Life At The Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life by J. Craig Venter (2013)

The future of biological research will be based to a great extent on the combination of computer science and synthetic biology. (p.204)

Who is Craig Venter?

The quickest way of getting the measure of this hugely clever, ambitious and visionary man is to quote his Wikipedia entry:

John Craig Venter (born October 14, 1946) is an American biTotechnologist, biochemist, geneticist, and businessman. He is known for leading the first draft sequence of the human genome and assembled the first team to transfect a cell with a synthetic chromosome. Venter founded Celera Genomics, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) and the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), where he currently serves as CEO. He was the co-founder of Human Longevity Inc. and Synthetic Genomics. He was listed on Time magazine’s 2007 and 2008 Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world. In 2010, the British magazine New Statesman listed Craig Venter at 14th in the list of ‘The World’s 50 Most Influential Figures 2010’. He is a member of the USA Science and Engineering Festival’s Advisory Board.

So he’s a heavy hitter, invited to Bill Clinton’s White House to announce his team’s successful sequencing of the first human genome on 2000, founder of a thriving biochem business, a number of charities, pioneer of genomics (‘the branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes’) and mapper of an ambitious future for the new science of synthetic biology.

In Schrödinger’s footsteps

Life At The Speed of Light was published in 2013. It originated as a set of lectures. As he explains in the introduction, in 1943, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger had fled the Continent and settled in Ireland. He was invited by the Taoiseach of the time to give some public lectures and chose the topic of life, the biology and physics of life. These are the lectures which were then published in the little book What Is Life? (1944) which inspired generations of young people to take up science (in his memoir The Double Helix James Watson describes how the book inspired him; Addy Pross named his book about the origins of life What Is Life? as a direct tribute).

Well, 49 years later Venter was invited by the Taoiseach of the day to deliver a new set of lectures, addressing the same question as Schrödinger, but in doing so, making clear the enormous strides in physics, chemistry, biology, biochemistry and genetics which had been made in that half-century.

Twelve chapters

The 12 chapters are titled:

  1. Dublin, 1943-2012
  2. Chemical synthesis as proof
  3. Dawn of the digital age of biology
  4. Digitizing life
  5. Synthetic Phi X 174
  6. First synthetic genome
  7. Converting one species into another
  8. Synthesis of the M. mycoides genome
  9. Inside a synthetic cell
  10. Life by design
  11. Biological transportation
  12. Life at the speed of light

Each chapter contains a formidable amount of state-of-the-art biochemical knowledge. The first few chapters recap relevant forebears who helped figure out that DNA was the vehicle of heredity, beginning right back at the start with Aristotle who made the primal division of living things into animal, vegetable or mineral, and namechecking other pioneers such as Robert Hook and, of course, Charles Darwin.

Biochemistry

But the real thrust of the book is to get up to date with contemporary achievements in sequencing genomes and creating transgenic entities i.e. organisms which have had the DNA of completely separate organisms stitched into them.

In order to do this Venter, of course, has to describe the molecular mechanisms of life in great detail. Successive chapters go way beyond the simplistic understanding of DNA described in Watson’s book, and open up for the reader the fantastical fairyland of how DNA actually works. He explains the central role of the ribosomes which are the factories where protein synthesis takes place (typical cells contain about a thousand ribosomes), and the role of messenger RNA in cutting off snippets of DNA and taking them to the ribosome. This is where transfer RNA (tRNA) then brings along amino acids which are intricately assembled according to the sequence of bases found on the original DNA. Combinations of the twenty amino acids are assembled into the proteins which all life forms are made of, from the proteins which make up the cell membrane, to collagen which accounts for a quarter of all the proteins found in vertebrate animals, or elastin, the basis of lung and artery walls, and so on.

I found all this mind-boggling, but the most striking single thing I learned is how fast it happens and that it needs to happen so unrelentingly.

Fast

Venter explains that protein synthesis requires only seconds to make chains of a hundred amino acids or more. Nowadays we understand the mechanism whereby the ribosome is able to ratchet RNAs laden with amino acids along its production lines at a rate of fifteen per second! Proteins need to ‘fold’ up into the correct shape – there are literally millions of possible shapes they can assume but they only function if folded correctly. This happens as soon as they’ve been manufactured inside the ribosome and takes place in a few thousandths of a second. The protein villin takes six millionths of a second to fold correctly.

I had no idea that some of the proteins required for life to function (i.e. for cells to maintain themselves) exist for as little as forty-five minutes before they decay and cease to work. Their components are then disassembled and returned to the hectic soup which is contained inside each cell membrane, before being picked up by passing tRNA and taken along to the ribosome to be packaged up into useful protein again.

Relentless

It is the absolutely relentless pressure to produce thousands of different proteins, on a continuous basis, never faltering, never resting, which makes the mechanisms of life so needy of resources, and explains why animals need to be constantly taking in nutrition from the environment, relentlessly eating, drinking, breaking food down into its elementary constituents and excreting waste products.

After a while the book began to make me feel scared by the awesome knowledge of what is required to keep ‘me’ going all day long. Just the sheer effort, the vast amount of biochemical activity going on in every one of the forty or so trillion cells which make up my body, gave me a sense of vertigo.

Every day, five hundred billion blood cells die in an individual human. it is also estimated that half our cells die during normal organ development. We all shed about five hundred million skin cells every day. As a result you shed your entire outer layer of skin every two to four weeks. (p.57 – my italics)

Life is a process of dynamic renewal.

In an hour or even less a bacterial cell has to remake all of its proteins or perish. (p.62)

Venter’s achievements

Having processed through the distinguished forebears and pioneers of biochemistry, Venter comes increasingly to the work which he’s been responsible for. First of all he explains the process behind the sequencing of the first human genome – explaining how he and his team devised a vastly faster method of sequencing than their rivals (and the controversy this aroused). Then he goes on to explain how he led teams which looked into splicing one organism’s DNA into another. And then explains the challenge of going to the next phase, and creating life forms from the DNA up.

In fact the core of the book is a series of chapters which describe in minute and, some might say, quite tedious detail, the precise strategies and methodologies Venter and his teams took in the decade or so from 2000 to 2010 to, as he summarises it:

  • synthesise DNA at a scale twenty times faster than previously possible
  • develop a methodology to transplant a genome from one species to another
  • solve the DNA-modification problems of restriction enzymes destroying transplanted DNA

Successive chapters take you into actual meetings where he and colleagues discuss how to tackle the whole series of technical problems they faced, and explain in exquisite detail precisely the techniques they developed at each step of the way. He even includes work emails describing key findings or turning points, and texts he exchanged with colleagues (pp.171-2).

After reading about a hundred of pages of this my mind began to glaze over and I skipped paragraphs and then pages which describe such minutiae as how he decided which members of the Institute to put in charge of which aspects of the project and why – in order to get to the actual outcomes. These have been dramatic:

In May 2010, a team of scientists led by Venter became the first to successfully create what was described as ‘synthetic life’. This was done by synthesizing a very long DNA molecule containing an entire bacterium genome, and introducing this into another cell … The single-celled organism contains four ‘watermarks’ written into its DNA to identify it as synthetic and to help trace its descendants. The watermarks include:

    • a code table for entire alphabet, with punctuations
    • the names of 46 contributing scientists
    • three quotations
    • the secret email address for the cell.

Venter gives a detailed description of the technical challenges, and the innovations his team devised to overcome then, in the quest to create the first ever synthesised life form in chapter 8, ‘Synthesis of the M. mycoides genome’. More recently, after the timescale of this book although the book describes this as one of his goals:

On March 25, 2016 Venter reported the creation of Syn 3.0, a synthetic genome having the fewest genes of any freely living organism (473 genes). Their aim was to strip away all nonessential genes, leaving only the minimal set necessary to support life. This stripped-down, fast reproducing cell is expected to be a valuable tool for researchers in the field. (Wikipedia)

The international nature of modern science

One notable aspect of the text is the amount of effort he puts into crediting other people’s work. When Watson wrote his book he could talk about individual contributors like Linus Pauling, Maurice Wilkins, Oswald Avery, Erwin Chergaff or Rosalind Franklin.

One of the many things that has changed since Watson’s day is the way science is now done by large teams, and often collaborations not only between labs, but between labs around the world. Thus at every step of his explanations Venter is very careful indeed to give credit to each new insight and discovery which fed into his own team’s work, and to namecheck all the relevant scientists involved. It was to be expected that each page would be studded with the names of biochemical processes and substances, but just as significant, just as indicative of the science of our times, is the way each page is also freighted with lists of names – and also, reading them carefully, just how ethnically mixed the names are – Chinese, Indian, French, German, Spanish – names from all around the world. Without anyone having to explain it, just page after page of the names alone convey what a cosmopolitan and international concern modern science is.

A simplified timeline

Although Venter spends some time recapping the steady progress of biology and chemistry into the 20th century and up to Watson and Crick’s discovery, his book really makes clear that the elucidation of DNA was only the beginning of an explosion of research into genetics, such that genetics – and the handling of genetic information – are now at the centre of biology.

1944 Oswald Avery discovered that DNA, not protein, was the carrier of genetic information
1949 Fred Sanger determined the sequence of amino acids in the hormone insulin

1950 Erwin Chargaff made the discoveries about the four components of DNA which became known as Chargaff’s Rules, i.e. the number of guanine units equals the number of cytosine units and the number of adenine units equals the number of thymine units, strongly suggesting they came in pairs
1952 the Miller-Urey experiments show that organic molecules could be created out of a ‘primal soup’ and electricity
1953 Watson and Crick publish structure of DNA
1953 Barbara McClintock publishes evidence of transposable elements in DNA, aka transposons or jumping genes
1955 Heinz Fraenkel-Conrat and biophysicist Robley Williams showed that a functional virus could be created out of purified RNA and a protein coat.
1956 Arthur Kornberg isolated the first DNA polymerizing enzyme, now known as DNA polymerase I

1961 Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich J. Matthaei discover that DNA is used in sets of three called ‘codons’
1964 Robert Holley elucidates the structure of transfer RNA
1960s Werner Arber and Matthew Meselson isolate first restriction enzyme
1967 DNA ligase discovered, an enzyme capable of linking DNA into a ring such as is found in viruses
1967 Carl Woese suggests that RNA not only carries genetic information but has catalytic properties

1970 Hamilton O. Smith, Thomas Kelly and Kent Wilcox isolate the first type II restriction enzyme
1970 discovery of reverse transcriptase which converts RNA into DNA
1971 start if gene-splicing revolution when Paul Berg spliced part of a bacterial virus into a monkey virus
1972 Herbert Boyer splices DNA from Staphylococcus into E. Coli
1974 first transgenic mammal created by Rudolf Jaenisch and Beatrice Mintz
1974 development of ‘reverse genetics’ where you interefere with an organism’s DNA and see what happens
1976 first biotech company, Genentech, set up
1977 Boyer, Itakura and Riggs use recombinant DNA to produce a human protein
1977 Carl Woese proposes an entire new kingdom of life, the Archaea

1980 Charles Weissmann engineers the protein interferon using recombinant-DNA technology
1981 Racaniello and Baltimore used recombinant DNA technology to generate the first infectious clone of an animal RNA virus, poliovirus
1982 genetically engineered insulin becomes commercially available
1980s discovery of the function of proteasomes which break up unneeded or damaged proteins
1980s Ada Yonath and Heinz-Günter Wittman grow crystals from bacterial chromosomes
1985 Martin Caruthers and his team developed an automated DNA synthesiser
1985 Aaron Klug develops ‘zinc fingers’, proteins which bind to specific three-letter sequences of DNA

1996 proposed life on Mars on the basis of microbial ‘fossils’ found in rocks blown form Mars to earth – later disproved
1996 publication of the yeast genome
1997 Venter’s team publish the entire genome of the Helicobacter pylori bacterium
1997 Dolly the sheep is cloned (DNA from a mature sheep’s mammary gland was injected into an egg that had had its own nucleus removed; it was named Dolly in honour of Dolly Parton and her large mammary glands)
1998 Andrew Fire and Craig Cameron Mello showed that so-called ‘junk DNA’ codes for double stranded RNA which trigger or shut down other genes
1999 Harry F. Noller publishes the first images of a complete ribosome

2005 The structure and function of the bacterial chromosome by Thanbichler, Viollier and Shapiro
2007 publication of Synthetic Genomics: Options for Government
2008 Venter and team create a synthetic chromosome of a bacterium
2010 Venter’s team announce the creation of the first synthetic cell (described in detail in chapter 8)
2011 first structure of a eukaryotic ribosome published

Life at the speed of light

Anyway, this is a book with a thesis and a purpose. Or maybe two, two sides of the same coin. One is to eradicate all irrational, magical beliefs in ‘vitalism’, to insist that life is nothing but chemistry. The other is his bold visions of the future.

1. Anti-vitalism

The opening chapter had included a brief recap of the literature and fantasy of creating new life, Frankenstein etc. This builds up to the fact that Venter really has it in for all traditions and moralists who believe in a unique life force. He is at pains to define and then refute the theory of vitalism – ‘the theory that the origin and phenomena of life are dependent on a force or principle distinct from purely chemical or physical forces.’ Venter very powerfully believes the opposite: that ‘life’ consists of information about chemistry, nothing more.

This, I think, is a buried motive for describing the experiments carried out at his own institute in such mind-numbing detail. It is to drill home the reality that life is nothing more than chemistry and information. If you insert the genome of one species into the cells of another they become the new species. They obey the genomic or chemical instructions. All life does. There is no mystery, no vital spark, no élan vital etc etc.

A digression on the origins of life

This is reinforced in chapter 9 where Venter gives a summary of the work of Jack W. Szostak into the origin of life.

Briefly, Szostak starts with the fact that lipid or fat molecules are spontaneously produced in nature. He shows that these tend to link up together to form ‘vesicles’ which also, quite naturally, form together into water-containing membranes. If RNA – which has been shown to also assemble spontaneously – gets into these primitive ‘cells’, then they start working, quite automatically, to attract other RNA molecules into the cell. As a result the cell will swell and, with a little shaking from wind or tide, replicate. Voilà! You have replicating cells containing RNA.

Venter then describes work that has been done into the origin of multicellularity i.e. cells clumping together to co-operate, which appears to have happened numerous times in the history of life, to give rise to a variety of multicellular lineages.

Venter goes on to describe one other major event in the history of life – symbiogenesis – ‘The theory holds that mitochondria, plastids such as chloroplasts, and possibly other organelles of eukaryotic cells represent formerly free-living prokaryotes taken one inside the other in endosymbiosis.’

In other words, at a number of seismic moments in the history of life, early eukaryotic cells engulfed microbial species that were living in symbiosis with them. Or to put it another way, early cells incorporated useful microbes which existed in their proximity, entirely into themselves.

The two big examples are:

  • some two billion years ago, when a eukaryotic cell incorporated into itself a photosynthetic bacterial algae cell which ultimately became the ‘chloroplast‘ – the site where photosynthesis takes place – in all successive plant species
  • and the fact that the ‘power packs’ of human cells, known as mitochondria, carry their own genetic code and have their own way of reproducing, indicating that they were taken over whole, not melded or merged but swallowed (it is now believed that human mitochondria derived from a specific bacterium, Rickettsia, which survives down to this day)

This information is fascinating in itself, but it is clearly included to join up with the detailed description of the work in his own institute in order to make the overwhelming case that life is just information and that DNA is the bearer of that information.

It obviously really irritates Venter that, despite the overwhelming weight of the evidence, people at large – journalists, philosophers, armchair moralists and religious believers – refuse to accept it, refuse to face the facts.

2. Creating life

The corollary of there being nothing magical about ‘life’ is the confident way Venter interprets all the evidence he has so painstakingly described, and all the dazzling achievements he has been involved in, as having brought humanity to the brink of a New Age of Life, a New Epoch in the Evolution of Life on Earth.

We have now entered what I call ‘the digital age of biology’, in which once distinct domains of computer codes and those that program life are beginning to merge, where new synergies are emerging that will drive evolution in radical directions. (p.2)

The fusion of the digital world of the machine and that of biology would open up the remarkable possibilities for creating novel species and guiding future evolution. (p.109)

In the final chapters he waxes very lyrical about the fantastic opportunities opening up for designing DNA on computers, modeling the behaviour of this artificial DNA, fine-tuning the design, and then building new synthetic organisms in the real world.

The practical applications know no limits, and on page 221 he lists some:

  • man-made organisms which could absorb the global warming CO2 in the air, or eat oil pollution, turning it into harmless chemicals
  • computer designing designing cures for diseases
  • designing crops that are resistant to drought, that can tolerate disease or thrive in barren environments, provide rich new sources of protein and other nutrients, can be harnessed for water purification in arid regions
  • designing animals that become sources for pharmaceuticals or spare body parts
  • customising human stem cells to regenerate damaged organs and bodies

Biological transformations

The final two chapters move beyond even these goals to lay out some quite mind-boggling visions of the future. Venter builds on his institute’s achievements to date, and speculates about the kinds of technologies we can look forward to or which are emerging even as he writes.

The one that stuck in my mind is the scenario that, when the next variety of human influenza breaks out, doctors will only have to get a sample of the virus to a lab like Venter’s and a) they will now be able to work out its DNA sequence more or less the same day b) they will then be able to design a vaccine in a computer c) they will be able to create the DNA they have designed in the lab much faster than ever possible before but d) they will be able to email the design for this vaccine DNA anywhere in the world, at the speed of a telephone wire, at the speed of light. That is what the title of the book means. New designs for synthesised life forms can now be developed in computers (which are working faster and faster) and then emailed wherever they’re required i.e. to the centre of the outbreak of a new disease, where labs will be able to use the techniques pioneered by Venter’s teams to culture and mass produce vaccines at record speeds.


Scientific myopia

I hate to rain on his parade, but I might as well lay out as clearly as I can the reasons why I am not as excited about the future as Venter. Why I am more a J.G. Ballard and John Gray man than a Venter man.

1. Most people don’t know or care Venter takes the position of many of the scientists I’ve been reading – from the mathematicians Bellos and Stewart through the astrophysicists Hawking and Davies and Barrow, to the origin-of-life men Cairns-Smith and Addy Pross – that new discoveries in their fields are earth-shatteringly important and will make ordinary people stop in their tracks, and look at their neighbour on the bus or train and exclaim, ‘NOW I understand it! NOW I know the meaning of life! NOW I realise what it’s all about.’

A moment’s reflection tells you that this simply won’t happen. Einstein’s relativity, Schrödinger and Bohr’s quantum mechanics, the structure of DNA, cloning, the discovery of black holes – what is striking is how little impact most of these ‘seismic’ discoveries have had on most people’s lives or thinking. Ask your friends and family which of the epic scientific discoveries of the 20th century I’ve listed above has made the most impact on their lives. Or they’ve even heard of. Or could explain.

2. Most people are not intellectuals This error (thinking people are very bothered about scientific ‘breakthroughs’) is based on a deeper false premise, one of the great category errors common to all these kind of books and magazine articles and documentaries – which is that the authors think that everyone else in society is a university-educated intellectual like themselves, whereas, very obviously, they are not. Trump. Brexit.

3. Public debate is often meaningless Worse, they believe that something called ‘education’ and ‘public debate’ will control the threat posed by these technologies:

Opportunities for public debate and discussion on this topic must be sponsored, and the lay public must engage with the relevant issues. (p.215)

Famous last words. Look at the ‘debate’ surrounding Brexit. Have any of the thousands of articles, documentaries, speeches, books and tweets helped solve the situation? No. ‘Debate’ hardly ever solves anything. Clear-cut and affordable solutions which people can understand and get behind solve things.

4. A lot of people are nasty, some are evil Not only this but Venter, like all the other highly-educated, middle-class, liberal intellectuals I’ve mentioned, thinks that people are fundamentally nice – will welcome their discoveries, will only use them for the good of mankind, and so on.

