of small insects swept up into the upper atmosphere. The “air whale” is Baxter’s dramatic conceptualisation of the hypothetical creature capable of exploit this niche, originally proposed by Richard Fortey (Fortey, 1997).

Chapter 2: The Hunters of Pangaea
Purga’s story is also broken by an interlude entitled The Hunters of Pangaea, set eighty million years earlier and featuring the orniths, a species of intelligent dinosaur that existed for only a few thousand years and, like the air whale, left no trace in the fossil record. “Hunters” also appeared separately as a stand-alone short story.

Chapter 3: The Devil’s Tail
Purga is described as being nocturnal, in line with the then-current thinking that ancestral primates were nocturnal. However a recent study (Tan, Yoder, Yamasita & Li, 2005) rejects nocturnality – or at least exclusive nocturnality. The nocturnal view rests largely on the fact that the majority of living prosimians are nocturnal, and the large orbits of many fossil forms, suggesting that they were also.

The study considered the gene sequences of opsins in primates. Opsins are light-sensitive proteins found in retinal photoreceptor cells. Trichromatic or colour vision requires three types of opsin, sensitive to short, medium and long wavelengths. However colour vision is not is particularly useful for nocturnal animals, and has been found that in nocturnal animals either the genes coding for short wavelengths or those coding for medium/long-wave opsins rapidly pick up deleterious mutations, rendering the opsins themselves non-functional and giving the animal only monochromatic (“black-and-white”) vision. Because the “bad” opsin genes do not in such cases affect the organism’s survival, there is no Darwinian natural selection acting to eliminate them.

For any species, this mutation would be expected to occur at the same rate across successive generations, and on the nocturnal picture the opsin genes in all nocturnal primates would be expected to have undergone similar degrees of deleterious mutations, reflecting similar times of divergence from the last common diurnal ancestor (presumed not to be a primate).

However this prediction was not borne out by the study, which showed considerable variation in the degree of genetic defects found across a range of prosimians, indicating different time periods of deleterious mutation for different lineages, and suggesting different diurnal ancestry for each.
This in turn implies that the common primate ancestor of all of these lineages must have been diurnal, unless each lineage independently went through a phase of diurnality, before reverting to nocturnality, which seems unlikely

The assertion that every human alive today is a direct descendant of Purga is a good story but bad science. Even if we assume that Purgatorius is on the direct line of evolution leading to Homo sapiens (and while it is sufficiently generalised in its anatomy to have given rise to later Eocene primates, there is no strong evidence suggesting it actually did so), speciation events require founder populations, not founder individuals. The evolution of Homo sapiens (and indeed all other species) was never contingent on the success or failure of a particular individual to breed.

Chapter 4: The Empty Forest
The story moves on to that of another prosimian, a squirrel-sized female plesiadapid called Plesi, living in Texas two million years after the Chixulub impact, before picking up the engaging tale of a young male notharctus called – wait for it – Noth.

Chapter 5: The Time of Long Shadows
The lemur-like notharctus live on Ellesmere Island, in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. It is 51 million years before the present. Unlike earlier primates, the notharctus have taken to group living. Noth and his younger sister get cut off from their troop and after several days wondering, are adopted by another. They hibernate through the winter with their new companions, then the mating season gets underway and young Noth has just 48 hours to lose his virginity. He defeats his arch-rival (called simply Rival), then bites off a bit more than he can chew when he challenges a solitary male called Solo, who has just bitten off a testicle from the troop’s alpha male, the Emperor. Fortunately notharctus seem have much a lower pain threshold in that particular part of their anatomy than humans – the Emperor rapidly recovers and together with Noth and several other males, puts Solo to flight.

At the – um – climax of the story, Noth gets to mate with Big, one of the troop’s senior females, but not before Rival has mated with Noth’s sister. Noth, however, bears Rival no ill will. It has to be said that Noth and his companions are the most likable characters in this entire saga, and notably their story provides the one conventionally happy ending in an otherwise bleak tale. The science is not however absent, and we learn much about the more powerful brains and complex social dynamics of the notharctus. Nor is the ending entirely positive – we learn that the notharctus are eventually driven out by competition with what will eventually prove to be mankind’s nemesis – the rodents.

Chapter 6: The Crossing
The scene now shifts to West Africa, 32 million years ago, to tell the tale of a group of anthros – monkey-like simians, which are swept out to sea by a flash flood. They survive the immediate peril by clinging to a raft of matted vegetation, but then have to endure weeks of thirst and starvation, during which many of them die. At length, however, the raft drifts ashore and the survivors find themselves in South America, the progenitors of the New World monkeys that live there to this day.

As implausible as it sounds, on a timescale of many million years it would only need to happen once, and there really is no other way of explaining the presence of the New World monkeys in South America without any fossil evidence of them ever having lived in North America.

Chapter 7: The Last Burrow
The next chapter is a short speculative piece set 15 million year ago in a small shrinking strip of tundra in Antarctica where small lemming-like primates compete with cold-adapted dinosaurs which survived the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event, and are now buried below many miles of sheet ice.

Chapter 8: Fragments
The final chapter of the book’s first part centres on an alpha male ape, with the appropriate name of Capo, who belongs to an unnamed (and as yet undiscovered) species of ape, living in a forest near the coast of North Africa 5 million years ago. They resemble chimpanzees, though the latter have yet to evolve. Their society is male dominated, like that of chimpanzees, but they copulate using the missionary position, a trait shared with bonobos and humans, whereas chimps use the doggy position (de Waal & Lanting, 1997).

Capo – the progenitor of mankind, the ancestor of Socrates, Newton and Napoleon – is the troop’s capo di tutti capi and lets nobody forget it. He has a habit of beginning his day by shitting on his subordinates, thereby starting a management practice that is still widespread five million years later. Unfortunately for Capo his territory is shrinking. As the Earth continues its long-term cooling, so the forest patch occupied by his troop is slowly dying off. The change has become significant over Capo’s 40 year life, and now the forest patch has become too small to support the troop. By a leap of instinct, Capo realises he must lead the troop to a new territory.

Roughly half the troop elects to remain behind, though Capo is relieved when his favourite female Leaf joins the migration. As Capo leads his diminished band to the edge of the forest, those remaining behind waste no time in battling to establish the new hierarchy. The apes make their way across open savannah and a salt pan. Overnight they are attacked by hyenas, and one of the younger males is taken. Next day, they reach the apparent safety of a new patch of forest, but by now Capo’s authority over the group is breaking down, with two young males – Finger and Frond – looking to depose him.

Worse is to follow. It turns out that the forest is already occupied by apes of the same species as Capo, who are in no mood to welcome immigrants. Heavily outnumbered, Capo’s troop begin posturing and displaying but the locals do not back down. Capo realises that he has no choice but to retreat and lead the troop onwards, though he now realises that any other forest they come across is likely to be similarly occupied.

