RSS Feed

Category Archives: Geoffrey Hoyle

Loving the Alien: Fifth Planet by Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle (1963)

fifth-planetIn previous posts I have looked at the science  fiction writing  of Fred Hoyle in the television  dramas A for Andromeda and The Andromeda Breakthrough,  as well as his novel, October the First is too Late Written with his son Geoffrey Hoyle,  Fifth Planet  echoes the plot  of  Fred’s earlier novel The Black Cloud (1957) in which  a sentient  gas cloud entered the solar system and caused glocal catastrophe before moving on. In  Fifth Planet a star named  Helios, accompanied by its planets,  enters the solar system in the late c20th.

The central character  in the novel is Hugh Conway, a scientist  who works at the Helios Centre in the UK which  is planning a Western  expedition to land on Helios’ fifth planet, Achilles.  The Soviet bloc  is also planning an expedition.  Conway  is married to  the beautiful Cathy,  but after ten years  they  share no common interests, and she  is serially unfaithful,  including with one of the astronauts, Mike Fawsett,  as Conway knows. Although set in the future, this is clearly the world of the early 1960s with Conway reading The Times over his breakfast.

There is a good deal of scientific detail about the difficulties of rendezvousing with a moving object like Achilles and the kind of massive rocket  that would be needed to make the journey there and back.  This becomes tedious after a while.  Finally, and as a reader you are quite relieved,  both expeditions set off towards Achilles.  By the way the Soviet expedition includes a woman, Tara Ilyana, which was prescient of the Hoyles. They wrote the novel  in August 1962: on 16 June 1963 Valentina Tereshkova spent three days orbiting the earth in a Soviet Vostock capsule.

The Soviet expedition arrives first but crashes on landing,  killing one crewman and injuring another. They are rescued by the Americans after they  have landed. The atmosphere on Achilles is breathable, but there is no sign of any life,  the landscape comprising lakes and grass;

grass-and-lake

Now they knew what the green stuff was. Nothing but grass.  Grass that stretched  away from them in all directions , over hill over dale. It came up to their calves  and it had a nice soft pile. They weren’t botanists so they couldn’t tell  whether it was different from the grass back home…Even so it looked  pretty much like a clover field.  There was a light  wind that produced a slight stirring of its surface. They walked a few hundred  yards away from the rocket. The sky, they noticed, was very blue, a little richer than on Earth. The wind and the grass were producing a very gentle whispering.

Achilles seems to be an Eden, but turns out to have a serpent as  the members of the expedition start to suffer from hallucinations and other mental  disturbances. Fawsett thinks he  sees Cathy, for instance, and then has a breakdown,   while two men drive in circles, unable to escape. Another pair of  astronauts  come across a set of vertical translucent sheets on a hill:

Now that they had found something  both Larson  and Bakovsky began to think along the same lines. Theirs was the natural human reaction. What could they do to change things? They didn’t understand it, but perhaps if they could fiddle with something or other, something would happen, and  then they would begin to understand it. Fiddle with it first and think about it afterwards.  That was the thing to do…

The “fiddling” involves hurling   a hand grenade at the sheets, which turns out to be very bad idea indeed. Larson  dies on the spot “his whole personality, his very self, was lifted upwards and dissipated like puff of smoke”; Bakovsky runs for half a mile “his face strained with the utmost terror” until he reaches a lake and runs straight  in until he vanishes under the water.