Megalolz, as my kids would say. No. People are not nice. The Russians and the Chinese are using the internet to target other countries’ vital infrastructures, and sow misinformation. Islamist warriors are continually looking for ways to attack ‘the West’, the more spectacular the better. In 2010 Israel is alleged to have carried out the first cyberattack on another nation’s infrastructure when it (allegedly) attacked a uranium enrichment facility at Iran’s Natanz underground nuclear site.

In other words, cyberspace is not at all a realm where high-minded intellectuals meet and debate worthy moral issues, and where synthetic biologists devise life-saving new vaccines and beam them to locations of epidemic outbreaks ‘at the speed of light’. Cyberspace is already a war zone.

And it is a warzone in a world which contains some nasty regimes, not just those which are in effect dictatorships (Iran, China) but even many of the so-called democracies.

Trump. Putin. Erdogan. Bolsonaro. Viktor Orban. These are all right-wing demagogues who were voted into power in democratic elections.

It may be that both the peoples, and the leaders, who Venter puts his faith in are simply not up to the job of understanding, using wisely or safeguarding the speed of light technology he is describing.

Venter goes out of his way, throughout the book, to emphasise how socially responsible he and his Institute and his research have been, how they have taken part in, sponsored and contributed to umpteen conferences and seminars, alongside government agencies like the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, into the ‘ethics’ of conducting synthetic biology (i.e. designing and building new organisms) and into its risks (terrorists use it to create lethal biological weapons).

Indeed, most of chapter ten is devoted to the range of risks – basically, terrorist use or some kind of accident – which could lead to the release of harmful, synthesised organisms into the environment – accompanied by a lot of high-minded rhetoric about the need to ‘educate the public’ and ‘engage a lay audience’ and ‘exchange views’, and so on…

I believe that the issue of the responsible use of science is fundamental… (p.215)

Quite. But then the thousands of scientists and technicians who invented the atom bomb were highly educated, highly moral and highly responsible people, too. But it wasn’t them who funded it, deployed it and pushed the red button. Good intentions are not enough.


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Tau Zero by Poul Anderson (1970)

One of the most dazzling, mind-boggling and genuinely gripping novels I’ve ever read.

The story is set in the future, after the customary nuclear war which happens in so many futurestories. The twist on this one is that, after the radiation died down, the world’s powers agreed under something referred to as ‘the Covenant’ to put Sweden in charge, handing over all nuclear devices to a country big enough to manage them and keep the peace, but small enough not to have any global ambitions of her own.

Thus liberated from war, humanity – again, as in so many of these optimistic futurestories from the 1950s and 60s – has focused its efforts on space exploration using the handy new ‘ion drive’ which has been discovered, along with something called ‘Bussard engines’, helped along by elaborate ‘scoopfield webs’ to create ‘magnetohydrodynamic fields’.

Reaction mass entered the fire chamber. Thermonuclear generators energised the furious electric arcs that stripped those atoms down to ions; the magnetic fields that separated positive and negative particles; the forces that focused them into beams; the pulses that lashed them to ever higher velocities as they sped down the rings of the thrust tubes, until they emerged scarcely less fast than light itself.

The idea is that the webs are extended ‘nets’ a kilometre or so wide, which drag in all the hydrogen atoms which exist in low density in space, charging and channeling them towards the ‘drive’ which strips them to ions and thrusts them fiercely out the back of the ship – hence driving it forward.

Several voyages of exploration have already been undertaken to the nearest star systems in space ships which use these drives to travel near the speed of light, and fast-moving ‘probes’ have been sent to all the nearest star systems.

One of these probes reached the star system Centauri and now, acting on its information, a large spaceship, the Leonora Christine, is taking off on a journey to see if the third planet orbiting round Centauri really is habitable, as the probe suggests, and could be settled by ‘man’.

Einstein’s theory of relativity suggests that as any object approaches the speed of light, its experience of time slows down. The plan is for the Leonora Christine to accelerate for a couple of years towards near light speed, travel at that speed for a year, then slow down for a couple of years.

Five years there, whereupon they will either a) stay if the planet is habitable b) return, if it is not. Due to this time dilation effect those on the expedition will only age twelve years or so, while 43 or more years will pass back on earth (p.49).

(Time dilation is a key feature of Joe Haldeman’s novel, The Forever War, in which the protagonist keeps returning from tours of duty off-world to discover major changes in terrestrial society have taken place in his absence: it is, therefore, a form of one-way time travel.)

The Leonora Christine carries no fewer than fifty passengers, a cross-section of scientists, engineers, biologists and so on. Unlike any other spaceship I’ve read of it is large enough to house a gym, a theatre, a canteen and a swimming pool!

Two strands

Tau Zero is made up of two very different types of discourse. It is (apparently) a classic of ‘hard’ sci fi because not three pages go by without Anderson explaining in daunting technical detail the process workings of the ion drive, or the scoopnets, explaining the ratio of hydrogen atoms in space, or how the theory of relativity works, and so on. Not only are there sizeable chunks of uncompromising scientific information every few pages, but understanding them is key to the plot and narrative.

Starlike burned the hydrogen fusion, aft of the Bussard module that focused the electromagnetism which contained it. A titanic gas-laser effect aimed photons themselves in a beam whose reaction pushed the ship forward – and which would have vaporised any solid body it struck. The process was not 100 percent efficient. But most of the stray energy went to ionise the hydrogen which escaped nuclear combustion. These protons and electrons, together with the fusion products, were also hurled backward by the force fields, a gale of plasma adding its own increment of momentum. (p.40)

But at the same time, or regularly interspersed with the tech passages, are the passages describing the ‘human interest’ side of the journey, which is full of clichés and stereotypes, a kind of Peyton Place in space. To be more specific, the book was first published in instalments in 1967 and it has a very 1960s mindset. Anderson projects idealistic 1960s talk about ‘free love’ into a future in which adults have no moral qualms about ‘sleeping around’.

Before they leave, the novel opens with a pair of characters in a garden in Stockholm walking and having dinner and then the woman, Ingrid Lindgren, proposes to the man, Charles Reymont, that they become a couple. During all the adventures that follow, there is a continual exchanging of partners among the 25 men and 25 women on board, with little passages set aside for flirtations and guytalk about the girls or womentalk about the boys.

When a partnership ends one of the couple moves out, the other moves in with a room-mate of the same sex for a period, or immediately moves in with their new partner. It’s like wife-swapping in space. In a key moment of the plot, the ship’s resident astronomer, a short ugly anti-social and smelly man, becomes so depressed that he can no longer function. At which point Ingrid tactfully gets rid of the concerned captain and officers and… sleeps with him. So sex is deployed ‘tactically’ as a form of therapy.

Sex

He admired the sight of her. Unclad, she could never be called boyish. The curves of her breasts and flank were subtler than ordinary, but they were integral with the rest of her – not stuccoed on, as with too many women – and when she moved, they flowed. So did the light along her skin which had the hue of the hills around San Francisco Bay in their summer, and the light in her hair, which had the smell of every summer day that ever was on earth. (p.62)

Feminism

From a feminist perspective, it is striking how the 25 women aboard the ship are a) all scientists and experts in their fields b) are not passive sex objects, but very active in deciding who they want to partner with and why. One of the two strong characters in the narrative is a woman, Ingred Lindgren.

Characters

  • Captain Lars Telander
  • Ingrid Lindgren, steely disciplined first officer
  • Charles Reymont, takes over command when the ship hits crisis
  • Boris Fedoroff, Chief Engineer
  • Norbert Williams, American chemist
  • Chi-Yuen Ai-Ling, Planetologist
  • Emma Glassgold, molecular biologist
  • Jane Sadler, Canadian bio-technician
  • Machinist Johann Freiwald
  • Astronomer Elof Nilsson
  • Navigation Officer, Auguste Boudreau
  • Biosystems Chief Pereira
  • Margarita Jimenes
  • Iwamoto Tetsuo
  • Hussein Sadek
  • Yeshu ben-Zvi
  • Mohandas Chidambaran
  • Phra Takh
  • Kato M’Botu

Thus the ship’s progress proceeds smoothly, while the crew discuss decorating the canteen and common rooms, paint murals and have numerous affairs. Five years is a long time to pass in a confined ship. And meanwhile the effects of travelling ever closer to light speed create unusual effects and, to be honest, I was wondering what all the fuss was about this book.

When Leonora Christine attained a substantial fraction of light speed, its optical effects became clear to the unaided sight. Her velocity and that of the rays from a star added vectorially; the result was aberration. Except for whatever lay dead aft or ahead, the apparent position changed. Constellations grew lopsided, grew grotesque, and melted, as their members crawled across the dark. More and more, the stars thinned out behind the ship and crowded before her. (p.45)

Tau

Anderson gives us a couple of pages introducing the tau equation. This defines the ‘interdependence of space, time, matter, and energy’, If v is the velocity of the spaceship, and c the velocity of light, then tau equals the square root of 1 minus v² divided by c². In other words the closer the ship’s velocity, v, gets to the speed of light, c (186,00 miles per second), then v² divided by c² gets closer and closer to 1; therefore 1 minus something which is getting closer to 1 gets closer and closer to 0; and the square root of that number similarly approaches closer and closer to zero.

Or to put it another way, the closer tau gets to zero the faster the ship is flying, the greater its mass, and the slower the people inside it experience time, relative to the rest of the ‘static’ universe.

The plot kicks in

So the narrative trundles amiably along for the first 60 or so pages, interspersing passages of dauntingly technical exposition with the petty jealousies, love affairs and squabbles of the human characters, until…

The ship passes through an unanticipated gas cloud, just solid enough to possibly destroy her, at the very least do damage – due to the enormous speed she’s now flying at which effects her mass.

Captain Telander listens to his experts feverishly calculating what impact will mean but ultimately they have to batten down the hatches, make themselves secure and hope for the best, impact happening on page 75 of this 190-page long book.

In the event the ship survives but the technicians quickly discover that impact has knocked out the decelerating engines. Now, much worse, the technicians explain to the captain and the lead officers, First Officer Lindgren and the man responsible for crew discipline, Reymont, the terrible catch-22 they’re stuck in.

In order to investigate what’s happened to the decellerator engines, the technicians would have to go to the rear of the ship and investigate manually. Unfortunately, they would be vaporised in nano-seconds by the super-powerful ion drive if they got anywhere near it. Therefore, no-one can investigate what’s wrong with the decelerator engine until the accelerator engine is turned off.

But here’s the catch: the ship is travelling so close to the speed of light that, if they turned the accelerator engines off, the crew would all be killed in moments. Why? Because the ship is constantly being bombarded by hydrogen atoms found in small amounts throughout space. At the moment the accelerator engines and scoopfield webs are directing these atoms away from the ship and down into the ion drive. The ion drive protects the ship. The moment it is turned off, these hydrogen atoms will suddenly be bombarding the ship’s hull and, because of the speed it is going at, the effect will be to split the hydrogen atoms releasing gamma rays. The gamma rays will penetrate the hull and fry all the humans inside in moments.

Thus they cannot stop. They are doomed to continue accelerating forever or until they all die.

It is at this point that the way Anderson has introduced us to quite a few named characters, and shown them bickering, explaining abstruse theory, getting drunk and getting laid begins to show its benefits. Because the rest of the novel consists of a series of revelations about the logical implications of their plight and, if these were just explained in tech speak they would be pretty flat and dull: the drama, the grip of the novel derives from the way the matrix of characters he’s developed respond to each new revelation: getting drunk, feeling suicidal, determined to tough it out, relationships fall apart, new relationships are formed. In and of themselves these human interest passages are hardly Tolstoy, but they are vital for the novel’s success because they dramatise each new twist in the story and, as the characters discuss the implications, the time spent reading their dialogue and thoughts helps the reader, also, to process and assimilate the story’s mind-blowing logic.

A series of unfortunate incidents

Basically what happens is there is a series of four or five further revelations which confirm the astronauts in their plight, but expand it beyond their, or our, wildest imaginings.

At first the captain and engineer come up with a plan of sorts. They know, or suspect, that between galaxies the density of hydrogen atoms in the ether falls off. If they can motor beyond our galaxy they can find a place where the hydrogen density of space is so minute that they can afford to turn off the ion drive and repair the decelerator.

This is discussed in detail, with dialogue working through both the technical aspects and also the emotional consequences. Many of the crew had anticipated returning to earth to be reunited with at least some members of their family. Now that has gone for good. As has the original plan of exploring an earth-style planet.

And so we are given some mind-blowing descriptions of the ship deliberately accelerating in order to pass right through the galaxy and beyond. But unfortunately, the scientists then discover that the space between galaxies is not thin enough to protect them. Also there is another catch-22. In order to travel out of the galaxy they have had to increase speed. But now they are flying everso close to the speed of light, the risk posed by turning off the ion drive and exposing themselves to the stray hydrogen atoms in space has become greater. The faster they go in order to find space thin enough to stop in, the thinner that space has to become.

The astronomers now come to the conclusion that space is still to full of hydrogen atoms in the sectors which contain clusters of galaxies. They decide to increase the ship’s velocity even more in order not just to leave our galaxy, but to get clear of our entire family of galaxies. This they calculate, will take another year or so at present velocities.

Thus it is that the book moves forward by presenting a new problem, the scientists suggest a solution which involves travelling faster and further, the crew is told and slowly gets used to the idea, as do we, via various conversations and attitudes and emotional responses. But when that goal is attained, it turns out there is another problem, and so the tension and the narrative drive of the book is relentlessly ratcheted up.

And of course, the further they travel and the closer to light speed, the more the tau effect predicts that time slows down for them, or, to put it another way, time speeds up for the rest of the universe. Early on in the post-disaster section, the crew assemble to celebrate the fact that a hundred years have passed back on earth: everyone they knew is dead. It is a sombre assembly with heavy drinking, casual sex, melancholy thoughts.

But by the time we get to the bit where they have flown clear of the galaxy only to be disappointed to find that inter-galactic space is too full of hydrogen for them to stop, by this stage they realise that thousands of years have passed back on earth.

By the time they fly free of the entire cluster of galaxies, they know that tens of thousands of years have passed. And eventually, as their tau approaches closer and closer to zero, they realise that millions of years have passed (one million is passed n page 136).

For when they do eventually fly beyond our entire family of galaxies they encounter another problem which is discovering that empty space is now too dispersed to allow them to decelerate. Even if they turn off the ion drive and fix the decelerating engine, there isn’t enough matter in truly empty space for the engine to latch on to and use as fuel to slow them (p.147).

Thus they decide to continue onwards, letting their acceleration, and mass, increase until they find a part of space with just the right conditions.

The accessible mass of the whole galactic clan that was her goal proved inadequate to brake her velocity. Therefore she did not try. Instead, she used what she swallowed to drive forward all the faster. She traversed the domain of this second clan – with no attempt at manual control, simply spearing through a number of its member galaxies – in two days. On the far side, again into hollow space, she fell free. The stretch to the next attainable clan was on the order of another hundred million light-years. She made the passage in about a week. (p.151)

On they fly at incomprehensible speed, while various human interest stories unfurl between the ship’s crew, until they (and the reader) reach the blasé condition of feeling the ship’s hull rattle and hum for a few moments and a character will say, ‘There goes another galaxy’.

Now if this was a J.G. Ballard novel, they’d all have gone mad and started eating each other by now. Anderson’s take on human psychology is much more bland and optimistic. Some of the crew get a bit depressed, but nothing some casual sex, or a project to redecorate the canteen can’t fix.

The main ‘human’ part of the narrative describes the way the ship’s ‘constable’, Charles Reymont who we met back on the opening pages, takes effective control from the captain. Initially this is basic psychology, Charles realising it will help discipline best if the captain becomes an aloof figure beyond criticism or reproach while he, Charles, imposes discipline, structure and purpose – allotting the crew tasks and missions to perform to maintain their morale, and letting them hate or resent him for it if they will. But over time the captain really does lose the ability to decide anything and Charles becomes the ship’s dictator. This is complicated by the fact that he discovers the woman who had suggested they become a couple, Ingrid, in someone else’s bed though she swears she was only doing it for therapeutic purposes. They split up and Charles pairs off with the Chinese planetologist, Chi-Yuen Ai-Ling, leading to a number of sexy descriptions of her naked body. But Ingrid continues to hold a torch for him and he for her. That’s the spine of the ‘human interest’ part of the novel.

Hundreds of millions of years have passed and indeed, in the last 40 pages or so a character lets slips that it must be over a billion years since they left earth.

it’s at this stage that the book becomes truly visionary. For, after some delay and conferring with colleagues, the astronomer comes to the captain and Reymont and Lindgren to announce that… the universe itself is changing. The galaxies they are flying through no longer contain fit young stars. Increasingly what they’re seeing through their astronomical instruments (not the naked eye) is that the galaxies are made of low intensity red dwarfs.

The universe is running down.

So many billion years have passed – one character estimates one hundred billion years (p.170) that they have travelled far into ‘the future’ and are witnessing the end of the universe. The stars are going out and the actual space of the universe is contracting.

Anderson’s vision is based on the theory that the universe began in a big bang, has and will expand for billions of years but will eventually reach a stage where the initial blast of energy from the bang is so dispersed that it is countered by the cumulative gravity of all the matter in the universe – which will stop it expanding and make it slowly and then with ever-increasing speed, hurtle towards a ‘Big Crunch’ when all the matter in the universe returns to the primal singularity.

Face with this haunting, terrifying fact, the scientists again make calculations and act on a hunch. They guess that the singularity won’t actually become a minute particle but will be shrouded in ‘en enormous hydrogen envelope’ (p.175), the simplest chemical, and calculate that the ship will be flying so fast that it will survive the Big Crunch and live on to witness the creation of the next universe.

‘The outer part of that envelope may not be too hot or radiant or dense for us. Space will be small enough, though, that we can circle around and around the monobloc as a kind of satellite. When it blows up and space starts to expand again, we’ll spiral out ourselves.’ (Reymont, p.175)

And this is what happens. Anderson gives a mind bogging description of the ship reaching such an infinitesimal value of tau that it flies right through the Big Crunch and out into the new universe which explodes outwards (pp.181-3).

Indeed it is travelling so fast, and time outside is moving so fast, that they can chose how many billions of years into the history of the new universe they want to stop (p.184). A quick calculation suggests that it took about 10 billion years for a plenty like earth to come into being and establish the conditions for life to evolve, and so they calculate their deceleration to take place that far into the future of this new universe.

Epilogue

And this is what they do, and the last few pages cut to Reymont and Ingrid, the lovers we met in the opening pages falling dreamily in love, now lying under a tree on a planet which has an earth-like atmosphere but blue vegetation, three moons and all sorts of weird fauna and flora, as they plan their lives together (pp.188-190)

We left plausibility behind a long time ago. Instead the book turns into an absolutely gripping rollercoaster of a ride, one of the most genuinely mind-blowing and gripping stories I’ve ever read. What a trip!


Style

the foregoing summary may give the impression the story is told in language as clear as an instruction manual, but this would be wrong.

Putting the plot to one side, one of the most striking features of Tau Zero is its prose style – an odd and ungainly variant of standard English which makes you pause on every page.

Leonora Christine was nearing the third year of her journey, or the tenth year as the stars counted time, when grief came upon her. (p.63)

Anderson was born in America (in 1926) but his mother took him as a boy to live in Denmark where she’d originally come from, until the outbreak of war forced them to return. For this or the general fact of growing up in an immigrant Scandinavian family, Anderson’s English is oddly stilted and phrased. It often sounds like it’s been translated from a Norse saga.

