The Outward Urge by John Wyndham (1959)

‘The Troon urge to get out into space…’ (George Troon, part 4)

The Outward Urge brought to an end John Wyndham’s run of four deeply imagined, powerful and classic science fiction novels, The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids, The Midwich Cuckoos. Each of them is an absolute masterpiece, leaving vivid images and thought-provoking speculations etched in your memory. With the exception of Chrysalids a key aspect of the other three is the way they are set on earth, in the present day, and show the reaction of absolutely normal, run-of-the-mill people to catastrophic or eerie incidents. The homeliness of the settings, and of the often fairly banal husband-and-wife relationships at the core of them (Kraken and Cuckoos in particular) makes them fantastically plausible. Into the lives of everyday people erupt the most extraordinary events.

The Outward Urge brought that cracking run of form to an abrupt end in several ways. For a start, it is not set on earth nor among ordinary people, nor does it feature the same group of characters. The Outward Urge consists of five long chapters or parts, each one set precisely 50 years further into the future, each one describing a progressive step as humankind explores the solar system. The five parts are:

  1. 1994 – The Space Station
  2. 2044 – The Moon
  3. 2094 – Mars
  4. 2144 – Venus
  5. 2194 – The Emptiness of Space

How to link these different stories across time and space? Wyndham adopts a tried-and-tested solution – he has the main protagonists of each part be members, descendants, of the same family, the Troon family.

The tone, the settings, the treatment, the splintered episodes, pretty much everything about the novel, made it feel so different from its four classic predecessors that Wyndham’s publishers felt compelled to tell the buying public that the book was a collaboration with an entirely fictitious personage they made up for the purpose and named Lewis Parkes.

One. 1994 – The Space Station

The first part opens with Flight Lieutenant George Montgomery Troon being interviewed for a job on the new space station the British are building to orbit the earth. The point of the interview is to situate us in the narrative, establish the theme of space travel and also to give us Troon’s backstory, for we learn that his grandfather was a fighter pilot during the war, indeed served with the man giving the interview, Air Marshal Sir Godfrey Wilde. Thus Wilde detects in the young man before him precisely that drive to escape earth’s bounds, to fly free, which he saw in his grandfather. Both of them are familiar with some lines from a poem by Rupert Brooke which are to be repeated by successive characters throughout the book. It’s the last two lines of this verse:

But I, remembering, pitied well
And loved them, who, with lonely light,
In empty infinite spaces dwell,
Disconsolate. For, all the night,
I heard the thin gnat-voices cry,
Star to faint star, across the sky.

Just to make the thing utterly clear, young GMT is made to say he thinks a job on the space station would be a stepping stone. Really, asks the Air Marshal, stepping stone to what?

‘I don’t really know, sir. Outwards, I think. There’s a sort of sense I can’t explain … a kind of urge onwards and outwards. It is not a sudden idea, sir. It seems always to have been there, at the back of my mind…

Which prompts the Air Marshall to reminisce about the boy’s grandfather, who he knew when he was his age:

‘He had that feeling, too. He flew because that was as far outwards as we could get in those days – as far as most of us ever expected to get. But not Ticker. I can remember even now the way he used to look up at the night sky, at the moon and the stars, and talk about them as if it were a foregone conclusion that we’d be going out there some day – and sadly, too, because he knew that he’d never be going out there himself… If there’s one thing that’d make him as pleased as Punch, it’d be to know that his grandson wants to go “out there”.’

Well, there you have the theme of the entire book in a nutshell, as well as one of its weaknesses. Apart from the fragmentation into five parts and so the fact that you don’t get continuity of either settings or characters across the book, there’s the tone –it’s phenomenally posh! Grandfather Troon was clearly one of the ‘long-haired boys’, posh 20-somethings who fought during the Battle of Britain, the grandson is a chip off the old block, and all the people he and his descendants meet are similarly correct and proper, well brought up chaps.

This becomes clear when the scene cuts to a few months later and young George Montgomery is helping with the construction of the new British space station in orbit round the earth. They know the Americans have built one and think the Russians have also got one. Suddenly the complex but boring tasks of putting on space suit, powering over to the latest area of construction, tethering yourself to the main accommodation unit with a safety rope and starting the arduous work of construction is interrupted by warning that some kind of object is closing with the station fast.

To cut a long story short it is a self-targeting missile packed with explosives. It has almost certainly been sent by the Russians to blow up ‘our’ space station. On its first pass it misses, passing between the accommodation unit and the half-built station but it snags on numerous safety lines including George Montgomery’s. The rocket goes so far beyond the station, then slows and turns around ready for a second go. George Montgomery is in radio contact with the station commander who tells him to disentangle himself and return to the accommodation block.

‘Ticker, do you hear me? Bale out!’ repeated the Commander.

‘No point in doing that,’ replies George, ‘if the whole station is going to be blown up a few moments later’. No, George heroically disobeys orders and uses the few tools which haven’t been shaken off into space to try and disable the rocket. As it begins to gather pace heading straight for the accommodation block, a happy blow from George hits some kind of sensor and the rocket detonates harmlessly in space. George gave his life to further ‘the outward urge’.

Fortunately for the story, he had received news only a few days earlier that his wife back on earth had given birth to a son.

Two. 2044 – The Moon

Cut to fifty years later and we are at the well-established British moon station looking out over the bleak, atmosphereless, grey and rocky lunar landscape. George Montgomery’s son is now exactly 50 years old and commander of the moon station but he is not popular with his crew. Is it because many think his being the son of the hero who saved the space station all those years ago means the authorities unfairly bent the rules, which usually mandate than anyone in the force aged over 45 is forced to return to earth? Partly, yes. But mostly it’s because of his passive response to the massive nuclear war ravaging the earth!!!

Yes, the story opens with the commander and the base doctor looking out one of the base’s observation windows up at the earth in the sky and wondering what is going on there, on day 10 of a global nuclear war!

This is interesting to me less because of the story as such, but because of this further evidence of the profound hold the Cold War had on Wyndham’s imagination. Throughout Kraken Wakes and Cuckoos there are references to the other side, the other chaps, Ivan, the Russians and so on because some of the characters are convinced the central event is some kind of attack by the Soviets. There is a steady pressure, in Kraken in particular, of the narrator’s anger and satire directed at the Soviets, at the continual threat of war hidden behind laughable rhetoric about peace and fraternity. Going once step further, the whole of The Chrysalids is set centuries after a catastrophic nuclear war has devastated North America. Scattered throughout the novels and the short stories is the repeated thought that, since both sides acquired nuclear weapons, mankind has been walking a tightrope, with the permanent anxiety that it might fall off at any moment.

So, to recap, of the five parts of this novel, part one is about an armed Russian missile attack on a British space station – we learn that subsequently Britain, America and Russia not only built armed space stations but scattered close-earth space with mines and boobytraps – and part two is about not just a few missiles but a full-on nuclear war.

Although the book’s stated aim is to describe the ‘outward’ urge to explore space which supposedly runs through the blood of half a dozen generations of the Troon family, the actual weight of the story is about unending conflict and war. The Outward Urge is a really bland, anodyne title for what could, more accurately, have been described as The Warlike Urge.

Anyway, 2044’s George Montgomery Troon (known as Michael) is not popular with his crew because he has not got involved with the devastating nuclear war which has been raging back on planet earth for ten days as the story starts. The moon British station houses quite a few nuclear missiles, as Troon concedes in the conversation with the base’s woman doctor,  Ellen, but, after making a token gesture of firing off nine light missiles early in the war, Troon has taken no further part and fired no further missiles, which has brought almost the entire crew of the moon station to the point of mutiny.

But how could he intervene? he asks the doctor. He has received no instructions. Perhaps there’s no one left to issue instructions. Ellen tells him the moon base crew think it’s because he’s a coward. More than that, that Troon is putting his own personal obsession with ‘the outward urge’ i.e. preserving the safety of the moon station against possible retaliation and ensuring it remains a stepping stone to the stars, ahead of serving his country.

Following this opening conversation, Michael defuses this possible mutiny by calling in his two sub-commanders and handing over records of all communications from earth – there they’ll see that no orders at all have been received re. the missiles.

Immediate threat defused, MIchael dons his scarlet space suit and goes for a moon walk of long, leaping low-gravity steps. He stops and looks back at the moon station and this is the trigger for a series of reminiscences which give the backstory to his rise to be moon commander: we are told how he lobbied the UK government to build one, was careful not to appear too pushy and so handed out suggestions to colleagues and experts to present solutions to various technical problems, to try and create a broad front of scientists and visionaries pushing for its construction.

This is all very chatty and features upper-middle-class passages where he’s called in by civil servants and carpeted for writing articles saying that if Britain doesn’t build a moon station it will amount to admitting that our great days are behind us. Terrible bad form, old boy. But Michael knows how to play the system.

I think all this is meant to be fleshing out the central idea of the psychological ‘outward urge’ to explore space, but what comes over most powerfully through all of it is the intense militarisation of everything. Even the British moon station, when it’s finally built, features a system of computer-controlled missiles. The missiles come first. War is on everyone’s minds.

