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[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.

[September 15, 1961] DISASTER ON THE MOON (Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust)

By Ashley R. Pollard

August may have started with cool weather but it ended with a bit of heat wave for the August Bank Holiday weekend.  So I did get to sit on the beach eating ice-cream and reading a good book, and in this case having the pleasure of reading Arthur C. Clarke’s latest A Fall of Moondust, of which John Wyndham has said, “The best book that Arthur C. Clarke has written.” A high praise indeed.

I have been a fan of Arthur’s work after reading his novella, which first appeared in Startling Stories, called Against the Fall of Night.  I’ve also been fortunate to have had the pleasure of meeting him.  For those of you who follow my writing here I can also recommend, if you want a taste of the man’s humour, his short story collection Tales from the White Hart.  The title of which is play on the name of the original pub that The London Circle used to frequent.

Arthur C. Clarke’s latest book probably cements his reputation as one of the key science fiction authors of our age; the others being Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein.  His breakout novel, if you will indulge me in describing it as such, was arguably Childhood’s End, which was released in 1953.  It describes the arrival of the Overlords on Earth to guide humanity and ends with the transcendence of mankind into something more than human.  This was followed by my favourite novel of his The Deep Range in 1957, which tells how a former astronaut becomes an aquanaut, and describes the adventures arising from farming the sea.

So the question is, does A Fall of Moondust live up to John Wyndham’s effusive praise?

The story starts with Captain Pat Harris describing the passengers boarding the Moon’s first cruise ship.  It is the Selene, run by The Lunar Tourist Commission, which sails the Sea of Thirst: a sea made of superfine dust that a vessel can float on.  Clarke manages to effectively evoke the other-worldliness of the moon, while at the same time setting a scene that could be have taken place on any cruise ship on Earth, with a largely mundane set of tourists.  The setting roots the fantastical elements into something familiar, making the adventure that follows extremely plausible, of when a holiday of a lifetime turns into a disaster.

Clarke intertwines the unfolding of the voyage with snippets of the world that the people come from and the development of his future society’s technology, including fusion and solar power.  Overall, the world of Moondust is optimistic about the future of mankind, almost cosy — up to the point when disaster strikes.

The catastrophe is a moon quake.  It creates a whirlpool that envelopes the Selene beneath 15 metres of dust.  But this is no story of hysteria, rather it is one of courage in the face of adversity, driven by the underlying belief that problems can be solved.

The story is effectively told from various viewpoints.  The story opens describing the voyage of the crew and passengers of the Selene.  After the disaster we are then taken to the viewpoint of the people searching for the lost ship, who have to come up with a way of getting everyone off safely.  Clarke masterfully describes the problems on both sides, and the various solutions that are undertaken as the clock counts down toward eventual doom — when everyone aboard the Selene will die from lack of oxygen.

Everything is cooly set-up, but then Clarke defies the readers’ expectations, piling problem on top of problem.  The experience is intense, as one wonders what will happen next.  But Clarke manages to keep racking up the tension, teasing the reader with solution only to reveal that there is more going wrong from unintended side-effects.  For example, leaking water from the Selene’s water tanks seeps into the dust and unbalances the ship, which further hinders the rescue operations.

Technology may well enable fantastic things like cruises across the dust seas of the Moon, but it is not omnipotent; you cannot defy the laws of physics, and the exploration of this distinction is where the novel excels.  The characters agency is constrained by what is possible, and in this way the story reminds me of The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin, except that Moondust is no maudlin tale of the consequence of stupidity, but rather a paean to reason and engineering.

So is this the best story that Arthur C. Clarke has written?  My answer is probably not, but there again Childhood’s End and Deep Range are hard acts to follow.  Moondust is a tour de force he delivers here, an excellent SF suspense-thriller.  The story drew me in and I sat and read it in a single day.  I imagine you will, too, some fine late summer day.