Finger refuses to accept the retreat and after attacking Capo he launches himself at the other group. He is rapidly overpowered and killed. Capo’s band retreats, but only when Frond signals a retreat. One of the younger females defects – she will be grudgingly accepted by the others, provided she becomes pregnant quickly. The group are not pursued, but Capo realises his days as boss are over. He climbs into a tree, and is comforted by Leaf.

Meanwhile Frond cracks open a thigh bone from the corpse of a gomphothere (an extinct relative of present-day elephants) and finds he can eat the bone marrow. To make a living out on the open savannah is very difficult, but enough of the troop and their descendants will survive to lead to the evolution of the first humans….

The main problem with this story is that it is difficult to believe that an ape, confined all his life to a single patch of forest, would be able to formulate the concept of the existence of other patches of forest beyond his own. It is one thing to be aware of the resources needed to stay alive, and where they may be found within a particular environment; entirely another to postulate the existence of similar environments elsewhere.

The conclusion of this first part of the novel is followed by a brief interlude in Joan Useb and her companions arrive at Darwin Airport. Earthquakes from Rabaul are making themselves felt as is the presence of anti-globalization protestors. The group are bottled up in the airport, waiting for the authorities to disperse the protestors. A delegate named Ian Maughan introduces himself to Joan. They discuss a self-replicating probe nicknamed “Johnnie” (after mathematician and computer scientist John von Neumann) that has landed on Mars. Meanwhile, Alison Scott has unveiled her latest genetic creation – a recreated australopithecine.

Part 2: Humans
Chapter 9: The Walkers
The story proper then resumes with an episode set 1.5 million years ago, in Kenya. “Far” (this is the nearest thing she has to a name) is a pre-pubescent female hominid of a type that will one day be labelled Homo ergaster, though Baxter suggests that what we have found is merely the tip of the iceberg and there were many different human species living all across the Old World at this time. (Until recently, the term Homo erectus was used for humans of this era; however the current tendency is to reserve this term for Eurasian populations [the first to be discovered] and class the African populations as Homo ergaster. Whether the physical differences, albeit greater than those found in modern humans, warrant the use of two species is debatable, and some authorities (e.g. Conroy, 1997) continue to class both populations as H. erectus.)

Far enjoys running, in fact as both a sprint and middle-distance runner she could outstrip any athlete living today, male or female. She can run 100 metres in 6 or 7 seconds and a mile in three minutes! Her performance in long-distance events isn’t given, but I suspect she’d have left Paula Radcliffe trailing in her wake.

Although horses, greyhounds and indeed many other mammals could comfortably outperform even Olympic athletes in track events, could earlier types of human? The pelvic region in Homo sapiens is basically a design compromise between two conflicting needs – bipedal motion versus a birth-canal capable of allowing the passage of a large-brained infant. A part-way solution is that H. sapiens births are to all intents and purposes premature births, taking place while the head is still of a just about manageable size. The down side of this, of course, is that a new-born H. sapiens requires more postnatal care than the infants of any other species.

Even then, the locomotion capabilities of H. sapiens are still compromised, and it is likely that the earliest fully-bipedal humans such as H. ergaster, which were smaller-brained than ourselves, were probably more efficient bipeds. Enhanced middle and long-distance running abilities would have given them an edge when hunting; conversely when the tables were turned, sprinting abilities would have helped them to escape predators.

Far also packs a punch that would have had Mohammad Ali on the ropes. While sheltering from a bushfire, she is attacked from behind, stunned and dragged partially conscious into forest by a hungry australopithecine, but as she is about to be carved up for dinner she revives and punches him hard enough to do considerable facial damage.

A modern-day chimp, though weighing in at around half the size of a modern-day human, possesses far greater upper body strength. There is nothing mysterious about this – compare the thickness of the upper arm with that of the thigh in a human, and it is obvious that strength has been concentrated in the lower body at the expense of the upper. In a tree-climber such as a chimp, strength is more evenly distributed. The same would have applied, albeit to a lesser extent, to australopithecines and the earliest humans such as Homo habilis, which retained vestiges of the arboreal habit. But would the same apply to a fully-evolved biped like H. ergaster? The answer, probably, is yes. H. ergaster/erectus, while less robust than the stocky Neanderthals, still had a more powerful all-round physique than a present-day human.

We don’t know about their hand-to-eye co-ordination, but there is no reason to suppose it was inferior to ours. So given a good tennis coach, and combined with her enhanced speed and strength, we can speculate that Far would probably run rings round Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. But with her smaller brain, she’d probably be less effective at team sports and a Homo ergaster football team probably wouldn’t beat anybody, apart of course from the current England side.

Far’s story contains an interesting take on the two major issues concerning Mode II or Acheulian tool technology. Mode II tools superseded the more primitive Mode I or Oldowan tools made by the earliest humans and possibly by some of the later australopithecines. Mode II tools are characterised by teardrop-shaped hand-axes, the first examples of which were found at Saint-Acheul in Northern France in the mid-19th Century (hence “Acheulian”). The oldest known Acheulian tools are dated to 1.65 million years ago and come from West Turkana in northern Kenya (Scarre, 2005). The Acheulian hand-axe tradition endured with little change for over a million years.

But one major puzzle about these often beautifully-crafted hand-axes is that they are often too large to be useful (see, for example, the fine example in the Natural History Museum in Kensington). Also, they often appear to have been discarded soon after manufacture, with no sign of wear, suggesting that they were never used.

One theory (Kohn & Mithen, 1999) proposes that the axes were made to impress prospective mates. When a female saw a large, symmetrical axe, she might conclude that its maker possessed the right attributes to father successful offspring. The axe, having served its purpose (or not) would then be discarded. This – like the elaborate bower of the male bower bird – would be an example of the extended phenotype of a species playing a role in sexual selection (Dawkins, 1982).

Another issue with the hand-axes is that while they are ubiquitous in Africa and western Eurasia, they are not found east of Northern India. This was first noted by American archaeologist Hallam Movius in 1948. The “Movius Line” has stood the test of time and two theories have been proposed to explain it. One is that the ancestors of those living east of the Movius Line left Africa before the hand-axes were invented. The other possibility is that the migrants from Africa passed through a region lacking suitable materials to make the axes, and by the time they emerged from it, the tradition had been forgotten.

Baxter describes Far’s ancestors a few generations back as having originated from east of the Movius Line, but having migrated back to Africa. Far, cut off from her own people, is adopted by another group and when a male suitor named Axe presents her with a hand-axe, she does not understand its significance, although she is attracted to its maker.

In the chapter’s most speculative development, Far deceives Axe into thinking she is older than she actually is by using a piece of ochre to simulate menstruation. The “sham menstruation” hypothesis (Knight, Power & Watts, 1995; Power & Aiello, 1997) proposes the use of ochre to feign menstruation by early modern humans (Homo sapiens). But while pigment usage by early modern humans is well-attested and is taken as evidence of symbolic behaviour, such usage by earlier human species is less so. Recent work (Soressi & d’Errico, 2007) does however suggest Neanderthals may have made use of pigment for symbolic purposes, but the Neanderthal brain was comparable in size to that of a modern human, much larger than those of Far’s people.

