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 They differ from science fiction only in that the technology they involve has been superseded; as opposed to yet to be invented.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

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Fascist Pigs in Space?

Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein & The Forever War (1974) by Joe W. Haldeman

Written fifteen years apart, either side of the Vietnam War, these two award-winning novels both follow the adventures of infantrymen in an interstellar war as Earth fights for her survival against an implacable alien foe. But the two works could not be more different.

Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, filmed ten years ago, describes a society set some centuries in the future where only those who satisfactorily complete a minimum two-year term of Federal Service are eligible to vote. The story is narrated by trooper Johnny Rico and follows his progress from enlistment, through training at Camp Arthur Currie (named for the Canadian WW1 general) and subsequent officer training, to his eventual command of a platoon. During his training, war breaks out between Earth and an arthropod life form known as the Bugs. Earth is raided and Buenos Aires is destroyed.

Starship Troopers is not a fast-paced action adventure, but if you have any interest in politics, sociology and social issues, then irrespective of your views, then this controversial book is compulsive reading.

Throughout the novel, Rico frequently recalls the words of his History and Moral Philosophy teachers, Lt-Col. Dubois and Major Reid, and through these recollections, we learn something of how the society in which he lives came into existence, and of the political philosophy which underlies it. In the later years of the Twentieth Century, law and order began to break down all over the world. People dared not venture into public places such as parks after dark. To do so was to risk attack by wolf-packs of delinquent children, armed to the teeth with chains, knives and even home-made firearms. Drug-addiction, vandalism, burglary and violent crime had become commonplace. Even school grounds and buildings provided no refuge from the mayhem. These details sounds particularly jarring now. Remember, Heinlein was writing almost half a century ago.

The 1987 war in which the USA, the Soviet Union and the UK joined forces against the Chinese Hegemony provided the catalyst that led to the birth of the Terran Federation. The Treaty of New Delhi brought about an end to the fighting, but it ignored prisoners of war, with the result that over one hundred thousand British POWS were not released. Many eventually escaped and made their way home, only to find they had no jobs to go to. With national governments collapsing, disaffected war veterans moved in to fill the power vacuum. The first actual take-over occurred in Aberdeen, where a group of veterans got together to form a vigilante committee to stop rioting and looting. They hanged a few people, including two veterans, and decided not to allow anybody but veterans to serve on their committee.

Within a couple of generations, what had started as an emergency measure had become constitutional practice. The franchise is restricted to those who have done their Federal Service because only they, through voluntary and difficult service, have proved that they place the welfare of the group above personal advantage.
In one lecture on the late Twentieth Century, Colonel Dubois gives us an insight into the philosophy that now informs the political life of the Federation. Just as a dog should be beaten in order to house train it, so should juvenile offenders be flogged to teach them right from wrong. He rails on about social workers, the lenient treatment dished out to juvenile offenders, and how do-gooders saw to it that corporal punishment in schools was outlawed. “I do not understand objections to cruel and unusual punishment”, he muses. “Man has no moral instinct”, he states. He claims that a human being has no natural rights of any nature and finally goes on to take a swipe at the “unalienable rights” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Predictably, Heinlein has been accused of glorifying war and his Terran Federation described as fascist or at best a society along the lines of Plato’s Republic. While Starship Troopers is first and foremost a science fiction novel, is it also a political manifesto? Does it reflect the views of its author?, or is it a “dystopia” along the lines of Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four or Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day, to take three of the best examples of this sub-genre.

Novels about dystopic societies generally feature a disaffected lead character and some sort of mind control, be it the Thought Police of Nineteen Eighty-four or the tranquillising drugs of Levin’s novel. But Heinlein’s society is free of the latter. The freedom of speech is guaranteed. Johnny Rico, while not entirely uncritical of the society in which he lives, can hardly be described as a dissident and portrays it in a largely positive light.

In all matters other than the franchise, non-citizens, such as Rico’s own parents, enjoy equal status with citizens. Rico’s parents, for example, are well off. Though corporal and capital punishment are available to the judiciary, they are rarely necessary, as crime rates are low.

Federal Service itself is comparatively enlightened. Nobody has to join a fighting service, even in time of war (Heinlein strongly opposed conscription). You can quit at any time (even prior to going into combat!) and lose nothing except the possibility of earning your franchise (there are no second chances – fair enough). Even deserters are not actively pursued (though why anybody deserts in preference to resigning is not made clear).

The novel tries to justify war and emphasise the honourable traditions of the fighting services. But it does not glorify war as such.

The novel is clearly in favour of the society it describes, though whether Heinlein himself was remains an open question.

The problem with Heinlein’s vision of the society of the Terran Federation is that it is idealistic and romanticised. The reality I fear would be very different. To illustrate the point, I have no doubt it would have been possible around 1930 to have written a novel painting a very attractive picture of life under a National Socialist government.

Messrs. Dubois and Reid would probably disagree, but the assertion that Man has no moral instincts is utter nonsense. “Moral instinct” is that instinct which goes beyond the needs of the self, in other words altruism. Dubois implies that altruism is the product of an advanced human society: purely something that man has invented. But this is not the case. Though the subject of altruism in the (non-human) animal kingdom is a complex subject, beyond the scope of this article, biologists do not doubt that it exists.

Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 movie is a straightforward action film that bears very little resemblance to Heinlein’s novel. The Terran Federation is portrayed as being openly fascist, with military officers wearing Nazi-style uniforms. Whether this is intended as a satire on militarism or even a attack on the book’s original values is not clear, but as Verhoeven allegedly failed to even finish reading it, the latter is unlikely.

Starship Troopers is on the reading lists of the US Army, Navy and Marine Corps.

In contrast to Starship Troopers, The Forever War is a strongly anti-war polemic. Drawing on Haldeman’s experiences in the Vietnam War, it follows the progress of trooper William Mandella from his conscription in 1996 to the birth of his son in 3143, during which time he has aged less than a decade due to the effects of relativity. The war is seen through Mandella’s jaundiced eyes in the dry conversational style that is Haldeman’s trademark.

Discovered in 1985, the collapsar jump has made interstellar travel possible via a network of black holes, the nearest of which, Stargate, is conveniently located half a light year from Earth. But when a colonising vessel is destroyed in the vicinity of Aldebaran, blame falls on an enigmatic alien race known as the Taurans. Colonial ships are henceforth accompanied by warships, and indeed the latter are frequently sent out alone. Finally, it is decided to garrison the “portal planets” of the nearer collapsars, and an elite group of infantry, chosen for their physical and intellectual prowess, are conscripted and sent off to engage the Taurans in ground action.

The only way Mandella and his lover Marygay Potter can get back to Earth is at the end of a combat tour – but because the effects of relativity, while they will only age a couple of years, decades or even centuries could have passed on Earth. By the time Mandella returns to Earth, it has become so alien that he and Marygay both re-enlist. There are two versions of the mid-section of The Forever War, describing Mandella’s brief stay on Earth. The original was rejected as being too downbeat, but it has been re-instated in the recently released “author’s cut” version of the novel.

Haldeman’s conception of army life in the late Twentieth Century is percipient inasmuch that he anticipates women fighting alongside men, but the institutionalised “free love”, where troopers are paired off by rota each night, now seems very dated. Haldeman has also been accused of homophobia in describing a society in which homosexuality is encouraged to cut down the birth rate, and the uneasiness felt by the few remaining heterosexuals. But the novel should be viewed in the context of the time it was written and not be berated by “political correctness” enthusiasts.

Haldeman set the novel’s beginning in the late Twentieth Century to allow officers and NCOs in the book to be Vietnam veterans; he admits “most people realise we didn’t get into an interstellar war in 1996” and even in the 1970s the time scale seemed rather implausible.

Haldeman finally bowed to public pressure to write a sequel to The Forever War, entitled Forever Free, though sadly it failed to live up to the original.

Starship Troopers and The Forever War are products of very different times. Starship Troopers has been described as a “cold war paranoia” novel but although the anti-communist line isn’t entirely absent, this novel isn’t about the Cold War; it is more inspired by America’s role in World War II. While few will dispute that this was a just conflict, fewer still will not agree that Vietnam was – prior to the Iraq War – the greatest foreign policy disaster in US history. After World War II, America’s fighting men were feted as heroes; by contrast those who served their country with equal courage in Vietnam (including Haldeman) were treated as an embarrassment. It is hardly surprising that while Heinlein’s novel is idealistic, Haldeman’s is cynical, highlighting the stupidity and utter futility of war.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

Late on Tuesday, I had just finished posting an entry on this blog (a science-fiction story, ironically) and as I often do, I took a last look for the day at the BBC website where I learned that Sir Arthur C. Clarke had died at the age of 90.

As a life-long SF enthusiast, I was familiar with Clarke’s short stories long before I was familiar with him by name. At the age of ten, much of the science fiction in the children’s section of the local library was in the form of multi-author anthologies and the first work by Clarke that I read would have been either Breaking Strain or Hide and Seek (I think they both featured in the same volume).

Breaking Strain is one of the best character-driven short stories ever written – a space freighter is struck by a small meteorite, which causes most of its oxygen supply to be lost into space. Enough oxygen remains to last the two-man crew 20 days – but the ship is still 30 days from its destination. However one doesn’t have to be Einstein to realise that the oxygen could last one man for 40 days…

Here was surely a superb opportunity for a movie in the vein of Lifeboat or Strongroom, but sadly when a film version appeared in the 1990s it was dire: Grant and McNeill (the original crew, whose first names we never learned) were joined by four other shipmates (including the obligatory hot chick), who waste very little time in starting to kill each other. This is in complete contrast to the original in which Grant and McNeill are portrayed as two men of sound if contrasting character, who are gradually driven to extremities by their situation.

The movie’s title was changed to Trapped in Space – something more appropriate for an episode of Thunderbirds.

I recall reading Hide and Seek while my father looked round a house we subsequently moved to. Presumably we had gone via the library: it was more or less standard procedure on a Saturday morning. In this story, the one man crew of a scout-ship takes refuge on the Martian moon of Phobos and manages to elude a pursuing warship until reinforcements arrive.

