Tag Archives: ashley pollard

[July 16, 1962] Vegetating at the Movies (Day of the Triffids)


By Ashley R. Pollard

I’m just back from watching the film adaptation of the Day of the Triffids, which brings John Wyndham’s popular novel to the big screen.  You may remember I wrote about Wyndham’s work for the Galactic Journey last year, now I get the chance to discuss the film adaptation too.  As I said in my previous article, Wyndham is widely known over here because of the success of his novel The Day of the Triffids, which was first published in 1951.

But first let me mention that this is not the first time his story has been adapted for another medium.  While I missed the broadcast, it completely escaped me for reasons outside of my control, the British Broadcasting Corporation transmitted in 1957 a six-part radio dramatization of Wyndham’s story, presented by the BBC’s Light programme.  I was able to find out that it had Patrick Barr voicing the roll of Bill Masen, and I really wish I had been able to listen to the production.

Also, while I was compiling my notes for this article, I discovered that in 1953 the BBC Home Service transmitted Frank Duncan reading the novel that was serialized in fifteen parts, each episode being fifteen minutes long.  I mention this in part to emphasize both the importance of the story, and the impact it has had on the British public’s imagination.  It cannot be stressed too highly that Wyndham’s standing is on par with H. G. Wells.

A brief reminder that the story centres on how people survive in a world where most have been blinded and who now have to deal with triffids, which were originally bred to produce oil using genetically modified seeds that may have come from space.  These plants can move, and have stingers to attack prey.  Yes, they’re alien vegetables from space that eat meat.  From this premise Wyndham weaves a very British disaster story set in our green and pleasant land that grips one from beginning to end.

So how does this latest film adaptation fare?

The film is 93 minutes long, and as such the story is both compressed and changed, which is ironic because I was told that the film ran short and they had to add extra scenes to pad out the length of the film.  While the overall outline of people blinded and marauding carnivorous plants remains, liberties are taken.

First, the main protagonist Bill Masen is changed from being a biologist in the book into an American seaman for the film.  The journey from London to the Sussex Downs becomes instead a journey to Gibraltar, which if you read my previous article is a bit of a switch because at its core The Day of the Triffids is a very British catastrophe.  Arguably one could make the case that the film has to appeal to a wider audience, and setting it Europe opens the story, and of course provides nice shots of exotic scenery.

I can all well imagine a sequel being set in America to make it appeal more to an American audience, but I think would do a disservice to both the original novel and Americans.

Also, the backstory for the triffids changes their genesis to plants mutated by the light of the comet.  Colour me unimpressed.  There is also the deletion of the character Josella Playton, who Masen rescues in the book from a blind man who is using her to find food.

Nicole Maurey, a French actress, is cast in a role as Miss Durrant who becomes a Frenchwoman, which is understandable, but would it not have been easier to make Josella French rather than write a new character?  I’m also perplexed at the changes made to the character of Wilfred Coker, who in transposing the story as a journey from England to Gibraltar, has become a tourist caught up the catastrophe, which undermines his whole story arc.

What is even less understandable was the need to add a sub-plot set in a lighthouse.  These scenes were shot because after the film was finished being shot it was found to be too short.  This is really a poor show on the part of the person who wrote the screenplay, because there was clearly enough original source material to work from had they hewn closer to the story in the book.

The worst part is the denouement where the world is saved when it’s discovered that salt water dissolves triffids, and the religious overtones are in my mind a little at odds with Wyndham’s story. 

However, all that said, viewed on its own terms as an SF monster movie, this film is quite entertaining for what it is: 93 minutes of being chased by man-eating plants.

[June 28, 1962] A is for Armchair Theatre (Out of this World – UK’s new sff anthology)


By Ashley R. Pollard

It seems that television science fiction serials on British TV are like waiting at the bus stop for a London bus to arrive.  You don’t see one for ages, and when you do, three turn up at once. 

Therefore I am quite excited by the announcement of a new SF anthology series called Out of this World.  So excited in fact that when I heard the news, I had to sit down, and then have a nice cup of tea to calm down.  While it’s always good to see SF stories on television, the announcement of a series is also a portent of more to come.

As I understand it, Dumb Martian, which I saw this week, was going to be the story used to launch the new Out of this World series.  But, it was decided that instead it would be shown as part of the very popular Armchair Theatre series, as a way of advertising the new show.  The plan being to entice viewers who may not otherwise have switched on their television sets to watch science fiction to do so.

A sign that we still have a way to go before SF is seen as a genre that can stand on its own merits.

For those who don’t know, the Armchair Theatre is ITV’s prestigious long running series, which has been on air since 1956.  Part of this show’s remit has always been to bring quality “live drama” to the small screen.  Live drama is a euphemism for transmitting and recording a performance while it is being performed, rather than it being recorded and edited for transmission later on.  Currently Armchair Theatre is produced by Sydney Newman, a Canadian, who has taken the show into the top ten shows during his tenure.

The show has aired the occasional SF inspired story over the years like for example, The Omega Mystery, and The Ship That Couldn’t Stop.  Last December Armchair Theatre aired the Murder Club, which was an adaptation of Robert Sheckley’s short story The Seventh Victim.  It starred Richard Briers, an affable young actor, who first came to the public’s attention for starring in the sitcom Marriage Line.  I understand that the success of this adaptation led to the idea for an SF version of Armchair Theatre, which is good news indeed.