Chapter 10: The Crowded Land
We then fast-forward to 127,000 years ago, remaining in Kenya, and pick up the story of Pebble (which still isn’t really a name), a male Neanderthal. That Neanderthals lived in Africa as well as Europe and western Asia will never become known to science. As a boy, Pebble was forced to flee when outsiders invaded their settlement, killing most of the inhabitants, including Pebble’s father. Kin groups are identified by ochre makings scrawled on their faces, hands and arms. Pebble’s group wear vertical lines, the invaders wear a cross-hatch design. These body markings are the beginning of art, but also of nations and of war.

Chimps have a keener sense of smell than humans; Capo and his band were repelled by locals who could pick up subtle differences in their scent. If early humans had a poorer sense of smell, they would need something else to establish a group identity. The use of pigment by Neanderthals, as noted above, is a possibility though its use in this particular context is pure speculation.

Pebble’s people then establish friendly trading relations with a group of anatomically modern humans and one perennial question is answered in the affirmative when Pebble starts having sex with Harpoon, one of the moderns, and in due course she falls pregnant and produces fertile offspring. Later, the Neanderthals and moderns find a way of crossing to an offshore island, using logs as swimming aids, and they exterminate the local population of late Homo erectus people, stranded there millennia earlier as sea levels rose.

There is little doubt in my mind that modern humans did on occasions have sex with Neanderthals. Even in the wild, closely-related species will on occasion mate, for example horses and donkeys, lions and tigers, and whales and dolphins. While the fruit of such unions are generally infertile, they are usually viable. Given that modern humans will have sex with sheep, it seems inconceivable that at some stage they did not have sex with Neanderthals. Whether this resulted in fertile offspring, and whether any Neanderthal DNA exists in the current human genome remains contentious, though genetic studies have failed to find evidence, and it seems that Neanderthals diverged from modern humans as long as 800,000 years ago.

No evidence has yet come to light of the widespread warfare and genocide described in this chapter. Some claim such behaviour has always been a part of the human condition, for example Nicholas Wade, who bases his claim on the behaviour of chimpanzees and some contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes (Wade, 2007). But while some hunter-gatherer societies are warlike, such as the Yanomamo of the Amazon rainforest, other indigenous people are not.

Though more mentally-adept than the Neanderthals, Harpoon’s people are described as not yet being behaviourally modern. Anthropologists define modern human behaviour as the use of abstract thought, symbolic behaviour (such as art and creative expression), use of syntactically-complex language and the ability to plan ahead.

The following are generally accepted as evidence of modern human behaviour:

Finely made tools.
Evidence of long-distance trade among groups.
Use of pigment and jewellery for decoration or self-ornamentation.
Figurative art, such as cave paintings, petroglyphs and figurines.
Burial of the dead.
Systematic use of space in living-areas, with particular areas reserved for particular functions, e.g. food storage.

The first anatomically-modern humans may have lived as long as 195,000 years ago (Omo Kibish 1 and 2, Ethiopia) or at least 154,000-160,000 years ago (Herto Bouri, Ethiopia), rather earlier than the 132,000 years suggested by Baxter. According to many authorities (e.g. Mithen, 1996; Klein & Edgar, 2002), modern human behaviour did not arise until much later in a “big bang” of human consciousness, but this is disputed by others (e.g. Oppenheimer, 2003), who claim there was no “big bang” and knowledge, skills and culture were gradually acquired over hundreds of millennia.

Baxter takes a middle view, with the use of ochre going back 1.5 million years, and anatomically but not-quite-behaviourally modern humans engaging in trade. The final cognitive breakthrough occurs in the next chapter, set 60,000 years ago in the Sahara.

Chapter 11: Mother’s People
The protagonist in this chapter is a 30-year-old woman referred to as Mother though she still doesn’t really yet have a name. As a result of a chance mutation, Mother has the mental organisation of a modern human, or what Steven Mithen, Professor of Archaeology at Reading University has described as cognitive fluidity. Mithen believes that the human brain originally had separate cognitive “domains” for different functions, such as social interaction, tool-making, food and resource gathering (“natural history”), etc, drawing on the work of Jerry Fodor, Annette Karmiloff-Smith, Michael Tomasello, Howard Gardiner, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. Modern human behaviour came about when the barriers between these domains broke down, allowing them to interact with each other. Art, religion and language all arise from the synergistic interactions between the various domains. The idea of initially separate domains interacting may have been inspired in part by Julian Jaynes’ controversial theory about “bicameral minds”, proposed in 1976. (See Mithen, 1996; Fodor, 1983; Karmiloff-Smith, 1992; Tomasello, 1999; Gardiner, 1983 & 1999; Jaynes, 1976).

Mother understands the concept of cause and effect, and is capable of abstract thought. This enables her to invent the spear-thrower (atlatl) – a crucial invention because her people are starving to death. But Mother’s enhanced mental powers come at a cost; many of her ideas come to her when she is having crippling migraine attacks. These do, however, form the basis of shamanistic rituals and hence the world’s first religion. That cave art may be associated with such practices was first proposed by eminent French prehistorian Jean Clottes and South African anthropologist David Lewis-Williams. The latter also suggested that some African rock art may be derived from migraine aura (Lewis-Williams, 2002).

Unfortunately Mother begins to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia following the death of her son, and after murdering her aunt in the irrational belief that she killed her son, she instigates the practice of human sacrifice to bring rain. Fortunately only two sacrificial victims are required before the rains come; she was quite prepared to work her way through the entire tribe. Other influences are more benign: her cognitive skills gradually work their way through the tribe and the first true syntax-rich language develops.

Some years later, Mother develops cancer. Her condition rapidly worsens and she is eventually smothered by one of her acolytes, Sapling, in the world’s first mercy killing. Sapling calls her Ja-ahn – “Mother” in the new language; thus Mother becomes the first person in human history to have an actual name.

Chapter 12: The Raft Continent
In the next few stories, set in Australia 52-47,000 years ago, we meet a series of Ja-ahn’s descendants, all bearing mutated versions of her name. (The ultimate implication, though, that this is the origin of the name “Joan” is a little suspect. “Joan” is actually of Hebrew origin, meaning “the Lord is gracious”). Baxter does not describe the first migration of modern humans from Africa, skipping on eight thousand years, to the story of one of Ja-ahn’s descendants, a young man called Ejan. Following a failed attempt by three of his brothers, Ejan and his sister Rocha make the first voyage to Australia, crossing the then narrow straits from Indonesia. Over the next five thousand years, humans colonise Australia, but their depredations soon kill off all the continent’s megafauna, such as giant kangaroos, which survive only as cave paintings. Painted over with later images, they are dismissed as childish doodling by people who have already forgotten what has been lost.

