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

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley (2015)

Our Lord has done great things for us, because he wanted us to accomplish a deed so magnificent that it surpasses even what we have prayed for… I have burned the town and killed everyone. For four days without any pause our men have slaughtered… wherever we have been able to get into we haven’t spared the life of a single Muslim. We have herded them into the mosques and set them on fire… We have estimated the number of dead Muslim men and women at six thousand. It was, Sire, a very fine deed. (Afonso de Albuquerque describing the Portuguese capture of Goa on 25 November 1510, p.286)

In 1500 the Indian Ocean was the scene of sophisticated trading networks which had been centuries in the making. Muslim traders from the ‘Swahili Coast’ of Africa traded up the coast to the Red Sea and across land to Cairo, heart of the Muslim world, while other traders crossed the ocean eastwards to the coast of India, where Hindu rajas ran a number of seaports offering hospitality to communities of Muslims and Jews in a complex multi-ethnic web.

The trading routes were well established and the commodities – such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – were managed via a familiar set of tariffs and customs. Even if you were caught by one of the many pirates who patrolled the sea, there were well established procedures for handing over a percentage of your cargo and being allowed to continue on your way.

All this was dramatically changed by the sudden arrival in 1497 of the super-violent Portuguese, who had orders from their king and from the pope:

  • to destroy all Muslim bases and ships
  • to establish European forts at all convenient harbours
  • to bully all local rulers into proclaiming complete subservience to the King of Portugal
  • to build churches and convert the heathens to Christianity

This is the story of how an idyllic, essentially peaceful, well ordered and multicultural world was smashed to pieces by the cannons, muskets and unbelievable savagery of barbarian Europeans. This book is a revelation. I had no idea that the Portuguese ‘explorers’ of the ‘Age of Discovery’ were quite such savage sadists.

Massacre of the Miri

Probably the most notorious incident, which epitomises the behaviour and attitudes of the invaders, was the massacre of the Muslim pilgrim ship Miri.

The Portuguese sent their ships to conquer the Indian Ocean in large groups or ‘armadas’.

On September 29, 1502, the fourth great Portuguese Armada spotted a large merchant ship carrying Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca. The ship, the Miri, was identified as belonging to al-Fanqi, thought to be the commercial agent representing Mecca – and the interests of the Muslim Mamluk dynasty in Cairo – in Calicut, one of the commercial seaports on the west India coast.

Portuguese Captain Matoso cornered the pilgrim ship which surrendered quickly, the captain and passengers imagining they would be able to buy off these ‘pirates’ in the traditional manner. But these were not pirates; they were Christians or, as they would come to be recognised around the Indian Ocean, sadistic, uncivilised barbarian murderers.

Commander of the Armada, Vasco da Gama, ignored all the offers of gold or cargo. His Portuguese crew plundered the ship, stole all its cargo and then made it plain that he planned to burn the ship with all its passengers – men, women and children – on board. As this realisation sank in the civilian passengers desperately attacked the Portuguese with stone and bare hands, but were themselves shot down by muskets and cannon from the Portuguese ships.

On October 3, 1502, having gutted the Miri of all its valuables, the Portuguese locked all the remaining passengers in the hold and the ship was burnt and sunk by artillery. It took several days to go down completely. Portuguese soldiers rowed around the waters on longboats mercilessly spearing survivors.

All in all it was a fine example of:

The honour code of the fidalgos with its rooted hatred of Islam and its unbending belief in retribution and punitive revenge. (p.144)

the honour code which, as Crowley emphasises, inspired the Portuguese voyages of conquest and terror.

The Calicut massacre

It helps to explain this behaviour, and put it in context, if you know about the Calicut Massacre. Back in December 1500 the Second Portuguese India Armada, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, had gotten frustrated at the slow pace at which his ships were being filled with spices at Calicut, the largest spice port on the western coast of India, despite having made an agreement with its raja or zamorin.

To hurry things along Cabral ordered the seizure of an Arab merchant ship from Jeddah, then loading up with spices nearby in the harbour. Cabral claimed that, as the Zamorin had promised the Portuguese priority in the spice markets, the cargo was rightfully theirs anyway.

