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“the plug-in society…”: The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner (1975)

The Shockwave Rider is one of a series of influential  and wildly imaginative novels that Brunner wrote in the 1960s and 1970s in which he  imgined how society might develop in the future under the impact of  problems such as over-population and environmental pollution.

In The Shockwave Rider, Brunner’s focus is  the impact of computers on society, a technology whose use in the early  1970s was confined to large corporations,  scientific research institutes  and the government. Computers were large machines which filled whole rooms: the idea of home computers was just a distant dream. (You can find a timeline on the development of computers here).

In his introduction to the novel John Brunner writes:

People like me who are concerned to portray  in fictional terms aspects of that foreign country, the future, whither we are all willy-nilly being deported, do not make our guesses in a vacuum. We are frequently – and in this case I am specifically  – indebted to those who are analyzing  the limitless possibilities of tomorrow with some more practical aim in view…as for instance the slim yet admirable hope that our children may inherit a world more influenced by imagination and foresight than our own.  The scenario (to employ a fashionable cliche) of The Shockwave Rider derives in large part from Alvin Toffler’s stimulating  study Future Shock, and in consequence I’m much obliged to him.

Future Shock, published in 1970,   was written by Alvin and Heidi Toffler. The Tofflers argued that society was  undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society” a  change which was overwhelming  people and leaving them suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation” ie “future shock”  In their view the majority of social problems  were symptoms of  “future shock”.and “information overload.”

The Tofflers explicitly referenced  science fiction: “… science fiction has immense value as a mind-stretching force for the creation of the habit of anticipation. Our children should be studying Arthur C. Clarke, William Tenn, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Robert Sheckley, not because these writers can tell them about rocket ships and time machines but, more important, because they can lead young minds through an imaginative exploration of the jungle of political, social, psychological, and ethical issues that will confront these children as adults.” 

Brunner  specificlaly references the book in the novel :“oh, well the fact it it took us by surprise is just another example of Toffler’s Law, I guess: the future arrives too early and in the wrong order.”

So to the story. Nicholas Haflinger is a “dodger.”  In this  future society  computers log all citizens  and their activity,  but  Haflinger can create his own identity on the data-net (as Brunner calls it)   by  inputting   fictitious details from his veephone  – and then disappear from the gaze of the authorities.   Periodically Haflinger  purges his existing identity  and  creates a new one.

The data-net

In this future those  with money   have adopted the “plug-in” lifestyle”  which offers  never-ending change as one  vacuous trend replaces another, one job replaces another, one house replaces another,  one partner replaces another… ad infinitum.  Television offers multiple three-vee channels which are periodically hijacked by pirate channels broadcasting from satellites. There are also  competing religious groups: eg the Billykings (Protestants), the Grailers (Catholic), the Jihadi babies (Muslims),  who attack  each other in gang wars (known as “triballing).

The computer networks offer public Delphi boards  on which the public bets on the outcome of predictions.

It works approximately like this.

First you corner a large – if possible, a very large  – number of people who, while they’ve never formally  studied the subject you’re going to ask them about and hence are unlikley to recall the correct answer, are nonetheless plugged into the culture to which a question relates.

Then you ask them, as it might be, to estimate how many people died in the great influenza epidemic, which followed World  War 1, or how many  loaves were condemned by EEC food inspectors as unfit for human consumption during June 1970.

Curiously, when you consolidate their replies they tend to cluster around the actual figure as recorded in almanacs, year-books and statistical returns,

It’s rather as though this paradox has proved true: that while nobody knows what’s going on around here, everybody knows what’s going on around here.

Well, it works for the past, why can’t it work for the future? Three hundred million people with access to the integrated North American data-net is a nice big number of potential consultees. Unfortunately  most of them are running scared from the awful specter of tomorrow. How best to corner people who just do not watn to know?

An orphan,  Haflinger was  was recruited from school  by the government and taken to a training and educational facility called Tarnover. It’s dedicated to:

…exploiting genius. Their ancestry could  be traced back to the primitive “think tanks” of the mid-twentieth century, but only in the sense that a solid-state computer was descended from Hollerith’s  punched-card analyzer. Every superpower, and a great many second-hand and third-rank nation has similar  centres. The brain race had been running  for decades and some countries had entered it with head start. (The pun was popular, and forgivable.) 

The USA entered the race on the grand scale very late. Not until the nation was reeling under the impact of the Great Bay Quake was the harsh lesson learned that the economy could not absorb disasters of even this magnitude. Even then it took years for the switch from brawn to brain to become definitive in North America. ..the goal? To pin down before anybody else did the genetic elements of wisdom.