After this passage of backstory, we return to the present, and Michael snaps out of his reveries, making giant moon-leaps back to the moonbase and so to bed. He’s woken by alarms going off and the news that two UFOs are approaching the base. Everyone goes onto red alert and a patrol is sent out with – get this – machine guns! Michael gives the fatherly advice to the patrol (over the radio) that you need to be lying down or braced against a rock to fire a machine gun on the moon or the recoil will send you somersaulting backwards. Just this small example makes you realise how much Wyndham is thinking about space as a conventional warzone and the moon bases more like army barracks.

Anyway, the approaching objects turn out to be two Russian jet ‘platforms’ with half a dozen men on each. Tension builds for a bit but in the event they land peacefully, hold up their hands in the universal gesture of surrender, and ask to be admitted to the base. Why? Because they are the last survivors of the Russian moonbase which has been destroyed.

After a big meal, ten hours sleep, and another big meal, the Russian party’s leader, General Alexei Goudenkovitch Budorieff, of the Red Army, tells the story of their base’s fate. As soon as the war broke out on earth there was a spate of tit for tat attacks between the Russian and American moonbases and their orbiting satellites.

The Russian satellite scored a direct hit on the American base which went radio silent. But a little while later the General was surprised to find the Russian moonbase under attack from peculiar robots on wheels. These were obviously a new-fangled American weapon and had been programmed to attack even after the American moonbase was destroyed.

The General’s account of the attack by the robots on wheels which appear to have been programmed to move in random and unpredictable ways, is gripping in a comic book sort of way, in fact the entire novel is interesting, clearly written, well structured, focused on action and very readable, very entertaining.

But, unlike his big four novels, the actual subjects – space stations, moonbases, sudden attacks, war, robots, guns – feel like they have been done to death elsewhere, in a thousand schoolboy comics or TV shows (Space 1999UFO).

The boom-boom punchline of this episode comes when the General reveals that he knows the secret of the British moonbase. As we have been told, Troon’s crew are furious that he has not fired off the base’s nuclear missiles to help in the general war, but Troon is startled to learn that the smiling Russian General knows why. It is because the British moonbase has no more missiles. It only ever had nine light ones and after they were sent… the cupboard was bare.

Britain is already a third-rate power – the theme mentioned earlier in this section, in Troon’s exchanges with toffee-nosed civil servants. The General explains that Russian intelligence has known for years and years that the British moonbase presented little or no threat. All the better for him, because he (the General) was relieved knowing that at least he wouldn’t receive orders to nuke the helpless little British moon base.

In any case, he says, it’s important that the British base survives because no-one will have won this dreadful war but it’s important that at least one moonbase survives as a stepping stone to the next stage, to further exploration. Troon smiles. This Russian, it would appear, also shares that ‘outward urge’.

Three. 2094 – Mars

In a bid to vary the pace and tone Wyndham has this section told by a first-person narrator. Early on he introduces himself as:

Trunho. Capitão Geoffrey Montgomery Trunho, of the Space Division of the Skyforce of Brazil, lately of Avenida Oito de Maio 138, Pretario, Minas Gerais, Brazil, America do Sul. Citizen of the Estados Unidos do Brasil, aged twenty-eight years. Navigator, and sole- surviving crew-member, of the E.U.B. Spacevessel, Figurão.

We quickly learn that ‘Geoff’ is writing his account in extremis. He is the only survivor of the first manned space flight to Mars. This whole section is his detailed account of the buildup to, and tragic outcome of, the ill-fated voyage.

He says he’ll write up his account as fully as he can then leave it as an official record to be found along with the ship and its corpses. Interestingly for the usually stiff-upper-lip Wyndham he has Geoff admit that he has been through a period of mental collapse, hysteria and breakdown before he’s returned to his senses and been able to write the account we are now reading. A little taste of J.G. Ballard.

He starts with the aftermath of what, we learn, became known as The Great Northern War of 2044. While the superpowers destroyed each other, Geoff’s grandfather was with his family bunkered down in the family bolthole in Jamaica. In the aftermath of the war, his grandfather and grandmother did a review of the situation. North America, Europe and Russia were radioactive wastelands. China had been part-damaged and was dirt poor. India was weakened by its internal squabbles. Africa was poor and violent as usual. Therefore it looked to them as though South America would emerge as the new economic powerhouse of the world, and either Argentina or Brazil were its largest economies, so… they bet on Brazil and moved the family there.

His grandfather had been working on the British moon project when the war struck and so was now appointed leader of part of Brazil’s space project. He also led diplomatic missions and became a citizen. As to the next generation, the narrator’s father graduated from the University of Sao Paulo in 2062 with a Master’s degree in Extra-Terrestrial Engineering, and then spent several years at the government testing-station in the Rio Branco. He designed various types of space freighter. The motive for all this planning to go into space was simple: metals and metal earths, vital for manufacturing, were set to run out on earth. The only source would be the moon and other planets.

So it was that the narrator followed in his father’s footsteps, taking his degree at Sao Paulo, attended the Skyforce Academy, and was duly commissioned into the Space Division. He volunteered for the mission to Mars. The rocketship Figurão blasts off with a crew of three and docks with the space station circling round the earth, the very one his great-great-grandfather helped to build back in the first story.

All of this optimism comes crashing to a halt within minutes of them landing on Mars. The three-man crew are just unbuckling and looking out the portholes when the entire ship lurches violently to one side. The narrator is flung onto his couch and clings onto it but the other two crew members are thrown violently across the cabin as it tilts over.

When it finally settles at 90 degrees from the vertical, Geoff tentatively lets go his couch and makes his way to the other two astronauts and discovers Raul, the navigator, was pitched hard against the instrument panel and a lever when straight through his temple killing him instantly. The radio is utterly smashed. The other member of the crew, Camilo, has been knocked unconscious but when Geoff revives him a few minutes later, he talks nonsense. Geoff helps him to his couch where he passes out again, then has the grisly task of manhandling the body of Raul into the airlock, then out onto the surface where he digs a hole and buries him. In doing so he discovers the surface of Mars is like a brittle crust over a honeycomb of holes. The pressure of their spaceship broke through the crust and one of the supporting legs has disappeared entirely into the hole.

As Geoff laboriously re-enters the ship he finds Camilo awake and his first words set the tone for the rest of the story:

‘Very cunning lot, you Martians,’ he remarked.

Camilo’s bang to the head has knocked him silly. To be precise, he is convinced that Mars is full of almost invisible aliens, which move very fast, are always just out of eyeshot, continually flickering just at the corner of your vision. Camilo is convinced that while he was outside burying Raul, Geoff’s body was invaded by a Martian and now he’s a Martian too, and he’s in on their clever plot to radio earth for help, then to take over that rescue spaceship too and, ultimately, to return to earth and invade it.

Nothing Geoff can do can shake Camilo’s paranoid conviction. They eat and drink, rest, have a go at repairing the radio, but throughout it all Camilo smiles knowingly at how cleverly the Martian is mimicking old Geoff’s mannerisms, or he stands at the sideways porthole, his eyes continually flickering as he tries to catch hold of those pesky Martians!

Geoff unpacks the ‘platform’ and power packs and goes on several exploratory journeys, collects rock specimens and so on, but if there’s one thing which comes over in this section it’s the terrible feeling loneliness and fear. He describes the planet as being not just dead, sterile, red and empty, but its emptiness being like a positive force, a power, an oppressive presence.

Returning from one excursion Geoff discovers that Camilo has locked the airlock. He has a key and tries to undo it manually, but Camilo uses the electronic override. He is still able to access the cargo hold and takes out a tent and provisions. He can make the tent airproof and secure, and use it as a space to eat food. But the story is quite upsetting and describes his mounting panic. Fear prowls outside his tent like an alien animal. He is trapped, there’s only a limited amount of air, even if he can get back into the ship, what the hell can they do?

The situation is resolved for him when he is startled to feel the rumble of the retro rockets firing on the space ship. First of all Camilo tries firing the retros on the side of the ship which has sunk into Mars’s surface to try and restore the ship to its proper angle, but the landing leg obstinately refuses to come up out of its hole.

Then Geoff watches in horror as Camilo fires the main drive. Instead of returning the ship to the vertical, this has the effect of firing it across the surface of the planet, with its subterranean landing leg creating a great furrow like a ploughshare. Then suddenly it breaks free of the surface and through a tremendous cloud of red dust Geoff sees it rise a little into the air, then drop onto the surface, then bounce up again and now it is spinning at great speed, then drop again, hidden by the great dust storm, bounding like a football, till it eventually comes to a crushing halt.

Geoff cringes waiting for an explosion but none comes. Some of the retro rockets are still firing and he waits hours until these finally sputter and die. By now the dust has quite subsided and Geoff uses his ‘platform’ to jet the 3 or so miles over to the ruined spaceship. The legs and external aspects are all wrecked but the main body is still intact. He uses his airlock key to get in and discovers the grisly remains of Camilo’s mangled body. He manages to haul it into the airlock and outside and buries it.

But then he goes nuts. Quite a long period passes of which he has no memory. He tried to fix the radio and eventually awoke sane again to discover he’d arranged all the lights to shine out the portholes as if to ward off something – the Martians, his own terrors? He clearly went off his head.

