A Life For The Stars by James Blish (1962)

From the embankment of the long-abandoned Erie-Lackawanna-Pennsylvania Railroad, Chris sat silently watching the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, preparing to take off.

As opening sentences go, this is a cracking introduction to this, the last-written but third-in-chronological-order of Blish’s four ‘Okie’ novels, about entire cities which take advantage of anti-gravity ‘spindizzy’ technology, to depart earth and go roaming around the galaxy (already well-colonised by humans), trading and dealing and getting into scrapes.

The central Okie novel is Earthman, Come Home, the first to be published (in fact a ‘fix-up novel’ of four or five earlier short stories, brought together in 1953), set around the year 4,000 and which features a series of cracking space opera adventures starring John Amalfi, ‘mayor’ of New York as it roams across the galaxy getting in and out of trouble.

Next in the series was They Shall Have Stars, published in 1956, set in the 2010s (from 2013 to 2020, to be precise). This ‘fix up’ of two long short stories gives us the origins of the two technologies which made interstellar space travel possible, namely

  1. the discovery of anti-death drugs, which allow humans to live for thousands of years
  2. and the Dillon-Wagoner Graviton Polarity Generator which not only allows an object of any size to travel at any speed – faster, even, than light – but also secures a protective field around it enclosing water, atmosphere and so on

Rather than just plonk these discoveries down in front of the reader, Blish goes to great lengths to depict the way the West – specifically America – will, by the 2010s, have become an authoritarian regime dominated by an eavesdropping FBI, which is virtually indistinguishable from the repressive system in the Soviet bloc. Eventually the West, as such, will fall to Soviet domination… but not before a heroic few pioneers have used the spindizzy technology to escape to the stars.

Chapter one: Press gang

I expected this third novel to bridge the gap between those events, which climax in 2020, with the Amalfi era of 4,000 or so AD – but it doesn’t.

Instead the story is set in the 32nd century where anyone with any get up and go has got up and gone in a city to the stars. The entire (short) novel describes the adventures of young teenager Crispin DeFord (p.150, Chris to his family). He is one of the few last impoverished inhabitants of 32nd century earth, living with his father who was once a professor but now routinely suffers from diseases of malnutrition.

Chris comes from their shack to the perimeter of the raggedy old steel-manufacturing city of Scranton to watch it take off but, at the last minute, is caught by perimeter cops and press-ganged aboard. The city takes off, much to Chris’s amazement.

Chapter two: A line of boiling dust

He is dragged in front of the city’s mayor, Frank Lutz, who reminds him of a skunk and demands if he has a speciality (specialists in anything get to eat, non-specialists, not so much). On the spur of the moment Chris claims to know all about astronomy, and manages to answer some basic questions such as the order of the planets, so he is apprenticed to the city’s astronomer, Dr Boyle Warner. He spends a year studying but not getting very far.

Chapter three: ‘Like a barrel of scrap’

Then he and Boyle, attending one of the mayor’s endless public consultations, hear him saying he plans to do a swap with a much bigger city they’ve come in contact with. When he mentions that it’s led by someone named Amalfi, we know this is New York from all the stories we read about in Earthman, Come Home. New York will give them some tech and technies, plus directions to an iron-bearing planet, in exchange Scranton will hand over 300 or so of its least useful citizens.

Chris knows that includes him and finds a hiding place in a disused warehouse. But he’s tracked down by the leader of the press gang which shanghaied him, Frad Haskins (p.146), who has turned out to be a kindly protector of the boy, and persuades him it will be easier to go.

Chapter four: Schoolroom in the sky

So he joins the three hundred or so who take a rocket ship from Scranton to New York, his mind boggled by the awesome scale of the bigger city. Arriving, he is put in a cubicle and questioned by a computerised voice – the City Fathers no less – who reveal that

  1. the first anti-death drugs were perfected in 2018
  2. Mayor Amalfi was born in 2998

Chris is submitted to intense hypnopedia i.e. put in a trance while wearing a helmet which pumps him full of facts. This gives Blish a convenient opportunity to write a prolonged and factual history of spindizzies and anti-agathic drugs which links the years described in They Shall Have Stars (the 2010s), follows through the collapse of the West, the creation of the Bureaucratic State which banned spaceflight, how dissidents who kept secret spindizzies nonetheless set off into space where they bumped into the Vegan Empire (2289), which led to war (2310), how the spindizzy technology (repressed by the Bureaucratic State) was rediscovered by the Thorium Trust’s Plant Eight which promptly took off into space and never came back (2375), followed by other power plants, towns then cities. How the city of Gravitogorsk-Mars, calling itself the Interstellar Master Traders (IMT) annihiliated the earth colony on Thor V (2394) giving Okie cities a terrible reputation. The capital planet of the Vegan Empire was ravaged by earth cities, including IMT, in 2413. How the Third Colonial Navy under Admiral Alois Hrunta destroyed Vega II instead of subduing then fled and set up his own empire, naming himself Emperor of Space (after a battle in 2464). So many cities left earth that the Bureaucratic state collapsed in 2522. Succeeded by a police state which lacked real power, but sent out police forces to police the galaxy, giving rise to the situation whereby Arm II of the galaxy is economically underpinned by Okie cities trading and policed by the earth cops, but neither system is really efficient i.e. there’s lots of friction. And that’s where we are when the story begins.

We learn that in the middle 2000s all the fossil fuels ran out and the highlands around earth were returned to farmland.

Chapter five: ‘Boy, you are dumb!’

Chris is put in the class of the martinet Dr Helena Braziller, and meets classmate Piggy Kingston-Throop, which allows the pair to discuss issues surrounding Okie cities, the meaning of ‘citizenship’ and other backstory information Blish wants to convey. Bascially, to become a ‘citizen’, to enjoy the benefits of the anti-agathic drugs, Chris must study and must pass the citizenship exam.

Chris is made the ward of Perimeter Sergeant Anderson, who we read about in Earthman, Come Home: he is head of a sort of Marine corps which is sent out whenever the city lands.

Chapter six: A planet called Heaven

New York lands on a planet where it is always raining, broken by electrical storms – ironically named ‘Heaven’. Chris isn’t involved in any of this since he is still only 17 and still at school – intensive hypnopedia school – but his guardian being Sergeant Anderson he overhears a lot, such as the planet is ruled by a smallish (60,000) caste of aristocrats, named ‘archangels’, who lord it over a vast population of serfs.

The archangels have made a typical Okie deal, that they’ll provide food and raw materials in exchange for the Okies helping them inaugurate an industrial revolution.

Piggy and Chris hang round one of the wharves on the edge of New York, staring out into the endless rain of Heaven, lit by fierce lightning storms, and generally getting in people’s way. Chris learns that the archangels speak a debased form of Russian, ‘the now dead universal language of deep space’ (p.197) (to understand why you really have to have followed the repeated notion that the Soviet Union wins the Cold War by making the West turn into its mirror image, before finally subsuming the entire world in the Bureaucratic Rule.)

Impatient and curious, Chris tries talking to one of the Archangels who stomp back and forth across the wharves, offering him the ‘small cheap clasp knife with a tiny compass embedded in its handle’ in return for… a go on one of the kind of bubble boats the Archangels speed about in: these are boats but completely covered over in perspex to protect from the awful weather.

The Archangel laughs a big Russian laugh and agrees, they climb aboard the ship (they’re known as swan boats), the guy shows him the pretty simple controls and lets him try it out a little, pushing the accelerator and steering. There’s a call from his mates back in the cabin, so he tells Christ to be careful and goes abaft.

Chris has a happy time steering, but curiosity makes him lean back towards the door into the aft cabin and he hears snippets of Russian which he can just about understand are the six Archangels talking about a conspiracy to seize New York, mentioning hostages they’ve already taken, and a ‘Castle Wolfwhip’.

On impulse Chris throws the lock on the cabin door, takes the helm of the swan boat and sets it towards the homing beacon he’d noticed. It is Young Sherlock, Young James Bond.

Chapter seven: Why not to keep demons

Chris begins to wonder whether he’s doing the right thing and decides he better turn round and steer the boat back towards the New York wharf, when it is seized by the Archangel tractor beam and the controls stop functioning. He sees a huge building emerge from the rain and fog and then the swan boat abruptly sinks beneath the surface of the ocean, down down till its tracks hit bottom and then it clambers along, emerging back up above the surface in a sheltered cavern.

Here he is quickly arrested and thrown into the same cell as his guardian Sergeant Anderson, and a colleague Dulany, as per thousands of American adventure series and movies.

When he tells them that their ‘hover suits’ are hanging up in the main hall where he was interrogated. Anderson and Dulane break out of the cell, fight their way to their suits, and then tear ‘Castle Wolfwhip’ to pieces. Since he hasn’t got a suit, they put him in a swan ship and guide it back to New York.

Where his guardian reads Chris the riot act for being a very naughty boy.

Chapter eight: the ghosts of space

To Chris’s amazement Amalfi keeps on with the contract with Heaven’s Archangels. Business is business, and they need the raw materials.

Chris goes back to school for more densely packed hypnopedia sessions, which Blish summarises. He carries on chatting on quays with Piggy, who tells him the urban legend of the great Lost City of Los Angeles which landed on a remote planet where antiagathic drugs grow in the plants. Chris drops into a Library cubicle after school and quizzes a librarian i.e. one of the city father computers, which tells him about this kind of urban legend.

Then he discusses the idea with his guardian Anderson and wife Carla, and they end up reeling through a number of aspects of their world which are basically backstory which introduce various legends or entities we will meet in Earthman Come Home, such as:

  • cities that go rogue, named ‘bindlestiffs’
  • specifically the city of the IMT which genocided Thor V
  • the Vegan orbital fort

This handy little bit of exposition, or reminder, is threaded through with a bit of home-made Freud: namely that some of these stories may be true (they will, in fact, all prove to be true in Earthman, Come Home) but there is a deeper psychological force at work, namely that we make up bogies to scare us about things we ourselves actually want to do.

‘It’s always themselves that people are scared of.’ (p.207)

Chapter nine: The tramp

New York’s contract with Heaven is fulfilled and it takes off (we hear nothing at all about the supposed industrial revolution the city was meant to have organised).

Chris’s hypnopedia education continues regardless, and becomes so intense, he is being daily stuffed with so many facts via the hypnopedia headgear, that he begins to feel physically ill. He asks his tutor Dr Braziller if this is normal and she explains that the City Fathers (who run the hypnopedia) don’t care about individuals; pupils are stuffed with facts like geese with grain, because the Fathers are waiting to see what traits, what qualities will emerge, which the city can use in its eternal quest for survival.

Wistfully, Dr Braziller tells Chris she harboured hopes of becoming a composer but the City Fathers had never heard of a woman composer so that was that.

Chris is worried because the only subject he shows any gift for is history and the City Fathers are already, in effect, the city’s historians, since they contain a vast database of dates and events which he’ll never be able to match.

All this is interrupted one day when Anderson tells him the city has a new contract but it’s complicated. It’s with a planet, Argus III, to do mining, but it has slowly emerged that the planet already has another city on site, which was under contract but failed to deliver. That city? Scranton. The city which shanghaied Chris right at the start of the story. Not fulfilling your contract but squatting on the site defines you as a ‘tramp’. Theoretically Argus III could call the cops (cops always come into these city disputes) but then Scranton could counter-claim that their contract was being breached and/or New York was trying to poach the work, a serious breach of earth law and Okie tradition.

New York has picked up radio broadcasts by both parties, Scranton and the Argolids. John Amalfi himself wants Chris to listen in on the Scranton broadcasts and use every scrap of knowledge he gained on the city, to help interpret them.

Chapter ten: Argus asleep

New York lands on Argus III. There’s some nice science about how the stars of the system are relatively young and so full of metals, as are the planets. Good mining country. Chris begins to analyse Amalfi’s decisions which, of course, allows Blish to explain them to us, the reader.

Not only that he begins to make his own suggestions based on the little he picked up from seeing Scranton’s mayor in the flesh, namely that he is ruthless, treats passengers like scum, has a shortage of anti-agathic drugs. Also he points out that something must have been going wrong for a while if Scranton is so far from the planets of metal which New York recommended to her back when they did the passenger exchange.

Then the situation is transformed when it is revealed that Chris’s friend, Piggy, has defected to the other side, taking two women with him, one the unhinged wife of a New York cop who had been taught how to fly one of the city’s planes and then stole it. Piggy must have had some plan to become a big valuable man over there, but first thing New York knows is a message from Scranton saying the three are being held hostage.

Chris suggests sneaking over to Scranton on a solo mission, but his guardian emphatically rules it out.

Chapter eleven: The hidey hole

Chris does it anyway, with a plan. He meets up with Frad Haskins, the leader of the grab squad who press-ganged Chris onto Scranton right at the start of the story. Frad explains how even those close to him think Scranton’s mayor has gone nuts. He discusses with Chris what concessions and peace Amalfi would offer if Frad leads a coup to overthrow the mayor. then Chris hides away in his hidey hole in the disused warehouse, the one we saw him seeking refuge in back in chapter three, while a coup actually takes place.

When Frad comes to fetch him it’s something like a week later and Lutz has been overthrown. Frad is shabby, unshaven, dirty and has a black eye. Exiting back onto the streets Chris sees bulletholes and shell holes. Obviously the coup was violent. (It is, pretty simply, a cop-out of Blish’s part not to show any of it at all; all we get for the entire period of the coup is an account of Chris hiding, getting hungry, and trying to sleep. This reminded me a lot of Asimov’s Foundation series where there’s a lot of talk about battles and political struggles, but precious little actual description of them. This, I think, is because the entire approach of space opera is surprisingly limited: the fate of the entire galaxy hangs in the balance – again and again – and yet turns out to hang on the confrontations of a few super-clever characters in a room. This is the opposite of history as we know it, where the fate of empires and nations has been decided by wars which drag on for years and about which vast multi-volume libraries can be written.)

Chapter twelve: An interview with Amalfi

Chris is brought back to New York, along with the new leaders of Scranton to negotiate a deal with Amalfi. With fairy tale simplicity the deadline for doing a deal with Scranton had expired on Chris’s 18th birthday, which was also when his citizenship exam, the one he’s been cramming for for the previous couple of years, was due to take place.

At a stroke Amalfi announces that Chris has shown all the qualities required by a citizen, and amazes Chris and his guardian and Frad by offering to make Chris city manager of New York. Happy ending.

Coda

Very casually, half way through the last book in the series, The Triumph of Time, Blish tells us that DeFord was shot by the City Fathers for crooked dealing ‘seven centuries’ before that story is set, so about 3295 (p.559). Since The Triumph of Time was published in 1959, three years before A Life For The Stars, anyone who’d been reading the books as they came out, will have known Chris’s ultimate fate throughout their reading of this narrative.


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 embittered working class 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 – a 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

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 down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
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 – 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
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 –

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

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 Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (1951)

The unnamed narrator is on a walking holiday in Wisconsin. Over the brow of a hill comes a stranger. The narrator invites him to share his simple dinner. Relaxing in the sun, the stranger takes off his shirt to reveal that his body is absolutely covered in wonderful tattoos, lurid El Greco designs painted in sulphurous colours, inked into him by a crazy old woman who, he claims, was a traveller from the future. The illustrated man has tried every way he can to remove them – scraping them, using acid – nothing works. Not only this, but after sundown the tattoos start moving, each one telling a wondrous story.

This is the rather wonderful framing device which loosely introduces this collection of eighteen science fiction short stories. There are two editions. The America edition has the following stories:

  1. The Veldt
  2. Kaleidoscope
  3. The Other Foot
  4. The Highway
  5. The Man
  6. The Long Rain
  7. The Rocket Man
  8. The Fire Balloons
  9. The Last Night of the World
  10. The Exiles
  11. No Particular Night or Morning
  12. The Fox and the Forest
  13. The Visitor
  14. The Concrete Mixer
  15. Marionettes, Inc.
  16. The City
  17. Zero Hour
  18. The Rocket

The British edition – which I own – omits ‘The Rocket Man’, ‘The Fire Balloons’, ‘The Exiles’ and ‘The Concrete Mixer’, and adds ‘Usher II’ from The Martian Chronicles and ‘The Playground’, to produce this running order:

  1. Prologue: The Illustrated Man
  2. The Veldt
  3. Kaleidoscope
  4. The Other Foot
  5. The Highway
  6. The Man
  7. The Long Rain
  8. Usher II
  9. The Last Night of the World
  10. The Rocket
  11. No Particular Night or Morning
  12. The Fox and the Forest
  13. The Visitor
  14. Marionettes, Inc.
  15. The City
  16. Zero Hour
  17. The Playground
  18. Epilogue: Leaving the Illustrated Man

The stories

1. The Veldt – setting: earth in the future

Mr and Mrs George Hadley live in a soundproofed Happylife Home, which is staffed with gadgets and machinery which does their living for them – baths which run on command, shoelace tiers, food which appears on the table when commanded, and a state-of-the-art nursery where their two children, Peter (10) and Wendy spend hours conjuring up three dimensional scenes from fairy tales and children’s stories.

Recently they’ve been recreating the same scene from the African veldt over and gain, complete with lions feasting on something in the distance. Slowly George realises how spoilt and addicted to the nursery the children have become, and announces he is going to turn off the electric house and take them all on holiday to a real home where they’ll have to cook and manage for themselves.