Incensed by this theft, the Arab merchants around the quay started a riot and led the rioters to the ‘factory’ or warehouse which the Portuguese had only just finished building to store their booty. The Portuguese onboard the ships in the harbour watched helplessly while the Calicut mob successfully stormed the ‘factory’, massacring 50 of the Portuguese inhabitants, including some Franciscan friars.

Once the riot had quietened down, Cabral sent to the Zamorin asking for redress. When it wasn’t forthcoming, Cabral seized around ten Arab merchant ships in the harbour, confiscating their cargoes, killing their crews, and burning their ships. Blaming the Zamorin for doing nothing to stop the riot, Cabral then ordered all the guns from his fleet to bombard Calicut indiscriminately for a full day, wreaking immense damage, killing many citizens and starting fires which burnt entire quarters of the town.

Crowley shows us again and again how one bad deed, a bit of impatience or a slight cultural misunderstanding was liable to blow up, in Portuguese hands, into explosions of super-destructive wrath and mass murder.

The crusader mentality

It helps to understand the Portuguese approach a bit more if you realise that the Portuguese kings – John I (1481-1595) and Manuel I (1495-1521) – didn’t send out explorers and scientists – they sent warriors. And that these warriors were still steeped in the aggressive anti-Muslim ideology of the crusades.

Crowley’s narrative sets the tone by going back nearly a century before the Portuguese entered the Indian ocean, to describe the ‘crusade’ of an earlier generation when, in 1415, Portuguese crusaders attacked Ceuta, an enclave of Muslim pirates on the north coast of Africa. The Ceuta pirates had been a pest to Portuguese shipping for generations, and the Portuguese finally had enough, stormed and sacked it.

Having established the sense of antagonism between Muslims and Christians, Cowley leaps forward to the next significant moment, to when the Muslim Ottoman armies took Constantinople in 1453. The fall of Constantinople to the Muslims sent shocks waves throughout Christian Europe.

  • It made Christian kings, and their peoples, all over Europe feel threatened
  • It cut off trade routes to the East, for spices and so on

1. The quest for new routes to the spice trade

In other words the fall of Constantinople provided a keen commercial incentive to navigators, explorers and entrepreneurs to come up with alternative ways of reaching the Spice Islands by sea. While in the 1490s Christopher Columbus was trying to persuade the King of Spain to fund his idea of sailing west, around the world, to reach the Indies, the King of Portugal was persuaded to fund expeditions in the opposite direction – down the coast of Africa with the hope that it would be easier to cruise around Africa and reach the Spice Islands by heading East.

The spices in question included the five ‘glorious spices’ – pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – but also ginger, cardamom, tamarind, balms and aromatics like wormwood, Socotra aloe, galbanum, camphor and myrrh.

Also brought back from India were dyes like lac, indigo and dyewood and precious ornamental objects and materials like ivory, ebony and pearls. All these good fetched up to ten times as much on the quaysides of Lisbon or Venice as they cost to buy in Calicut. But that was when they had been transhipped from warehouses in the ports of the Middle East. The conquest of Constantinople reduced the transhipment trade and led to a more aggressive attitude from Muslim traders, which badly hurt the commercial prosperity of Venice, in particular.

2. Outflanking Islam

But the aim of the explorers was not only to get commercial access to the spice trade. throughout the Middle Ages it had been widely believed that Christianity had been carried by the apostle James and others, deep into Africa, into Arabia, and even as far as India.

So there was a military element to the expeditions. Christian strategists thought that, if the explorers could make contact with the Christian communities which were believed to exist in faraway India, and were able to link up – then together they would be able to surround, the European armies attacking from the west, the newly awakened Indian Christian armies attacking from the East.

In other words, alongside the element of exploration, ran an aggressive continuation of the fierce anti-Muslim, crusading mentality of John and Manuel’s medieval forebears.

This helps to explain the unremitting anti-Muslim hostility of the commanders of all the great Portuguese Armadas to the East. Not only did their kings demand it, not only was it part of their explicit, written instructions (which survive to this day), but their conquering mentality was backed up by the full force of the pope and the Holy Catholic Church.