By 14 I’d graduated to the adult section of the library and duly encountered Arthur C. Clarke’s novels – by the end of 1971 I must have read most of them. Three that stood out for me were Against the Fall of Night (I didn’t come across the expanded version, The City and the Stars, until later – like Clarke himself I have never been able to make up my mind which version I prefer), Childhood’s End and of course 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Strangely enough I did not see 2001 when it came out and in an era before DVDs or even VHS I had to wait until its second cinematic release in the late 1970s. So for many years I was only familiar with the novel version.

The following is a piece I posted on my personal website back in 2000 in an attempt to promote my own rather more modest career as a science fiction writer (square [] brackets denote my later comments):

In just a few months from now, the best-known date in science fiction history (along with 1984) will be upon us.

2001 is undoubtedly Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s best-known work, if not quite his best. The novel cannot really be separated from the late Stanley Kubrick’s landmark film, as the two were written in conjunction. The book version is not a “novellization” of the movie, nor is the movie version the “film of the book”. It says much for the genius of both Clarke and Kubrick that the two versions stand on a par – you cannot really say that one is better than the other, and they are both classics in their own medium.

2001 is based upon a 1948 short story, The Sentinel, which appears in the collection Expedition to Earth (which additionally features the Hitchcock-esque classic Breaking Strain, another childhood favourite of mine, Hide and Seek and the cautionary tale Superiority) [I added these remarks to try and sell Expedition to Earth and other SF books from my site via Amazon, but I don’t think anybody even read the review let alone used the Amazon hyperlinks]. The Sentinel tells of a crystal pyramid (rather than the familiar monolith) found on the moon. It takes 20 years to find a means of breaking through the force-field that surrounds it, and the artefact is destroyed in the process. The narrator speculates that it has been left on the moon in prehistoric times to await the arrival of man, patiently signalling that nobody has found it. Once found and put out of action, it will alert its creators to the fact that man has mastered the secret of space travel.

2001 begins four million years ago, with the appearance of a monolith on Earth which stimulates the development of a group of primitive pre-human hominids (Australopithecus?). The sight of it, the Sun and a crescent moon will be a recurring theme in the movie. The hominids are starving to death in the midst of plenty, with no inkling that the herds of pigs roaming unsuspectingly close by represent a very convenient source of food. The monolith changes that and in a dramatic example of conceptual breakthrough, a hominid visualises how an animal bone can be used to kill the pigs.

The animal bone can be used for killing things other than pigs. The opening scene of the movie ends dramatically when the hominid leader uses it to club to death the leader of a rival group, thus giving the latter the highly dubious honour of becoming the first ever casualty of a war. Unaware of the unfortunate trend he has just started, the hominid leader triumphantly hurls the bone up into the air. It circles round and is replaced by the image of an orbital satellite. The serene “dance of the machines” and its Blue Danube accompaniment contrasts sharply with the brutality of the previous scene [and with the 11 September terrorist attacks, which in our universe at least, was the event for which the year 2001 will be chiefly remembered].

2001 was not the first science fiction movie to use classical music [as opposed to a dedicated score], but none before or since has done so a tenth as effectively.

There is a minor but amusing difference between the two versions at this point. In the movie, we see Floyd’s space shuttle has to spin on its central axis in order to dock with the wheel-like space station; in the book the docking section of the wheel does not rotate and the shuttle is able to dock without it and its occupants being “whirled disastrously around”, as Clarke puts it!

After an interlude aboard a space station that is a masterpiece of ‘Sixties interior decor, Floyd’s journey to the moon resumes aboard an Aries-1B moon shuttle; after landing at Clavius Base he is conveyed by surface transport to Tycho, where the Monolith awaits. As he and his colleagues contemplate the enigmatic ebony-black slab that has been identified by its anomalous magnetic signature, their helmet radios are filled with a piercing burst of sound. It’s not a malfunction – the radios are picking up a signal emitted by the Monolith as the Sun shines on it for the first time in three million years. We see again the mystical alignment of monolith, Sun and a crescent Earth (replacing the crescent moon seen earlier). Unfortunately, the scene is a howler in more ways than one – just minutes earlier, we saw Floyd’s surface transport skimming across a lunar landscape lit by a gibbous Earth!

Both versions now switch to the USS Discovery, en route for Jupiter. But where as in the film the king of the planets is the final destination, in the novel the ship does not stop there but uses the principle of “gravity assist” to speed her passage to her final destination – Saturn. This is exactly the same techniques used just a few years later by NASA to send Pioneer 10 and the two Voyager probes to Saturn. The events aboard the Discovery as HAL turns against David Bowman and Frank Poole are too well known to be worth recounting her. But while in the movie HAL refuses to let David Bowman back aboard the ship with the famous, almost apologetic “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”, in the novel, the maverick computer simply opens the hangar – which does avoid the obvious question as to why Bowman left his helmet behind in the first place.

The movie version is, however, truer to one of Clarke’s pet ideas, that of an astronaut trying to cross between two spacecraft without a spacesuit. Clarke first explores the idea in Earthlight, when the Earth liner Pegasus goes to the aid of the stricken Federation warship Acheron and manages to take off most of her 120-strong crew, despite there being a grand total of five spacesuits aboard – a humanitarian action that shames the two warring sides into signing a peace treaty. The idea crops up again in Take a Deep Breath, one of a series of linked stories set aboard a space station and originally written for the Evening Standard in 1957, when four men have to be rescued from a compartment that has come loose from the rest of the station.

In their very different but equally effective ways, the novel and movie versions follow David Bowman’s mind-boggling jouney through the Stargate (located in orbit around Jupiter in the movie, but on the surface of the Saturnian moon of Japetus in the novel), where he is transformed into a higher but child-like lifeform, capable of returning to Earth in literally no time at all.

The idea of a higher but child-like lifeform is another recurring Clarke theme – in Childhood’s End, mankind is reborn as part of the Overmind with the assistance of the Overlords, a race of satanic-looking beings who are actually benign “cosmic midwives”. And in Against the Fall of Night/The City and the Stars, the restless Alvin encounters Vanamonde, a creature of pure mentality that is still millions of years away from maturity.

It is a simple but very effective tribute to Clarke’s genius that his unique writing style more than compensates for the absence of the movie’s breathtaking visual effects. As for the movie, it is still stunning after over three decades, with the real 2001 just around the corner.

Perhaps it would have been better if things had been left with the Star Child contemplating the planet Earth, but even Sir Arthur C. Clarke is only human and the temptation to write a sequel must have been overwhelming. As a reader, I have to confess I couldn’t get hold of a copy of 2010: Odyssey Two fast enough. It, 2061: Odyssey Three and 3001: The Final Odyssey are all extremely readable (as one would expect from Clarke), all contain fascinating ideas of which the most interesting are the ill-fated Chinese landing on Europa and the discovery of life there, an asteroid-sized diamond left over from the destruction of Jupiter and a very believable account of life at the dawn of the Fourth Millennium.

Eight years after I wrote this piece it is probably worth pointing out that Clarke and Kubrick were also responsible for the pronunciation of 21st Century years – Two Thousand and One rather than Twenty Oh One. The latter would have been consistent with the way years were pronounced in the last century, thus 1999 was pronounced Nineteen Ninety-Nine: only legal documents would have written it as Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Nine. At some stage we will probably revert to the previous convention, I suspect no later than 2066 if only because the most famous date in English history has always been pronounced Ten Sixty-Six and not One Thousand and Sixty-Six, though I’m unlikely to be around to find out .

Until the 1970s Arthur C. Clarke’s stories regularly featured faster than light travel, which according to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is impossible. To quote Clarke’s First Law: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

In one of his non-fiction works, Clarke took a swipe at the Principle of Equivalence, which states that there is no way to tell the difference between a gravity field and the effects of acceleration. Clarke claimed that this must be incorrect because a gravity field obeys the Inverse Square Law (the field weakens as the square of the distance) whereas the effects of acceleration is uniform. Therefore “there might be a hole through which we can push our trans-photic [faster than light] ship”. Arthur C. Clarke was a far better physicist than I am (he gained a First from King’s College, London whereas I only managed a 2.2 from the same institution), so I assume this remark was tongue-in-cheek as even I can see the flaw in this argument.

Clarke remained a prolific writer during the 1970s but it is interesting that his writing then underwent a paradigm shift in that he rejected the possibility of faster than light travel and it did not feature in any of his subsequent stories.

The flood of thought-provoking ideas continued unabated however. Imperial Earth – set 300 years in the future – featured a particularly cool gadget called a Mini Sec which was basically what we’d now call a PDA. At the time, I wanted one but didn’t expect to be able to own one in my life time. In fact, I only had to wait ten years before the first PDA – the Psion Organizer – had made its appearance. However the Mini Sec was based on the then cutting-edge pocket calculator: Clarke failed to anticipate the touch-sensitive screen. He also predicted that the chord-keyboard featured in the late 1980s Microwriter AgendA would come into standard usage, but it never really took off.

Clarke’s more successful predictions include mobile phones and communication satellites (though he anticipated that they would need to be manned) and to this day the geostationary orbit is named the Clarke Orbit. The space elevator remains unrealised, but its time will come.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke has said that he would prefer to be remembered as a writer and it thus that he will be largely remembered. However he was much more than just a science fiction writer and it is certainly safe to say that if he had never written a single work of science fiction, he would still have been a household name.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

The Face of Noah

In the cramped confines of Pathfinder One, Lycurgus Burrell was ready to become the first man in space. For the first time he noticed the fresh tang of his own sweat. He was uncomfortably aware that he was sitting on top of enough kerosene and liquid oxygen to blow him all the way to the Moon. Once again he found himself staring out through the tiny window in front of him, which showed nothing but bright blue skies.

Outside, tinny loudspeakers proclaimed the countdown to be into the last three minutes and urged clearance of the launch area. In a short while, he’d see the inky blackness of space. In less than half an hour, he’d see the Moon go rushing past at three and a half miles per second.
An hour from now – assuming he wasn’t dead – he’d be back on the ground. This was the culmination of a quarter of a century, during which he had been labelled variously as a visionary, a heretic – and a fool pure and simple.

