The Flying Saucer, Bernard Newman
(2010 Westholme Publishing, $14.95, 250pp)
America Reads is a series of books which are “rediscovered fiction and nonfiction from key periods in American history”. The Flying Saucer by Bernard Newman is the first of three books in the series subtitled “1950s: Visions of the Future”. Strange then, that America apparently reads a novel by a British writer as a vision of its future. Further strangeness lies in the title. This novel was apparently the first to use the phrase “flying saucer” as a title, and yet no flying saucer actually appears in the story. They are, like the novel’s central conceit, smoke and mirrors. Project Blue Book is just as much a work of fiction as The Flying Saucer, but the author is not the United States Air Force.
The author is, in fact, Bernard Newman, who, as Bernard Newman the author, narrates the story of The Flying Saucer. Such postmodern narrative games sit oddly in what is essentially postwar pulp fiction – especially given the book’s overt nods towards HG Wells and prewar scientific romances. Newman, riffing off The Shape of Things to Come, looks to a scientific elite to save the world from itself, despite only five years having passed since World War Two ended with its frenetic technological progress resulting in V-2s and jet-fighters and radar. The opening chapter of The Flying Saucer recounts a conversation between Newman, eminent polymath scientist Drummond, and ex-spy and comedy Frenchman Pontivy. Together, they hatch a cunning plot, based on the canard that Earth’s nations will unite against a common foe. They chose Mars to be the home of Earth’s enemy. Drummond invents a rocket, made of some indestructible substance, and powered by mysterious means. It lands in Leicestershire, but unlike in Wells’ The War of the Worlds, contains only a message in a strange “alien” alphabet.
As the story progresses, as more rockets land in various parts of the world, the central trio recruit more scientists to their cabal. The messages, for example, were written by the world’s leading linguist. Who is subsequently asked by the UN to translate it. Newman, the author, adds to the global tension by placing stories of UFO encounters in various newspapers and magazines. A British film about aliens invading the Earth becomes a worldwide blockbuster after it is hyped by Newman’s contacts in the media. Meanwhile, Pontivy’s plan to extort more money for the plot from a French criminal backfires badly when the criminal tries to take over the self-created scientific elite. It all comes to a head when a Martian lands in Africa. It carefully manages to escape before the deception can be unmasked. By this point, the nations of the Earth have put away their atomic toys, are in thrall to Drummond’s League of Scientists, and eventually line up to vote in a world leader who proves to be Winston Churchhill in all but name.
It’s all wildly improbable and implausible. There’s no science in this science fiction, only vague handwaving by the narrating author. The central conceit is as old as Tsun Tsu, the book owes many of its ideas to the oeuvres of Verne and Wells, and Pontivy is an offensive racial stereotype. The end result is a potboiler which fails to convince on almost every level, yet remains mostly entertaining. It’s certainly not a definitive or seminal work, by any means. Likely it owes its alleged importance only to an accident of titling. Newman can’t have known a handful of years after the term “flying saucer” was coined that the term, that ufology itself, would prove so popular, or indeed that it would still be going strong sixty years later.
It is good to hear that America Reads. But it’s a shame, if The Flying Saucer is any indication, that it has such poor taste in books.
This review originally appeared in Interzone 232, January – February 2011.