Haflinger flourishes at Tarnover –  but  then  he discovers that they are trying to   make  a superhuman through genetic experiments, creating life that is brought to term in an artificial  womb. Appalled, he goes on the run

At the start of the novel,  after deleting  his identity as Arthur Lazarus, founder and proprietor  of the Church  of Infinite Insight  in a converted drive-in movie theatre near Toledo,  Haflinger creates  a new identity as Sandy Locke, a computer-sabotage consultant, and  gets a job with  a corporation called G2S.  All well and good and as planned.  But then he meets a woman  called  Kate  Lilleberg  who sees  right through his role-playing. “You Sandy Locke are trying far too hard to adhere to a  statistical norm. and I hate to see a good man go to waste.”

Californian commune, 1970

The strain of living too many lives and having to constantly maintain a facade brings about Haflinger’s mental collapse from which he is rescued by Kate.  They become  lovers and go on the run, eventually  ending  up at at Precipice, one of the settlements created  by refugees from Northern Califiornia after the Great Bay Quake which levelled San Francisco.  The town is reached by a meandering electric rail-car.  “Among the things Precipicians  didn’t like  might be cited the data-net, veephones, surface vehicles not running on tracks, heavier-than air craft…modern merchandising methods and the Federal government.”

Precipice rejects “the plug-in society”;  the inhabitants   lives  life in environmental way  with  a strong sense of  place and community, guided by a grassroots democracy. But it hides some vital secrets that  protect its  independence  from a Federal governmnet that loathes it and from the tribes  who  try and  raid the town from time to time. This description of a human-based society  seems very inspired by the communes that sprang up in California in the 1970s.

After a falling out Kate and Haflinger  spilt up and leave Precipice.   Haflinger  is identified and captured, returned to Tarnover  and questioned relentlessly  about his life on the run.

His interogator Freeman tells him: “…But you see you are nobody. And you chose to be so of  your own free will. Legally, officially,   you simply don’t exist.” Kate too is abducted and interogated to put pressure on him. But, convinced by Haflinger’s relentless logic, his interrogator Freeman releases them unofficially.  The couple then criss-cross  the United States, borrowing home computers   as Haflinger creates and releases  a  worm that cannot be killed   into  the data-net, as he tells a press conference held in building occupied by students;

…consist in a comprehensive and irrevocable order to release at any printout station any and all data in store whose publication may conduce to the enhanced  well-being, whether physical, psychological or social of the population of North America. Specifically…information concerning gross infringements of Canadian, Mexican and.or United Staets legal enactmnets respecting  – in order of priority- public health, the protection of the environment, bribery and corruption, fair business and the payment  of national taxes, shall be dissemminated automatically  to the media.

In other words there are  no longer any secrets.

They return to Precipice where  they  and the town face  a final  apocalyptic threat from the Federal Government  that only Halflinger’s extraordinary talent for altering the data-net can save them from.  Can  he achieve  the impossible?

The Shockwave Rider  is  at heart a novel of ideas and possibilities :  the core of the novel is Freeman’s and Haflinger’s dialogue on the kind of  society they are living in – and what an alternative might be.  Highly recommended.

 

 

“pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name…” the new Doctor Who novel: Scratchman by Tom Baker and James Goss (2019)

This Doctor Who novel was a long time in coming. It began life as a joint  script dreamt up by Tom Baker and his co-star,  the late Ian Marter (who played Unite medic Harry  Sullivan in  Doctor Who between 1974 and 1975).    A good deal of the original story seems to have been  worked on between rounds  in their favourite London pubs or the Colony Club. Giving  it the name   name Doctor Who Meets Scratchman the two actors got as far as talking to director James Hill about a possible film,  but it never progressed any further.

Flash forward forty odd years and the project has been  revived and turned into a novel  in a collaboration between Tom and the very  experienced writer James Goss,  whose previous Doctor Who work  has included  the novels City of Death (2015), The Pirate Planet (2017) and  Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen (2018). In an interview in Doctor  Who Magazine (534)  James says:

At the start of the project I sat down with Tom and a storyline… Although a script of Scratchman exists, there were a  few hints that  it wasn’t quite what Tom and Ian had originally envisaged. So we went right back to the original story and built it up from there.  ..Tom was very influential in shaping the story. 

Scratchman features The Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan. The story is told in a series of flasbacks by the Doctor himself who has been hauled up in front of an assembly of Time Lords with the snappy  title of the Convocation of Oblivion. They’re not happy.

Your recent actions endangered the enture universe,” the Zero Nun informed me.

Yes. Something trivial like that.

The crowd seethed. There was hunger to them….

“All right,” I told her. “But in order to do that I need to teach you about the fear”.

“Fear?” she blinked. That got her.