Chapter 13: Last Contact
Jahna is another of Ja-ahn’s descendants, living in Western France at the height of the last Ice Age, 31,000 years ago. Her people co-exist with Neanderthals, but despise them and have reduced them to slavery. Only one Neanderthal, known as the Old Man, continues to live in freedom. He looks after Jana and her brother when they are cut off from a hunting party in a snowstorm – but when Jahna’s father eventually finds them, he kills the sleeping Neanderthal by repeatedly smashing him over the head with a rock.

Chapter 14: The Swarming People
The action of final chapter to be set in prehistoric times takes place in Anatolia, Turkey, 9,600 years ago and describes the interaction between Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers. The story is based around Colin Renfrew’s theory that the Indo-European languages (Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and their descendants) were spread by farmers, originally living in Anatolia, who spread across Eurasia taking their language with them (Renfrew, 1987). See also this article on Indo-European origins.

Juna – the latest incumbent of the “Ja-ahn” name – is a young woman living with a group of hunter-gatherers. She is pregnant and concerned that her child will be killed on birth. Her tribe – in common with others described earlier – practice infanticide when times are hard. A possible way out presents itself when Juna’s people begin trading with a man called Cahl, who brings them beer. Nobody knows how to make beer: Cahl’s mysterious people keep the secret to themselves.

But Cahl has a fetish about pregnant women and Juna persuades him to take her with him back to his people, where – it is said – no babies have to be killed. Cahl’s people live in a town – one of the first in the world – called Keer. They practice a primitive form of agriculture – but it is enough to feed everybody, including Juna’s soon-to-be-born baby. But conditions in Keer are squalid and disease is rife. Juna is put to work in the fields where she befriends a woman called Gwerei and learns the language of her people, the language now known as proto-Indo-European. By night, she is used sexually by the repulsive Cahl.

As the months go by she learns that Keer is but a satellite of a larger town, Cata Huuk [sic], whose ruler is known as the Potus. While a passable cognate for “potentate”, I assume this is a humorous play on the acronym POTUS for President of the United States. The reason for Baxter’s spelling of Catal Hoyuk – the Neolithic settlement on which the story is based – is unclear; I have not seen it spelled that way elsewhere. Possibly the idea is that Cata Huuk was the original name (similar to Londinium for London), but this is certainly incorrect. “Catal Hoyuk” means “Fork Mound” in present-day Turkish, and Turkish is not an Indo-European language.

The Potus’ youngest son Keram is tasked with collecting tribute from Keer and other outlier towns. On one such visit, while Cahl is trying to ingratiate himself, Juna emerges from Cahl’s hut and begs Keram to take her and her unborn baby to Cata Huuk where, she claims, she was originally born but abducted as a child by the people of Keer. Although dubious about her story, and over the enraged protests of Cahl, Keram takes Juna with him, together with the tribute. Juna is puzzled that the people of Keer – who are hardly well off – don’t get beer in return. (I could comfortably retire on the money I’ve handed over to HM Revenue & Customs over the last few decades, and I’m still waiting for them to buy me a pint!)

At Cata Huuk, the Potus takes a liking to Juna, and allows Keram to marry her. Her son is born and she has another child with him. The society of Cata Huuk is rigid and hierarchical. The Potus, his family and the priesthood are the first people ever to live without having to work for food. This new way of life has more in common with the chimpanzee colonies of the forest than it does with the hunter-gather lifestyle of the Upper Palaeolithic.

For four years, all is well, but then Cata Huuk is sacked by outsiders, and Juna, Keram and their children are forced to flee. As they make their way to the coast, they pass through Juna’s old home, now a rough shanty town. Juna has a brief re-union with her sister. Most of the inhabitants have died from measles – one of many diseases that have flourished in the new urban societies, to which the hunter-gatherer people have no immunity.

Catal Hoyuk, though often described as one of the world’s first cities, is probably better described as a large village (see, for example, Hodder, 2006). Contrary to Baxter’s description, society appears to have been fairly egalitarian. There is no evidence of a civic centre or the type of organization one would expect in the kind of state-level society described. At the time of the events described, states with the stratified societies we know so well today were still some millennia in the future.

Regardless of whether the Anatolian farmers spoke proto-Indo-European, they spread out in what Italian geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza described in the 1980s as a “wave of advance”, leaving a genetic imprint in present day European populations (Cavalli-Sforza, 2000). However later work by Bryan Sykes at Oxford suggested that a strong Palaeolithic/Mesolithic component remained (Sykes, 2001). This can be explained by the farmers gradually moving out generation by generation from their homeland, but with significant intermarriage with local Mesolithic hunter-gatherers (Bellwood & Renfrew, 2002). In some places almost certainly the Mesolithic people took up farming on their own. This probably explains the existence today of isolated languages such as Basque, which may have been related to the languages originally spoken by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Though there were undoubtedly exceptions, it seems likely that relations between hunter-gatherers and incoming farmers were amicable, as each would have had something the other needed. The hunter-gatherers would know the lie of the land, having lived there for generations. In exchange for this knowledge, the farmers would be able to offer them food – and possibly even beer!

Chapter 15: The Dying Light
The next chapter, set in Rome in AD 482, deals with intrigue in the years after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Athalaric and his mentor, the elderly Honorius, are what would later become known as antiquarians. They are shown dinosaur bones and the skulls of Homo erectus and a Neanderthal. They speculate quite accurately on what these remains might mean. But Honorius is murdered after turning down the opportunity to become Pope, and such investigations would have to wait for another 1300 years.

Chapter 16: An Entangled Bank
The second section ends as we once again pick up the story of Joan Useb and her companions. The conference goes ahead, but is hijacked by terrorists led by a young man named Elisha, who releases smallpox into the air and is about to rape one of Alison Scott’s genetically-enhanced daughters when the police storm the building and kill most of the terrorists. The remainder, including Elisha, commit suicide. Joan goes into labour and simultaneously Rabaul blows up.

Joan delivers her baby safely and the conference delegates are vaccinated against smallpox, but the Rabaul eruption is sufficient to push Earth’s already-stressed eco-system over the edge, although it isn’t even the biggest eruption in human history. Wars break out across the globe. Mankind’s complex civilization collapses completely and utterly.

Part 3: Descendants
Chapter 17: A Long Shadow
The final part of the book is set in the distant future, long after the fall of Mankind. Homo sapiens is almost – but in the first chapter – not quite extinct. Royal Navy flyer Lt. Robert Wayne Snow – “Snowy” – awakes from suspended animation to see the face of senior pilot Ahmed supervising his revivification. There is no sign of his CO, Robert “Barking” Madd, telling Snowy at once that something has gone wrong. When asked how he is, he nevertheless jokes that any landing you walk away from is a good one.