Also, as an aside, I have it on good authority that Sydney Newman has been head hunted by the BBC, which is also startling news.

To give some context for my American readers, the BBC is the state owned channel, while ITV is a commercial enterprise.  Usually ITV has more money to lure people away from our state run TV, so this is a coup for the BBC.  And for those avid followers of these reports, you may remember my article in April of last year where I mentioned a show called The Avengers, which Mr. Newman also produced.  With a second series of The Avengers coming in September his credentials for producing successful stories for television are solid.

So, please excuse my digression, but as I said I’m quite excited to be seeing SF on the small screen, having read so much about The Twilight Zone in this ‘zine.  Besides, it’s not everyday that a new SF TV series has a woman at the helm.  Irene Shubik is Out of this World’s story editor, who I know has approached John Carnell of New Worlds for ideas of stories to adapt.

Anyway, coming back to the Dumb Martian, this is a story about what happens when a spaceman purchases a Martian bride to accompany him on a five year tour of duty on a “wayload” station on the moon Callisto in Jupiter space.  He mistreats her, and we find out what happens when she turns out not to be so dumb as he had assumed.  The play ended with Boris Karloff introducing himself as the new host for Out of the World and setting the scene for Armchair Theatre’s spin-off series.

Also, what a coup to get Boris Karloff to act as the host.  His presence brings a certain quality to show, hinting that horror may be a theme, which should draw in his fans and open the show’s appeal to a wider audience.

Next week, we now have not one but two new SF series gracing the small screen.  The other being the much anticipated sequel to A for Andromeda called The Andromeda Breakthrough, I shall be reviewing them both next month.  Also, I will be giving my reaction to watching the film adaptation of the Day of the Triffids, which brings John Wyndham’s popular novel to the big screen too.

[May 21, 1962] Old AND New (UK’s New Worlds Magazine)


By Ashley R. Pollard

Here, as I sit writing in May 1962, I’m contemplating change.  The change that occurs when the old is phased out, and new things are built that replace the familiar.  What spurred this moment of reflection was the news of the last trolley bus run in London which, as fate would have it, happened on the eighth of May in my manor—London slang for my local area.  The irony is that the trolley buses were built to replace the old trams, but have now themselves fallen to the same fate of being old, and no longer appreciated for the modern convenience they once were.

Science fiction is arguably about change, hopefully not in the didactic way of, say, the classroom lecture, but rather through exploring the changes that comes from the introduction of the new.  While I’m sure that some of the Galactic Journey’s readers may consider American SF stories to be the wellspring of all that the future holds, Britain does have magazines of its own to bring stories to aficionados of the genre on this side of the Atlantic.

One of them is called New Worlds.

I will say that the history of this magazine is rather complex, and presented me with a Gordian Knot to unravel; unlike Alexander the Great, I’m not able to slice through it with a sword as the popular legend has it.  Instead I shall unravel the story by starting at the beginning, and work through to the end.  As an aside, I understand this is a better fit for what Alexander actually did, which was to pull pole pin out of the knot and unravel the loose ends, but I digress.

The roots of New Worlds lies in science fiction fandom, which in 1934 was being actively promoted by Hugo Gernsback and Charles D. Hornig at Wonder Stories, who had created the Science Fiction League as an association to further the growth of fandom.  People from around the world could apply to form an SFL chapter, and in 1935 Maurice K. Hanson and Dennis A. Jacques formed Chapter 22 of the SFL in Nuneaton, near Leicester for those who’ve never heard of the place.


Hanson, in 1937

Chapter 22 was the third of five SFL chapters formed on this side of the Atlantic: the other four being in Leeds, Belfast, Glasgow, and Barnsley.  And while they may have been the third chapter, Hanson and Jacques produced in 1936 the first fanzine published in the United Kingdom called Novae Terrae.

A total of twenty-nine issues of this British fanzine were produced between 1936 and January 1939.  I understand the workload associated with producing it eventually became too much for Hanson, and he handed it over to John Carnell, who renamed it New Worlds: a translation of the Latin title into plain English.  However, Carnell only produced four issues before the war started in 1939 and paper rationing came into effect.


Carnell, in 1936

But, when production started again in 1946, New Worlds had been transformed into a professional magazine produced by Pendulum Publications.  The first issue didn’t sell very well, but the second did, which was attributed to the cover art being very eye catching.  As a result, Carnell had all the covers stripped off the unsold copies of issue one, and reissued the magazine with the same cover art as issue two, but without the content lettering—see the illustrations for comparison.  With the new cover issue one also sold well, and things looked promising.  Unfortunately, as luck would have it, the publisher went bankrupt.

However, a group of passionate science fiction fans came together and formed Nova Publications Limited to keep New Worlds on the newsstands.  The publication schedule was what I would describe as irregular, some might say sporadic, but New Worlds thrived and went from two issues in 1949, rising to three in 1950 and four in 1951, up to six issues in 1952 before falling back to three in 1953.  Then there was a nine month hiatus, due to problems with the printer, but regular monthly issues in a new digest format appeared after Nova Publications was taken over by Maclaren & Sons.