As he turns things off the children go mental with anger and horror and tears and beg for just a last few minutes in the nursery. George relents as he and his wife go upstairs to pack. Then they hear screams from the nursery, run down and into it only for… the children to slam and lock the door behind them. Only then do they look around and see the lions advancing towards them, jaws slavering, under the hot African sun.

2. Kaleidoscope – setting: space

A rocket explodes and the half dozen astronauts inside are scattered in all directions. For a while they keep in radio contact, bitching, crying, lamenting, recounting their lives, as one heads towards the moon, one gets snared in the Myrmidon meteor shower which circles earth endlessly and the main character, Hollis, is pulled towards earth, burning up on entry into the atmosphere, the cause of wonder as a little boy out for a walk with his mom points up at a shooting star streaking across the sky.

Hollis looked to see, but saw nothing. There were only the great diamonds and sapphires and emerald
mists and velvet inks of space, with God’s voice mingling among the crystal fires. There was a kind of
wonder and imagination in the thought of Stone going off in the meteor swarm, out past Mars for years
and coming in toward Earth every five years, passing in and out of the planet’s ken for the next million
centuries, Stone and the Myrmidone cluster eternal and unending, shifting and shaping like the
kaleidoscope colors when you were a child and held the long tube to the sun and gave it a twirl…

3. The Other Foot – Mars

A striking if simplistic story set in 1985. In 1965 black people were sent in spaceships to colonise Mars. This they have done and now live under blue skies, in townships identical to those they left in the American South. Twenty years later, rumour spreads that the first spaceship from earth is due to arrive. One black man, Willie, rouses a mob, making them remember all the humiliations, discrimination, violence and murder black people suffered on earth. He prepares a noose for whichever white men step off the spaceship, and gets fellow citizens to begin marking out reservations for ‘whites only’ in cinemas, public parks, on trams.

But when the spaceship finally lands in front of a mob of angry vengeful blacks, the knackered old white man who emerges in the door announces that earth has suffered a prolonged atomic war in which every country, city and town has been obliterated. The survivors patched together the spaceship he’s come in and now are begging the Martian settlers to use their old unused rockets, to come and rescue the survivors, to ferry them to Mars where mankind can start again.

The white man begs and slowly the noose falls from Willie Johnson’s hand, and he tells the crowd that this is an opportunity to restart the relationship between the races again, from a clean slate.

4. The Highway – earth in the future

Hernando is a poor peasant living next to a highway which runs through his country from America. Over the years scraps from rich cars have flown off into his property – a hub cap he and his wife use as a bowl, the wheel from a car which crashed into the river, but whose rubber he cut into shoes. He is dirt poor. One day there is a flood of cars heading north, which reduces to a trickle and then… the last car. Young pleasure seekers are in it, a man and five women, in a topless convertible. It is pouring with rain, but they are all crying.

They ask him for water for the radiator, which he fetches and pours in, asking what’s up, why the flood of cars north? It is the nuclear war, the young man cries. The nuclear war has come, it is the end of the world. And they offer him some money and drive off north… Hernando goes back to his wife in their hut.

It becomes ever clearer that Bradbury is not so interested in ‘plot’ or ‘character’ as in poetic description, playing with fanciful similes and metaphors.

He returned with a hub lid full of water. This, too, had been a gift from the highway. One afternoon it had sailed like a flung coin into his field, round and glittering. The car to which it belonged had slid on, oblivious to the fact that it had lost a silver eye

5. The Man – strange planet

The first earth rocket expedition to Planet Forty-three in Star System Three lands and tired Captain Hart is pissed off that the natives just continue going about their work without coming to see them. He sends Lieutenant Martin into town to find out why and Martin returns a few hours later with news that this civilisation has just had a massive experience: the Holy Man whose return they have been awaiting for thousands of years just appeared, walking among them, preaching pace and healing the sick.

Captain Hart is at first completely dismissive, accusing his rival space captains, Burton or Ashley, of having arrived earlier and spreading this ridiculous story in order to pre-empt commercial contracts. But then the two other spaceships turn up badly damaged with most of their crews killed by a solar storm. So… it must be true! It must be him!!

Captain Hart, now persuaded that it is him, returns to the city, but when the mayor can’t tell him where He is, Hart turns nasty, threatening, then shooting the Mayor in the arm. Convinced that ‘He’ has moved on, Hart vows to travel on across the universe to find Him. He blasts off, leaving Lieutenant Martin and some other crew members behind. The mayor turns to them and says: Now, I can take you to meet Him.

6. The Long Rain – Venus

A spaceship lands on Venus. The four survivors struggle through the incessant torrential rain to find a ‘sun dome’, where there’ll be warmth, shelter and food.

I get it now that Bradbury likes stories (cheesy, teenage, boom-boom stories) but what really gets him going is descriptions. The setups and stories may be laughable, but you can’t help reacting to the vividness of his imagining.

The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped.

At one point a monstrous electrical storm passes overhead and burns one of the men to a crisp. The description of his burned corpse really leaped out at me.

The body was twisted steel, wrapped in burned leather. It looked like a wax dummy that had been
thrown into an incinerator and pulled out after the wax had sunk to the charcoal skeleton. Only the teeth were white, and they shone like a strange white bracelet dropped half through a clenched black fist.

Like John Donne. Or photos of Iraqis incinerated on the Highway of Death. The spacemen stagger on, mentally disintegrating, first going round in a big circle to find the spaceship again, then stumbling for miles in search of a Sun Dome only to find one that has been attacked and ransacked by Venusians (who come from the vast sea, apparently, kidnap all the men and elaborately drown them), one man goes mad and sits face up in the rain to drown, another refuses to go any further and shoots himself, the last survivor walks on, going slowly mad, until he does arrive at a Sun Dome and is saved.

7. Usher II – Mars

This is one of the two stories which look ahead to Fahrenheit 451 in that they describe a future earth (in the year 2005) in which a repressive culture is burning all books, wiping out all traces of imaginative literature (and even children’s books) in the name of Moral Purity.

Literary-minded William Stendahl has fled to Mars where, with the help of a sidekick Pike, he commissions an architect to build a replica of the grim Gothic house which features in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, using robots to recreate bats, vampires and so on, using radiation to blast the landscape around it, and machines to even block out the sunlight to create an environment of menacing gloom.

Within hours of building it an Inspector of Moral Climates named Garrett turns up to demand it be torn down. Pike and Stendhal murder Garrett and quickly build a robot to replace him. But it turns out the thing called Garrett was already a robot, so they’ve simply replaced one robot with another.

Stendhal requests to hold a party in the house before it is demolished and, with wild improbability, Garrett accepts. So that evening Garrett and half a dozen other Moral Cleansers (including a number of earnest young lady reformers) attend the part – at which Pike and Stendhal arrange for them one by one to be killed in re-enactments of grim murders from Poe’s most lurid tales.

Finally Stendhal reduces Garrett to begging for his life as – bound and chained to the wall – Stendhal bricks him up into a vault, to be buried alive. As the helicopter carrying Stendhal and Pike takes off, the house of Usher (II) cracks and collapses, just like the house in the Poe story.

Like a Hammer horror story – but on Mars!

8. The Last Night of the World – earth in the future

This is one of a handful of stories where Bradbury almost completely neglects plot in order to create a strangely empty, hollowed-out piece of dialogue. We overhear the disembodied voices of a married couple who have both woken from a dream in which they knew that the world was going to end. So did everyone else at their workplaces. The go about their day, eat a meal, lock up the house and go to bed to wait.

9. The Rocket – earth in the future

Reminiscent of the deceptively simple stories about Mr Palomar written by Italo Calvino in the 1970s. In the future space travel becomes more and more accessible. Fiorello Bodoni, a poor junkyard owner, has saved $3,000 to enable one member of his family to take a rocket trip into outer space. Trouble is the family can’t agree who should go – they draw straws but whoever wins immediately attracts the resentment of the rest of the family.

One day an industrialist offers him the shell of a superannuated rocket, to melt down for scrap. Instead Bodoni uses his money to rig up car motors to the bottom of the rocket, and cine projection screens across the portholes then invites his children on board, makes them sit in the chairs, fires up the car motors and then plays the films of moon and stars and planets passing by, thus tricking them into believing they really have had a trip in space.

10. No Particular Night or Morning

Like The Last Night of the World this one is about psychology with little real plot, and feels strangely empty and disturbing.

On a space ship heading out from earth, there’s a full crew which includes Clemens and a guy named Hitchcock. Over the next 36 hours or so Hitchcock slowly goes to pieces. He becomes convinced nobody exists if he is not looking at them. He becomes convinced there is no space, no stars, no earth. He confides all these paranoid delusions to Clemens who he also thinks ceases to exist when he, Hitchcock, isn’t looking at him.

Hitchcock explains that he was a wannabe author who finally got a short story published but when he saw his name on the cover – Joseph Hitchcock – he realised it wasn’t him. It was someone else. There was no him.

These delusions are exacerbated when a meteor crashes through the skin of the rocket, killing one spaceman and injuring Hitchcock before the ship’s autorepairs seal up the hole. Hitchcock is convinced the meteor was out to get him.

Twelve hours later the alarm bells ring and one of the crew tells Clemens that Hitchcock put on a spacesuit and exited the ship. Now he’s left a million miles behind. For a while they hear him coming through on the spacesuit radio.

‘No more space ship now. Never was any. No people. No people in all the universe. Never were any. No planets. No stars.’ That’s what he said. And then he said something about his hands and feet and legs. ‘No hands,’ he said. ‘I haven’t any hands any more. Never had any. No feet. Never had any. Can’t prove it. No body. Never had any. No lips. No face. No head. Nothing. Only space. Only space. Only the gap.’

11. The Fox and the Forest – earth in the future and past

It is 2155 and the world is at war. New, hydrogen-plus bombs are being constructed, as well as germ warfare bombs involving leprosy. The future culture doing this is intensely militarised and repressive. At the same time, time travel machines and holidays are becoming common (don’t ask me about the logic of both happening at once).

Roger Kristen is deeply involved in building the nuclear bomb and his wife Ann, in building leprosy bombs. They sign up for one of the Time Travel holidays and select 1938 as a good year. But once they have been transported back to 1938 New York, they change their clothes, appearance and papers and high tail it to Mexico.

Only trouble is they have been followed. As the story opens one of the Searchers, Simms, confronts them in a bar. It is futile trying to run. He or a colleague will find them. Roger agrees to return on condition his wife can stay. Deal, says Simms. But next morning, instead of keeping his promise to Simms, Roger runs him down and kills him in the hire car.

Released pending further investigation, Roger and Ann fall in with a rambunctious American film crew who are down in Mexico on a recce to make a movie. The brash, fast-talking director Joe Melton invites them to join in with the crew, eat meals, maybe Ann can have a role in the movie, she’s pretty good-looking.

Right up to the moment when Melton reveals… that he and the entire crew are also Searchers. Roger’s work is simply too valuable to let him go. Roger pulls out a gun and shoots some of the crew before he’s overpowered. The hotel management come banging on the door at which point Melton reveals that the camera is a time travel device: one of the crew turns it on and all the people from the future vanish, leaving the hotel room completely bare.

This is the second story to reference the notion that in the future, the authorities will destroy culture and, in particular, burn books.

We don’t like this world of 2155. We want to run away from his work at the bomb factory, I from my position with disease-culture units. Perhaps there is a chance for us to escape, to run for centuries into a wild country of years where they will never find and bring us back to burn our books, censor our thoughts, scald our minds with fear, march us, scream at us with radios . . .

12. The Visitor – Mars

Saul Williams is suffering from the incurable disease of ‘blood rust’, and so like all its other victims he is shipped up to Mars in a space rocket, left with survival rations and abandoned. All along the shore of the barren Martian ocean he sees other people like him, coughing up blood, abandoned, solitary, anti-social.

Along the shores of the dead sea, like so many emptied bottles flung up by some long-gone wave, were the huddled bodies of sleeping men.

Then a rocket arrives (carrying the usual regular rations) and a new young man, Leonard Mark. Turns out Leonard is a telepath and can create a kind of cyber-reality for people. For Saul he creates the impressions that a) Saul is in the middle of hustling bustling New York City and then b) that he is swimming in a rural stream, as he did when a boy back in Illinois.

Trouble is some of the other men have been affected by the disturbances and seen images of New York, too. They all want a piece of Leonard. Saul fights them off and carries Leonard up to a cave. There follow various trick moments – like when Leonard makes himself invisible to Saul – moments out of an episode of the Twilight Zone or Star Trek.

While they’re arguing about fantasies, the other men find the cave and threaten Saul. They want to share Leonard and his amazing ability. Eventually they end up fighting over him, one of them pulls a gun and shoots a couple of the rivals before Saul jumps on him, they wrestle with the gun and – like in a thousand hokey TV episodes – the gun goes off, killing… yes, you’ve guessed it! – Leonard, the man they all wanted to save. Golly, Isn’t life ironic! Aren’t humans their own worst enemies!

13. Marionettes, Inc. – earth now

A surprising anticipation of The Stepford Wives (which I’ve reviewed elsewhere). It’s based on the conversation of two men who suffer from henpecking wives. Usually Braling’s wife keeps him where she can see him so his friend Smith is surprised when he is allowed out for an evening.

Braling tells Smith there is a secret new company named Marionettes, Inc.  which will make a robot duplicate of you. A month ago he had a duplicate made of himself, keeps it in a trunk in the cellar, but brings it out now and then, prepares it to play him for the evening, while he slips out. It’s such a perfect replica his wife suspects nothing. Braling excitedly tells his friend he’s planning to go to Rio de Janeiro for a month while the robot duplicate robot covers for him at home. The only way to detect the difference is that, if you get up really close, you can hear the tick-tick-tick of the internal machinery.

Smith also has problems with his wife who, for some reason, has become extremely affectionate over the past month, petting and pinching and sitting on his lap and tiring him out. Braling gives him Marionettes, Inc.’s card and Smith goes home determined to get a copy made of himself, so he also can slip away from his wife.

But when Smith gets home and looks at his bank statement he is shocked to find $10,000 is missing from their account. He has an awful thought, bends over the sleeping form of his voluptuous wife, Nettie and… hears the fateful ticking… His wife has beaten him to it, and had a duplicate made of herself! God knows where the real Nettie is off gallyvanting!

Meanwhile Braling gets home and takes over from the duplicate Braling only for a classic ‘horror’ scenario to play out, namely when Braling I gets Braling II down into the cellar, the robot refuses to get into the trunk. He’s taken a fancy to Braling’s wife. In fact he likes being out and about in the air and hates being locked up. In fact…. he grabs Braling and stuffs him into the trunk, locks it, climbs up out of the cellar and locks the cellar door. Goes upstairs to the bedroom, slips into bed next to sleeping Mrs. Braling and gives her an affectionate kiss. Who’s to say the robot won’t make a better husband 🙂

14. The City – another planet, the future

This is another sci-fi horror story, the SF equivalent of a shilling shocker. A spaceship lands on an unexplored planet, and comes upon an abandoned city.

What makes the story novel and impressive is that it is told from the point of view of the city, which in fact is more like a live organism, with hearing devices, smelling devices, a central brain and a big mouth.

It turns out that (somehow) the inhabitants were all wiped out thousands of years ago by humans using biological weapons (don’t think about the logic of this too much; all that matters is that the reader submits themselves to the vehemence of the city’s hatred for humans).

So now it entices in the spacemen, who are tentatively exploring it in their spacesuit. Then it captures them – explains just what it is going to do – tips them down a chute into an abattoir-cum-torture chamber where they are eviscerated, disembowelled, and bled dry, and then…

In the kind of cheapjack, catchpenny but very effective way of these kind of horror stories, the city rebuilds them as perfect robot replicas of their original selves. Sends them robotically back to their ship, carrying with them a clutch of germ warfare bombs. They will return to earth and drop them over the entire globe… thus wiping out mankind!!

15. Zero Hour – earth now

This is a genuinely creepy story, the only one in the collection which genuinely gave me the shivers.

It’s told from the point of view of stereotypical 1950s American suburban mum, Mrs Morris, whose little girl Mink is playing out in the yard with a bunch of kids who have developed a new game, which they are calling ‘the invasion’. Bradbury spookily conveys effective facts like the way that kids going through puberty are excluded from the game, and how the game involves placing metal household objects, knives and forks etc, in particular positions, while drawing geometrical shapes in the dust and incanting chants or spells.

In casual phone calls Mrs Morris discovers that all the other prepubescent kids are playing the same game, even in cities a long way away (a call from a friend who’s moved to the other side of America). Mink tells Mrs Morris it’s all being done at the behest of someone called ‘Drill’. All the children talk about ‘Zero Hour’ being five o’clock.

At which hour there is an eerie silence across the city. Mrs Morris’s husband comes home from work (‘Hi, honey, I’m home’) and, in a sudden panic, she forces him inside, and then pelts him up into the attic, slamming and locking the door.

All the little revelations and knowledges and sense that had bothered her all day and which she had logically and carefully and sensibly rejected and censored. Now it exploded in her and shook her to bits.

They hear voices downstairs in the house. Lots of voices. The clumping of heavy feet. Her husband shouts out ‘Who’s there?’ but his wife begs him to be quiet. Up the stairs come the clumping steps.