“Yes.” I addressed the  entire chamber. “You see, even the Time Lords are afarid of something . And tonight, I’m going show you what it is. Are you sitting  comfortably? Of course you are. And  I’m  rather afraid that’s the problem…”

The novel opens  with the Doctor and his companions landing on a  remote Scottish island. (Science fiction and Scottish islands seems to  naturally go together, one thinks  of Target Luna, The Andromeda Breakthrough, Orbit One ZeroAliens in the Mind etc).

A peculiar breeze drifted through the fading daylight on the island. The strange wind howled around the field, circling like a cat before settling down.

A sheep observed all this curiously. Confirming her worst suspicions, a large blue box pushed its way out of thin air onto the grass. The ewe shook her head sadly and trotted away.

The island is picturesque,  but the Doctor senses something in the air. He’s right, of course. They  soon discover that the scarecrows on the island are mutated villagers. They are alive (sort of)  –   and  malevolent,  and it’s not long before the Doctor and the remaining  villagers are barricaded  in the local church in a  classic “base under siege” scenario with the scarecrows hammering on the doors. (The Doctor comes up  with a collective noun for scarecrows, by the way  “a scratch”)

The Doctor manages to get them out of this,   but this is just the begining of their troubles. If the first half is gothic in feel, the second half draws on classic Greek tales, particularly The Odyssey.

The Doctor, having been separated from Sarah and Harry, finds himself in a mythological place. If I tell you that he’s driven there by Charon (in a London taxi) you’ll probably guess where he is (or appears to be, for nothing is straightforward and nothing is what it seems). Can the Doctor free himself and rescue his companions?

Between them Tom and James have successfully evoked a particular era of Doctor Who without it being a pastiche and I  personally enjoyed it a great deal, particularly some of the phrases in the novel. Here are a few of my favourites;

“Oh,”  said Sarah, and it was the saddest of “oh’s”.

“I love a good barricade, it reminds me of the Siege of Leningrad”.

“That”,  I said very  gravely, “is a bag of jelly babies”. I took the sweets  from Harry’s hand and offered them around. No takers.

I took refuge in the canapes, successfully helping myself to a vol-au-vent. It’s quite something when  only the profiteroles believe in you.

“What lies beneath… ” my review of the Doctor Who novel: Molten Heart by Una McCormack (2018)

This is one of three novels  published by the BBC which  feature The Thirteenth Doctor for the first time (the other two  are Combat Magicks by Steve Cole and The Good Doctor by Juno Dawson).

Team Tardis (the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan and Graham) land on Adamantine, a planet on which nothing ever seems to have happened, nor ever seems likely to . But nothing is what it seems (is it ever in the world of the Doctor?)

The best travellers  – the very best – aren’t fooled by surfaces. The best travellers know that if they want to find treasures, they must dig, dig deep, below the surface, down to the heart. And below the surface this world – Adamantine – indeed has many treaures to show. Many trearures, and some terrors,  and always, always adventure. The best travellers  always find adventure.

The time and space travellers do indeed find adventure, coming across a beautiful  city. This is  how Yaz sees it;

Sheer white towers shot skywards.Anywhere else, Yaz might have thought  they were glass skyscrapers, but not here.These were like huge  stalagmites, hollowed out, a whole city of crystals. They seemed to shine from within, and here and there white jewels and pale gemstones – sapphire and ruby and topaz and emerald  – had been set into the crystal structures to make patterns  and decorations., beautiful and intricate mosaics. Light bounced off these from every angle.  The whole City shimmered, as if the stone was gently swaying to an alien rhythm.

The city’s inhabitants (some friendly, some not) are even more remarkable:   the Doctor and her friends quickly  find themselves caught up in a  power  and philosophical struggle whose outcome will determine the future of the planet.

A key theme in the book  is  how  people (whether humans or aliens)  respond to challenges to existing thinking.  Some will  accept new knowledge  which overturns orthodoxy, others will violently  reject it as heresy.

Nobody  is truly evil in this book.   There are people making the wrong decisions from fear or ignorance,  but not from malevolence.

In conclusion, a excellent addition to the canon of Doctor Who novels  which  stretches back to 1964’s Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks written by David Whittaker (and which I  can remember reading as a child )

 

 

 

 

A god of death is born …The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin (1972)

Ursula Le Guin is one of the most important science  fiction writers of the twentieth century, whose works such  The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossesed   continue to be very influential.  Ursula  was an activist in the USA in the campaign against the Vietnam War,  and The Word for World Is Forest clearly emerged from that experience. Much of the  war was fought in forests between the Americans,  who had vast  military techonology, and the guerilla army of the  Vietcong, who had no such weaponry, but  were armed instead  with an  unrelenting desire to be free.

