Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov (1952)

Originally there were three Foundation novels, each one a packaging-up of some of the eight linked short stories which Asimov wrote for John Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction magazine from 1941 to 1948.

Thus this, the second book in the original Foundation trilogy, is not a novel at all. It consists of two long short stories, The General (75 pages) and The Mule (149 pages).

And although they were brought out in book form in 1952, they had both been published much earlier, The General in the April 1945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction under the title Dead Hand, and The Mule in two parts in the November and December 1945 issues.

The two stories continue the narrative of the Foundation, established 12,000 years into the era of the Galactic Empire by the leading psychohistorian of the day, Hari Seldon. Seldon had predicted that the Galactic Empire, then at its peak, was in fact destined to collapse over the following 500 years, a collapse which would lead to a dark age which would last for 30,000 years.

He arranged for the establishment of the Foundation and ensured it was based right at the periphery of the Galaxy on a remote planet named Terminus, in such a way that it could rise from the ashes of the ruined Empire, and restore civilisation in a much shorter period of time, hopefully – if his plans went right – only one thousand years.

The five short stories collected in volume one of the trilogy, Foundation, each zeroes in on a particular moment of crisis, when the Foundation faced a threat to its existence, and each one showed how key protagonists used the Seldon Principles of Psychohistory to a) understand how the crisis would play out and b) take advantage of the crisis to enable the Foundation to triumph and evolve.

The two long stories in this volume take the story forward into the third century after the establishment of the Federation, showing how the complex unfolding of events still embodied the importance of Seldon’s principles and foresight.

1. The General

Although it has withdrawn from the Periphery of the Galaxy, the Empire still has keen advocates and military leaders true to its traditions, One such is charismatic and successful General Bel Riose who launches an attack against the Foundation. The leaders of the Foundation discuss how, rather than forcing a direct confrontation, they can maybe use their network of traders to infiltrate and neutralise the attacking force.

They concoct a plan. The Foundation trader Lathan Devers lets himself be captured and taken prisoner by Riose’s battleship where he encounters Ducem Barr, a venerable senator from the planet Siwenna. (Riose had earlier visited Barr and invited him on his expedition, to advise him about the rumours that the Foundation employs ‘magicians’. And readers of the first book will recognise that Ducem is the son of the Onum Barr who we met in the story, The Merchant Princes.)

After a great deal of dialogue and argument – and as they learn that the Imperial fleet is one-by-one reconquering and garrisoning star systems closer and closer to the Foundation territory – Devers and Barr are brought before General Riose. When he threatens to use a Psychic Probe on them, old Barr, to Devers’ surprise, bashes the general over the head with a stone bust, knocking him out.

Devers and Barr promptly leave the general’s rooms and walk quickly to the landing bay, where they get into Devers’ high-powered trading ship which blasts its way free and escapes into hyperspace.

Once safely escaped and tucking into space rations, Barr reveals to Devers that, as they fled, he had pinched the message which had just come through to the general from the Emperor’s much-hated advisor, Brodrig.

They both look at the message and realise that the ambiguity of its phrasing could be interpreted to look as if Brodrig and the general are in a conspiracy to overthrow the emperor.

Aha. They could use the message as evidence to sway the Emperor against his swashbuckling general – and thus rescue the Foundation.

So they travel through hyperspace to the capital planet of the Empire, Trantor, with a view to putting the message before the Emperor, Cleon II.

However, with its population of 40 million, Trantor is a jungle of bureaucracy and our guys have only bribed their way to about the second of ten levels when the interviewing bureaucrat reveals that he is in fact a lieutenant of the Imperial Police, that their ‘conspiracy to assassinate the Emperor’ has been identified, and that they are under arrest.

At which point Devers and Barr have to shoot their way out of the interview room, leg it back to their spaceship and blast their way into Trantor’s stratosphere and so into hyperspace.

It’s too dangerous to try to contact the emperor now, so they abandon their plan and make easy jumps through hyperspace right back out to the Periphery and to Terminus, the planet of the Foundation.

Here they report to the board of leaders of the Foundation (who we had met much earlier in the story), the guys who we saw weighing the encroaching threat of Riose and sending Devers off on his mission.

It is only now that Devers and Barr find out that Riose’s slow advance through neighbouring star systems towards the Foundation has been called off because Riose has been recalled to the Imperial capital planet, Trantor, under a cloud, tried and executed for treason.

And here comes the USP, the Foundation Scene, the Hari Seldon element —

Because it is only now that Devers realises that all this – Riose’s recall – would have happened regardless of anything the individual characters had done. It was a structural inevitability. A weak emperor must always live in fear of a strong general (considering how many generals had overthrown the emperor and taken the crown for himself).

Regardless of anything the council or Devers or Barr could have done, Riose would have failed anyway.

Once again the wisdom of Hari Seldon is proved to have been right – to the characters in the story, and to the admiring reader!

2. The Mule

In a foreword written years later, in the 1980s, Asimov confesses that The Mule was his favourite Foundation story and you can see why. It hangs together better than most of the others, the characters rise above the cardboard pulp level of most of the other ‘characters’, and there are scenes which almost prompt something like emotion in the reader.

It’s a hundred years since the previous story. Trantor, the great capital planet of the Empire has undergone ‘The Great Sack’ by a barbarian fleet. Most of the Galaxy has split up into barbaric kingdoms. The Empire itself has entered into an even more rapid phase of decline and civil wars. So far, so exactly like the actual history of ancient Rome transposed into a science fiction context.

The Foundation has become the dominant power in its quadrant of the galaxy, partly because of its preservation of advanced tech, plus the extensive trading policy we saw being established in the previous stories. Believing itself invulnerable, the leaders of the Foundation have become despotic and complacent.

This has led leaders of the Independent Traders’ Alliance to consider a rebellion against the Foundation. However, before they can make a move they and the Foundation come under attack from a mysterious warlord known only as ‘the Mule’.

The story follows a young couple, Toran and Bayta Darell, who have just got married. Toran’s father is a former trader, his uncle one of the would-be rebel traders. They are among the many who gather to watch another of Hari Seldon’s scheduled hologram messages. Imagine everybody’s horror when Seldon does not mention the Mule, but assumes that a civil war has been fought with the traders from which the Foundation emerged victor. For the first time in Foundation history – Seldon has got it wrong!

That civil war was exactly what was about to happen – until the Mule emerged. Could it be that the Mule is the kind of one-off, individual event which Seldon’s psychohistorical theories did not take account of? Has the comforting sense of inevitability about the Foundation’s rise come to a grinding halt?