And even he didn’t know which was right…

Like a misshapen blood-orange, the Moon shot up above the western horizon. In less than a minute, its hue had faded to a leaden off-white. Lycurgus Burrell stared absent-mindedly at the shadows of the nearby line of trees, marching in step with the Moon’s rapid progress across the heavens. Then the light dimmed, briefly attenuated as the Moon passed behind the sinister plume rising above Mount Erebus.

He could still faintly hear pop music and smell wood-smoke from the campsite, half a mile away.

“An archaeological dig led by a mad middle-aged hippie!” he said disgustedly. “What am I doing here?” But the disgust was directed at himself, and the question purely rhetorical.
Lycurgus stared up at the almost-full Moon. The enigmatic Face of Noah was well placed for observation, on the Moon’s eastern limb. Astronomers claimed there had once been a time when the whole of the feature could clearly be seen from Tellus, but changes in the Moon’s orbit were gradually carrying it out of view.

Why had it given rise to a Biblical story? Presumably because of a coincidental likeness to a human face. The idea that men had been to the Moon in Biblical times and carved the feature there was too ludicrous for words.

Dr. Auerbach wanted to go to the Moon for real in the here and now and he, Lycurgus Burrell, could have been a part of that quest. But he’d blown it big time.

“What a bloody mess!” he said aloud.

“Gus? Is that you?” said a voice behind him. It was that of Olwen Rees – the mad hippie herself.

Mildly curious, he turned round. “Professor?”

The tall square-jawed archaeologist favoured him with a sympathetic smile. The quartz crystal she wore as a pendant glinted in the moonlight. Doubtless news of his disastrous move for Catrina was all over the camp by now. Had she come looking for him? It was an oddly appealing thought, but the backpack she was wearing suggested some other agenda.

“Not partying?” she enquired.

“I’m not in a party mood,” Lycurgus admitted. “You’re going somewhere,” he ventured.

“This modern pop’s hardly my scene,” Olwen said.

“Are you planning on getting so far away from the music you need a backpack, Professor?” Lycurgus persisted.

Olwen shrugged. “Dr. Potter’s called me on the R/T. He reckons Erebus is about to blow its top. There’ll be accompanying quakes and the works. The quake that opened the fissure was only a prelude.”

“When’s this going to happen?”

“Any time within the next three days. Potter’s getting his team out at first light and he strongly suggested we pull out too.”

Lycurgus felt a glimmer of hope. “What are we going to do?”

“I’m taking Potter’s advice.”

Praise be, Lycurgus thought. Now he could go home and put this humiliating experience behind him. Maybe he could take up that placement with the NLIS after all.

“Why couldn’t the bloody thing have waited another week?” Olwen bemoaned. “A few days at the site, just a few poxy days! That’s all we’d have needed.”

The backpack!

“Professor, if this is true, I don’t think going to the site on your own is a particularly good idea.”

“I’ve about eight hours before sunrise and it’s only another couple of hours walk to the site. That’ll give me four hours at the site – it’s better than nothing.”

“Are you crazy?” Lycurgus exclaimed.

“Gus, three days from now at most the Novacastra Diggings will have gone forever, and with it any chance to investigate what Potter’s team claim they saw.”

“They’ve got photographs, haven’t they?” Lycurgus was surprised how keen he was to dissuade her from going.

But Olwen was unimpressed. “Potter and his team are geologists, not archaeologists. They wouldn’t have a clue what to photograph. We can safely assume that anything they have got will be of little value.”

Lycurgus found himself offering to accompany Olwen.

“T minus one minute,” Robert Auerbach announced over the radio.

Burrell recalled the Catrina episode with wry amusement and the benefit of twenty-five years of hindsight. Even for a young man of 21 he had been spectacularly naive.
He’d always got on very well with Catrina, but assuming that her split with her boyfriend had left the way open for him had been unwarranted: her reply to his declaration of love entirely predictable.

“Switching over to internal power now,” said Auerbach.

Burrell sighed.

Catrina had never seen him as anything but a friend. To rub salt in the wounds she’d claimed she’d now become involved with somebody else.

As a second year Engineering student, he should have realised the folly of turning down Auerbach’s offer of a summer placement with the New London Interplanetary Society. He’d done so in order to join Catrina on the hastily assembled archaeological expedition. But his decisions at that time were generally testosterone-led. Come to think of it, would he have accompanied Olwen Rees that night if he hadn’t fancied her?

Auerbach continued to intone the final stages of pre-flight liturgy. “T minus thirty seconds and counting. Vehicle is now on internal power. Umbilicals disconnected.”

Not long to go now. Burrell’s heart began pound. He drew a deep breath. “Here we go,” he muttered. The countdown entered its final stage.

“- Ten – Nine – Eight – Seven – Six – Engine sequence commence – Five – Four – Three -” Auerbach intoned.

A distant rumble that grew to a thunderous roar.

“- Two – One – Zero. All engines running. Lift-off – we have lift-off.”

“The clock is running,” Burrell called.

“Lift-off of Pathfinder One at thirty-two minutes past the hour –“

“Spacecraft systems all go,” Burrell reported.

He felt a terrible jarring motion, throwing him from side to side.

“Tower clear!” Auerbach announced.

The spacecraft rose in a fury of sound. Now Burrell felt a mounting pressure on his chest. Forty seconds after lift-off, the shuddering began to smooth out as Pathfinder One broke through the sound barrier. But the weight on his chest climbed remorselessly. His arms and legs felt like lead. The accelerometer read three gravities and continued to creep upwards.

“Lift-off AOK,” Auerbach said reassuringly. “Pathfinder One, you’re looking good.”

Lycurgus and Olwen picked their way across the moonlit ruin of what had until a few days ago been a prosperous vineyard. The heavy smell of sulphur hung in the air.
Ahead of them the ground was riven as if by a gigantic meat-cleaver.

“That must be the fissure,” Olwen said, excitement evident in her voice.

Olwen shone her torch down into the blackness. The fissure seemed to slope down reasonably gently.

“How deep is it?” Lycurgus cast an anxious glance at Mount Erebus. An ominous red glow could be seen at the summit.

“According to Potter, about 75 feet. The fissure is two miles long, 30 feet across at the widest point.”

They started down, picking their way cautiously over the uneven ground.

“Do you think these remains really could be a thousand years older than Novacastra?” Lycurgus asked.

“Potter thinks so, based on geological evidence. Of course he couldn’t comment from an archaeological perspective.”

Olwen broke off as a rumble sounded from above. The ground trembled slightly.

“Uh-oh,” Lycurgus said nervously.

Olwen was unperturbed. “According to Potter, it’s been like this ever since the initial quake – the one that opened this fissure. It’s when Erebus starts ejecting molten material that we need to worry.”

“I hope he’s right.”

Lycurgus made no further comment as they continued on downwards, and presently they were at the bottom.

“It’s only about another quarter of a mile,” Olwen said, picking out the way ahead with her torch and striding confidently on.

Lycurgus followed, looking up at the narrow crack of starlit sky above. Erebus emitted another ominous rumble. As they continued, the fissure gradually widened, then after about five minutes, Olwen’s torch picked out an almost buried house front.

“That is it!” she said triumphantly.

Together they stared into what looked like the front reception room of a small house. Traces of carpet were still visible on the floor, together with what might have been the remains of tables and chairs.

“Oh!” Lycurgus exclaimed as the torch beam fell upon a mummified human body.

“She seems to have collapsed and died while attempting to flee the building,” Olwen said.

“She?” Lycurgus said doubtfully.

“These are the remains of a woman,” Olwen said, a trifle testily. Surely you can see that!”

Lycurgus, whose lack of familiarity with the female form was a source of embarrassment to him – especially now – stammered “She must have been almost six feet tall.”

“So? I’m 5ft11 myself.”

“Yes, but in the Classical Era I thought even men were only around 5ft6 on average.”

“Gus, this woman isn’t from the Classical Era,” Olwen said, stepping through what had been the front door of the house. “Come on, if Potter’s correct you are in for another shock or two.”

“Are you sure it’s safe?” Lycurgus replied, but he followed Olwen anyway. She shone her torch along the hallway they had entered. Here and there, plaster had crumbled from the walls. “Professor, that’s –” he started.

“Breeze-block, yes. And no, they didn’t have that in the Classical Era either.”

They entered the front room. Olwen knelt down beside the mummified woman and began to examine her left wrist.

“Is that a bracelet she’s wearing?” Lycurgus enquired.

Olwen looked up. “No, Gus, it looks as if Potter was right about this too. She’s wearing a wrist-watch.”

“Dr. Potter told you about this?”

“Yes, hence my need to see it for myself, before it disappears under another 75 feet of pyroclastic flow,” Olwen said, rising to her feet.

“It’s clearly a hoax!” Lycurgus protested.

“No it’s not,” Olwen replied. She took off her backpack and brought out a camera and a flash-gun. “Unless you doubt Dr. Potter’s integrity. Nobody else but he and his team have been here since the fissure opened up nine days ago.”

“But how could there possibly have been a civilisation as advanced as ours five thousand years ago? And even if there were, how come we’ve found no trace of its elsewhere?”

Olwen began photographing the woman. “What we are seeing here,” she said, peering into the viewfinder of her camera, “is proof of my theory about the real origin of Mankind.”

Pathfinder One soared on upwards through the ever-thinning atmosphere. Eight gravities weighed down upon Burrell. He could hardly breathe, but he didn’t care.

The clock showed two minutes, fifteen seconds. Right on cue came a slight diminishing of the weight on his chest followed by a shudder, as the solid fuel boosters cut out and dropped off.

“Twenty seconds to sustainer shut-down,” announced Auerbach.

“Almost there,” Burrell breathed.

Another shudder as the escape tower was jettisoned, followed a few seconds later by the lifting of the crushing weight from his chest as the sustainer shut down. Now his stomach seemed to be heading for the top of the cabin as the craft went into free-fall, moving purely under its own momentum. There came a dull thud as posigrade rockets separated the capsule from the booster.

Through the capsule’s small rectangular window, the skies deepened from blue to indigo, then as the spacecraft exited the last fringes of atmosphere, it turned velvet black, and then the stars came out.