The novel  is set on Athshe, a planet  entirely covered by forests  in which live the Athsheans, a  small,  peaceful,  highly intelligent,  humanoid  race whose bodies are  covered  with green fur.  The planet is colonised by  several thousand Earthmen –   who rename  it New Tahiti   –  and begin cutting down the forests and shipping  the wood  back to Earth. They make virtual slaves of the Athsheans,  using them as labourers or  for sexual  gratification as there are few  Earth women.

The  three  main characters are the Earthman Davidson,  the Earthman Lyubov,  and the Athshean  Selver. Davidson is a military man who regards the Athsheans  (or “creechies” as the colonists call  them) with contempt: “the creechies are lazy, they’re dumb, they’re treacherous, and they don’t feel pain”. He personifies the masculine mindset,  reflecting  to himself: “the fact is the only time a man  is really and entirely  a man is when he’s just had a woman or killed another man”.  Lyubov,  by contrast,   tries to underestand the Athsheans, their culture of singing , their  symbiotic relationship with  the forest, and the fact that the Athsheans dream when  they are awake as well as when they are asleep.

Davidson rapes Selver’s wife who dies.  Selver realises that the Earthmen  intend to destroy the forest,  and therefore his people,  unless they are stopped  – and  begins to dream of a way of achieving this. He tells his people:

If we wait  a lifetime or two they will breed, their numbers will double or redouble. They kill men and women, they do not spare those who ask life. They cannot sing in contests. They have left their roots behind them, perhaps, in this  other forest  from which they come, this forest with no trees. So they take poison  to let loose the dreams in them, but it only makes them drunk or sick. No one can say whether they ‘re men or or not men , whether they’re sane or insane, but that does not matter. They must be made to leave the forest. If they will not go they must be burned out of the Lands, as nests of stinging-ants must be burned out of of the groves of the city…Tell any people who dream of a city burning to come after me..

Selver co-ordinates attacks from  thousands of Athsheans on the Earth settlements, killing many men and women,  and setting fire to the buildings.  His friend Lyubov dies in one of the attacks. Selver  pens the survivors into a compound and negotiates a truce. This is broken by Davidson who  organises attacks on the Athshean cities in the forest. Finally, Selver captures him alive, and tells him:

Look Captain Davidson..we’re both gods, you and I. You’re an insane one and  I’m  not sure whether I’m sane  or not, But we are gods…We bring each such gifts as gods bring.  You gave me a gift, the gift of killing of one’s  kind, murder. Now, as well as I can, I give you the my people’s gift which is not killing. I think we each find each other’s gift heavy to carry. 

Davidson is not killed,  but put  on a treeless island, to live alone. Emissaries from Earth and other planets  arrive who prepare to evacuate all  the surviving  Earth colonists.  One of the envoys asks Selver whether Athsheans are  now killing Athsheans. Selver replies sombrely :

Sometimes a god comes…He brings a new way to do a thing, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death. He bring this across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time. When he has done this, it is done. You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretences. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending  now, that we do not know how to kill one another. 

As well as the background of the Vietnam War, there are clear resonances in the novel of the way that  native Americans were treated by European  colonists who raped and killed them and took their land; and  the similar  experience of the Aborigine peoples of Australia, who also talk of a “dream-time”.

While  Selver and Lyubov  have some complexity as  characters,  with Selver  feeling that what he has unleashed is dreadful   but also feeling that he has not other  choice, Davidson is  one dimensional,  a man in thrall to  his own needs and desires –   and with no empathy for others.   Reflecting some years later Ursula acknowledged this flaw  in the novel. “….he is purely evil – and I don’t, consciously, believe purely evil people exist. But my unconscious has other opinions. It looked into itself and produced, from itself, Captain Davidson. I do not disclaim him“.

Whether she intended or not, Ursula’s novel is very much a feminist riposte to  Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959)  – written against the backdrop of the Cold War  –  which  imagined  a  future society in which you can only become a citizen by serving in the military. It is in fact a paean to the alleged virtues of the military “code of honour” , a code unpicked  by Ursula in this novel to reveal its true reality: racism and murder.

The Word for World Is Forest had some influence  on “Kinda”,  a 1982 Doctor Who serial  written by Christopher Bailey,  his   first script for Doctor Who.  Like Ursula’s novel “Kinda ” is   set in a forest with a people  confonting colonists and is  a psychological, rather than an action serial, with layers of meaning and  a number  of spiritual  reference.  Bailey says  that he tried to write it without any people being killed, and  that he  name the main  characters after Buddhist terms, including the Mara (“temptation”),  Panna (“wisdom”),  and Anatta (“without self”).    Incidentally Panna was played by the wonderful  Mary Morris who,  among many other roles,  appeared in the BBC science fiction series  A for Andromeda and The Andromeda Breakthrough as the scientist Madeline Dawnay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choose Life or Death? We Who Are About To…by Joanna Russ (1977)

Joanna Russ (1937-2011) was  one of the most influential science  fiction writers of the second half  of the  twentieth century. This novel –  which  takes its title from a phrase quoted by  Roman historian Suetonius and   allegedly  uttered by prisoners in the fighting arena  “Caesar,  we who  about to die salute you, ”  – was first published in the UK  in the  Women’s  Press groundbreaking  science fiction series. (You can find a full list of the novels in the series here).