Toran and Bayta Darell are the key characters. They fall in with a kind of rebel psychologist, Ebling Mis, and one ‘Magnifico Giganticus’, a clown they rescue at a planetary resort on their honeymoon, who seems to be fleeing the Mule himself. He is about to be arrested when Toran intervenes to save the odd, gawky, clumsy clown, and they take him off in their spaceship.

It looks as if they are to play a more central role than they expected, when this protective move is presented as the ‘kidnapping’ of his clown by the Mule and cited as a pretext for attacking the Foundation.

To everyone’s horror, the outer planets fall to the Mule’s assaults, and then the Foundation’s fleet itself mysteriously surrenders.

Determined to find out why, Toran, Bayta and Ebling Mis conceive the idea of travelling through hyperspace to the Galaxy’s former capital planet, Trantor, to look into the Imperial archives in search of a clue as to the Mule’s origins and behaviour.

Here the book for once fleetingly catches some real imaginative feeling, the kind of feeling H.G. Wells’s novels are full of, when Toran, Bayta and Mis touch down on Trantor to find it a ruin. Amid the buildings wrecked by the Great Sack, a new generation of agriculturalists are clearing away the great metal skyscrapers, to reveal the raw soil and living a primitive agricultural existence.

Tentatively our heroes make peace with these suspicious tribes, who allow them into the ruins of the old Imperial Library. There isn’t in all of Asimov a droplet of the awe and emotion conveyed in H.G. Wells’s description of entering the ruined Great Museum in The Time Machine, but these pages come the closest.

At the Great Library, Ebling Mis works continuously until his health is undermined, but in the climactic last few pages, he reveals a massive new twist in the narrative. He says that his researches show that the Foundation, the one they come from, is only one of two Foundations which Hari Seldon established 300 years earlier. And all the researches Mis have done suggest that their Foundation is the less important one!

Maybe it was a decoy all along, precisely to draw ambitious warlords like the Mule towards it – all the while ensuring that the Second Foundation could go about its work of regenerating civilisation in peace.

Mis, with his dying breath, is just about to reveal the location of the Second Foundation when… Bayta blasts him to oblivion with an atom blaster gun!! What???

Bayta explains to her outraged husband why. She points out to him (and the reader) that they have been at the heart of a whole series of coincidences: present on Terminus when the Seldon hologram appeared; present on another planet, Haven, just before that fell; there was another coincidence when they were pulled over in an unknown quadrant on their way to Trantor, by an unknown spaceship which turned out to be carrying a Foundation official they had met earlier in the story, Han Pritcher; and then – in a massive coincidence – this same Han Pritcher had turned up just a few days earlier on Trantor, apparently, followed them all the way from the Periphery of the Galaxy.

How come all these coincidences? Someone has been spying on them. Someone has been following their progress and their discoveries from the start. But who?

She turns to the spindly ‘clown’, who has been their constant companion since they saved him from an angry mob back on their honeymoon, back in the early pages of the story – Magnifico.

Bayta reveals that Magnifico… is the Mule himself!!!!!!

Magnifico stops cringing and speaking in his irritating fake courtly manner which he has maintained ever since we met him a hundred pages earlier. He straightens up and introduces himself suavely. Yes. He is the Mule. He is a mutant, one of the millions born every year across the galaxy, but with a unique power: he can control people’s emotional moods. Thus he forced a local warlord into such a state of depression that he handed over his fleet to the Mule. Thus he created a sense of despair among the populations of the outer planets, which supinely submitted to him.

It was using this power that he made most of the Foundation fleet simply surrender to him, suddenly overcome with despair and convinced their battle was futile. And it was this mind control which he used on Mis at his researches in the old Galactic Library, forcing him to work himself literally to death to discover the location of the Second Foundation.

So Bayta was right, right to stop Mis revealing its location with his dying words!

What will happen now? Well, after briefly threatening to force Bayta to become his consort – a prospect which makes her shiver with revulsion – the Mule rather adolescently declares that, since the couple genuinely befriended him and looked after him – as so many people didn’t in his wretched, outcast life (sob) he will… let them live. And he walks out the room.

The Darells are left on Trantor. The Mule leaves to reign over the Foundation and the rest of his new empire. The existence of the Second Foundation (as an organization centred on the science of psychology and mentalics, in contrast to the Foundation’s focus on physical sciences) is now known to the Darells and to the Mule.

Now that the Mule has conquered the Foundation he stands as the most powerful force in the galaxy, and the Second Foundation is the only threat to his eventual rule over the entire galaxy.

Before he leaves the Mule vows that he will find the Second Foundation, but Bayta declares it has already prepared for him and that he will not have enough time before the Second Foundation reacts.

What will happen next? Tune into next week’s exciting episode.

Or, in this case, move right on to reading the last two stories in the series, contained in the final book of the trilogy, Second Foundation.


Immaturities

When I first read the Foundation novels aged 12 or 13, I was absolutely gripped, riveted, enthralled by their profound insights into human life and history and society. I remember my sense of horror and thrill when events finally began to diverge from Hari Seldon’s prophecies. What was going to happen?

The trouble is that, since then, I have grown up (I hope). I have certainly read a lot more books, Chaucer and Shakespeare among them, 17th and 18th century satires on courts and kings and emperors, as well as countless histories of the Roman Empire, and other ancient empires, as well as numerous books about politics, philosophy and economics, as well as biographies of actual kings and emperors and political leaders.

My point being that proper literature and actual history are all much better, much more sophisticated, much better written, much more psychologically subtle, than anything in Asimov.

And all have the massive extra value of being true and, therefore, forcing you to think hard about the mysteries of actual history and actual human nature – not human nature out of a bubblegum packet.

Asimov freely admitted that he based the characters of the Emperor Cleon II and his General Bel Riose on the historical Roman Emperor Justinian I and his general Belisarius, as described in Robert Graves’s novel, Count Belisarius.

Years later, when I read Count Belisarius, I realised that it is much, much better than anything Asimov ever wrote, in every measurable way: deeper understanding of human beings and behaviour, vastly better prose style, and giving its reader an in-depth insight into real history.

Psychohistory as twaddle

When I was 12 or 13 I was barely beginning an education in the humanities. Every book I read which touched on history or economics or psychology, no matter how superficially, opened up vast new vistas to me, since it was the first time I’d encountered them. Thus, emotionally naive, inexperienced in anything of life, profoundly ignorant of most intellectual disciplines, books like Asimov’s introduced me to a world of new ideas – how emperors and their slimey sycophants behave – how empires rise and fall – how councils and committees are run – how grown-ups debate things, discuss strategy, make plans.

But the trouble is that I went on not only to read huge numbers of more serious books for my humanities and literature A-levels and degree – but to work in current affairs TV, attending countless editorial meetings, dealing with difficult situations, budgets, live broadcasts – and then, latterly, to work in the civil service, attending countless meetings, presentations, strategy boards, getting a feel for the labyrinthine politics of the civil service and the complexity of real-world politics.