Pathfinder One exiting the atmosphere now,” he reported calmly.

“Confirm you are on course, Pathfinder One. Your time to the Moon is twenty-six minutes, forty seconds and counting,” said Auerbach.

Twenty-six minutes! He was going to make it!

“Tell me, Gus, what do you know about the Theory of Evolution?” Olwen said.

Shocked at the reference to one of the most notorious religious controversies in centuries, Lycurgus was silent for a moment.

“It resulted in Octavian Rees being accused of heresy 150 years ago and forced to recant; the last such case before the Tellurian Inquisition was disbanded,” he said eventually. “Wait a minute, Octavian Rees –“

“Yes – I am a direct descendant,” Olwen said. “But what do you know of the theory itself?”
Feeling decidedly uncomfortable, Lycurgus trawled through his childhood memories of Scripture lessons.

“Only that the theory is wrong,” he said.

“Why?”

Quoting reluctantly from Cardinal Cranfield’s Creationism, Lycurgus said, “Man clearly hasn’t evolved from any other life form on Tellus. Evolutionists point to fossils they claim are antecedent to animals living today as evidence for their theory – but they are unable to explain the complete absence from the so-called fossil record of creatures antecedent to Man. We should not be surprised, as the whole idea is absurd. How could something as complex as Man evolve by pure chance? Man has obviously been created by God.”

“It is difficult to believe that unscientific rubbish like Cranfield is still legally required reading in schools across the Tellurian Commonwealth,” Olwen said with a flash of anger. “Do you realise that radiometric methods have definitely established that Tellus has existed for at least two billion years, and probably much longer; and that life has certainly existed for hundreds of million years? Why would God wait all that time before creating Man, who has only been here for a few millennia?”

“I don’t know,” Lycurgus admitted, “but it doesn’t alter the fact that Man clearly didn’t evolve.”

“Man clearly didn’t evolve on Tellus,” Olwen said. “Neither, by the way, did any of our domestic animals – cattle, sheep, chickens, horses, cats, dogs, etc. But all other Tellurian life is consistent with the Theory of Evolution. The fossil record can only be explained in terms of gradual changes, occurring over millions of years. Now, Gus, what does that suggest to you?”

“That most animal life evolved first; then Man and the domestic animals were created by God later on?” Lycurgus suggested.

“Or that Man evolved somewhere else, on another planet, and only came to Tellus later – bringing his domestic animals with him.”

“Are you saying man originally came to Tellus in a spaceship?” Lycurgus shook his head.

“With all due respect, Professor, that sounds a bit far-fetched to me. Though probably no more so than the idea of carving the Face of Noah on the Moon in Biblical times.”

“Why,” Olwen retorted. “As you yourself have pointed out, liquid-fuelled rockets have already attained altitudes of several miles and there is no reason to suppose that manned spaceflight will not become a reality in our lifetimes.”

“But Professor,” Lycurgus said wearily, “there’s a bit of a difference between going to the planets and interstellar travel. The nearest solar system to our own is more than four light years away. And even if it were possible for our forbears to have travelled such a distance, what happened to this advanced civilisation and why have we found no trace of it elsewhere on Tellus?”

“These remains must be part of the original settlement established by the space travellers,” Olwen said, her face animated. “They hadn’t had time to expand beyond Novacastra before the settlement was destroyed by a major eruption. The survivors lapsed into barbarism before slowly climbing back up the long ladder to civilisation.”

“Even if so, surely some record would remain, if only as a legend. Or are you going to tell me the story of Noah’s Ark is the clue?”

“Not the Ark,” Olwen said. “Are you aware that there are two versions of the story of Noah? There’s the widely-known version that occurs in the Tellurian Authorised Bible in which Noah builds the Ark, of course, but the story of the carving of the Face actually comes from the older Orthodox Version in which Noah and his family take shelter on Mount Ararat and –-“

Olwen broke off as the loudest rumble yet sounded from Mount Erebus. The ground began trembling, but this time it did not die away.

“Professor, I think perhaps we should get out of here,” Lycurgus said.

“I think perhaps you might be right,” Olwen replied. Hastily, she packed away her camera.

They ran for it. Above, the night sky was streaked with red-hot ejecta from Mount Erebus. The tremors became worse, the sound a continual roll of thunder broken by the occasional whistling as particularly large bolides passed overhead.

After what seemed like an eternity, but was in fact no more than a few minutes, they were rushing up the slope, and presently they were back at ground level.

Lycurgus paused briefly to get his breath back and look back at Mount Erebus. The whole top of the mountain was glowing red, and smoke and flames were pouring fourth.

“We must keep going,” Olwen urged.

They resumed running. The sulphurous smell was overpowering, giving Lycurgus a constant urge to cough. The noise grew ever louder, even though they were running directly away from Erebus as fast as their legs could carry them. Despite being fifteen years older than he was, the long-legged Olwen Rees seemed to be rather fitter, Lycurgus noted ruefully.

Suddenly the skies were lit up, as if the Sun had risen directly behind them.

“Cover, we need cover!” Olwen shouted.

Lycurgus looked frantically round. “That hollow over there.”

“It’ll have to do.”

Three or four feet deep, the rectangular depression might well have been the remains of one of the early excavations of the site, a century earlier. They dropped down into it and threw themselves down on the ground. Lycurgus landed painfully on a rocky outcrop.

There was a scything roar that sounded as if the Gates of Hell themselves had opened – was this a manifestation of God’s displeasure? Lycurgus asked himself. A battering blast tore at him. The heat was stifling. He clung desperately to the outcrop as the merciless pummelling continued; but Olwen had nothing to hold on to. Lycurgus saw her hands claw desperately into the ground as she sought a handhold.

Now he felt as if the air was being sucked out of his lungs. Through a rising grey fog, he saw Olwen’s grip fail. She was swept away and hurled bodily out of the hollow.

Lycurgus lost consciousness.

He had regained consciousness in hospital. His survival had been little short of a miracle. A rescue helicopter had spotted Olwen and himself and airlifted them to hospital. He had been suffering from shock and gas inhalation but had been otherwise unharmed. Olwen had not been so lucky; the explosion had thrown her nearly hundred yards from the hollow and she had suffered massive internal injuries.

Rescuers had located Dr. Potter and his team, but they were already dead: killed by inhalation of poisonous gases from Erebus.

Three days after the explosion, Olwen Rees died without ever regaining consciousness, leaving Lycurgus Burrell as the only living witness to what had been so briefly revealed at Novacastra. There was no evidence to support his story – Olwen’s camera had been smashed when she had been swept out of the hollow; and Dr. Potter’s had never been found. Nobody had believed him – except for Robert Auerbach.

It had taken twenty-five years to build a spacecraft capable of making the trip, twenty-five frustrating years of shoestring budgets, a sceptical public and a deeply-hostile Church. Even then the trip would have been impossible had he not been able to persuade the now-elderly Auerbach to abandon his plans to land on the Moon and opt instead for a flyby with a spacecraft fired out of the atmosphere on a sub-orbital ballistic trajectory.

Now Pathfinder One and its middle-aged pilot were less than two minutes away from rendezvous with the Moon, a grey potato dominating his view, growing every second. He switched on the targeting grid and the cameras.

The Face of Noah was clearly visible, no longer foreshortened by its proximity to the Moon’s hidden side. Only Burrell was having difficulty seeing any resemblance to a human face.
For the first time he felt a pang of doubt.

“Mission Control, it’s negative so far. You’re going to have to get me closer. I want a trajectory that will get me to within ten miles.”

“Pathfinder One, I don’t have to remind you that that’s extremely dangerous.”

“So’s being fired into space in a tin can. I’ll need the correction burn at close approach minus one minute.”

“Lycurgus, you’ll have to accept the facts. Professor Rees was wrong – the Face of Noah is clearly a natural feature.”

“Robert, I never told you what Olwen Rees said just before the explosion and what I think she was about to tell me – you’d have thought I was completely mad. It’s not only the Face. Now get me closer or I’ll do it myself.”

“Very well.”

As Pathfinder One approached the peak of its trajectory, so the whole of the Face was finally revealed to Burrell. Now he could clearly see that it was a perfectly normal crater whose resemblance to a human face was vague at best.

The cabin shuddered as the thrusters fired. The Moon’s rate of approach increased. Desperately Burrell scanned for surface installations; for evidence that would support the theory – but there was none. Was the whole thing nonsense – had he flown to the Moon on a fool’s errand? And was he going to get himself killed to boot? For it was beginning to look as if Auerbach had miscalculated and the burn had put Pathfinder One on a collision course.
He held his breath as the Moon came barrelling towards him… then he was soaring up above the lunar equator. He’d missed by no more than a couple of miles. The far side of the Moon, unseen from Tellus for thousands of years, came into view.

Then he saw it.

“Mission Control, I can see two identically-sized perfectly circular holes set into a large rectangular block. I think this is the evidence.”

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure but the cameras will clinch it. I’m nearing peak altitude now – Oh MY GOD!”

“What is it?” Auerbach said anxiously.

Picked out in lights on the Moon’s surface, still burning after thousands of years, were the words:
U.S.S. Ararat: 2260 A.D.
Per Ardua ad Astra

“Come in Pathfinder One. Lycurgus are you OK?” Auerbach called insistently.

“I’m fine, Robert. I’ve seen the conclusive proof. Olwen Rees was right. The clue is in the old Orthodox Version of the Bible and the story of Noah in which God hollowed out Mount Ararat to provide a floating haven for Noah, his family and the animals. But it was Man who hollowed out Ararat, which must have been an asteroid in his original home system.”

“Are you saying the Moon is some kind of spaceship?” Auerbach said incredulously.

“Yes! It was fitted with engines – and turned into a gigantic spaceship to carry Mankind to Tellus.”

“But what sort of power could move something that size through space?”

“I don’t know,” Burrell admitted. “But some scientists believe that enormous amounts of energy could be liberated by splitting atoms. Maybe our forbears mastered the technique.”
The Moon was receding, and Pathfinder One was beginning its long fall back to Tellus. The voyage through space would have taken generations, maybe even centuries, and employed techniques that Man was only now beginning to rediscover.