Heavy footsteps, heavy, heavy,very heavy footsteps, came up the stairs. Mink leading them.
‘Mom?’ A hesitation. ‘Dad?’ A waiting, a silence.
Humming. Footsteps toward the attic. Mink’s first.
They trembled together in silence in the attic, Mr. and Mrs. Morris. For some reason the electric  humming, the queer cold light suddenly visible under the door crack, the strange odor and the alien sound of eagerness in Mink’s voice finally got through to Henry Morris too. He stood, shivering, in the dark silence, his wife beside him.
‘Mom! Dad!’
Footsteps. A little humming sound. The attic lock melted. The door opened. Mink peered inside, tall
blue shadows behind her.
‘Peekaboo,’ said Mink.

Wow. This story sent a genuine thrill of fear through me.

16. The Playground – earth now

A similar effect is created by The Playground. This is pretty much a pure horror story. A middle-aged man, Charles Underhill, used to be mercilessly bullied as a boy. Now he’s married with a son of his own. He and his son regularly walk past the neighbourhood playground.

Charles sees it as a place of incredible violence, with kids smacking, stamping and beating each other. It can’t be that bad can it?

There were creams, sharp visions, children dashing, children fighting, pummeling, bleeding, screaming!

I think this is a sort of hallucination he has, which a) reflects his own neuroses, his own extreme fears but also b) sets the tone of exaggeration and extremity which artfully prepares the reader for what comes next.

His wife, Carol, thinks little Jim should be encouraged to play there with the other kids. If it’s a bit violent, well, that’s all part of growing up.

One particular kid keeps mocking him and calling him whenever he walks past, as if he has a secret, as if he knows something.

Eventually it comes out that this kid has the body of a boy but it contains the mind of an adult neighbour, Marshall. When Charles goes with Jim and his wife next go to the playground, in a terrifying moment, Charles’s soul or whatever it is that lives and perceives inside our bodies, is exchanged with his son’s.

Suddenly he finds himself on top of the slide – where his son had climbed – terrified of the height and of the taunting children around him – and looking over at the playground fence he sees two adults, his wife and himself!! And then he sees them turning and walking away, leaving him, abandoning him to a world of taunts and bullying.

He screamed. He looked at his hands, in a panic of realisation. The small hands, the thin hands…
‘Hi,’ cried the Marshall boy, and bashed him in the mouth. ‘Only twelve years here!’
Twelve years! thought Mr Underhill, trapped. And time is different to children. A year is like ten years. No, not twelve years of childhood ahead of him, but a century, a century of this!

I don’t think it has any sci-fi element at all. It is an ‘astounding’ tale, an ‘astonishing’ tale, but surely a horror story more than science fiction.

Fairly obvious but these last two stories – which are possibly the creepiest – are so in part because they’re about children – those creatures we think we know but who are often so alien, with their own worlds and mindsets – so often the subject of horror stories, books, movies, from The Midwich Cuckoos to The Exorcist.


The American stories

The Rocket Man – earth in the future

14-year-old Doug narrates the three-monthly return visits of his father, a Rocket Man, and the troubled relationship of his parents, his father always vowing to give up flying to Mars or Venus but always, after a week or so at home, getting twitchy and looking at the stars, his mother for the past ten years imagining he is already dead, because the opposite – actually loving him in the here and now – is too risky, risks the terrible pain of losing him on his next mission.

This account of a troubled marriage through the eyes of a wide-eyed teenager is remarkably effective. And has moments of really vivid writing. Doug asks to see his dad in his uniform.

It was glossy black with silver buttons and silver rims to the heels of the black boots, and it looked as if someone had cut the arms and legs and body from a dark nebula, with little faint stars glowing through it. It fit as close as a glove fits to a slender long hand, and it smelled like cool air and metal and space. It smelled of fire and time.

Unlike Isaac Asimov, Bradbury can write.

The Fire Balloons – Mars in the future

Some priests are the first to make the flight to Mars. As usual an alien world turns out remarkably like America, everyone can breathe fine, the sky is blue and the mayor complains about all the Irish navvies who have turned up to do the heavy labour and turned the place into the Wild West with saloons and loose women.

But it is the native Martians who interest Father Peregrine. These are floating blue globes, with no bodies or limbs, who don’t speak or communicate. But the look of them transports him back to childhood memories of his grandfather letting of big red, white and blue balloons to celebrate 4th July.

Father Peregrine makes his colleagues climb up into the mountains in pursuit of the blue globe Martians, and are saved by them when there’s an avalanche. Convinced they are intelligent beings with free will, and therefore capable of right and wrong, and therefore in need of ‘saving’, he gets his grumbling colleagues to build a chapel for the blue globes up in the mountains.

But at the climax of the story the blue globs come to Father Peregrine and, using telepathy, explain very simply that they are peaceful and virtuous and have no need of saving.

Obviously there’s a SF component to the setting and story, but the imaginative force of the story really comes from Peregrine’s poignant memories of being a boy and watching his his grandfather letting beautiful coloured balloons fly into the sky over small town America.

The Exiles – Mars

This a weird story which starts strange and then gets weirder. It is 2120. A shiny spaceship is en route to Mars crewed by shiny white American jock spacemen. But they are all having florid hallucinations – bats in space, arms turning into snakes, imagining they are wolves – and dying, of shock, of heart failure.

‘Bats, needles, dreams, men dying for no reason. I’d call it witchcraft in another day. But this is the year 2120!’

Since the story opens with three witches on Mars reciting spells familiar to any literate person as being quotes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth the reader knows these affects are caused by witches. So far, so SF shocker. What’s interesting is it’s the third of the stories to refer to the idea that in the future, books are banned.

‘Our whole crew dreamed of witch-things and were-things, vampires and phantoms, things they couldn’t know anything about. Why? Because books on such ghastly subjects were destroyed a century ago. By law. Forbidden for anyone to own the grisly volumes. These books you see here are the last copies, kept for historical purposes in the locked museum vaults…  All burned in the same year that Halloween was outlawed and Christmas was banned!’

OK, this much I can accept. But the story then goes to an entirely new, delirious level, when it is revealed that the witches from Macbeth are there because Shakespeare is there! Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Bierce and H.P. Lovecraft and all the other writers of horror and the supernatural whose books were burned back on earth – somehow, they are gods, they are immortal, and they fled earth when their creations were burned by a moralising puritanical civilisation, they fled to Mars to escape… and now the earthmen are coming to Mars.

So the core of the story is Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Bierce trying to recruit Charles Dickens for their army to oppose the invaders (he refuses, being in the midst of the Christmas celebrations in A Christmas Carol) along with Machen and Blackwood and all the other authors of the mysterious.

So when the spaceship lands, they summon up a vast army of snakes and monsters and fire to attack it. But then we switch to the spacemen’s point of view and they see… nothing at all. A bare uninhabited plain. And to mark their arrival the squeaky-clean-cut all-American captain decides they will burn the last copies of all those nonsense books, the last copies which he had brought on the ship.

And as they make a funeral pyre of The Wind In the Willows and The Outsider and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Wizard of Oz, and Pellucidar and The Land That Time Forgot and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they hear thin distant screams… which are the screams of the souls of the authors perishing one by one.

What comes over is Bradbury’s investment in reading, in the imagination, in the wildest reaches of fantasy and horror – and his instinctive opposition to all those forces in Puritanical American society which are constantly trying to stamp it out.

The Concrete Mixer – Mars

The Martian Ettil Vrye refuses to join the Martian army preparing to go and invade earth. His wife, Tylla, is ashamed, his father-in-law is furious. (You can see how this isn’t really science fiction, it is human beings being described.)

It’s a would-be comic story in which Ettil is arrested, and charged with possessing earth science fiction comics, which are what have persuaded him the invasion is a bad idea. When the army threaten to throw him into a ditch of flaming oil he gives up and joins the army and flies through space in the fleet to invade earth.

But as they approach they get a radio message welcoming them. Earth is a peaceful federation now, has abolished all its atom bombs and has no weapons. There is a comic scene as the mayor of a California town makes a big welcome speech to the Martians as they emerge from their shiny spaceships, Miss California 1965 promises to give them all a big kiss and  Mr. Biggest Grapefruit in San Fernando Valley 1956 gives them all baskets of fresh fruit.

The Martians fraternise. Most of them love it and pair off with earth women to visit the movies and sit in the back row smooching. Ettil doesn’t fit in. He delivers satire about women in beauty parlours apparently being tortured by their hairdo headsets. He sits on a park bench and is propositioned by a young woman. When he won’t go to the movies with her she accuses him of being a communist. Then an old lady rattles a tambourine at him and asks whether he has been saved by the Lord.

Then he meets a movie producer, van Plank, who whisks him off to a bar, buys him cocktails, promises him a percentage of the take and some ‘peaches’ on the side, if he’ll be an adviser to his new movie project, MARTIAN INVASION OF EARTH. The Martians will be tall and handsome. All their women will be blonde. In a terrific scene a strong woman will save the spaceship when it’s holed by a meteor. there’ll be merchandising, obviously, a special martian doll at thirty bucks a throw.

Not to mention the brand new markets opening up on Mars for perfume, ladies hats, Dick Tracey comics and so on. The producer leads him back out onto the pavement, shakes hands, gets him to promise to be at the studio at 9 prompt tomorrow morning and disappears.

Ettil is left to realise that the invasion will fail because all the Martians will get drunk, be fed cocktails and hot dogs till they’re sick or got cirrhosis, gone blind from watching movies or squashed flat by elephant-sized American women. He walks towards the spaceship field, fantasising about taking the next ship back home and living out his days in his quiet house by a dignified canal sipping fine wine and reading peaceful books when… he hears the tooting of a horn and turns to find a car driven by a bunch of Californian kids, none older than 16, has spotted him and is driving full pelt to run him over, now that’s entertainment.

(And reminiscent, of course, of the classic scene in Fahrenheit 451 when the joyriders try to kill the protagonist, Montag – having already, apparently, run over and killed the book’s female lead, Clarissa.)

Epilogue

The epilogue is short enough to quote in its entirety and gives you a good sense of the simple style and vocabulary of most of the tales

IT WAS almost midnight. The moon was high in the sky now. The Illustrated Man lay motionless. I had seen what there was to see. The stories were told; they were over and done. There remained only that empty space upon the Illustrated Man’s back, that area of jumbled colors and shapes.

Now, as I watched, the vague patch began to assemble itself, in slow dissolvings from one shape to another and still another. And at last a face formed itself there, a face that gazed out at me from the colored flesh, a face with a familiar nose and mouth, familiar eyes.

It was very hazy. I saw only enough of the Illustration to make me leap up. I stood therein the moonlight, afraid that the wind or the stars might move and wake the monstrous gallery at my
feet. But he slept on, quietly.

The picture on his back showed the Illustrated Man himself, with his fingers about my neck, choking me to death. I didn’t wait for it to become clear and sharp and a definite picture.

I ran down the road in the moonlight. I didn’t look back. A small town lay ahead, dark and asleep. I knew that, long before morning, I would reach the town. . . .


Thoughts

1. Many of his stories use science fiction tropes – most obviously the use of space ships to other worlds and  encounters with aliens. But Bradbury’s heart is really here on earth . And his stories’ deep roots are more in the horror and horror-fantasy tradition than in sci-fi, as such.

2. The stories are all told in amostly flat, spare prose – flat and plain like fairy stories.

The rocket men leaped out of their ship, guns ready. They stalked about, sniffing the air like hounds.
They saw nothing. They relaxed. The captain stepped forth last. He gave sharp commands. Wood was gathered, kindled, and a fire leapt up in an instant. The captain beckoned his men into a half circle about him.

… from whose white flatness occasionally burst vivid similes, or entire paragraphs of poetic prose.

And as if he had commanded a violent sea to change its course, to suck itself free from primeval beds,
the whirls and savage gouts of fire spread and ran like wind and rain and stark lightning over the sea
sands, down empty river deltas, shadowing and screaming, whistling and whining, sputtering and
coalescing toward the rocket which, extinguished, lay like a clean metal torch in the farthest hollow.

Sometimes he uses repetition of phrases and grammatical structures to intensify the moment or to create dream-like hallucinations. But for the most part it is a verbally, grammatically and lexically simplified style, well suited, in its simple-mindedness, to conveying the spooky, spine-chilling impact of his simple and sometimes terrifying horror stories.


Related links

Ray Bradbury reviews

1950 The Martian Chronicles
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
1953 Fahrenheit 451
1955 The October Country
1957 Dandelion Wine
1959 The Day It Rained Forever
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

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, is 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 awakens 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

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
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
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

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

Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction

Americocentric

It is Americocentric. There are no other countries worth troubling with on earth. Whether ‘man’ reaches out to colonise the planets, to settle on Mars or Mercury, invents hyperspace and travels to colonise distant planets, or stays at home to create the megacities of Caves of Steel – it’s Americans who do it, with American technology, and American culture.

And the home city is always New York: in the final story of I, Robot, it is New York which becomes seat of the new World Government and the World Co-Ordinator is, of course, American, as are the inventors of robots, and the hyper-drive, and anything else worthwhile that mankind comes up with. 3,000 years later, after billions of people have left earth to colonise the Outer Worlds, detective Elijah Baley lives in New York.

Everyone speaks English

With the result that everyone speaks English. It is one of the many ludicrous elements you have to overcome in order to read the Foundation trilogy, that 12,000 years in the future, and inhabiting planets scattered right across the inconceivable distances of the Galaxy – everyone speaks English. There’s a slight gesture towards reality, in that some of the humans on the more remote planets have an accent which is a bit hard for others to understand. But it’s always, everywhere, basically English that is spoken.

Planets become provinces

I can’t quite define it, but it’s the way all his (and other golden age writers’) universes consist of planets which just do one thing and are treated, in effect, like real-world people treat regions of their countries.

Thus a planet in the Foundation books is a ‘holiday planet’, as if one whole planet were made of beaches and cocktail bars. Another planet just supplies raw materials, in The Naked Sun Solaria is the planet with most advanced robotics. And that’s it. That’s what it does.

Planets – entire planets – are conceived of as one-trick ponies, which do just the one thing. Completely ignoring the evidence we have about the only planet where we know life exists – our own one – that planets are astonishingly diverse, in climates, life forms and so on.

It is a profoundly dumb way of thinking about planets. As if each one is a toy in a childish game. It is an example of the way Asimov and other Golden Age writers dismiss or ignore the mind-boggling diversity of life on our own planet. In Asimov’s fiction planet earth is reduced to American men arguing in rooms. It follows that his view of the entire galaxy is the same, but extrapolated to many more rooms.

It is this reductive gesture which makes so many of the planets in the Foundation stories end up sounding the same. They may be given a paragraph or so of cursory description – but they all have earth-type gravity and air, no radiation or dangerous environmental elements of any kind. They’re just variations of the same kind of futuristic room where Elijah Baley ends up meeting and arguing with people, or the protagonists of the Foundation stories end up meeting and arguing with people. In American.

A human-only universe

This imaginative reductionism is related to the way that there appears to be no other life in the galaxy.

Humans colonise all the other planets, and then hypertravel off to other star systems, and end up colonising pretty much every other planet in the galaxy and yet – encounter no other significant life forms.

It’s not only that this is unlikely (although it’s all completely unlikely). More to the point, it is extravagantly boring. It means that all Asimov’s fiction is about people, the same kind of people, a certain type of calculating adult, calculating the same kinds of odds and trying to figure out whodunnit.

They’re all detective stories

All the Foundation stories and the Elijah Baley stories are, in a sense, whodunnits. The Baley ones, obviously since he is a detective investigating murders. The Foundation ones in a more roundabout sense. In every Foundation story there is a dilemma or threat. Individual or group X think the best way to solve it is by doing Y. But the hero (or heroine) of each story knows better and all the stories end the same way: the secret of what really happened is revealed right at the end. So although they’re not overtly detective stories, they have a similar structure: dilemma – fake leads and red herrings – revelation of the true solution or meaning of events.

Simplistic politics

Having painted a childishly simplistic vision of a galaxy in which each planet does just one thing, in which there are no aliens to disrupt his whodunnits, Asimov only incorporates the most simplistic and child’s-eye version of ‘politics’ as is required to drive the stories.

If there are ‘political’ movements, they are a) perfectly understandable and b) perfectly rational and c) childishly simple.

Thus in The Caves of Steel there is a ‘party’ – the ‘Medievalists’ – which wishes to return humans to a simpler, earlier time. That’s it. There don’t appear to be any other political parties in America, there’s no mention of elections, with the vast amount of corruption and bullshit they usually throw up, let alone of the notion that there are different countries who might be economic or military rivals (as we know there have been throughout all human history).

No – magically, the entire world of national and international politics disappears with a wave of the magic wand, leaving behind just enough of a child’s cartoon version of ‘politics’ (a secret society who want to turn the clock back – about as sophisticated as the League of Red-Haired Men in Sherlock Holmes) as is required for make the hokey storyline.

Pretty much the same ‘party’ – really a conspiracy – appears in the final story if I, Robot where it is the Society for Humanity which opposes the rise of the robots.

Any other notion that people might disagree about fundamental principles of how to run the economy, how to redistribute wealth, whether to allow unchecked capitalism or moderate it or try and implement some kind of state economy, the usual nationalist, xenophobic and populist motivations for politics which we all know from the real world – gone, vanished, evaporated, cleansed – just like other nations or other languages.