The whole European apparatus of state power, religious intolerance, and the technology of war – metal armour and huge shipboard cannons – was brought to bear on the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean.

Wage war and total destruction… by all the means you best can by land and sea so that everything possible is destroyed. (The Regimento or instructions given by King Manuel I to Dom Francisco de Almeida in 1505)

Thus it was that warrior-sailors like the Sodré brothers or the du Albuquerque cousins received orders quite simply to destroy all Muslim ships and trade between the Red Sea and Calicut.

Sadism and intimidation were seen as legitimate tactics. The reader loses count of the number of local hostages, ambassadors and civilians who are taken by the Portuguese who, if anything displeases them, proceed to hang their hostages from the yardarms, before dismembering them and returning their scattered body parts to their horrified relatives waiting on shore. This happens lots of times.

When Vicente Sodré intercepted a large Muslim ship carrying a full cargo of treasure, commanded by the wealthy and well-known merchant Mayimama Marakkar, Vicente had Marakkar stripped naked, tied to the mast, whipped and then subjected to the Portuguese practice of merdimboca or ‘shit in the mouth’ – the name says it all – with the added refinement that the Portuguese forced Marakkar – an eminent and pious Muslim – to eat pork and bacon fat (p.141).

Deliberately offensive, determined to rule by Terror, fuelled by genocidal racism, unflinching, unbending and merciless, the Portuguese conquerors, in this telling, seem like the Nazis of their day.

Conquerors

So this is the story which Crowley’s book tells: the story of how tiny Portugal, at the far western tip of Europe, managed in thirty or so years, from the late 1490s to the 1520s, to establish the first global empire in world history – in reality a set of connected outposts dotted along the west and east coasts of Africa, the west coast of India – before moving on to explore the East Indies – all the while pursuing this policy of unremitting intimidation and extreme violence. It’s a harrowing read. Noses are slit and hands chopped off on pretty much every page.

Conquerors is divided into three parts:

  1. Reconnaissance: the Route to the Indies (1483-99)
  2. Contest: Monopolies and Holy War (1500-1510)
  3. Conquest: The Lion of the Sea (1510-1520)

Over and above the narrative of events, we learn a couple of Big Things:

1. How to round the Cape of Good Hope

The navigational breakthrough which allowed all this to happen was the discovery of how to round the Cape at the southernmost tip of Africa. For generations Portuguese ships had hugged the coast of Africa as they tentatively explored south and this meant that they struggled with all kinds of headwinds, shoals and rocks, particularly as they rounded the big bulge and struggled east into the Gulf of Guinea. The net result was that by 1460 they had established maps and stopping points at the Azores, Madeira, but only as far south along the African coast as the river Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The Great Breakthrough was to abandon the coast altogether and give in to the strong north-easterly winds which blew sailing ships south and west out into big Atlantic – and then, half way down the coast of Brazil, to switch direction back east, and let the strong west winds blow you clean back across the Atlantic and under the Cape of Good Hope. See the red line on the map, below. This immensely significant discovery was made in the 1460s.

That’s if things went well. Which they often didn’t – with calamitous results. Crowley reports that of the 5,500 Portuguese men who went to India between 1497 (the date of Vasco de Gama’s first successful rounding of the Cape), 1,800 – 35% – did not return. Most drowned at sea.

All the armadas suffered significant loss of life to shipwreck and drowning.

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

2. The accidental discovery of Brazil

The Second Portuguese India Armada, assembled in 1500 on the order of Manuel I and commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, followed the strategy of heading west and south into the Atlantic in order to catch easterly winds to blow them round the tip of Africa. But the ships went so far that they sighted a new land in the west, landed and claimed it for Portugal.

It was Brazil, whose history as a western colony begins then, in April 1500, though it was to be some time before anybody made serious attempts to land and chart it, and Crowley makes no further mention of it.

3. Rivalry with Venice

I knew the Portuguese were rivals with the Spanish for the discovery and exploration of new worlds. I hadn’t realised that the creation of a new route to the Spice Islands rocked the basis of Venice’s maritime trade and empire.