She gave him cheerful greeting as he entered. (p.52)

They would live out their lives, and belike their children and grandchildren too (p.53)

He stood moveless (p.58)

Nor would he have stopped to dress, had he been abed. (p.64)

Telander must perforce smile a bit as he went out the door. (p.69)

Fedoroff spoke. His words fell contemptuous. (p.80)

He clapped the navigator’s back in friendly wise. (p.159)

She rested elbow on head, forehead on hand. (p.161)

Every pages has sentences containing odd kinks away from natural English. As a small example it’s typified by the way Anderson refers throughout the story not to the ship’s ‘crew’, but to its folk. Another consistent quirk is the way people don’t experience emotions or psychological states, these, in the form of abstract nouns, come over them.

Soberness had come upon her. (p.100)

Dismay sprang forth on Williams. (p.105)

Anger still upbore the biologist. (p.106)

Dismay shivered in her. (p.116)

Hardness fell from him. (p.125)

Weight grabbed at Reymont. (.167)

Sometimes he achieves a kind of incongruous poetry by accident.

Footsteps thudded in the mumble of energies. (p.70)

Ingrid Lindgren regarded him for a time that shivered. (p.71)

The ship jeered at him in her tone of distant lightnings. (p.84)

Sometimes it makes the already challenging technical explanations just that little bit more impenetrable.

Then again, maybe this slightly alien English helps to create a sense of mild dislocation which is not inappropriate for a science fiction story, especially one which takes us right to the edge of the universe and then beyond!


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
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 future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall 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 – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel 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 comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings 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 Kent, gets caught up in 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
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

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
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
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
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 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
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines, and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

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
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero, while the daughter of a Japanese ganster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population under control

Burning Chrome by William Gibson (1986)

So I went out into the night and the neon and let the crowd pull me along, walking blind, willing myself to be just a segment of that mass organism, just one more drifting chip of consciousness under the geodesics. (p.218)

Burning Chrome is a collection of ten short stories by William Gibson. They include his first published work, Fragments of a Hologram Rose, published in 1977, and then all the stories he wrote up till 1986.

In 1984 Gibson had published his debut novel, Neuromancer, set in a future world dominated by digital techologies, in which he made great use of the ideas of cyberspace and the matrix of digital information. What made it really distinctive, though, was how all this was viewed filtered through a film noir, street level culture which mixed the tough guy crime stories of Raymond Chandler with 1980s punk culture – in which this brave future was not supervised by Arthur C. Clarke-style, clean-suited technocrats, but was at the mercy of international corporations, Japanese yakuza gangs, ninja assassins, dealers selling all manner of futuristic drugs, holograms used for viewing savage knife fights or holoporn showing the obvious – in other words, a future seen from a street-level view of crime and rackets and dealers and pimps and whores, all summed up in the word, ‘the biz’. And all conveyed in an amphetamine-driven, drug-crazed, super-charged prose, dense with a dizzy combination of street slang and tech terms.

Neuromancer was followed by Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive which, together, are now said to comprise Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy, so-called because in this America of the future, the entire East Coast has become one vast, continuous urban sprawl.

The stories in this collection include several which share the Sprawl world, including one which actually features the female protagonist from Neuromancer, Molly (and where we learn her surname is the rather cartoonish Million – Molly Millions).

And then there are ‘the rest’, a miscellany of non-Sprawl science fiction stories, most of them set in the future, or a future, just not necessarily the Sprawl future.


Sprawl stories

Fragments of a Hologram Rose (1977) first published work

It’s very short (7 pages) and it is very fragmentary. We get the protagonist’s back story in scattered fragments. We have Hints of the Damaged Future, hints that Japanese business and culture was taking over America – the kit Parker uses to get into ASP is made by Japanese corporation, Sendai; more importantly, when a teenager his parents indenture him to a the US branch of a Japanese corporation, with its barracks and corporate hymns. He runs away. He flees to a California which has declared itself independent of the USA, under a chaotic ‘New Secessionist’ movement. Up to a point these can maybe be seen as extrapolations of trends Gibson saw in his own time.

The story already contains key themes, namely the protagonist, Parker, works on Apparent Sensory Perception (ASP) programmes. As in the Sprawl stories, you plug your brain into the player, play the tapes and you are there: the recording completely floods your sensorium.

And also, what I by now realise is another major theme, which is a surprisingly sentimental lost-love trope. The girls in Gibson (well, young women) are always slender as gazelles and tough as silicon razor nails. Sex is an olympic workout. His women can hold their own against gangsters and dealers. BUT, beneath this leather-jacketed veneer of modernity, the men are always loving and losing them, in a sentimental ‘I’m not going to cry’ tough guy way descended from Hemingway and Chandler.

Parker has woken at 3 in the morning (that’s another trope: it’s always the middle of the night, or the darkest hour before dawn) and is rummaging through her belongings and his memories. He finds the hologram of a rose which he unsentimentally flushes into the waste disposal unit. His last memory is watching her going off in a taxi leaving him standing there in the pouring rain. Sob.

Johnny Mnemonic (1981)

Super cool and fast moving, this concerns Johnny Mnemonic, so-named because memory banks (a hard drive) has been neurally inserted into his brain, so that he can store vast amounts of data which a) he doesn’t understand b) he cannot himself access.

The stored data are fed in through a modified series of microsurgical contraautism prostheses.’ (p.22)

Only clients with the password can access it. He is a storage facility or, as he himself puts it: ‘a nice meatball chock-full of implants.’

As so often the story features a meeting with a drug dealer, Ralfi, in a lowlife café. The dealer has brought a neural disruptor so, although Johnny has packed a sawnoff shotgun in an adidas bag, he is paralysed, while the dealer indicates that the hired muscle he’s brought, Lewis, is going to hurt him.

Enter a typically lean, mean, streetwise chick, who identifies herself as Molly Millions (‘She was wearing leather jeans the colour of dried blood’) and, as Lewis leans forward to hurt Johnny, flips her hand past his, somehow lacerating his wrist down to the artery. Lewis clutches it and runs off. We later learn Molly has four-centimetre-long razor retractable blades installed under her fingernails. (She has also had her eyballs replaced with digital lenses.) The neural disruptor goes off and Johnny is free.

Molly grabs his hand and runs him along to her hiding place, a disused part of the lofty ceiling of a vast mall made of geodesic domes, overseen by an outlandish gang named the Lo Teks who dance and perform on a high-wire dance floor they call the Killing Floor.

In case this is all too mundane, Gibson throws in the participation of a cybernetic dolphin, a relic from the war (you know, that war) which is kept in a rundown zoo, but features, among its other hi-tech devices, a SQUID, being a Superconducting Quantum Interference Detector, which they use to extract the data in Johnny’s head which caused Ralfi to come after him. They reward the dolphin, whose rather dull name is Jones, by shooting him up with heroin, yes, this cybernetic dolphin is a junkie.

They use Jones’s skills to extract and place the data in a construct which they leave on a shelf in the backroom of a gift shop.

And here is another classic element of the Sprawl world: the power of multinational corporations, the real rulers of the world, controllers of entire economies, and that most of these multinational corporations are Japanese.

The Yakuza is a true multinational, like ITT and Ono-Sendai. Fifty years before I was born the Yakuza had already absorbed the Triads, the Mafia, the Union Corse. (p.22)

Burning Chrome (1982)

A seminal story for several reasons.

  1. It has all the familiar ingredients: Automatic Jack and Bobby Quine are two ex-soldiers (fought at the Battle of Kiev in the same failed war against Russia mentioned in Neuromancer). Jack, the narrator, is injured/wounded – his arm was lasered off while flying a microlight. Future technology gives him a replacement cybernetic arm, powered by nerves.
  2. There’s a sexy chick, Rikki, who within a sentence of appearing in the story, is pulling a ‘frayed khaki cotton shirt’ over her pert, twenty-something breasts. Jack falls in love with her, then loses her.
  3. Jack and Bobby are criminals who hack into business information in cyberspace for gain.

In terms of storytelling technique, it is classic Gibson in the way it’s based in a ‘present’, after the bank job, the heist, the caper – in which the narrator a) looks back on everything that’s happened b) dwells on falling in love with the woman and losing her – and intersperses this with chunks of exposition, which tell the actual story i.e. how Jack and Bobby enter cyberspace to break into the highly defended vaults of ‘Chrome’, a terrifyingly violent criminal who launders money for organised crime, as well as running a bar-cum-brothel, the House of Blue Lights.

Chrome: her pretty childface smooth as steel, with eyes that would have been at home on the bottom of some deep Atlantic trench, cold grey eyes that lived under terrible pressure. They said she cooked her own cancers for people who crossed her, rococo custom variations that took years to kill you. (p.196)

Same technique is used in New Rose Hotel, where the narrator is in a ‘present’, after a big criminal caper has taken place – looking back at both the build-up to the crime, and lamenting his abandonment by a sexy, feisty woman (Sandii). (She took the money and went off to Hollywood in hopes of becoming a ‘simstim’ star.)

But the most important aspect is that, by way of describing how Jack and Bobby steal all Chrome’s assets in cyberspace, it gives extended (and useful) explanations of key concepts in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe – cyberspace, the matrix and ice.

Bobby was a cowboy, and ice was the nature of his game, ice from ICE, Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics. The matrix is an abstract representation of the relationships between data systems. Legitimate programmers jack into their employers’ sector of the matrix and find themselves surrounded by bright geometries representing corporate data.

Towers and fields of it ranged in the colourless nonspace of the simulation matrix, the electronic consensus-hallucination that facilitates the handling and exchange of massive quantities of data. Legitimate programmers never see the walls of ice they operate behind, the walls of shadow that screen their operations from others, from industrial-espionage artists and hustlers like Bobby Quine.

And I can’t resist quoting the final paragraph in this sequence because it’s a classic example of how Gibson’s mastery of a certain type of speed-fuelled prose can turn what is, basically, the boring reality of criminals hacking into computers, into soaring prose poetry.

Bobby was a cowboy. Bobby was a cracksman, a burglar, casing mankind’s extended electronic nervous system, rustling data and credit in the crowded matrix, monochrome nonspace where the only stars are dense concentrations of information, and high above it all burn corporate galaxies and the cold spiral arms of military systems. (p.197)

A bit later, the narrator tells us there are some 15 million legitimate console operators around the world, doing the daily trudgework of maintaining these vast castles of data. But we never meet them in Gibson’s stories. We only meet the lowlife, edgy, drug-fuelled hackers and hustlers.

On one level, Gibson is just the latest in a long line of American noir writers who make crime sound impossibly glamorous.

P.S.

Automatic Jack is referenced in the second of the Sprawl trilogy, Count Zero. In that novel Bobby the hacker has ended up in the 14th-floor nightclub owned by a dude named Jammer, and can’t take his eyes of the man’s cool new cyberspace deck, so Jammer hands Bobby a set of trodes:

He stood up, grabbed the handles on either side of the black console, and spun it round so it faced Bobby. ‘Go on. You’ll cream your jeans. Things ten years old and it’ll still wipe as son most anything. Guy name of Automatic Jack built it straight from scratch. He was Bobby Quine’s hardware artist once. The two of ’em burnt the Blue Lights together, but that was probably before you were born…’ (Count Zero, p.230)


Other stories

The Gernsback Continuum (1981)

The first-person narrator is hired to take photographs for a book of photo-journalism documenting the futuristic buildings of the 1930s, what the woman consultant to the project calls ‘American Streamlined Moderne’, what the publisher calls ‘raygun Gothic’, the book to be titled, The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was.

To cut a long story short, on his cruises round provincial America looking for these architectural indicators of a future which never happened, he starts to hallucinate himself into the alternative future where they were built, soaring domes, spires and arcologies linked by high-level walkways, the sky full of flying silver vehicles, and on the ground around him tough-guy blonde 1930s men named Chuck, their arms around wasp-waisted plastic women of the future, both out of the old movies Metropolis and Shape of Things To Come.

Obviously – inevitably – this being Gibson, the narrator is popping various types of drug all the time and at first dismisses the visions as ‘amphetamine psychosis’. If this were J.G. Ballard the narrator’s mind would eventually disappear into this alternative universe, while their body remained here, catatonic.

But, throughout the story, he has been anchored in reality by constant phone calls to a colleague who spends his life writing up the weird beliefs of Americans – Elvis is alive on Mars, UFOs took my husband – and who is totally blasé about the narrator’s visions and, indeed, the opening sentence tells us that it was all an ‘episode’ which is now fading.

In other words, it doesn’t go for the full-on psychosis and so comes over as rather a conventional 1950s-type story.

The Belonging Kind (with John Shirley, 1981)

I wonder what collaboration brings for Gibson. He collaborates quite a lot. In this case the setting is very Gibson – a perpetual night-time of clubs and bars, back alleyways, littered with broken glass and graffiti, the shabby single room of a low-paid single man.

Coretti is a shabby, badly dressed ungainly loner. He goes to a bar. A notably attractive woman (they generally are: Gibson’s stories froth over with femmes fatales) lets him chat her up. When she leaves, he follows her and is thunderstruck when, half way across a night-time road, she changes shape: her dress changes, her hair changes, the shape of her body subtly alters. She becomes a different woman.

From a distance he watches her visit other bars, chatting friendly to other strange men, echoing their conversation, fitting right in. He becomes obsessed. He loses his day job, takes a cheaper labouring job, loses that, doesn’t eat, lives only to track her down.

Finally, in the early hours (the characteristic Gibson time of day) he finds her in a bar, chatting in her easygoing manner to a man. They leave and get into a cab, at the last minute Coretti flings himself inside, but the other two don’t even notice. And when she goes to pay the river Corettit is stunned to see her reach inside her own body, through a pink slit like a fish’s gill, to bring out wet notes which dry as she hands them over.

Coretti follows the couple up to a hotel room in which he is not that surprised to discover a dozen or so other people perching on beds, sofas, chairs. Motionless, their eyes covered by a thin filament of flesh. They are, he realises, roosting. They are some kind of alien life form which lives to blend in. Maybe they started off feeling normal, eating and drinking like other folk. Then got to realise they feel restless, outside, different. Stop eating. Exist off alcohol metabolised at bars, maybe…

He realises he is one of them. The story ends with Coretti, also, pulling wet money out of his gill, paying for whatever he needs, sitting passively in bars wearing whatever is required, whatever is required to fit right in.

Hinterlands (1981)

A strange and disturbing story about a strange and disturbing phenomenon. At some in our future a Russian spaceship, an Alyut 6, en route to Mars, simply disappears. Two years later it reappears, its pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Olga Tovyevski, out of her mind. Several other ships disappear at the same location. It becomes clear it’s the departure point of some kind of Highway, which is what Americans call it, while the French call it the subway and the Russians the river.

Over the years an entire space station is set up to a) despatch probes and individuals through the Highway b) ready to receive them back. The success rate is low. Of those who return 20% are dead on arrival, 70% are mad, gone, lost – only 10% or so alive and capable of speech or communication, although often badly damaged.

Why keep on doing it? Because the second or third returnee came back with metal into which was coded information including a cure for cancer. After that humanity had to continue sending people into this…. thing… junkyard? curio shop, whatever it is.

The narrative follows the protagonist, Toby, preparing to greet a new returnee, Leni Hofmannstahl. The space station has an entire area nicknamed ‘Heaven’, which is full of grass and plants and the sound of trickling water, built on the advice of psychotherapists to provide the most calming environment possible for returnees, though it rarely works.

And, being Gibson, there is a psychic element, an interference with minds, which is that the greeter (himself) mind melds with a ‘controller’, becoming one via a device nicknamed a ‘bone-phone’ i.e. an implant in his brain.

Toby’s controller, Hiro, has genned up on Leni’s entire profile, knows her inside out, while Toby is carrying the entire arsenal of drugs know to humans to try and calm Leni. But when he enters the probe, now safely docked in ‘Heaven’, Toby immediately sees that she is ‘gone’. And in a very florid way. She is pinned in her pilot’s chair and, somehow, has persuaded the ship’s onboard medical unit to flay her right arm and pin it to the plastic work surface, skin unwrapped, nerves and tendons revealed, expertly dissected. She bled to death.

That night Toby is in bed with his squeeze, Charmian. We learn that they have been recruited from the ‘rejects’, the astronauts who bob around in a probe in the right area but, for reasons unknown, are not chosen, are not taken, who feel the crushing weight of rejection, often try to commit suicide, their brains are rewritten, ‘kinked’, adjusted, and then they are used as ‘surrogates’, almost-rans, half way towards the returnees, who an operator using the ‘bone-phone’ can meld and control. The price they pay. Clutching his woman in the dark, crying, empty drug wrappers clenched in his fist.

Red Star, Winter Orbit (co-written with Bruce Sterling, 1983)

A Russian space station – Kosmograd – has been orbiting earth for decades (since the turn of the century, apparently). It is armed, so there’s a squad of six soldiers and a KGB officer aboard.

The narrative describes the rebellion of the twenty or so civilian cosmonauts aboard the station, led by Korolev, himself badly injured in some kind of ‘blow-out’ twenty years previously, against the KGB man Yefremov, when they intercept Kremlin order that the station is to be abandoned and its orbit left to decay till it burns up in the earth’s atmosphere.

As so often, half the interest of the story is the ‘hints’ it drops of the fictional future. In this future the Russians have won. The Treaty of Vienna gave them control of the entire Earths oil supply, then there was some kind of nuclear meltdown in Kansas, with the result that, for three decades, America has been ‘gradually sliding into isolationism and industrial decline.’ (p.110) In some kind of attempt to gain extra power they have resorted to sending enormous balloons up into the outer atmosphere to collect energy.

And yet the story reveals that the Soviets themselves have failed. There was some kind of attempt to do mining on the moon, which failed. And we learn that Korolev, the protagonist – Colonel Yuri Vasilevich Korolev – had been the first man on Mars, back in the day. Now, as the KGB try to organise abandoning the Kosmograd, he is set to become the last man in space. Gloomily, Yefremov tells Korolev that the entire human endeavour to ‘escape’ into space has failed.

Kosmograd was a dream, Colonel. A dream that failed. Like space. We have no need to be here. We have an entire world to put in order. (p.107)

New Rose Hotel (1984)

In the early hours it starts to rain and the protagonist lies in bed in his cheap hotel going back over recent events trying to figure out where it all went wrong and how the chick he thought he’d clicked with, got away. That’s the classic shape of a Gibson Sprawl story.

This one is interesting because it expands on the basic Gibson idea that the future will be controlled by vast multinational conglomerates, and competition won’t be so much for resources as for knowledge.

Although the protagonist takes his time piecing together the sequence of events which brought him to this cheap hotel, by the end of the story the plot is clear.

The narrator is an expert at kidnapping the scientists whose inventions fuel the vast multinationals. He is hired by a man named Fox (‘point man in the skull wars, a middleman for corporate crossovers’) to work alongside another freelancer named Sandii to kidnap a genius named Hiroshi Yomuri from Maas Biolabs GmbH who had him, and hand him over to another corporate client, Hosaka.

Imagine an alien, Fox once said, who’s come here to identify the planet’s dominant for of intelligence. The alien has a look, then chooses. What do you think he picks? I probably shrugged. The zaibatsus, Fox said, the multinationals. The blood of a zaibatsu is information, not people. The structure is independent of the individual lives that comprise it. Corporation as life form. (p.129)

Anyway, Sandii, the narrator and Fox put together the kidnap and, sure enough, Yomuri disappears from a street in Vienna, popping up again in the secure facility the narrator has arranged for him in Marrakesh. Our chaps notice a number of other top Hosaka scientists flying in to confer with him. Then – disaster.

Sandii has double crossed them. She was paid by Mass to carry out the kidnapping, but had installed a diskette at the new hideaway which released some kind of Meningococcal infection. It killed Hiroshi and all the other Hosaka researchers. Score Maas. Hosaka’s anger knows no limits. He and Fox immediately go on the run, but he sees Fox get thrown off the balcony of a shopping mall, falling to the ground and breaking his back.

Now the narrator is holed up in the cheapest, obscurest hotel he can find, trying to cover his tracks, knowing assassins are on his trail and going over it all in his mind, wishing Sandii was still with him, wishing she still loved him, wishing she was holding his hand.