Economics

Similarly, Asimov’s take on economics is raw materials are needed for factories on earth. That’s about it. The earth of The Caves of Steel is rigidly hierarchical but we don’t really get to see anyone at work except the police (we do meet a worker in a nuclear plant and the staff of a shop where an anti-robot riot nearly breaks out) and these police could come out of a Raymond Chandler novel or any of the thousands of other contemporary cop thrillers.

Real economics involves the continuously evolving exploitation of raw materials, and siting and building of factories, and the training of workforces to supply technologies which are constantly being invented solely to make money. America has been the world’s leading capitalist economy and society for at least a century. It is extraordinary that Asimov, for all his supposed intelligence, is blind to the disruptive energies of capitalism which always lead, everywhere, to the provision of a high standard of living for many, maybe a majority of a capitalist population, but also always involve low wages, unemployment and – a cardinal fact of untrammeled capitalism – the cycle of boom and bust, with periodic crashes leading to deep depressions every ten years or so.

In the real world it is difficult even to organise the workers in a particular industry to join together to take industrial action or bargain for better pay. In Asimov’s world entire planets truck along quite happily producing raw materials or being vacation planets, with no sense of struggle or exploitation or grievance or class or racial conflict.

All the things which we know absolutely dog the actual world – are excluded from his stories.

Wars

Similarly, real world wars break out for complex reasons and, once started, tend to develop a dynamic of their own and become very difficult to end.

As you might expect by now, wars in Asimov’s fiction are the opposite, as simply motivated and easily ended as his paper-thin notion of politics. Some of the Foundation wars do start for the time-honoured motivation that strong planets see an opportunity to conquer weak ones – but they are nearly always started by specific named individuals who, when we meet them, are portrayed as pantomime baddies.

I’m thinking of the story, The Mayors, in which the planet Anacreon is ruled by Prince Regent Wienis, who rubs his hand and cackles like a pantomime villain or Ming the Merciless, while bullying his whiney teenaged nephew, King Lepold I. It only takes Salvor Hardin to pull off a few tricks (he’s bugged the Anacreon fleet and also manages to turn off all power in Anacreon’s capital city) to overcome Wienis and the threatened war to end as quickly as it began.

My point is that, in the real world, wars are often supported by entire populations which have been whipped up top expect them – as all Europe expected World War One, as the Nazis whipped up the Germans or the Japanese military leaders organised their entire society for war. In Asimov’s fairy tales, the goody only has to eliminate the cackling baddy and the rest of the population instantly returns to being reasonable and peace-loving. Exactly the opposite of reality.

Women

It’s to Asimov’s credit that he gives a leading role to Bayta Darell, who grasps what is going on quicker than her husband in The Mule, and to her grand-daughter, 14-year-old Arcadia Darell, in Search By the Foundation, that Elijah Baley’s wife, Jessie, plays some role in The Caves of Steel and Gladia Delmarre plays the lead, a somewhat stereotyped romantic lead, in The Naked Sun. And not forgetting the way he places Dr Susan Calvin centre stage for the linked stories that make up I, Robot.

Still, Asimov’s failure to anticipate women’s lib and feminism is a good example of the way that, while he and his fans had their eyes fixed on the stars, real and profound social changes were transforming human relationships here on earth (in the West, at any rate) in a matter of just a few decades.

I’m not blaming him for failing to anticipate specific social changes: I’m pointing out that his fictions envisage basically unchanged social relationships stretching for thousands of years into the future and how profoundly misleading a view of human nature that is.

Race

Ditto race. In The Naked Sun the humans refer to the fleets of robots which do all the hard work as ‘boy’. Now this is the offensive, abusive term which white Americans used to blacks from the Reconstruction period onwards, and reached horrible aggressiveness as a backlash to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Asimov couldn’t anticipate that only a decade or so after he was writing, America was to be seriously divided by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and then the assassination of Martin Luther King, of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and so on.

But that’s the point. While Asimov was extrapolating his neat and tidy Three Laws of Robotics, and anticipated them being carried 100, 3,000 and 12,000 years into the future by white English-speaking, Americans – meanwhile, around him, through the 1950s into the 1960s, the real world descended into a messy chaos.

Summary

This is why so many adult readers, writers and critics were, and are, able to dismiss and ignore most science fiction – it’s because science fiction itself simply excludes and ignores almost everything which makes up the actual world we live in, with all its difficulties and complexities and challenges and, by extension, its rewards and interest.


Reviews of books by Isaac Asimov

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

1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire

1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’

1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire

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

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (1950)

I, Robot is a ‘fixup’ novel, i.e. it is not a novel at all, but a collection of science fiction short stories. The nine stories originally appeared in the American magazines Super Science Stories and Astounding Science Fiction between 1940 and 1950, and were then compiled into a book for stand-alone publication by Gnome Press in 1950, in the same way that the Foundation trilogy also appeared as magazine short stories before being packaged up by Gnome.

The stories are (sort of) woven together by a framing narrative in which the fictional Dr. Susan Calvin, a pioneer of positronic robots and now 75 years old, tells each story to a reporter whose been sent to do a feature on her life.

These interventions don’t precede and end every story; if they did there’d be eighteen of them; there are in fact only seven and I think the stories are better without them. Paradoxically, they make a more effective continuous narrative without Asimov’s ham-fisted linking passages. Calvin appears as a central character in three of them, anyway, and the comedy pair of robot testers, Powell and Donovan appear in another three consecutive stories, so the stories already contained threads and continuities…

A lot is explained once you learn that these were pretty much the first SF stories Asimov wrote. Since he was born in 1920, Robbie was published when he was just 20! Runaround when he was 21, and so on. His youth explains a lot of the gawkiness of the language and the immaturity of his view of character and, indeed, of plot.

So the reader has a choice: you can either judge Asimov against mature, literary writers and be appalled at the stories’ silliness and clunky style; or take into account how young he was, and be impressed at the vividness of his ideas – the Three Laws, the positronic brain etc – ideas which are silly, but proved flexible and enduring enough to be turned into nearly 40 shorts stories, four novels, and countless spin-offs, not least the blockbusting Will Smith movie.

Introduction

The introduction is mostly interesting for the fictional timeline it introduces around the early development of robots. In 1982 Susan Calvin was born, the same year Lawrence Robertson sets up U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. The ‘now’ of the frame story interview is 75 years later i.e. 2057.

  • 1998 intelligent robots are available to the public
  • 2002 mobile, speaking robot invented
  • 2005 first attempt to colonise Mercury
  • 2008 Susan Calvin joins U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc as its first robopsychologist
  • 2015 second, successful, attempt to colonise Mercury
  • 2006 an asteroid has a laser beam placed on it to relay the sun’s energy back to earth
  • 2037 the hyperatomic motor invented (as described in the story, Escape!)
  • 2044 the Regions of earth, having already absorbed and superseded ‘nations’, themselves come together to form a global Federation

What this timeline indicates is Asimov’s urge to systematise and imperialise his stories. What I mean is that other short story writers write short stories are always part of a larger narrative (systematise) and the larger narrative tends to be epic – here it is the rise of robots from non-talking playmates to controllers of man’s destiny. Same as the Foundation series, where he doesn’t just tell stories about a future planet, or a future league of inhabited star systems – but the entire future of the galaxy.

1. Robbie (1940, revd. 1950 first appearance in Super Science Stories)

It is and 1996 and George Weston has bought his 8-year-old daughter, Gloria, a mute robot and playfellow. The story opens with them playing and laughing and Gloria telling Robbie stories, his favourite treat. However, Gloria’s mother does not like the thought of her daughter being friends with a robot so gets her husband to take it back to the factory and buy a dog instead. Gloria is devastated, hates the dog and pines away. To distract her her parents take her on a trip to futuristic New York. Gloria is excited but, to her mum’s dismay, chiefly because she thinks the family are going there to track down Robbie, who she’s been told has ‘run away’. When told that’s not the case she returns to sulking. Dad has a bright idea, to take her to a factory where they make robots in order to show Gloria that Robbie is not human, doesn’t have personality, is just an assemblage of cogs and wires. Unbeknown to Gloria or his wife, George has in fact arranged for Robby to be on the production line. Gloria spots him, goes mad with joy and runs across to him – straight into the path of a huge tractor. Before any of the humans can react, Robbie with robot speed hurtles across the shop floor and scoops Gloria out of danger.

This story, like the others, is supposed to give rise to some kind of debate about whether robots are human, have morals, are safe and so on. Well, since it is nearly 2019 and we still don’t have workable robots, that debate is fantasy, and this is a sweet, cheapjack story, written with flash and humour.

2. Runaround (March 1942 edition of Astounding Science Fiction)

It is 2005 and two robot testers, Powell and Donovan, have been sent to Mercury along with Robot SPD-13, known as ‘Speedy’. Ten years earlier an effort to colonise Mercury had been abandoned. Now the pair are trying again with better technology. They’ve inhabited the abandoned buildings the previous settlers left behind but discovered that the photo-cell banks that provide life support to the base are low on selenium and will soon fail.

The nearest selenium pool is seventeen miles away Donovan has sent Speedy to get some. Hours have gone by and he’s still not returned. So the story is a race against time.

But it is also a complicated use of Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics. The pair discover down in the bowels of the abandoned building some primitive robots who carry them through the shade of low hills as close to the selenium pool and Speedy as they can get. (If they go into the direct light of the sunlight they will begin to be irreparably damaged, even through spacesuits, by the fierce radioactive glare.)

They see and hear Speedy (by radio) and discover he appears to be drunk, reciting the words to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The Three Laws of Robotics are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Now because Speedy was so expensive to build, the Third Law had been strengthened to preserve him and he has discovered something neither spaceman anticipated, which is that near the selenium are pools of iron-eating gas – much of Speedy being made of iron. When Donovan sent him to get some selenium he didn’t word the command particularly strongly.

So what’s happened is that, in Speedy’s mind, the second and third laws have come into conflict and given Speedy a sort of nervous breakdown. Hence the drunk-like behaviour. He approaches the selenium in obedience to the second law; but then detects the gas and backs away.

The astronauts try several tactics, including getting their robots to fetch, and then lob towards the selenium pool, canisters of oxalic acid to neutralise the carbonic gas. Eventually they tumble to the only thing which will trump laws 2 and 3, which is law 1. Powell walks out of the shadow of the bluff where they’ve been sheltering, into full sunlight, and calls to Speedy (over the radio) that the radiation is hurting him and begging Speedy to help. Law one overrides the other two and Speedy, restored to full working order, hurtles over, scoops him up and carries him into the protective shade.

At which point they give Speedy new instructions to collect the selenium, emphasising that it is life or death for them whether the photo-cell banks are replenished. With the full force of Law One behind him, this time Speedy overrides Law three (self protection) fetches loads of selenium, they fix the cells, everyone happy.

3. Reason (April 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

A year later the same ill-fated couple of spacemen are moved to a space station orbiting the sun whose task is to focus the sun’s energy into a concentrated beam which is then shot back to a received on earth. They finish constructing one of the first of a new range of robots, QT-1, who they nickname ‘Cutie’, and are disconcerted when it starts to question them. Specifically, it refuses to believe that they made it. In a series of increasingly rancorous conversations, Cutie dismisses the men as flimsy assemblages of blood and flesh, obviously not built to last.

Cutie eventually decides that the main power source of the ship must be the ‘Master’.He dismisses all the evidence of space, visible from the ship’s portholes, and all the books aboard the ship, as fables and fantasies designed to occupy the ‘lower’ minds of the men.

No, Cutie has reasoned itself into the belief that ‘There is no Master but Master, and QT-1 is His prophet.’ Despite this it carried on going about its duties, namely supervising the less advanced robots in the various tasks of keeping the space station maintained. Until the guys realise, to their further consternation, that Cutie has passed his religion on to them and they now refuse to obey the humans. In fact they pick up the humans, take them to their living quarters and lock them in under house arrest.

Powell and Donovan become very anxious because a solar storm is expected which will make the immensely high-powered beam to the earth waver and wobble. Even a little amount will devastate hundreds of square miles back on earth. But to their amazement, and relief, Cutie manages the beam perfectly, countering for the impact of the solar storm far better than they could have. At some (buried) level Cutie is still functioning according the 1st and 2nd laws i.e. protecting humans. The pair end up wondering whether a robot’s nominal ‘beliefs’ matter at all, so long as it obeys the three laws and functions perfectly.

Although marked by Asimov’s trademark facetious humour, and despite the schoolboy level on which the ‘debate’ with the robot is carried out, and noting the melodramatic threat of the approach of the solar storm – this is still a humorous, effective short story.

4. Catch That Rabbit (February 1944  issue of Astounding Science Fiction )

It’s those two robot testers, Powell and Donovan, again. They’re jokey banter is laid on with a trowel and reeks of fast-talking, wise-cracking comedians of the era.

Powell said, ‘Mike — you’re right.’
‘Thanks, pal. I knew I’d do it some day.’
‘All right, and skip the sarcasm. We’ll save it for Earth, and preserve it in jars for future long, cold winters.’

The plot is comparable to the previous story. Now they’re on an asteroid mining station where a ‘master’ robot – nicknamed Dave because his number is DV-5 – is in charge of six little worker robots – nicknamed the ‘fingers’ – digging up some metal ore. Problem is they’re not  hitting their quotas and, when Powell and Donovan eavesdrop on the worker robots via a visi-screen, they are appalled to see that, as soon as their backs are turned, Dave leads the other six in vaudeville dance routines!

After much head-scratching and trying out various hypotheses – as in the previous story – they eventually tumble to the problem. The trouble seems to kick off whenever Dave encounters a slight problem. So it would seem that supervising six robots is simply too much of a strain, when an additional problem is added. Solution? Eliminate one of the robots. Dave can handle the remaining five, plus whatever issues arise in the blasting and mining operation, just fine.

There is, however, a typically cheesy Asimov punchline. So what’s with the chorus line dancing? Donovan asks. Powell replies that when Dave was stymied and his processors couldn’t decide what to do – he resorted to ‘twiddling his fingers‘ boom boom!

5. Liar! (May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

Accidentally, a robot is manufactured which can read human minds. With typical Yank levity it is nicknamed Herbie, since its number is RB-34. U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc mathematician Peter Bogert and robopsychologist Susan Calvin, at various points, interview it. Now Herbie, as well as answering their questions, reads what’s on their minds, namely that Bogert wants to replace Lanning as head of U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc, and that Calvin is frustratedly in love with a young officer at the firm, Milton Ashe.

To their delight, Herbie tells Bogert that Lanning has handed in his resignation and nominated Bogert to replace him, and tells Calvin that Ashe is in love with her too.

Their happiness doesn’t last. When Bogert confronts Lanning with news of his resignation, the latter angrily denies it. Calvin is on the point of declaring her feelings for Ashe, when the latter announces that he soon to marry his fiancee.

In the climactic scene the four character confront Herbie with his ‘lies’ and it is Calvin who stumbles on the truth. Herbie can read minds. He knows what his human interlocutors wish. He knows revealing that those wishes are unrequited or untrue will psychologically damage them. He is programmed to obey the First Law of Robotics i.e. no robot must harm a human being. And so he lies to them. He tells them what they want to hear.

Beside herself with anger (and frustration) Calvin taunts the cowering robot into a corner of the room and eventually makes its brain short circuit.

Little Lost Robot (March 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

On Hyper Base, a military research station on an asteroid, scientists are working to develop the hyperspace drive. One of their robots goes missing. US Robots’ Chief Robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin, and Mathematical Director Peter Bogert, are called in to investigate.

They are told that the Nestor (a characteristic nickname for a model NS-2 robot) was one of a handful which had had its First Law of Robotics amended. They learn that, as part of their work, the ether scientists on Hyper Base have to expose themselves to risky levels of gamma rays, albeit for only short, measured periods. They and their managers found the Nestors kept interfering to prevent them exposing themselves, or rushing out to fetch them back in – in rigid obedience to the first law, which is to prevent any humans coming from harm.

After the usual red herrings, arguments and distractions it turns out that a nervy physicist, Gerald Black, who had been working with the missing robot, had gotten angry and told it to ‘get lost’. Which is exactly what it proceeded to do. A shipment of 62 Nestors had docked on its way off to some further destination. Next thing anyone knew there were 63 Nestors in its cargo hold and nobody could detected which of the 63 was the one which had had its First Law tampered with.

As usual Asimov creates a ‘race against time’ effect by having Calvin become increasingly concerned that Nestor 10 has not only ‘got lost’ but become resentful at being insulted by an inferior being’, and might carry on becoming more resentful until it plans something actively malevolent.

Calvin carries out a number of tests to try and distinguish Nestor 10, and becomes genuinely alarmed when entire cohorts of the nestors fail to react quickly enough to save a human (placed in a position of jeopardy for the sake of the experiment).

Finally, she catches it out by devising a test which distinguishes Nestor 10 as the only one which has received additional training in dealing with gamma radiation since arriving at the Hyper Drive base, the other 62 remaining ignorant.

After Nestor 10 has been revealed, Calvin sharply orders it to approach her, which it does, whining and complaining about its superiority and how it shouldn’t be treated like that and how it was ordered to lose itself and she mustn’t reveal its whereabouts… and attacks her. At which Black and Bogert flood the chamber with enough gamma rays to incapacitate it. it is destroyed, the other 62 ‘innocent’ nestors are trucked off to their destination.