Venice had for generations been the end point for the transmission of spices from India, across the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea to Suez, across land to Cairo, and by ship to Italy. This was all very expensive, especially the transhipment across land. Venice was rocked when the entire supply chain was jeopardised by the new Portuguese sea route, which resulted in huge amounts of spices and other exotic produce ending up on the quays of Lisbon at a fraction of the Venetian price.

With the result that the Venetian authorities sent spies to Lisbon to find out everything they could about the Portuguese navigators, their new routes and discoveries. They also sent emissaries to the Sultan in Cairo, putting pressure on him to either take punitive measures against the Portuguese, or to lower the taxes he charged on the land journey of Venetian spices from Suez to Cairo and on to Alexandria. Or both.

The sultan refused to do either. Venetian fury.

The rivalry of Venice is sown into the narrative like a silver thread, popping up regularly to remind us of the importance of trade and profit and control of the seas 600 years ago, and of the eternally bickering nature of Europe – a seething hotbed of commercial, religious and political rivals, all determined to outdo each other.

Prester John and a new Crusade

Medieval Christendom was awash with myths and legends. One such tale concerned a mythical Christian King who ruled in wealth and splendour somewhere in Africa, named ‘Prester John’.

When King Manuel sent out his conquerors, it was not only to seize the spice trade of the Indian Ocean, but to make contact with Prester John and unite with his – presumably massive and wealthy army – to march on Mecca or Cairo or Jerusalem, or all three, in order to overthrow Islam for good and liberate the Holy Places.

Vasco de Gama had this aim at the back of his mind as he set off to round the Cape, and so did Afonso de Albuquerque who, at the end of his life, was still planning to establish Christian forts on the Red Sea and to locate the mysterious John in a joint crusade against the Muslim sultan of Cairo.

If anyone was Prester John it was the self-styled ’emperor’ of Ethiopia, who some of the Portuguese did travel to meet, although he turned out – despite all his pomp and pageantry – to be completely unprepared to help any kind of European Christian Crusade against his Muslim neighbours, not least because they completely surrounded and outnumbered him.

Still, it is important to remember that the whole point of funding these expensive armadas into the Indian Ocean wasn’t primarily to open up new commercial routes: for the king and his conquerors, that was a happy side aim, but the Key Goal was to link up with the kingdom of Prester John and the imagined Christian kingdoms of the East, in order to exterminate Islam and liberate the Holy Places.

Crowley’s approach – more adventure than analysis

Crowley’s approach is popular and accessible. He prefers anecdote to analysis.

Thus the book’s prologue opens with a giraffe being presented to the Chinese emperor in Beijing in the early 1400s. This had been collected by the Chinese admiral Admiral Zheng He, who led one of the epic voyages which the Yongle Emperor had commissioned, sending vast Chinese junks into the Indian Ocean in the first decades of the 15th century. The flotillas were intended to stun other nations into recognition of China’s mighty pre-eminence and had no colonising or conquering aim.

The Yongle emperor was succeeded in 1424 by the Hongxi emperor who decided the expeditions were a waste of time and so banned further ocean-going trips, a ban which within a few decades extended to even building large ocean-going vessels: small coastal trading vessels were allowed, but the Ming emperors hunkered down behind their Great Wall and closed their minds to the big world beyond.

One way of looking at it, is that the Hongxi emperor handed over the world to be colonised by European nations.

The point is Crowley gets into this important issue via an anecdote about a giraffe, and doesn’t really unpack it as much as he could.

A few pages later, the main text of the book opens with a detailed account of the erection of a commemorative cross on the coast of Africa by Diogo Cao in August 1483. It was one of several he erected on his exploratory voyage down the west African coast.

In both instances Crowley is following the time-honoured technique of starting a chapter with an arresting image and dramatic scene. The problem is that when he proceeds to fill in the background and what led up to each incident, I think his accounts lack depth and detail. For example, my ears pricked up when he mentioned Henry the Navigator, but Henry’s life and career were only fleetingly referenced in order to get back to the ‘now’ of 1483. I had to turn to Wikipedia to get a fuller account of Henry’s life and importance.