So you might  expect a novel appearing in a science  fiction  series to be, well, a science fiction novel. Yet  the science  fiction element  starts and stops on the first  two pages in which a  group of  eight passengers – travelling to another planet  by some kind of  manipulation of the fabric of space  – end up on an unknown planet which  might not even be in our own galaxy. So far, so Lost in Space.  However,  this isn’t a cheery tale  of plucky humans bonding together to survive in challenging conditions. Far from it.

In the  first half of the book the majority of the  survivors, who have no survival skills and are relying on  strictly limited supples of food and water, decide that they must carry on and build a “civilisation.”  The book’s  female   narrator, a musicologist and a Quaker,  (who records the ensuing events on a voice recorder, perhaps for posterity, perhaps not)   responds that “Civilisation is doing fine…We just don’t happen to be where it is.”  She believes that the others  are deluding themselves and that  they should prepare to accept their inevitable  death.  She  sums up their situation to herself:

Goodbye ship, goodbye crew, goodbye books, goodbye freight, goodbye baggage, goodbye computers that could have sent back an instantaneous  distress call along the coordinates we came through (provided it had them which I doubt), goodbye plodding laser signal, no faster than other light, that might have reached somewhere, sometime, this time, next time, never. You’ll get around to us in a couple of thousand years. 

We’re a handful of persons in a metal bungalow: five women, three men, bedding, chemical toilet, simple tools, an even simpler pocket laboratory, freeze-dried food for six months, and a water -distiller with its own sealed powerpack, good for six months (and cast as a unit, unsuitable for anything else).

At dawn I held hands  with the other passengers…although I hate them.

O God, I miss my music.

She  also objects to the  proposal that the younger  women  must become pregnant as soon as possible, whether they want  to or not and whether they like the man or not.  The survivors have reverted to male control, sometimes by violence,  with the women  sidelined, other than as future mothers.  The narrator  quickly becomes ostracised and decides to leave the others to their own devices. Or so she hopes.

Joanna Russ

In the second half of the book the narrator,  now on her own,  slides into a hallucinatory state as she thinks back to her former  radical  political activity as a Communist  in the  “twenties riots” and starts to see people from her distant and more recent past. The end is perhaps predictable from the start.

This is  an intelligent, extremely well written   novel exploring issues around male and female roles in society and how we  should die in a good way,  but the science  fiction element is  a merely  a mcguffin to launch the narrative, and having served its need, is swiftly dispensed with.  The events could just as  easily  have taken place on a deserted island after a shipwreck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weird sex: Memoirs of a Spacewoman by Naomi Mitchison (1962)

memoirs-of-a-spacewomanIn 2017  I  will be trying to post  as much as possible about science fiction written  by women. So far all the books and television series  I have posted about since I started this blog  have been  written by men, which reflects  the nature of the genre for much of  the  first half of the twentieth century.  But things began to change slowly in the 1960s.

One example is  Memoirs of a Spaceman by Naomi Mitchison (1897 – 1999), published in 1962. At the age of  65 this was Naomi’s first venture into science fiction: prior to this  she was known for her many novels, travelogues and frank autobiography.

Let’s imagine for a minute that   you are a man in your early 30s who is a science fiction “aficianado” (not a “fan,” much too vulgar). You have read and enjoyed the  work of Wells, Wyndham and Hoyle, men  who  showed you the Earth threatened  by Martians, airships, Triffids, “Bathies”, not forgetting  an interstellar gas cloud.  On television you have watched and enjoyed 1984, the Quatermass serials, A for Andromeda and its sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough. 

Nothing you have read or seen has shaken your view of  society or marriage or  sex in the slightest. So you buy a copy of Memoirs of a Spacewoman,  hoping perhaps  for a racy tale of ray-gun toting young women  in  spacesuits and  you sit down in your favourite armchair by the fire, with your favourite pipe and a glass of your favourite malt whisky, and you begin reading…  and after a few seconds  your world  starts to tilt  sideways, like the Tardis caught in a tractor beam.

The novel begins reflectively:

I think about my friends and the fathers of my children. I think about my children, but I think less about my four dear normals than I think  about Viola. And I think about Ariel. And the other. I wonder sometimes  how old I would be if I counted the years of time blackout during exploration. It would be an alarming thought  if that kind of thought happened to alarm  me. Then I begin to wonder how many more voyages I should undertake, supposing of course that i don’t get killed.