Snowy and his colleagues have been placed in a suspended animation chamber known as the Pit, and buried at an undisclosed location. They are part of a UN Protection Force, the idea being that if the UK or its allies are invaded, they will be thawed out and spring out of the ground, ready to fight. But the Pit appears to be leaning at an angle from the vertical, and much of the instrumentation is dead. Worse still, it soon turns out that all but five of the twenty-strong contingent is dead. Other than Snowy and Ahmed, the only survivors are the group’s resident genius Sidewise, a young pilot called Bonner and the only surviving woman, Moon (whose actual name is June – the final descendant of Ja-ahn???). There has been no “tally” or wake-up call, no orders, no clue as to what is going on. The Pit’s clock only goes up to fifty years, and its hands have jammed against the end of their dials…

As the senior ranking survivor, Ahmed takes charge. They emerge from the Pit to find themselves in the middle of a forest. Maps, supposedly stored outside the Pit, are nowhere to be found. Taking weapons and equipment from the Pit, they strike off north. After some hours, they get clear of the forest, only to discover the last pitiful remnants of human civilization – the crumbled remains of a dam, a ruined church, the dimly-recognisable street layout of a town, with nothing surviving above waist height. We never learn how long the group were in suspended animation, or even where they are, but Sidewise guesses that at least a thousand years have passed.

Looking at the night sky, Sidewise locates Jupiter, Saturn and Venus, but he can’t find Mars and speculates something has happened to it. He is correct – it has been dismantled by the von Neumann machines, the robotic descendants of humanity.

As the weeks pass, the morale of the group deteriorates. The fauna appears drastically changed, with rodents the size of wolves in the ascendant. Escaped budgerigars seem to be thriving, but not cats. Sidewise – obviously no cat-lover – claims that cats weren’t so tough, just a pain in the arse. Finally Snowy encounters a human female, but she lacks the power of speech. Sidewise dubs the female Weena (the “old literary reference” is actually from “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells). The pair discovers a colony of small, hairy ape-like people, descended in all probability from feral children who lived in sewers during the collapse of civilization. Without culture and learning, the power of speech was soon lost. With no need for energy-expensive big brains, these too were lost.

Ahmed still dreams of rebuilding civilization, despite the group containing – as Sidewise puts it – just one womb. This remark infuriates Moon, who feels increasingly threatened, especially by the sex-starved Bonner. Things finally unravel as Ahmed falls ill, Moon disappears, and the now barely rational Bonner goes after her. Snowy and Sidewise decide to leave and go their separate ways. Sidewise admits he was having sex with Moon. Snowy spends the remainder of his life following the ape-people.

It seems doubtful that language would be lost, even if civilization collapsed. If Noam Chomsky is correct, the capacity for language is intrinsic to the human brain. This is borne out by the rapid emergence of creoles – fully-featured languages – from the linga franca known as pidgins that develop when people speaking different languages come into contact. Any group of humans capable of surviving for 1000 years would need language, and if they had only a rudimentary pidgin to begin with, it would soon expand into a proper language – as indeed described by Baxter in Chapter 12.

Long before the rise of civilization, primates gained a survival advantage by having ever bigger brains. Primates’ key strategy was to be smarter than the competition, and this would not change in a world after civilization had collapsed. Humans living in a post-apocalyptic world would need all their wits to survive. Possibly Baxter intends a metaphor in this and subsequent chapters – a social commentary on “dumbing down” (The effete Eloi and brutish Morlochs from “The Time Machine” were also intended as social commentary).

This chapter does have some dubious plot-devices. Putting a group of military personnel into suspended animation is a good way of getting them into the future, but makes little sense from a military point of view. In the absence of command-and-control facilities, scattered groups of twenty men and women armed only with Walther PPK semi-automatic pistols would be a pretty ineffective deterrent against invasion.

That the Pit’s clock would only be good for fifty years seems implausible. A Casio G-Shock’s calendar will run up to AD 2100 and it would have been trivial to provide a digital calendar that could record the passage of time for millennia. And why on earth leave the maps outside?

When Sidewise cannot find Mars in the night sky, he assumes it has been destroyed. But at any given time it is unusual for more than one or two of the customarily naked-eye planets to be on view. Typically at least one will be below the horizon, or will only be up during the daytime. Even to be able to see Venus, Jupiter and Saturn at the same time is actually quite uncommon.

Chapter 18: The Kingdom of the Rats
In east Africa, 30 million years from now, the rodents have consolidated their grip on Earth. Elephant-sized post-humans, with Big Brother contestant-sized brains, are farmed for their meat by rodents. Other monkey-sized post-humans live in the trees, as their pre-human ancestors once did. Detritus from Mankind’s tenure of Earth still litters the ground – glass from car windscreens, bottles, etc. At the end of this chapter, the asteroid Eros collides with Earth, but the light of its approach does not register as a threat in the dim consciousness of any of the planet’s current denizens.

Chapter 19: A Far Distant Futurity
The book’s final chapter, like its first, is set in Montana, now part of the supercontinent of New Pangaea, some 500 million years from now. The Sun is beginning to leave the main sequence and Earth is now a desert of salt and sandstone. Small monkey-like people now live in a symbiotic relationship with borametz trees, rather like the Fisher folk of Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse. Earth is visited by descendants of the von Neumann machines that dismantled Mars. Eventually, as the Sun heats up, bacteria inhabiting rock hurled into space by meteorite impacts is all that remains of life on Earth. Some of these bacteria eventually reach other planets, where life begins anew.

18 years after the Rabaul eruption, Joan Useb and her daughter Lucy are living on Bartolome Island in the Galopagos, looking after feral children left behind when the islands were evacuated during the post-Rabaul wars. She realises, though, that Homo sapiens day is done….


Bellwood, P & Renfrew, C. (eds.) 2002: Examining the farming/language dispersal hypothesis, McDonald Institute, Cambridge.

Bottke W, Vokrouhlicky D and Nesvorny D (2008): “An asteroid breakup 160 Myr ago as the probable source of the K/T impactor”, Nature 449, 48-53 (6 September 2007).

Cavalli-Sforza L L (2000): “Genes, Peoples and Languages”, Penguin.

Conroy G (1997): “Reconstructing Human Origins: A Modern Synthesis”, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc, New York, NY & London.

Dawkins R (1982): “The Extended Phenotype”, Oxford University Press.

Dunbar R (1996): “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language”, Faber and Faber.

Fodor J (1983): “The Modularity of Mind”, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Fortey R (1997): “Life: An Unauthorised Biography”, Flamingo.

Gardiner H (1983): “Frames of Mind”, Basic Books.

Gardiner H (1999): “Intelligence Reframed”, Basic Books.

Hodder I (2006): “Catalhoyuk: The Leopard’s Tale”, Thames & Hudson.

Jaynes J (1976): “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”, Mariner Books, USA.