Now he comes to the end of this account, but can feel the oppressive silence and loneliness moving in again, coming for him. He has food for three years but doubts if he will last that long, psychologically. His journal ends by asking whoever finds it to give the enclosed letter to his wife, his beloved Isabella. It is quite a harrowing nihilistic tale.

Four. 2144 – Venus

It is fifty years and several more generations of Trunhos later. We learn that Geoff definitely did die on Mars, as per the end of the previous section. We learn that there wouldn’t have been a second expedition there unless Grandpa Gonveia and his pals had pressed for it in 2101. The third expedition, in 2105, was financed entirely by public subscription, and since then no one has set foot on Mars.

We learn that the Trunho family has multiplied and divided, with numerous uncles and aunts and cousins. I found this aspect a bit confusing. Here’s the protagonist of this part, George Troon, explaining it to a colleague:

my grandfather, Geoffrey Trunho, died on the first expedition to Mars, he left three children: Anna, George, and Geoffrey, my father, who was born either posthumously, or at least after his father reached Mars. My Aunt Anna subsequently married one Henriques Polycarpo Gonveia – old man Gonveia, in fact – she emigrated with him to Australia, and Jayme is their son.

To everyone’s surprise, Mars did yield some life forms, small growths of vegetation growing deep in the fissures and cracks Geoff noticed on that first trip. Gonveia has commercially exploited them because they turn out to be viable ways of regreening the world’s deserts. His son Jayme has become a pioneer in this field.

The George of these three children remained in Brazil and had a son, Jorge Trunho who is now a Commander in the Space Force.  Geoffrey, the protagonist’s father, was sent to Australia to school, back to Sao Paulo university, then went back to Australia where he married a shipowner’s daughter. He was in Durban South Africa when there was the ‘Second African Rising’ and he was accidentally killed. His mother went back to Australia with him, a small baby, and changed her name back to the ancestral Troon.

So this rather convoluted narrative explains why this story features three cousins: George Troon, a Jorge Trunho, and a Jayme Gonveia, who is half Troon, half Gonveia.

To try and cut a long story short, many nations are bored of Brazil’s claim to own all of space, and of its self-important motto ‘Space is a province of Brazil’. And Brazil has neglected it, anyway: They abandoned the smallest Satellite back in 2080. In 2115 they abandoned another, keeping only Primeira in commission. In 2111 a newspaper and radio campaign on the neglect of space forced them into sending the first Venus expedition which was so badly equipped it was never heard from after it had entered the Venus atmosphere.

So Jayme Gonveia steps in, goes to visit his cousin George Troon (the central figure of the story) in Australia and persuades him to lead a project, unofficially connived at by Aussie authorities, to develop a space programme.

A year before the story starts, George led a team of ten aboard spaceship Aphrodite to Venus. It was tricky manoeuvring to find somewhere to land since most of Venus turned out to be ocean, with hard-to-detect areas of very low-lying land which, on examination, turned out to be mostly mud and mangrove. Anyway, they finally found a firm setting, landed and set up a base. A series of supply shuttles followed, which they directed to their landing site by radio control, and which allowed them to expand and solidify it, supplies of oxygen and food.

The thrust of the story is that news eventually leaks out about this outrageous infringement of Brazil’s exclusive rights to space in Brazil itself where there is political fury, a storm in the press, and the government immediately institutes its own mission to Venus.

And thus it is that the story actually opens with the members of the Venus expedition, safely arrived on the planet and having created a secure base amid the endless rainstorms and fog, on the tough matting which appears to cover the few ‘islands’ which can be discovered in the vast sea which covers the planet, discussing how long it will be before Brazil realises someone else has been cheeky enough to intrude into ‘their’ province.

To be precise, leading character George Troon, discusses it with his number two, Arthur Doggett. Inserted into this conversation is a page long summary of Brazil’s own colonisation by the Portuguese and the squabble between the Portuguese and Spanish about who should control the ‘new world’ which the pope was called on to arbitrate with the Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494. Notice anything about that date? It’s exactly 500 years before our novel begins, 650 years before the setting of this part. Hold that thought. In fact George goes on to explain to Doggett, that the treaty was soon outmoded because, although the Spanish and Portuguese both claimed to hold this or that vast domain, in most of the world outside the Americas they only held small enclaves and were soon superseded by the French, the Dutch and the British.

What follows is silly really, it trivialises space travel and feels like a throwback to the raygun short stories Wyndham wrote for bubblegum sci fi magazines in the 1930s. Basically, the George Troon mission waits for the Brazil mission to arrive a year later. Once again I was surprised at the silliness of the way the Troon mission men monitor the arrival of the Brazil mission and send out their men in a fan shape to cover it with weapons, with a view to seizing the crew and ship, as if it was a small military engagement on earth, instead of everyone in space suits in an extremely hostile alien environment.

Anyway, the Troon crew are in fact outwitted. They present the Brazil spaceship with an ultimatum, saying they have the ground covered and will shoot if they try to leave their spaceship, and they have placed a bale of TNT underneath the ship so if it attempts to blast off, it will blow up. After a day or so delay, the Brazil ship pretends to have had a mutiny, led by the second in command, no other than George’s cousin, Space Commander Jorge Manoel Troon. But when the mutineers invite Troon’s men aboard there turns out to be no mutiny at all, and the Brazilians seize and disarm the Troon gang, lock them up in the ‘brig’, turn the rocket round and head back to earth so they can be punished somehow.

But there’s a further twist. When this ship arrives at the space station orbiting earth it is, in its turn, disarmed and taken over by people on the side of the Troon / Australian mission, led, of course, by the mission’s sponsor, Jayme Gonveia. He opens the door of the ship after it’s docked with the earth space station and reveals that he had infiltrated this and the other space stations with his men and had turned disaffected Brazilians.

George still gets the wrong end of the stick and thinks Jayme wants to declare space a province of Australia, now. No no no, Jayme smiles. He is going to declare space an independent country.

‘On the contrary, George. If you will consider the original raison d’être of the Satellites and the Moon Station, I think you will see that space, as an entity, is in an excellent position to propose terms. One day it may be in a position to do a useful trade, but until then, it can at least be the policeman of the world – and a policeman is worthy of his hire.’

So 2144 becomes the year ‘Space’ declared its Independence from earth.

Five. 2194 – the Emptiness of Space

The narrator of the fifth and final part is David Myford from Sydney. As a throwaway bit of background he mentions that it is 2199 and Gilbert Troon is leading an exploration party which is pushing its way up Italy to see if anything remains, if it can be reclaimed. It’s really… odd, unusual, disturbing, that a central theme of this book is that in the future earth will be utterly devastated by a catastrophic nuclear war. With Chrysalids that makes two novels this topic appears in.

Anyway, the thrust of this story is this. The narrator visits new Caledonia in the Pacific. He explains that the new nation of ‘Space’, declared by Jayme Gonveia, needed some kind of toehold on earth and so did a deal with the tiny Pacific islands of New Caledonia. Most of the island has retained its idyllic 20th century charm, but a fifth or so has been cordoned off and turned into a high-tech space centre, regularly launching rockets.

Anyway, the story is by way of being a kind of ghost story. In fact, given its churchy, spiritual vibe, it has a slightly Graham Greene feel to it. What happens is this, Myford is passing time at a nice outdoor cafe in the sun when he is invited to join a middle-aged man, they chat, order some lunch, begin to get to know each other. He is clearly a well-known figure, some of the other lunchers take an interest and nod approvingly as they chat. But then the conversation takes a very earnest turn, as the other man starts talking about souls, lost souls, his soul, he had hoped Myford might be able to help him with his soul, apparently not, oh well, no harm done, and, as the church bells ring two, he says he must go. Myford watches him walk across the square and up the steps into the church opposite. All very odd.

Myford goes to pay the waitress but she says that won’t be necessary, no-one pays for ‘pauvre monsieur Georges’ and one of the restaurant’s customers who’d been watching, now approaches his table and asks if Myford will join him for a cognac. Well, all this free food and booze is very pleasant so Myford agrees, and this man, an older kindly looking gentleman, explains.

Back in 2194 young Gerard Troon was captaining a ship, the Celestis, through the tricky asteroid belt towards one of the larger asteroids, named Psyche. There’s a loud bang because they’ve been hit by something. But they’re not leaking air, no important systems seem to have been affected. When he and a colleague suit up and go and investigate they discover they have been hit by another spaceship, an old model. When they drill their way inside they discover three figures in spacesuits with labels attached, one of them in a damaged suit the other two apparently intact.

The labels warn them that the occupants of the suits are not dead, despite appearances, but have been put into hibernation using the Hapson Survival System. There’s a lot of flapping with the crew’s doctor who has to look up what the Hapson System was, namely a form of suspended animation, which is very risky when you try to revive the recipients. So they agree to place them carefully in the hold, continue the mission then return to the space station as planned. But young Gerald is a bit freaked out to discover that one of the two is none other than George Montgomery Troon, the one who led the Venus landing in 2144 (and who featured so heavily in the previous story) who also happens to be this Troon, Gerard’s, grandfather.

And finally we come to the punchline. George Montgomery Troon survives the physical resuscitation process, but it is a big mental as well as physical shock to be brought out of hibernation.

