Friday, September 09, 2022

Round and Round and Round

"Heard anything about a brown streak across the Welsh coast" asks one Prof Bargh in Chapter 2 of Hugh Walters' Terror by Satellite?

A conference is quickly called. "The truth of the matter was that no one had a clue as to what had caused the mysterious brown streak, and for weeks scientists from Liverpool and other Universities speculated on its origin."

"If Professor Bargh is right" they conclude "There is only one explanation for these brown streaks..."

As the novel proceeds, everything becomes more ominous. In Chapter 11, "observers are watching and waiting for the appearance of the ominous brown streaks" and by Chapter 14 "the brown streaks are growing ominously." The future of civilisation is, apparently, once again, at stake.

Sofa-buddy sometimes refers to the Underwear Theory of English literature. Broadly speaking: if you ignore a plot problem, you can carry on ignoring it; but once you stop ignoring it, you have to take it into account for ever. As long as Mrs Blyton doesn't mention whether the Famous Five change their underwear during their interminable camping holidays the reader doesn't need to worry about it either. Maybe this is the kind of world where no-one sweats or gets dirty. But once one of the characters notices that they are all too smelly to go and replenish their supplies in the local ginger beer emporium, this has to be born in mind. All future exploits have to include laundry trips and bath times. Narrative worms can never be returned to literary cans.

Hugh Walters is fairly interested in the nuts and bolts of space travel. He worries about how uncomfortable multiple G acceleration would be; and points out that astronauts would need to suck water out of toothpaste tubes. On Chris's first missions, which only lasted hours or days, he had tubes of glucose for sustenance: in later books Walters talks about food tubes and  and meat tablets.

The idea of food tablets is a good old science fiction trope. I suppose the idea is that the worst effects of starvation could be staved off with vitamin pills; although presumably you would have to consume a certain amount of bulk and roughage as well? It's a good enough way of signifying "sciencey-ness"; a social activity like eating reduced to the status of a medical procedure. And the idea of tiny little pills being treated as if they were meals is a little bit funny. I recall a skit on Basil Brush in which "dinner" consisted of a brown pill (roast beef) a white pill (potatoes) and a green pill (cabbage). Mr Roy proceeded to spray the pills with an aerosole can. "What's that?" "Gravy." The Very Early Tardis had a food machine that produced mars-bar shaped blocks which contained all the nutrients one needed to survive, but also synthesised the taste of a meal. Ian complains that the eggs in his eggs-and-bacon bar aren't crisp enough. In Scotland, a kind of dry fudge is referred to as "tablet", so possibly "meat tablet" means "candy bar" rather than "pill".

Obviously, these are children's books, so there cannot be the slightest suggestion of sex, although Whiskers does manage to produce two children off screen. And presumably, blokes who have been in boarding schools and the army don't worry too much about modesty around other blokes, although Chris does step into a different room to try on his space underwear. And we are warned (in volume eight) that vomiting inside a space ship is "not done". But, despite prolonged periods of our heroes being shut up in very small spaces together, we never hear one word about other bodily functions. We are not told if spaceships have a "head", if they have onboard water recycling plants, and certainly nothing about space-potties or space-nappies in their space suits. It isn't even suggested that if you live off space-pills you don't need to go, which wouldn't work but would show that we'd noticed the problem.

Most discussions of space travel regard this subjects as a source of endless fascination. Tom Hanks is asked about it in a Apollo 13, and the engineer has to field a question from school children in Star Trek Enterprise. A recent episode of The Unbelievable Truth (a comedy panel show) required a contestant to give a short talk on the subject of Space Travel, and fully half the jokes were about Zero G turds and depositing urine into space. I assume that a prolonged space voyage would be more like a camping holiday or a music festival: things that would be acutely embarrassing in normal life temporarily cease to matter very much. Walters must be aware of the question, but he doesn't mention it, and doesn't mention that he doesn't mention it.

Now, I am not going to talk about Freud and the return of the repressed. But we all know how difficult it is to not think of a monkey. We all remember how, having resolved not to do so, Basil Fawlty was unable to mention anything apart from the war. Although there exist many hundreds of subjects for erudite conversation there are some men who in the presence of a cripple can speak of nothing but feet. But in Terror by Satellite, the human race is once again going to be wiped out, and it one of our heroes is once again going to do a far far better thing than he has ever done to save it. But this time the threat is not alien ghosts, or grey goo, or non-specific radiation. This time it is an agricultural blight. Great swathes of the earth's farmland are being rendered sterile. And Walters cannot resist repeatedly describing the catastrophe as mysterious ominous brown streaks.

What has happened is this. Last year, in Destination: Mars, we were warned that Hendricks, one of the commanders of UNEXAs main observatory satellite was not a particular nice man. In this volume, it transpires that he is an actual baddie. He has, without anyone on his space-wheel finding out, built a machine which "funnels cosmic rays into a concentrated beam". This is the real cause of the skid-marks: as the satellite orbits, the ray burns a brown girdle round the earth. The soil is rendered permanently infertile, so everyone is going to starve to death very soon indeed. 

Hendricks has a very clear and realistic motivation for this mayhem. 

"Since the dawn of history the world has muddled along under many governments. Only if the whole Earth is united under a single direction can its full possibilities be realised!" 

So, naturally, he is going to blackmail the human race. 

"Either accept my ultimate authority or be destroyed. If they refuse to accept me, I shall not hesitate to destroy the earth!" 

In Blast Of At Woomera the bad guy was definitely a commie and definitely a traitor, but we were told that he had had an unhappy childhood and was well meaning but misguided. But in Terror By Satellite it is a truth universally accepted that a mad scientist in possession of a death ray would want to destroy the world. He does have a nice line in ranting. 