Discovering, at every turn, that pretty much everything Asimov describes and presents is, in fact, a child’s eye, profoundly superficial, immature and depthless version of all these matters. Profoundly immature and simplistic.

Fake wisdom

The conceit is that the trilogy gives the reader immense insight into human history. But it doesn’t, it really doesn’t.

Symptomatic is the central premise that Hari Seldon was a genius who had unprecedented insight into the functioning of human history. Thus we are from time to time treated to some of Seldon’s profound sayings sprinkled through the text for our admiration.

But, when you actually read them, they are twaddle. When Asimov strains to authorly wisdom – just like when he strains to say anything meaningful about human nature, about human relationships, about power politics and so on – he is embarrassingly trite.

‘Seldon’s rules of psychohistory on which it is so comforting to rely probably have as one of the contributing variables, a certain normal initiative on the part of the people of the Foundation themselves. Seldon’s laws help those who help themselves.’ (The Magicians)

‘Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!’ (The Traders)

‘Gratitude is best and most effective when it does not evaporate itself in empty phrases.’ (The Mule)

‘There’s a saying on Haven that when the cave lights go out, it is time for the righteous and hard-working to sleep.’ (The Mule)

When the lights go out, it’s time to go to bed! Wow. Wisdom for six-year-olds.

Just as the narratives give the appearance of insight into history and human society without doing anything of the sort, these trite sayings have the appearance of pithy wisdom and humour – but are neither funny nor witty, interesting or useful.

Anthropocentric

The Empire rules over quadrillions of planets in billions of star systems spread across the entire galaxy. And all of them are inhabited by men (and I really do mean men – there are hardly any women in these stories). No aliens, no alternative life forms, nada.

With the result that nothing really strange or alien or uncanny happens in any of these stories.

Although ostensibly science fiction, and certainly featuring space ships and atom blasters, there isn’t a single alien form of life, or alien disease, or alien problem. There aren’t solar winds or gas clouds or unexpected radiation or all the other perils which you might associate with science fiction.

Instead, what you get is a succession of scenes in which adult men (almost no women until Bayta in The Mule, but no children and no emotional ties worth mentioning) discuss power and strategy, trying to tease out how to manipulate and beat each other.

The conflicts are entirely human. It is an entirely human galaxy.

The style, the dialogue

My God, Asimov’s presentation of character through dialogue, and his efforts at dramatic confrontation are scandalously bad!

Most of the scenes are just that – scenes, as if from a play – in which small groups of characters discuss, argue and accuse each other.

They didn’t have TV in the 1940s when Asimov wrote all this, so I’m guessing he owed a lot of how he arranged and wrote these scenes to the conventions of radio drama. That might explain why there are few if any descriptions of things. The Imperial planet Trantor does give rise to a few paragraphs conveying how it is totally covered in manmade structures and habitations, but that’s about it. We get next to nothing about conditions on any of the other planets, and only the slightest descriptions of space ships. These are referred to often enough, but left largely undescribed.

Maybe it was a convention of the pulp sci-fi magazines Asimov was writing for. Maybe the emphasis was all about the human drama, leaving out all unnecessary technical details or prose descriptions. Maybe that was deliberately left to the illustrators to fill out as they saw fit.

Whatever the reason, almost the entire weight of the text and the narrative is thrown onto the dialogue, to explain what’s going on, and to move the plot forward – and, my God, is it cheesy!

Imagine the crappiest dialogue from a cheesy Hollywood historical ‘epic’ and then go down several notches. Cross it with scenes of The Prisoner of Zenda-style swashbuckling heroics. And then have everyone dressed up in costumes from Flash Gordon.

The senior lieutenant of the Dark Nebula stared in horror at the visiplate.
‘Great Galloping Galaxies!’ It should have been a howl, but it was a whisper instead, ‘What’s
that?’ (The Merchant Princes)

Great galloping galaxies! It sounds like Robin’s expletives in the cheesy 1960s TV series of Batman – ‘Holy Uncanny Photographic Mental Processes, Batman!’

The use of ‘Galaxy!’ as a universal oath or expletive by the characters is symptomatic: it is intended to make the whole story feel truly outer-worldly, futuristic, science fictiony. But it comes over as cheap and crass.

‘He may be the proof I need – and I need something, Galaxy knows – to awaken the Foundation.’ (The Mule)

‘When the Galaxy was this?’ (The Mule)

Instead of inspiring awe, or making me feel like I was transported to another dimension – I kept bursting out laughing at this, and at most of the rest of the dialogue’s appalling hamminess.

Characters who are clichés

Asimov has fun trying to create a range of characters, from the ‘Hi honey’ couple the Darells, to the dastardly Regent Wienis and his whiny nephew Lepold, to the stolid Foundation officer Pritcher. The only trouble is that, as soon as he departs from cardboard cutouts, he lapses into staggering cliché. And when he tries for comedy… My God, he is so embarrassing.

In Foundation he has the bright idea of creating a lisping, foppish diplomat named Lord Dorwin, Asimov’s pulp version of the pomaded dandies who infest Restoration drama. Here he is Lord Dorwin in full flood:

‘Ah, yes, Anacweon.’ A negligent wave of the hand. ‘I have just come from theah. Most bahbawous planet. It is thowoughly inconceivable that human beings could live heah in the Pewiphewy. The lack of the most elementawy wequiahments of a cultuahed gentleman; the absence of the most fundamental necessities foah comfoht and convenience – the uttah desuetude into which they – ‘
Hardin interrupted dryly: ‘The Anacreonians, unfortunately, have all the elementary requirements for warfare and all the fundamental necessities for destruction.’
‘Quite, quite.’ Lord Dorwin seemed annoyed, perhaps at being stopped midway in his sentence. ‘But we ahn’t to discuss business now, y’know. Weally, I’m othahwise concuhned.’ (The Encyclopedists)

Maybe Asimov’s original teenage sci-fi addicts found this kind of thing hilarious, but it gets very tiresome very quickly. Especially since, like most Asimov characters, Dorwin says nothing either remotely funny or acute. It is like a schoolboy dressing up in adult clothes – looks great but… he has no idea what to say or how to handle himself among adults.

In Foundation and Empire the central character turns out to be the Mule’s court jester, Magnifico. For most of the story, until he is unmasked as the Mule himself, Magnifico is made to speak in a deliberately cod medieval style, which gets as wearing as quickly as Jar Jar Bink’s disastrous mannerisms in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace:

‘My lady,’ he gasped, ‘it is indeed of an effect the most magical. It is of balance and response
almost beyond hope in its delicacy and stability. On this, it would seem I could work wonders.
How liked you my composition, my lady?’ (The Mule)

There are literally hundreds of paragraphs of dialogue like that. The characterisation of wicked Prince Regent Wienis rubbing his hands and cackling over his spoilt and impressionable teenage nephew, the teenage King Lepold I is like something out of pantomime. I enjoyed these passages because they were so preposterously bad.