The Winter Market (1986)

The narrator, Casey, is another young buck at home in the louche worlds of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. He goes on eight-hour-long bender when he learns that a recording star he’s been working for has died. But this is more complex than it seems.

We are in the future and people can record and edit other people’s experiences using ‘neuroelectronics’ – accessing and experiencing levels of consciousness which most people can only access in dreams, dream experiences. These can then be edited to create what are in effects ‘albums’, full of ‘tracks’, which recreate – which let you experience – other people’s lives, thoughts and feelings.

The narrator is a kind of ‘record producer’ of this kind of content, and the story looks back, soulfully and sadly, on his working relationship with a particularly fucked-up woman he met in a bar, Lise, who is only able to move because her withered body is fitted into a carbon exo-skeleton.

She is an epitome of the doomed artist, but in a leather jacket and addicted to speed (or ‘wizz’, as Gibson calls it.) Breaking his own rule, Casey, shares a circuit with her i.e. jacks into her consciousness, and emerges seconds later weeping with shock at the huge awesome night-time infinitely sad depths of it.

So he uses some studio downtime to make a rough recording of her, plays it to his boss who is stunned, who passes it up to a record company who snap it up and send out smooth-talking, suited PR people (all a riff on a 1980s view of the record biz), give her a contract, Casey is given a promotion and bonus to edit her stuff together into the classic album which becomes known as Kings of Sleep.

But she is a doomed artist, doomed, man, too sensitive for this world and so we learn that she has ‘crossed over’, used neuroelectronics to transfer her entire mental activity into a construct, an AI, a ROM stored in some corporate headquarters. Her body is cremated. Casey is gutted.

His story is told via conversations with his good friend Rubin, an internationally famous artist who makes art works out of the sea of junk by then surrounding 21st century society.

there’s drugs, there’s heavy drinking, there’s finding yourself in no-hope bars in the early hours, watching the other losers, there’s future tech – it’s a whole world, a Gestalt, the Sprawl scenario.

The relentless leather jacket, rock chick, mainline drugs, 12 hour drinking binges, late-night bars, rock’n’roll  altered states milieu remind me of a favourite track by Jesus and Mary Chain, Coast to Coast from 1989.

Here I come, here I come
On a road
Under a sky
Coast to coast

Dogfight (co-written with Michael Swanwick, 1985)

Another lowlife on the run, this time it’s Deke, a career thief, caught and kicked out of Washington DC, put on a greyhound out of town, fantasises about travelling forever, maybe down to the warzone in Florida (sic) he gets out at a 20 minute stopover station, stumbles on gamers playing a 3-D fighter game based on First World War biplanes zapping each other – Fokkers & Spads – and is entranced.

He walks back to a shopping mall and steals the (commercially available) game and the kit to play it on, scams himself into a cheap hotel (ain’t no other kind in Gibsonland), unwraps, plugs in and plays it.

Bit later he tries to sell part of the kit to a girl down the hall, Nance Bettendorf, but she freaks him out with 3-D images she can project (in this case, of a rat). She has a ‘brainblock’ put on her by her parents who both work (which is, in this dystopian future, very ‘greedy’ of them) a chastity block, so no sex for Deke, then, although she wears skimpy clothes which ride up to show here crimson panties.

She’s a student (again, apparently, a rare thing in this future) and is completing a virtual reality assignment. Having rich parents, she can afford all the right kit:

‘Image facilitator. Here’s my fast-wipe module. This is a brainmap one-to-one function analyser.’ She sang off the names like a litany. ‘Quantum flicker stabiliser. Program splicer. An image assembler…’ (p.175)

These to oddballs, outsiders, loners, sort of knock up a rapport. Deke stays with her while he practices his skills at the game, his aim being to take on the dude he saw in the Greyhound station and make some money. When Nance tells him she has some ‘hype’, a mind-focusing drug, Deke has no scruples about attacking her to steal it – and seeing as she has panic attacks if anyone touches her, his assault-cum-rape is as cruel as can be.

Having prepared for weeks, Deke walks back into the Greyhound rest room ready to take on all the gamers, until the legendary Tiny Montgomery walks in. Well chugs in in his wheelchair. (Tiny Montgomery is, incidentally, a character in a song by Bob Dylan written in Woodstock and part of the Basement Tapes which, incidentally, came to mind when I reviewed the early work of New York photographer Diane Arbus.)

So the story climaxes in a 3-D battle of First World War planes controlled by the minds of the champion, Tiny, and the challenger, Deke. During the extended description of the interactions of synapse, drugs, nerves and technology, it becomes clear that both Deke and Tiny are drug-addled, screwed-up veterans of American wars in South America, Chile, Bolivia, both – seemingly – shot down and damaged, before ending up on the underside of Yank society, hanging round Greyhound stations with the other vets and losers.

As the first full flush of victory, and the drug, begins to wear off, Deke realises all the other liggers disapprove of the way he’s destroyed Tiny. Flying the digital planes was all Tiny had keeping him together. Having lost, he is crushed. Plus Deke remembers having ruined Nance’s life, to steal the drug which meant so much to him. The story ends in a mood of complete desolation.

Pattern recognition

The characteristic protagonists are men, young men – 22, 24, 28.

They take drugs – amphetamine, cocaine, and a variety of invented future drugs such as ‘hype’. A lot of the characters hang out in bars and drink to excess.

Old or young, they are often damaged – like Korosov with his shattered body, or Automatic Jack with his prosthetic arm, or Tiny Montgomery stuck in his wheelchair, or Lise with some degenerative disease which requires her to be supported by an exoskeleton. Or psychologically damaged like the receivers Toby and Charmian, or Deke and Tiny, the war veterans.

Most of the stories feature a young woman, generally thin, great figure, great boobs, but able to hold her own on the street, epitomised by Molly with the razor nails, or the mystery alien woman in The Belonging Kind, Sandii, and Rikki.

Generally, the young, lowlife, criminal male protagonist carries a torch for this cyberbabe. Generally, she leaves and breaks his heart and he spends a lot of time raking over the reasons why. Some of the stories are written more or less as letters, directly addressing this woman, who leaves, dumps, drops the writer: e.g. Rikki at the end of Burning Chrome, or Sandii in New Rose Hotel, or Lise in The Winter Market.

The male protagonists are generally criminals, most often computer hackers – Jack and Bobby the hackers in Chrome, Johnny Mnemonic who runs off with someone else’s data, Deke the thief, the kidnapping (corporate extraction) experts in New Rose Hotel – and the stories recurrent focus is on lowlife, criminal milieus, gangs, drug dealers, ninjas, assassins, all written up in fabulously street-smart, tech-savvy, turbo-charged prose.


Related links

Reviews of books by William Gibson

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
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 future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall 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 – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel 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 comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings 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 Kent, gets caught up in 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
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

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
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
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
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 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
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

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
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten stories, some of them set in Gibson’s Sprawl universe, others stand-alone, and sometimes, quite disturbing sci-fi yarns
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy,

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population under control

The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis (1981)

Science fiction is a pessimistic medium… Most of it is about things going wrong. (Amis in his preface)

Amis

Kingsley Amis was a grumpy old bugger. This judgement is based not only on reading his articles and reviews when he was still alive (he died in 1995), but having read and reviewed all twenty of his novels for this blog.

Amis was deliberately middle-brow and flexible. He wrote a James Bond novel (under the pseudonym Robert Markham), a lot of light poetry, reviews and articles, as well as several odd science fiction novels.

In fact he was a science fiction hound, a real addict, and tells us that he leaped at the chance to deliver a series of lectures on the subject at Princeton University in 1959. These were then published as a book purporting to review the history and state of science fiction as it had led up to the state of the genre in 1960, garishly titled New Maps of Hell.

Twenty years after New Maps of Hell, in 1981, Amis was asked to make a selection of favourite science fiction short stories and to write an introduction. Hence this book.

Amis’s introduction

With typical glumness, Amis reckons science fiction has had its glory days and is in decline. He judges this decline to have started at more or less the moment he delivered those lectures, back at the start of the 1960s. He describes how, in the 1940s and 1950s, science fiction belonged to ‘an embattled few’ – hard-core fans who read everything they could get their hands on, despite the sniggers of their parents or teachers. A bit like the ‘hot jazz’ which he and his buddy Philip Larkin liked listening to, while their mothers and girlfriends told them they really ought to be listening to Haydn.

But all this changed in the 1960s. Up till then Amis and other fans had called it SF. During the 60s it became rebranded as ‘sci-fi’, symptomatic of the way it got infected with all the other radical experiments of the decade.

Suddenly there was ‘experimental’ and ‘avant-garde’ ‘sci-fi’, as there was free poetry, rock music, women’s lib and hosts of other innovations which Mr Grumpy objects to. The first two university courses on science fiction were opened in 1961, and Amis thinks that as soon as you start teaching literature or film, you kill its originality.

Only twelve years separate the hilariously kitsch Forbidden Planet (1956) from the slick and sophisticated 2001: A Space Odyssey (released in 1968, and which Amis found repellently self-indulgent) but they inhabit different cultural universes.

The New Wave

The young writers with their trendy experimental approaches to science fiction who came in with the 1960s, became known as the New Wave. Fans argue to this day about when New Wave started, but most agree a tipping point was when Michael Moorcock became editor of New Worlds magazine in 1964, and Moorcock, along with J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss, were the prime movers of British New Wave. All three moved away from ‘hard’ science fiction stories about space ships and robots and aliens, showing more interest in literary effects and psychology, often in a very garish late-60s, tricksy sort of way.

Planetary exploration

Another problem which the SF writers of the 1960s faced was that a lot of science fiction came true. In the 1960s men actually started rocketing into space and in 1969 walked on the moon, thus killing all kinds of fantasies with their dull discovery that space was empty and bathed in fatal radiation, while the moon is just a dusty rock. So no fantastic civilisations and weird Selenites after all. In the story Sister Planet in this collection, Poul Anderson imagines Venus to consist of one huge, planet-wide ocean teeming with intelligent life, where men can stride around requiring only respirators to breathe. But when information started to come back from the Mariner series of probes, the first of which flew by in 1962, and the Venera 7 probe which actually landed on the surface in 1970, Venus turned out to be a waterless rock where the atmospheric pressure on the surface is 92 times that of earth, and the temperature is 462 C.

Fiction becomes fact

Meanwhile, in terms of terrestrial gadgets and inventions – the kind of mind-liberating technological innovations which festoon H.G. Wells’s fantastic prophecies – well, jet planes came in, along with intercontinental travel and it turned out to be glamorous but in a, well, yawn, touristy kind of way. Everyone got coloured televisions, but these weren’t used for announcements by the World State or amazing educational programmes; they were used to sell soap powder and bubble gum. Satellites were launched and people were amazed by the first live global broadcasts, but none of this led mankind onto some higher level of culture and civilisation, as so many thousands of sci-fi stories had predicted. Now we have digital communication with anyone on the planet, but the biggest content area on the internet is pornography, closely followed by cats who look like Hitler.

To sum up: a lot of what had seemed like exciting technical predictions in the 1940s had turned into commonplaces by the 1960s. As Amis pithily puts it, ‘Terra incognita was turning into real estate.’

So you can see why the New Wave wanted to take a new approach and look for the weird and alien here on earth, particularly Ballard. By the mid-70s the New Wave was itself declared to be over (about the same time that post-war Serialism in classical music breathed its last gasp), at the same time that a lot of the political and cultural impedimenta of the post-war years ran out of steam. As I view it, this led to a decade of doldrums (the 1970s), and then the appearance, during the 1980s, of bright new commercial styles, Post-modernism in art and literature and architecture, the importation of Magical Realism in fiction, and a new era of sci-fi blockbusters in cinema, the rise of computer aided animation which has transformed the look and feel of films, and to an explosion of all kinds of genres and cross-fertilisations in writing.

Specific examples

But to Amis back in 1980, he says science fiction suffers from ‘gross commercialism’, and uses the Terra incognita argument to explain why many even of the New Wave writers had dried up or gone into alternative forms – Arthur C. Clarke ceasing to write novels, Aldiss writing histories of the genre, and Ballard turning out never to have really been a sci-fi writer, more a writer about modern psychosis who started out by using sci-fi tropes, before moving on.

All this goes to explain why the stories Amis selected for this collection are all from the 1950s (1948 to 1962, to be exact) – from the decade when sci-fi writers had racked up a tradition of sorts to build on, had achieved a mature treatment of recognised tropes – but before those tropes were burned out from over-use and the 1960s ruined everything with its silly experimentalism. You can strongly disagree with this view, but at least it’s a clear defined view, put forward with evidence and arguments.

The short stories

He Walked Around the Horses by H. Beam Piper (1948) (American)

It is 1809. A series of letters from officials in Imperial Austria tell the tale of Benjamin Bathurst, who claims to be a British government envoy who, we slowly realise, has somehow got transported from out 1809 to a parallel history in which the Americans lost the war of independence, there was no French Revolution, no Napoleon, no wars raging across Europe, and so Herr Bathurst is regarded as a lunatic.

The Xi Effect by Philip Latham (1950) (Pseudonym used for his sf by American astronomer Robert Shirley Richardson)

Physicists Stoddard and Arnold discover that radiation above a certain frequency is no longer being detected. Radio stations are becoming unavailable. They measure the eclipse of one of Jupiter’s moons as happening absurdly nearby. Suddenly they think of Friedmann and his theory of the Xi Effect, namely that space isn’t continuous but made up of ‘clots’, clots which can be disrupted by bigger-scale events. Stoddard and Arnold and then everyone else learns that the world and the solar system are shrinking. Since everything is staying in proportion relative to everything else you’d have thought that wouldn’t be a problem except that the one thing which can’t shrink is electro-magnetic radiation. In other words, the world is getting too small for light to travel in it. One by one all the colours disappear, and then everyone is left in universal blackness.

The Quest for Saint Aquin by Anthony Boucher (1951) (American)

After a nuclear apocalypse a ‘monk’ is sent by ‘the pope’ to find the body of a supposed saint in the hills outside San Francisco.

It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby (1953) (American)

Genuinely upsetting story in which a child with telepathy and unlimited powers is born and, while still young, either destroys the world or transports his small town into some void wherein the remaining inhabitants must think nothing but positive thoughts – repeating to themselves ‘it is a good world’ for fear that the little monster – Anthony – will detect negative thoughts and turn them into something unspeakable.

The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke (1953) (English)

A computer company supplies its latest model to a Tibetan lamasery whose abbot tells the chief exec that they will use it to work through every permutation of names for God. They have a belief that, once all the names of God have been expressed, the need for a planet and humanity will cease and the universe will move on to the next stage.

Months later, the two bored technicians tasked with overseeing the installation and running of the machine are relieved to be making their way to the little Tibetan airport to return Stateside when the computer reaches the end of its run and… the world comes to an end.

Specialist by Robert Sheckley (1953) (American)

Interesting description of a galactic spaceship made up of living parts which all perform specialist functions e.g. Walls, Eye, Tracker, Feeder. When their ‘Pusher’ dies in an accident they trawl nearby planetary systems for a new one and, of course, come to earth, where they kidnap a guy who is out camping under the stars, and induct him into the galactic code of co-operation.

Student Body by F. L. Wallace (1953) (American)

Colonists arrive on a new planet where the Chief Exec is keen to get biologist Dano Marin to manage infestations of mice and rats which attack the crops and stores. Slowly Marin realises they are dealing with a species which can mutate at need, almost instantly, in order to survive and which will always manage to evolve into shapes which can elude them. Worse, he realises it will have stowed away on the earlier reconnaisance ships and have made its way back to earth.

The Game of Rat and Dragon by Cordwainer Smith (1954) (pen-name of American author Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger)

Deep space travel reveals vicious entities which attack man’s ships, which get nicknamed ‘dragons’. The only way to kill them is with light bombs which disintegrate their bodies, but it all happens so fast that only the handful of humans who have telepathic powers can manage to be plugged into the ‘pin sets’ which detect the dragons; and the whole effort went up a notch when it was discovered that some cats can be in telepathic unison with the humans, and have even faster reflexes.

The Tunnel under the World by Frederik Pohl (1955) (American)

Maybe the best story, relatively long and persuasive i.e. you get totally drawn into it.

Guy Burckhardt wakes up on June 15 from a nightmare of an explosion, then goes about his humdrum life in the small town American town of Tylerton, dominated by its state-of-the-art chemical works which is run mostly by the recorded brainwaves of technicians. A new guy in the office shops tries to hustle him a new brand of cigarettes. Later a lorry stops in the street and blares out ads for Feckles Fridges. A flustered man named Swanson accosts him on the street then runs away.

Then he wakes up on June 15 from a nightmare, and goes about his day. New cigarettes, lorry ads, flustered Swanson. That night the fuse blows and, rooting around in the cellar, he discovers that behind the brick walls is metal. And under the floor. The reader begins to wonder if he is in some kind of alien prison. He is down there when overcome by sleep.

Next morning he wakes up remembering everything from the day before except that… his wife thinks it is June 15, the radio says it is June 15, the newspaper says it is June 15. On the street Swanson finds him and, discovering that Burckhardt is confused, takes him through shops and into a cinema, all the time telling him that ‘they’ will be after him. they exit the auditorium, Swanson takes him through corridors, into the manager’s office, then opens a closet door into… a vast steel tunnel stretching in both directions.

Swanson thinks it must be Martians? Is it aliens? Or the Chinese who everyone in the 1950s were so terrified of? Read it yourself.

A Work of Art by James Blish (1956) (American)

Richard Strauss is brought back to life 200 years in the future. He immediately wants to carry on composing and Blish gives a very good analysis of the composer’s music, its characteristics, what he looks for in a libretto and so on and the whole process of composing a new opera.

But at its premiere, the applause is not for the composer, but for Dr Kris, the mind sculptor who has, in fact, used all the traits of the composer to create him and impose him on the mind of a perfectly ordinary unmusical man, Jerom Bosch. At a click of Kris’s fingers, Bosch will revert to his normal workaday self.

The Country of the Kind by Damon Knight (1956) (American)

A rare thing, a first person narrator. In a perfect society of the future (after ‘the Interregnum’) he has been born a brute and a sadist, capable of killing and injuring and defacing while all around him are placid and calm and sensitive. We see, from his point of view, how intolerable and anguished his existence is, forced to live among ‘the dulls’.

Sister Planet by Poul Anderson (1959) (American)

This is a long, involving and bitingly pessimistic story. A small colony of scientists is established on a platform floating on Venus’s endless stormy ocean. They have made contact with ‘cetoids’, dolphin-like creatures and some kind of exchange goes on i.e. the humans leave paintings, sound recordings and so on which the cetoids take off in their mouths, and the cetoids return with various objects, including rare and precious ‘firestones’. These are so precious that ferrying them back to earth and selling them has so far funded the scientific research.

In among their practical duties, the half dozen or so scientists on the outstation chat about how overcrowded and polluted and violent earth is becoming. The main figure among them, Nat Hawthorne is particularly sensitive and close to the cetoids. One day he is astonished when the most friendly of them, who he’s named Oscar, nudges at his feet (on the pontoon which stretches out from the base, where they distribute goodies to the cetoids and receive the jewels in return, level with the ocean and often slopped over by waves) indicating he wants to give him a ride.

Hawthorne puts on breathing apparatus and Oscar takes him deep under the sea to show him a vast coral cathedral which appears to have been shaped, or grown, by the cetoids. there is no doubt that they are ‘intelligent’.