"Miserable creature! Who are you to question my decisions and order? I will not allow such a worthless person to interfere in my great plan!" 

A contemporary review pointed out that a hundred years previously he would probably have been turning old ladies out of their cottages.

One wishes that someone from the UN had pointed out that they were already in the business of getting the different governments to cooperate, and that this had so far resulted in a base on the moon, contact with Martians, and a satellite. Or they could have just told him that he could rule the world if he liked and then carried on as before. As a child, I think I took all this for granted and enjoyed the heroics and the hardware. As a grown up, I can take moderate pleasure from the tropes: supervillain with orbiting death ray, forsooth. But it is a bit of a shame that Walters, who started out wanting to produce educational realistic science fiction with a capital science has shifted so speedily into pulp space opera.

Nothing goes out of date as quickly as the future. One of the delights of Dan Dare is that the Space Fleet is pretty much indistinguishable from the wartime RAF, and that flying cars are quite clearly 1950s flying cars. Star Trek: The Next Generation already feels delightfully retro-1980s. The same thing is true of historical fiction: doubtless the people of a thousand years ago perceived the world differently from us: they lived inside a different cosmology, followed a different morality, and didn't think Talons of Weng Chiang was at all racist. And a clever novelist might convey some of that. But very often we just want to play at knights in armour: characters with pretty much modern attitudes in an historical theme park. 

If my chronology is right, Terror by Satellite takes place around 1970. (It was published in '64 and presumably written in '63: Cape Kennedy is still called Cape Canaveral.) But the central plot device is so much of its time that I am tempted to call it quaint.

Tony Hale is our viewpoint character. Chris Godfrey is a rather distant, important figure who gives important lectures in universities and will come and save the day if only us ordinary folks can get in touch with him. Two years ago Tony tried to sacrifice his life to save the earth from the Venusian goo; last year he helped save the human race from telepathic martian ghosts. But he's reverted to being a schoolboy. A bit naughty, a bit nerdy. His new hobby is....ham radio.

I love it. We've found evidence of at least two sets of aliens, and are currently uncovering their ancient technology; people live on the Moon and in orbit. But putting shortwave transmitters together and playing chess with people in Hong Kong is still the height of geek-chic. Tony's namesake, Tony Hancock, famously took up the same hobby in a 1961 TV episode, and in 1963 perpetual side-kick Rick Jones recruited a collection of American hams to keep tabs on the Incredible Hulk. Tony's best mate, Sidney, is also trying to assemble a radio and obtain a licence, and there is a good-natured rivalry between the two of them. (Tony Hancock's best mate was Sid James; but he didn't appear in the ham radio episode.) But Tony now has a regular job. He is a full-time techie on -- where else? --  Hendricks satellite! He is disappointed that he is going to have to go into space on a space rocket before his radio licence comes through, so he smuggles the equipment on board the satellite.

Walters is a very workmanlike writer. You can see the construction lines, but the whole thing holds together. There needs to be a sympathetic character on the evil scientist's satellite: Tony is the obvious candidate. Chapters alternate between scientists on earth gradually realising what a terrible threat the Brown Stains represent; and Tony, gradually realising that his commanding officer is a maniac. For the threads to come together, Tony has to be able to communicate with Earth: so Walters thinks up the sledgehammer plot device of the smuggled radio. But he spends several chapters foreshadowing the development; telling us about Tony's new hobby and his rivalry with his friend; so the smuggling episode when it comes is very nearly convincing. 

Once again, the book works because it follows a detailed, procedural structure. When Tony realises something is wrong; he has to secretly send a message to Sid and Sid has to get in touch with Chris, who is giving an important lecture and is naturally inclined to think he is being pranked. Once communication is established, they have to communicate in a very sophisticated code that a mad genius would never be able to see through. ("The doctor is sending a first aid party to your town.")

And, once again, heroism means sacrifice. Tony may be a tech nerd, he may be a little naughty, but when the chips are down he does not set his life at a pin's fee. Uncle George (the doctor) is sending Chris (the first aid team) in a rocket to act as a deus ex machina; but Tony knows that Hendrick can zap the space ship so he promises to take the death ray off line. He knows that the death ray is situated in Hedrick's private lab; he knows that he can disengage it by cutting the wire that connects it to the electrical generator; but he also knows that cutting the wire will electrocute him. And so the grim death watch motif returns. 

Tony is brave: "What did it matter that his own life would be blotted out in one blinding blue flash? He'd feel nothing. It would be over in a few milliseconds." 

Tony doesn't tell his friends what he is planning, and he very nearly steals a line from Captain Oates. "I'll be back just as soon as I can." 

Tony performs a short operatic aria before his death scene: "Soon he would go on the errand from which he would never return....Through his mind flashed the various pages of his life's story, a story that was by no means a long one." 

Tony is sad:"He felt too full to speak on what he knew to be his last journey."

Tony has noticed that Hendricks thinks he is God Almighty, but he isn't consciously acting out an allegory. He is less inclined than his mentor to utter silent prayers, and appears to be agnostic about the afterlife. "Would there just be a blinding flash as his saw bit through the insulation and then know nothing more. And after that -- what then?"

And Tony very nearly turns yellow at the end. "I'm a coward" he sobbed "I don't want to die".

But finally "with a moan of anguish" he cuts the wire.

SPOILER: Hendrick had already turned the power off because reasons, so Tony survives. Chris space walks to the space station from the other ship, gains entrance to Hendrick's lab from the outside, knocks him and his allies out with anaesthetic gas, and generally saves the day. Hendricks goes down the "you'll never take me alive copper" route and jumps out of an airlock. Having saved the world, again, Tony returns home to find a letter saying that his application for a radio licence has been turned down. Walters is finding it increasingly hard to resist the bathetic punch line. 

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