[August 15, 1961] SEVEN DAYS OF CHANGE (August’s UK report)

by Ashley Pollard

The month of August started with cool weather after a warm spring, which is disappointing for those of us who love to get out in the summer sun and lie on the beach. It is the time when the British newspapers are full of light-weight, fun stories in what is known over here as the ‘silly season.’

Such fripperies were ended quite suddenly with an array of news from behind the iron curtain, starting with the announcement of Russia’s second manned spaceflight on Monday the 7th of August.

While America has launched two sub-orbital flights in response to Yuri Gagarin’s conquest of space, they have yet to orbit the Earth. Now the Russians surge ahead, upping the excitement in the race to the moon by launching their second cosmonaut Gherman Stepanovich Titov. His call sign was Eagle, I imagine to emphasize his soaring over the world. But perhaps it’s also a poke at the Americans, who have failed to orbit the world with their Mercury capsule.

So, after staying in space for a just over a day, Pilot Cosmonaut Titov is now a Hero of the Soviet Union. During his flight he orbited the world seventeen times, during which time he slept, shot ten minutes of film, and completed various other tasks he had been assigned — proving that men can work in space. Not only that, but at age twenty-six he’s the youngest man in space, too.

For me, Titov’s mission was not just a success for the Russians but the furthering of the dream of travel in space for all mankind. But, I have to ask, how long will it be until the Russians send a woman into space? Perhaps this is a chance for the Americans to get one step ahead of their rivals.

Sadly, Titov’s flight was the only good piece of news inspired by the Communists this month. Seven days after Titov’s flight, the Russians upped the ante in the Cold War when Premier Nikita Khrushchev announced the Russians were going to build a wall around Berlin. This rather puts a dampener on things, taking us back to the unpleasantness that started in 1948 when they cut-off access to Berlin by land.

The first signs of action after the announcement was the erection of a barbed wire fence. But this is now being followed by workers building a wall, which seems to me to be a physical manifestation of the cultural divide between free-market capitalism and Russian state controlled centralized planned economy.

Beyond the very real fear I share with everyone regarding the threat of atomic destruction, I must also say that I find Premier Khrushchev’s escalation of tensions between East and West a tantrum tedious beyond belief. I truly doubt that human nature allows for nation states to function as communes that share resources for the good of all. If this act shows us anything it serves only to illuminate the cracks in the Russian Cold War polemic against the West. It’s not as if the new Wall has been erected to keep West Germans from fleeing into East Germany.

More to the point, doesn’t Khrushchev know this is the silly season? There is only so much heaviness we can stand during the summer!  As for now, despite the disappointingly cool weather, at least we still have a beach to look-visit, ice-cream to eat (we British eat ice-cream even during our cold summers), and once Khruschev has had his fun, hopefully we can return to reading stories of cats stuck up trees being rescued by the nice men from the fire brigade.

And accounts of space shots: as a science fiction fan, I find those an acceptable break from the fluff of the silly season…

[July 20, 1961] A CULTURAL DIVIDE (A UK fandom report)

By Ashley R. Pollard

This month, our London correspondent looks upon the rifts in the British science fiction community and despairs for the world as a whole…

Fans gathered at The White Horse in the 1950s—before we moved to The Globe

I have previously mentioned that London science fiction fandom is engaged in a feud that started three years ago, but which hasn’t stopped us from all meeting up at the pub once or twice a month for a drink and a chat. The feud is rather boring and has become increasingly tedious with disputes and tempers flaring over trivial things like membership cards — who needs membership cards anyway?

I mention this again apropos of this month’s title: A Cultural Divide.

For those who don’t know me, I’m a psychologist, and therefore people interest me, and understanding their behaviours is all part and parcel of my job.  Still, I’m amazed at what I see happening within fandom when quarrels break out.  Given science fiction fans have a lot in common with each other you might think that a sense of community would lessen divisions rather than stir them up.