‘Lepold!.. Now will you attend?’
The king shrugged and gravitated to the end table where he nibbled at a Lera nut in quite an unregal sulk. He did not dare to meet his uncle’s eyes. Wienis said, by way of preamble, ‘I’ve been to the ship today.’
‘What ship?’
‘There is only one ship. The ship. The one the Foundation is repairing for the navy. The old Imperial cruiser. Do I make myself sufficiently plain?’
‘That one? You see, I told you the Foundation would repair it if we asked them to. It’s all poppycock, you know, that story of yours about their wanting to attack us. Because if they did, why would they fix the ship? It doesn’t make sense, you know.’
‘Lepold, you’re a fool!’
The king, who had just discarded the shell of the Lera nut and was lifting another to his lips, flushed.
‘Well now, look here,’ he said, with anger that scarcely rose above peevishness, ‘I don’t think you ought to call me that. You forget yourself. I’ll be of age in two months, you know.’ (The Mayors)

Summaries of the plots of the Foundation stories (and I’ve read quite a few) have the effect of making them look intelligent and thoughtful. Actually reading them, though, plunges you into a world of embarrassing stereotypes and clichés.

Illiterate

If the dialogue is stagey beyond belief, the narrative prose is often worse. Routinely the reader comes across sentences, or expressions, which only barely make sense. Asimov is an appalling writer of English prose.

Mayor Indbur – successively the third of that name – was the grandson of the first Indbur, who had been brutal and capable; and who had exhibited the first quality in spectacular fashion by his manner of seizing power, and the latter by the skill with which he put an end to the last farcical remnants of free election and the even greater skill with which he maintained a relatively peaceful rule. Mayor Indbur was also the son of the second Indbur, who was the first Mayor of the Foundation to succeed to his post by right of birth – and who was only half his father, for he was merely brutal. So Mayor Indbur was the third of the name and the second to succeed by right of birth, and he was the least of the three, for he was neither brutal nor capable – but merely an excellent book keeper born wrong. Indbur the Third was a peculiar combination of ersatz characteristics to all but himself. (The Mule)

In the cities, the escapers of the Galaxy could take their varieties of pleasure to suit their purse,
from the ethereal sky-palaces of spectacle and fantasy that opened their doors to the masses at the jingle of half a credit, to the unmarked, unnoted haunts to which only those of great wealth were of the cognoscenti. (The Mule)

The “hangar” on Kalgan is an institution peculiar unto itself, born of the need for the disposition of the vast number of ships brought in by the visitors from abroad, and the simultaneous and consequent vast need for living accommodations for the same. (The Mule)

The Mule’s clown who had reported that within his narrow compass of body he held the lordly name of Magnifico Giganticus, sat hunched over the table and gobbled at the food set before him. (The Mule)

‘I tell you, Mis, there’s not a thing there that breathes anything but order and peace – ‘ The door at the far, long end opened, and, in far too dramatically coincident a fashion to suggest anything but real life, a plainly-costumed notable stepped in. (The Mule)

There was an atmosphere about the Time Vault that just missed definition in several directions at once.

Randu, as newly-appointed co-ordinator – in itself a wartime post – of the confederation of cities on Haven, had been assigned, at his own request, to an upper room, out of the window of which he could brood over the roof tops and greenery of the city. Now, in the fading of the cave lights, the city receded into the level lack of distinction of the shades.

What?

Wise.. or wally?

Asimov wants to be taken as a man-of-the-world author, dispensing insightful generalisations about the human condition as suavely and wittily as Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde. But he comes across as a shallow and pretentious jerk, who mistakes pompous sonority for wit and manages to avoid any inkling of genuine insight.

He said, ‘What is the meaning of this?’
It is the precise question and the precise wording thereof that has been put to the atmosphere on such occasions by an incredible variety of men since humanity was invented. It is not recorded that it has ever been asked for any purpose other than dignified effect.

Juddee, the plain, snub-nosed, indifferent blonde at the dining unit diagonally across had been the superficial one of the nonacquaintance. And now Juddee was crying, biting woefully at a moist handkerchief, and choking back sobs until her complexion was blotched with turgid red. Her shapeless radiation-proof costume was thrown back upon her shoulders, and her transparent face shield had tumbled forward into her dessert, and there remained.
Bayta joined the three girls who were taking turns at the eternally applied and eternally inefficacious remedies of shoulder-patting, hair-smoothing, and incoherent murmuring.

‘The precise wording thereof…’

The prose is almost all like this – routinely managing to be either pretentious (in the sense of pretending to a wit and wisdom which it conspicuously lacks) or teetering on the brink of unintelligibility.

A Star Wars note

Lathan Devers is a rough tough inter-galactic trader who flies the fastest little trading ship in the galaxy, always ready with a plan and a bit of blarney to talk his way out of trouble.

Remind you of anyone? Reminded me of Han Solo from Star Wars. So I sat bolt upright when, in chapter 2 of The Mule, we are introduced to a – Captain Han Pritcher! Han. Not a common name, is it? He goes on to play quite a role in The Mule and appears in the final book, too. So when I googled a comparison I was not surprised to discover I among the last people on earth to notice the resemblance, just of the name, but of lots of structural elements between the Foundation stories and the Star Wars movies.

  • Mankind is spread over the entire Galaxy
  • There’s a Galactic Empire with a bureaucratic capital world (Trantor / Coruscant)
  • There are outer provinces whose inhabitants are mainly smugglers and scavengers.
  • Ships jumps into hyperspace for shortening traveling time.
  • The Republic holding out against the Empire (Star Wars) resembles the Foundation holding out against the Empire.
  • Both Hober Mallow (Foundation) and Han Solo (Star Wars) are smugglers who become agents and fighters for their respective worlds, and fly spaceships which can outrun any Empire ship.

Devers bent over the little dead globe, watching for a tiny sign of life. The directional control was slowly and thoroughly sieving space with its jabbing tight sheaf of signals. Barr watched patiently from his seat on the low cot in the comer, He asked, ‘No more signs of them?’
‘The Empire boys? No.’ The trader growled the words with evident impatience. ‘We lost the scuppers long ago. Space! With the blind jumps we took through hyperspace, it’s lucky we didn’t land up in a sun’s belly. They couldn’t have followed us even if they outranged us, which they didn’t.’ (The General, chapter 8)

  • Princess Leia resembles Bayta Darell; while Leia battled against Darth Vader, Bayta battled against the Mule.
  • The Foundation was set up on the ‘outer rim of the galaxy’ and Luke’s home planet of Tatooine is also in ‘the outer rim’.
  • The inhabitants of the Second Foundation have enormous mental powers and their minds can control people and objects. In the Universe of Star Wars this power is called The Force.