‘But there’s more to resuscitation than mere revival. There’s a degree of physical shock in any case, and when you’ve been under as long as he had there’s plenty of mental shock, too. He went under, a youngish man with a young family; he woke up to find himself a great-grandfather; his wife a very old lady who had remarried; his friends gone, or elderly; his two companions in the Astarte dead.

But worse than that, the Hapson System involves the complete shutdown of the entire metabolism. You are, for all practical intents and purposes, dead. And Religions teach that when the body dies the soul leaves it. Ever since he was revived, George Montgomery Troon has been under the baleful impression that he is a man without a soul. And that is why (rather like the ancient mariner) he accosts strangers in restaurants and asks whether they can help him find his soul again… only to be permanently disappointed.

Thoughts

I made my thoughts clear at the start.

1. Fragmented The Outward Urge is, in its very conception, fragmented, and so lacks the tremendous power and imaginative coherence of Wyndham’s Big Four novels (although The Chrysalids and Kraken Wakes are also both set over quite a long period, ten years or more, they nonetheless feature the same characters and the same central plight and so have a strong imaginative unity). So The Outward Urge lacks the unities of location, of character, and of incident. Obviously, the theme of ‘the outward urge’ is designed to give the stories a unity and does, to some extent. But it is what you might call a weak unity, only loosely associating the stories. Each time you start a new part you have to relocate yourself, and work out from scratch what the situation is and who the characters are and why any of it matters.

2. Masculinity The plucky, Boys Own, pukka tone of the narrative and the square-jawed heroism of the 100% male characters is surprisingly unironically dealt with. All the more surprising given that in the novel and novella which were to follow immediately on this book – Trouble With Lichen and Consider Her Ways – Wyndham went out of his way to satirise men and masculinity, both those texts dwell long and hard on the issue of gender and in a hundred ways, large and small, come out defending women as the stronger, cleverer, shrewder sex. Odd, then, that this text is an exercise in such unquestioned Dan Dare heroics.

3. Outdated technical details Wyndham makes a big effort to lace the narrative with technically accurate details, for example the extended descriptions in part one of what it is like to try and do manual labour in the zero gravity of space:

After weeks of weightlessness it is difficult to remember that things will drop if you let go of them.

In part two he describes the long bounding steps you take in the low-gravity environment of the moon; his description of Mars as arid red desert, and then of Venus as shrouded in perpetual rainstorms – these are all worthy attempts at ‘realism’, as far as they go.

Some of these details have remained true, as we know from the actual experience we have gained of building and maintaining space stations, of the manned expeditions to the moon. Others have not aged so well in light of what we have discovered about the surface of Mars, and what we now know about the atmosphere of Venus. But the real point of the technical details is they can’t conceal the creakiness of the main content, and above all, its odd imaginative conservatism.

4. Rule Britannia One of these conservative aspects is the way Britain continues to be the only other player in the Space Race, alongside America and Russia – a poor relation, to be sure, and one which needs American funding and know-how to help build its space station and moonbase but, still, up there with the big boys. Which was, of course, untrue even before the Second World War had ended (see Jonathan Fenby’s account of the steady loss of influence of Churchill with his two allies) and was obviously untrue by the time Wyndham was writing.

5. The Cold War This brings us to a bigger issue, which is the surprising extent to which conflict and war dominate the stories. Wyndham conceives of human activities in space as a direct continuation of the Cold War between Russia and the West, which escalates as early as part two into catastrophic nuclear war. Although this is not exactly unreasonable, we know now, not so much that the Soviet Union would collapse 30 years later (no one could have guessed that) but that actual exploration and work in space is so phenomenally expensive, and so delicate, and so dangerous, that that kind of primitive warlike mentality just can’t be carried into space. Spy satellites, maybe, but actual space stations which people inhabit have turned out to create a high degree of respectful co-operation between the former Cold War foes.

6. Space is not earth And this brings us to the nub of the failure of the book, I think, which is that space is not earth, but Wyndham treats it like it is. Beneath the superficial technically accurate facta about low or zero gravity lies a fundamentally incorrect conception of space, that it could become a warzone just like a slab of terrestrial geography, like Poland or Kashmir, as if you can send a squad of guys with machine guns (machine guns!) to repel an attack by the Other Side, as if you can travel all the way to Venus, with the unbelievable technical and logistical resources that would require, and once you’re there the cleverest thing you can think of doing is placing a pile of TNT under the rocket ship sent by your rivals.

This is childish, it’s a childish conception of human nature and a complete failure to really grasp the enormous logistical and technical investment required in even the simplest space project. For me this is the fundamental flaw of the book, not that it conceptualises space as an extension of the Cold War as such but as the setting of the full range of stupid, silly, rivalrous terrestrial behaviours.

When the moonbase commander sends out a squad ready to confront the unidentified flying objects (which turn out to be Russian jet platforms) the sergeant in command sounds like a sergeant leading a platoon in Burma or Malaya or Kenya or Cyprus or some such British colony – and machine guns, they use machine guns (!). And even after Russia and America have blown each other up, the other stories continue to centreon this trivial, silly level of rivalries and competition, e.g. between Brazil and Australia in the fourth section.

So despite all the superficial technical details, throughout the novel Wyndham’s imagination remains surprisingly earthbound and that is the big disappointment of the book. It highlights, by contrast, the secret of the success of Triffids, Kraken and Cuckoos, in that their real imaginative strength lies in the detail and accuracy with which he portrays the contemporary world with its bickering politicians, pompous civil servants, hack journalists and the rest of it. That’s what makes three of the Big Four novels so powerful, the conviction with which he depicts the terrestrial world.

7. Smoking Wyndham makes a big display of understanding what working in zero gravity would be like in the space station episode, and of what it is like to bound across the surface of the moon in the moon episode. But in both parts, the characters freely smoke, after dinner, while waiting to get suited up to go out on a job, and so on. It’s an interesting example of the way the ‘unseen’, taken-for-granted habits of normal earthly life over-ride what to us, looking back, seem like the most obvious scientific realities. It’s a small detail which exemplifies my argument of how much his imagination remains earthbound throughout the book.

P.S. New Worlds magazine

In his introduction to The Best of John Wyndham 1932-1949 Leslie Flood introduces himself as a one-time editorial assistant of the long-running British science fiction magazine New Worlds (1936-1960) and explains that Wyndham, who he knew personally, wrote the first four parts of The Outward Urge expressly for the magazine, and that the fifth story was written specially for New World‘s 100th anniversary edition.

This knowledge, at a stroke, changes your understanding of the entire text and makes you realise that, whereas his big four novels were written for a wide and general reading public, the Urge stories were conceived and written for a hard-core, hard science fiction audience.

When you investigate further (i.e. read the Wikipedia article about New Worlds) you discover that Wyndham was not just a contributor to New Worlds but closely involved in its management. In 1949 he became chairman of the board of one of the companies set up to publish the magazine during its chequered history, and writing the first of the Troon stories specially for it in 1958.

All of which tends to the fairly simple conclusion that Wyndham was weak when catering to contemporary science fiction conventions, and at his best when escaping from the narrow constraints of ‘hard’ science fiction, when dealing with contemporary, everyday people placed in extraordinary situations, here on earth, with a complete absence of rockets and ray guns, and making the reader ask what they would do in similar circumstances.

In fact Wyndham as an imaginative writer was at his best when following his ‘outward urge’ away from core hard-science fiction terrain into something much closer to the conventional fiction acceptable to a general public.


Credit

The Outward Urge by John Wyndham was published by Michael Joseph in 1959. All references are to the 1973 Penguin paperback edition (recommended retail price 30p).

Related link

John Wyndham reviews

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

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
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s

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

1910s

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

1920s

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 and they rebel
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, an engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover unimaginable strangeness

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a new Fall as he did on earth
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern 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

1950s

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 vanished 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
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian 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  Foundation Trilogy, which describes 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 – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ from outer space which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships passing over the ocean deeps, gruesome attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, the melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
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 who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a chapter-length dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by the lingering radiation. But as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, but when he and his mind-melding friends are discovered, they are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
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
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small gang of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism in order to reach the remote valley which his brother had told him he was going to plant with potatoes and other root vegetables and which he knows is an easily defendable enclave
1956 The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham – 11 science fiction short stories, mostly humorous, satirical, even farcical, but two or three (Survival, Dumb Martian and Time To Rest) which really cut through and linger.
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a relatively conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
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
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a few centuries hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like mothers into whose body a twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
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 space-travelling 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
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
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 a 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’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head who it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents is real and a telepathic explorer from a far distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes in retrospect, in the style of a scientific inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and starts spreading uncontrollably
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 they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same pattern, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that his dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better, with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
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 in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
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 Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in the so-called ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
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, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself ‘President Manson’, revived an old nuclear power station to light up Las Vegas and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible, middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort has become a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour – i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence – which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second novel in the ‘Bridge’ trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend who hires Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, to hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – second in the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

The Narrow Corner by W. Somerset Maugham (1932)

If Dr Saunders was somewhat lacking in sympathy, he made up for it by being uncommonly tolerant. He thought it no business of his to praise or condemn. He was able to recognize that one was a saint and another a villain, but his consideration of both was fraught with the same cool detachment. (Chapter 11)

I started reading this 200-page novel because I saw it in the charity shop for £1. But it turns out, by accident, to be closely linked to the last Maugham novel I read, The Moon and Sixpence. In his typically breezy preface Maugham explains that he created the character of Captain Nichols in that book, a disreputable sea captain, based on someone he’d met in the South Seas, because he needed three or four ‘witnesses’ to help the narrator piece together the latter stages of the life of Charles Strickland, the ‘primitivist’ painter who is the subject of The Moon and Sixpence.