Still, there’s always a Gin & Tonic with ice and a slice for when things get too hot and bothered in the pub.  Besides, as a woman, my opinions are rarely sought by the men who are arguing away over the various trivialities that consume them.

Our perennial fannish storm in a teapot proved a fine backdrop for the larger one described in C. P. Snow’s famous 1959 Rede Lecture The Two Cultures, which transcript I was able to recently secure, and which I read with great interest in a quieter corner of the pub.

In Cultures, Snow discusses at great length the divide he sees between the scientific and the arts and literary communities.  In particular, the way each perceives the world and the growing divide where one side is unable to comprehend what the other side says. 

The primary example Snow uses is the inability of the arts and literary culture to grasp things like the importance of the second law of thermodynamics: the idea of entropy increasing over time.  His argument being that the political and social elites are no longer taught science and technology, which effectively makes them modern day Luddites opposed to industrialisation, at a loss to cope with the changes technology is bringing.

Because of this, Snow argues there has grown a divide between arts and literary intellectuals and scientists/engineers.  Neither side being able to comprehend the other or finding the points of view expressed nonsensical to their ears.  Each side seeing the other as deluded.

Snow goes on to argue that social changes have been driven by the industrial revolution, which has changed society in ways the political leaders of the country fail to appreciate, because they come from the arts and literary side of the intellectual spectrum.  As such, they’re unable to see beyond the change in their lives, and don’t understand the best hope for the poor is industrialization despite the problems that occur as a result of people leaving the countryside and living in the cities.

After all, would one really want to go back to working the land as an agricultural labourer?

Now, Snow argues, we are standing at the beginning of a new revolution, a scientific revolution, heralded by the harnessing of the atom.  Yet our leaders, both political and social, are brought up in the domain of arts and literature not science and engineering.  Rich and poor, however, while divided by wealth, share a cultural assumptions from the historical narrative, but this, while good in one way, is also problematical because of the assumptions from the historical narrative affect how one sees the world.

So, the rich fail to comprehend science and technology, while the poor treat science and technology as things equivalent to magic: beyond their comprehension and understanding.

However, the poor experience the benefits that science and technology bring and are affected by the social changes arising in a visceral way that the rich are insulated from by their wealth.  In short, the rich live their lives with values derived from an arts and literary education where social change is slow, whereas the poor have to contend with both the benefits and costs from a rapidly changing cultural milieu.

And now we face the possibility of another change, with Great Britain, Denmark and Ireland applying to join the European Economic Community.  While Britain and the countries of EEC share a cultural heritage the leaders of all the countries have failed to recognize the implications of the socio-economic changes that will occur from a union which will accelerate technological change across Europe.  A change that will be magnified if the cultural elites fail to pay attention to the scientific revolution.  Snow argues these social changes will divide populations and the only thing that can address the problem is better education with a greater emphasis on science. 

The narrative of science is based in evidence, whereas the arts and literary narrative is based on mythology.  If were are to develop, not just new machines, but to to gain insight into the most valuable of resources, ourselves and what makes us tick, then we have to embrace the scientific method, put facts before feelings and develop theories that account for our natures, rather than mythologizing the human condition based on beliefs held onto through faith. 

Perhaps science fiction is the answer.  I like to think that our genre serves as a bridge between the abstruse texts of science and the spiritual fantasies of the uninitiated.  Science fiction, as educating entertainment, is the “spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.” 

On the other hand, looking at fandom, which I would argue is society writ small, we can’t seem to agree on anything.  And if we can’t agree on our own narrow issues, how can we expect a more fundamental divide, such as the one described by Snow, ever to be healed?

I can only conclude human nature drives peoples reaction to change and differences of opinion, which education alone may not be able to address.  No matter where you go in this world, ultimately people are just people.

[June 22, 1961] HOME COUNTIES SF (a report from the UK)

By Ashley R. Pollard

Let me explain my title to you.  The British Home Counties surround London, where I live, and consists of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey, and Sussex.  I mention this apropos of probably the most well known of Britain’s science fiction novels: the apocalyptic War of the Worlds by Herbert George Wells.