Ever since then New Worlds has graced the newsstands across the country, and for a short time even America.  The magazine provides a source of science fiction to British readers who may not have easy access to the American magazines that Galactic Journey reviews each month.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to read May’s issue, which contains the following stories: Terminal by Lee Harding; Think of a Number by Steve Hall; Dictator Bait by Philip E. High; The Analyser by Bill Spencer; and the concluding part of a serial called The Dawson Diaries by John Rackham.  However, I will say that I’ve enjoyed most things I’ve read by Philip E. High and the tease for the story is intriguing, “Finding an alien who could change shape at will would be harder than finding the proverbial needle. There is one way, however, of flushing him out of hiding, given time and the necessary will-power.” Colour me interested.

In addition, this month’s issue of New Worlds features section has a guest editorial by J. G. Ballard, in addition to the regular readers letters page called Postmortem, a section called The Literary Line-Up, and Book Reviews by Leslie Flood.

And to end this month’s column, I would like to point to something new.  In a few days time the Coventry Cathedral will be consecrated.  The old one was destroyed by the German Luftwaffe during the second world war.  The design for the replacement building was the winner of a competition held in 1950, but the foundation stone wasn’t laid until 1956.  Now the building is finished the consecration of the cathedral will take place on May the 25th and is remarkable for being so modern—dare I say a science fictional church for a better tomorrow?

[April 22, 1962] “To ride on the curl’d clouds” (ARIEL ONE)


By Ashley R. Pollard

Looking back to October the 4th 1957 when Sputnik was launched, it’s hard to believe that only five years have passed since that fateful day when Russia beat Britain and America into space (perhaps my American readers will say that Britain had no realistic chance of getting into space first, which I would agree with, but for the Western nations to be beaten by the Russians – now that’s the thing.)

With Sputnik, humanity transitioned from flying through the air to moving through the vacuum of space, where no living animal can survive without a pressure suit. The only other time that I can think of when a paradigm shift of this nature took place would be back when the first hot-air balloons were invented. This provoked the discussion, at the time, that this was the invention of travelling through the air.

As I read the history of hot-air balloons, the idea of travelling through air as an invention seems odd to me. But as language evolves over time, so do concepts like invention, which has moved from the original Latin meaning of discovery to the more modern meaning of a process or device. Though by modern I should clarify that I mean “from the fifteenth century,” which is not surprising given the changes that arose from the Renaissance, and everything that came out of rediscovery of the knowledge of the ancient Greeks.

For those who look back on the past with rose-tinted glasses I will remind my readers that the times I’m writing about were surrounded by their own troubles. The Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, for example, which led to a westward exodus of Greek scholars that fuelled the rediscovery of ancient thinking. One can argue that today’s troubles, with West and East facing off against each other, is just part of the story of humanity’s struggle between its biological drives versus its intellectual aspirations.

Almost equidistant (physically, though not ideologically) from the Free and Communist worlds, Britain is about to become Earth’s third nation to practice the “invention” of travelling through space. Admittedly this puts us behind America and Russia, but as the Yanks are wont to say, this still makes us a contender. We are calling our satellite Ariel One, more prosaically referred to as UK-1 or S-55. This program grew out of proposal by the British National Committee on Space Research to NASA that came from a discussion at a meeting of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) to study the Earth’s ionosphere.

What is the ionosphere? It is that layer high up in the Earth’s atmosphere where the sun’s energy strips the thin air of its electrons, creating a charged barrier to radio waves. It is this layer that allows British and American “Hams” to talk to each other across thousands of miles of ocean. Understanding how the ionosphere works not only has practical implications for engineers, but is also vital to modelling the atmosphere as a whole. The rewards to science will be tremendous.

I must confess that while Ariel One may be a British satellite, it was made in America for us by the NASA Goddard Flight Center. Our satellite will launched atop a Thor-Delta rocket aka Delta DM-19, which is a variant of the Thor-Able booster that launched some of America’s first satellites, and is due to be launched on the 26th of April from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Launch Complex 17A.

The Thor rockets were designed for the United States Air Force as intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM), which became redundant for purpose after the introduction of the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). So arguably this is a case of swords being turned into plowshares for science. The Thor-Delta uses a Delta rocket as its upper stage, which has the new AJ10-118 engine, and the upper stage also has cold gas attitude control jets. This allows rockets to be stabilized, and the motors can also be stopped and restarted for more precise orbital insertions than were previously possible.

The Ariel One satellite has six experiments onboard, five of which will examine the relationship between two types of solar radiation and changes in the Earth’s ionosphere, and the other cosmic rays. University College London has two ionospheric experiments aboard Ariel; a Langmuir probe for measuring of electron temperature and density; and a spherical probe for measurement of ion mass composition and temperature. The University of Birmingham has a plasma dielectric constant measurement of ionospheric electron density device, which uses a different method to measure electron density that complements the Langmuir probe.

In addition, University College London has two solar radiation experiments; one will measure Lyman-Alpha ultra-violet emissions; the other will measure X-Ray emissions from the Sun in the 3 to 12A band. The sixth experiment, provided Imperial College London, is a Cerenkov detector, which will measure primary cosmic ray energy spectrum, and the impact of interplanetary magnetic field modulation on this spectrum.

You may be thinking, “These experiments sound familiar. I know that NASA’s Orbiting Solar Observatory, for example has similar detectors. Why do we need another satellite that does the same thing?”