Karmiloff-Smith A (1992): “Beyond Modularity”, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Klein R & Edgar B (2002): “The Dawn of Human Culture”, John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York.

Knight C, Power C & Watts I, 1995): “The human symbolic revolution: A Darwinian account”, Cambridge Archaeological Journal. 5(1): 75-114.

Kohn M & Mithen S (1999): “Handaxes: products of sexual selection?” Antiquity 73: 518-526.

Lewis-Williams D (2002): “The Mind in the Cave”, Thames & Hudson.

Mithen S (1996): “The Prehistory of the Mind”, Thames & Hudson.

Oppenheimer S (2002): “Out of Eden”, Constable.

Power C & Aiello L (1997): “Female Proto-symbolic Strategies”, in Lori D Hager (ed), Women in Human Evolution. Routledge: London & New York. ISBN 0-415-10834-9.

Renfrew C (1987): “Archaeology and Language”, Cambridge University Press.

Scarre C (2005) (Ed): “The human past”, Thames & Hudson.

Soressi M & d’Errico F (2007): “Pigments , gravures , parures :les comportements symboliques controversies des Néandertaliens”, Les Néandertaliens. Biologie et cultures. Paris, Éditions du CTHS, 2007 (Documents préhistoriques ; 23), p. 297-309.

Sykes B (2001): “The Seven Daughters of Eve”, Bantam Press.

Tan Y, Yoder A, Yamasita N & Li W (2005): “Evidence from opsin genes rejects nocturnality in ancestral primates”, PNAS October 11, 2005 vol. 102 no. 41.

Tomasello (1999): “The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition”, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA & London.

de Waal F & Lanting F (1997): “Bonobo: the Forgotten Ape”, University of California Press.

Wade N (2007): “Before the Dawn”, Duckworth.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Last and First Men (1930) & Star Maker (1937), by Olaf Stapledon

Two books written in the 1930s by the Liverpool-born author and philosopher Olaf Stabledon together comprise the greatest work of science fiction ever written. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction claims that Stapledon’s influence on the development of science fiction ideas is “probably second only to that of H.G. Wells” and I would dispute that even Wells can be ranked higher. Last and First Men and Star Maker surpass even Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and Clarke’s Childhood’s End and The City and the Stars. The efforts of others pale into insignificance by comparison.

The two are self-contained works (they cannot be described as “novels” in the traditional sense of the word), but Star Maker is clearly intended as a sequel to Last and First Men and twice refers, albeit briefly, to the earlier work.

Last and First Men begins at a time shortly after World War I. The first four chapters describe a series of wars, fought with chemical and biological weapons, which eventually result in a world dominated by America. The resulting society endures for four millennia, then collapses as supplies of fossil fuel run out.

The next part of the book describes the fall of the First Men – modern Homo sapiens (this is of course incorrect, on even the most economical of schemes we are the fourth human species after Homo habilis, H. erectus and the Neanderthals). After a brief renaissance, the human race is all but annihilated when a nuclear power plant gets out of control and sets off a chain reaction that devastates the Earth. A handful of survivors, on an expedition to the North Pole, survive the initial catastrophe, but mankind remains in eclipse for ten million years until Earth is again fully habitable, when a new, more highly-evolved species, the Second Men appear.

This noble race produces several civilisations, which rise and fall over the course of a quarter of a million years before achieving a stable world community, which is unfortunately destined to be short-lived. Disaster overtakes it in the form of invaders from Mars. These Martians are very different to the clichéd bug-eyed monsters normally associated with the Red Planet; described in great detail they are life, but certainly not as we know it.

As he demonstrates here, and will do so again in Star Maker, Stapledon’s ability to envisage and describe intelligent life-forms utterly unlike humans has never come close to being equalled, let alone surpassed.

The wars between Earth and Mars rage for tens of thousands of years. Stapledon describes not only the effect of the wars on the material culture of the Second Men, but also on their collective state of mind. The wars finally end in a Pyrric victory for the Second Men when a bacteriological weapon is devised which annihilates the invaders, but is barely less lethal to mankind, of which only a tattered remnant remains to start again.

A hiatus of thirty million years ensues before a new species, the Third Men, appear. Much smaller and shorter lived than their predecessors, they produce a great diversity of cultures, some enduring for as long as a quarter of a million years until biological sciences advance way beyond those of the Second Men and at length it is decided to produce a giant brain.

After several failed attempts, a sessile brain in a forty-foot diameter reinforced concrete turret becomes the first of the Fourth Men, who eventually enslave the Third Men, then set out to produce a new species, the Fifth Men. These long-lived beings, of greater stature and intellectual capacity than even the Second Men come inevitably into conflict with their creators, and though the book passes over these events, the Great Brains and their slaves are annihilated.

Surpassing anything that has come before it, the civilisation of the Fifth Men endures for millions of years, but is eventually threatened with destruction as the Moon spirals in towards the Earth (in actual fact the Moon is receding from Earth, but Stapledon would not be the last author to make this mistake). In what must be one of the earliest ever accounts of terraforming a planet, the book describes how Venus is transformed into a new home for Mankind, albeit an unsatisfactory one.

Man’s sojourn on Venus, however, “lasted somewhat longer than his whole career on the Earth”, and gets off to an unhappy start when the indigenous Venusians have to be exterminated to make way for the newcomers. Rather questionable justifications are advanced for this planetary-scale genocide. A period of some 500 million years sees the passage of three human species, the degenerate survivors of the original migration (the Sixth Men): the winged Seventh Men: and finally the Eighth Men. Eventually Mankind is forced to take flight again, this time to Neptune, when a gas cloud collides with the Sun, greatly increasing its luminosity.

On Neptune, the new species specially designed to live in Man’s new home, the Ninth Men, fall rapidly into animality. For millions of years, Neptune is populated by sub-human descendants of the Ninth Men, but eventually intelligence does returns to the planet. However not until 600 million years after the solar collision does a superior species, the Fifteenth Men appear. Thereafter, progress is steady and Mankind advances steadily to “true humanity” in the Eighteenth, and last, human species, which is finally destroyed, ending the story of the human race, when the Sun goes nova after being disrupted by violent disorders taking place in a near-by star.

Incredibly, this gargantuan epic is dwarfed in scale by Star Maker: Mankind’s story turns out to be a mere foot note in the history of the galaxy; he is to play no part in the Galactic Society of Worlds.

A man sitting on a suburban hill finds his disembodied mind soaring into interstellar space. After learning how to control his headlong flight through time and space, he comes to rest on the World of the Other Men, humanoids who existed on a distant planet a billion years before the time of Homo sapiens. There he enters the mind of Bvalltu one of the Other Men and through him learns much about the society of the Other Earth, which is terminal decline. The two embark on another journey through space, encountering increasingly bizarre lifeforms along the way, some of whom join the growing band of travellers.