Pathfinder One, we have confirmed your new trajectory and revised point of landfall,” Auerbach said. “Recovery crews advised accordingly.”

He had to go back to the Moon, this time to land, explore and learn its secrets. With the evidence now at his disposal, the New London Interplanetary Society should have no problems in obtaining funding and even the Church might drop its opposition.

A sense of triumph and purpose filled Burrell as Pathfinder One approached the outer fringes of Tellus’s atmosphere, and he braced himself for the rigours of re-entry.

© Christopher Seddon 2002, 2008

"Articles" – a short story

As he followed the sullen guard from the elevator into a dimly lit rocky corridor, Falvar began to fear “protective custody” would turn out be “summary execution”. From the slight but perceptible increase in pseudo-gravity, he deduced that they were a couple of hundred feet below the Realm’s inner surface, which meant they must be in the detention centre’s maximum-security wing. Unused in all the decades since leaving Earth’s orbit, it has been the subject of innumerable popular rumours over the years, one of which was doing nothing to ease Falvar’s nerves.

The guard stopped outside a forbidding door of ribbed steel. He pointed a remote at the door, keyed a security code, and it slid open.

“In there,” he said coldly, speaking for the first time since they’d left the surface. He favoured the deposed Director with a frosty glare.

Falvar entered the narrow cell. It was reasonably well appointed, with two facing bench-seats/bunks and a table carved out of the solid rock, but there was dankness about it that the air conditioning could not entirely dispel. Of more interest to Falvar, though, was his cellmate. Sitting on one of bench-seats was Xeras.

She did not rise to greet him, but looked up, a resolute expression on her face.

“Hello Director.”

“You do realise they’re probably getting ready to space us both as we speak.”

“Director, you don’t seriously believe that old myth about the cells down here doubling as air-locks, do you?”

Despite everything that had happened in the last three days, Falvar found Xeras’s familiar assertive voice as reassuring as ever.

“You’ll forgive me if I’m a little jittery,” he said. “I’ve just been “rescued” – if that is the right word – from a lynch mob. You and me aren’t exactly the two most popular people on the Realm.”

“Which is why we are both down here – for our own safety. There are still sixty feet of rock below us, to say nothing of the ice shield. Believe me, if they wanted to quietly tip us out into space, they wouldn’t put us down here.”

There were doubtless other means by which they could be conveniently disposed of, but Falvar did not pursue the matter. He settled himself on the seat facing Xeras.

“We’re down here because you disobeyed a direct order to disarm your nuclear device and return to the Realm,” he said, aware as he said it how ineffectual it sounded.

“You were no longer in a position to give orders, sir,” Xeras replied firmly. “The only authority operative was that vested in me by the Articles, and I acted accordingly.”

“The Articles!” Falvar exploded. “What in God’s name does devastating a planet have to do with the Articles? You’ve wiped out the avisaurs out along with everything else.”

Grimly he recalled the latest probe images from the planet, broadcast over the Realm’s news channel that morning, the third day after the impact.

The planet was still ablaze from pole to pole. Already, billions of tons of soot, together with ejecta from the impact itself were turning the skies black. Soon the once-inviting world would be plunged into a winter that would last for two years, though the destruction of the ozone layer and acid rain would render it uninhabitable for at least a century.

An hour after the broadcast, a mob had attacked Falvar’s residence, where he had been held under house arrest since Theox’s revolution.

Xeras rose to her feet and from a locker in one corner of the cell she produced her palmtop computer, which she had been allowed to retain.

“Allow me to explain, sir. There’s something we missed, something absolutely crucial…”

Looking up, Director Falvar saw not the comforting familiarity of the Realm’s cities, fields, forests and rivers – instead there was a strange blue void, apparently forming a vast bowl over his head, punctuated only by fluffy white and grey amorphous shapes. He tried to keep his breathing normal. He did not want to let his agoraphobia show.

“The holosims can never really prepare you for this, sir,” Xeras said. The note of sympathy in the young Science Officer’s voice made it clear she’d had no difficulty in reading Falvar’s body language. Equally clear was that she was quite unperturbed by the scene, despite it also being her first trip down to the surface.

Rather shamefacedly, Falvar did take a deep breath and tried to take full stock of his surroundings. The elevated heath on which the shuttle had landed sloped gently away from him, meeting a large lake at its foot, about a mile away. On the far side of the lake was a forest which stretched away to what he knew was the “horizon”. But on the near shore was something that would have added to his unease – a mile distant or not – had he not swiftly recognised the great long-necked sauropod as a species definitely identified as vegetarian in dietary habit. His nervous system must have been running a second or two ahead of his thought processes; his heart started pounding.

The blue coloration of the “sky”(that was the word, wasn’t it?) was an optical effect caused by scattering of light from the planet’s primary, the still-blinding yellow disc low in the west that he had been so strongly advised to avoid looking at. He could feel its warmth on his face: in fact he was now beginning to feel uncomfortably hot. Or was it the psychological effect of being this close to a star – something that Falvar was used to thinking of as a remote point of light.

He became uncomfortably aware that he was a tiny speck of organic matter standing on the outside of a solid body, with only the force of gravity stopping both the atmosphere and himself from flying away into space… he felt a renewed rush of agoraphobia. Involuntarily, he closed his eyes. He tried to take a hold of himself. He took a deep breath and told himself that his people had evolved and lived on Earth, and that Earth was – or at least had been – a planet just like the one upon which he was now standing. But he felt no immediate urge to open his eyes again.
Temporarily deprived of vision, he became aware of the clamour of other senses – the constant chatter of the planet’s primitive, toothed birds, the distant roar of a creature somewhere down in the forest. He felt a gentle, cooling breeze on his face and became aware that the combination of it and the star’s warmth was infinitely more pleasant than the effect of the great daylight lamps strung along the Realm’s central axis. He took another deep breath. The air was fresh – it was indescribably different from the sterile, recycled atmosphere of the Realm.

He reopened his eyes, feeling much better. Yes, this was a beautiful world. The sort of world Earth had been once, many centuries ago, if the records were to be believed. Just the sort of world the Falandrafar Foundation had intended them to settle. But, if Xeras was right, there was one detail that was going to be a problem. And God only knew how they were going to get round it.

“How long do we have?” he asked.

“To make our rendezvous with the comet, we need to leave here within twelve hours,” replied Xeras. “There’s only an hour to sunset, we have plenty of time.”

“Let’s deploy the ground-effect vehicle,” said Xeras.

Night was falling as the ground-effect vehicle hummed across the surface of the lake. The sauropod Falvar had seen earlier had gone; he was not sure whether he was disappointed or not at being unable to see the great beast at close quarters, herbivore or not. In the west a brilliant object was visible. For a moment Falvar thought it must be the comet, then he realised it would still be a morning object from this hemisphere. It must be the next planet inwards from this one he could see, a virtual twin in size, but utterly inhospitable. Rising in the east Falvar could see the planet’s solitary moon rising. It was not quite full and even with the naked eye he could make out considerable detail on its surface.

“Unremarkable,” said Xeras. “Much smaller than Earth’s moon, and indeed similar moons we’ve seen in other systems. As far as we can tell, they are all formed in the same way, coalescing out of ejecta from collisions between their primaries and large primordial bodies.”

“Still an impressive sight, though,” said Falvar.

“We’re almost there, sir,” said Xeras, checking the vehicle’s GPS. A constellation of twelve navigation satellites had been placed in orbit around the planet; it had eliminated the need to leave marker beacons at sites of interest. Xeras switched the vehicle to silent running mode. Its engine hum sank to a whisper, but it lost height and was now suspended only a few inches above the water.

Falvar stared at the leafy shore. “I don’t see anything.”

“The creatures are small, sir,” said Xeras. “And they won’t become active until after dark.”

“While we are waiting, perhaps you could summarise what your team has found,” said Falvar. “In layman’s terms, please – I feel I might have missed some of the detail in your reports.”

“Very well, sir,” said Xeras, “First of all I must point out that the bulk of the data has by necessity come from the robot surface probes that are still exploring the planet. However my team has found nothing that conflicts with the probe data. The planet’s biosphere is remarkably like that of Earth. Life is DNA-based, there are three domains – anaerobic bacteria, which probably evolved first: normal bacteria: and eukaryotic forms broadly split up into protozoa, plants, fungi and animals. We’ve identified around 30 animal phyla, including chordates and arthropods –“

“I said in layman’s terms,” protested Falvar.

“What I mean is we are seeing that local life forms are similar at the most fundamental levels to those that lived on Earth,” said Xeras. “One consequence of this is that all the proteins, sugars, vitamins, etc. that we require for sustenance can be obtained from animal and vegetable sources, either by extraction or – in most cases – by direct assimilation.”

“In other words the food is edible,” said Falvar.

“I believe that is what I said, sir.”

The trouble was she probably did. “Continue,” Falvar grunted.

“Very good sir,” said Xeras. “We have been able to show, with a high degree of confidence, that although there are several classes of bacteriological and viral organisms that are harmful to us, there are none that are resistant to standard antibiotic and immunisation techniques.”

They could eat the food and there were no harmful diseases they couldn’t cope with. Coupled with the favourable geological reports and that the sun would be good for at least a billion years, the planet was ideal for their purposes, but for that one bloody thing – unless there was some kind of get-out.

“The final consequence,” continued Xeras, “is we can predict the future course of evolution on this planet with considerable accuracy. Great changes will occur among the land-living vertebrates within the next five million years –“

She broke off, reached for a pair of dark-vision binoculars and trained them on the shore. She must have heard something move on the shore – the light was now too dim to see anything with the unaided eye.

“Can you see anything?” said Falvar.

“I heard something, sir,” said Xeras. She swept the binoculars slightly from side to side. “Yes, there they are. Out a little sooner than last time.”

Falvar picked up a second set of binoculars. “Lead me in,” he said.

“Yes sir,” Xeras said, activating the short-range direction sender on her binoculars.

A red targeting grid appeared in the bottom left corner of the view field in Falvar’s binoculars. He swung them round until the grid was centred. A few dim trees and that was it.