That’s an excellent question. There are three answers:

1) Just as more eyewitnesses create a stronger legal case or journalistic report, so do multiple satellites give a broader, mutually verifiable view of the same phenomena;

2) Different laboratories create subtly different experiment types. Thus, Ariel will look at the Sun with slightly different eyes than OSO;

3) Ariel represents an important first step in British space science, one that lays the foundation for future successes.

To finish this months article I must comment on the name Ariel, which is an interesting choice. Ariel is a Hebrew word found in the Bible. I understand it means either the Lion of God or Hearth of God, depending on interpretation. It is also the name of one of the moons of Uranus (recently visited by other members of the Journey).

But, one can’t help but think of Milton’s Paradise Lost or Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and my guess would be that it’s an allusion to the latter because Ariel was the servant of Prospero – and I have the highest hopes that Ariel One shall be successful in serving British science equally well.

[March 19, 1962] A convention of a different colour (Eastercon in the UK)


By Ashley R. Pollard

Last month I said I would talk about science fiction fan activity in Britain.  I think it only fair to say that my involvement with British science fiction fandom is peripatetic, as in unsettled, as I lack the stamina to be fully involved with fannish behaviour.  Not a bad thing per se, but not my cup of tea.  As such, I’m all too aware that my account of British Eastercons is rather secondhand, as I haven’t been to one for several years.

Furthermore, I’m not a Big Name Fan, because I stand at a distance from the core of those who move and shake the mores of fandom.  One could argue that I’m an old time fan who has gafiated from fandom, getting away from it all, since I rarely participate in fannish activities per se.  Before you jump to the conclusion that I therefore must be a sercon fan, serious and constructive, I should add I’m not that either.  For me the word FIJAGH says it all: fandom is just a goddam hobby.  It sums up my position perfectly

With those caveats in place let me talk about the British national science fiction convention.

The first thing I should state is that Eastercons are a relatively recent thing, which started seven years ago in 1955.  How time flies.  The first national SF convention was held in London in 1948, and called Whitcon, because it was held over the three-day weekend of Whitsun. 

For my American readers who may be unfamiliar with British Bank Holidays, Whitsun takes place seven weekends after Easter, my understanding is that in America it comes under the Pentecostal tradition.  You’ll excuse me if I’m a bit vague about Christian practices; they’re not my thing despite being brought up in a nominally Christian family.  We were what might be called Christians by default.  A very British thing that may not be fully understandable to those looking from outside of British culture.

The next four national SF conventions were also held in London before the convention moved in 1954 to Manchester.  By this time the number of people attending had started to drop precipitously, which caused quite a furore within fandom about what must be done?  With, people like Ken Slater and Vince Clarke, arguing that British fandom needed reinvigorating.

Resulting, though that implies far more causation for something that is mostly a loosely correlated series of events, in the formation of the BSFA in 1958 with Eric Bentcliffe and Terry Jeeves as joint secretaries.  So in 1959 the newly formed British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) took over running the national convention, which now takes place over the four-day Easter weekend.

This years Eastercon will happen on April 22nd, and is being held in Harrogate, which is in North Yorkshire.  Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend, due to the combination of a lack of time and money preventing me from doing so.

The official name is the rather prosaic The 1962 BSFA Easter Convention, the committee running the convention is made up of Ron Bennett and Phil Rogers.  They are the ones in charge of organizing the events during the weekend.  The fans are calling it Ronvention.

I’m told there are 94 fans going to Ronvention, which is split between the West Park and Clarendon hotels.  The West Park will be the venue for the Fancy Dress party, the theme being favourite characters from SF &F books; the BSFA will hold its AGM there to discuss what to do with the money raised for the Doc Weir Memorial Fund to honour him; and finally there will be a film shown there too.  Meanwhile everything else, like quizzes, an auction and a talk on the development of British fandom by Mike Rosenblum will take place at the Clarendon hotel.

Mr. Tom Boardman, of Boardman Books, is the Guest of Honour.  He edits the popular Mayflower SF series, which was one of the earliest publishers of SF in post-war Britain.  And, in addition to his work as editor and publisher, he also reviews SF for Books & Bookmen, a magazine published by Hansom Books.

Also attending is Ron Ellik, travelling from the USA courtesy of the Trans Atlantic Fan Fund.  This is a fan fund whose title says exactly what it does.  The roots of the fund lay in Forrest J Ackerman’s idea called the Big Pond Fund that eventually brought John Carnell to the American Worldcon in 1949.  This morphed into what is now known as TAFF when Walt Willis went to the 1953 Worldcon, and wrote a report about his travelling around America, which he published in his fanzine, Hyphen.

In addition to an American presence at Ronvention, I’m told that German fans Tom Schluck, Rolf Gindorf, Wolfgang Thadewald, Thea Grade, Horst Margeit, and Guntrum Ohmacht will be coming to demonstrate that the best way to get into a Britain is to come to as fans.

And lest you find yourself wondering if UK conventions be greatly different from American ones, fear not.  You will still encounter the masquerade balls, the awards ceremonies, the huckster sales, the vociferous fannish debates, and yes, the debauchery (though such entertainments lie in my past).