But the character stuck in his mind, along with another minor character, Dr Saunders, who he had created to make a cameo appearance in his first travel book, On a Chinese Screen. Both haunted and niggled at his imagination until here, 13 years after The Moon, they finally appear in their own story.

The plot

Dr Saunders is the short, ugly but immensely competent doctor based in Fu-Chou, China. He is persuaded by a well-known Chinese rogue and mastermind of all kinds of dubious businesses, Kim Ching, who lives on the distant island of Takana, to come and treat Kim’s cataracts.

Kim Ching’s two dutiful sons, who bring the invitation, offer to pay Dr Saunders a lot of money and so he overcomes his reluctance and goes. He arrives on the island, is put up at the best (in fact the only) hotel and performs the operation successfully. Kim is happy, pays up and offers him any little luxuries he needs but Dr Saunders is a man of modest needs. Now the doctor has to pass the time until the monthly ship arrives, to take him off the island and back north to his home in China.

So Dr Saunders eats on the balcony of the hotel, reads the out of date newspapers and smokes opium, prepared for him by his sleek young Chinese help, Ah Kay. The text gives several very evocative descriptions of the technical preparations and then the state of mind created by smoking opium. Saunders floats serenely and watches the world go by.

Ah Kay now made himself a couple of pipes, and having smoked them put out the lamp. He lay down on a mat with a wooden rest under his neck and presently fell asleep. But the doctor, exquisitely at peace, considered the riddle of existence. His body rested in the long chair so comfortably that he was not conscious of it except in so far as an obscure sense of well-being in it added to his spiritual relief. In this condition of freedom his soul could look down upon his flesh with the affectionate tolerance with which you might regard a friend who bored you but whose love was grateful to you. His mind was extraordinarily alert, but in its activity there was no restlessness and no anxiety; it moved with an assurance of power, as you might imagine a great physicist would move among his symbols, and his lucidity had the absolute delight of pure beauty. It was an end in itself. He was lord of space and time. There was no problem that he could not solve if he chose; everything was clear, everything was exquisitely simple; but it seemed foolish to resolve the difficulties of being when there was so delicate a pleasure in knowing that you could completely do so whensoever you chose. (Chapter eight)

Then one day two white men walk into the bar and they all get to chatting. One is the tremendously shifty, cockney, middle-aged, stubbly, nervy Captain Nichols. The other is a handsome young Australian man introduced as Fred Blake, who is also oddly nervous.

After some conversation Blake makes his excuses and leaves, whereupon Captain Nichols confides to Saunders that he was ‘on the beach’ without a job in Sydney, and desperate to get away from his nagging wife when he was approached by a powerful underworld figure who offered him money and the lugger he has just arrived in, to take a young man off for a cruise. Anywhere special, asks Nichols. ‘Just away from here,’ comes the threatening reply. All very suspicious.

Nichols continues to describe to Saunders the way he was given a cab ride to an out-of-the-way bay, rowed out to the boat – the Fenton, a relatively small vessel which can fish for pearls or do smuggling, as required – and had barely got his bearings before young Blake was put aboard from another dinghy. Nichols was handed £200 to go cruising and keep a low profile, and then the dodgy but obviously well-connected fixer who’d arranged all this disappeared back to shore.

And so it is that Nichols has spent the last month captaining the lugger as they cruise aimlessly round the south seas, all the time trying to puzzle out what Blake’s mystery is…

Later that day Saunders asks Kim Ching about the newcomers. Kim knows Nichols and says he is a no good man, and warns Saunders to have nothing to do with him.

Nonetheless, Saunders is impatient to go home and decides to ask Nichols if he can hitch a lift on the lugger, if it’s heading north. Nichols says sure, but Blake is dead against it and they have a fierce argument about it right in front of Saunders. Obviously Blake is hiding something pretty big.

But Nichols insists that he is captain and the captain’s decision is final. He also admits that he partly wants the doc to come along because he – Nichols – has bad dyspepsia which he (rather comically) complains about all the time and so he hopes the doc can cure him.

So Ah Kay packs Saunders’ bags, they say goodbye to the grateful and influential Kim Ching, and go aboard.

Saunders likes to think of himself as a connoisseur of character. Like many a Maugham narrator, like the narrator of the travel book The Gentleman in the Parlour, he is cool and non-judgmental. He observes men with all their foibles and is amused. Nichols knows that Saunders knows that he is a crook. They amuse each other with their canniness. (‘Nichols took an artist’s delight in his own rascality’.) Blake on the other hand is young and earnest and nervous, his temper constantly ready to snap.

Another perennial theme of Maugham’s – that people often have unexpected aspect to their character – is demonstrated when a big storm blows up. It quickly becomes too rough for Saunders and he retreats below decks. The point is that Nichols, although without doubt a shifty crook, is able to show his true colours as a supremely confident master of sailing. He is in complete control of the little lugger, making all the right decisions, and absolutely fearless while enormous waves crash over it and threaten to capsize it for hours on end. Nichols may be a dodgy geezer, but Saunders has to admire his stamina, courage and competency.

This is the central Maugham theme – that people aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but complex mixtures of contradictory characteristics, which is why ‘judging’ them is so futile. On the contrary, the doctor not only doesn’t judge, he savours, like a fine wine, the complicated blend of aromas and scents, qualities and characteristics, which each human presents for his delectation.

For the first 160 pages or so, the novel is slow-paced, lazily describing sea voyages, green islands, warm seas, blue skies, slow natives, smiling Chinese, opium nights, and Dr Saunders leisurely contemplating the odd people fate throws in his way.

After a while it reminded me of the Symbolist classic, Against the Grain by Joris-Karl Huysmans from 1884 in which the élite protagonist, a moneyed aristocrat, retires from the world altogether to a secluded chateau and devotes himself to the world of the senses, cultivating collections of fine paintings, rare wines, exclusive scents, erotic books and so on. Although in a different setting, Dr Saunders has much the same approach to life, a decadent almost symbolist approach.

After surviving the storm our crew of Saunders, Ah Kay, Nicholas, Blake and the two ‘blackfellows’ who man the ship, are relieved to put in at the nearest sheltered haven, Kanda-Meira, twin islands belonging to the Dutch East Indies.

Here they encounter the characters who will trigger the main action. The island is a decent size, is administered by Dutch officials, has a main town which is bustling with all ethnic groups (Chinese, natives, Indians, Arabs).

Our team bump into a pleasant, big, strong Danish man named Erik Christesson. He volunteers to show them round the island and, while Saunders and Nichols are content to drink and play cards, Erik and young Blake soon form a strong friendship, going on some long hikes together up the side of the local volcano and around the ruins of the original Portuguese forts. They become close friends, Blake more or less hero-worshiping the strong young Dane who is so confident and bluff, while the Australian remains so nervous and unhappy.

A gay novel?

The suspicion had been growing on me that this was a sort of gay novel. Obviously nothing overt or obvious, homosexuality was illegal in Maugham’s day, but:

1. Dr Saunders has a very close relationship with his servant Ah Kay, who he describes a couple of times as beautiful, slender, slim, well-dressed, obedient, smooth-skinned and generally lovely.

2. On a growing number of occasions Saunders notices just how devastatingly handsome young Fred Blake is, with a Grecian profile, sensual lips, and a handsome body when he strips off to wash in the sea.

As he sat there, in the mellow light, in his singlet and khaki trousers, with his hat off so that you saw his dark curling hair, he was astonishingly handsome. There was something appealing in his beauty so that Dr Saunders, who had thought him a rather dull young man, felt on a sudden kindly disposed to him. (Chapter 17)

3. The Dane Christessen (aged about 30) is described as a bit thick and slow, but is nonetheless physically impressive and Saunders, once again, on a number of occasions notices the puppy-like devotion he inspires in handsome young Blake.

So nothing especially overt but, in the lazy sensual atmosphere of tropical climate, opium nights, stripping off and swimming in the sea, and of repeated descriptions of trim native boys and strapping white men, I began to enjoy the rather homoerotic atmosphere.

Femme fatale

And couldn’t help thinking that Maugham himself enjoyed himself writing this first three-quarters of the novel, with its lazy inconsequential sensuality. Unfortunately, all this evaporates in the final quarter which descends a bit into melodrama and also involves a lot of backstory and explication i.e. becomes a lot more harassed and gnotty.

Christessen introduces our characters to a household which lives on a nutmeg plantation. The place is owned by old Swan, a man so decrepit and wizened that he gives the impression of being only half there, off in his own dream world of memories a lot of the time. His daughter, Catherine, married an Englishman named Frith, a former teacher from Britain – a particularly odoriferous Maugham creation, a fat lazy man gone to seed who has spent twenty years translating the Portuguese epic poem, The Lusiads, into rhyming English verse, and also, given half a chance, starts sounding off about Hindu philosophy.