“I don’t see anything,” he snapped.

“The gain, sir,” said Xeras evenly.

Hell! He really was doing a good job of making himself look like a complete idiot on this trip. He turned up the gain on the binoculars’ light intensifier and zoomed in. There! Scurrying around were three small, feathered bipedal animals.

“Tell me about these creatures,” he said.

“They represent a class of vertebrate intermediate in form between reptiles and birds. The group evolved fairly recently from archosaur stock and is not yet widespread. We’ve called them the avisaurs, or bird-lizards. They are warm blooded, like birds and several archosaur species. But here the feature has evolved to accommodate the energy requirements of a comparatively large brain, not to sustain powered flight. The brain in turn has evolved in response to the need to survive by it rather than brawn in a world dominated by archosaurs – and it has an important consequence.”

Falvar took a deep breath. “You are seriously expecting me to believe that these little creatures will go on to develop a civilisation?” he said.

“Not exactly, sir,” said Xeras. “What is happening on this planet is a long term drop in global temperatures. This is being caused by continental movements and their effects on weather systems, and will result in the planet being subject to periodic ice ages.”

“Like the ones that are supposed to have occurred in prehistory back home, before The Warming?” said Falvar.

“Yes, sir,” said Xeras. “Our forbears lived through them, as will these small warm-bloods here, as will the archosaurs. But our projections show that each ice age will progressively weaken the grip of the archosaurs, and descendants of the little avisaurs you see here will fill each evolutionary niche as it falls vacant. Eventually – about seventy-five million years from now – this will appear.”

Xeras produced a palm-top showing a computer-generated image of a feathered biped. The creature was humanoid, but did not look in the least bit human. The prominent bony crest on its forehead was the most obvious difference, but it differed also in numerous other more minor ways.

“How intelligent are these creatures – or how intelligent will they be?” said Falvar.

“As intelligent as we are, sir,” said Xeras. “There is no doubt they will achieve a global civilisation.”

“Assuming they evolve at all.”

“All five Projection Programs predict that they will, with mean confidence of ninety-five percent,” said Xeras solemnly. “You know what that means, sir.”

Yes, Falvar knew what it meant. He had known since he’d read Xeras’s reports, but he’d needed to make certain for himself.

“I’ve seen enough,” he said. “We have a comet to deflect.”

The cometary nucleus was close now, its mottled bulk filling the entire viewing-screen. The dust tail was visible only as a white glow off to one side. A fainter blue glow marked the ion tail. Falvar could make out surface features resembling small craters and mountains. Suddenly, a luminous fog filled the screen, through which the surface could only be seen dimly.

He watched as Xeras activated the smaller graphical display on the screen. Their trajectory was fine; their velocity relative to the comet was now less than eighty miles per hour.

“Three minutes to optimum release point,” said Xeras.

The comet’s nucleus measured roughly eight miles by five: not enormous by cometary standards, but more than large enough for their purposes – assuming they did go on… what was he thinking of? Of course they were going on, there was no way they could stay and his only motives for insisting on hitching a ride to see for himself was to delay the inevitable decision he knew he must make. It was the only decision he could make under the Articles, but was it the right decision? Theox, of course, would not think so.

Two minutes to go.

The Chief Councillor had recently thrown his weight behind the campaign to abolish the Articles and replace them with a written Constitution vesting supreme authority in a democratically elected civilian government, rather than the Director.

You can’t run a spaceship by committee – not even one as big as the Realm. But the issues addressed by the Articles went way beyond the running of a spaceship – they addressed the whole future of the human race and its role in the universe. Surely such matters should be considered and evaluated by the whole of that race… who was he, or the long-dead Falandrafar for that matter, to say that ordinary people were not to be entrusted with such matters? I do solemnly swear to uphold the Articles of the Realm so help me God. Fifteen words that guaranteed a lifetime of unswerving devotion to the Articles from every cadet inducted into the Crew.

“The psychological tests provided for in the Articles ensure that only people of a certain mindset were accepted for cadet training. People who fit readily into what is a military caste in all but name.”

So Theox had said in one of his recent speeches. But the Chief Councillor was wrong, because here he was – Falvar, Director of the Realm – having serious doubts about what he was doing. Or was Theox wrong? Falvar intended to do as the Articles decreed anyway.

Only one minute to go now.

There was little to do; the release was automatic and the device was programmed to carry out its mission without human guidance. Outside, little could be seen through the nacreous glow of the comet’s inner coma – the nucleus was already extremely active, despite still being ten days from perihelion.

There was a gentle shudder as the device left its cradle. Simultaneously, Falvar felt the firm grip of the restraining fields on his body and the shuttle went to full acceleration, pushing him back into his seat. Presently the brighter stars began to shine through fast-thinning fog as the shuttle cleared the comet’s inner coma. He saw Xeras checking the telemetry from the device.

“All systems nominal. Chemical motor has successfully killed residual velocity relative to comet,” she reported.

Two minutes passed. Outside, the last wisps of gas were flying past. The comet’s brilliant dust tail, still greatly foreshortened, came into view along with the fainter blue ion tail. Xeras set the main viewer to departure angle, back along the way they’d come. Another minute passed with interminable slowness. Supposing the device failed to have the desired effect? It was sheer luck a suitable comet had been so close to perihelion – if anything went wrong, they’d have to wait months if not years for another opportunity.

Sheer good luck… or sheer bad luck? Stop thinking like that, he told himself furiously. A blinding white glare filled the screen. At a distance of three miles from the surface of the nucleus, the device had irradiated around a third of the surface with hard gamma rays. The comet appeared to develop a third tail, tangential to the other two, as over a billion tons of water methane and ammonia ices were converted instantly to superheated gas.

There was a danger that the rocket-like thrust so imparted would shatter the nucleus, but so far all looked well as radar images confirmed it was still intact, albeit erupting furiously in a dozen places on the shocked surface.

The shuttle was comfortably outrunning the expanding gas cloud, which had increased the luminosity of the comet by several magnitudes. It must be a spectacular sight now from the third planet. Of course, if all had gone according to plan, in a few weeks time it was going to become considerably more spectacular. It would swing by at just fifty thousand miles, using the planet as a gravity brake to place it in a near-circular orbit around the sun, permitting its desperately needed resources to be mined at leisure.

“It looks like the deflection has been a success,” said Xeras. “Though we did err on the side of caution, and my guess is we’ll have to fine-tune the trajectory with a second device just before the comet approaches the third planet in twenty-three days time.”

“Take us back to the Realm,” said Falvar.

As he waited for Theox to arrive, Falvar stared up through the glass-domed roof of his private office in the Realm’s Control Centre. The daylight lamps were approaching full strength, flooding the Realm with their golden glow. There were still a few of the original inhabitants of the Realm left alive. Now, for the first time, he could truly appreciate what it must have been like to watch a sunrise on Earth – a proper sunrise, not the switching on of a glorified light bulb.

At forty-eight, Falvar was still just about young enough to have hope that a suitable planet might be found in his lifetime.

But Theox was one of those original voyagers, and at his age there was no such hope.
The telephone on his desk chimed. It was his secretary, announcing the arrival of Theox. “Show him in,” he said and rose to greet the elderly politician, whose face was set in an angry glare. There’s been a leak, Falvar thought. That’s all we need. “Thank you for coming to see me, Chief Councillor,” he said a little lamely.

“Let’s not waste time on pleasantries, Falvar,” Theox growled. “We both know why I’m here. I have it on good authority that a comet has been diverted into a suitable orbit for us to mine it. Why would we do that if we didn’t need to refurbish the Realm’s ice shield, so we can continue the voyage?”

“We’ve found life-forms on the planet that will almost certainly evolve into intelligent beings,” said Falvar defensively.

“Allegedly.”

“All five of the Projection Programs give the same answer, with a mean confidence far greater than that specified by the Articles.”

“Very well,” said Theox, “let’s assume for the sake of argument that the results are valid. You are saying that we are going to turn our backs on the first planet we’ve found completely suitable for colonisation because of some avisaurs that will become intelligent millions of years from now?”

Falvar made a mental note to carpet Security Chief Naxxy as soon as the meeting was over.
“Article 1 is quite unequivocal on the matter,” he said.

“Seventy-five million years in the future?” said Theox, his voice rising. “Do you seriously think we should be thinking so far ahead? We are an intelligent species existing now.”

“The Articles –” began Falvar.

“To hell with the Articles!” stormed Theox. “You know perfectly well they are an irrelevant doctrine, compiled by humans long dead, who furthermore knew perfectly well that they would never have to live with the possible consequences.”

Falvar was silent for a moment, struggling to keep heretical thoughts at bay. “Do you seriously think that Falandrafar spent thirty years setting up the Foundation and getting the construction of the Realm started, then devised the Articles as an act of spite because he knew he’d be dead long before it reached its destination?”

Theox must have sensed his doubt and appeared visibly less angry. “I think you’ve got to accept that he was under tremendous pressure throughout all those years, and that he was terminally ill when he drew up the Articles might have clouded his judgement.”

“Nobody wants to leave this world behind,” Falvar said. “But we have no choice.”

“Wrong,” said Theox, with a return to his aggressive manner. “You have no choice. The Crew have no choice. But I never swore to uphold your precious Articles and neither did the vast majority of the people on this Realm.”

“What are you saying?”

“I suppose it has occurred to you that as the Crew are outnumbered about a thousand to one by the civilian population, if enough civilians felt strongly enough about it, there’s not a lot you could do to force us to continue the voyage. Especially as the Articles prohibit the Crew from bearing arms.”

“Is that a threat, Chief Councillor?”

“No, Director, merely an observation.”

The Primary Control Room was bustling with activity as Xeras’ shuttle made its final approach to the comet, but Falvar, seated beside First Officer Cephella on the command dais, had little to do but stare up at the display cluster. The large main monitor was displaying images of the comet. Smaller monitors were still showing probe images from the third planet, but nobody was paying them any attention. He had heard, though, that Xeras had been taking data feeds from the surface probes throughout her two-day journey to intercept the comet.