Before finishing this month’s article I must thank my good friend Rob Hansen for his help with collating all the fannish information I’ve shared with you.  I would have been lost without his sterling work in recording the goings-on in fandom.  That is it for now, which just leaves me to say goodbye, and see you all again next month.

[February 19, 1962] February Thaw (tales from the British fan)


By Ashley R. Pollard

This month’s theme is anticipation.

For instance, the anticipation of the coming spring that will soon relieve the winter blues, signaled by the mornings and evenings getting lighter.  I no longer get up in total darkness and leave work as darkness descends because now the winter sun sets around five.  Instead, I now walk over Westminster Bridge in the gathering twilight.  The gloam of the day brightened as Elizabeth Tower illuminates, and the sound of Big Ben asserts the official time with all the authority that its chimes can muster.


https://www.flickr.com/photos/trainsandstuff/31074517774

However, it’s still too cold for my liking, with the winds from the East chilling one to the bone.

As I write this piece, I’m also anticipating another birthday, which I will have celebrated by the time this article is published.  Not a significant number this time round as that was last year.  But I’ve taken another step into the future, a future that is bright with the possibilities of exciting new things to wonder at.  I am confident that tomorrow, despite the series of postponements, America will launch John Glenn in his Friendship 7 capsule.  I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to have the weight of expectations on one’s shoulders combined with the feeling of disappointment from having to wait yet another day or more before being able to go into space.

However, the anticipation of success is palpable.  The future is bright, and mankind will one day go to the stars, where no one has gone before.  These are, in my mind, the most exciting of times to be alive in.  Of course I say no one has gone before, but perhaps aliens are already travelling among the stars.  Perhaps they’ve already visited us, though I think that’s unlikely, despite the recent profusion of “saucer stories.”

Speaking of unlikely things, while meandering up Charring Cross Road, perusing the secondhand bookshops for science fiction books, I found a copy of Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision.  This fanciful (but seriously presented) account of the formation of our solar system, has acquired a strong cult following of late.  It had been shelved in the science fiction and fantasy section, next to a copy of George Adamski’s the Flying Saucers Have Landed.

This I believe says a lot about how members of the book trade or general public view science fiction and fantasy fans.  I will not rant on about society’s inability to keep up with the changes going on all around us.  It is, arguably, human nature to find change unsettling.  Here in the twentieth century our old ways and beliefs are being challenged by new discoveries, and our understanding of the cosmos expands.  Nevertheless, we fans can tell the difference between science, science fiction, and works like Velikovsky’s and Adamski’s, which best belong with the fairy tales.

Still, as a follower of Fortean apocrypha, I find Velikovsky’s ideas a fertile ground for strange and whacky ideas.  So much so, I wrote a short story inspired by them.  Whether the story will ever see the light of day is another matter.  Perhaps in future, say in fifty years or so, it will bring a smile or even a chuckle or two to those that get to read it.

Back to anticipation — I’m anticipating the coming weekend.  Not for the usual reason of shooting arrows (the literal kind; I am an archer – for fun, not profit), even though I have new limbs for my bow that my partner bought me for my birthday.  Instead we are attending a one day convention run by the students of The Imperial College science fiction and fantasy society.  I understand from my partner that several authors have been invited to speak and be on panels.  It will be a chance for fans old and new to mingle, chat.  Also, there are book dealers in attendance.  So I’m looking forward to going to the convention and who knows what I might find?  Stay tuned.

And, as a sort of end to an anticipation, there are news reports of a shocking discovery made on the 14th of February.  A French patrol of troops found the mummified remains of William N. ‘Bill’ Lancaster in the Sahara desert.  He disappeared in April 1933 while attempting to beat the world speed record for a flight between Britain and South Africa.  His mummified body was found near the wreckage of his aeroplane, an Avro Mark VIA Avian called Southern Cross.  They found his journal, and the reports say he lived for seven days after the crash before dying of thirst while waiting to rescued.  There’s a story in there for sure.

So that is it for another month.  March will bring more news of science fiction in Britain, and I hope you will join me again.

[January 21, 1962] January Freeze (The Great Explosion, by Eric Frank Russell)


By Ashley R. Pollard

I mentioned last time I find December winter difficult.  In January it snowed, which reminds me of the song Let it Snow! by Vaughn Monroe, though the cover version sung by Dean Martin may be more familiar to younger readers of Galactic Journey.  So with the frightful weather outside I had a good reason to stay indoors and read, and thanks to the Traveller’s influence I have laid hands on preview copy of Eric Frank Russell’s, The Great Explosion, soon to be available at the end of May / beginning of June in hardback from all good bookstores.

When I first came across Russell’s work I initially thought he was an American because of his easy use of colloquial American English in his writing.  However, as we say over here, he’s as British as they come.  We not only mix in the same science fiction circle, but also share an interest in the works of paranormalist Charles Fort, which I may be assuming (incorrectly?) readers of the Galactic Journey know about.  Russel also writes under various pseudonyms including Webster Craig, Duncan H. Munro, Niall Wilde (also spelled Naille Wilde), and Maurice G. Hugi.