Fat old Frith and his wife had a daughter, Louise, before his wife, Catherine, died suddenly of heart failure. So now Frith lives with his batty father-in-law and his beautiful daughter.

After Erik has introduced them all, Frith hosts a dinner party, old Swan tells disreputable stories, Saunders is entranced by the eccentric Frith, Captain Nichols just tucks into the grub and Blake… Blake is stunned when the lissom young Louise walks through the door. She is stunning, breath-takingly, staggeringly attractive.

She was wearing a sarong of green silk in which was woven an elaborate pattern in gold thread. It had a sleek and glowing splendour. It was Javanese, and such as the ladies of the Sultan’s harem at Djokjakarta wore on occasions of state. It fitted her slim body like a sheath, tight over her young nipples and tight over her narrow hips. Her bosom and her legs were bare. She wore high-heeled green shoes, and they added to her graceful stature. That ashy blond hair of hers was done high on her head, but very simply, and the sober brilliance of the green-and-golden sarong enhanced its astonishing fairness. Her beauty took the breath away.

Later the others drink and play cards but Louise takes Blake for a stroll round the tropical garden and he kisses her, then touches her breasts. After more kisses they go back in.

But it is enough. Blake knows he can have her. He knows she wants him.

Later that night, Christessen drops in for a drink at Dr Saunders’ hotel and tells the doctor that he and Louise are engaged. As a young man he had a great respect and devotion to Catherine, Mrs Frith, the girl’s mother and she asked him to marry her daughter and look after her. From the way he tells it, Saunders suspects that Christessen was actually in love with the mother, who gave him the kind of love and security he had lacked since coming out to the East as a vulnerable young man. Anyway, when Catherine passed away, Christessen promised to keep his vow.

That night big simple Christessen goes back up to the nutmeg plantation where he spent so many happy days as a young man. He sits in the rocking chair outside the darkened building while everyone is asleep and reveries about the old days.

Which is why he is startled when an upstairs French window – which he knows is Louise’s  – opens, Louise comes out onto the verandah, beckons someone else, and a man’s figure tiptoes out, climbs over the balustrade and drops to the garden beneath.

Louise goes back into her room and silently closes the window, but in those few moments Christessen has walked over to the figure on the ground, which is still fastening his shoes. Christessen hauls him to his feet and starts strangling him, without thought or remorse. Someone has been with his beloved Louise. He will kill him.

Until a stifled squeak makes him look again and – he realises that the man is none other than Fred Blake – the young man he’d come to look on as a new best friend, as a younger brother to mentor and look after.

Horrified Christessen lets Blake drop to the floor choking, and staggers off into the night.

To cut a long story short, Blake recovers, puts his boots on, goes very cautiously down the road back into town, and heads for Christessen’s house, determined to find out what on earth the big Dane was doing outside the Frith house, and why on earth he attacked him like that.

Remember: Blake doesn’t know that Christessen considers himself engaged to Louise. Only we know this because Maugham created the scene where Christessen explains it all to Dr Saunders.

Blake arrives at the hotel room where Christessen lives, opens the door, tiptoes in, lights a match – and sees the big man lying on the floor with half his head shot away. He has committed suicide.

Terror-stricken, Blake stumbles out and blunders across town to Saunders’s hotel, where he wakes the good doctor from a pleasant opium haze.

Saunders listens impassively to Blake’s confused story – and then tells him that the Dane was engaged to Louise. Blake is horror stricken and collapses in tears. He is devastated at causing the death of his big strong friend. And hates Louise for not telling him about the engagement.

For him, Blake, she was just another bit of skirt who threw herself at him because he is so damn handsome – if he’d had any idea they were engaged he’d never have slept with her. Why oh why didn’t she tell him? Saunders gives Blake a knockout shot of morphine and they both go back to sleep.

In the morning the Dutch police call as a formality. They have found Christessen’s body and can see that it was obviously suicide, they just want to double check his last movements. So Saunders gives an accurate description of Erik’s coming to have a drink with him the night before, then leaving, at which point everything had seemed alright.

The police attribute Christessen’s suicide it to the intense loneliness of the East which undermines so many good men. Blake is in the clear.

Blake’s story

So far so suddenly and abruptly, melodramatic. But as if this wasn’t enough, the book now lets us in on the reason Fred Blake is on the run. This is the result of another tragic love affair.

Blake’s father is a successful and influential lawyer in Sydney. Among his many contacts is an important politician, Pat Hudson. Blake’s dad has him and Mrs Hudson round for dinner. Unfortunately, Mrs Hudson – thin, old, a bit leathery – falls head over heels in love with handsome young Blake. (Blake tells this long convoluted story to Saunders in by far the longest chapter in the book, which lasts 25 pages.)

Blake and Mrs Hudson have sex everywhere. She is voracious. She is imaginative and teaches him all sorts of new tricks (I thought this must be a bit racy for a novel published in 1932). She takes insane risks of being caught or seen. She wants to live dangerously.

Eventually Blake gets sick and tired of it all, and tries to end the affair. She refuses to take no for an answer, bombards his home and office with phone calls, sends letters, waits outside his office morning, noon and night. She becomes a stalker.

Finally, Mrs Hudson sends Blake an unusually sober and sensible letter saying she sees his point, maybe he is right, maybe they should call it a day, but she has to tell him that her husband has been told some gossip  about them and now suspects. Can she see him just one last time so they can straighten their stories out about the few times they’ve been seen (at the cinema together, things like that)?

Naively, Blake agrees and goes along to her house. Mrs Hudson starts off the conversation by continuing with the line about getting their stories straight. But then she asks for just one last goodbye kiss, then a goodbye grope and then — then she begs him to make love to her one last time.

Weak as only a young man can be, Blake agrees, and they are in mid-coitus when the door opens and the husband walks in. Seeing his wife being penetrated by young buck, no-nonsense Pat Hudson strides over to Blake without a word and attacks him. They have one hell of a fight, punching, wrestling, pushing, throwing, smashing up all the furniture.

Eventually Pat Hudson has Blake in a death grip on the floor, kneeling on his neck and intending to snap it when Blake, scrabbling around with his hands, feels a gun being placed into one of them. He grabs it and fires. Hudson falls off him. Blake fires again. Hudson is dead. There is blood everywhere.

He realises that Mrs Hudson planned it all. She lured Blake into her honey trap and made sure her husband would come home to find them, all the time having a loaded gun to hand. Now she wants to run away with him to America and get married and make love to him all day long.

Appalled by what has happened, Blake staggers home, tries to eat an ordinary dinner with his mother and father, but breaks down and tells them everything. His father is a hard case. A general election is due and Hudson was a vital supporter of Blake Senior’s Labour Party. This adds a power political element to an already messy situation. His dad decides Fred will have to ‘disappear’. He contacts one of his best fixers to find a boat and a skipper who won’t ask any questions. For the time being, to avoid the police investigation, Fred is admitted to hospital on suspicion of having scarlet fever – this will put the cops off the trail and also stall Mrs Hudson.

A few days later, his dad gets Blake spirited out of the hospital and onto the same lugger Captain Nichols had been deposited on only half an hour before. At this point the backstory and the main narrative join up. Now Dr Saunders understands why Blake was so nervy right from the start, and this also fills in all the background to Captain Nichols’ story of being hired by a mystery man.

It also explains the couple of occasions on their cruise together, when Nichols or Saunders have had the opportunity to read fresh newspapers from Australia (always at a premium in the East) and Fred has hidden or thrown them away.

Then, in one of them, he had read that Mrs Hudson, widow of the leading politician Pat Hudson, had been found hanged, obviously being distraught at the still unsolved murder of her husband and having committed suicide.

Blake is even more horror-stricken. His father obviously arranged the ‘suicide’. She was mad and obsessive, but… they had slept together, he knew her, he feels awfully to blame for her ‘death’.

And now, as the story arrives back at ‘the present, Blake tells Saunders how he feels like a doomed man, a fated man. Everywhere he turns his handsome good looks attract women and instead of innocent fun and games, somehow it always seems to lead to death and disaster.

All this time Saunders has listened, the great collector of human stories, the connoisseur of human weakness and foll, with a grim detached expression on his face.

It’s at this moment, with a distraught Blake sitting in Saunders’ hotel room, that the door opens and Louise walks in. They stare intently at each other, neither talking, Blake with genuine hatred in his eyes. Louise leaves without a word. Later that day, the Fenton sails, carrying off Blake and Captain Nichols (never, alas, to be met again in Maugham’s fiction. I would pay good money for another novel featuring the shifty rascal Nichols – a very enjoyable character).

Dr Saunders pays a final visit to the house of Frith, encountering mad old Swan and Louise, who he is surprised to find completely calm and self-possessed.

Coda

In the last chapter, a month later, Doctor Saunders is sitting on the terrace of the van Dyke Hotel in Singapore when Nichols approaches him, looking down at heel and seedy.

Know what happened? That kid Blake disappeared overboard, fell or jumped. The sea was dead calm. It was night time, they’d been drinking, Blake had been low, Nichols went to bed, Blake wasn’t there in the morning.