The story is a veritable march through the Britain’s heartland, describing how the Martian tripods march from Woking in Surrey to Essex, wrecking all that’s nearest and dearest to the heart of the British people.  Though I should point out that this was a very English-centred story (Scotland, Wales and Ireland are left out), and regarding the rest of the world or our former colonies, Wells has little to say.

War, arguably, was where British science fiction was born.  I say “arguably” because Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein can probably lay claim to being the first British SF story; however, its roots seem to me to be more firmly in Gothic Horror.  I believe that Wells set the scene for British SF in a way that Shelley’s story has so far not.  Though perhaps now that we are in the swinging sixties, her influence will be felt more as women’s emancipation moves forward.

What is the point of all this?  Why, to set the stage for the introduction of one of our latest SF writers: John Wyndham, pen name of John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, also known as John Beynon and a host of other pseudonyms made through different combinations of his name.

Wyndham became widely known to British readers after his disaster tale, The Day of the Triffids, was published in 1951.  The story centres on the survivors of the passing of a comet, most of whom were blinded by the show (perhaps caused by coincident nuclear explosions of satellites in orbit around the Earth).  The plot doubles the calamity by featuring the deadly eponymous plants, piling agony on top of misery.  The Triffids are genetically modified constructs that are being farmed for their oil, and which have to be kept fenced in because they can walk.  They also come equipped with stingers to blind their prey.  You can see where this is going?  Like Wells’ tripods, the Triffids rampage across England blinding people and generally being unpleasant weeds that thrive on the dead.  Also like War, it is a disaster story for British readers, set in the familiar setting of England’s green and pleasant land.  If any of these topics appeal to you, you’ll enjoy the book.

Wyndham’s second novel was The Kraken Wakes, a story of aliens who invade our oceans.  A pointless war breaks out that ends with the melting of our Polar regions.  Much of the Earth is flooded — most importantly, London!  The debt Wyndham owes to Wells for creating the genre is explicitly made by Kraken‘s protagonist, who contrasts the course his aliens’ invasion takes compared to the one described by Wells.  Serendipitously, the book came out in the same year as George Pal’s film adaptation of War of the Worlds, which may have added to Kraken’s success, the public being primed for invasion stories.  Though one could argue that what sold the story was the resonance between the state of Britain at the end of World War Two and the situation the protagonists find themselves in at the end of the novel.

With these two books John Wyndham cemented his position as a writer of very British science fictional tales.  But it should be said that Wyndham liked to refer to his novels as logical fantasies rather than SF.

Following on from his two breakout novels came my favourite novel, The Chrysalids.  It’s a different story because even though it’s set in a post-apocalyptic future, after a nuclear holocaust that has devastated the Earth, the focus has moved from middle-class English people to a xenophobic community that enforces purity laws to prevent the spread of mutations.

On reflection, perhaps its not that far removed from the culture of the British Isles after all and the anti-German rhetoric that colours films and comics.

The Chrysalids tells the story of children born with telepathic powers who must hide their abilities because their society abhors all mutations.  The plot unfolds as the children flee after one of the children is discovered to have six toes.  Wyndham leaves it up to the reader to imagine what happens after the ending.

Wyndham’s third book was The Midwich Cuckoos.  Aliens choose a number of villages around the world, render the inhabitants unconscious, and afterwards it’s discovered all the women are pregnant.  The alien hybrid children have strange powers and things do not bode well for the rest of humanity.

The book was made into a film called The Village of the Damned, which was filmed, funnily enough, in Hertfordshire — one of the Home Counties.  At the film premiere, there were queues all around Leicester Square to get in.  And for those who like memorabilia, Penguin released the book with a still from the film on the cover.