I can’t remember the first story I read by him, but my guess is probably his Hugo award-winning short story Allamagoosa, which appeared in the May 1955 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.  If you’ve not read it I suggest it is well worth your time to find a copy and do so, despite it being or perhaps I should say because it’s a shaggy dog story.  However, my favourite two books by Russell are his 1957 novel, Wasp, and Next of Kin from 1959.  I will mention that Next of Kin, because it has a bearing on his latest novel, first saw print in Astounding as a novella titled Plus X, and there was also a slightly expanded version of the novella published by ACE Books as The Space Wilies before the definitive Next of Kin was published.

Eric Frank Russell’s new novel is an expansion of his novella And Then There Were None that appeared in the June 1951 issue of Astounding.  However, despite the minor disappointment of this story being an expansion of a previous work, it manages to expand the original work in a way that adds considerably to the context of the setting.

The story starts with a prologue describing the happenchance discovery of the Blieder Drive, a space-drive that takes mankind to the stars.  This being Russell, there’s less manifest destiny and more an anarchic rush to either exploit or get rid of people.  Terra, as a result, sees a large number of people leave because of the Blieder Drive, and the story proper begins 400 years later with the first voyage to reunite the lost worlds to form the Terran Empire.

For any other author this might be a chance to give the ship a suitable grand name, but Russell just refers to it throughout the novel as “the ship.”  Russell’s focus is on the foibles of the bureaucratic mindset behind the mission.  The story is split between the relationship between the pompous diplomat, who is only ever referred to as “the Ambassador” or “his Excellency,” the phlegmatic Captain Grayder, who is in command of the ship, and the punctilious Colonel Shelton, commander of the military detachment sent to protect the diplomatic staff.

Russell compares their behaviours with those of the people of the worlds the ship visits and contrasts them to the ordinary man aboard: in this case Sergeant Gleed and Tenth Engineer Harrison, who get assigned to various tasks assigned by their betters.  This being an Eric Frank Russell story, the focus of each of the planetary visits is to satirize the beliefs of the great and good.

The first planetfall occurs on a planet where all Earth’s prisoners were shipped to when the Blieder Drive made interstellar travel possible.  Unlike, say, Australia, which is our real-world analog, our convicts have created a world where stealing is the norm, and where things we take for granted as decent and proper are laughed at for being foolish.  The natives manage to get one over on the crew in their exchanges, played for comic effect, as what is being described is pretty horrible, but no worse than the lives our ancestors lived in feudal times.  This part of the story is a set-up of the shape of things to come [This sounds a lot like Robert Sheckley’s The Status Civilization (Ed.)]

The ship then makes its way to Hygeia, which is dominated by nudists who are health and fitness fanatics and who sneer at the fat and flabby Ambassador; they make the fittest member of the ship’s crew look feeble by comparison.  Here Russell is able to poke fun at both sides: the Hygeians for their fastidious health habits and the Terran’s for their prudishness.  The outcome of the diplomatic negotiations can probably be considered a draw, as neither side will ultimately get what they want.

The third planet visited, called Kassim, is the shortest part of the novel because it’s uninhabited and the colonists are assumed to have died from a disease.  While this is all well and good, I thought Russell missed a chance to have a bit more science on show.  There again that has never really been his forte, which brings us to the final and longest section of the novel (the part published back in 1951).

I unfortunately have not been able to lay my hands on a copy of And Then There Were None, so I cannot compare and contrast the two for changes made by Russell.  For those of you who have not had the pleasure of reading the original, here is a chance to read and enjoy a fabulous story sending up the bureaucratic might of Terra by a bunch of the most philosophically inclined anarchic libertarians you could possibly imagine.  Some of the conversations are what I would call psychological nuggets of pure gold pedantry that will bring tears of laughter to anyone’s eyes.

This is Russell at his best, lampooning social conventions and assumptions to make us question why we do what we do.  My sole criticism would be that this only works here because the crew of the ship from Terra are nice people: as in decent human beings no matter how deluded their beliefs.  Had the ship come from an authoritarian regime prepared to enforce control by whatever means necessary then the story wouldn’t have ended so well.  There again the story would not be a humorous satire, but rather a dystopian tale of a man’s inhumanity to man.  Of the two, I know which I would rather read.

Four stars.

[December 17, 1961] XMAS COOL (UK report and Drake’s Equation)


By Ashley R. Pollard

I find December, in fact all the winter months, a tad difficult because it’s dark in the morning when I get up to go to work, and dark when it’s time to come home.  To add to the misery it’s cold too.  However, a piece on the misery of Christmas is, I feel, not congruent with the general feeling of excitement and good cheer that emanates from seeing people shopping, and of course the switching on of the Oxford Street lights.  A tradition that started in 1954 and seven years later is still going strong.

In other good cheer, our Health Minister the right honourable Enoch Powell (not my favourite member of parliament because he’s too clever for his own good) gave British women an early Christmas gift by making birth control pills available from the National Health Service.  It may not sound like much, but it’s all part and parcel of women’s emancipation, which in my opinion is a good thing.  Having the means to give women some control of their bodies about when they want to get pregnant is certainly a sign that the future is here.

Thinking back to when I was a child, a tablet like this would’ve been something right out of a science fiction story.  Not that I can readily think of any science fiction stories where the woman are in control of when they become pregnant.

A part of me thinks that birth control may have some unintended second order consequences.  The positive part is freedom to choose, and it will certainly address the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus 1798 work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, where he postulates that unchecked population growth is exponential while the growth of the food supply was expected to be arithmetical, with catastrophic consequences for humanity.  His solutions having had provided authors with a raft of apocalyptic story lines over the years.