Asimov himself saw the connection.

I modeled my ‘Galactic Empire’ (a phrase I think I was the first to use) quite consciously on the Roman Empire. Ever since then, other science fiction writers have been following the fashion, and have written series of their own after the fashion of the Foundation series. In fact, in the late 1970s the Galactic Empire reached the movies in the enormously popular Star Wars, which, here and there, offered rather more than a whiff of the Foundation. (No, I don’t mind. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I certainly imitated Edward Gibbon, so I can scarcely object if someone imitates me.)
(From Asimov’s essay Empires, 1983)

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1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Campbell’s Kingdom by Hammond Innes (1952)

‘There’s something about the Kingdom,’ he said slowly. ‘It clings to the memory like a woman who wants to bear children and is looking for a man to father them. Last year, when I left, I had a feeling I should be coming back. There is a destiny about places. For each man there is a piece of territory that calls to him, that appeals to something deep inside him. I’ve travelled half the world. I know the northern territories and the Arctic regions of Canada like my own hand. But nothing ever called me with the fatal insistence of the Kingdom.’ (p.89)

The set-up

Thirty-five-year-old Bruce Campbell Wetheral hasn’t thrived since the War ended. While colleagues have prospered and succeeded in life he has remained a lowly clerk in an insurance office. Until the day his doctor gives him the news he’d been dreading – he has cancer of the stomach and it’s terminal; he has 6 months to live. Coincidentally, on the same day, a lawyer visits him with news that his 80-year-old grandfather in Canada has died leaving him the barren tract of land high up in the Canadian Rockies, jokingly referred to as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.

Campbell only met his grandfather once, when he and his mother met him outside prison after he’d served a five-year sentence for fraud. He’d spent his entire adult life convinced there was oil beneath his bit of land high up in the Canadian Rockies, and his various shenanigans to fund surveying and drilling got him into various scrapes and then prison. His complete failure meant that Campbell’s mother, widowed from the First War, had to raise young Bruce in humiliating poverty. He was bullied by other children and, when his mother died, ended up being sent to reform school. He never forgave the shadowy figure who ruined his childhood.

But now, as he reads his grandfather’s will and his plain honest wish that his grandson continue his quixotic quest for oil, Bruce realises that, with literally nothing left to live for, you know what – he’s going to go out to Canada to find out for himself whether his grandfather really was mad and to see Campbell’s Kingdom for himself!

The plot

The lawyer in London had tried to persuade Bruce to sell the land to a company keen to make a good offer. But Bruce turns him down and travels by plane across the Atlantic and by train the width of Canada. Then by car and lorry through Calgary and Edmonton and up into the mountains to smaller and smaller settlements, all along the way meeting people who have heard of the Kingdom and the deluded old man who lived up there.

Finally, in the ghost town of Come Lucky high up in the Rockies, he realises the complexity of the local situation: before the War a dam was begun up by some mountains named Solomon’s Judgment. Now local constructors want to complete the dam and flood the land behind, including the Kingdom. Not least because, since the failure of the nearby Come Lucky mine, there has been unemployment and a crash in living standards. The dam means work.

A small queue forms of local lawyers, contractors and businessmen who all try to persuade Campbell that a) his grandfather was mad b) there is no oil c) he’s wasting his time on a piece of uninhabitable terrain d) he should make a quick sale to the dam people and clear out. In subsequent scenes he learns that, after mad old Campbell swore he’d seen oil seeping from a landslide, lots of townspeople invested everything they had buying up surrounding land, only to lose their money. Thus, there were multiple reasons for the locals to hate old man Campbell and, now, his interloping grandson.

But Campbell refuses all offers, defies all intimidation and persists with his dream, becoming more obstinate the more obstacles are put in his way.

I sank down on to the bed that my grandfather had used for so many years. Lying there, staring at the rafters that he had hewn from the timbered slopes above us, the world of men and cities seemed remote and rather unreal. And as I slid into a half-coma of sleep I knew that I wouldn’t be going back, that this was my kingdom now. (1972 Fontana paperback edition, p.148)

Conflict

The first 150 or so pages set the scene – depicting the run-down ghost town of Come Lucky in the Canadian Rockies with its muddy main street leading down to the lake, the mountain peaks of Solomon’s Judgment looming over it, the swaying cable hoist up to the half-built dam and the 10-mile-long bowl of Campbell’s Kingdom lying behind it.

It is wet and cold, a land of ice and snow and hard to breathe up on the mountain tops. On his first visit Bruce sets off to walk from the hoist to his grandfather’s cabin, which is clearly visible from the top of the hoist. But half way there a blizzard comes down with terrifying speed, he is immediately lost and begins to fear he will wander forever in an impenetrable snowstorm. The physical realities of the terrain and climate are depicted with Innes’ usual gusto and vigour.

These pages also introduce us to the large cast of characters – the inhabitants of Come Lucky who mostly rally round Peter Trevedian, the contractor building the dam, who promises to revitalise the local economy – and Bruce Campbell and his band of supporters from Come Lucky and beyond, who he persuades to follow his quixotic quest to find oil ‘in them thar hills’.

The last 70 pages of the book recount Campbell’s efforts to rally his ragtag bunch of supporters into completing a geological survey, getting a drilling rig up to the Kingdom and finding oil, in a desperate race against time as the rival team, well funded and organised, proceed with their plan to finish the dam which, once complete, will flood Campbell’s Kingdom, ending his dream forever.

It comes as no great surprise that the hostility between the opposing camps deteriorates from harsh words and confrontations, to open violence and then sabotage.