His next book is a novel made from short stories called The Outward Urge (what I believe is called a fix-up in America).  Those who know me know that I like hard SF and The Outward Urge delivers in spades, telling the tale of one family’s expansion into space.  It is told as a future history spanning 1994 to 2194.  The future indeed, one where Britain has a space station in 1994, for which we are going to have to pull our socks up if that’s going to happen: given what I know and told you last month about the British space programme so far.  Still, The Outward Urge is an exciting read, and I found it quite gripping.

His latest novel is the Trouble With Lichen.  This book treads a different path from his earlier works, not being a tale of alien lichen taking over the world that the title might first suggest.  The story’s central character is a woman biologist who discovers that a rare lichen has life-extending properties.  From it, she produces the drug, Antigerone, that can extend peoples’ lives two to three hundred years.  Wyndham uses the story to explore the effects this will have on society, for instance, the liberation of women by extending their fertility, and thereby allowing them the time for a career before choosing to bear children.

I’m not totally convinced by his extrapolations of the effect a life prolonging drug would have on women’s reproductive cycle — or the societal effects thereof; we’ll know more once the Enavid (Enovid 10mg) oral contraceptive becomes widely accepted.  But, I will give John Wyndham credit for at least trying to put himself into women’s shoes and presenting a strong female character, even if I find his treatment at times a tad clumsy because he describes woman from a particularly male perspective that irks me.

That being said, if you haven’t yet come across John Wyndham’s work, and you want to have a taste of a British sensibilities towards the future I can’t recommend his work too highly.

[May 27, 1961] RED STAR, BLUE STAR (May 1961 UK Fandom report)

[Ashley Pollard is back with this month’s report on the space and sci-fi scene across the Pond!  Yes, I did use the term “sci-fi” advisedly…]

Last month a Red Star rose in the East.  This month a Blue Star rose in the West as Alan Shepherd became the first American in space.  He was aboard the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule launched atop the Mercury-Redstone 3 booster — showing it’s possible to reach space without getting to orbit. While this may be seen as a bit of disappointment, it clearly demonstrates American caution in testing systems before clearing them for flight.  Something I’m sure the astronauts approve of, as they sit atop what is a potential bomb if things go wrong.

I understand that there’s another flight using the Redstone booster in July to look forward to, but my friend Gerry Webb, a member of the British Interplanetary Society, informs me the larger Mercury-Atlas booster is required to propel a man into orbit.  However, I’m sure it won’t be long until an American astronaut orbits the Earth as both the Russian and American space agencies strive to be the first to achieve the next new record.  I will be following the action as the Space Race hots up.

Meanwhile, at the last Thursday night’s London Circle meeting, once one had gotten through the frothing going on about memberships cards and the current fan feud that rolls on, we sat down and discussed the lamentable state of the British space programme.  I braced myself with a Gin & Tonic, with ice and a slice, for the lamentation of the space geeks.

To summarize Great Britain’s role in space, we lag far behind both United States and the Soviet Union, our government having cancelled Blue Streak early last year, which was a medium-range ballistic missile that would’ve made a good basis for a British rocket.  It was being tested at the Woomera Rocket Range in Australia (named, aptly, after an Aboriginal spear throwing aid).  Woomera has plenty of room to fire rockets into space, unlike the Home Counties or anywhere else for that matter on the British Isles.

Shortly after announcing the cancellation of the Blue Streak our government changed its mind and said it would develop a two-stage rocket called Black Prince: using Blue Streak for the bottom stage and our Black Knight missile for the top.  Gerry tells me that the names are generated from the British government’s Rainbow Code that uses a colour and a randomly generated word for aerospace projects.  Unfortunately, for British fans of space rocketry, our government then went and cancelled the Black Prince project for being far too expensive.

I’m afraid that only leaves us the fictional British rocket programmes to fly the flag for us in space.

We start with the “British Experimental Rocket Group” from Quatermass by Nigel Kneale (the television show which wrapped up almost a decade ago, but which spawned two sequels).  As space projects go, it can’t be said to have been a complete success for two very good reasons.  First was the loss of ship on landing, and then there was the small matter of the crew dying and the mutated survivor wanting to chomp down on the inhabitants of the City of London.