Once again, this story is a scary indictment of the whole idea of robots, if it turns out that corporations can merrily tamper with the laws of robotics in order to save money, or get a job done, well, obviously they will. In which case the laws aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

Escape! (August 1945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

Published in the month that the War in the Pacific – and so the Second World War – ended, after the dropping of the two atom bombs on Japan.

In that month’s issues of Astounding Science Fiction readers learned that U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. possess a Giant Brain, a positronic doodah floating in a helium globe, supported by wires etc. Reassuringly, it is a chattily American brain:

Dr. Calvin said softly, ‘How are you, Brain?’
The Brain’s voice was high-pitched and enthusiastic, ‘Swell, Miss Susan.’

A rival firm approaches U.S. Robot etc. It too is working on a hyperdrive and, when its scientists fed all the information into their supercomputer, it crashed. Tentatively, our guys agree to feed the same info into The Brain. Now the thing about the Brain is it is emotionally a child. Dr Calvin thinks that this is why it manages to process the same information which blew up the rival one: because it doesn’t take the information so seriously – particularly the crucial piece of information that, during the hyperdrive, human beings effectively die.

It swallows all the information and happily agrees to make the ship in question. Within a month or so the robots it instructs have built a smooth shiny hyperdrive spaceship. It is over to the two jokers we’ve met in the earlier stories, Powell land Donovan, Mike and Greg, to have a look. But no sooner are they in it than the doors lock and it disappears into space. Horrified at being trapped, the two men wisecrack their way around their new environment. Horrified at losing two test pilots in a new spaceship Dr Calvin very carefully interviews The Brain. Oh, they’ll be fine, it says, breezily.

Meanwhile, Mike and Greg undergo the gut-wrenching experience of hyperspace travel and – weird scenes – imagine themselves dead and queueing up outside the Pearly Gates to say hello to old St Peter. When they come round from these hallucinations, they look at the parsec-ometer on the control board and realise it is set at 300,000.

They were conscious of sunlight through the port. It was weak, but it was bluewhite – and the gleaming pea that was the distant source of light was not Old Sol.
And Powell pointed a trembling finger at the single gauge. The needle stood stiff and proud at the hairline whose figure read 300,000 parsecs.
Powell said, ‘Mike if it’s true, we must be out of the Galaxy altogether.’
Donovan said, ‘Blazed Greg! We’d be the first men out of the Solar System.’
‘Yes! That’s just it. We’ve escaped the sun. We’ve escaped the Galaxy. Mike, this ship is the answer. It means freedom for all humanity — freedom to spread through to every star that exists — millions and billions and trillions of them.’

Eventually the spaceship returns to earth, joking Mike and Greg stumble out, unshaven and smelly, and are led off for a shower.

Dr Calvin explains to an executive board (i.e. all the characters we’ve met in the story, including Mike and Dave) that the equations they gave The Brain included the fact that humans would ‘die’ – their bodies would be completely disassembled, as would the molecules of the space ship – in order for it to travel through hyperspace. It was this knowledge of certain ‘death’ which had made the rivals’ computer – obeying the First Law of Robotics – short circuit.

But Dr Calvin had phrased the request in such a way to The Brain as to downplay the importance of death. (In fact this is a characteristic Asimovian play with words – Dr Calvin’s instructions to The Brain made no sense when I read them, and only make sense now, when she uses them as an excuse for why The Brain survived but the rival supercomputer crashed.

Like most of Asimov’s stories, there is a strong feeling of contrivance, that stories, phrases or logic are wrenched out of shape to deliver the outcome he wants. This makes them clever-clever, but profoundly unsatisfying, and sometimes almost incomprehensible.)

Anyway, The Brain still registered the fact the testers would ‘die’ (albeit they would be reconstituted a millisecond later) and this is the rather thin fictional excuse given for the fact that the Brain retreated into infantile humour – designing a spaceship which was all curves, providing the testers with food – but making it only baked beans and milk, providing toilet facilities – but making them difficult to find, and so on. Oh, and ensuring that at the moment of molecular disintegration, the testers had the peculiar jokey experience of queueing for heaven, of hearing their fellow waiters and some of the angels all yakking like extras in a 1950s musical. That was all The Brain coping with its proximity to breaking the First Law by retreating into infantile humour.

Follow all that? Happy with that explanation? Happy with that account of how the human race makes the greatest discovery in its history?

Or is it all a bit too much like a sketch from the Jerry Lee Lewis show?

Lanning raised a quieting hand, “All right, it’s been a mess, but it’s all over. What now?’
‘Well,’ said Bogert, quietly, “obviously it’s up to us to improve the space-warp engine. There must be some way of getting around that interval of jump. If there is, we’re the only organization left with a grand-scale super-robot, so we’re bound to find it if anyone can. And then — U. S. Robots has interstellar travel, and humanity has the opportunity for galactic empire.’ !!!

Evidence (September 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

A story about a successful politician, Stephen Byerley. Having been a successful attorney he is running for mayor of a major American city. His opponent, Francis Quinn, claims he is a robot, built by the real Stephen Byerley who was crippled in a car accident years earlier.

The potential embarrassment leads U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. to send their top robosychologist test whether Byerley is a robot or not.

  • She offers him an apple and Byerley takes a bite, but he may have been designed with a stomach.
  • Quinn sends a journalist with a hidden X-ray camera to photograph Byerley’s insides, but Byerley is protected by some kind of force shield

Quinn and Calvin both make a big deal of the fact that Byerley, if a robot, must obey the three Laws of Robotics i.e. will be incapable of harming a human. This becomes a centrepiece of the growing opposition to Byerley, stoked by Quinn’s publicity machine.

During a globally broadcast speech to a hostile audience, a heckler climbs onto the stage and challenges Byerley to hit him in the face. Millions watch the candidate punch the heckler in the face. Calvin tells the press that Byerley is human. With the expert’s verdict disproving Quinn’s claim, Byerley wins the election.

Afterwards, Calvin visits Byerley and shrewdly points out that the heckler may have been a robot, manufactured by Byerley’s ‘teacher’, a shady figure who has gone ‘to the country’ to rest and who both Calvin and Quin suspect is the real Byerley, hopelessly crippled but with advanced robotics skills.

This is one of the few stories where Asimov adds linking material in which the elderly Calvin tells the narrator-reporter than Byerley arranged to have his body ‘atomised’ after his death, so nobody ever found out.

All very mysterious and thrilling for the nerdy 14-year-old reader, but the adult reader can pick a million holes in it, such as the authorities compelling Byerley to reveal the whereabouts of the mysterious ‘teacher’ or compelling him to have an x-ray.

The Evitable Conflict (June 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

The Byerley story turns out to be important because this same Stephen Byerley goes on to become the head of the planetary government, or World Co-Ordinator, as it is modestly titled

The story is a fitting end to the sequence because it marks the moment when robots – which we saw, in Robbie as little more than playthings for children in 1998 – taking over the running of the world by the 2050s.

Byerley is worried because various industrial projects – a canal in Mexico, mines in Spain – are falling behind. Either there’s something wrong with the machines which, by this stage, are running everything… or there is human sabotage.

He calls in Susan Calvin, by this stage 70 years old and the world’s leading expert on robot psychology.

She listens as Byerley gives her a detailed description of his recent tour of the Four Regions of Earth (and the 14 year old kid reader marvels and gawps at how the planet will be divided up into four vast Regions, with details of which one-time ‘countries’ they include, their shiny new capital cities, their Asian, Africa and European leaders who Byerley interviews).

This is all an excuse for Asimov to give his teenage view of the future which is that rational complex calculating Machines will take over the running of everything. The coming of atomic power, and space travel, will render the conflict between capitalism and communism irrelevant. The European empires will relinquish their colonies which will become free and independent. And all of humanity will realise, at the same time, that there is no room any more for nationalism or political conflicts. It will become one world. Everyone will live in peace.

Ahhh isn’t that nice.

Except for this one nagging fact — that some of the projects overseen by the Machines seem to be failing. Byerley tells Calvin his theory. There is a political movement known as the Society for Humanity. It can be shown that the men in charge of the Mexican canal, the Spanish mines and the other projects which are failing are all members of the Society for Humanity. Obviously they are tampering with figures or data in order to sabotage project successes, to reintroduce shortages and conflicts and to discredit the Machines. Therefore, Byerley tells Calvin, he proposes having every member of the Society for Humanity arrested and imprisoned.

Calvin – and this is a typical Asimov coup, to lead the reader on to expect one thing and then, with a whirl of his magician’s cape, to reveal something completely different – Calvin says No. He has got it exactly wrong. the Machines, vastly complex, proceeding on more data than any one human could ever manage, and continually improving, acting under an expanded version of the First Law of Robotics – namely that no robot or machine must harm humanity – have detected that the Society for Humanity presents a threat to the calm, peaceful, machine-controlled future of humanity – and so the machines have falsified the figures and made the projects fail — precisely in order to throw suspicion on the Society for Humanity, precisely to make the World Co-Ordinator arrest them, precisely in order to eliminate them.

In other words, the Machines have now acquired enough data about the world and insight into human psychology, as to be guiding humanity’s destiny. It is too late to avert or change, she tells Byerley. They are in control now.

Despite its silliness, it is nonetheless a breath-taking conclusion to the book, and, as with the Foundation stories, makes you feel like you really have experienced a huge and dazzling slab of mankind’s future.


Comments

The inadequacy of the Three Laws epitomises the failure of all attempts to replicate the human mind

I suppose this has occurred to everyone who’s ever read these stories, but the obvious thing about them is that every single story is about robots going wrong. This doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence about a robotic future.

A bit more subtly, what they all demonstrate is that ‘morality’ is a question of human interpretation: people interpret situations and decide how to act accordingly. This interpretative ability cannot be replicated by machines, computers, artificial intelligence, call them what you will. It probably never will for the simple reason that it is imperfect, partial and different in each individual human. You will never be able to programme ‘robots’ with universal laws of behaviour and morality, when these don’t even exist among humans.

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics sound impressive to a 14-year-old sci-fi nerd, or as the (shaky) premise to a series of pulp sci-fi stories – but the second you begin trying to apply them to real life situations (for example, two humans giving a robot contradictory orders) you immediately encounter problems. Asimov’s Three Laws sound swell, but they are, in practice, useless. And the fact that the robots in the stories seem to do nothing but break down, demonstrates the problem.

Neither the human mind nor the human body can be replicated by science

Asimov predicted that humans would have developed robots by now (2018, when I write), indeed by the 1990s.

Of course, we haven’t. This is because nobody understands how the human brain works and no technologists have come anywhere near replicating its functionality. They never will. The human brain is the most complicated object in the known universe. It has taken about three billion years to evolve (if we start back with the origin of life on earth). The idea that guys in white coats in labs working with slide rules can come anywhere close to matching it in a few generations is really stupid.

And that’s just human intelligence. On the physical side, no scientists have created ‘robots’ with anything like the reaction times and physical adroitness of even the simplest animals.

We don’t need robots since we have an endless supply of the poor

Apart from the a) physical and b) mental impossibility of creating ‘robots’ with anything remotely like human capacities, the most crucial reason it hasn’t happened is because there is no financial incentive whatsoever to create them.

We have cheap robots already, they are called migrant workers or slaves, who can be put to work in complex and demanding environments – showing human abilities to handle complex situations, perform detailed and fiddly tasks – for as little as a dollar a day.

Charities estimate there are around 40 million slaves in the world today, 2018. So why waste money developing robots? Even if you did develop ‘robots’, could they be as cheap to buy and maintain as human slaves? Would they cost a dollar a day to run? No.

Only in certain environments which require absolutely rigid, inflexible repetitive tasks, and which are suitable for long-term heavy investment because of the certainty of return, have anything like robots been deployed, for example on the production lines of car factories.

But these are a million miles away from the robots Asimov envisaged, which you can sit down and chat to, let alone pass for human, as R. Daneel Olivaw does in Asimov’s robot novels.

All technologies break

And the last but not the least objection to Asimov’s vision of a robot-infested future is that all technologies break. Computers fail. Look at the number of incidents we’ve had just in the past month or so of major breakdowns by computer networks, and these are networks run by the biggest, richest, safest, most supervised, cleverest companies in the world.

On 6 December 2018 around 30 million people use the O2 network suffered a complete outage of the system. The collapse affected 25 million O2 subscribers, customers of Tesco Mobile and Sky Mobile, business such as Deliveroo, the digital systems on board all 8,500 London buses, and systems at some hospitals.

In September 2018 Facebook admitted that at least 50 million accounts had been hacked, with a poissible 40 million more vulnerable. Facebook-owned Instagram and WhatsApp are also affected along with apps and services such as Tinder that authenticate users through Facebook.

In April 2018 TSB’s banking online banking service collapsed following a botched migration to a new platform. Some customers were unable to access their accounts for weeks afterwards. About 1,300 customers were defrauded, 12,500 closed their accounts and the outage cost the bank £180 million.

These are just the big ones I remember from the past few months, and the ones we got to hear about (i.e. weren’t hushed up). In the background of our lives and civilisation, all computer networks are being attacked, failing, crashing, requiring upgrades, or proper integration, or becoming obsolete, all of the time. If you do any research into it you’ll discover that the computer infrastructure of the international banks which underpin global capitalism are out of date, rickety, patched-up, vulnerable to hacking but more vulnerable to complex technical failures.

In Asimov’s world of advanced robots, there is none of this. The robots fix each other and all the spaceships, they are – according to the final story – ‘self-correcting’, everything works fine all the time, leaving humans free to swan around making vast conspiracies against each other.

This is the biggest fantasy or delusion in Asimov’s universe. Asimov’s fictions give no idea at all of the incomprehensible complexity of a computerised world and – by extension – of all human technologies and, by a further extension, of human societies.


Asimov breaks the English language

Asimov is a terrible writer, hurried, slapdash, trying to convey often pretty simple emotional or descriptive effects through horribly contorted phraseology.

As I read I could hear a little voice at the back of my mind, and after a while realised it was the voice of the English language, crying out as if from a long distance away, ‘Help me! Save me! Rescue me from this murderer!’

The main corridor was a narrow tunnel that led in a hard, clatter-footed stretch along a line of rooms of no interdistinguishing features.

Harroway had no doubt on the point of to whom he owed his job.

Dr. Lanning smiled in a relief tangible enough to make even his eyebrows appear benevolent.

The signal-burr brought all three to a halt, and the angry tumult of growingly unrestrained emotion froze.

The two giant robots were invisible but for the dull red of their photoelectric eyes that stared down at them, unblinking, unwavering and unconcerned. Unconcerned! As was all this poisonous Mercury, as large in jinx as it was small in size.


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

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
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
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

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 Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1954)

‘Before the Cities, human life on Earth wasn’t so specialized that they couldn’t break loose and start all over on a raw world. They did it thirty times. But now, Earthmen are all so coddled, so enwombed in their imprisoning caves of steel, that they are caught forever.’ (Dr. Fastolfe)

Elijah Baley is 40 years old, with a long face and brown eyes like a sad cow. He is married to Jessie, has a 16-year-old son, Bentley, and lives in New York, where he is a police detective.

So far, so straightforward. The only catch is… this is all 3,000 years in the future. The population of the earth has ballooned to over 8 billion. Most people now live in the 200 or so megacities which are, like New York, completely covered over and enclosed from the environment. The ‘caves of steel’ of the title refer to these cities, blocked out from sunshine or natural air, hermetically sealed, artificially-lit environments.

Oil ran out centuries ago, so everything is powered by atomic energy. Population density means most people live in communal dormitories and share communal facilities. Meat is occasionally available, but most people most of the time live on rations made on hydroponic farms in Long Island or at the huge yeast vats in New Jersey. Some tobacco is still grown, which allows Elijah to indulge his habit of smoking a pipe, but it’s getting rarer and more expensive.

Elijah is a grade C-5. Everyone in the city is graded and their grade entitles them to specific types of accommodation, food and so on. Baley has never got over the way his father was blamed for an accident in a power station and went from being a high-grade physicist to becoming ‘declassified’ – forced to do manual labour, becoming a drunk, dying when Elijah was just 8.

You might have thought that’s enough to be going on with, but all this is just background. There are two other big developments which dominate the book: one is the invention and perfection of ‘the positronic brain’ which has allowed the development of very nearly lifelike robots. This much I expected from a novel which I knew to be part of Asimov’s ‘robot’ series of stories and novels.

What I hadn’t at all anticipated was the central importance of the ‘Spacers’. For it turns out that mankind has, for some time, been colonising other planets, occupying some 50 to date, and taking advantage of the invention of ‘hyperspace travel’.

The colonies are much more sparsely populated than earth, which is one reason why the ‘Spacers’ have developed a significantly different culture from Earthers. The Spacers have more space to live in, and robots are completely integrated into their society, meaning most of them lead lives of luxury.

So wide has the gap grown between Earthers and Spacers that, a hundred years before the story starts, Earth riots in which some Spacers were killed led a fleet of Spacer ships to retaliate. In the war that followed the ramshackle old Earth ships were simply vaporised, Space technology being far more advanced. Now the Spacers don’t exactly rule the Earthers, they just intimidate them.

For the Spacers have built settlements just outside most of the big cities – Spacetowns – protected by security guards and airlocks to prevent earth infections being passed to the prim and pure Spacers. All this explains why gritty Earther types like detective Baley really hate Spacers.