Maybe Theox had been planning a revolution, but had been unable to drum up the necessary support. The daily demonstrations outside the Control Centre had been growing steadily smaller for the last week. It wasn’t that surprising, really. Ninety percent of the population had been born on the Realm; probably a significant number of those found the prospect of adapting to a wholly new way of life daunting, even if they wouldn’t admit it. Notably few of the few remaining protestors were under fifty.

Or was there something he’d missed? There was something about that exchange with Theox. It wasn’t just an observation; it hadn’t sounded like an idle threat either.

Falvar tried to tell himself he was being paranoid. Or was he secretly hoping a revolution would let him off the hook?

The comet was getting close now, but the release point was still some minutes away. Xeras signalled that she had fired her retro-rockets to kill the shuttle’s residual relative motion with respect to the comet.

The nuclear device, much lower in yield to the one detonated twenty-three days earlier, would fine-adjust the comet’s trajectory, so it would make a close approach to the planet, travelling against the direction of its orbital motion. The effect would be the reverse of a gravity assist – a gravity break. Success was vital. Without the comet, the voyage could not be continued. It would be months, if not years before another suitable comet could be located. Which just might give Theox the time he needed to organise a revolt.

Falvar became aware of a commotion behind him, but nobody on the command dais moved or spoke. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Security Chief Naxxy. He looked round. About a dozen of Naxxy’s men were fanning out across the Control Room.

“What the hell is going on?” he barked at Cephella.

The First Officer looked him straight in the eye. “Recall Xeras, Director. Order her to disarm the nuclear device and return here immediately.”

“What?”

“Recall Xeras, Director. It’s over. I’m relieving you of command.”

Falvar rose to his feet. “On what authority?”

“Mine, Director,” said a voice behind Falvar.

He spun round to see Theox standing behind the command dais.

“Pending free elections, the Realm is now under a provisional civilian government headed up by myself,” Theox continued calmly. “The Articles have been suspended and Crew functions will from now on be under the command of Cephella.”

Falvar stared round the Control Room, now liberally sprinkled with security men. It was obvious that only a minority of the Crew had joined the mutiny, but nobody looked willing to actively oppose it either. He could now quite reasonably surrender responsibility for abandoning the planet. He felt a guilty – and short-lived sense of relief.

Because he did still have one option.

“Suppose I refuse to order Xeras to abort the comet-deflection mission? You need to stop the mission, don’t you? Because if you don’t, your revolution might fail.”

“You are perfectly correct,” replied Theox, “but Xeras’ mission will fail anyway if you don’t order her to abort. Her nuclear device is booby-trapped. If she attempts to launch it, it will detonate immediately.”

“You’re bluffing.”

Theox looked Falvar in the eye. “Are you prepared to take a chance, Director?”

“This is nothing short of terrorism,” stormed Falvar.

“I greatly respect the principles behind the Articles, but I have to think of the million people we’ve got here on the Realm. We will do what we can for the avisaurs – perhaps our distant descendants will share the planet with another intelligent species.”

Wearily, Falvar resumed his seat and looked over to Cephella. “Patch me through to Xeras.”

“A word of advice, Falvar,” said Theox. “Don’t try warning Xeras. She’s foolish enough to think it’s a bluff too.”

“You have contact, Director,” said Cephella.

The fuzzy image of Xeras appeared, somewhat degraded by increasing interference from the comet’s ion tail. A delay of few seconds followed, due to the distance between the shuttle and the Realm, then radio crackled into life.

“Director?”

“Forget the honorifics, Xeras, it’s plain Falvar from now on. Theox has staged a revolution. The mission is aborted. Disarm your nuclear device and return to the Realm.”

Another pause followed. Then:

“I regret, sir, that I am unable to comply.”

Falvar felt an irrational flash of anger. Was everybody going to mutiny today? “Dammit, Xeras, I’m giving you a direct order. Disarm your nuclear device and return to the Realm!”

Falvar waited for a reply, but there was none. The display cluster blanked out. He stared at Cephella.

“Nothing to do with us, sir, she’s broken contact.” The voice was urgent, the “sir” probably a subconscious lapse. “But I’m still getting telemetry. She’s launched the device.”

“The bomb…” started Falvar. The words died on his lips. Obviously there was no bomb.

Theox shrugged. “You were correct, Falvar, it was a bluff. We considered it, but none of our supporters among the Crew wanted to know.”

Falvar ignored him. “Surely she’s not at the release point yet?”

“She isn’t… Astronomy now confirm detonation.”

“Where’s that damned comet going to end up if the device went off early?” said Theox nervously.

“We’ll know in a few minutes, Councillor,” said Cephella. “I’ll put the projections up on the screen.”

Once again, the display cluster came back to life, this time with a series of graphics representing the shifting trajectory of the comet and the orbit of the planet. The plot lines stabilised. Falvar was still trying to interpret the display when he heard Cephella gasp in horror…

“You do know that the probes on the planet were still returning data. Since nobody else was interested, I had it fed to me on the shuttle. Look at this.”

Falvar took the proffered palm-top from Xeras. “Mice?” he exclaimed, staring at the image of the small furry mammals displayed.

“No, sir,” said Xeras, “these creatures are primitive insectivores. Like the avisaurs, they are shy and nocturnal – and a lot smaller and even more elusive. Which is why they were missed at first. Like the avisaurs, they have evolved comparatively large brains, for basically the same reasons. But there is one important difference. These mammals will survive the impact winter – they will simply hibernate through it. The world they will wake up to won’t be pleasant – but they’ll be the largest living things in it.”

“Are you saying that a race of intelligent beings will arise from these creatures?” said Falvar.

Xeras took back the palmtop, tapped at its screen with a stylus and handed it over once more. In place of the insectivores was a computer-generated image of two bipeds standing side by side. The left-hand biped was far more passably human than the projection Xeras had shown Falvar down on the now-devastated planet, the one difference being that it had neither feathers nor scales. But the one on the right showed some differences. It was smaller, more rounded at the hips and two protuberances were present on the upper torso. These, combined with its smooth skin, gave it a weirdly sensual appearance.

“The one on the right is female,” Xeras said.

Falvar tried to suppress his almost sexual reaction to the female’s appearance. “The one on the right is smaller,” he said.

“Sexual dimorphism,” said Xeras, which left Falvar none the wiser. “The female is also wider around the hips to accommodate the birth canal – like all mammals, she gives birth to live offspring, rather than laying eggs. She also has two milk-producing organs on her upper torso. Other than that, these creatures, which will probably evolve in around sixty-five million years from now, are remarkably similar to humans. A classic example of convergent evolution, I would say.”

“But that still doesn’t alter the fact that you’ve violated the Articles – the impact’s left the way clear for these creatures rather than the avisaurs.”

“No sir. We were wrong about the avisaurs – the mammals would have supplanted both them and the archosaurs regardless. But without the impact it would have taken much longer. All I’ve done is speed things up by a few million years.”

Falvar looked at the graphical image again. “Give them scales like us and I’d be convinced they were human.”

“They are human, sir, or will be,” said Xeras.

“How so?” said Falvar. “They are, after all, alien beings. They are not of Earth. They aren’t even reptiles.”

“”Human”. “Earth”. Did you realize that both terms are derived from words meaning “topsoil”? That is so for every culture in our history, implying a harmony between the land and the people which I like to think we never entirely lost, despite the mess we eventually made of Earth.”

“So?”

“As with different cultures on our homeworld, so with different races on different planets. We’ll never know, of course, but I’d be surprised if these creatures do not come to think of themselves as human, and that planet down there as Earth.”

© Christopher Seddon 2001, 2008

The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham (1951)

Science Fiction does not often make an appearance on the school curriculum, but The Day of the Triffids is one work that has been required reading for generations of pupils. I first encountered the book nearly forty years ago, in fact just months after the death of its author at the comparatively early age of 66. At school, I must confess, my enthusiasm for Wuthering Heights, Return of the Native and I Claudius was (shamefully!) less than these great works warranted. But The Day of the Triffids was unputdownable. Instead of reading the two chapters set for homework that evening, I read the entire book!

It is reasonable to say that I could have been presented with many other works of science fiction and devoured them with equal gusto. Few of these would be regarded as great works of SF, let alone English Literature. But no other book has ever appealed to two more differing arbiters of what constitutes a good read, myself at the age of fourteen and those seemingly determined to stuff down pupils’ throats the dullest books imaginable.

So why is a somewhat dated science fiction novel, written from a seemingly rather prim post-war middle class perspective, still popular now – almost half a century after it was written?

Read the first few pages and you will see why. There is something for everybody, from the most inattentive schoolboy to the stodgiest academic. The first line is one of the finest opening sentences to any book ever written, SF or otherwise….

When a day you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

Tension mounts immediately as we sense that the hospitalised narrator, not named until the tenth page as Bill Masen, is helpless. Realisation is slow to come that he is blind – at least temporarily so. His eyes are bandaged following emergency treatment to save his sight. And his plight is nightmarish. Not just the hospital, but the world outside, has apparently ceased to function. Nothing can be heard – not a car, not even a distant tugboat. Nothing but church clocks, with varying degrees of accuracy, announcing first eight o’clock, then quarter-past, then nine…
We learn that the previous night, the whole Earth had been treated to a magnificent display of green meteors, believed at first to be comet debris. Masen is bitterly disappointed at being one of the few people to miss the display. He wonders has the whole hospital, the whole of London made such a night of it that nobody has yet pulled round. Eventually, he takes off the bandages, which were in any case due to come off, by himself. He is greatly relieved to find that he can see – he soon finds out that is one of the few people left who can.

The hospital has been transformed into a Doréan nightmare of blinded patients milling helplessly around. The only doctor Masen encounters hurls himself from a fifth floor window after finding his telephone is dead. After giving only cursory consideration to trying to help the blinded, he flees the hospital. What, he rationalises, would he do if he did succeed in leading them outside? It is already becoming apparent that the scale of the disaster extends way beyond the hospital. He makes for the nearest pub, desperately in need of a drink. But this is a nightmare from which there is no escape. The pub landlord is also blind, to say nothing of blind drunk. He blames the meteor shower for his condition. He says that having discovered their children were also blinded, his wife gassed them and herself, and he intends to join them once he is drunk enough.
Anybody who describes this as “cosy catastrophism” really needs to re-read just this first chapter to be firmly disabused of the notion.