However, that still leaves us with Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, which I haven’t mentioned before.  He is the eponymous hero of the Eagle comic’s lead strip.  Dan Dare is the lead test pilot of the “Interplanet Space Fleet”, whose adventures in space are still delighting its readers after ten years of weekly installments.  The series was created by Frank Hampson who consulted Arthur C. Clarke on the comic strips’ science.  While lots of spaceships have been lost, favourites like Dan Dare’s own Anastasia fly around the Solar system rescuing those in need of help, and defeating the various nefarious plans of enemies like the Mekon: large headed green alien overlords from Venus (and I expect you thought I would say Mars – still green though).

And finally we have UNEXA, the “United Nations Exploration Agency.”  This organization launches space missions and is the creation of Hugh Walters who has written a series of children’s science fiction that starts with Blast Off at Woomera.  Ah that Woomera, which is no longer the centre of British aspirations in space.  Sometimes fiction is better than fact.

Needless to say, most of those around the table with me had that look on their faces I always see when I mention something that’s considered off piste in polite science fiction company.  And don’t get me started about the furore it causes if one dares to use Forrest J Ackerman’s term for our genre: Sci-Fi . I can only hope that in the future that people who enjoy reading and watching SF, including comics, will be accepted as fans like the rest of those who only read books and magazines . Besides I like pronouncing Sci-Fi as Skiffy, because skiffy rhymes with spiffy.  Moreover, I think that reading SF is a smart thing as the world around us transforms from steam and steel into space and computers.

The other topic du jour has been George Blake née George Behar who was sentenced to 42 years in prison for being a spy for the Russians.  Spying has become a topic of interest in my circles because of the link to secrets, and the nature of those secrets were the topic of a long discussion.  Featuring prominently were atomic bombs, which were up until a few years ago the sole purview of those science fiction types who like to fantasize about going into space.  I only comment about the spying, because as I said last time I’ve been watching the TV spy show The Avengers, which has just finished being broadcast for the season.  As has Supercar for that matter.

I note that there are a lot of what would have been considered quite science fictional elements in Avengers.  Perhaps not overtly showcased, but covertly in the use of science McGuffins to drive the stories forward.  It should come as no surprise to hear the show being called Spy-Fi, which underscores my point.  Language evolves, and as long as terms are not used to denigrate a genre, then I really don’t mind if you call what I read or watch Sci-Fi.

So, we now live in a world where science fiction can no longer be denied yet, we are still able to start endless bickering over whether it’s called science fiction, SF, Sci-Fi or even speculative fiction, a term I encountered when used by Robert A. Heinlein, though I understand he wasn’t the first to coin the expression.  The point being is that I prefer to imagine a future where we can all be the best of what we can be, and that we live being non-judgemental and have unconditional positive regard for our fellow human beings whether they be right or wrong.  Now isn’t that a science fictional ideal worth pursuing as we blast off into the Final Frontier.

[April 15, 1961] London Calling (a peek at UK fandom)

Every once in a while, one comes across a supremely talented, like-minded person.  Ashley R. Pollard is a gifted writer from England who is shopping around her first novel.  I discovered her through her columns in a British ‘zine; I was so impressed that I asked if she’d like to join the Journey as a contributor, writing on fandom in the UK.  To my intense gratification, she agreed.  Here is her first article…

Out of the blue I received a letter from across the pond asking me if I would have a mind to contribute to Galactic Journey and that is how I came to find myself writing this entry for this journal.  To say I was delighted to be known to an American writer would be an understatement, but to be able to write for the Journey in such exciting times as these, the Dawn of the Space Age, is quite frankly a privilege.  When Sputnik took to the heavens on October the Fourth, 1957, my work colleagues could no longer pass off my taste for reading science fiction as some abnormal fancy but rather as a sign of prescience.