Dramatis personae

  • Stuart Campbell – old man with delusions that his patch of Rocky Mountains bear oil.
  • Bruce Campbell – his ill grandson, fought in the War, given only months to live, decides to come out from England to prove his grandfather right.
  • Roger Fergus – old Stuart’s generation, Stuart’s friend, honest old man. Dies.
  • Henry Fergus – Roger’s son, fierce, competetive, underhand businessman, determined to use every trick available to finish the dam and sabotage Campbell.
  • Peter Trevedian – contractor on the dam. His father invested heavily in Campbell’s company and, when it went bust, killed himself. Leading opponent of the protagonist.
  • Max Trevedian – half-brother of the above, huge, retarded, aggressive. Bruce stumbles into him up at the old cabin and slowly realises he’s a kindred spirit, also persecuted in his childhood; tells him the Jungle Book to calm him.
  • James McLellan – responsible for the hoist ie the cable lift up the mountainside to the Kingdom; part of the alliance against Campbell.
  • Old McLellan – James’s father, owner of the Golden Calf bar and hotel. As friendly to Bruce as his family ties with the Enemy camp allow.
  • Boy Bladen – son of an American actor and Iroquois mother, parents died, brought himself up, flew in the War till he crashed, was burned, put in a POW camp. Back in Canada he is scarred and scared. Becomes a firm ally of Campbell.
  • Winnick – based in Alberta, charted the Kingdom, friend of old Roger Fergus, helps Bruce.
  • Johnnie Carstairs – friend from Edmonton.
  • Jeff Hart – ditto.
  • Bill Mannion – geologist and ally.
  • Garry Keogh – rough, self-made oilman, agrees to help Campbell drill for oil.
  • the Garret sisters – sweet and lonely little old ladies Miss Sarah and Miss Ruth who’ve lived all their lives in Come Lucky, dote on Jean Lucas, and kindly oversee Bruce’s progress.
  • Jean Lucas – the heroine: lives with the two nice old ladies, previously housemaid to old Stuart Campbell in the (brief) summer months. Worked for the French Resistance during the War till captured ie has suffered, like Campbell. Tough. ‘Get back to Trevedian and tell him next time he tries to shoot my dog I’ll kill him.’
  • Moses – Jean’s dog.

The story is fairly gripping but nowhere near as melodramatic as some of its predecessors. Only in the last 30 or so pages is there a sudden flurry of events, namely:

  • finally, against all the odds and setbacks, unexpectedly one morning, the rig blows sky high because they have struck oil
  • within hours the valley starts flooding because the dam people have completed it and closed the sluices
  • Bruce and Boy ride miserably over to the dam to arrive just as the few workmen still there realise it is starting to crack at the base – but they can’t raise the hundred or so men working down in the valley in the direct line of the flood waters to warn them of impending disaster
  • in a split second decision, Bruce takes the cable car down, horribly exposed if something goes wrong, harangues Trevedian’s men that the dam is bursting, resorting to shooting over their heads and only just escapes as it in fact does burst, unleashing a tidal wave of water, mud and rocks as big as houses. Trevedian, his opponent throughout the book, refuses to believe the dam is bursting and so is swept to his death by the flood

In an unashamedly Hollywood ending Bruce not only proves his grandfather right, makes himself a rich man, defeats his opponents without actually damaging the dam himself, overthrows his antagonist, wins the gratitude of all the other workmen and the townspeople for risking his life to warn them, BUT also secures the love of a good woman, Jean. It is such a deliberately feel-good conclusion that I was actually crying at the end.

The oil industry

Innes has, as usual, done his research.

The scenery of the Rockies as it changes from the depths of winter to spring and on into summer are evocatively portrayed – the feel of snow on your face, the pine smell of the timber, the squish of the mud under the truck tyres, the noise of the mountain streams.

And there are solid factual explanations of the geology of oil-bearing strata, how underground soundings work, the law surrounding prospecting land, and so on.

And the text has a working knowledge of the clink and rattle, the weight and labour, of the heavy oil-drilling equipment.

When I went down to the oil drilling site next morning I found the rig erected and the draw works being tightened down on to the steel plates of the platform. The travelling block was already suspended from the crown and the kelly was in its rat housing. They had already begun to dig a mud sump and there were several lengths of pipe in the rack… On the morning of Tuesday, June 9th, Garry spudded in. I stood on the platform and watched the block come down and the bit lowered into the hole. The bushing was dropped into the table, gripping the grief stem, and then at a signal from Garry the platform trembled under my feet, the big diesel of the draw works roared and the table began to turn. We had started to drill Campbell Number Two. (p.190)

Competence The most obvious appeal of the adventure yarn is that we readers identify with the hero (and heroine), who may suffer setbacks but are always resourceful and brave enough to overcome all challenges and win in the end.

Abroad There is also the appeal of exotic foreign locations. The impact of this has diminished over the decades as air travel has become widespread and ridiculously cheap. Everywhere is accessible now. But in the dark years after the Second World War, as rationing continued, foreign travel was as remote a fantasy as decent food. These novels fulfil those fantasies.

Rewarding work And a third aspect of fantasy wish-fulfilment is the appeal of demanding physical work. Most of us work in offices, as the hero of this book initially does, and are as bored and frustrated with it as he is. In these novels the rough, difficult, physical nature of the work, man’s work, whether it be tin mining, flying cargo planes, whaling or drilling for oil, is something office workers often fantasise about and which these fictions deliver in powerful and convincing detail for our vicarious enjoyment.

Becoming a man

In England Bruce is a sick man with a terminal disease. In the bracing air of the Canadian Rockies he recovers his health – the cancer Bruce is diagnosed with at the start of the novel has simply disappeared by the end. The Canadian doctor who investigates, ponders the way some conditions just clear themselves up, maybe related to healthy living, or to the resolution of psychological factors.

The uncertain London insurance clerk becomes a leader of men, driving a team of some twenty grizzled locals and outfacing big business and its bully boy tactics in his heroic quest. He becomes a man.

But part of becoming a real man is becoming a couple, finding the woman of your dreams. It is not just about becoming powerful or virile. It is about becoming complete, whole, finding a purpose, and this purpose is always, in Innes, connected to the love of a good woman.

‘I’m not leaving you, Bruce. Whether you marry me or not doesn’t matter, but you’ll just have to get used to having me around.’ … Her fingers touched my temple and then I heard her footsteps across the room, the door closed and I was alone. I lay there, feeling relaxed and happy. I wasn’t afraid of anything now. I wasn’t alone. (p.254)

Only as part of a heterosexual couple can the narrator face the big abstract which always appears at the end of Innes’ novels, the Future. Innes’ protagonists start his novels on the run, illegal, wanted, chased, in jeopardy, with no thought except surviving another day. They finish the novel a) having survived a whole series of trials b) with a good woman by their side c) and thus able to think about more than just the next few minutes or next day – to conceive of Future time as a secure place where ordered plans can be made and carried out. All Innes’ novels end with a tremendous and heartening sense of optimism.

Through the window I look across a clearing in the cottonwoods to the ford where the waters of Thunder Creek glide swift and black to the lake. Some day that clearing will be a garden. Already Jean has a library of gardening books sent out from England and is planning the layout. We are full of plans – plans for the house, plans for the development of the Kingdom, plans for a family. It is just wonderful to sit back and plan. To plan something is to have a future. And to have a future is to have the whole of life. (p.255)

The movie

The novel was adapted, ‘with the co-operation of the author’, into a 1957 movie, starring a suitably weedy-looking Dirk Bogarde, partnered with the lovely Barbara Murray and an array of British character actors doing appalling Canadian accents (including Stanley Baker and Sid James) and James Robertson Justice miscast as the tough oil driller and forced to do a terrible Scots accent.