Mary is a  communications expert whose role on her various voyages to other planets  is to establish communication with the alien species they encounter, sometime easily, sometimes traumatically.  The  space travel  involve “time blackouts,” so that many years pass before the space explorers  return to Terra (Earth), a phenomenon which at first created  problems as she recalls:

Naturally  we did not realise  at once that  time blackout was going to make difficulties. It took a few major scandals to clear that up, and after all the Terran  incest taboo has a quite sensible biological basis. Nowadays the parent-child relationship is rather strictly organised so we are not tempted to fall in love with our sons, however much they have grown up  during our time blackouts; sometimes, I feel, we are over-conditioned, so that we are not even normally attracted to them in an affectionate way. I should hate that to happen to me. but of course there are also one’s friends’ sons.

However, I know as well as the rest that one shouldn’t let oneself be attracted, and at least all my children’s fathers were in my age group or older. One ought to leave the young alone. How many times I’ve said that to myself! And usually, I will say, acted on it.

Her companions on her voyages include Martians –  not the death-dealing monstrosities of Well’s vivid imagination, but  highly intelligent,  sympathetic small  humanoids –  who communicate mostly through touch,  and  change gender depending on circumstances. Mary forms a close relationhip with Vly,  who rescues her after an explosion on  a planet they are visiting;

Dear Vly was communicating all over with his tongue, fingers, toes  and  sexual  organs.  I felt so grateful; it was so kind, so kind of him. More especially when one realises that on a mixed expedition the Martians never wish to communicate with the humans except for strictly technical and scientific purposes.  It was with this feeling of gratitude towards him, of tensions easing, that I came to waveringly. Or was it only gratitude?  Might it have been something more physiological, less ethereal? Difficult to ascertain.

Mary’s interaction  with Vly  leads to her ovaries being stimulated,  and she gives birth on the journey home to a girl she calls Viola. “This happy and delightful small entity, not entirely human, and yet mine – I remember so well the stab of tenderness towards her! And strangely, oddly, the same tenderness towards Vly.”

This  is not the only unorthodox child she has. Mary agrees  to a scientific experiment  involving grafting alien tissue onto her thigh,  which  grows  into a living organism she calls Ariel after the spirit in The Tempest.

By now Ariel  was  over three feet long. It liked to be as close as possible over the median line reaching now to my mouth and inserting a pseudopodium delicately between my lips and elsewhere…its effect on me was somewhat disconcerting. 

Eventually Ariel separates completely from Mary as though she had given birth.  The experiment seems to be a success,  but then Ariel  dies, and Mary feels grief for the dead organism.

Naomi Mitchison

Naomi Mitchison

In between her voyages Mary also has children with Terrans, choosing  the fathers sometimes for their intelligence, sometimes  for sensuous reasons. She is attracted, for instance,  to T’o M’kasi because of his hair : “the delightful heather spring  of the different  hair tensions tingling against  one’s digital  nerves as no flaccid  blond hair  does.”

Mary  recounts her exploits on various planets and on Terra  in chatty and frank way,  as though you were having lunch together  in a Cheltenham teashop. Memoirs of a Spaceman is an intellectually dazzling  exploration of relationships (human and alien), sexuality (human and alien) and the joys and difficulties of communication (human and alien). Naomi Mitchison’s novel  bears almost  no  relationship to the kind of novels being produced by her male contemporaries: put simply, it’s  decades ahead of them and it’s unsurprising that it was reprinted in 1985 by The Women’s Press in their science fiction series. You can find a complete list of the novels in that  series here.

 

 

 

” intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic”: The War of the Worlds by H G Wells (1898)

mars

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. .. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

So begins H G  Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds, a book which, perhaps  more than any  other of his works,   created the genre  we now call science fiction.  When Wells  wrote his tale of the  invasion of southern  England  by an expedition of  Martians, Great Britain was the most powerful  and wealthiest nation on the planet with colonies in India and Africa and elsewhere, its power  buttressed  by its army and navy, confident in its God-given  destiny to rule over other races. In his introduction Wells makes an explicit political  point about how this confidence was punctured by the arrival of the Martians:

… we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

The story is told through the eyes of unnamed  narrator, a writer on philosophy,  who is taken by an astronomer friend to watch unexplained eruptions of gas on Mars over ten nights, the launching, we soon realise, of   projectiles towards the unsuspecting Earth:

One night (the first missile then could scarcely have been 10,000,000 miles away) I went for a walk with my wife. It was starlight and I explained the Signs of the Zodiac to her, and pointed out Mars, a bright dot of light creeping zenithward, towards which so many telescopes were pointed. It was a warm night. Coming home, a party of excursionists from Chertsey or Isleworth passed us singing and playing music. There were lights in the upper windows of the houses as the people went to bed. From the railway station in the distance came the sound of shunting trains, ringing and rumbling, softened almost into melody by the distance. My wife pointed out to me the brightness of the red, green, and yellow signal lights hanging in a framework against the sky. It seemed so safe and tranquil.