Now a Red star has risen in the East — Vostok — aboard the ship is the first human in space: Major Yuri Gagarin, who is now a Hero of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and by extension a hero for all mankind.  The local prestige of our former wartime allies had plunged due to the recent discovery and capture of the Portland Spy Ring, causing ripples of concern over secrets lost, so having Major Gagarin take over the headlines has been welcome change — if only from one kind of paranoia to another: Reds with atomic secrets versus Reds in Space!  And because it turns my liking for all things to do with rocketry into a respectable talking point at parties.

Certainly, Thursday nights conversation at The London Circle, a meeting of like minded science fiction fans, was of nothing else.  (The London Circle was the basis for Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart.  I will not be drawn into the recent fan feud that has split the group because I attend for the ambience of the pub and the chance to have a G&T with ice and a slice. How very non-fannish of me.)

Of course, this being Britain, we had to draw comparisons to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass Experiment and the British Experimental Rocket Group and what happened to the hapless astronaut to leaven the concerns of those who see Soviet dominance in space as threat to World Peace.

As you can well imagine our conversations were more along the lines of aliens returning to Earth with Major Gagarin, and what would the Russian counter-part of Bernard Quatermass do?

Perhaps, it was opined, the reason that his landing site is undisclosed is because Russian forces are engaged in confronting the alien threat to save the world.  Though, as I said at the time this idea was broached, I imagined that if so then Pravda would be telling us all about the heroic actions of the brave Soviet soldiers who died to save the world.  As we’ve not heard anything to this effect it is simpler to imagine that secret of where Major Gagarin landed is merely something the Politburo do not wish to disclose for fear of Western spies — tit for tat being a common response.

As per my wont, I also mentioned a television series that had caught my eye, engaging fellow fans with a comparison and contrast of visions of the future and the impact of science fictional ideas upon.  I had my listeners’ rapt attention until I revealed that said show was Supercar a production using puppets produced by Gerry Anderson & Arthur Provis of AP Films for ATV (the London independent TV franchise) and ITC Entertainment (a production and distribution company).

I came across this Saturday morning show quite by chance when looking after a friend’s child who sat totally absorbed by the adventures of Mike Mercury, the pilot of the eponymous Supercar, and the science team who created it: Professor Rudolph Popkiss and Dr. Horatio Beaker.  Admittedly I missed some of the initial episode from being too caught up in reading my newspaper, the aforementioned headlines about the spy ring; but the catchy theme tune and more importantly the silence of the young boy watching kept drawing my attention from what I was reading.

What could be so fascinating that a six years old would stay still and quiet for so long?

I have since sat with him to watch Supercar together.  It’s a delightful concoction with a totally over the top opening sequence that can’t fail to attract the attention of the most jaded viewer.  The attention to detail is superb, for example, the opening sequence of events with Supercar flying up through the clouds banking over and then diving underwater are lovingly shot with music from Barry Gray that will stir the hearts of young and old alike.  More importantly it shows a future suffused with optimism…where cars fly!  I almost feel guilty for taking the babysitting money on Saturdays.  Almost but not quite.

Finally, to end this missive, and because I’m running out of blue airmail paper and worried about the cost of sending some photographs I acquired, I would like to mention another television show that has caught my eye.

It’s called The Avengers and features the rather hunky and adorable Ian Hendry who is supported by a debonaire Patrick Macnee, who looks vaguely familiar but for the life of me I can’t recall what he has performed in before.  I mention this show in passing because it riffs on the James Bond books, and with the Dr. No film coming out next year, I predict a spate of spy adventures gracing television and the silver screen.

However, the real excitement remains Major Gagarin’s achievement and the effects this will have on East-West diplomacy.  If only the world leaders could see the bigger picture here and (to bang on my favourite drum) hope for the future — something that the makers of Supercar caught in their children’s puppet show.  A future bright with possibilities from mankind’s ingenuity which will save the day whatever the adversity we face.