Once on Wikipedia, and reading about Henry the Navigator, I quickly discovered that ‘the invention of the caravel was what made Portugal poised to take the lead in transoceanic exploration’, because of the light manoeuvrability of this new design of ship.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

Crowley certainly has some pictures of caravels, and describes them a bit, but doesn’t really give us enough information to ram home why their design was so game-changing.

It may be relevant that Crowley studied Literature not History at university. He is continually drawn to the dramatic and the picturesque, and skimps on the analytical.

To give another example, Crowley periodically namechecks the various popes who blessed the armadas and gave instructions as to the converting of the heathen and fighting the Unbeliever. He briefly mentions the famous Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, whereby Pope Alexander VI brokered the deal deciding which parts of the New World would belong to the rivals Spain and Portugal. But there is nowhere any real analysis of the enormous role the popes and the Catholic Church played in the geopolitics behind all this exploring and conquering.

Instead, Crowley is continually drawn to the most vivid and melodramatic moments: battles are described in terms of who got an arrow in the eye, and strategy is more seen as deriving from the raging impatience of this or that Portuguese commander than from higher-level geopolitical imperatives.

The personal, not the wider geo-political situation, is what interests Crowley in Europe and Indian and Islamic politics.

Crowley’s style

Crowley writes the short staccato sentences of a popular thriller – fine if you’re looking for poolside entertainment, but not enough if you’re looking for something with a little more analysis and insight.

It was time to move on. However, the wind thwarted their departure. The wind turned. They were forced back to the island. The sultan tried to make peace overtures but was rebuffed. Ten nervy days ensued. (p.67)

This is thriller writing, or the prose style of a modern historical romance.

Either Crowley, his editors or his publishers decided that hos book would be best marketed as popular, accessible, hair-raising history. Thrilling, gripping and often quite horrible history.

In the rain, with the continuous gunfire, in a tropical hell, soaking and sweating in their rotting clothes, they were increasingly gripped by morbid terror that they were all going to die. (p.275)

He gives us gripping individual scenes, but not so many real insights, let alone overarching analysis or ideas.

Thus, despite the book being some 360 pages long, and including lengthy end notes, I felt I’d only scratched the surface of these seismic events, had been told about the key dates and events, and seen quite a few hands being cut off – but was left wanting to understand more, a lot more, about the geographical, economic, technological and cultural reasons for the success of Portugal’s cruel and barbarous explorers and empire makers.

This feeling was crystallised when the book ended abruptly and without warning with the death of the bloodthirsty visionary, Afonso de Albuquerque, in 1415.

For sure he was a central figure, who grasped the strategic importance of seizing Goa, who tried to storm Aden, who arranged a native coup at Ormuz, who burned Muslim towns and ships without mercy, who chopped the hands and ears off his hostages by the score. By page 330 he had become the dominant figure of the book, almost as if it the book was at one stage intended to be a biography of just him.

So the book ends with his death in 1515 but … the Portuguese Empire had only just got going. There would be at least another century of colonising effort, in Brazil, on the coast of Africa, and further East, into Malaysia, Japan and China. A century more of adventures, wars and complex politicking.

None of that is here. Crowley briefly refers to all that on the last pages of his book, before a few sententious paragraphs about how it all led to globalisation and modern container ships. But of the real establishment and running of the Portuguese Empire which stretched from Brazil to Japan there is in fact nothing.

The book’s title is therefore a bit misleading. It should be titled something more like The generation which founded the Portuguese empire. That would excuse and explain his relatively narrow focus on de Gama, Cabra and Albuquerque, and on the king who commissioned their exploits, Manuel I. Maybe adding Manuel’s dates – 1495-1521 – would make it even clearer.

In fact, with a bit of rewriting, the book could have become Manuel I and the conquerors who founded the Portuguese Empire: that accurately describes its content.

The current title gives the impression that it will be a complete history of the Portuguese Empire – which is why I bought it – and which is very far indeed from being the truth.


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