The first projectile falls to Earth on Horsell Common in Surrey. When it unscrews it reveals a Martian whom Wells  chooses to make  physically repulsive to Earth eyes:

Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth–above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes–were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.

The Martians never attempt to communicate with humans, they simply see them as an obstacle to their posession of a new world,  mirroring the countless massacres inflicted by Europeans  in America, Africa, Australia  and many other parts of the world.  When a welcoming party approaches the cylinder the Martians kill them all with a heat ray and  then construct metal fighting machines  which lay waste to the countryside. The narrator  describes his first encounter:

the-war-of-the-worlds

And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder. A flash, and it came out vividly, heeling over one way with two feet in the air, to vanish and reappear almost instantly as it seemed, with the next flash, a hundred yards nearer. Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground? That was the impression those instant flashes gave. But instead of a milking stool imagine it a great body of machinery on a tripod stand.

The army tries to stop them with artillery,  but the guns and the soldiers are burned and destroyed. By chance one shell does damage a fighting machine,  so the Martians respond by using a black poison gas to quell all opposition as though they were gassing an ants’ nest:

an enormous volume of heavy, inky vapour, coiling and pouring upward in a huge and ebony cumulus cloud, a gaseous hill that sank and spread itself slowly over the surrounding country. And the touch of that vapour, the inhaling of its pungent wisps, was death to all that breathe.

The Martians appear unstoppable as more cylinders fall to Earth. They  add to their armaments with a flying machine:

Something rushed up into the sky out of the greyness–rushed slantingly upward and very swiftly into the luminous clearness above the clouds in the western sky; something flat and broad, and very large, that swept round in a vast curve, grew smaller, sank slowly, and vanished again into the grey mystery of the night. And as it flew it rained down darkness upon the land.

Wells creates a vivid  and disturbing picture of  millions of refugees fleeing  i from London and other towns, turning on each other as they  desperately seek some kind of safety. This is not a picture of heroic resistance, but of a society breaking down in fear and panic.

The narrator is trapped in a ruined  house by the  fifth  cylinder crashing to earth.  Hidden a few feet from the invaders, he discovers a dreadful secret, that the Martians  are collecting humans in order to drink their blood for food. He sees this happen,  but fortunately Wells spares us the details. Escaping from the house, the narrator makes his way to  London, a city now almost empty of people.

…it was curiously like a Sunday in the City, with the closed shops, the houses locked up and the blinds drawn, the desertion, and the stillness. In some places plunderers had been at work, but rarely at other than the provision and wine shops. A jeweller’s window had been broken open in one place, but apparently the thief had been disturbed, and a number of gold chains and a watch lay scattered on the pavement. I did not trouble to touch them. Farther on was a tattered woman in a heap on a doorstep; the hand that hung over her knee was gashed and bled down her rusty brown dress, and a smashed magnum of champagne formed a pool across the pavement. She seemed asleep, but she was dead.

The farther I penetrated into London, the profounder grew the stillness. But it was not so much the stillness of death–it was the stillness of suspense, of expectation. At any time the destruction that had already singed the northwestern borders of the metropolis, and had annihilated Ealing and Kilburn, might strike among these houses and leave them smoking ruins. It was a city condemned and derelict. . . .

He now hears  a strange cry from a Martian fighting machine  endlessly repeated:

Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,” cried the voice, coming, as it seemed to me, from the district about Regent’s Park. The desolating cry worked upon my mind. The mood that had sustained me passed. The wailing took possession of me. I found I was intensely weary, footsore, and now again hungry and thirsty….As I crossed the bridge, the sound of “Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,” ceased. It was, as it were, cut off. The silence came like a thunderclap.

The narrator finds the  fighting machines standing motionless,  and discovers that the Martians are all dead, killed,  it  later transpires,  by Earth’s  bacteria:

In another moment I had scrambled up the earthen rampart and stood upon its crest, and the interior of the redoubt was below me. A mighty space it was, with gigantic machines here and there within it, huge mounds of material and strange shelter places. And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians–dead!–slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.

In the final chaper the narrator brings the story up to date with the Martians,  it seems from observations,   having  invaded Venus. But he is not confident  that the threat has gone for ever,  and the ending of the novel  is melancholic:

It may be, on the other hand, that the destruction of the Martians is only a reprieve. To them, and not to us, perhaps, is the future ordained.