Intelligent mollusc-like creatures that have evolved into living sailing-ships; human echinoderms; symbiotic arachnoids and ichthyoids are only some of the extraordinary aliens the travellers meet, and this is only the beginning of their journey as they go on to learn that planets, stars and entire galaxies are themselves alive. Finally, in the “supreme moment of the cosmos”, they come face to face with the Star Maker, who has created and destroyed one universe after another in a relentless drive for perfection.

The two works are really a series of linked essays on the culture, art, science, history and philosophy of human and non-human civilisations utterly unlike our own. Almost any could be used as the starting point for a full-length novel; indeed many have. Time and time again, one sees where the idea for such and such an SF story originated – including some very well-known works.

This is not really surprising. Sir Arthur C. Clarke said of Last and First Men that “no book before or since ever had such an impact on my imagination” and Brian Aldiss described Star Maker as “the most wonderful novel I have ever read”. Fellow Liverpudlian Stephen Baxter has also claimed Stapledonian inspiration for his superb epic Evolution, published in 2003.

It is safe to say that nothing comparable with two monumental works will ever be written again. The fictional narrator of Star Maker constantly refers to his sense of utter inadequacy when it comes to describing the wonders he has experienced, and I can only admit to feeling exactly the same way in attempting to write about Last and First Men and Star Maker.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Cities in Flight, by James Blish

One of the founding fathers of the science fiction community, the UK-based American author James Blish is chiefly remembered for his short story collections based on Star Trek, a project that occupied him from 1967 up to his death from lung cancer in 1975, at the comparatively early age of 54. This is unfortunate because he was an excellent writer who won the 1959 Hugo Award for his thoughtful novel A Case of Conscience.

Blish’s most ambitious work, however, is Cities in Flight, which has been compared with the Foundation Trilogy. Though failing in execution to match Asimov’s masterwork, Cities in Flight is certainly comparable in scope, spanning nearly two millennia from the crucial discoveries that made interstellar travel practical in the year 2018 to the “Ginnunga-Gap” in 4004. The work is generally encountered in a single volume, but actually comprises four separate novels, which in order of the events they describe are They Shall Have Stars (aka Year 2018!), A Life for the Stars, Earthman, Come Home and A Clash of Cymbals (aka The Triumph of Time).
The first volume describes a near-future in which the Cold Peace has resulted in the bureaucratic regimes in Washington and Moscow becoming equally repressive.

Anticipating that the West will eventually be absorbed by the Soviets, an American senator, Bliss Wagoner promotes two crucial projects. The first is a practical space drive, the Dillon-Wagoner graviton polarity generator or “spindizzy”; the second is an anti-agathic or longevity drug. Wagoner flees to Jupiter V (Amalthea?) and organises the first interstellar expedition. He is later arrested and condemned to death, but dies knowing he has secured a future for mankind beyond the reaches of the bureaucratic state that will dominate Earth for centuries.

The second and third volumes are set over a millennium later. By now, the bureaucratic state is long gone and after a long-running struggle with an imperialism known as the Vegan Tyranny, Earth has become the Milky Way’s third great civilisation. We follow the career of New York City, which following the example of practically every major city on Earth has “gone Okie”, that is to say gone aloft to flee Earth’s economic slump and seek work on the planets settled by descendants of the expedition sponsored by Bliss Wagoner.

In effect a gigantic spindizzy-powered spaceship, New York is under the rather Machiavellian leadership of Mayor John Amalfi, though supreme authority is vested in a computer complex known as the City Fathers. A Life for the Stars describes how Chris De Ford is impressed aboard Scranton, Pennsylvania when that steel-town goes Okie, only to be offloaded on New York. There he does sufficiently well there to be appointed City Manager, though for reasons more to do with haphazard manner in which the work evolved, by the time of Earthman, Come Home, he has been shot by the City Fathers.

Earthman sees the first appearance of De Ford’s replacement, Mark Hazelton, whose endless shenanigans cause Amalfi no end of grief. New York is caught up in interstellar wars, tangles with “bindlestiffs” (bandit cities), faces bankruptcy when the galactic Germanium Standard collapses, and thwarts an attempt by the Vegans to destroy Earth. There are continual run-ins with Earth’s and local police forces. Finally, she is forced to leave the galaxy proper and settle on a planet in the Greater Magellanic Cloud, where a struggle follows with another “bindlestiff” city known as the Interstellar Master Traders.

In the final volume, A Clash of Cymbals, Earth’s interstellar empire has been conquered by a new imperialism, the Web of Hercules. New York is permanently grounded on the planet now known as New Earth, with only Amalfi nostalgic for the old space-faring days. Then comes news that the entire Universe will be annihilated in just three years time….

In Norse mythology, the Ginnunga-gap was, in the words of H.R. Ellis Davidson, “a great emptiness which was nevertheless pregnant with the potential power of creation”. Blish manages to capture the essence of this notion with astonishing power. The date of the catastrophe, 4004 AD, is a reference to Archbishop Ussher’s calculated date of 4004 BC for the Creation.

Though an immensely satisfying space opera, Cities in Flight suffers from the rather piecemeal fashion in which it was put together. The core volume of the work, Earthman, is itself comprised of four novellas spliced together – Okie, Bindlestiff, Sargasso Sea of Lost Cities, and Earthman, Come Home, and was the first to be written. Blish then added a prequel, They Shall Have Stars, then A Clash of Symbols and finally Blish backtracked to write A Life for the Stars, which is aimed primarily at younger readers. He admits this leads to a lack of economy in the work, but there are also some inconsistencies. The timescales in Earthman do not match the chronology of the work as a whole and the conquest of Vega is described therein as nothing more than a police action. Only later is it revealed as a full scale interstellar war involving Wagoner’s colonists and the first wave of Okies to leave Earth. Another unfortunate consequence is that the work’s best character, Chris De Ford, appears in only one volume. It would have been very interesting to follow the relationship between this likeable young man and the ruthless Amalfi in subsequent adventures, but by this time Blish seems to have tired of the project.

The plotting is sometimes unconvincing, and in particular the analogy with the migrant workers (“Okies”) of the Great Depression is at times rather strained. The Okies need anti-agathics (which cannot be synthesised and must be harvested), germanium (for trade), oil (raw material for synthesising foodstuffs), and “power metals” (uranium?). They are required by law to earn these materials by honest endeavour, which is fair enough if they want to mine or harvest an inhabited planet or system, but what is wrong with obtaining them from planets which are not inhabited?

One of Cities in Flight’s strongest points is the use of anti-agathics to keep the same characters alive through action that spans centuries, enabling character-development of a kind impossible in the Foundation Trilogy, where the strictly-mortal cast constantly changes. But the characters, though strongly drawn, are mostly unlikeable. Only the teenage De Ford and his mentor Frad Haskins are likely to evoke any reader sympathy.