The plot

So much for the background. The plot is straightforward detective fodder – in fact, Asimov is on record as saying the book (and its sequels) were attempts to show that science fiction isn’t a genre, but a subject which could be applied to any genre. Here he is trying to prove it with this detective story set in the future.

A Spacer is found murdered. Not just any old Spacer, but Roj Nemmenuh Sarton, a Spacer Ambassador and robot designer.

In the classic style, Baley is called in by his harassed overworked boss, Commissioner Julius Enderby, and told that a) he, Baley, has been given the case to solve – which disgruntles him, because he hates Spaces and b) he has also been lumbered with a new generation robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, to be his assistant.

The story, then, is not only about Baley’s attempts to solve the crime – but equally as much about him overcoming his dislike of Spacers and his loathing of robots.

The book proceeds through a variety of scenes which I felt I have seen hundreds of times, in countless American TV cop shows and crime thrillers. The basic pattern is Baley goes out, has an encounter or adventure, comes back and reports it to his increasingly exasperated boss, before going home to his worried wife.

Initially, the story is about confrontations and menace. Baley and Daneel get caught up in a minor riot in a department store when robots refuse to serve a customer and an anti-robot crowd assembles and threatens violence until Daneel jumps on a table and threatens to blast them all. The crowd disperses. Baley is appalled since Daneel’s behaviour breaks the First Law of Robotics. We are introduced to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics which feature in all the robot novels and stories:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

When he learns that Daneel is so perfectly human in appearance because he is an identical copy of his designer, Sarton, the incident in the shop leads Baley to make a rash declaration in front of a Spacer officer, Dr Fastolfe, and with his boss present via hologram, that Daneel is actually a human and that the dead body of Sarton was actually a robot.

This stab in the dark is quickly disproved when Daneel unpeels some of his skin to reveal his robotic metal and wire interior. Baley faints. When he comes round he’s aware that Daneel has just slipped a hypno-sliver into his bloodstream. It was a drug which makes him vulnerable to suggestions, and Dr Fastolfe, gives a speech explaining how earth could overcome its paranoid crammed culture by mass migration to the planets, which Baley finds himself agreeing with.

A later scene has a good, movie-style excitement to it. Baley and Daneel are travelling on the complicated moving sidewalks. these run at different speeds, winding in and out of each other throughout the city’s vast expanse, meaning that pedestrians are continually having to leap from one to the next, or across several moving strips to get to the one they need (you can see why this is a totally impractical idea, though it does have tremendous visual possibilities.)

Daneel identifies that they are being followed – always a key ingredient in a thriller, and then that some of the followers were in the almost-riot at the shop. Baley then leads the pursuers a merry chase by hopping across and onto a complex sequence of moving sidewalks, before arriving at a vast power station, where one of the suspects has been identified as working.

The next major event is that one of the robots which was used in the police offices, R. Sammy, is found dead or, more precisely, has had its positronic brain scrambled by a nuclear wand.

Commissioner Enderby is as upset about this as anyone else, and then begins slowly and regretfully pointing out to Baley that he, Baley, is looking like a prime suspect. Baley hates robots. Baley was always complaining about R. Sammy. And the nuclear wand which scrambled him has been traced back to the same power plant Baley visited earlier that day.

In the novel’s climactic scene, confronted by his boss accusing him of the murder, Baley proves that Enderby did it. But no-one can smuggle atom blasters into Spacertown, and he certainly couldn’t obtain one inside. How did he do it? Baley shows that Enderby ordered R. Sammy to carry an atom blaster out of one of the city’s 500 or so exits, go across country to Spacertown, enter Spacertown at a different place from Enderby, rendezvous with Enderby and hand him the blaster. Enderby then intended to blast the new super-advanced robot he had heard that Sarton had just developed. Unfortunately, Enderby wears glasses, it is part of his pose of preferring the ‘good old days’, an attitude sometimes described as Medievalism. In his nervousness at performing an act of violence (relatively rare in the future) Enderby drops his glasses which shatter. At that moment, in a panic, the door to Sarton’s apartment opens and Enderby, thinking it is the robot, blasts Sartor, disintegrating the top half of his body. Then stumbles back to where R. Sammy was waiting, gives him the blaster, R. Sammy makes his own way out of the city, leaving Enderby to be allowed to leave the city with no weapon. The alarm about Sartor’s murder was only raised an hour or so later, once Enderby was well clear.

Assessment

Asimov makes what I take to be an elementary mistake of thriller writers, which is – he tries to make the plot too convoluted. I won’t describe the convolutions here but there are plenty of other incidents – such as Baley’s wife Jessie somehow discovering that Daneel is a robot (which is meant to be a well kept secret); and the evening when, after being followed, Daneel and Baley hole up in a police ‘safe apartment’ from ‘them’, whoever it is that’s pursuing them – only for Baley’s son, Bentley, to pretty easily find him and get admitted to the apartment… There are a number of false trails and fake leads designed to puzzle Baley, and the reader.

But the big, big, big problem with the book is that the elaborate motivation Asimov provides for the murder – and its wider consequences – doesn’t make sense, even on Asimov’s own terms.

In the last pages Asimov/Baley pulls it all together by saying that: Enderby is a member of a secret society of Medievalists. His preference for glasses and for having ‘windows’ in his office proves this. Medievalists want to rid the world of robots, end the cities and return everyone to living on the land, like in the good old days.

Because of his regular contacts with Spacers he knew that Sarton had developed a new generation robot, indistinguishable from a human, and so his group of Medievalists allotted him the task of destroying it. But, as we’ve seen, he muffed the job and killed the human inventor instead.

The fact that his murder relied so heavily on R. Sammy explains why it was Enderby who scrambled him, and planted the nuclear wand to discredit Baley.

But it turns out that the Spacers have a political aim as well. Some of them feel Spacer culture is stagnant or declining. They want to persuade Earthers to migrate and inject new blood into Spacer colonies. They want to encourage humans to leave overcrowded earth.

Here’s what doesn’t make sense. Both Enderby and Baley dislike robots and Baley hates Spacers. And yet the final pages of the book try to persuade us that both Baley and Enderby come round to agreeing with the Spacers… and here’s the thing which really doesn’t make sense: they try to persuade us that Enderby’s anti-robot, anti-Spacer, back-to-the-soil Medievalism can be converted into a belief that humans can go back to the soil… in off-world colonies. That the Medievalists’ anti-science and technology stance can be twisted round into a wish to adopt modern science and technology.

All the paraphernalia of the detective thriller (right at the end Baley has just 90 minutes to prove his theory before Daneel is taken off the case, which injects some traditional urgency and suspense) cannot conceal the fact that, at the end, it becomes utterly incoherent and illogical. Like the Foundation stories, the conclusion feels forced and contrived.

Futuristic features

Future novels like this have two elements. One is the plot which, as I’ve explained, although frenetic is, in the end, deeply disappointing.

But the other, and possibly more gripping element for SF fans, is the throwaway references to all kinds of intriguing aspects of life 3,000 years hence, the references to inventions and gadgets which help to create and pad out a plausible imaginary world.

  • atom blasters – equivalent of handguns
  • cerebroanalysis –  the interpretation of the electromagnetic fields of the living brain cells
  • hypo-sliver – futuristic version of an injection
  • Medievalism – widespread belief in the superiority of the good old days, when people did not live in ‘caves of steel’
  • plastofilm – what Elijah slips on his feet instead of slippers
  • retch gas – used by the police on rioting crowds
  • somno vapour – used by the police on rioting crowds
  • spy-beam – high-powered microphones for eavesdropping
  • strips – moving walkways which pedestrians have to jump between to change speed or direction
  • subetheric hand disruptors – Space weapons
  • trimensional personification – appearing by hologram
  • zymoveal – food made mostly from fungus

Bigger in scale than these gadgets, and far more interesting than the ‘plot’ is Asimov’s imagining of future customs and conventions. Apparently, a massive taboo has arisen about people’s behaviour in the communal washrooms, namely that it is extremely rude to look at or even acknowledge someone else washing.

Powerful is Asimov’s imagining of how the inhabitants of the steel caves have, over the centuries, developed a deep phobia about being ‘outside’, about being stuck under the open sky and exposed to the elements. Baley has panic attacks when he thinks about it.

Similarly, it’s an imaginative stroke that the Spacers are not only scared of catching earth germs and diseases from inhabitants of the packed, unhygienic cities – so far, so logical – but that this has developed into physical repulsion at the presence of Earthers, who Spacers have come to believe smell and are intrinsically dirty. It is almost a kind of racism, and it is imaginative insights like this into the psychology of his future worlds which make Asimov’s books worth reading. Not the plots, though.

Covers

When you borrow or buy these old books, the modern cover illustrations might mislead you into thinking they are in any way up to date or ‘serious’. But a quick glance at the original covers of the magazines which these stories appeared in makes you realise in a flash what cheap pulp audiences they were originally aimed at, and what a mistake it is to expect too much from them in the way of writing, psychology or thought.

Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel after completing the Foundation stories. It was serialised in Galaxy magazine, from October to December 1953, and published in book form in 1954. This cover brings out the sense of a) the completely enclosed nature of the cities and b) the highly visual impact of the moving walkways. It is in the details and appurtenances of his stories that Asimov strikes deepest.

Cover of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine in which The Caves of Steel was first serialised in 1953

Cover of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine in which The Caves of Steel was first serialised in 1953


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

1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
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

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

Roman Vishniac Rediscovered @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Prepare to be stunned, upset and amazed at this major exhibition showcasing the incredibly long and varied career of Russian-born, Jewish-American photographer, Roman Vishniac (1897–1990).

The vast archive of Vishniac’s work in New York contains tens of thousands of items and so the exhibition is so copious it is not only spread across two floors at the Photographers’ Gallery, but is also being co-hosted by the Jewish Museum, in north London.

It includes recently discovered vintage prints, rare and ‘lost’ film footage from his pre-war period, contact sheets, personal correspondence, original magazine publications and newly created exhibition prints as well as his acclaimed photomicroscopy.

The quickest way to get an overview of Vishniac’s career and importance is via this interview with exhibition curator, Maya Benton.

I’d never heard of him before but the commentary tells us that Vishniac is best known for having created one of the most widely recognised and reproduced photographic records of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars. Maybe I’ve seen his photos in various history books of the period, but never registered his name.

Russia 1897-1920

Born in Pavlovsk, Russia in 1897 to a Jewish family, Roman Vishniac was raised in Moscow. On his seventh birthday, he was given a camera and a microscope which inspired a lifelong fascination with photography and science. He began to conduct early scientific experiments by attaching the camera to the microscope and, as a teenager, became both an avid amateur photographer and a student of biology, chemistry and zoology.

Berlin 1920-33

In 1920, following the Bolshevik Revolution, Vishniac immigrated to Berlin. Armed with two cameras, a Rolleiflex and a Leica, Vishniac joined some of the city’s many flourishing camera clubs and took to the streets to record everyday life.

He was influenced by the advent of modernist art with its interest in unusual framing, strange geometries, experimental camera angles, and the dramatic use of light and shade. His subject was the people of the streets: streetcar drivers, municipal workers, day labourers, protesting students, children at play, the eeriness of public spaces.

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Nazis 1933-39

The later 1920s saw the rise of the Nazi Party which finally achieved political power in January 1933. Jews were forbidden to take photographs on the street. German Jews had their businesses boycotted, were banned from many public places and expelled from Aryanised schools. They were also prevented from pursuing careers in law, medicine, teaching, and photography, among the many other indignities and curtailments of civil liberties.

Vishniac used his skills to document the growing signs of oppression, the loss of rights for Jews, the rise of Nazism in Germany, the proliferation of swastika flags and military parades, which were taking over both the streets and daily life.

Vishniac's daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads 'The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights', Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Vishniac’s daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads ‘The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights’, Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden

Charities had long existed in Germany to channel help to poor Jews in Eastern Europe. From 1933 onwards they also helped Jews in the Fatherland. Zionist and other groups flourished which trained would-be émigrés in the practical agricultural and vocational skills they would need in their new lives in Palestine.

In response to restrictions placed on Jewish artists, the Jüdischer Kulturbund was established and Vishniac was commissioned to record the work of several large Jewish community and social service organisations in Berlin.

His images were used in fundraising campaigns for an American donor audience. This work brought him to the attention of a wide variety of other charitable and philanthropic groups, in Europe and America, which were to provide him with further commissions from Jewish relief and community organisations throughout the 1940s and 50s.

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish life in Eastern Europe 1935-38

In 1935 Vishniac was hired by the European HQ of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – the world’s largest Jewish relief organisation – to document impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. The photos were to be used in lectures, magazines, presentations in the wealthy West to drum up donations.

Over the next four years Vishniac travelled extensively in the region, documenting the impact of anti-Semitic restrictions on populations who were already impoverished, in cities, towns and rural settlements. The technical proficiency and variety and impact of this big body of work ended up turning into something different from what was originally envisaged: it became the last extensive photographic record of an entire way of life that had existed for centuries and was about to be swept away forever.

Here, as in all the aspects of his career, the exhibition doesn’t just show the photos but also has display cases presenting the outputs of these projects: books, magazine articles, slide shows, with texts by Vishniac himself or other writers.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers’ Gallery

Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp 1938

As the plight of German’s Jews worsened many families got their children to join Zionist organisations or sent them to camps in neutral countries. Among these was the Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp in the Netherlands where young Jews could work at practical crafts while waiting for visas to travel to Palestine.

In 1938 Vishniac was sent by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to document the community. He used the heroic style common to Soviet propaganda photography of the 1920s – fit young men and women working in bright sunshine, shot from low angles to make them look big and powerful – to convey the sense of strong determined Jews building a better future.

In 1941 the SS ordered the inhabitants of the camp who hadn’t managed to flee to be sent to transit camps en route to concentration camps, where most of them died.

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

France 1939

From April to September 1939 Vishniac worked as a freelance photographer in France, while he and his wife struggled to get a visa to America. Vishniac was commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to photograph a vocational training school for Jewish refugees near Marseille.

It so happened that Visniac’s own parents had relocated to Nice in 1937, where he went to visit them and managed to take a series of light-hearted photos of Riviera beach life. So many angles, so many lights to his career.

Arrest and escape

In late 1939 Vishniac was arrested by the French authorities and placed in the Camp du Ruchard. His wife lobbied to secure his release and the pair, and their children, then took ship from Lisbon to New York, arriving on New Year’s Eve 1940.

Settling into his new American home opened up a range of possibilities. On the one hand Vishniac was still deeply attached to the Jewish community in Europe. He lobbied on their behalf and the exhibition includes a letter he wrote in 1942 directly to President Roosevelt, including five photographs, asking him to intervene in Europe to save the Jews.

Professionally, he was able to recycle the immense archive of photos from Eastern Europe in a number of exhibitions designed to highlight their plight, including a 1944 show Pictures of Jewish Life in Prewar Poland which has a slot to itself here, featuring images from Warsaw, Lublin and Wilno, presented on their original display boards.

In 1945 he was given a second exhibition, Jewish Life in the Carpathians. Both were organised by the Yiddish Scientific Institute of Wilno which had also fled to New York.

In the same spirit Vishniac’s work was included in a 1947 book titled The Vanished World edited by Raphael Abramovitch.

It was these exhibitions, books, magazine articles and reviews which established Vishniac’s lasting reputation as the chronicler of the now-lost world of European Jewry.

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Immigrants, refugees and emigre life

But many had managed to flee and now found themselves in an alien land. The exhibition devotes a section to ‘immigrants, refugees, and New York Jewish community life 1941 to 47’.

Through the network of philanthropical agencies he had developed in Europe, Vishniac got work with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the National Refugee Society who paid for him to photograph new shiploads of refugees, and document their efforts to start a new life, and the inspiring work of Jewish social services and community groups.

Surprisingly, maybe, this section features many shots of children looking remarkably fit and healthy and well-fed. After the abject poverty of Eastern Europe, and then the miserable persecution of the Nazis, Visniac, along with many immigrants, wanted to accentuate the positive and make images of the new life in America full of youth, energy and optimism.

America at war 1941-44

Alongside these is a section where Vishniac applied the street photography skills he had honed in Berlin to New York, in a strikingly varied series of shots which include sequences shot in New York’s Chinese community, shoppers queueing for rationed food, women’s entry into the military, off duty soldiers, and so on.

Customers waiting in line at a butcher's counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Customers waiting in line at a butcher’s counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

New York life

In New York, Vishniac established himself as a freelance photographer and built a successful portrait studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He used his connections with the Jewish diaspora to secure portraits of eminent Jewish émigrés including Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall and Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon. These VIP shots helped to attract other dancers, actors, musicians and artists to his studio and provide a steady supply of work.

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Alongside the studio work, he began a new series of shots made on location in New York’s countless nightclubs, featuring jazz musicians, dancers, singers and performers in a variety of settings, playing or relaxing backstage. Fascinating and evocative.

Back to Europe

In 1947 Vishniac was again commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, this time to return to Europe and document refugees and relief efforts in Jewish Displaced Persons camps, recording a wide array of relief activities such as the distribution of food and clothing, education and so on

He also got the opportunity to return to Berlin, city of his young manhood, now reduced to rubble. The same locations which hummed with life in his Weimar photos are now rubble-strewn ruins and vacancies. Pitiful remnants.

Photomicroscopy

As if this large body of invaluable documentary and street photography wasn’t enough, Vishniac never lost interest in his first love, scientific photography. And once he was financially secure in America he was able to pick it up with renewed enthusiasm, especially in photography of the very small, or ‘photomicroscopy’.