At a single stroke, mankind’s complex civilisation has been brought down, all but a tiny handful of the world’s population blinded. Nor is this the extent of humanity’s troubles. Within hours, triffids have broken out of captivity and are running amok, and within a week London is smitten by plague. Only near the end of the book do we learn that mankind, in all probability, brought this triple-whammy down upon himself.

The Day of the Triffids is set in the near future, although no date is given. Masen, who is apparently an only child, is in his late twenties when the story begins and his father had reached adulthood before the war. The catastrophe, that turns out to have been caused by a satellite weapon having been accidentally set off in space rather than close to the ground, probably occurs around 1980.

Masen lives in a world in which food shortages are the biggest challenge to mankind. The triffid, a mobile carnivorous plant equipped with a lethal sting, is being farmed world-wide as a source of vegetable oil and cattle-food. Originally bred in secret in the Soviet Union, they are distributed world-wide when an attempt to steal a case of fertile triffid seeds backfires. Masen himself is making a successful career in the triffid business and is hospitalised when one stings him in the eyes – thus it is the triffids who are responsible for his escaping the almost universal blindness.

The story follows the adventures of Masen and fellow-survivor Josella Playton and explores the differing attempts of various groups to deal with the catastrophe. Some want to somehow cling on to a vestige of the social and moral status quo, others see the situation as an opportunity for personal advancement. The well-meaning but ultimately hopeless attempts of Wilfred Coker to keep as many blind people alive for as long as possible end in failure within a week when the plague strikes. Miss Durrant’s attempt to build a Christian community fares little better, and it too succumbs to the plague. The dictator Torrence tries to set up a feudal state, using the blind as slave labour, fed upon mashed triffid.

From the start, though, Masen and Ms. Playton take the same view as Michael Beadley, the avuncular leader of a group of survivors holed up in Senate House. Nothing can be done for the vast majority of the blind – mankind’s best hope for the future is to set up a community of largely sighted survivors, in a place of comparative safety.

Thus Wyndham explores from different angles the question of how ordinary people face up to the task of trying to run a small community, something that is quite challenging under even normal circumstances, with everybody seemingly having different views on how things should be done.

Coker’s shenanigans see to it that many adventures must pass before Masen and Ms. Playton eventually link up with Beadley’s group, by now ensconced on a triffid-free Isle of Wight.

The Day of the Triffids has been likened to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four for both its cold-war extrapolations and its gloomy perspective of misery for evermore. But this view is wrong on both counts. Wyndham’s remarks about the Soviet Union could have been written by almost any author between the end of the war and the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev. And despite the magnitude of the disaster to have overtaken mankind, the tone of The Day of the Triffids is an optimistic one. Its recurring message is that a portion of mankind has been spared to begin again, and the human race has in fact escaped the even worse fate that was becoming increasingly inevitable in a world threatened by both global nuclear war and mass starvation. The triffids’ possession of the world will be a temporary thing, and in the last paragraph of the book, Wyndham suggests that research into ways to destroy them is well underway. Within two or three generations at most, mankind will be in a position to strike back and reclaim all he has lost.

It is perhaps the upbeat endings and veneer of British middle-class values, a constant feature of Wyndham’s work, which fools people into labelling him with the “cosy catastrophe” tag. In fact, there is much more to his work than met even my enthusiastic eye when, in the Autumn of 1969, I first encountered an author I still count as one of my great favourites.

The Day of the Triffids was made into a truly appalling Hollywood movie, starring country and western singer Howard Keel (1963), and a superior BBC television series (1981). Simon Clark wrote a sequel, The Night of the Triffids, in 2001. My personal feeling is that another movie version is long overdue.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Nightfall, by Isaac Asimov

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God?

In 1941, this quote by American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson inspired a young and then little-known science fiction writer to produce what is arguably the greatest science fiction story of all time.

On the planet Lagash, a group of astronomers try to warn a disbelieving public that a doomsday cult is correct and the end of the world is indeed nigh. Lagash is one of the most remarkable planets in the galaxy – it is part of a system comprising six suns, of which at least one is always in the sky. Night is unknown – or almost unknown.

The astronomers, investigating anomalies in Lagash’s orbit, which threaten to overturn the recently established Law of Universal Gravitation, have made an alarming discovery. The problem with the orbit can be resolved by postulating that Lagash has a hitherto undiscovered moon, invisible in the glare of the eternal day. When the moon’s orbit is calculated, the astronomers learn that it can cause an eclipse of one of the suns, the red dwarf Beta. The phenomenon can only occur with Beta alone in its hemisphere, at maximum distance from Lagash, with the moon at minimum distance – a configuration that only occurs every 2049 years. The eclipse covers the entire planet and lasts well over half a day, so that no spot on Lagash escapes being plunged into darkness.

The psychological effects on a population unused to darkness will be catastrophic – and an eclipse is imminent….

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!

One of the reasons Nightfall is such a powerful tale is the mounting sense of terror Asimov manages to convey to his readers in his description of what is after all an everyday occurrence here on earth – the fall of dusk. He does this by the clever choice of a red dwarf as the sun that is eclipsed. He describes Beta as “glowering redly at zenith, dwarfed and evil” and makes frequent comparisons between its red light and blood. As the eclipse proceeds, the sky is described as turning “a horrible deep purple-red”. It is powerful, almost apocalyptic stuff.

No less intense is the description of the claustrophobia experienced by the group of astronomers as the gloom deepens. Outside, even the insects are frightened into silence.

Few short stories manage to draw together as many diverse, thought-provoking ideas as Nightfall. Archaeological records that tell of a series of earlier civilisations, all destroyed by fire at the height of their culture; a doomsday cult that claims Lagash enters a cave every 2050 years, plunging it into darkness; and a fairground ride that has caused people to go mad and even die of fright – all this inexorably heightens the sense of impending doom.

In 1990, almost half a century after Nightfall first appeared, Asimov collaborated with Robert Silverberg, to produce a novel based on the original short story.

When two of the world’s greatest SF writers team up on such a project, expectations are bound to be very high and this was possibly why Nightfall the novel met with a mixed reception. Some loved it, but many hated it, going as far as to describe it as the weakest offering from either author in a decade. IMHO, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes.

The first two-thirds of the novel expands on the events and ideas described in the short story. The two versions are very consistent, even featuring the same characters, though with the addition of an archaeologist, who makes the crucial discoveries about the planet’s past history. There are some trifling name changes – the six suns are given proper names rather than Greek letters, and for some reason the planet itself is renamed Kalgash. (We will conjecture that Kalgash is a more accurate English rendering of the planet’s name, just as Peking is now usually referred to as Beijing. For simplicity, though, I will continue to use the original names.)

The last third of the novel follows events after the eclipse, as survivors who have retained their faculties try to regroup in a world rapidly reverting to feudalism. I have to agree with those who say that the ending is weak. It is true that the idea of using religious superstition to hold together a disintegrating society also appears in Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, but an open ending with the feudal leaders, cultists and scientists battling for control of Lagash would have been better.

The novel’s strong points is that it paints a picture of day to day life on of world very different to Earth in some ways, yet very similar in others. It develops and draws together the same diverse ideas as the original, with a scientific community and general public reacting to events in a manner that is completely believable.

We learn that Lagash is centuries behind Earth in the sciences of astronomy, cosmology and physics, but at a similar level in terms of engineering and technology. Presumably, though, the Lagashans have not yet managed to send even an unmanned vehicle beyond their atmosphere, or they would have learned of the existence of the Stars. With gravitation such a recent discovery, though, this is hardly surprising.

We also learn something about the system to which Lagash belongs. The planet orbits a yellow sun at a distance of ten light minutes (slightly further than Earth is from the Sun), there is a binary pair of blue suns at one hundred and ten light minutes away (somewhat closer than Uranus is from Earth) and the system also comprises a red dwarf and a binary pair of white suns.

The problem with the novel is that it exposes the intriguing and unusual elements that make up the story to a scrutiny under which they cannot entirely hold up.

Just how valid is the story’s central premise, that Darkness combined with the Stars will cause universal madness among a people utterly unused to such things? Is something going to cause madness simply because it has not been previously experienced and is unnatural? For example, for 99.9 percent of his history, mankind was utterly unused to flying. To man, a primate, flying is completely unnatural. Yet millions now do so every year without going mad. Even those with a fear of flying can generally tolerate it (exceptions include the former Arsenal and Netherlands footballer Dennis Bergkamp, and (alledgedly) The Good Doctor himself).

We must also question whether an advanced technological society could evolve given the handicap of a pathological fear of darkness. On Earth, after all, dependency on artificial lighting, even during daytime, has always been perfectly normal. Underground mines have existed since prehistoric times. But would Neolithic and Bronze Age man have constructed them faced with a deep-rooted phobia of entering such places and knowing that they risked instant madness were their crude illumination to fail? Without the Bronze Age, the science of metallurgy and all subsequent human advances would never have happened.

Crucial to the plot is the fact that Lagash’s moon cannot be seen in the eternal daylight due to its being composed of bluish rock. Would this be the case? Earth’s moon, composed of greyish rock (which will have a lower albedo), is easy to see by day. Possibly the Lagashan eye is less sensitive to relatively faint objects than the human eye (but it is curious that their eyes can dark-adapt like ours. How did this ability evolve on Lagash?).

Even if the moon cannot normally be seen, what happens during the total eclipse of Beta? Surely the moon, illuminated by the light of the other suns, would become visible. With these suns shining on it from various angles it would appear full – and at minimum distance, seven times the apparent diameter of Beta, almost certainly bright enough to drown out all but the brightest Stars. (We can rule out the possibility of Lagash itself eclipsing its moon, since one of the other suns set only four hours prior to totality.)

If only in comparison to the stunning original version, Nightfall doesn’t entirely succeed as a novel and for this reason, the short story remains the definitive version.

© Christopher Seddon 2008