I must confess the stress and danger of the time have left an abiding sense of doubt and insecurity in my mind. I sit in my study writing by lamplight, and suddenly I see again the healing valley below set with writhing flames, and feel the house behind and about me empty and desolate. I go out into the Byfleet Road, and vehicles pass me, a butcher boy in a cart, a cabful of visitors, a workman on a bicycle, children going to school, and suddenly they become vague and unreal, and I hurry again with the artilleryman through the hot, brooding silence. Of a night I see the black powder darkening the silent streets, and the contorted bodies shrouded in that layer; they rise upon me tattered and dog-bitten. They gibber and grow fiercer, paler, uglier, mad distortions of humanity at last, and I wake, cold and wretched, in the darkness of the night.

I go to London and see the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the Strand, and it comes across my mind that they are but the ghosts of the past, haunting the streets that I have seen silent and wretched, going to and fro, phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life in a galvanised body. And strange, too, it is to stand on Primrose Hill, as I did but a day before writing this last chapter, to see the great province of houses, dim and blue through the haze of the smoke and mist, vanishing at last into the vague lower sky, to see the people walking to and fro among the flower beds on the hill, to see the sight-seers about the Martian machine that stands there still, to hear the tumult of playing children, and to recall the time when I saw it all bright and clear-cut, hard and silent, under the dawn of that last great day. . . .

woking-martianThis is still a very readable  novel, dazzling in its invention,  but also  prescient in its description of  the behaviour of populations under attack by overwhelming force. A century after Wells wrote we are sadly all too familar with the scenes he imagined…

It is a story above all  told from the viewpoint of ordinary civilians,  caught up in terrifying events:  there are no scenes set  amongst  government ministers, scientists or the military hierarchy.

The influence of The Wars of the Worlds can be seen  in science  fiction  writing,  up to and including Doctor Who: pitiless repulsive creatures, encased in a metallic machine,   and armed with a death ray, now who  does that remind  you of?

Wells’ birthplace Woking has its own Martian fighting machine as seen above.

You can read the novel online here.

Review in The Observer, 27 March 1898.

“Freshness and originality are distinguishing features in Mr Wells’ compostions, and his latest work will in no sense  disappoint his readers. It is fact extremely clever. Mr Wells depicts  the attack on England of a number of the inhabitants  of Mars, and he contrats  their highly-trained scientific methods of warfare  with our puny efforts of resistance. The moral too is admirable. We had become “soft” and “effete” and some extra mundane agency was necccessary to restore vigour to national life. ..We are assured by highly competent  critics that Mr Wells owes his inspiration to Defoe, to Swift, to Edgar Poe, and even to Jules Verne. In The War of the Worlds we can trace none of these sources of inspiration. The aspect of his work is purely native – autochthonous, as the late Professor E A Freeman might have said…The literary technique is excellent, and it is in this respect that Mr Wells gains his great superiority over the mere sensation-mongers of the day. We have enoyed reading his book. It is not a novel, but it  is good fiction.”

Productions

Orson Welles  broadcast a live production on 30th October 1938,  in which  the story was transplanted to Amercica and which caused panic in some places with its  vivid descriptions of an invasion.  You can listen to this broadcast  here, The story of the broadcast was made into a tv film in 1975, The Night that Panicked America, which  you can watch here.

The BBC broadcast a radio dramatisation in six parts  in  May – July   1950, adapted by Jon Manchip White, who had just joined the BBC Drama Script Unit as an editor.   He kept the Victorian setting  and much of Wells’ dialogue. It had  Anthony Hawtrey in the main role, with Peter Cokea s Gilvy and Derek Guyler as Stent.  The producer was David H Godfrey. This production  has not survived in the archives.  There is more information about it here.

The first film version was  made in 1953 by Paramount, starring  Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, with the  story updated and moved to the USA, and bearing scant resemblace to the original novel.  It was produced by George  Pal and directed by Byron Haskin. A  sequel was later made  for television that ran for two seasons from  1988 to 1990.

The BBC broadcast another  radio dramatisation in six parts  in June and July 1967, again  using the adaptation  by Jon Manchip White,  although he says he had nothing to do with it, and  yet  someone uncredited has updated it to the present day.  It had  Paul Daneman as Professor John Nicholson, , Isabel Rennie as Dora Nicholson,  Martin Jarvis as Ogilvy and Peter Sallis as the Parson.  The sound score was  by David Cain of the  BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The producer was   John Powell. (I can vividly remember listening to this). You can find out more about this production  here.   This production  has survived and  has been released on CD by the BBC.  It’s also available on Audible. You can listen to a clip here. 

In 1978 Jeff Wayne released an LP,   The War of the Worlds, which told the story through words and music, and  sold by the million. It was later turned into a  stage musical.  You can watch it here.

Another film version directed  by Steven Spielberg was released in 2005,  which I like even less than the 1953 version…