Finally  the remnants of both expeditions blast off back to  Earth,  where the  Soviets and  the West are bemused and then increasingly  suspicious as to what really happened on Achilles.  Cathy is summoned to the bedside of  the traumatised Fawsett who dies in her presence.  Conway takes her home, already  aware that she is no longer his wife but someone else. “..in the first brief moment when she’d looked up at  him he’d known – he’d  known that it  was not Cathy.” An alien has travelled from Achilles  in the mind of Fawsett and then transferred to Cathy, who tells Conway she has come to find out about Earth, ” for the same reason  that you came to our planet.”nuclear-bomb

Cathy now   has  prodigious   mental  power to influence  the minds of humans which,  on returning to Britain,  she uses to create  a worldwide illusion that a nuclear war has started, though humanity eventually  divines  that it was an illusion;

Conway hadn’t realised how remarkably quick his own  recovery had been. It took the rest of the world more than  three hours to make the same  recovery. The people rose  up from the pavement, they came out of the fall-out  shelters, they came out of their graves, and they found that the sun was still shining and that their children were still alive. For the most part they broke down and wept as they had not done since they were young themselves. They didn’t know how it had happened  but they knew that in some way a hellish disaster had been avoided.

The governments of the world  realise that this illusion resembles the illusions experienced  on Achilles,  and  suspicion soon  falls on Cathy. In the final, and best  part of the novel,  with some genuine tension at long last,  Cathy and Conway go on the run,  hunted   by the army and police.  Whilst recovering from a bullet wound she tries to explain to him  how  their planet  works:

He was delighted when he realized that the nature of the animating force of life was an irregularity in a wave surface, like a flash of radiation.  As it travels in respect of time so our lives are propelled through the electrical circuits in our brain….the wave surface over a short period of time would appear like a standing wave in the four dimensional.

No,  I didn’t  understand that either.  At the  end of the novel Cathy uses her mental powers to get them  on a shuttle into space  and  the pair takes over a rocket that will get her back to Achilles. Conway is  now deeply in love with this new version of Cathy, who  has been  transformed from a housewife principally  interested in shopping and  sex  to a highly intelligent and powerful  woman,  and makes  a last minute  decision:

He looked far down the ship to where Cathy was standing, still watching him. He stood still for a moment and then with a muttered exclamation  he began to move towards her again. He stopped for a few seconds to put his arm around her waist and draw her to him, then he went over to the big control panel. Quickly he released the transit, and only then pressed the switches that started the big motors. A very faint trembling seemed to fill the ship, and at last he reached down and pressed the main control lever.  In an instant he could feel the drive   beginning, he could feel the pressure in his legs. The great rocket began to swing outwards from the Earth, it began the journey for which it had been made, the journey to the planet of the whispering grass.

In their prologue to the novel the Hoyles explain that they wrote the novel to explore some scientific ideas;

four-dimensionsfPhysics   regards the world as  four dimensional,  all moments  of time exist together.  The world can be thought  of as a map, not only spatially , but also with respect to time. The map stretches away  both into the past and into  the future. There is no such thing as  as “waiting” for the future. It is already there in the map.

I think the novel shows up Hoyle’s strengths and weaknesses as a science fiction writer. The ideas  about  space and time are intriguing,  but  the story  is often lacklustre and cliched.  The characters never really come to life off the page, except perhaps the alien  Cathy.  The idea of an alien  visitor showing humanity that nuclear war  would be disastrous seems to be a nod to the film The Day They Earth Stood Still (1951),  while the motion of an alien taking over the mind of a returning astronaut seems to be a nod to the   The  Quatermass Experiment  (1953).

Reviews

In Fifth Planet the astronomer and his son bring originality to three familiar themes: the interplanetary space race, the alien  world with disturbing novelties, and the symbiotic life-form inhabiting a human being. This last – the human being in question is the hero’s wife – achieves an uncommon pitch of conviction and even pathos. Interspersed are the attacks  on politicians as a group  and the technocratic bias which  one has come to expect from Hoyle pere. There are also references  to development  in sociology and psychology  which will have made these studies scientific, an unscientific notion, although I couldn’t quite make out whether  the Hoyles believe it or not.  They do seem to think that certain individuals are “basically”  interchangeable. This is unscientific. 

Kingsley Amis, The Observer,  8 December 1963, p.24

If  you would like to comment on this post, you can either  comment  via the blog or email me, fopsfblog@gmail.