Speaking of the Age of Enlightenment, I have access to the 1753 Cyclopædia: or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences by Ephraim Chambers.  This was one of the first ever encyclopaedias published.

Imagine my delight and surprise when reading through it to find a definition of the word interstellar,

“is a word used by some authors to express those parts of the universe that are without and beyond our Solar system; in which are supposed to several other systems of planets moving around the fixed stars as the renters of their respective motions: and if it be true, as it is not improbable, that each fixed star is thus a sun to some habitable orbs, that move round it, the interstellar world will be infinitely the greater part of the universe.”

This is the stuff of science fiction before science fiction existed as a genre.

But it invites a question, if there are habitable planets out there, do they have life?  Are there aliens in the universe?  Countless stories have been written by science fiction authors about aliens — some lurid, some frightening, some optimistic — but now Dr. Frank Drake has come up with an equation to allow mankind to estimate the probability of the existence of aliens in the universe.

His equation arose out of an article published in 1959 by Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison in the journal Nature called Searching for Interstellar Communications.  Cocconi and Morrison thought radio telescopes were now sensitive enough to pick up any transmissions being broadcast by civilizations orbiting other stars, and they went on to posit that these transmissions would be sent using the frequency of neutral hydrogen, a logical landmark in the radio spectrum.

A couple of months later Professor Harlow Shapley from Harvard University opined that the universe had ten million, million, million suns, and if one in a million has a planet around it, and if only one in a million of those has a planet that supports life as we know it, then there would be 100 million worlds where life could evolve.

This article spurred Dr. Drake to start the first systematic search for signals from extraterrestrial intelligent civilizations, which has not been successful in finding in finding said signals.  However, undeterred Dr. Drake hosted a meeting to discuss the search for extraterrestrial intelligence using radio signals at the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope.  Out of that meeting has come his equation defining the parameters needed to make an estimate of the number of alien civilizations that might exist.

What it doesn’t do is give an answer per se; it only defines what we must know for us to arrive at an answer.  But now that mankind is venturing into space we may be able to start collecting the data necessary to plug figures into the equations: for example things like the number of stars with planets around them, which given we haven’t got proof that there are other planets around other stars, is a big step.  After that, determining how many planets might be habitable will be another hurdle scientists will have to overcome.  But, the hope that we may one day know the answer to the question, which was first propounded in the 1753 edition of Chambers Cylopaedia, is what makes mankind’s future bright.

So one day, in another time and galaxy, we may well be celebrating the changing of the seasons with beings from other worlds.  On that note, allow me to wish all the readers of Galactic Journey a very merry time, and my best wishes for a happy and prosperous new year.  I’m sure 1962 is going to be even more exciting than 1961. 

Thank you all for reading.

[November 10, 1961] EARTH ON FIRE (UK Sci-fi Report)


By Ashley R. Pollard

Last month, I wrote about the shocking explosion of the world’s largest atomic bomb.  Now, I plan to entertain and delight you all with a review of the film The Day the Earth Caught Fire, which will be on general release in Great Britain from the 23rd of November.  Its subject matter is serendipitous, if not unnaturally timely, cast in the light of recent events.  This can’t hurt its chances of doing well at the box office, and if you’ll pardon the levity, it’s surely guaranteed to become a blockbuster.  This early review has been made possible by influence of the Traveller, who has gone to great lengths in assisting me with gaining the credentials to see a pre-release screening of the film. 

The Day the Earth Caught Fire stars Edward Judd, Leo McKern and Janet Munro and starts in a most striking manner with Judd’s character walking in sweltering heat through the deserted streets of London.  The story then flashes back to how it all began when both the Americans and Russian simultaneously exploded atomic bombs at the Earth’s poles.  This caused both the axial tilt to change and also shifted our planet in its orbit around the Sun.

The effects of the axial tilt mean disruption to the regular weather: torrential rain and floods for example.  It’s only later we find out that the Earth has also been pushed closer to the Sun, which means the planet will soon become too hot for human life.  Unlike other nuclear horror stories, the emphasis here is on the hero discovering what is happening by putting together the bits of the puzzle, using his skill as a Fleet Street journalist to tell the story.  The way the film is shot has an almost cinéma-vérité feel to it, and arguably, the story pacing has produced a very British end of the world as we know it.

I was very much reminded of the Hollywood adaptation of Nevil Shute’s On The Beach as both stories deal with the anxiety generated by the existence of atomic bombs in the world.  However, while the former ends with the impending death of mankind, The Day the Earth Caught Fire has a more ambiguous ending, leaving us with the news of the detonation of bombs set to reset the Earth’s orbit, but without telling us whether the plan succeeded or not.

My understanding is that the film will be released in the United States in May of next year.  Also, for those readers who are concerned about atomic bombs knocking the Earth out of orbit, I have it on good authority that the energy required would be far greater than is currently achievable with our technology.

Now, last time I also promised to finish my summary of A for Andromeda.  We left-off waiting for what would happen to Fleming, Dawnay and Professor Reinhart in the next episode called, The Murderer. This episode gripped viewers around the country as the series premise of alien’s sending us the means to create life, and what that would mean for humanity, chilled people to the bone.