Back in the crew quarters of the colony, he is about to tell everyone about his encounter, when the quiet, intense Dutch scientist Wim Dykstra bursts in to make a major announcement. He has been analysing Venus’s core and has realised that it is on the unstable edge of making a quantum leap upwards in size. If it did that, it would project magma up through the sea creating continents and the presence of rocks would absorb carbon dioxide from the (currently toxic) atmosphere. In other words it could be ‘terraformed’, made fit for human inhabitation – an overflow for what has become a poisoned earth.

it is then that Hawthorne tells the roomful of colonists about his discovery, that the cetoids are undeniably intelligent and creative. At which point there is an earnest discussion about man’s right to colonise new planets, even at the expense of the natives – all of which made me think of contemporary, 2018, discussions about colonialism and racial oppression etc. Reluctantly Dykstra agrees to suppress his work in order to let the cetoids live.

But Hawthorne is gripped by a kind of panic fear. Sooner or later more scientists will come to Venus. They will repeat his experiments. Sooner or later humans will realise they can transform Venus for their own use. Tortured by this knowledge, Hawthorne blows up and sinks the research station, flees in a mini submarine and, when the cetoids come to investigate, slaughters them with a laser machine gun. Then submerges to go and blow up their beautiful coral cathedrals. Before calling the ferry ship which is in orbit down to pick him up. He will claim the cetoids blew up the centre despite his attempts to stop them.

His aim is to demonstrate to earth that Venus is a violent environment which cannot be colonised. And to show the cetoids that humans are murdering barbarians who cannot be trusted.

To save the cetoids – he has to destroy them and their cultural achievements.

The Voices of Time by J. G. Ballard (1960) (English)

A classic expression of Ballard’s interest in entropy and decline. Among the empty swimming pools of some desert American town, scientists go about their work in alienated isolation from each other. A plague of narcolepsy has attacked humanity. More and more people are falling asleep never to waken, the central figure, Powers, keeps a diary of the way he, too, is falling asleep earlier and earlier, his days are getting shorter and shorter. In what time he has left he conducts obscure experiments on plants and animals which seem to mutate at an accelerated rate if exposed to near fatal doses of radiation. He has a typically distant, autistic ‘relationship’ with a patient whose brain he operated on and who now is collecting the last works of art, books and so on by famous artists, writers and such. And has discovered that astronomical research centres have come across series of numbers being sent from apparently different locations around the universe, all of which are running down, like countdowns.

The Machine that Won the War by Isaac Asimov (1961) (American)

A short and characteristically tricksy Asimov story. It is the end of the war against the Denebians. Everyone credits victory to the vast supercomputer, the Multivac, which processed all the information and provided pinpoint accurate decisions about the war.

Executive Director of the Solar Federation, Lamar Swift, has gathered the key men in the team who ran Multivac to celebrate, namely Henderson and Jablonksy. But as both hold their champagne glasses, one by one they reveal that the data they received was never good enough, the sources around the solar system and beyond were too scattered, information came in too slowly… and that the head of the team processing it never trusted them, and so falsified many of the figures.

But instead of being shocked, Swift smile and says, he thought as much. He made all the key decisions which won the war by using a much older technology. And he takes out a coin, flips it with his thumb, covers it as it lands in his palms, and asks: ‘Gentlemen – heads or tails?’

Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut (1961) (American)

A short glib story set in 2018 when everyone is equal because everyone is handicapped by the Handicapper General. Fast athletic people are weighed down by weights. Tall people forced to stoop. Beautiful people wear face masks. Clever people have earpieces fitted which emit piercing noises every 30 seconds. Thus everyone is reduced to the same level, and is equal. Anyone tampering with any of this equality equipment is arrested and imprisoned.

George and Hazel Bergeron’s son, Harrison, was born unusually tall and handsome. He was immediately locked up. The trigger for this short story is George and Hazel settling down to watch TV (George’s thought processes continually interrupted by the screeches in his ear, to prevent him being too clever) and hearing on the news that their son has escaped from prison.

Then he bursts into the TV studio and throws off his restraints, the handicap harness which weighs him down, the rubber mask which makes him ugly – to reveal that he is a tall god. He declares to the watching audience that he is the Emperor, who must be obeyed.

He had interrupted a live broadcast of a ballet and now he asks who among the ballerinas wants to be his wife. One comes forward, throws off her face mask and feet cripplers to reveal that she is beautiful and elegant. Together they start dancing a beautiful ballet of freedom.

At which point the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, bursts into the studio and machine guns both of them dead. The TV goes black. Loud sounds burst in George’s ear. He goes to get a beer from the fridge. Loud sounds interrupt him on the way back. By the time he’s back on the sofa he has a sense that something sad happened on the TV but neither he nor his wife can remember what.

The Streets of Ashkelon by Harry Harrison (1962) (American)

Trader John Garth is happy living alone on Wesker’s World, dealing with the slow but logical alien inhabitants, the Wesker amphibians, who have learned to speak English.

One day a fellow trader stops by (his spaceship causing hundreds of square metres of devastation) to drop off a priest. Garth tries to prevent him landing, then is very rude to him. To his horror, the slow logical Wesker creatures are awestruck by the priest and the stories he has to tell about God their father and how they are saved. Garth is a typical trader, rough and ready, a hard drinker, but he has been honest with the Wesker creatures and told them as much about the universe and earth as he thought wise.

One day Garth is called along to a meeting the Weskers are having with the priest. In their slow logical way they have come to the conclusion that the priest needs to prove his religion. The Bible – which he has given them to study – brims over with examples of miracles which God was happy to perform to prove his existence. Surely he will perform at least one miracle to convert an entire new planet and save an entire species.

Suddenly Garth sees where this is heading and leaps up to try and bundle the priest out of the meeting hall but he is himself overwhelmed by the Wesker creatures and tied up, from which powerless state he has to watch the creatures overcome the priest and very methodically nail him up to a cross, just like the pictures in the Bible he had given them, the Weskers expecting him to be resurrected.

But of course he isn’t. Days later, still tied up and in a pitch black lumber room, Garth finds the most sympathetic of the Weskers undoing his ropes and telling him to flee in his space ship. Having failed with the priest the Weskers have decided to experiment with him next.

The Wesker asks: ‘He will rise again won’t he?’ ‘No,’ replies Wesker. ‘Then we will not be saved and not be made pure?’ asks the Wesker. ‘You were pure’, Garth sadly replies. ‘You were pure, but now…’ ‘We are murderers,’ replies the Wesker.

Old Hundredth by Brian Aldiss (1963) (English)

This is the most poetic of the stories, Aldiss deliberately using onomatopeia and rhyme in his prose, as well as rich verbal pictures, to convey a dreamlike scenario.

In the far distant future the Moon has left the earth and earth and Venus orbit each other. Humans have long ago left the planet which is now populated by a mix of of animals and ”Impures’, intelligent creatures created by human experimenters on Venus.

Dandi Lashadusa is a giant sloth who traipses round the desert world seeking out musicolumns, insubstantial pillars into which the last people converted themselves, and which become audible music when life forms come close enough to them.

She is guided and advised by a mentor who she is telepathically in touch with, who is slowly revealed to be a dolphin living in a coral cell.


Almost all the stories – 14 out of 17 – are by Americans, the other three by Brits i.e. all very anglophone i.e. wasn’t there any Russian, French, German etc sci-fi during the period? Even in translation?

That’s probably something which came in to rejuvenate the genre after Amis’s day, particularly stories from Russia and the Eastern bloc.

The pros and cons of science fiction

Is Amis right when he says: ‘Science fiction is a pessimistic medium… Most of it is about things going wrong’? Well, on the evidence here, Yes. The Xi Effect, Sister Planet, The Streets of Ashkelon, Student Body and, especially It’s a Good Life, which I found very disturbing – they are extremely negative and pessimistic. But then gloomy Amis chose them. Is the genre as a whole pessimistic? Well… I’d make a case that most of literature is pessimistic. I’m looking at F. Scott Fitzgerald books next to Flaubert’s on my shelves. Not many happy endings there.

Maybe you could argue that there is a kind of ‘global conceit’ about science fiction. In ‘ordinary’ novels one or two people may die; in a science fiction story it is likely to be a whole world, as the world comes to an end in the Clarke story, or man corrupts an entire species as in the Harry Harrison.

Science fiction may be more apocalyptically pessimistic than other types of fiction. This is one of its appeals to the adolescent mind – the sheer sense of scale and the world-ending nihilism. But is at the same time one of the reasons it used to be looked down on. As a flight from the trickier complexities of real human relations in the here and now, the kind of thing supposedly tackled by ‘proper’ fiction.

But all this is to overlook the positive, uplifting and inspiring aspect of science fiction, the teenage sense of exuberance and escape and release conveyed by some of the stories. The sense of the genuinely fantastical and imaginative, that life is stranger and richer and weirder than non-sci-fi readers can ever realise.

A feeling conveniently expressed in one of the stories here:

As a boy he had loved to read tales of time travel and flights to other planets, and the feeling that something transcendent was lurking around the corner had never entirely left him. (The Xi Effect, p.65)


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
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

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

The War in the Air by H.G. Wells (1908)

Slowly, broadly, invincibly, there grew upon Bert’s mind realisation of the immense tragedy of humanity into which his life was flowing; the appalling and universal nature of the epoch that had arrived; the conception of an end to security and order and habit. The whole world was at war and it could not get back to peace, it might never recover peace. (Chapter Ten, The War in the Air)

The War In The Air is often referenced because in it Wells so accurately anticipated lots of details of aerial warfare – dogfights, bombing raids, even what the earth looks like from up in the air – none of which existed or were possible when he wrote the book in 1907 and when the most primitive flying machines had only just been invented.

In other words, I knew before starting that it was a masterpiece of imaginative prophecy.

But my heart sank a bit when I began to read it and realised that it’s another one of Wells’s mongrel books, in that it’s a real mish-mash of subject matter and tone.

Thus he chooses to recount the outbreak of this epic world war (sometime around 1914, i.e. in his then-future) and the triumph of the mighty German airfleet – via the adventures of the comic figure of Bert Smallways, keeper of a failed second-hand bicycle shop in suburban Kent. Bathos.

Bert Smallways

In fact, once you settle into them the fifty pages at the start of the novel which describe the suburban adventures of Bert and his business partner, Grubb, are both interesting and amusing. Interesting because they’re packed with Edwardian social history. Wells gives a review of how the Kentish village where grandfather Smallways lives (Bun Hill) is slowly engulfed by the spread of London suburbs, roads, railways, telegraph as the 19th turns into the 20th century, along with a blight of advertising hoardings, bicycles and new-fangled motor cars.

Amusing because Bert and Grubb’s pitiful attempts to set up and run their bicycle repair and hire shop are played entirely for laughs.

The staple of their business was, however, the letting of bicycles on hire. It was a singular trade, obeying no known commercial or economic principles – indeed, no principles. There was a stock of ladies’ and gentlemen’s bicycles in a state of disrepair that passes description, and these, the hiring stock, were let to unexacting and reckless people, inexpert in the things of this world, at a nominal rate of one shilling for the first hour and sixpence per hour afterwards. But really there were no fixed prices, and insistent boys could get bicycles and the thrill of danger for an hour for so low a sum as threepence, provided they could convince Grubb that that was all they had. The saddle and handle-bar were then sketchily adjusted by Grubb, a deposit exacted, except in the case of familiar boys, the machine lubricated, and the adventurer started upon his career. Usually he or she came back, but at times, when the accident was serious, Bert or Grubb had to go out and fetch the machine home. Hire was always charged up to the hour of return to the shop and deducted from the deposit. It was rare that a bicycle started out from their hands in a state of pedantic efficiency. Romantic possibilities of accident lurked in the worn thread of the screw that adjusted the saddle, in the precarious pedals, in the loose-knit chain, in the handle-bars, above all in the brakes and tyres. Tappings and clankings and strange rhythmic creakings awoke as the intrepid hirer pedalled out into the country. Then perhaps the bell would jam or a brake fail to act on a hill; or the seat-pillar would get loose, and the saddle drop three or four inches with a disconcerting bump; or the loose and rattling chain would jump the cogs of the chain-wheel as the machine ran downhill, and so bring the mechanism to an abrupt and disastrous stop without at the same time arresting the forward momentum of the rider; or a tyre would bang, or sigh quietly, and give up the struggle for efficiency. (Chapter 2)

I enjoy this kind of gentle, Dad’s Army-type humour about the foibles and failings of ordinary English folk.

What makes it a Wells novel, though, is that this review of social and technological changes brings us up to the present and then… goes beyond it, into the future.

After the bicycle and car, old grandfather Smallways then watches the further developments of aerial monorails which soon criss-cross the country, dangling from vast metal pylons, and soon put the railways out of business. Wells also describes the advent of a new style of motor cars which have only two central wheels and travel at previously unheard-of speeds.

I.e. the story naturalises and domesticates what are in fact bold speculations about near-future technological developments.

One of these is the development of a new kind of flying machine which Bert and his mates, in among their other misadventures, read about in the newspapers. they even glimpse displays of the new flying machines because they live quite close to the Crystal Palace where some of the new-fangled machines go up and fly around.

Mr Butteridge inventor of the airplane

The rambunctious inventor of this new type of airplane is a certain Mr Butteridge who is treated with characteristic Wellsian facetiousness: he is fiercely secretive about his invention as well as being passionately in love with his mistress.

After several comic mishaps which made me think of The Last of the Summer Wine (Bert and Grubb take two young ladies for a Bank Holiday spree until Bert’s motorbike suddenly catches fire, leading to much mayhem), Grubb and Smallways are forced to acknowledge that their bicycle shop is no longer a going concern. So they close it down, and go down to the seaside to try their luck as ‘entertainers’.

They have just set up stall on the beach at Littlestone and begun singing to bored holiday-makers and curious children when everyone sees a strange sight – an air balloon coming drifting not very far above the ground trailing ropes behind it.

Yelling from it is none other than Mr Butteridge, shouting at the scattered holiday makers to catch the ropes and pull him down. And this is what a smattering of male day trippers proceed to do, grabbing the dangling tow ropes to pull down and stabilise the balloon just above the cobbles of the beach.

Butteridge explains that he was taking a pleasant day’s flight when his companion became ill. He then sets about manhandling the unconscious lady in all her Edwardians bustles over the side of the basket between its ropes and stays. It’s a fiddly, difficult business and he is just in the middle of it when a gust of wind comes along and — tips Butteridge and his lady out onto the sand, bumps the basket suddenly to the side so that Bert tumbles head-first into it and then — having thrown all the other hands off the ropes, Bert finds himself whooshing quickly high, high up into the sky in the runaway balloon.

No matter how preposterous the story, Wells has a real gift for fiercely imagining all the details of the scenarios he works up. On almost every page there are vivid touches which take you that much further into the story, and overcome your rational indignation at its silliness. Here’s Bert, having just fallen into the balloon’s car and half-stunned himself.

He had an impression he must be stunned because of a surging in his ears, and because all the voices of the people about him had become small and remote. They were shouting like elves inside a hill.

‘Like elves inside a hill’. That image has stayed with me for several days since I read it.

Anyway, Bert drifts east in the balloon over the English Channel, across France and then across Germany. There is a comic sequence in which he tries to land and throws out the iron anchor at the end of a rope which then proceeds to ravage its way across a small German town, smashing windows, ripping off rooftiles and prompting an angry crowd to chase him shouting abuse in German. It is only when the balloon drifts over an enormous field of huge man-made dirigibles, that he is finally shot down and comes back down to earth.

Bert Smallways accidentally stumbles upon the vast German airship depot

Bert Smallways accidentally stumbles upon the vast German airship depot

With the German attack fleet

It turns out that Germany is on the brink of declaring war against Britain (as so many people in 1908 feared she would do) and is mobilising this vast secret fleet of airships. Bert is taken before the commander-in-chief, the tall, blonde, merciless Prince Karl Albert.

But there is a complication: up in the balloon Bert had had time to rummage around in the basket’s various cupboards and drawers, fortunately finding food, but also uncovering a load of technical plans for Butteridge’s new airplane design.

And discovering that Butteridge had been planning to sell the designs to the Germans. The revelation that Butteridge was a traitor floors simple-minded Bert. But worse is to come for the German high command now mistakes him for Butteridge, under the impression that he has fled England with plans to deliver to them. Bert is forced to go along with their misunderstanding and pretend to be a famous inventor!

You can imagine the comic misunderstandings as Bert pathetically tries to play up to his role of genius, despite being nothing more than a failed second-hand bicycle salesman. Because of the comical German accents I was reminded of the TV show, ‘Allo ‘Allo. It feels about that level of silliness.

And because the Germans think Bert has brought them important plans, without a bye-your-leave he is ordered to accompany the fleet as they set off on the aerial attacks which will mark the outbreak of the war in the air, as a technical adviser.

So Bert is bundled into the lead airship of the German fleet, the Vaterland, put under guard of the humane, English-speaking Kurt, and up he goes, witnessing the sight of the vast German attack fleet of the future, scores of vast zeppelins, each of which carries a number of new-design fighter planes, or Drachenflieger.

This allows Wells to give soaringly evocative descriptions of what it is like to fly, what it is like to rise above the level of the clouds into pure sunshine, what it is like to look down over the patchwork quilt of farmland, over sunlight reflected on rivers, over cities, and then over the broad Atlantic Ocean. All invented: no human being had done this when Wells wrote his lyrical descriptions of what it must be like.

The battle of the North Atlantic

Then Bert witnesses the Battle of the North Atlantic (chapter 5), when the airship fleet comes to the help of the German High Seas fleet as it attacks the American Atlantic fleet of the Eastern seaboard of the USA. Wells gives a really vivid description of watching a sea battle among the huge dreadnought battleships of the day, the shells, the explosions, the sight of men like ants swarming out of the guts of wrecked ships as they sink, and then wriggling in the water amid explosions of steam and oil.

Nobody had ever seen sights like these before. Wells’s imagining of them is vivid and often disgusting. Bert is sickened by the sight of so much destruction, pain and death.

Attack on New York

Then the fleet flies on to New York whose pre-eminence in the worlds of finance, economics and culture, even in 1907, Wells fully describes, before going on to intensely imagine the attack on New York (subject of chapter 6). After the airships have flattened Wall Street and the City Hall, the New York authorities surrender.

But the population of this great metropolis can’t understand or accept this and spontaneous attacks on the hovering airships break out from all over the city, with the result that the terrible, inflexible Prince Karl Albert orders Broadway to be demolished. Bert watches the incendiary bombs fall, smashing buildings and sending flame waves through the thronged streets, burning countless men, women and children to death. Horrible anticipations of the firestorms which will destroy Coventry, Hamburg, Tokyo, 35 years later.

That night a storm comes up, battering the German airships, and in the middle of it America’s air force attacks, the plucky little fighter planes taking on the huge German airships, the battle illuminated by lightning and thunder, to Bert’s terror.

The Vaterland is hit by bullets, then its steerage hit by American planes, so that it tips nose upwards, some airmen falling down through the galley to their deaths, while Bert fastens himself inside a locker. For days the Vaterland drifts helplessly with the wind northwards, over desolate Canada, till the remaining crew down her in a barren frozen wasteland. Here the Prince takes charge of the survivors, makes the wounded comfortable, distributes rations, builds a camp and orders all the men to erect a vast radio antenna in order to contact the rest of the fleet and call for rescue.

A world at war

Bert pitches in with the other survivors. After five or six days of this intense bleak existence, the Germans get their radio working and discover that the whole world is at war: air fleets have burned London and Berlin and Hamburg and Paris, Japan has devastated San Francisco, and China has mobilised its fleet of planes and airships.

Hence the title of chapter 8 – A World At War. Wells gives an overview of what happens: turns out all the nations of the world all along had secret fleets of airships which they are now launching at each other. Half of Europe attacks the other half. India becomes involved in attacks to the North. A Chinese-Japanese fleet attacks San Francisco and then flies across the entire American continent to attack Niagara, which has become the American base of the German fleet. Even the nations of South America launch fleets of their own.