What’s worse the boy had won almost all the money Nichols was paid for doing the job of spiriting him away, the £200, off him at cribbage.

After he’d disappeared, Nichols broke into Blake’s strong box but there was no money in it. The kid must have put all the money in a belt and been wearing it when he jumped. The doctor is dismayed and just about to ask some questions when Nichols goes pale and – his wife comes up to him, the legendary wife who he is always trying to avoid. Without further ado she commands the rough old sea captain to get up and follow her immediately, which he does like a scolded child. Comedy.

Leaving the doctor never to know the complete story, leaving him remembering the slow, calm, self-possessed movements of beautiful young Louise, the still centre of this perfect emotional storm.

Conclusion

This bald summary of the rather complicated plot doesn’t convey the real experience of the book, which is one of civilised and leisurely observation of some wonderful characters.

the fat old philosopher is a corker, particularly the scene where he arrives in great deliberation at Dr Saunders’ hotel room to read to the good doctor an excerpt from his ongoing translation of The Lusiads and Saunders, despite his best efforts to the contrary, falls asleep.

It contains hundreds of moments of acute perception and insight. I particularly liked the character of the rather mad old Swan, owner of the plantation where Frith and the fragrant Louise live. In our own day, everyone is so earnest about mental health and social care and Alzheimer’s. In an old-world author like Maugham, old people are more free to be weird and strange, as I remember them from my own boyhood.

Swan talked in a high cracked voice with a strong Swedish accent, so that you had to listen intently to understand what he said. He spoke very quickly, almost as though he were reciting a lesson, and he finished with a little cackle of senile laughter. It seemed to say that he had been through everything and it was all stuff and nonsense. He surveyed human kind and its activities from a great distance, but from no Olympian height – from behind a tree, slyly, and hopping from one foot to another with amusement. (Chapter 20)

Later, Louise comments on her grandfather:

‘Old age is very strange. It has a kind of aloofness. It’s lost so much that you can hardly look upon the old as quite human any more. But sometimes you have a feeling that they’ve acquired a sort of new sense that tells them things that we can never know.’

Having lived through the old age, illness and dementia of both my parents, I know what she means. The really old are uncanny, no longer relating to our world of deadlines and urgency, living by their own pace, and party to incommunicable truths.

Three traits

Maugham’s books have three characteristics: every page displays examples of his odd, rather clumsy non-English way with the English language; there are repeated meditations on the pointlessness and absurdity of existence; almost all his characters seem to have blue eyes.

Maughamese

Just a few examples of his odd clunky way with the English language.

  • There were few Chinese, for they do not settle where no trade is.
  • The grand houses of the old perkeniers, in which dwelt now the riff-raff of the East.
  • There was a wide space in front of it, facing the sea, where grew huge old trees, planted it was said
    by the Portuguese.
  • Often it is the same with men, with Anglo-Saxons at all events, to whom words come difficultly.
  • He was surprised and a trifle touched by the emotion that with this shy clumsiness fought for expression.
  • She gave them both a cool survey in which was inquiry and then swift appraisement.

Blue eyes

Fred Blake was a tall young man, slight but wiry, with curly, dark brown hair and large blue eyes. He did not look more than twenty. In his dirty singlet and dungarees he looked loutish, an unlicked cub, thought the doctor, and there was a surliness in his expression that was somewhat disagreeable; but he had a straight nose and a well-formed mouth.

Captain Nichols looked at him with his little shifty blue eyes and his grinning face was quick with malice.

The little old man had very pale blue eyes with red-rimmed, hairless lids, but they were full of cunning, and his glance was darting and mischievous like a monkey’s.

She wore nothing but a sarong of Javanese batik, with a little white pattern on a brown ground; it was attached tightly just over her breasts and came down to her knees. She was barefoot… Dr Saunders noticed that her brown hands were long and slender. Her eyes were blue. Her features were fine and very regular. She was an extremely pretty young woman.

The meaning of life

Maugham was an atheist. There is no meaning of life. It is all a dream. On this Dr Saunders with his opium trances, and Frith with his lengthy expositions of Eastern philosophy, agree.

But Saunders expresses another recurrent Maugham trope, which is the sheer oddity, the surreality, of pondering the way that all organic life has crawled out of the protozoic slime, struggled into multi-cellular life, fought and died and triumphed for billions of years – and all to arrive at the peculiar and random moments of life and death which Saunders, as a doctor, has witnessed first hand again and again.

There’s no ‘why’ to any of this – just wonder that it should be, and a connoisseur’s savouring of the infinite absurdity of existence. Here is Saunders attending a Japanese pearl diver who is dying of dysentery.

But in the hold where the pearl shell was piled, on one of the wooden bunks along the side, lay the dying diver. The doctor attached small value to human life. Who, that had lived so long amid those teeming Chinese where it was held so cheap, could have much feeling about it? He was a Japanese, the diver, and probably a Buddhist. Transmigration? Look at the sea: wave follows wave, it is not the same wave, yet one causes another and transmits its form and movement. So the beings travelling through the world are not the same today and tomorrow, nor in one life the same as in another; and yet it is the urge and the form of the previous lives that determine the character of those that follow. A reasonable belief but an incredible. But was it any more incredible than that so much striving, such a variety of accidents, so many miraculous hazards should have combined, through the long aeons of time, to produce from the primeval slime at long last this man who, by means of Flexner’s bacillus, was aimlessly snuffed out? Dr Saunders thought it odd, but natural, senseless certainly, but he had long made himself at home in the futility of things. (Chapter 11)

‘At home in the futility of things’. Very comfortably at home. That is the Maugham mood.

He awoke in the morning with a clean tongue and in a happy frame of mind. He seldom stretched himself in bed, drinking his cup of fragrant China tea and smoking the first delicious cigarette, without looking forward with pleasure to the coming day… and Ah Kay brought him his breakfast out on the veranda. He enjoyed his papaya, he enjoyed his eggs, that moment out of the frying-pan, and he enjoyed his scented tea. He reflected that to live was a very enjoyable affair. He wanted nothing.
He envied no man. He had no regrets. The morning was still fresh and in the clean, pale light the outline of things was sharp-edged. (Chapter 19)

Maugham isn’t a great novelist, and often struggles with the English language, but he is just such damn fine company!


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Australia’s Impressionists @ the National Gallery

This is a very enjoyable, relaxing, easy-going exhibition. It’s small, with fewer than 50 works on display and a relatively short audioguide with only 15 items, meaning there is time to read and look and absorb all the works and then to stroll back through picking out favourites and re-examining them closely.

Australia’s impressionists

‘Australia’s Impressionists’ brings together paintings by three late-Victorian artists – Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder – who used new European ideas of painting in the open air to capture the urban and rural landscape of Australia. Their open air practice and the often quick, blurred finish of the works led to them being called ‘Australia’s impressionists’. They are joined here by a fourth Australian artist, John Russell, who spent most of his adult life in France, where he became friends with leading artists such as Monet and van Gogh, developing a genuinely European impressionist style and was even mentor to the young Matisse.

Tom Roberts (1856-1931)

Roberts was in fact born in England – in Dorchester, Dorset to be precise. His family emigrated to Australia in 1869. He returned to England to study art from 1881 to 1884 before returning to establish himself in ‘marvellous’ Melbourne in 1885. The wall label explains that Melbourne was an economic and social phenomenon, having grown from a few shacks in 1800 to become the second largest city in the British Empire by the 1880s, with bustling docks, warehouses and busy streets teeming with soldiers, shopkeepers, sheepfarmers and well-dressed ladies.

Thus one of the most arresting images in the show is Roberts’ Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West, an immense panorama of one of the busiest streets in Melbourne. The palette of duck egg blue for the sky overwhelmed by the sandy orange of the streets and buildings makes a tremendous impact as a depiction of an authentic Australian urban scene. But the title is important and symptomatic, too. Roberts had just returned from 4 years in London where he was much influenced by the Aestheticism of James McNeill Whistler, the pioneering American painter who gave his paintings titles from musical terminology like ‘Symphony’ and ‘Harmony’.

Although they were determined to paint the Australian scene, all three of these artists saw it with eyes conditioned by the latest developments in European art.

Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West by Tom Roberts (1885-6, reworked 1890) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and the National Library of Australia, Canberra

Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West (1885-6, reworked 1890) by Tom Roberts © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and the National Library of Australia, Canberra

While in London Roberts painted the city in a kind of foggy, blurry style which recalls Monet’s London paintings (e.g. The Thames at Westminster (Westminster Bridge) 1871). These made a big impression on his contemporaries and several examples are included here. (My favourite one dates from a later visit to London but is a splendidly evocative miniature of the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square – all the more so since the visitor to this exhibition has just walked past this very scene.)

Trafalgar Square (1904) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Trafalgar Square (1904) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

9 by 5 Impression Exhibition

In August 1889 Roberts helped to organise an exhibition of works by himself and colleagues in Melbourne. It was titled the ‘9 by 5 Impression Exhibition’ because many of the works were painted on the 9-inch by 5-inch lids of cigar boxes, an easy resource for poor artists. Although small, the sheer number of works (180-plus) in such a consistently shaky, blurry, swift, impressionistic style, made a big impact on critics (who didn’t like it) and fellow artists (who did). In some accounts the show is credited with marking the start of a genuinely Australian art. It was also distinctive for its fin-de-siecle and Aesthetic trimmings, with the walls of the gallery swathed in Liberty silks and the works bordered by large blocky frames, often painted a kind of modernist metallic tint.