Christine, the character played by Julie Christie (who died in the previous episode) is re-created when the computer give the scientists the code for creating the next alien life form, which produces a clone of her called Andromeda.  The performance by Christie in her new role as the computer’s cat’s paw is compelling, and I expect she will go on to star in other things.  Now that the alien intelligence is embodied in Andromeda, the original cyclops creature host is killed by the computer.

In episode six, called The Face of the Tiger, Andromeda is put to work on developing an orbital missile defence program for the British government.  Further developments also include the producing an enzyme that will aid in healing injuries.  But it soon becomes clear that humanity is in peril of coming under the influence and control of the computer, which is using Andromeda to further its own agenda.  The computer reveals itself when opposed by Fleming by making Dawney, the biologist working on the project, sick.

In the final episode, called The Last Mystery, the story is moved forward into the year 1972, when the signal from the Andromeda Galaxy has stopped.  The military are now in full control of the project, and the computer having failed to kill the other scientists, tries to kill Fleming by using Andromeda.  This plan fails, and Andromeda is revealed to be a slave of the computer; the scientist agree that it must be stopped, otherwise the world will fall under the alien computer’s control.

Fleming is able to release Andromeda from the computer control by destroying it with an axe, and Andromeda burns the plans for the machine.  The pair try to make their escape, but Andromeda falls into a pool and dies, while Fleming is captured by the military.  As endings go, this is great for mankind, but a bit of a downer for the hero.  Still, there’s always the possibility of a sequel, because, after all, this is science fiction…

[Oct. 31, 1961] A is for Atomic (UK TV Sci-fi… and the Tsar Bomba)


By Ashley R. Pollard

A is for atomic and apocalypse, and this month also for Andromeda.  Of the three, the most entertaining is the new TV series on the BBC, called A for Andromeda, written by Frederick Hoyle and John Elliot.  Hoyle is an astronomer and noted cosmologist who also wrote the science fiction novel The Black Cloud, while Elliot is novelist, screenwriter and television producer.

Andromeda gripped me from the very first episode, called The Message, the opening sequence being an interview with Professor Reinhart, explaining the project as something that had happened in the past.  The story cuts to the professor and his research assistants, Jason Fleming and Dennis Bridger, working at the new radio telescope at Bouldershaw Fell…in 1970.  If that’s not a hook that grabs your attention then I don’t know what is.  The episode title gives the gist of the plot — alien message — and the series title tells you where the aliens are from — Andromeda.

The second episode, The Machine, builds on the message and we discover it is the plans to build a better computer, which the British government decide to do at a military base in Thorness, Scotland.  Here the plot starts to twist and turn with Dennis Bridger selling the information to a slightly sinister corporate conglomerate called Intel (a clever name; someone should put it to good use).

The third episode, The Miracle, moves the story into Hoyle’s special area of interest: life from space.  You may have heard of his famous stellar nucleosynthesis paper of 1954 — Frederick Hoyle is one of the foremost scientists of his generation and a populariser of the philosopher Anaxagoras theory of panspermia, a controversial theory.  The story introduces Madeline Dawnay, a biologist, who joins the team to help with the creation of a synthetic life-form that the computer instructions have given them.  Dennis Bridger’s betrayal is discovered, and he gets his just desserts while fleeing justice…when he falls off a cliff.

In last week’s episode, The Monster, the story has moved forward to 1971, where we bear witness to the creation of a protoplasmic life form named “the cyclops.”  Fleming, our hero of the series, is skeptical of the machine’s agenda and worried that it can affect the minds of those who come into close proximity to the machine.  We are left wanting more, and next week’s episode title, The Murderer, certainly leaves us something exciting to look forward to!

However, this time, reality has the jump on fiction, excitement-wise.  It comes in the shape of what the press is calling the Tsar Bomba or Kuz’kina Mat’ — Russian for “Kuzma’s mother” — a reference to Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s promise to show the United States the true might of Soviet power during the United Nations General Assembly earlier this month.

Or more simply, the mother of all bombs.

The Russians turned their premier’s statement into a demonstration of their nuclear might at 11.32 Moscow time on October the 30th by detonating a 50 megaton bomb over the Mityushika Bay the Soviet nuclear testing range.  For those of you whose geography is a little hazy, this is just north of the Arctic Circle over the Novayo Zemlya archipelago.  The shock wave from the blast is reputed to have circled the Earth four times.  Reports of seeing the explosion came from a nearly thousand kilometres away from the blast site.

The size of the explosion is almost beyond comprehension.  The only way I can get my head around it is knowing that it’s the equivalent to ten percent of all the nuclear bombs detonated to date or ten times the combined energy from all the bombs dropped during the second world war.  Such numbers are frightening and make the threat from aliens trying to take over the Earth pale into insignificance by comparison.

Perhaps it is because the threat to all life on Earth becoming extinct is an existential one, now that we live in the atomic age, that we enjoy such outrageous fare as Andromeda.  When we consider such matters, our minds are overwhelmed by prime emotions, which reduce our reasoning to that of the hominids we’re descended from.  I would argue that science fiction allows us to discuss that which is too frightening to comprehend.

So whether A is for atomic, apocalypse or Andromeda is really not the question.  Rather, our need to tell stories to understand ourselves is the way we face the end of life.