The uniquely new aspect of aerial warfare is that air fleets can bombard enemy territory but can’t really hold it. Rebellions against the ‘victors’ can break out anywhere, and airships are relatively cheap and quick to build so that at some remote location a ‘conquered’ country can quickly build a new fleet, which can then sail to the main cities of the attackers, and devastate them.

Wells makes the impassioned case that air warfare will therefore, of necessity, by an unstoppable logic, be relentlessly destructive, each side able to inflict potentially endless devastation on the other’s centres of population, but never being able to securely hold them and quell opposition. The resulting war will be endless and endlessly devastating.

Camp Niagara

Meanwhile a German zeppelin has found the crew of the downed Vaterland at its temporary camp in Labrador, picks them up (including Bert) and conveys them all to the town of Niagara, which the Germans have turned into their land base in the United States.

Bert is dragooned into the base of German flight crews, heaving and carrying crates of ammunition or tanks of liquid hydrogen and so on, to provision the resting airships. All at once the zeppelin he arrived in lifts off and Bert, running to watch, witnesses the epic battle between the entire German fleet of 67 airships and the 40 airships of the Southern Wing of the approaching Asiatic fleet.

The battle is, as usual with Wells, grippingly and thrillingly described, as little Bert Smallways looks up at the sky turned fiery battlefield, as well as witnessing the Asiatic forces land and storm the American buildings held by shooting German airmen.

Bert watches the lead German airship destroyed by attacking Asians till it crashes into the river above Niagara Falls, gets caught in the bridges and man-made paraphernalia around the islands, before finally getting washed over the falls, rolling and turning, collapsing into a mash of metal and silk and machinery. Bert runs to the edge of the falls to watch the wreckage be washed, half-submerged, down the river.

There goes Kurt, the only German who was his friend, and the fleet that brought him half way round the world, the symbol of Europe.

On Goat Island

Now Bert is alone on Goat Island, at the mercy of the landing Asian armies. Hiding behind trees and bushes he watches the Asiatics seek out the last hiding Germans and chop them to pieces with swords. Then mine and set fire to all the remaining buildings of the Niagara base. Then return to their sleek Asiatic planes or climb up rope ladders into the air balloons, and so depart.

Suddenly all is quiet. Bert realises with a shock that he is marooned on Goat Island as the one bridge which connected it across the river to the mainland was destroyed by the German zeppelin which crashed onto it.

Bert wanders round the entire perimeter of the island realising he is stuck. He discovers a locked-up tourist cafe, breaks into it and opens tins of corned beef and milk for a meal. Then sits and watches the amazing Niagara falls and the smouldering ruins of the town across the waters.

Although Wells couldn’t know it, this long passage reminds me of a later English sci-fi writer, J.G. Ballard, the poet laureate of abandoned cities, ruined motorways, moribund high rises and derelict amusement arcades.

Bert finds the corpse of an Asiatic flyer who had fallen onto a tree trunk and been spitted. He discovers another body snagged in bushes at the edge of the island. This one he pokes with a long stick to dislodge and is heart-broken to see it turn over and reveal the face of Kurt, the English-speaking German who was so kind to him, yet had felt an eerie foretaste of his own death (they had got to know each other and had several long conversations on the zeppelin flight across the Atlantic).

Bert’s eerie solitude ends with the discovery that two Germans had survived the crash of the airship by the island, notably the mighty and militaristic Prince Albert himself and a servant.

The Germans seize Bert and start bossing him around, ordering him to repair the broken Asiatic plane. He discovers that they have hidden all the food in the refreshment cafe.

Eventually, their arrogant manner makes mild-mannered Bert rebel and, seizing the machine gun he had rescued from another Asiatic warplane, Bert threatens the two Germans – who promptly turn tail and run.

Thus begins a classic example of the trope of two enemy combatants stuck on a small island and trying to hide from / eliminate the other. Bert doesn’t know whether the Germans have weapons of their own. He realises he can’t afford to go to sleep. A literary reference for this situation might be Lord of the Flies but it reminded me more of the movie Hell in the Pacific where Lee Marvin plays a World War Two pilot downed on a remote Pacific island with a Japanese castaway, both of them at each other’s throats.

In the end Bert tracks the pair down, discovering the prince asleep. Foolishly the German reaches for his sword and – as in a thousand movies – Bert pulls the trigger before he knows what he’s done, killing Prince Karl. The other German runs off leaving Bert to endure more anxious hours wondering whether he’s about to be ambushed at any second, until eventually he finds a rope the German had tried to fling across the broken stretch of bridge in order to escape. The rope is frayed and broken. Looks like the German failed in his attempt, and must have drowned.

Bert now fixes the broken Asiatic fighter plane (they are very small and the motors are not unlike those of the motor bikes Bert is familiar with. I was struck that Wells foresees that the wings of fighter plans will flap, profoundly wrong).

Among the Americans

After further comic mishaps Bert eventually flies the little plane off the island and makes it some way south before running out of fuel and crash landing somewhere in the American countryside.

He wanders past various isolated settlements until he reaches a provincial store full of good old boys. When Bert tells them his remarkable story, they give him food for free, and then bring him up to date with the news, namely that the war has escalated into a global conflagration and led to the widespread collapse of civilisation all around the world.

The Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic

When one of the tobacco-chewing old timers laments that some Brit named Butteridge died just after inventing a new kind of flying machine which might have protected the Yanks against the Asiatic hordes (he says an estimated army of a million Asians has landed on the Pacific coast) and goes on to say that rumour has it that some spy shot him and stole his balloon and all his plans – Bert chokes into his beer, and reveals that he was that man and that he still has Butteridge’s original plans stashed away in his chest-protector (an item of clothing he has managed not to remove in the entire previous fortnight’s adventures and which is, by now, very smelly).

Accepting this revelation very dryly, the leader of the saloon decides they must take the plans to the president in order for America to defend itself. But where is the president? Well, the saloon drinkers know that he and his cabinet are constantly on the move to escape the relentless bombing of the Asiatic air fleets.

Bert and the American village leader, Laurier, set off by bicycle (the monorails, which had replaced trains, have all stopped running because all the power stations have been bombed). It turns into a six-day-odyssey across a bombed-out, ruined America, through smouldering towns, past gangs of suspicious locals armed with guns, past black men strung up from trees by lynch mobs, through a country falling to pieces.

The Great Collapse

In the final chapter – The Great Collapse – Wells adopts his hieratic, prophetic tone.

He reveals that ‘we’ – the author and his audience – are now living in the peaceful era of the World Government, ‘orderly, scientific and secured’. He is looking back to what is now far enough in the past to constitute a particular historical era. He and his audience, looking back, can see how, just as Western civilisation reached its peak of productivity, wealth, peace and security – it exploded in this great catastrophic war.

A universal social collapse followed, as if it were a logical consequence, upon world-wide war. Wherever there were great populations, great masses of people found themselves without work, without money, and unable to get food. Famine was in every working-class quarter in the world within three weeks of the beginning of the war. Within a month there was not a city anywhere in which the ordinary law and social procedure had not been replaced by some form of emergency control, in which firearms and military executions were not being used to keep order and prevent violence. And still in the poorer quarters, and in the populous districts, and even here and there already among those who had been wealthy, famine spread.

And then came the great plague.

It is eerie how accurate Wells’s prophecy was: six years after the book was published a world war erupted, leading to four years of unprecedented destruction which nobody expected or could control, which led to the end of four major empires, the utter collapse of Russia into years of anarchy and civil war and something similar in Ukraine and Poland, plus major collapse in Germany.

All followed by the influenza epidemic which killed more people than all the fighting (it infected 500 million and may have been responsible for as many as 100 million deaths).

Utter devastation

Utter devastation

And Bert Smallways? He and Laurier finally track down the President of the USA and hand over the blueprints of the Butteridge airplane, which are also telegraphed to Britain.

Being simple and cheap to make it can be mass produced by communities all over both countries. But the result isn’t, as you might expect, to fight off the Asiatics or to win the war. It is to end Western civilisation, which collapses into local warbands, warlords, medieval city states, gangs of prowling vigilantes, stragglers, beggars, bringers of disease, famine and pestilence. It is 14th century Europe at the time of the Black Death.

Bert sails back to Britain

Job done, Bert cadges a lift from a British ship in Boston which sails across the Atlantic, is stricken with plague halfway, the survivors are picked up by another ship with a depleted crew, they are shot at in Madeira, and finally arrive in Wales to discover complete social collapse.

The buildings and monorails (and the advertising hoardings Wells hated so much) still stand, but there is no money, no credit, no central authority, half the people are dead, the other half starving, armed bands protect precious arable land.

Bert makes his way across this devastated landscape, into England, to Birmingham where what’s left of the government is still trying to fight the war. He finds there is no place for him here and leaves just before the city is incinerated by a mass raid of Asiatic airships.

He hikes south via Oxford, crosses the Thames at Windsor, and finally arrives at his brother’s house in Bun Hill to find his brother lean and feverish, his wife upstairs dying of plague, and Edna – the Helen of Bert’s great odyssey, the woman whose memory has kept him going through thick and thin – living with her mother at Horsham and terrorised by a local hoodlum, Bill Gore, who wants to marry / rape her.

By this time, as you might expect, Bert has been considerably changed by his experiences. He is no longer an innocent abroad, no longer the man who threw up when he saw his first battle.

Now he is lean, tanned, has been in many fights, and is armed.

When local tough Bill comes a-visiting Edna the next day, Bert doesn’t even bother parlaying but simply shoots him dead on the spot, then shoots his number two, then wings the number three as he runs off.

Bert then swaggers down to the local pub, announces he’s just shot the local gang leader, and asks who wants to join the Vigilance Committee he’s setting up? Intimidated, they all do. Bert establishes himself as the leader of the gang.

And he marries Edna and they farm the land, raising crops and livestock, living from year to year, defending their community against marauders. Edna bears 11 children, most of whom live, there are rich years and lean years, occasionally the shadow of an airship floats overhead, whether one of ‘ours’ or one of ‘theirs’ nobody knows or cares any more.

I found Well’s description of the complete social collapse of early twentieth century civilisation, and its quick reversion to medieval levels of society, powerfully compelling. Reminded me of the umpteen television series about the end of civilisation which I watched as a teenager in the 1970s, such as Survivors.

And I found the brief overview of Bert and Edna’s lives, now converted into tough farmers who breed and then, in their own time, pass away and are buried, genuinely haunting.

Epilogue

Set in the future, thirty years after the Germans started the world war which ended civilisation, the book’s last ten pages depict Tom Smallways, Bert’s brother, now a bent-over old man of 63, worn by decades of work in the fields, and one of Bert’s younger children, a son, Teddy, who’s come to stay.

They wander through the ruins of Bun Hill while old Tom tells the little boy about ‘the old days’, when there was ample food, when people could read, when there was clean water and sewerage and electric power and motor cars.

All gone now. Now they live amid the ruins of the old civilisation as the Britons lived among the ruins the Romans left behind, marvelling at the giants who must have made these fabulous buildings.

Now there is no knowledge of metalwork or even how to make clothes. People dress in shreds and tatters left over from the old days.

And Tom scares the little boy with legends about the big ruins to the north known as LONDON. One of the villagers went looking for booze there, got lost and swears that, as soon as the sun went down, the souls of the millions of dead rose again, and walked the streets in all their old finery, dodging between the hansom cabs and the motor cars, until they saw him and all crowded round to abuse him, and he saw that their faces were all screeching skulls.

The book is titled The War in The Air, which sounds quite energising and romantic. I had no idea it ended with such a powerfully imagined vision of the complete collapse of Western civilisation and its reversion back into the obscurity of a new dark age.


Wells’s vivid imagination

When Bert and Grubb take two young ladies out for a Bank Holiday spree all goes fine until Bert’s antique motorbike springs a petrol leak which then catches fire. He stops, the lady gets off screaming while first Bert and Grubb, and then various passersby all get roped in trying to put out the galloping fire. At one point a motor car stops driven by a posh, upper-class chap who offers the chaps his tarpaulin to smother the flames.

Then everybody realised that a new method was to be tried. A number of willing hands seized upon the Oxford gentleman’s tarpaulin. The others stood away with approving noises. The tarpaulin was held over the burning bicycle like a canopy, and then smothered down upon it.

‘We ought to have done this before,’ panted Grubb.

There was a moment of triumph. The flames vanished. Every one who could contrive to do so touched the edge of the tarpaulin. Bert held down a corner with two hands and a foot. The tarpaulin, bulged up in the centre, seemed to be suppressing triumphant exultation. Then its self-approval became too much for it; it burst into a bright red smile in the centre. It was exactly like the opening of a mouth. It laughed with a gust of flames. They were reflected redly in the observant goggles of the gentleman who owned the tarpaulin. Everybody recoiled.

I think that’s just a brilliant passage. The description of how the flames slowly penetrate the covering is wonderfully accurate. I’ve seen flame eat through a covering material just like a ‘bright red smile’.

And then the reflection of the red flames in the goggles of the Edwardian motor car driver is like a close-up from a movie. Brilliantly imagined and described.

Although his plots are often ludicrous, almost every page of a Wells novel contains moments like this, intensely imagined and vividly written.

Political pamphleteering

They also contain long passages in which Wells gives vent to his personal feelings of outrage at corrupt government and warlike generals.

Here he is, taking his place in the long tradition of liberals and humanists lamenting that governments waste so much money on building ever-more sophisticated and expensive weapons of war, while the children of the countries the arms are meant to be ‘protecting’, starve in the streets.

So it was that Bert Smallways saw the first fight of the airship and the last fight of those strangest things in the whole history of war: the ironclad battleships, which began their career with the floating batteries of the Emperor Napoleon III in the Crimean war and lasted, with an enormous expenditure of human energy and resources, for seventy years. In that space of time the world produced over twelve thousand five hundred of these strange monsters, in schools, in types, in series, each larger and heavier and more deadly than its predecessors. Each in its turn was hailed as the last birth of time, most in their turn were sold for old iron. Only about five per cent of them ever fought in a battle. Some foundered, some went ashore, and broke up, several rammed one another by accident and sank. The lives of countless men were spent in their service, the splendid genius, and patience of thousands of engineers and inventors, wealth and material beyond estimating; to their account we must put, stunted and starved lives on land, millions of children sent to toil unduly, innumerable opportunities of fine living undeveloped and lost. Money had to be found for them at any cost – that was the law of a nation’s existence during that strange time. Surely they were the weirdest, most destructive and wasteful megatheria in the whole history of mechanical invention.

And though Wells didn’t know it at the time, this was more or less what happened to the vast dreadnought battleships of his day, the competition to build which helped fuel rivalry between Britain and Germany in the years leading up to the Great War.

After all the huffing and puffing, after all the warmongering newspaper editorials and speeches, after the expense of hundreds of millions of pounds and Deutschmarks, the British and German fleets ended up bringing their decades of rivalry to a climax at the inconclusive Battle of Jutland in 1916 (‘fourteen British and eleven German ships sank, with a total of 9,823 deaths’). Thereafter the enormously expensive German fleet spent the rest of the war bottled up in port until it was scuttled in 1918. Futile waste of money doesn’t begin to describe it. Hence Wells’s rage.

Wells’s prefaces

Wells was as profuse in interpreting his own novels as he was recklessly prolix in writing them. This novel had a whole series of prefaces tacked on the front as the years went by, in each of which he manages to give the novel a different spin.

1921 preface

In the 1921 preface printed in the Penguin paperback, he categorises The War In The Air, alongside some of his other novels, as a ‘fantasia of possibility’, meaning that he takes one scientific idea and then pursues it to its conclusion.

Some of these ideas (the notion of a time machine or invasion from another planet) are obviously fanciful. This one was a more realistic working-through of the consequences of unrestricted war in the air.

In an interesting insight, or suggestion, Wells argues that aerial warfare will eliminate the old-fashioned idea of a war with defined fronts, of specific locations where armies fight each other and either win or lose.

Instead, he predicted that the militarisation of the air would lead not only to vastly greater destruction than mankind had ever known before – but that it would also make wars oddly indecisive. Both sides would be able to reduce each other’s civilisations to smoking rubble before it was really clear who had won.

This didn’t happen in the immediate future, in the First World War, when airplane technology wasn’t advanced enough to make any impact on the conflict. But it is very much what happened in the Second World War, when Allied bombing and the Russian advance reduced Germany to rubble, but not before the Germans had devastated towns and cities across the continent, namely in Britain, but also in the devastating Blitz on Poland right at the start. America devastated mainland Japan for months without persuading the Japanese to surrender. It took not one, but two atomic bombs, before the Japanese finally saw sense.

1918 preface

By contrast, the 1918 preface doesn’t mention any of this. In this one Wells makes a shorter, sharper point, arguing that – in light of the catastrophe of 1914-18 – there could only possibly now be one position in international affairs, which was to call for a World Government.

Our author tells us in this book, as he has told us in others, more especially in The World Set Free, and as he has been telling us this year in his War and the Future, that if mankind goes on with war, the smash-up of civilization is inevitable. It is chaos or the United States of the World for mankind. There is no other choice.

This idea – the necessity of a World Government to prevent the end of civilisation – was to be the central issue Wells plugged away at for the rest of his life.

Regarding the narrative, Wells in his 1918 preface refers to it as ‘a pamphlet story – in support of the League to Enforce Peace’.

I am just struck by the way that Wells’s restless imagination was unable to stay in one place even when he was referring to his own works: this one novel was, at various times, both a ‘fantasia of possibility’ and ‘a pamphlet story’.

And in neither preface does he mention the more obvious fact that it is also a broadly comic novel.

You can see why, to ‘serious’ critics and writers, Wells’s novels became a byword for being artistic messes – scientific prophecies jostling for space with earnest political commentary, whimsical social comedy pressed up against jaw-dropping science fiction visions, sentimental love stories morphing into daring espousals of Free Love.

From about 1900 Wells chucked everything and the kitchen sink into his books, which become steadily longer and more chaotic.

In order to enjoy them you have to abandon literary criticism, have to forget the urgings of Henry James or Joseph Conrad that the novel ought to be a high-minded and beautifully written aesthetic whole – and just accept that they are part-pamphlet, part-technological prophecy, part Ealing Comedy, part self-interested plea for free love, part awe-inspiring visions of a future world in ruins – and enjoy all the different bits, styles and tones of voice, as you stumble across them, for their own sake.

Wells’s underlying sense of futility

But, as I pointed out in my review of In The Days of The Comet, I also couldn’t help getting the strong feeling that underlying all Well’s bumptious humour and angry politics and technological wizardry is a deep, abiding sense of the futility of all human effort.

Sooner or later in all his books, that note is sounded and seems, to me, to be the foundation of all this writing.

Here is Lieutenant Kurt (the only German who treats Bert decently, as the sit in the base in Canada waiting to be rescued) admitting to Bert that he will never see his sweetheart again.

‘You’ll see ‘er again all right,’ said Bert.

‘No! I shall never see her again…. I don’t understand why people should meet just to be torn apart. But I know she and I will never meet again. That I know as surely as that the sun will rise, and that cascade come shining over the rocks after I am dead and done…. Oh! It’s all foolishness and haste and violence and cruel folly, stupidity and blundering hate and selfish ambition – all the things that men have done – all the things they will ever do. Gott! Smallways, what a muddle and confusion life has always been – the battles and massacres and disasters, the hates and harsh acts, the murders and sweatings, the lynchings and cheatings. This morning I am tired of it all, as though I’d just found it out for the first time. I HAVE found it out. When a man is tired of life, I suppose it is time for him to die. I’ve lost heart, and death is over me. Death is close to me, and I know I have got to end. But think of all the hopes I had only a little time ago, the sense of fine beginnings!… It was all a sham. There were no beginnings…. We’re just ants in ant-hill cities, in a world that doesn’t matter; that goes on and rambles into nothingness. New York – New York doesn’t even strike me as horrible. New York was nothing but an ant-hill kicked to pieces by a fool!