This field became the primary focus of his work during the last 45 years of his life, till his death in 1990. By the mid-1950s, he was regarded as a pioneer in the field, developing increasingly sophisticated techniques for photographing and filming microscopic life forms.

Classic examples of Vishniac's photomicrography (all magnifications as noted on originals): A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac's thumb," colorization", x40, 1950s-1962. Mara Vishniac Kohn recalls her father slicing this specimen from his thumb. (Radzyner 2106B) B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10, 1950s-1962. C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100, 1950s-1970s. D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100, early 1950s-1970s © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

Examples of Vishniac’s photomicrography: A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac’s thumb, ‘colorization’, x40 (1950s-1962). B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10 (1950s-1962) C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100 (1950s-1970s) D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100 (early 1950s-1970s) © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

In 1961 Vishniac was appointed Professor of Biology Education at Yale University, and his groundbreaking images and scientific research were published in hundreds of magazines and books.

The exhibition includes a darkened room where you can watch a slide show of 90 blown-up transparencies from the 1950s to the 1970s, of Visniac’s full colour plates of scientific subjects – ranging from the cells of various organs in the body, to close-ups of fungal spores or of insect eyes. Nearby is a case displaying the actual microscope and lenses he used in this work.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Microscope and lenses used by Roman Vishniac in his photomicroscopy work

What an amazing life! What a breath-taking achievement! This is a wonderful exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other Photographers’ Gallery exhibitions

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

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

Liberty / Diaspora by Omar Victor Diop @ Autograph ABP

Autograph ABP is a lovely, big, open gallery space not far from Old Street tube station, devoted to exhibitions of photography by people of colour. It has just finished a ravishing exhibition by Senegalise photographer Omar Victor Diop, born 1980 in Dakar.

Thiaroye 1944 by Omar Victor Diop

Thiaroye 1944 by Omar Victor Diop

The ground floor exhibition space displays thirty beautiful digital photographs which feature Diop himself wearing the historical costumes of black people from defining moments in history. The photos are divided into two distinct projects:

Liberty: A Universal Chronology of Black Protest

This series reinterprets defining moments of historical revolt and black struggle in Africa and the diaspora. Diop dresses up as characters from key events such as the Alabama marches on Washington (Selma 1965), lesser-known resistance movements against colonial oppression in southeastern Nigeria (The Women’s War 1929) and the more recent Million Hoodie March in New York.

Selma 1965 by Omar Victor Diop

Selma 1965 by Omar Victor Diop

Diop appears as the main character throughout the series, but also – thank to modern digital wizardry – sometimes also appears multiple times, as African railway workers, French migrants, Second World War soldiers, Jamaican maroons and members of the Black Panther Party, as appropriate.

The Ibo Women's War 1929 by Omar Victor Diop

The Ibo Women’s War 1929 by Omar Victor Diop

The most immediately obvious thing about all the photos is how stunningly beautiful Diop is.

I took my teenage son to the exhibition with me and he agreed. He didn’t read any of the historic stories or references, he just enjoyed them as images in which an absolutely gorgeous young black man gets to dress up in lots of historical costumes.

Omar Ibn Said (1770-1864) by Omar Victor Diop

Omar Ibn Said (1770-1864) by Omar Victor Diop

Project Diaspora

The second series is titled Project Diaspora. Once again Omar dresses up and photographs himself in images quoting or parodying portraits celebrating four centuries of notable Africans in the diaspora.

These include:

  • Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), the abolitionist leader who was the most photographed person of his time
  • Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) a freed slave, writer and activist in London
  • St Bénédicte de Palermo (1526-1589), a saint in the Catholic and Lutheran church
  • Prince Dom Nicolau (c.1830-1860), the Congolese African leader
  • August Sabac El Cher (c.1836-1885), an early Afro-German soldier
  • Jean-Baptise Belley (1746-1805), who fought during the French Revolution, and so on
Jean-Baptiste Belley (1746-1805) by Omar Victor Diop

Jean-Baptiste Belley (1746-1805) by Omar Victor Diop

Each of these characters has an extensive wall label describing who they were and what they did and why they matter. For example,

Jean-Baptiste Belley was a native of Senegal, born on the island of Gorée and former slave of Santo Domingo in the West Indies who bought his freedom with his savings. During the period of the French Revolution, he became a member of the National Convention and the Council of Five Hundreds of France. He was also known as Mars. Original painting by Girodet.

I found it a struggle to assimilate so many diverse historical periods and events, and my son didn’t bother but just enjoyed the sheer beauty of Omar himself, captured in enormous photographs which are all composed with a strange, interplanetary calmness.

Installation view of Liberty/Diaspora by Omar Victor Diop

Installation view of Liberty/Diaspora by Omar Victor Diop

And the footballs? I wondered whether you’d notice that. In many of the historic poses the figure is holding a modern plastic football, often very prominent, brightly coloured and incongruous. Why?

In Diop’s own words:

‘Football is an interesting global phenomenon that for me often reveals where society is in terms of race. When you look at the way that the African football royalty is perceived in Europe, there is an interesting blend of glory, hero-worship and exclusion. Every so often, you get racist chants or banana skins thrown on the pitch and the whole illusion of integration is shattered in the most brutal way. It’s that kind of paradox I am investigating in the work.’

A beautiful young man dressed up in historical costumes and carrying a football. What more could you ask for in a photography exhibition?


Related links

Reviews of other Autograph shows

Review of photography exhibitions

The Murals of Diego Rivera by Desmond Rochfort (1987)

Diego Rivera:

  • painted murals from 1921 to 1957
  • painted literally hundreds of mural panels
  • covered more wall space with murals than anyone else in history

Whether you like the murals comes down to a couple of questions:

  1. do you like the rejection of almost all 20th century artistic sophistication in favour of a deliberately figurative, almost cartoon-like style?
  2. do you respond to the composition and layout and design of specific murals?
  3. do you like the political or ideological message of the murals?

The message

As to point 3 – the message – I take it that Rivera’s repeated themes that the Aztecs had a fine civilization until the killer Cortes massacred them all, that Mexican peasants are noble and pure but are tyrannised and brutalised by their Hispanic masters, and that unemployed striking workers are being beaten up by the police while the spoilt rich bourgeoisie swigs cocktails in evening dress – so that the workers must take up arms and stage a revolution to overthrow the regime – I take it none of these ideas come as news to anyone any more, or that anyone gets very excited about murals with titles like ‘This is how the proletarian revolution will be’.

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

Given the thousands of paintings, murals and statues of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin which festooned every space across the Soviet Union and eastern Europe for 70 years until its collapse in 1990… I take it no-one is excited by the image of Marx et al in a mural any more.

The opposite: all of Diego’s murals evoke a deep nostalgia for the long-lost period of the 1920s and 1930s when artists and poets and playwrights were all solidly left-wing, joined the Communist Party, made plays and poems and paintings and posters extolling the noble proletariat, confident that history was about to topple in their direction. How wonderfully certain they must have been.

Thinking about it, Rivera is very like Otto Dix, George Grosz and the other Weimar artists who used cartoons and caricature to express their seething anger at social injustice in the style which became known as The New Sobriety.

The only difference from them is in Rivera’s additional twin themes of colonisation and race. George Grosz didn’t have to go back to the era of the Reformation (1517) to explain 1920s Germany, but Rivera did have to go back to the Spanish conquistadors (1519) to explain 1920s Mexico.

The history of Mexico

Grosz didn’t feel compelled to draw a history of Germany; there were already countless histories of Germany; he was only interested in the corrupt and unfair present.

But Rivera did feel compelled to draw a history of Mexico, in fact he drew it again and again, because the meaning of Mexican history was still very fiercely contested in his age. After you get beyond the same kind of nostalgia for a simpler, more polarised and more politically charged artistic world that you get when you read Brecht or listen to Kurt Weill – after the purely proletarian concerns fade away – it is the multiracial and ethnographic aspects of Rivera’s imagery which sticks out.

The Ancient World by Diego Rivera (1935)

The Aztec World on the west wall of the National Palace of Mexico by Diego Rivera (1929)

After the initial burst of invention in the 1920s, what this book rather brings home is the repetitiveness of the imagery. Or, if a scholar argued that the actual images and compositions are amazingly diverse – maybe what I mean is the repetitiveness of the problem.

And the problem is – the meaning of Mexico. Where did it come from? Who are the Mexicans? What does it mean to be the joint heir of both the cruel Aztecs and the bloody conquistadors? When both sides very obviously had their shortcomings, which ones do you choose as your ancestors? Where is Justice? What – as Lenin said – is to be done?

The Ministry of Education murals 1922-28

Rivera’s first project was the biggest of his career, painting the walls of the galleries surrounding the two big courtyards of the Ministry of Education, which he renamed the Court of Labour and the Court of Fiesta. It took from 1923 to 1928 and by the end he’d created 235 panels or 1,585 square metres of murals.

At the same time he began a commission to paint a converted chapel at the new Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo. The earliest Education Ministry ones, like the entire Chapingo set, ones have a really primitive didactic feel. There are relatively few figures, carrying out archetypal actions set against a brown background. The influence of the early Renaissance is really visible: the bent figures of the mourning women entirely wrapped in their cloaks reminds me of Giotto.

'The Blood of the Martyrs' from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Blood of the Martyrs’ from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

In both sets of murals you immediately see that his central achievement was to heave the entire concept of mural painting from its religious origins – and even from the heavily ‘symbolic’ imagery used by some secular, monumental muralists at the end of the 19th century –  and to consciously, deliberately and powerfully, turn it into the depiction of an entire nation, of Mexico – through portrayals of its geographic regions, of its favourite fiestas and festivals, of its industry and agriculture, using compositions packed with people, characters, caricatures, satire and sentiment.

To me many of them have a medieval interest in crowds. They remind me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in their enjoyment of the variety and quirkiness of life – not forgetting that Chaucer’s variety also included bitter social satire, sentimental religiosity, and unquestioning praise of the medieval knightly code.

In just the same way Rivera features:

  • crowd scenes, whose pleasure derives from the sheer profusion of humanity, as in the village scenes of Brueghel
  • crudely bitter but still amusing social satire
  • revolutionary sentimentality – for example where a poor whipped peon is wrapped in a shroud or a fallen comrade is buried and the viewer is meant to choke back a sob of emotion
  • and throughout many of the murals runs unfettered praise for men draped in bandoliers and holding guns – revolutionaries, freedom fighters, guarantors of the Revolution etc.

The joy of crowds

The Day of The Dead - The Minitry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

‘The Day of The Dead’ from The Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

The mass, the throng, the diversity of life – like Breughel.

Political satire

The Wall Street Banquet form the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Wall Street Banquet’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

The rich are sat at table not to eat, but to read off a tickertape telling them the value of their stocks and shares. The bluntness of the idea and the grotesqueness of the faces remind me of George Grosz and other Weimar satirists who had been doing the same thing for eight years or more, just not on walls.

The noble poor

We are meant to compare and contrast the filthy rich with the noble poor, the liberated peasants, who live with simplicity and dignity. Eating what they grow themselves. For, as Zapata repeatedly said: the land belongs to he who tills it… and the fruits thereof.

Children. The elderly. All under the governance of the wise man, who is himself beholden to the female principle of the fruit of the soil, as worked by peasants (to the left) under the watchful gaze of a Party commissar (to the right).

'Our Bread from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

‘Our Bread’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

War is wrong

War is always wrong unless, of course, it’s your war, fighting for your cause.

Fighting in the imperialist war was, according to the Bolsheviks, foolishness. Not because there should be peace. But because workers of all lands should unite together to exterminate the bourgeoisie and other class enemies right across Europe, right around the world. A creed which certainly did lead to guerrilla and civil wars across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, for much of the 20th century.

'In the Trenches' at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

‘In the Trenches’ at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

Off to America

It is ironic that, as soon as Rivera had become famous as a bitingly anti-capitalist, communist artist, he was taken up by … super-capitalist, mega-rich Americans.

The Yankees invited him to do murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (1930-31) and Art Institute (1931), at the Ford motor works in Detroit (1932), and then at the Rockefeller Centre in New York (1933). At the same time as Diego was the subject of the Museum of Modern Art’s second ever one-artist retrospective.

God, how simply fabulous the super-rich New Yorkers and their wives in their diamonds and furs look as they arrived for the opening night party! How simply adorable the fire-breathing Communist Mexican turned out to be! And so witty! And did you talk to his simply delightful wife!

Just to make this point quite clear, the mural Rivera painted in San Francisco adorns the stairs leading up from the Stock Exchange itself to the Stock Exchange’s private luncheon club. The word ‘elitist’ is thrown around a lot by left-wing critics, but could a location be more restricted and elite?

But it was the murals he made in Detroit which Rivera himself considered the best he ever made. He was intensely professional about preparing the space, researching the engineering and technology of car manufacture, and then creating compositions which are awesome in scale, packed with detail, but so cunningly composed as to create a beautiful sense of rhythm and flow.

Crucially for the patron Edsel Ford, and the Art Institute which hosts them, and for admiring visitors generally, there is next to no political content in them whatsoever. They simply show men at work in modern factories, hymns to the marvel of modern technology.

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

The Detroit murals were followed by a falling-out with the owners of the Rockefeller Building who had commissioned a big mural in the lobby of their swanky new Manhattan skyscraper but cancelled it when Rivera insisted on painting in the face of Lenin.

With no other commissions in view, Diego reluctantly returned to Mexico in 1934 where he fell out with the government and devoted the rest of the decade to easel painting and political activism.

He only returned to mural painting in 1940 with the immense panorama of ‘Pan-American unity’ painted in America again, for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.

I think what this book shows is that far from showing ‘Mexico’ any clear political way ahead (there wasn’t, after all, anything like a Communist revolution in Mexico. In fact precisely the opposite, the bourgeois class consolidated its permanent grip on power by inventing a ‘big tent’ political party during the 1930s – the Institutional Revolutionary Party – designed to incorporate all political factions and classes and thus make elections and political parties unnecessary, and the PRI went on to rule Mexico without interruption until the year 2000) Rivera’s work really brings out and dramatises

  1. its history to date (along with the more garish aspects of the contemporary situation – rich versus poor – town versus country – peasant versus landowner – Marx versus Henry Ford)
  2. puts ordinary Mexicans, the peasants and farmers and soldiers and workers and priests and landowners and urban passersby – all of them – up on the wall to be seen and recognised as Mexican

I think this explains why modern, post-political, post-communist scholarly commentary prefers to dwell on what it calls issues of ‘identity’ rather than the more blatantly communist elements in Diego’s work. It’s safer.

Mexico as a maze

Looking at Rivera’s densely packed and colourful later works, from the 1940s and 1950s, makes you realise that Rivera certainly created a strong visual identity for his country and countrymen in the 1920s and 1930s – but then remained trapped in the maze of that Mexican history and, above all, snagged on the horns of that Mexican dilemma: are we European or Indian? Aztec primitivists or scientific rationalists? Workers or bosses? Mestizos or criollos?

To some extent you could argue that the very packed-out nature of his great interlocking mural of Mexican history which decorates the stairwells of the National Palace in Mexico City – the way Aztecs and conquistadors, knights and peasants, the contemporary Mexican government and the heroes of the 1910 revolution, are all combined in the same image – captures the overwhelming, confusing and directionless nature of Mexican history.

As this book admits, Rivera’s history pictures present ‘a history shorn of many of the qualifications and complexities associated with the historical transformation of Mexico’ (p.59). In other words, a historical fantasy.

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace, by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

There’s a great deal of ‘Where’s Wally’-type pleasure to be had from identifying different groups of characters in these vast paintings – and figuring out who they are and how they fit into the national story.

Rivera and his contemporaries, supported by some critics, often explained his socially conscious murals as the modern equivalent of Christian iconography. Just as the frescos of the Renaissance depicted key moments in the story of Christ and illuminated key ideas in Christian theology for an illiterate audience so, they argued, Rivera’s murals were designed as visual guides to the illiterate Mexican peasant and prole, explaining key moments of Mexican history, showing Karl Marx with his arm stretched out pointing towards a better future.

But to the casual observer, his vast panoramas of Mexican history (like the one shown above) just look like a mess. A confusing and perplexing gallimaufrey of historical events and figures all thrown together into an almost indecipherable crowd.

They become, if you like, charming illustrations for an already-educated bourgeoisie. you have to be already very well educated to understand what is going on in his murals.

Hence his wild success with – not just Americans – but the very richest of the richest Americans. He wasn’t feted by John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange – the socially conscious artists – in New York. He was adulated by the Rockefellers and the Guggenheims and the Astors.

Maybe it’s a simplistic thought, but it seems to me that the more sophisticated and complex Riviera’s murals became, the more they became popcorn, bubblegum cartoons, full of fascinating detail, but lacking the anger and energy of his earliest works.

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pure against impure

To dig a little deeper, comparing the background and enactment of the Mexico City murals against the American ones, and reading up about Rivera’s wild enthusiasm for America, the conclusion I draw is that – he liked America because it was so psychologically untroubled.

I know there had been forty years of rocky industrial relations since the 1890s, and a march of unemployed workers ended in shooting only weeks before Rivera arrived in Detroit to paint his mural there. But the Americans Rivera met were all full of national self-confidence, self-belief, untroubled by doubts. This was the exact opposite of the deeply troubled intellectual class in Mexico.