Names are changed to make them easier (the baddie Peter Trevedian becomes the easier-to-say Owen Morgan, the driller changes from Garry Keogh to MacDonald to ginger up the Scots ambience (he plays the bagpipes in a jolly scene which doesn’t exist in the book)).

Although the exact outline of the plot is retained, it has to be dealt with at a breathless pace to squeeze it into 100 minutes which means that every extraneous scene, the cameos with the old ladies, the descriptions of the scenery, and a host of minor characters, the protagonist’s changing attitude to his pioneering grandfather – everything which makes it adult and interesting and thought-provoking – has to be ruthlessly jettisoned.

The climactic scene when the dam bursts has special effects worthy of Thunderbirds. Instead of the complexity of the novel where Campbell has to threaten the men with a gun in order to get them to believe him and save their lives – in the movie Bogarde runs around shouting, ‘Get out of the way, the dam’s breaking’. The touching reconciliation with all these rough tough men who treated him so bad and who he ended up saving is cut. And Campbell is told he no longer has cancer, marries Jean, and is pictured sunning himself by the now gushing oil well, in 2 minutes 6 seconds flat.

Movies murder novels.

Related links

1960 Fontana paperback movie tie-in cover of Campbell's Kingdom

1960 Fontana paperback movie tie-in cover of Campbell’s Kingdom

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

Judgment on Deltchev by Eric Ambler (1952)

The truth about my part in the Deltchev affair is untidy. I did not even blunder into the danger; I strayed into it as if it were an interesting-looking tangle of streets in an old town. Certainly I had been warned that they were dangerous; but only to those who warned, I thought, not to me. When I found out that I was mistaken and tried to get out, I found also that I was lost. (p.162)

After writing six thrillers in the late 1930s which gave a new depth and seriousness to the genre, Ambler’s output came to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of World War Two. A spell in the artillery followed before the Army realised the place for his talents was in a photographic unit. From here he graduated to the film unit, recording military activities on various fronts. Even before peace came, this had led to his involvement with feature films. He became a scriptwriter and spent much of the 1940s and 50s writing the scripts of a number of British films (see list below).

But by the end of the 1940s he had also found time to return to novels and to begin what is effectively, part two of his novel-writing career. In the 1950s he published four novels:

Judgment on Deltchev (1952)
The Schirmer Inheritance (1953)
The Night-Comers (1956)
Passage of Arms (1959)

Political background

In my reviews of Ambler’s six pre-War thrillers I’ve noted the strong anti-business speeches given to numerous characters as well as the striking fact that the most sympathetic character in two of the thrillers is the KGB agent Andreas Zaleshoff. However, like many fellow travellers, Ambler was shocked by the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. Left wingers like him had supported the USSR because it seemed the only bulwark against the udeniable evil of Fascism spreading across continental Europe. But when Soviet Russia cynically abandoned this opposition by allying with Hitler’s Germany in order to carve up Poland, disillusioned believers were reluctantly forced to concede the flaws and evils of the communist system.

The situation changed again when Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941 and the USSR and ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin became, by default, our new ally. For the rest of the War, and well into the post-War period, the Allies cooperated with the USSR, but with increasing friction. Historians give various dates for the start of the Cold War but its seeds were evident even before the end of the War in August 1945.

By the time this novel was published in 1952, a great deal more had happened to further disillusion western supporters of communism, namely Russia’s harsh clampdown in its East European colonies and the formalisation of the so-called Iron Curtain.

This is the geo-political background to Ambler’s first novel in 12 years.

Judgment on Deltchev

The narrator, Foster, is a playwright hired by an American newspaper to cover a political show trial in an unnamed East European country. As soon as he arrives in the capital, the paper’s local fixer, Pashik, gives him a file of background notes which the novel summarises for us: Yordan Deltchev rose from local administrator to become the leader of the Agrarian Party which organised resistance to the Germans and is the only opposition to the Soviet-supported People’s Party. Following the War his shadow government continued as the interim administration and his supporters even expected it to become the formal government – when he surprised everyone by calling elections. Hours before the results came out the People’s Party staged a coup, seized power and, in due course, put Deltchev on trial.

The novel covers the 5 days of the Deltchev trial, giving Foster’s detailed eye-witness account of proceedings. It is a representative example of such stage-managed political trials: the prosecution presenting a farrago of political accusations, the judges acquiescing, the defence lawyer well aware he mustn’t try too hard and Deltchev’s interventions, when they happen at key moments, being excluded from the official record.

Around this daily process the narrator, Foster, meets various shady characters and becomes embroiled in murky goings-on.

  • He is visited by Deltchev’s old deputy, Petlarov, who gives Foster (and the reader) a handy guide to the tricks which will be used in the trial, and the way Foster himself will be used by the regime for its propaganda purposes.
  • He visits Madame Deltchev under house arrest and her delectable daughter gives him a letter to deliver, supposedly to a boyfriend to an address in the outskirts.
  • That night, when Foster goes to the dark, spooky apartment to deliver the letter he finds a corpse on the floor. At that moment the craven fixer, Pashik, appears with a flashlight and gun and takes Foster away.
  • Pashik drives him to a secret location in the suburbs before introducing him to a man he calls ‘Valmo’ – the very man Foster was meant to deliver the letter to. Pashik and Valmo lock Foster in a room while they concoct a cock-and-bull story about the killing, then come in and run it past him, and make him swear to secrecy, but Foster can’t figure out why. Right at the end of the interview a young man pops his head round the door who ‘Valmo’ refers to as Jika.

The next day the trial, for the first time, presents credible evidence from a police official, one Brigadier Kroum, that Deltchev is somehow involved in the shadowy tight-wing organisation, the Brotherhood of Officers, which assassinated left-wing politicians between the wars and collaborated with the Nazis during the Occupation.

Various documents found on captured Brotherhood members include references to ‘D’ involved in a conspiracy to assassinate the current premier and leader of the People’s Party, Vukashin. The ring-leader of the gang was an older man, a drug addict named Pazar. Foster begins to suspect the body he found in the slum flat was Pazar’s.

Things have been progressing very slowly but steadily, building up the creepy atmosphere of a country under totalitarian control and letting us follow Foster’s slow uncovering of the conspiracy. This is shattered by the abrupt start of chapter 14: ‘That was the Friday, the fourteenth of June. The assassination took place on the Saturday.’ (p.161) First we’ve heard that the novel will rotate around a political assassination.