‘Think of it, Smallways: there’s war everywhere! They’re smashing up their civilisation before they have made it. The sort of thing the English did at Alexandria, the Japanese at Port Arthur, the French at Casablanca, is going on everywhere. Everywhere! Down in South America even they are fighting among themselves! No place is safe – no place is at peace. There is no place where a woman and her daughter can hide and be at peace. The war comes through the air, bombs drop in the night. Quiet people go out in the morning, and see air-fleets passing overhead – dripping death – dripping death!’

‘We’re just ants in ant-hill cities, in a world that doesn’t matter; that goes on and rambles into nothingness.’

Wells felt the grim relentlessness of the Darwinian struggle for survival, and that the latest technological discoveries of the Scientific Age meant that these once-small and localised struggles would now spread right around the globe, become unstoppable, spelling a universal war, and a sky dripping with death.

He could see it, literally imagine every detail of it, see the bombs falling and the cities destroyed and the fleeing human ants incinerated by firebombs – way before any of his peers could and he warned about it in everything he wrote – but nobody else imagined it as intimately, as terribly, most people ignored it and carried on writing about love affairs and garden parties, and it drove Wells wild with frustration.

Hence the despairing tone at the end of yet another preface he wrote to this book, this time at the end of his life, in 1941, in the depths of the new world war.

Again I ask the reader to note the warnings I gave in [the 1921 preface], twenty years ago. Is there anything to add to that preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: ‘I told you so. You damned fools.’


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – 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 – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but 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 – 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 – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – 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 – 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

1914 The World Set Free – 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

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
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
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
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

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
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
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
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 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
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The adventures of William Mandella, one of the first to join up for the elite forces organised to fight the Taurians who humans encounter as soon as they discover interstellar travel, in a novel often taken as an allegory for the undending Vietnam War, in which Haldeman himself actually fought.

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
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Adapt to Survive: Notes from the Future @ Hayward Gallery

Hayward Gallery revision notes

Hayward Gallery is a part of the Southbank Centre. Opened by the Queen in July 1968, the gallery is one of the few remaining buildings of its style i.e. concrete Brutalism. It was designed by a group of young architects, including Dennis Crompton, Warren Chalk and Ron Herron, and is named after Sir Isaac Hayward, a former leader of the London County Council.

In 2015 the gallery shut down for a few years ago for a complete refurbishment. It re-opened in this, its fiftieth birthday year, with a massive retrospective of German photographer Andreas Gursky. It is now hosting a major retrospective exhibition of Korean artist Lee Bul (which I’ve also reviewed).

These blockbuster shows are held in the massive main galleries, five rooms on split levels reached by spiral staircases and ramps. But in the main foyer of the building is the doorway to Hayward’s other exhibition space, the much smaller HENI Project Space.

HENI Project Space

Whereas the main gallery hosts only two or three big shows a year, the HENI Project Space space is much more flexible and fast, typically presenting six to eight exhibitions a year. The space comprises a short corridor turning into one large room, lined with the building’s characteristic dark grey concrete.

Originally opened in 2007, the HENI Project Space – like its parent gallery – underwent a comprehensive refurbishment and re-opened in January 2018 in its new, bigger, ground floor location (on the right as you enter the Hayward’s main glass doors).

Importantly, whereas entry to the main exhibition generally costs around £14, entry to the project space is FREE (although be aware that the whole Hayward complex doesn’t open till 11am and is closed on Tuesdays).

Adapt to Survive

Adapt to Survive: Notes from the Future brings together one or two artworks each by a group of seven international artists on the common theme of imagining how our world might look and feel in the future.

Ann Lislegaard – Time Machine (2011)

A box about waist-high is made of four mirrors attached by hinges. Two have been unfolded to swing out across the floor. The other two remain closed to form two sides of the box and onto them is projected a ‘cartoon’ fox. The fox is speaking a monologue which is continually interrupted by computer glitches, echoes and buzzing interference. Something is wrong with its programme.

The fox is reciting part of H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine (1895) in which the scientist-narrator ponders on the nature of time. The broken narrative by a computer-generated animation reminds us of hundreds of similar glitchy programmes in modern science fiction film, a trope indicating that the future will be heavily technological but that that technology will be flawed.

Having worked on government websites and in government IT for the past eight years, I don’t need anyone to tell me just how flawed and accident-prone modern digital technology can be. This is a visually striking and quite humorous reminder.

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring Time Machine by Ann Lislegaard © Ann Lislegaard. Photo by Thierry Bal

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring Time Machine by Ann Lislegaard © Ann Lislegaard. Photo by Thierry Bal

Julian Charrière – Metamorphism (2016)

Charrière imagines what the world might look like many millennia in the future, when the products that characterise our era have been buried under sediment and re-incorporated into the Earth’s strata. To make his futuristic ‘samples’ Charrière poured 20 tonnes of molten rock over a pile of broken consumer electronics, later applying a chemical wash to the cooled forms to simulate the effects of acid rain. Solid, disturbing.

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring Metamorphism by Julian Charrière © Julian Charrière. Photo by Thierry Bal

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring Metamorphism by Julian Charrière © Julian Charrière. Photo by Thierry Bal

Rainer Ganahl – I Hate Karl Marx (2010)

A TV set is on a plinth showing a film or programme. There are a couple of headphones available so you can listen to the video which turns out to depict a young German woman yelling at a bust of Karl Marx. Except that she’s yelling in Chinese. Because the film imagines a future in which China is the dominant political and economic power and has taken over Europe where all the countries are now communist and everyone speaks Chinese.

If this really were a repressive communist state I suspect a young woman shouting at a statue of Marx would be grabbed by the security police pretty quickly.

You can view the entire video on YouTube.

I like where she calls Marx ‘a fat, dumpling-throwing corrupt Chinese pig’, probably the first time he’s been called that. But quite quickly I started wishing that she’d run off-screen and return with a damp birch branch and start whacking the statue, like John Cleese whacks his Morris 1100 in Fawlty Towers. That would show him!

Unintentionally, perhaps, this piece is quite funny.

Marguerite Humeau – Harry II (2017)

Humeau has created a big and elaborate sculpture which takes inspiration from the ancient myth of the sphinx and then goes way beyond to put it in an eerily modern context.

The three savage-looking sphinxes’ heads now sit atop a weird kind of futuristic fencing, with some worrying organic but prickly bayonet devices down at ankle level. Up close the installation gives off a disconcerting hum like the low hum of electronic surveillance devices. Spooky.

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring Harry II by Marguerite Humeau (2017) © Marguerite Humeau. Photo by Thierry Bal

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring Harry II by Marguerite Humeau (2017) © Marguerite Humeau. Photo by Thierry Bal

Bedwyr Williams – Tyrrau Mawr (2016)

Hanging on the wall is a widescreen monitor showing what at first looks like a glossy photo or artist’s creation of a futuristic cityscape. Only if you watch carefully do you realise that the sun glinting off the skyscrapers is moving very slowly, and then that tiny street lights are flickering on as dusk falls.

This is Bedwyr Williams’s vision of an imaginary mega-city situated in rural North Wales. Put on the headphones and you can hear Williams himself reading out short fictional vignettes describing the lives of the inhabitants of this ideal new metropolis. I’m not giving anything away if I reveal that they are uniformly unhappy and listless. The future is bored and alienated (pretty much like the present, then). Dazzling.

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring Tyrrau Mawr by Bedwyr Williams (2017) © Bedwyr Williams. Photo by the author

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring Tyrrau Mawr by Bedwyr Williams (2016) © Bedwyr Williams. Photo by the author

Youmna Chlala – The Butterfly Already Exists in the Caterpillar (2018)

Artist and writer Youmna Chlala is working on a project titled The Museum of Future Memories. She imagines the city of the future as being a place in flux, a zone of rising sea levels, where seasons have ceased to exist and the remaining inhabitants have forged new ways to live.

Sounds quite drastic and devastated but it in fact turns out that the inhabitants of this future world write neat and poetic graffiti on the concrete walls of their ruins, alongside colourful crayon-style imagery of wildlife. Pretty.

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring The Butterfly Already Exists in the Caterpillar by Youmna Chlala (2018) © Youmna Chlala. Photo by Thierry Bal

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring The Butterfly Already Exists in the Caterpillar by Youmna Chlala (2018) © Youmna Chlala. Photo by Thierry Bal

Andreas Angelidakis – The Walking Building (2004–6)

In the plate glass frontage of the gallery is a TV monitor showing a video portraying a fantasy imagining of a contemporary art museum of the future, a ‘shape-shifting structure that adapts to different environments and needs’. In the video, the museum comes alive, crawling like an animal through the streets of Athens.

The work is inspired by Archigram, an avant-garde architectural collective who championed radical, adaptable urban structures such as The Walking City (1964), and three of whose founding members were involved in the design of the Hayward Gallery. It’s quite fun in a sci-fi special effects kind of way.

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring The Walking Building (2004–6) by Andreas Angelidakis © Andreas Angelidakis. Photo by Thierry Bal

Installation view of Adapt to Survive at Hayward Gallery, featuring The Walking Building (2004–6) by Andreas Angelidakis © Andreas Angelidakis. Photo by Thierry Bal

Thoughts

I grew up reading science fiction in the 1960s and 70s.

After going through phases of reading traditional sci-fi by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein and Olaf Stapledon, I stumbled in the 1970s across the novels and short stories of the English writer J.G.Ballard who gave the entire genre of science fiction a completely new and profoundly disillusioned twist.

Ballard deliberately abandoned the style of sci-fi known as ‘space opera’ – all rocket ships and laser guns – in favour of concentrating on the alienated, estranged lives of people living more or less in the present, but a present distorted by the unnerving reality of concrete high rise buildings, motorway flyovers, multiple vehicle pile-ups on motorways

He titled his stories about the psychological damage being done by the inhuman environments of the present ‘myths of the near future’.

In a similar spirit of disillusion he threw cold water on the boyish fantasies of all those sci-fi writers and film-makers who think mankind will one day colonise other planets and travel to the stars. It’s really simple. No, we won’t. Not only do we not have the money or the technology or the power sources to do any of that, but at a deeper level, people don’t want to. That whole tribe of sci-fi visionaries don’t seem to have noticed that we are having a lot of trouble just surviving on this planet.

Ballard made the controversial assertion that the Space Age ended in about 1973, when the ratings for I Love Lucy were higher than for that year’s Apollo moon landing. Most people weren’t bothered anymore. Seen it. Done it. Got the t-shirt. Of course the Americans went on to build the space shuttle and the international space station and the Indians and Chinese are now sending rockets into space. But do you care? Do I care? Does the population of war-torn Syria care?

Science continues to be done on the international space station and probes are regularly fired off into the solar system and beyond, but humanity will clearly never leave this planet.

Ballard’s fiction paints a vision of physical entropy and emotional accidie which nothing can shift. It is full of empty swimming pools and abandoned motels. And of mannequin-like people talking at cross-purposes. He died before mobile phones intensified the alienation and distance from each other which he had been predicting for so long.

And then he swept the rug from under his own oeuvre by revealing that all those decades of science fiction stories were in fact workings-though in fictional form of his terrible childhood experience of being imprisoned by the Japanese during World War Two, which he revealed in the entirely factual autobiography Empire of the Sun, published in 1984, so powerful it was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg. He wrote more books but – having made a public confession – none of them used the form or language of science fiction, and they were never so good. Like a magician who shows how his tricks are done, the magic had evaporated.

But in the thirty years up to Empire of the Sun, Ballard so comprehensively deconstructed and undermined science fiction’s settings, tropes and assumptions, that there didn’t seem anywhere left to go. Although science fiction has gone on to have a steadily increasing presence in movies and television, it mostly seems to me to deal in themes which I find disconcertingly old-fashioned. Much science fiction seems to me – paradoxically – to be achingly nostalgic.

Take the potentially endless series of Star Wars films which Disney are now going to churn out on an annual basis. Ray guns and space ships? These are themselves redolent of the classic space opera comics and movies George Lucas watched in the 1950s. But on another level all the fans who flock to see these blockbuster movies really just want to see the relationship between Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher recreated – and so are doomed to disappointment.

And so for me, coming from this perspective, it was symptomatic that the first work in this little collection supposedly about the future is in fact based on the story which invented the concept of time travel over 120 years ago. Like so much of science fiction, the animation of the stuttering fox didn’t seem at all new but felt to me old, old, old.

The notion that the big shiny cities of the future will in fact house unhappy, alienated populations (Williams), segregated by menacing razor fencing (Humeau), and that our civilisation will one day decline and fall to be reclaimed by nature (Chlala), the scorched ruins eventually becoming buried under sediment to survive only as fossils (Charrière) – these ideas aren’t just familiar, they are the almost-exhausted superclichés of the genre.

The notion that buildings, or even entire cities, will in the future be able to move to more optimum locations, is at least as old as Christopher Priest’s classic sci-fi novel Inverted World, from 1973, and is about to be blasted into everyone’s consciousness by the forthcoming ‘major motion picture’, Mortal Engines, based on Philip Reeve’s brilliant series of novels about moving cities in a post-apocalypse future, scheduled for release this Christmas.

So influenced by Ballard as I am, I tend to think that if there is any mileage in science fiction, it is in the now, just not in quite the same ‘now’ that most people are looking at. It is in glimpses and intuitions of how human nature is being changed by technology, that are hard to see and even harder to express.

Conclusion

I enjoyed this exhibition, and the opportunity to see samples of the kind of work being made by youngish contemporary artists. But I don’t think it told me anything at all about the actual future which we are all going to live through…


Related links

Reviews of other Hayward exhibitions

Science fiction reviews

Iron In The Soul by Jean-Paul Sartre (1949)

He felt himself filled with a sense of vast and pointless freedom. (p.92)

349 pages long in the Penguin paperback edition, Iron in The Soul repeats the format of the previous two novels in The Roads To Freedom trilogy by following a set of French characters over a very specific, and short, timeframe connected with the Second World War, in this case right at the end of the Battle of France.

Part one

Part one is 200 pages long, its first chapter has the dateline ‘New York: Saturday 15 June 1940 9am’ and the final chapter is dated ‘Tuesday 18 June 5.45am’. So it covers four days towards the end of the Battle of France.

In part one there is not much of the ‘experimental’ technique Sartre used to such effect in The Reprieve. In that novel I counted some 130 named characters, and the text made a point of cross-cutting unpredictably from one character’s actions and thoughts to another’s, from one scene to another, continually introducing new characters, sometimes just for brief cameos. This made it quite a challenging read but the reward was in the quite wonderful, almost musical, sense of rhythm in the interleaving of episodes, people and their deepest thoughts.

Part one of Iron in the Soul is more traditional, establishing fixed and static scenes and then following characters within them for substantial lengths of text, before starting new chapters or chapter sections to reflect new scenes and characters. Much more clear and comprehensible.

Timeline

Maybe a recap of the historical background would be useful. In spring 1940:

May 10 Germany invades France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands
May 11 British and French forces begin a long line of strategic defenses to defend Belgium
May 12 German General Guderian with his three divisions reaches the Meuse River
May 13 the first German forces emerge from Ardennes onto the Meuse
May 14 German Panzer Corps fifteen and nineteen break through Allied defenses at Sedan allowing German forces to bypass the Maginot line
May 15 German forces push on toward Paris and the English Channel
May 20 General Weygand replaces General Gamelin as Allied commander
May 17-18 Antwerp and Brussels fall to Germany
May 21 Allied forces try to counter attack German forces but are repulsed
May 24 The Luftwaffe bombs Allied defensive positions around Dunkirk
May 25 German forces take Boulogne as more retreating Allied forces reach Dunkirk
May 26 850 British civilian ships and vessels help Allied forces evacuate Dunkirk in the largest military evacuation in history
May 28 King Leopold of Belgium orders his army to surrender to German forces
May 29 around 47,000 British forces are evacuated from Dunkirk
May 30 around 120,000 Allied forces evacuated from Dunkirk
May 31 around 150,000 Allied soldiers arrive in Britain

June 3 The German Luftwaffe bombs Paris
June 4 Allied forces continue evacuation of the coast. In all some 338,326 British and 113,000 French forces are evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain
June 5th Second part of the Battle of France begins with the German striking south from the River Somme
June 9 German forces launch an offensive on Paris
June 10 Norway surrenders to Germany and Italy joins the war by declaring war on France and Great Britain
June 13 Paris is declared an open city by the French government which flees to Bordeaux
June 14 German troops enter Paris
June 16 Marshal Petain becomes Prime Minister of France
June 17 French government asks Germany for armistice terms. Germans cross the river Loire in the west and reach the Swiss frontier in the south-east
June 18 General de Gaulle broadcasts on the BBC telling the people of France to resist
June 22 France signs an armistice with Germany
June 23 Adolf Hitler begins a tour of the captured city of Paris
June 24 The French officially surrender at Compiegne, site of the German surrender in 1918
25 June All hostilities cease. France has fallen

Part one of Iron In the Soul tracks its characters over the four days during which Parisians flee their city before it is taken by the Germans and when retreating Second Tier armed forces are abandoned by their officers and find themselves at a loss what to do. the key characters from the first novel recur:

  • Gomez is in New York scrabbling for a job in the art world.
  • His wife, Sarah, and son Pablo are caught in the huge stream of refugees fleeing Paris.
  • Daniel, the gay banker who married Mathieu’s mistress, Marcelle, has packed her off and roams the streets of an empty Paris like the last man in the world – until he encounters Philippe, the spoilt youth we met in The Reprieve, and sets about seducing him.
  • Boris Serguine, who we saw join the Army in The Reprieve, was wounded in the fighting but is well enough to go to the apartment of his mistress, the nightclub singer Lola Montero who, however, has been diagnosed with a stomach tumour but can’t bring herself to tell him.
  • We saw Boris’s sister, the prickly Ivich, give herself to a unnamed man in The Reprieve partly as rebellion against her bourgeois parents, partly because she thought war was about to break out and the world end. Nearly two years later, we discover she got pregnant, the man married her, she had a miscarriage, he’s off at the front fighting where, characteristically, she hopes he gets killed.
  • Mathieu’s intolerably pompous self-serving brother, Jacques, a lawyer, forces his wife to pack in a hurry and flee from Paris only to get half way across France and realise he wants to go back, and blames the whole thing on her. She is livid. She goes to sleep in the car dreaming of Mathieu.
  • And the ‘hero’ of the first book – over-sensitive, over-thinking, angst-ridden but ineffectual philosophy tutor Mathieu Delarue?We find him with a platoon of Second string infantry who never saw any fighting. For 200 pages they laze around wondering what to do after their officers have treacherously abandoned them, smoking and getting drunk – until a platoon of Chasseurs arrive who are battle-hardened and disciplined. On a whim – or more accurately, as a result of the incredibly complicated and tortuous meditations about the nature of ‘freedom’ which have filled the previous 800 pages, Mathieu decides to join them, is given a rifle, sent with a squad to be sharp-shooters up a church belfry and when the Germans finally arrive, is involved in a fierce firefight which ends with the belfry being blown up by artillery and Mathieu blazing away till the last minute like a Hollywood hero.

Part two

is significantly different. It took me a few pages to realise that the entire part – all 120 pages – consists of just three paragraphs. With the exception of just two small breaks, these 120 pages make up a solid block of print, with no incidental breaks or indentations. Possibly this is to reflect the subject matter. (Craig Vasey’s introduction to The Last Chance: Roads of Freedom IV tells me that in the original French there weren’t even the two small breaks: the entire 120 pages consisted of one paragraph; and that all the verbs were in the present tense, something the English translation here rejects.)

The ‘plot’ picks up (with savage irony / comedy  / bleak farce) at exactly the point where Mathieu is killed – for taking refuge in a cellar of a house off the square is his friend and contemporary, the strong, manly Communist Brunet. In The Age of Reason, there’s a passage where Brunet tries to persuade Mathieu to become a communist, but the timid philosopher, as with everything else in his life, hesitates and puts the decision off.