And, in my opinion, the reason for this is that the white Americans he met had essentially exterminated the native peoples in order to own the land and country. Nothing held them back. They were creating the American Dream free and untrammelled by negative thoughts or anxieties. As far as they were concerned it was a big empty space, ripe for the taking.

Whereas Mexico had been, and was still, held back by massive guilt for its colonial oppression, for the extermination of an obviously highly cultured civilisation. And Mexican intellectuals could never forget this fact because the majority of the Mexican population was mestizo or mixed race, in your face wherever you went, and almost all condemned to grotesque rural poverty.

The central problem of Mexican society – the land question – was an ongoing problem inherited from the Spanish, the systematic semi-slavery of the vast majority of the population of illiterate forced labourers, mostly descended from the original tribal peoples.

America didn’t have that problem, having very effectively exterminated its native peoples and not intermarried with them. Instead, Rivera met nothing but rich, confident, exuberant representatives of a boundlessly confident Master Race, carried along by the knowledge that they led the world in science and technology.

In other words, Rivera was a pioneering example of the Post-Colonial Predicament which trapped and challenged thousands of writers and artists, and tens of millions of subject peoples around the world, for much of the 20th century.

I think it’s this which makes Rivera truly revolutionary: not the slogans and pictures of Marx, but the fact that he struggled all his life to make sense of the mixed heritage of coloniser and colonised, struggling to reconcile two completely different histories, traditions, languages and ethnic identities. And if he didn’t really, in the end, succeed, it was an honourable failure and nonetheless produced a lifetime of wonderful, inspiring and fascinating public art.

The book

This is a large-format art book, containing just 104 pages, of which:

  • seven present a thorough chronology of Mexican history from Independence (1811) to the end of the reforming Cárdenas presidency in 1940, with many evocative b&w photos
  • one page carries a poem by Pablo Neruda
  • two pages of Bibliography
  • four of notes

Which leaves 81 pages of text, illustrated with about 30 contemporary black-and-white photos and 120 plates of the murals, of which 37 are in colour.

I found the text heavy going. It was written in 1987, which is a long time ago and people back then, especially academics in the humanities, still put a lot of faith in international communism. The text completely lacks the dry style, lively humour and interesting psycho-sexual speculation which makes Patrick Marnham’s biography of Rivera so enjoyable and thought-provoking.

A lot of the photos aren’t that great, and the black and white plates are quite small.

The book gives generous quotes from contemporaries, especially the other muralists of the day such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, and a highlight is the vitriolic attack which Siqueiros launched on Rivera in the mid-1930s, accusing Diego of selling out and becoming a bourgeois painter.

There is a lot of small detail, about minor murals missed by Marnham’s biography, and a number of sidebars pleasantly go off on a tangent from the main narrative with what are in effect little articles explaining all aspects of Mexican culture, which are diverting and often very interesting.


Related links

Related reviews

The Hard Way by Lee Child (2006)

‘Very tall, heavily built, like a real brawler. He’s in his late thirties or early forties. Short fair hair, blue eyes.’ (Patti Joseph’s description of Reacher, p.91)

You remember the way episodes of Friends were titled ‘The one with…’ and then specified the core element of that week’s show. You can do the same with the 22 Jack Reacher novels. This is the one where Jack is hired to solve a kidnapping, which turns out to be much more complicated than it seems, and takes him from the streets of New York to a farm in Norfolk.

The café He is sitting in a café in New York when he sees a guy cross the street, get into a Merc and drive off. Nothing special in that. Next morning he’s at the same café when he’s approached by a tough-looking man and persuaded to come with him to meet his boss, Mr Lane. Turns out Mr Lane’s wife has been kidnapped, the kidnappers demanded a million in cash to be left in a car at that location. Lane agreed, had one of his people fill a bag with a million, put it in the boot of the car and drive it to the arranged drop zone. This was the car which Reacher had watched the kidnapper cross the street, get into and drive away. Without knowing it or intending to be, Reacher is a key witness.

The mercenaries Reacher tells them what he knows. ‘Them’? Yes, Lane runs a group of mercenaries (‘a private military corporation’, p.450) tough ex-Army, ex-Marines, U.S. Navy SEALs, British SAS etc. In fact, Reacher analyses their plight so logically and compellingly that Lane hires him on the spot to be a consultant to help manage the situation.

But there is, of course, more to the situation than meets the eye. It takes about 450 pages for Reacher to nail the real story, pages during which he, as usual:

  • acquires a small circle of helpers and supporters
  • who just happen to have privileged access to FBI/Army/Homeland Security sources
  • and manages to wangle financial backing to pay for the endless taxis and trains and planes he needs to take

Not the first time Firstly, it turns out this is the second time a Lane wife has been kidnapped. His first wife, Anne, was kidnapped five years earlier and, although Lane paid the ransom, was found shot dead in New Jersey.

The Dakota Building Reacher quickly discovers that some people suspect the first kidnap was a front, a put-up job. Lane’s base is the famous Dakota Building, next to Central Park, where John Lennon lived and outside which he was shot (Yoko Ono and her bodyguards make a small appearance in the book, walking past Reacher in the lobby).

Patti Joseph Outside the building he is approached by the first wife’s sister, Patti. She is convinced the first kidnap was a sham, and that Lane had her sister murdered. As the book progresses Reacher uncovers the evidence to prove this is true. He discovers that Lane had instructed a member of his inner circle, Knight, who usually drove his wife around, to return to base and tell everyone he’d dropped her off shopping as usual – but in fact to take her out to New Jersey and shoot her. Then paid someone to fake the ransom calls.

Lane had his first wife murdered Why? The first Mrs Lane had come to realise that Lane was a psychopath, and had told him she wanted to leave him. Which hurt his ego so much he had her eliminated. Although Knight – who knew all this – was loyal to his boss, on the mercenaries’ next job – to defend the government of Burkina Faso in Africa, from rebels – Lane contrived a situation whereby he ordered Knight and his best friend among the mercenaries, Hobart, to hold a forward post against the advancing army. Lane then ordered his main force to retreat, abandoning Knight and Hobart to the African rebel soldiers. The aim was to ensure that Knight was killed and along with him the evidence of his wife’s murder. Hobart was just collateral damage.

Detective Brewer The first wife’s sister, Patti Joseph, tells Reacher all this. She has been keeping a close watch on the Dakota Building for years, photographing who goes in and out, keeping a log of the movements of all of Lane’s central circle of mercs, for years. Is that obsessive or is she onto something? She phones in her results to a NYPD detective named Brewer. When Reacher meets Brewer the latter admits that he humours Patti, partly because something might come of her efforts, mostly because she’s a pretty chick.

FBI agent Pauling Turns out that Brewer passes on Patti’s observations to a third party, Lauren Pauling, an ex-FBI agent who was part of the original FBI investigation of the kidnapping of Lane’s first wife and has felt oppressed by guilt for five years that her and her colleagues screwed up the investigation and allowed the first wife to be killed. She is still interested in the case because she hopes evidence will surface to prove that it was Lane who killed the first wife, and not the kidnappers who did it, because that would get the FBI and the cops off the hook for bungling the case.

So who is carrying out the current kidnapping, five years later, of the second Mrs Lane, Kate Lane, a tall, slender, blonde, beautiful model, and her daughter by a previous marriage, Jade (also ‘a truly beautiful child’, p.424)?

Pauling becomes Reacher’s sidekick Reacher develops a close working relationship with Pauling, now a freelance investigator. She has a useful contact in the Homeland Security administration (they always do). Pauling becomes the person Reacher bounces his theories and ideas off, and who accompanies him on his investigations around New York.

Investigations They investigate the house where the kidnapper insisted the keys to each of the cars containing ransom money be dropped through the letterbox. It turns out to be empty. After clever detective work the pair track down the apartment the kidnapper used to oversee the dropping off place for the ransoms. They then manage to locate the apartment where Kate and Jade were kept hostage – though it’s now empty.

The man who doesn’t speak For a long middle stretch of the book, based on eye-witness accounts of neighbours and people who sold the kidnapper bits of furniture, they establish his appearance (non-descript white male) but the standout fact is that he never talks. From several hints they develop the theory that the kidnapper can’t talk and from descriptions of what’s happened to other white mercenaries captures in Africa, they speculate this may be because his tongue was cut out by the rebels.

Africa They think the kidnapper was one of the two men Lane abandoned in Burkina Faso – Hobart or Knight. Using Pauling’s contacts in Homeland Security to identify people who’ve flown back from Africa recently, and then another contact with access to all kinds of security databases, they track down the apartment of Hobart’s sister, which turns out to be conveniently close to the café and to the ransom-money-dropping-off point in Downtown Manhattan.

There’s a very tense moment when they break into the shabby apartment building where Hobart’s sister lives, and climb the squeaking stairs, at pains to be silent in case the kidnapper they’re seeking hears them, and has time to harm or shoot his hostages, Kate and Jade.

Hobart So the reader is surprised and shocked when they kick open the apartment door and find …. a washed-out shabby woman, Hobart’s sister, making soup, and that Hobart himself is a limbless cripple propped up on the sofa.

It is Hobart, he was a member of Lane’s mercenary gang, he was abandoned by Lane, he was captured by the rebel African soldiers. He was held captive for five long years during which he barely survived the starvation and disease and, once a year, they brought him and other prisoners out of their cells into an arena of baying warriors, and asked whether they wanted their left hand, right hand, left foot, or right foot to be hacked off with a machete – and whether they then wanted the stump seared in boiling tar, or left to bleed out.

Which explains why Hobart is in his pitiful state, without feet or hands, a wretched withered stump of a man. Hobart is clearly not the kidnapper, or the man who rented the apartments or who Reacher saw drive away the ransom car right at the start.

But he does confirm that his fellow merc and prisoner, Knight, did carry out the execution of Lane’s first wife, under Lane’s instructions, then helped the fiction that it was a kidnap. So that part of Patti’s story is correct.

Reacher and Pauling have sex Later that night, Pauling expresses to Reacher what a vast relief it is to her, to have confirmed that it was not her professional screw-up which had led to the first wife’s death. The wife was dead before the FBI was even contacted. To celebrate, she and Reacher have his usual athletic, fighting-with-a-bear, championship sex.

She is now his lover, as well as his close associate in the investigation.

The Taylor theory The book sprinkles more dead ends and deliberate false trails for Reacher (and the reader) to work through -, but the main focus of their investigation now shifts to Taylor. This man was in Lane’s inner circle of mercenaries, and was the guy who drove Kate Lane to Bloomingdale’s on the day of the kidnapping. The assumption had been that he was killed almost immediately by someone who got into the stationary car and pointed a gun at the women, forced Taylor to drive wherever they wanted him to go and then killed him.

Child has planted this false version of events in our minds by having Reacher ask not one but two of Lane’s mercs to speculate how they think the kidnapping went down, and both think it happened like that. This version of events had also been confirmed when Pauling’s cop contact, Brewer, told her that the body of a white man had been found floating off a dock in mid-town Manhattan.

Now Pauling and Reacher revisit this story and the first thing they establish is that the ‘floater’ is not Taylor. Wrong height to begin with. Taylor is still alive.

So now Pauling and Reacher develop the theory that Kate and Jade were kidnapped by a disgruntled member of Lane’s inner circle, Taylor, the very driver entrusted with their safety. He pulled out a gun, told her and Jade to shut up, drove them to a safe house, tied them up, made the ransom phone calls and picked up the money. Taylor will have needed an associate, so Reacher and Pauling spend a lot of time thinking through who that could be.

Reacher and Lane In case I haven’t made it clear, all this time – throughout this entire process – Reacher is still nominally under contract to Lane to find the kidnappers. At that first meeting in the Dakota Building, Lane offered Reacher a payment of $25,000 to find Kate and the kidnapper. Reacher is free to go off and roam the city, make his own investigations, contact whoever he likes – but periodically he has to go back to Lane’s apartment, filled with half a dozen surly mercs, and update the boss on progress.

Thus Reacher is sitting with the others when the ransom demand phone calls come through to Len’s apartment. He sits with the others when the second call comes through asking for confirmation that Lane has the cash, and then giving details of the pickup. And then he sits in suspense with the others waiting for a confirmation call that the money has been received, and – hopefully – that Kate is going to be released.

The character of Lane and the mercs Since the kidnapper ends up calling for three separate payments, there are three of these very tense scenes. They also gives Reacher plenty of time to get to know Lane, to witness his psychotic rages, and to see the hold he has over the other mercs. These are strong, well-trained men but each of them, in fact, was a failure in the military, in various ways in need of being led, and prepared to do anything for The Boss.

When there is no call-back after the third and final payment is made, Reacher along with the others begins to fear the worst. That the kidnapper has killed the girls and fled. Child reiterates this idea again and again, having Reacher emphasise that, in his experience, the majority of kidnappings end in the murder of the victims, and that the first 24 hours are key. Every hour after that increases the likelihood of failure.

A bounty on Taylor As the truth sinks in that the girls are probably dead, Lane increases the bounty he will pay Reacher to $1 million. Since he has kept Lane informed of his investigations up to the dismissal of Knight and Hobart as suspects, Lane, Reacher, Pauling and the reader all now think the kidnapping was carried out by Taylor the driver, who faked his own death, held the women hostage in Downtown Manhattan, collected the money three times, killed them, and has now absconded.

Reacher now clicks into Revenge Mode. He knows Lane is a louse, a psychopath who probably had his first wife murdered and abandoned his men to terrible fates in Africa. So he’s not doing it for Lane. He vows to track down Taylor for the sake of the women, for Kate and Jade. In the apartment they have now identified as Taylor’s, which they found empty and abandoned, Reacher noticed one of the speed dial phone numbers was to a number in Britain. He guesses it’s of a close relative.

The novel moves to England

All this has taken about 350 pages. For the last 150 pages of the novel the setting switches to England, for 20 or so pages to London, but then on to rural Norfolk, where Pauling and Reacher track Taylor down to his sister’s farm.

We know that Child – real name James Grant – is himself English. We know that he lives in New York, so we can guess that the extremely detailed descriptions of Reacher and Pauling’s investigative walks around Downtown Manhattan reflect Child’s own detailed knowledge of the area.

It adds a different, not exactly literary but psychological element – maybe a hint of tongue-in-cheek – to the English section of the book, to know that Child is himself English, but pretending to write as an American. So every description in this section is written by an Englishman masquerading as an American writing about a fictional American trying to pretend to fit in with the local Brits.

Thus Child’s description of Reacher walking into a rural pub in Norfolk is layered with ironies, as the Englishman Child imagines what it would be like for an American like Reacher to walk into a pub, and then to try and remember his own (Reacher’s own) days in the U.S. Army when he was stationed in England. All this results in Reacher ordering ‘a pint of best’ while his New York colleague and lover, Pauling, is made to point out all the quaint quirks and oddities of English life.

(The two most notable of these are that a) all the streets are absolutely festooned with signs and painted symbols giving instructions about every element of your driving, ‘the nanny state in action’ and b) London is a vast octopus extending its tendrils into the country for miles and miles, making it impossible to get into or out of at any speed. Both true enough.)

Reacher has been promised $1 million if he can deliver Taylor to Lane. Through British police contacts Reacher and Pauling track down Taylor, confirming he took a flight from New York JFK, arrived at Heathrow and then – using a different line of investigation – establish the whereabouts of his sister.

How? Using the speed dial phone number Reacher had noticed in Taylor’s New York apartment. This locates Taylor’s sister to a farm in Norfolk. Reacher and Pauling hire a car and drive there, locate the village, and the farm, and park in the early morning with binoculars, waiting for Taylor, his sister, her husband and little girl to exit the farmhouse, which they conveniently do a few hours later.

Reacher had already alerted Lane that he has confirmed that Taylor is in England, and so Lane and his crew are en route on a transatlantic flight. Sighting and identity confirmed, Reacher and Pauling drive back to London to meet Lane and his goons in the Park Lane hotel.

Lane doesn’t just want to kill Taylor. He explains how he is going to torture him slowly to death. Reacher is revolted by the psychopath, as ever. A few seats away in the lobby of the hotel, a mother is trying to quiet down her restless squabbling kids. One of them throws an old doll at her brother, which misses and skids across the floor, hitting Reacher’s foot. He looks down at it and has a blinding revelation.

The twist

In a flash Reacher realises what has been wrong with the investigation all along. In a blinding moment he realises he has made a seismic error of judgement and that his entire understanding of the case is not only wrong, but catastrophically wrong.

Why? What vital clues have he and Pauling (and the reader) missed in the last 400 pages? What can it be which totally transforms the situation? Why does he excuse himself from Lane for a moment, walk as if to the toilets, but instead hurtle down into the underground car park, call Pauling to meet him, jump into the hire car, and then drive like a maniac all the way back to Norfolk?

What is the real secret behind the kidnapping of Kate and Jade Lane?

That would be telling. It’s an expertly constructed book with many twists and false trails, tense moments, and sudden surprises. I read it in a day. Take it on your next long train or plane trip or to read by a pool. It is gripping, intelligent and – in much of its factual research (about mercenaries, about the coup in Africa) informative.


Credit

All quotes from the 2011 paperback edition of The Hard Way by Lee Child, first published in 2006 by Bantam Press.

Related links

Reviews of other Jack Reacher novels

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