It is an opportunity for Foster to stop and summarise what he knows so far; to reflect that he is a harmless man who avoids violence (a typical Ambler ‘everyman’ figure) ; and to anticipate the way he will be calumniated in the local press as a spy and agent involved in the murder… Then he resumes the chronological account of events, which now become rather feverish.

He makes a second visit to the Deltchev house to see Mrs D, once again running the gauntlet of the surly guards keeping her under house arrest. She deftly denies any knowledge of an assassination conspiracy, of why her husband called the snap election which prompted the coup, etc.

Having learned next to nothing, Foster sets off to walk back to the hotel. He becomes uneasily aware of someone following him and then, suddenly, is ambushed by two assassins who trap him in a dark stretch of boulevard but manages to survive and – as bystanders and the police come running and the assassins scarper – he evades everyone and makes it back to the hotel.

There to his astonishment he finds Deltchev’s daughter, Katerina, on his bed. (Though they have no romantic connection at all this does allow the illustrators of book covers to feature the image of a scantily-clad young lady.) She clears up a lot of mystery when she tells him the D mentioned in all the conspiracy documents is her brother, Philip, nickname Jika. Aha. Her father knows this but can’t very well turn in his own son; anyway, he wouldn’t be believed. Philip was recruited to the Brotherhood at university by the middle-aged drug addict Pazar. He gave her two safe house addresses, one the flat where Foster found the body, and another one. Foster is sure the second one is the suburban hous Pashik drove him to.

He resolves to confront Pashik about all this, says goodbye to Katerina and walks to Pashik’s flat. But there he doesn’t find the nervous newspaper fixer but the sleek and sinister western journalist, Sibley. (Pashik’s flat is a curiosity, all the walls completely plastered with magazine and newspaper photos of western starlets and ads for western goods.) This chapter – 17 – is the one you often get in a thriller which Explains Everything.

  1. Sibley explains that Pashik was himself a member of the Brotherhood; but assignment to Americans during the War made him see the error of his proto-Fascist ways. When he was brought in to translate for Deltchev during the latter’s talks with the Allies, Pashik  made himself useful and gave D the information which led to the wholesale arrest and imprisonment of most of the Brotherhood. This explains why he is so nervous.
  2. Sibley goes on to explain that Deltchev himself is merely a front man: the power behind the throne has always been his wife, the woman Foster’s interviewed twice, who stage-managed the whole thing.
  3. Foster adds what he’s learned about the rogue brother, Philip, the body of Pazar, the safe house and interrogation by ‘Valmo’.
  4. At which Sibley jumps up, having realised the true conspiracy. The People’s Party have taken over the conspiracy. The Brotherhood and Philip et al are the patsies. Valmo aka Aleko will assassinate Vukashin, but at the orders of the Party itself!!

Both men are now terrified at the scale of the conspiracy they’ve uncovered. Sibley can barely be persuaded to drive Foster back to his hotel and stops well short of it. Wisely, because as soon as Foster arrives at his hotel, he is arrested and taken by armed guard to a cell. Here there is the best scene in any of the seven Ambler novels I’ve read so far, a tense, cat-and-mouse interview with Brankovitch, the Propaganda Minister. Foster realises that if Brankovitch learns that Foster knows the full extent of the conspiracy, they will have to kill him. Therefore, he has to feign ignorance. But he knows that Brankovitch knows that Foster knows about the dead man in the apartment and the version of events ‘Valmo’ spun him in the safe house.

Therefore, Foster has to desperately consider every answer he gives to Brankovitch’s subtly leading questions extremely carefully. He has to pretend to be innocent, but then reluctantly confess to more than he initially pretended, in order to give a persuasive show of being an inquisitive snoop – but without giving the impression that he knows the real conspiracy beneath the conspiracy. He has to implicate himself so far – but no further. He has to account for the several visits to Madame Deltchev and why he thinks he was shot at in the street, but all the time concealing any hint that he knows the true secret beneath everything. It’s a battle of wits and these are tense and gripping pages.

THERE IS MORE: When he is released Foster is met, legitimately enough, by Pashik in his guise of newspaper fixer. But in the car Pashik proceeds to tell him about a counter-conspiracy against the main conspiracy. It seems that the two People’s Party leaders, Vukashin and Brankovitch, have prepared mirror-image plots to assassinate each other; in either case, the blame will be pinned on young Philip Deltchev and his father and, consequently, mass reprisals will be carried out against the Agrarian Party. This means that every conversation any of the main players has with anyone else could be held in a state of a) innocence b) knowledge of the Brotherhood conspiracy c) deeper knowledge of Brankovitch’s conspiracy against Vukashin d) deepest knowledge of Vukashin’s counterplot against Brankovitch.

Which conspiracy will win? Who, if anyone, will be assassinated? Who will be blamed? Is Foster somehow being implicated without realising it? Just how much danger is he in? Can he do anything to prevent the assassination and the political bloodbath which will follow?

Conclusion

Judgment on Deltchev starts slowly, taking time to paint in the complex history of the fictional Balkan country where it is set. But then it develops into the most complex and cleverly worked-out, the most involving and exciting of the seven Ambler thrillers I’ve read.

Dramatis personae

  • Foster: narrator, English playwright hired to report the trial of East European politician.
  • Geoghi Pashik: local fixer for western newpapers, including the one Foster is working for. Smells bad. Afraid. Part of the conspiracy.
  • Yordan Deltchev: hero of the resistance to the Nazis; leader of the Agrarian Party at the end of the war which supervised the transition to peace, earning the nickname ‘Papa’ Deltchev; overthrown in a coup by the Societ-backed People’s Party and put on trial.
  • Dr Prochaska: Public Prosecuter prosecuting Deltchev.
  • Petra Vukashin: head of the People’s Party government.
  • Petlarov: his clerk when Deltchev was a lawyer; rose with him; now under suspicion, he offers his help and guidance to Foster, in exchange for a ration card – he and his wife are starving.
  • Sibley: journalist from another paper; slippery, but knows his way around.
  • Brankovitch: Minister of Propaganda, leader of the conspiracy to assassinate his own party leader, Vukashin.

Related links

American pulp cover for The Judgment of Deltchev

American pulp cover for The Judgment of Deltchev

Eric Ambler’s screenplays

The Way Ahead (1944)
The October Man (1947)
The Passionate Friends (1949)
Highly Dangerous (1950)
The Clouded Yellow (1951)
The Magic Box (1951)
Encore (1951)
The Promoter, also known as The Card (1952)
The Cruel Sea (1953)
Shoot First (1953)
The Purple Plain (1954)
Lease of Life (1954)
Yangtse Incident: The Story of HMS Amethyst (1957)
A Night to Remember (1958)
The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959) based on the Hammond Innes novel of the same name

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.
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