Anyway, Brunet has no idea Mathieu is up in the church tower about to be blown to smithereens. He has his own concerns. he fought bravely, most of his platoon were killed. Now he surrenders to the Germans as they finally take the village. He falls in with a trail of French POWs which grows and grows till it is maybe 10,000 strong, a vast concourse of knackered, defeated, demoralised men stumbling along dusty roads in blinding heat. Finally, they arrive at a disused barracks which has become converted into a POW camp.

Here the French are easily shepherded inside and locked up. The next hundred pages give in great detail the dialogue between a cast of about a dozen peasant and proletarian infantrymen, while Brunet makes his plans to create a Communist cell among them. While they fuss about food and the weather and gossip, Brunet is planning for the future.

In this he is sort of helped by Schneider, a tough, surly man who is not exactly a Communist, but agrees to help him. The spine of the section is the wary dialogue between these two men, with Schneider proving himself both more of a man of the people, and smarter than Brunet in various situations. It is difficult to know what this section is ‘about’. Possibly it is a prolonged examination of the nature of a ‘Communist Activist’, with Brunet given Schneider as a foil to dramatise different approaches to handling men, creating a cell, combating cynicism and fatigue, and so on.

Whatever the precise intention, the overt or political purpose of the section now feels completely redundant, part of a long-lost history. It doesn’t even – as with so much Sartre – lead to any real action, for next to nothing happens to this vast concourse of freed men. After five or six days without food, trucks eventually arrive with soup and bread. One madmen runs amok screaming and the Germans shoot him. For the rest the defeated Frenchmen adopt a holiday mood, sunbathing, playing cards, establishing billets in every available building, nicking stuff, squabbling. Both Brunet and Schneider find it almost impossible to motivate anyone. No Germans of any authority appear. They don’t confront the camp commandant or organise a strike or anything really decisive or dramatic. Instead Brunet and Schneider squabble with each other, and with the dozen or so named characters around them.

In the last of the three sections, the setting jumps a bit to aboard the massive train of cattle trucks in which thousands of POWs have been packed as it rattles north through France. A teeny tiny bit of suspense is given to this passage because the more intelligent among them (i.e. Brunet, Schneider, a few others) are pretty sure they’re being taken to Germany to become slave labour. The section shows the various forms of denial, fear, and panic among the POWs as they wonder which way the train will turn at the fatal set of points which will steer them either further north into France or East across the border. One character, a young printer who Brunet had recruited for his Communist cell, panics, jumps from the train when it slows at a cutting, runs away a little, then panics more and tries to return and catch up – only to be picked off by the German guards and fall dead beside the rails. That’s as dramatic as it gets.

When the train reaches the points they are set East, confirming Brunet and Schneider’s gloomy assumptions. They are heading East to a dark future. The final words are:

Above the dead body, above the inert freight-van, the darkness wheeled. It alone was living. Tomorrow’s dawn would cover all of them with the same dew. Dead flesh and rusted steel would run with the same sweat. Tomorrow the black birds would come. (p.349)


Themes

The futility of life

As to the mood and feel of the text, we are back in bleak Sartre-land where the sunshine is futile, life is pointless, breathing is an effort, and the hyper-sensitive characters are oppressed by life, by other people, by other people looking at them, dammit – and everyone agonises about their ‘freedom’, panting after this mystical chimera without ever quite grasping what this much-abused term actually means.

Gomez, the artist has escaped to New York, where he walks around hating the heat, the sunshine, the big buildings, the streamlined cars, the adverts, the magazines and, everywhere, pictures of happy smiling people – Not to grin is a sin, he thinks bitterly – while ‘over there’ i.e. back in Europe, people are suffering, suffering I tell you! This is intercut with the plight of his wife, Sarah, a Jewess, and small son Pablo, who are caught in a vast traffic jam of refugees fleeing Paris. These are Gomez’s thoughts:

He looked at the street, at the meaningless sun, at the whole meaningless day. There would be nothing now, any more, but meaningless days. (p.9)

These are Sarah’s thoughts:

We are no more than the feet of an interminable insect. Why walk when hope is dead? Why live? (p.25)

Sartre’s novels could almost be designed to validate teenage depressives’ most suicidal thoughts and, above all, to make the depressive feel special, superior to what Gomez calls the ‘human tide’ of people in New York with their ‘bright dead eyes’, and Sarah’s description of the refugees as ‘insects’ (a favourite insult term of Sartre’s; he memorably describes Hitler as having an insect face; Mathieu looks down from the church tower on the villagers like ‘frightened ants’; Lola feels that Boris while screwing her is like an insect, when the Germans arrive in the village Mathieu feels they have ‘the eyes of supermen and insects’, p.212).

Everyone else is an insect, or an inane grinning American with dead eyes, part of the machine, part of the bourgeoisie – I, I alone, suffer – look how I suffer – look how special I am!

Suicide

Both The Age of Reason and The Reprieve contain extended sequences describing the thoughts and sensations, the hyper self-awareness, of two men on the brink of committing suicide – Daniel with a razor and Mathieu jumping into the Seine, respectively. Having tried to kill myself, I can vouch for the exquisite sense of self-pity you feel at such a moment, looking at your doomed hands, your tragic face in the mirror, afflicted by sentimental thoughts that this is the last time you’ll look at your face, the last time you’ll turn out the bedroom light (or whatever), after you slash your wrists, take an overdose etc.

So, Ivich invites her brother, Boris, to join her in a suicide pact (p.72) though she isn’t really a serious character, just a spoilt wilful girl. Daniel comes across Philippe, the spoilt son of bourgeois parents, hesitating on the brink of the Seine, trying to nerve himself to throw himself in. Various other characters – for example Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, who is secretly in love with him – think they can’t go on, life is so damn pointless. What’s the point?

In Sartre’s novels, death, and suicide, are all around us. Describing the plot to my son he said, ‘sounds like teenage angst on steroids’.

Rootless, directionless, abandoned

What these people need is a sound spanking (as Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, memorably puts it). Or maybe just the support of a loving family, a job, some stability, something to focus their energy on. But their characters are all carefully chosen to be bohemian types, drifters, people without settled jobs or any real family commitments. Sartre selects a group of people with very few responsibilities and who we never see doing a single day’s work in their lives – thus allowing them all to give vent to maximum feelings of alienation and anomie, thus permitting them all to have lengthy and repetitive soliloquies about the pointlessness of life, about their feelings of abandonment.

As a married father of two, I see both marriage and especially fatherhood, as extremely demanding, responsible roles. Significantly, none of Sartre’s characters are married or have children in the traditional manner –

  • Gomez is married but has dumped Sarah and his son to run away and fight in Spain, then flee to America.
  • Daniel only married Marcelle as an existential dare, in reality he hates her and can’t wait to get away from her.
  • Boris is going out with Lola the singer, but routinely hates her, and in fact dumps her for the army.
  • Ivich got married to Georges after he got her pregnant but, inevitably, hates him, and hopes he’s killed in the fighting (p.66). Ivich loathes her in-laws, and she ‘detests’ the French (p.68), but then she hates more or less everyone.
  • Sarah looks at her crying son and realises she hates him (p.25).
  • The villagers hate the French soldiers who’ve been billeted on them (p.97).
  • Mathieu realises he hates his drunken comrades (p.132).
  • Philippe tells Daniel that he hates his step-father, the general (p.149).
  • Pinette’s girlfriend hates Mathieu (p.157)

In fact, most of the characters hate most of the other characters most of the time. Do all French people hate all other French people? Would explain their surliness.

So if you’re a drifter without a proper job, without any family ties or support, who hates everyone and despises bourgeois society, this is how you will end up feeling: full of despair and anomie. It’s hardly rocket science.

Alone

It is a key axiom of existentialism that every individual is alone, completely alone, and condemned to complete freedom. We are not hemmed in or supported by social structures or traditions or morality, for we choose whether or not to accept those: to blame society or others in any way for any of our acts is bad faith, is a denial of our utter freedom.

But Sartre’s philosophy of life – or his melodramatic poetry about the horror of existence – all begins in this primal, fundamental sense of your complete solitude, the basic feeling of alienation from others, from your fellow soldiers, or your family, from everyone else in the bar or cafe or nightclub, some sudden feeling of your complete aloneness in the face of an utterly indifferent universe.

This is the moment in the characters’ lives which the text keeps returning to like a moth to a flame.

  • He shivered. He felt suddenly naked and alone, a man, I. (p.102)
  • No one needs me. he sat down on the edge of the road because there was nowhere for him to go. Night entered into him through mouth and eyes, through nose and ears. He was no one now; he was nothing – nothing any longer but misery and darkness. (p.162)
  • Mathieu saw the smile and felt utterly alone. (p178)
  • She felt lost in a world of which she could make no use. (p.191) [Odette]
  • She thought: ‘I am alone.’.. He speaks to me and kisses me, but when I come to die I shall be alone… (pp.205-6) [Lola]
  • Where are the Comrades? Brunet felt lonely. Never, in all the past ten years, had he felt so utterly alone. (p.239)
  • [When the French prisoners of war arrive in a huge fences barracks] They were going to bury their filthy old war among these high buildings, were going to stew in their own juice, unseen of the outer world, isolated and alone. (p.241)

Even sex doesn’t unify people, it merely emphasises their inescapable isolation. There are two memorable acts of sex in the book and both of them emphasise the essential loneliness of the male protagonist: first the peasant Pinette screwing the post office girl he’s picked up in a field outside the village where Mathieu and the other soldiers are mooching about; then handsome young Boris making love to Lola the ageing singer. Lola has discovered she has a tumour of the belly and/or the menopause, both of which conspire to make sex very painful, but not as painful as the self-image she has, loathing her dry husk of a body and thinking of Boris as a repellent insect squirting her with sticky fluid. Lots of disgusting, viscous fluids in Sartre.

It is through a wound that you will enter me. When he used to touch me in the old days, I became like velvet: now, my body is like dried earth: I crack and crumble under his fingers… He rent her to the roots of her belly, he was moving in her belly like a knife. On his face was a look of loneliness, of morbid concentration. She saw him as an insect, as a fly climbing up a window-pane climbing, falling, climbing again. She was conscious only of the pain he was causing her… (p.204)

No, not even sex is an escape from the ubiquitous sense of aloneness, of abandonment, which Sartre sees as the permanent basis of the human condition.

In the climaxes of the two parts, the male protagonist is invincibly alone. Mathieu, wounded, and the only survivor of an artillery shell which has brought the roof of the church tower down on all his comrades, struggles to continue shooting for just a few seconds more before being obliterated. In those moments:

He fired. He was cleansed. He was all-powerful. He was free. (p.225)

On the last page of part two, after the little printer has been shot dead and the train moves mechanically onwards.

Brunet was alone, rigid and uncomfortable. (p.349)

It is an oddity than a man so obsessed with the fundamental and irreducible aloneness of each human being became a Marxist, devoted to the idea of international solidarity. And that a man so obsessed with man’s terrifyingly absolute freedom, adopted the Marxist worldview which is characterised by the inevitability of History, that Marx had uncovered scientific laws of History which dictated that a Communist revolution was inevitable i.e that at some deep level human beings are not free. I leave this to the scholars to disentangle: it would certainly be good to reach a better understanding.

Science fiction states of mind

Not much happens in a Sartre novel. Page after page is filled either with lengthy dialogue between its ineffectual characters, or with even lengthier descriptions of their feelings of abandonment and futility. The firefight at the climax of part one, and the death of the printer at the climax of part two, are very much the exceptions which prove the rule. They are more or less the only bits of ‘action’ in the entire trilogy.

Every page features descriptions of the characters’ inner thoughts, lengthy internal monologues but these are not as they would be in a comparable English novel. The distinctive and unnerving feature of them is the extent to which they develop into often almost delirious hallucinations of the world around them, with objects coming alive, with great abstract ideas entering the sky or room or drowning them, with parts of their bodies becoming external objects (arms and particularly hands often seem to their owners to have become alien objects). Here is Mathieu in the bell tower of the village church.

Under their feet was the fragrance of spices and incense, coolness, and the stained-glass windows feebly shining in the shadows of the Faith. Under their feet was confidence and hope. He felt cold. He looked at the sky, breathed the sky, thought with the sky. He was naked on a glacier at a great height. Far below him lay his childhood. (p.200)

In a proliferating multitude of ways, the world around Sartre’s characters, including their own bodies, including their own ideas and sensations, come alive, infuse their thoughts, colour the sky, invade the world.

The effect is often bizarre, surreal or even druggy. ‘He thought with the sky.’

And very often these hallucinations go one step further by infusing these trippy states of consciousness with poetic renderings of grand abstract concepts like Death or Defeat or Despair. Characters frequently become dead men, anticipating their death (by suicide or in battle), realise that they are a dead man walking or thinking. Or death invades whole scenes, the huge vista of prisoners of war becomes a sea of the dead (to Brunet’s eye) or Paris becomes a vast tomb (in Daniel’s imagination), and so on.

Thus Daniel wandering the empty streets of Paris experiences what amount to such intense imaginative transports that they are effectively hallucinations. n a memorable simile the Boulevard St Michel becomes a vast beached whale. In fact, it was while reading the Daniel-wanders-round-empty-Paris section that it suddenly struck me that a lot of Sartre’s scenes have the feel of science fiction.

Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, was silence and emptiness, an abyss stretching horizontally away from him… The streets led nowhere. Without human life, they all looked alike. The Boulevard Saint-Michel, but yesterday a long southward spread of gold, seemed now like a stranded whale, belly upwards. He made his feet ring out upon the great, sodden, hollow carcass. (p.93)

This scene suddenly reminded me of all those science fiction novels in which a man finds himself more or less the only survivor of a disaster, a great plague or nuclear apocalypse.

Anyway, the passage quoted above could be categorised as a Level One hallucination, one which is still a metaphor of a recognisable state. But (as noted above) routinely Sartre’s characters progress to Level Two hallucinations in which the ‘reality’ around them becomes infused with great Abstract Concepts.

He looked at the empty bridge, at the padlocked bookboxes on the quay, at the clock-face that had no hands… A shadow slipped past the Prefecture of Police…Paris was not, strictly speaking, empty. It was peopled by little broken scraps of time that sprang here and there to life, to be almost immediately reabsorbed again into this radiance of eternity. (p.91)

‘Scraps of time reabsorbed into this radiance of eternity.’ This is a kind of philosophical prose poetry, in that it invokes ‘deep’ ideas, but without any systematic application, merely for effect. It is a kind of pseudo-philosophical lyricism for its own sake.

I am here. Time, with its great fanning future, collapsed. All that was left was a tiny flickering patch of local moments. (p.108)

Suddenly this visionary quality reminded me of the prose of the great psychological sci-fi writer, J.G. Ballard. In the 1960s Ballard famously rejected ‘space opera’, the whole sci-fi tradition of rockets going to outer space, aliens and death rays – in order to concentrate on weird mental states achieved here on decaying planet earth. His characters wander landscapes of entropy and decay littered with empty swimming pools, abandoned motels, are attracted to car crashes or go schizo in high-rise buildings. They explore the altered states of inner space. Like Sartre’s.

All about him was once more swallowed in a planetary silence. He must walk, walk unceasingly, over the surface of a cooling planet. (p.134)

Reading Daniel’s visions of abandoned Paris I suddenly saw the surprising similarity between Ballard’s psychological explorations and the many many passages in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novels which obsessively depict mental states of hallucinatory intensity – not for any philosophic or propagandistic purpose, well, OK, partly to promote the feel of his existentialist world-view — but much more for their weirdness, to bring out the strangeness of what it’s like to be the animal who thinks, the animal with self-consciousness, the animal lost in the fever of its own compulsive hallucinations. Here’s Mathieu among his soldiers hanging round the village waiting for something to happen.

We are a vermin’s dream: our thoughts are becoming muddied, are becoming less and less human: thoughts, hairy and clawed, were scurrying around, jumping from head to head; the vermin was on the point of waking up. (p.102)

At which point it dawned on me that Sartre’s philosophy of freedom, the so-called existentialist philosophy, is maybe a rationalisation, an attempt to give a structure and a meaning to what in fact, in the fiction, on the page, comes over as an unstoppable torrent of weird hallucinations.

His mind felt completely empty. He was dead: the afternoon was bleached and dead. It was a tomb. (p.76)

Mathieu is not at all dead as he thinks this, just like none of the other characters who let thoughts of death and the dead ceaselessly invade their thoughts are actually dead. But then maybe ‘think’ is the wrong word. Maybe it would be better to say that this is a poetic description of an intense feeling which is passing through Mathieu’ consciousness. Mathieu is merely the vessel for these delirious psychological states.

All Sartre’s characters are. They are channels for Sartre’s uncontrollable gush of weird mental states. One of the soldiers hanging round with Mathieu begins to tell the others the armistice with Germany has been signed, but hesitates… and suddenly they all grasp the dreadful truth without having to be told.

A dazzle off steel, then silence. The blue, flabby flesh of the afternoon had taken eternity like the sweep of a scythe. Not a sound, not a breath of air. Time had become frozen; the war had withdrawn… (p76)

Is hallucination the right word for this kind of writing? Sometimes. Other times it’s just a peculiar, a very distinctive, way of conceiving human beings and human consciousness, in which ‘thought’ is perceived as an almost organic process and – this being Sartre – generally a revoltingly nauseating one involving slime.

At one moment he was just an emptiness filled with vague forebodings, at another, he became just like everyone else. His forebodings faded; the general mood welled sluggishly up in his mind and oozed from his mouth… (p.97)

The vermin eyes had ostracised him, were looking up at him with an air of astonished solemnity, as though they were seeing him for the first time, as though they were looking up at him through layers of slime. (p.102)

The fact that the French prisoners of war are made to trudge through the heat for hours before reaching the camp, and then aren’t fed for five days gives Sartre the opportunity to let rip with the altered states caused by starvation and dehydration. For an extended sequence Brunet passes into a delirium somewhere between dreams and hallucinations. For example, he imagines all the soldiers are chimpanzees.

There were chimpanzees in the next cage, pressing inquisitive faces to the bars. They had sad and wrinkled eyes. Monkeys have sadder eyes than any animals except man. Something had happened, he wondered what. A catastrophe. What catastrophe? Perhaps the sun had gone cold? (p.274)

Note, again, the tinge of apocalyptic science fiction.

In fact this long second part is a strange mixture of very realistic slangy chat between rough Frenchmen, arguing, crying, going mad, blaming their officers, squabbling, cadging fags etc – and passages of quite stunning prose poetry. Sartre’s philosophy I leave to the experts on Husserl and Heidegger to nail down; it belongs to the European tradition which is difficult for us Anglo-Saxons to really understand.

But for me the revelation of these books is the surprising amount of purple prose and lyricism they contain, the extent to which they are truly writerly. As a last example, imagine a huge prisoner of war camp with thousands of dusty, downcast men lying, squatting, standing, leaning about everywhere, as far as the eye can see. And then:

The airplane passed overhead with a shattering din. The crowded faces lowered, then upturned, passed from black to white, like a field suddenly bursting into flower: in place of hard, black heads, thousands of camelias broke into blossom. Spectacles glittered like scraps of glass in a garden bed. (p.243)

There are lots of passages like this. Whereas his analyses of the political situation have passed into dusty history and his existentialist philosophy may or may not still have adherents – the vibrancy, the unexpected imaginativeness and continual weirdness of Sartre’s continues to haunts with its strange power.


Credit

La mort dans l’âme by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1949. This translation is not by the translator of the first two in the trilogy, Eric Sutton, but by Gerard Hopkins. It was published as Iron In The Soul by Hamish Hamilton in 1950. Iron In The Soul was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1963. All references are to the 1967 Penguin paperback reprint, which cost the princely sum of five shillings (25p).

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

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