Roberts brought back from Europe this taste for painting en plein air and did much to encourage friends and colleagues to do likewise, and to consciously depict the Australian scenery and life. He set up artists’ ‘camps’ in rural locations a train ride from Sydney or Melbourne (just as the French impressionists used the new suburban train network to go out to the suburbs of Paris to paint semi-rural scenes) although the commentary wryly points out that they weren’t exactly primitive, the one at Box Hill near Sydney having a separate ‘dining tent’ and even a piano installed.

As you explore the exhibition more you understand why the 9 to 5 works are placed right at the start – small, fleeting ‘impressions’ of urban scenes they may be, but they soon give way to large and sometimes enormous works depicting the countryside near Melbourne and Sydney.

Given that sheep farming was one of the fundamental activities in Australia it’s striking how few images of it there are in the exhibition. A Google search shows that Roberts did do many sheep-related paintings, including ones of herding and shearing, but there’s only one here, a big and dramatic composition, Break away! in which the mounted farmer is trying to stop sheep bolting for a dried-up waterhole during a drought.

A Break Away! by Tom Roberts (1891) © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

A Break Away! (1891) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

This is a strikingly naturalistic work, concerned to give a realistic depiction of every detail, for example of the horse’s sweating coat, the cowboy’s lean, his braces, every detail of the fence. It’s great fun but it isn’t really impressionism.

Charles Conder (1868-1909)

Conder was also born in England, in Tottenham, north London. After a boyhood in India he was sent to Australia in 1884. In 1888 he moved to Melbourne where he met Roberts and Streeton. A notable early work is Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay. Note the high vantage point, as used by Roberts in the Bourke Street painting, the smudginess of the clouds and smoke from steamships, the sheen of rain on the dockside. But I saw more of L.S. Lowry in this work than Monet.

Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay by Charles Conder (1888) © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay (1888) by Charles Conder © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

In fact Conder went back to Europe in 1890, never to return to Australia, and became deeply involved in the Aesthetic movement, mixing with leading artists and writers of the day including Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Critics consider his later period less convincing than the earlier Australian paintings. Conder took part in the rural painting camps organised by Roberts outside Sydney or Melbourne. Towards the end of the show there’s a sequence of works by all three artists depicting beaches outside Sydney. Conder produced this work which became quite famous.

Points of interest include:

  • the text on the building at the right being cut off, as in contemporary photographs or the paintings of Degas who enjoyed chopping off objects mid-frame
  • the image is dominated not by a long sweeping beach but by the man-made walkway or bridge – bridges loom large in the works of the French impressionists and Whistler did a series depicting bridges of London in different moods
  • the (to us) absurd formality of these Victorian ladies and gents. The commentary picks up on Conder’s characteristic use of pink in the discarded parasol, ladies’ hat and newspaper held by the lying figure – I was more struck by the intense blackness of the top hat and the couple behind one of the bridge supports
A Holiday at Mentone by Charles Conder (1888) © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

A Holiday at Mentone (1888) by Charles Conder © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Arthur Streeton (1867-1943)

Streeton was actually born in Australia, unlike the previous two who migrated there. The paintings of his here are among the largest, and the most evocative of rural Australia. This dramatic depiction of a mine works on what looks like a blisteringly hot day is initially striking for its scale, for the portrait format and for the brilliance with which he creates the slabby effect of hard rocks. It takes a while to focus on the small humans down at the entrance of the mine, and to realise that they are bringing out of an injured miner on a stretcher.

Fire’s On by Arthur Streeton (1891) © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Fire’s On (1891) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Streeton’s work is possibly the most accessible and enjoyable of the three. The second room of the show features a number of his really large paintings of rural Australia which make it look like paradise. Golden Summer was painted when he was just 21! painted at the artists’ camp at Heidelberg, outside Sydney, set up by him and Roberts. It was the first painting by an Australian-born artist to be exhibited at both the Royal Academy in London, in 1890, and the Paris Salon the following year, where it won an award. A reproduction can’t convey the size and the sheer sensual pleasure of this astonishingly assured masterpiece.

Golden Summer, Eaglemont by Arthur Streeton (1889) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Golden Summer, Eaglemont (1889) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Nationalism

The commentary points out that the states of Australia only came together to form a nation in 1901. The late 19th century was a great era of nationalism in politics, an interest or concern or issue which spilled over into art, music and literature. And so, for Australian politicians, commentators and artists, there was a lot of debate about what made it a nation, what was ‘Australian-ness’ etc. The commentary points all this out but it would have been good to have more from the artists or maybe contemporary commentators on what they thought Australian-ness consisted of, what they thought the distinctive features of the Australian landscape, or light, or flora consisted of.

A handful of beach paintings are brought together later in the exhibition to show the distinctive white sand of beaches outside Sydney. But in fact one of the most striking things about the show is how European most of these paintings looked to me. My early impressions of Australia were formed by movies, specifically Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), or the TV series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1968-70). Desert and drought and hard red rock, or lush sub-tropical suburbia.

Works like Streeton’s ‘Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (painted when he was just 22) are lovely but don’t look anything like the Australia I grew up seeing. It could be somewhere in the Cotswolds. The fact that the title is a quote from Wordsworth emphasises the Englishness of the imagination which is creating it.

'Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (1890) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

‘Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (1890) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Naturalism

The entire exhibition is premised on identifying these artists as impressionists but I wondered. They remind me less of their French contemporaries and more of late-Victorian English naturalistic painters, as can be seen at the wonderful Guildhall Gallery. A painting like Golden Summer is not unlike some of George Clausen’s bucolic scenes of rural England.

How much these paintings are not really that impressionist is highlighted by the fourth member of the show –

John Russell (1858-1930)

Russell left Australia when he was 22, travelling to France where he made friends with the major painters of the day, including Monet and van Gogh. The section of 10 of his paintings here are completely unlike the preceding three artists.

In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes by John Russell (1890-1) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes (1890-91) by John Russell © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Now this has the full French impressionist feel, vague and blurry blobs of very light and bright colours used loosely to create an impression of a scene. Also no people – unlike all the examples above. Streeton, Roberts and Conder also depicted people-less landscapes, but they are concerned with accurately depicting it, whereas Russell seems much more interested in playing with the possibilities of oil paint and colour – pushing, stretching and experimenting.

This can be seen in his many paintings of the Breton coastline where he settled and lived for decades. Here he used Monet’s tactic of painting the same scene multiple times at different times of day to capture different light and mood, in this example the cluster of rocks off the Breton coast named Aiguille de Coton.

Aiguille de Coton, Belle-Île (about 1890) by John Russell. Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth © Acorn Photo, Perth

Aiguille de Coton, Belle-Île (about 1890) by John Russell. Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth © Acorn Photo, Perth

As might be expected from a friend of van Gogh’s, Russell experiments with oil paint to express not what he literally saw in front of him but the psychological impact of colour. Similarly the big crude super-obvious brushstrokes are designed to emphasise the paintwork itself rather than the ‘subject’.

Russell’s bold colour experiments led to his work being included alongside those of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck in the 1905 exhibition at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. A critic wrote that the works looked like they had been painted by ‘wild things’ or fauves in French, and this nickname was quickly applied to the movement which became known as Fauvism.

Russell’s section of the exhibition shows us hard-core French impressionism morphing into post-impressionism. One of the curators makes the case – in the very informative film which accompanies the exhibition and runs in a projection room off to one side – that Russell deserves to be better known and included in our accounts of late impressionism. Without doubt. But if you then walk out of his rather dazzling section and back past the restrained realistic works of Streeter, Conder and Roberts it makes you question the label ‘impressionism’ as applied to them. Plein air naturalism might be closer.

Ariadne

One of the most evocative images in the show is Streeton’s fabulous Ariadne (1895). For once this feels like a landscape which is impossible to confuse with England or even Europe. It could be a Mediterranean sky but the red rocks on the horizon and the mottled eucalyptus trees clearly indicate the Antipodes. No reproduction can convey the intimacy and power of this painting.

The commentary points out that it is typical of the French symbolism of the 1890s to deploy a mysterious, generally female, figure to point and focus a landscape, as is done here. But it’s only if you get really close to the painting’s surface that you can see details like the way the sandy beach is achieved by broad horizontal brushstrokes whereas the woman’s figure is made by vertical brushstrokes, as is the white of the tumbling surf. Or the way the vertical sweeps of the dress merge into the beach. The branches of the tree on the left are achieved with just one or two confident strokes. It is an astonishing masterpiece, and no surprise that this image was chosen for the posters and publicity for the exhibition.

Ariadne (1895) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Ariadne (1895) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Conclusion

This is a lovely exhibition, full of what’s-not-to-like images of turn-of-the-century Australia, urban and rural, and shedding light on a quartet of artists who are well worth knowing about.


The video

Most galleries nowadays produce at least one video about their exhibitions.

Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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