Cities in Flight has been described as influenced by Spengler’s cyclical view of civilisation, but these ideas strike me as being peripheral to the story line.

An interesting feature of Cities in Flight is that it goes into the theory behind the spindizzy in some detail, even quoting “Blackett-Dirac equations” describing a relationship between rotation, gravity and magnetism. Though the equations are fictitious, the British astronomer Paul Blackett did speculate that a relationship between rotation and magnetism might actually exist, in an attempt to explain how large electrically neutral bodies like the Earth, the Sun and Jupiter possess magnetic fields. Others speculated that the relationship might extent to gravity. The theory was eventually abandoned when other means were found of explaining the phenomenon, but not before Blish had picked up on the idea.

Its quirks and limitations notwithstanding, it is a fact that Cities in Flight has remained in print for well over forty years. This in itself marks it out as one of the greatest of all science-fiction works.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Captain Hornblower in Space: Naval Warfare and Science Fiction

Some years ago came across a personal website whose owner had listed his favourite works of science fiction and had included the Hornblower novels. He had stated that he was quite serious in classifying the adventures of C.S. Forester’s inestimable hero as science fiction.

In fact difference between stories about Nelson’s navy and some science fiction is not as great as you might imagine. The adventures of Horatio Hornblower heavily involve a technology that is not, at the current time, in use by mankind. They differ from science fiction only in that the technology they involve has been superseded; as opposed to yet to be invented.

Consider huge fighting machines, the most powerful fighting machines in the world. Constructed of wood and powered by the wind, they sail the oceans of the world. They can operate alone, or in great fleets. They can be at sea for literally years at a time, never touching port, being re-provisioned from tenders. It does begin to sound a bit like a science fiction story, set on a world a couple of centuries behind present-day Earth.

Of course, these stories are not science fiction, they are based firmly on historical fact. But it would be interesting to see how much science fiction they have inspired. The late Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, was inspired in part by the Hornblower novels – one Next Generation episode features a Federation starship named the USS Sutherland, in honour of the 74 gun ship-of-the-line skippered by Hornblower in one of his many run-ins with the French. And when – many years ago now, of course – Star Trek premiered on BBC Television, the Radio Times very aptly introduced Captain James T. Kirk as a “space-going Captain Hornblower” .

Naval warfare in the days of sail might have also at least partly inspired an ingenious series of novels by the late Bob Shaw. The “Ragged Astronaut” trilogy envisaged a war between the humanoid inhabitants of two planets so close together that their atmospheres touched. Though technologically about as advanced as the Earth of Napoleonic times, the Landers and Overlanders were able to constrict a fleet of “wooden spaceships” which fought in the gravitationally neutral plane between the twin planets (Shaw got round the scientific implausibility of such a planetary system by setting the series in a parallel universe where different laws of physics and mathematics applied – for example the mathematical constant pi was exactly three).

Naval warfare has made its mark on science fiction in other ways. How often, for example, is the term “battlecruiser” encountered in novels and movies dealing with space warfare? “Battlecruiser” conjures up a vision of a fast, powerful warship. It somehow sounds more impressive than a battleship, the latter suggestive of a sturdy but lumbering battlewagon. Up to and during World War I, this was in fact a fairly accurate picture, and even admirals were seduced by battleship-sized warships, mounting comparable firepower, but capable of much greater speed.

The battlecruiser was the brainchild of the remarkable Admiral Sir John Fisher, who revolutionised warship design in the early years of the last century. At that time cruisers and battleships were large warships of roughly equal size: however battleships possessed heavily-armoured hulls and were armed with a mixture of high and medium calibre guns; cruisers by contrast were lightly armoured and had only medium-calibre guns – but they were considerably faster. In an era before radar and aircraft, they acted as the “eyes” of a battle-group, and were fast enough to run away from anything they couldn’t fight.

Many years ago, I explained this to a friend over a few beers and he asked me what would happen if you put a high-calibre armament into a fast, lightly armoured ship. “You’d have a battlecruiser”, I said. In fact it isn’t quite as simple as that. In 1906 Fisher came up with the idea of an “all-big-gun” warship. HMS Dreadnought dispensed with secondary armament and used Parsons turbines rather than reciprocating engines as prime movers. She displaced no more than any other battleship of the time but she was significantly faster and had more than twice the fire-power of any other ship afloat.

HMS Invincible was a spinoff from this design – she was even faster, comparably armed (actually she dropped a couple of 12-inch guns) but her hull was only lightly armoured. Adm. Fisher believed that her speed would keep her out of trouble. The press dubbed the new ship a “battleship-cruiser” and later (because it was somewhat easier on the tongue) a “battlecruiser”.

Battlecruisers scored an early success. The outbreak of hostilities in 1914 found a powerful German battle group in the South Atlantic under the command of Admiral Maximillian von Spee, who was flying his flag in the heavy cruiser SMS Scharnhorst (not to be confused with the later battleship of that name). On 1 November 1914, von Spee’s fleet annihilated a British force at Coronel off the coast of Chile. The cruisers HMS Monmouth and HMS Good Hope were sunk with all hands and only the light cruiser HMS Glasgow and an auxilliary vessel escaped the rout.

Not for the last time, a British military debacle in the South Atlantic led to a swift counterstroke, and two Invincible-class battlecruisers under the command of Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee were dispatched on a mission of retribution. On 8 December 1914 the two fleets clashed off the Falkland Islands and Scharnhorst and her sister ship Gneisenau proved to be no match for the British battlecruisers, which could both outrun them and outgun them. The tables were turned, and although von Spee’s ships put up a courageous fight, only the light cruiser SMS Dresden (temporarily) escaped destruction. Despite the best efforts of the British to rescue survivors, 1871 German sailors lost their lives, including Admiral von Spee and his two sons. British casualties were just ten men killed and 19 wounded.

But the battlecruiser’s light hull armour was to prove its Achilles heel. The British lost three spectacularly at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, leading Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty to memorably complain that “there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”. The truth was that battlecruisers were simply not capable of slugging it out on an equal basis with battleships and Fisher’s contention that “speed is armour” proved to be tragically naive. Sadly, the lessons of Jutland weren’t properly learned and in 1941, HMS Hood, one of the largest and most powerful ships in the world, suffered the same fate while engaging the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait. Only three men survived.

By this time, advances in naval technology had made the type obsolete and battleships capable of thirty knots were being built, including the magnificent Iowa class, which saw active service with the US Navy as late as the 1990s.

Battleships and aircraft carriers are the largest moveable fighting machines ever constructed, and the temptation to envisage space-going equivalents has proved irresistible to many a SF writer. I myself made use of it (and many other concepts) in my unpublished novel The War in Time’s River. Though this work never found a buyer, I was rather flattered that many of its ideas were subsequently used in the highly-acclaimed SF drama series Babylon 5, though (to the best of my knowledge) nobody involved with the series ever saw a draft of my story.

© Christopher Seddon 2008