It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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An obscure British sf masterwork?

Several of the authors I included in my fifty British SF Masterworks list (see here), I’d not actually read. And with good reason – they’re more or less forgotten. One such author was Rex Gordon, the pen-name of Stanley Bennett Hough, born in 1917, who wrote nine science fiction novels between 1953 and 1969. Of those novels, the best-known is perhaps No Man Friday (or so I was reliably informed). Second-hand copies of the book are relatively easy to find – both under that title and under its US title, First on Mars – so I bought one. And read it. (Incidentally, Gordon’s The Worlds of Eclos was published in the US as First to the Stars, and his The Time Factor as First Through Time; there seems to be a pattern there…)

Gordon Holder is the narrator of No Man Friday. He is an engineer at Woomera, Australia, where Britain carried out its rocket and missile programme during the 1950s and 1960s. Determined to beat the Americans into space, the British engineers secretly build a rocket to take them to Mars. They sneak orders for the parts they need onto the account lines of officially-approved projects, and build the rocket inside a disused water tower. It’s a peculiarly British way to do it, working within the system, hiding in the bureaucracy – rather than fighting against it, one man versus the overbearing government, as would happen in an American novel.

No Man Friday is not an especially scientifically accurate novel, although Gordon is careful to maintain a plausible tone. The rocket, for example, carries a crew of seven, and clearly owes more to the pointy rockets of the science fiction of the period than it does to the contemporary Redstone launch vehicle of NASA (one of which would put the first American, Alan Shepard, into space six years later).

En route to Mars, Holder has to leave the confines of the rocket to fix a deflector-plate which is causing the craft to spin. On his return, something goes wrong and the outer and inner airlock doors are both opened. Everyone inside dies. Only Holder survives, because he’s still wearing his spacesuit. Gordon has clearly thought about what it would be like to wear an inflated spacesuit in a vacuum, and describes the difficulty of performing tasks in such a suit – although he didn’t anticipate the damage to fingernails that modern-day astronauts apparently experience on EVA (see here).

The rocket crashes on Mars, but again Holder survives. Given that Gordon had no knowledge of the surface conditions of Mars – the first Mars lander would not be until 1971, when the Soviet Mars 3 managed to transmit data and pictures for 22 seconds; and the first successful landers were the US’s Viking 1 and Viking 2 in 1976 – nonetheless, he manages a reasonably believable Martian surface, not unlike, say, the Atacama Desert.

Holder manages to use the wreckage of the rocket, and its surviving equipment, to manufacture both water and oxygen. He builds himself a sand scooter, and goes exploring. But wherever he goes, it’s all the same: an endless red desert, populated only by strange Martian cacti and the over-sized termites which feed on them. He even experiments with the plants, trying to find some method of preparation which will make them edible and nutritious.

Then he discovers evidence of some larger animal – he has already guessed that the low gravity and air pressure would result in creatures larger in size than earthly ones. This creature proves to be humanoid in shape, but its behaviour demonstrates it is clearly not intelligent. But the giant centipede creatures, the size of buses, which feed on the corpses of the humanoids and communicate via biological light-organs, definitely appear to be.

Holder sets out to follow the giant centipedes, and eventually discovers their nesting area. He attempts to communicate with them…

Fifteen years later, a US rocket lands on Mars, and its crew are astonished to see a human approaching their craft on foot. Holder has survived as a favoured pet of the giant centipedes. He explains this to the Americans, telling them that the Martians will only allow one rocket per year to land on the Red Planet. The Americans reply that the system is unworkable, not least because the Soviets are planning their own mission. Holder tries to return to the Martians, but is unable to do so – some strange barrier prevents him.

No Man Friday clearly owes a lot to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and, in fact, references that book a number of times. Not having read Defoe, I can’t say how close the parallels are. No Man Friday is also a very explanatory book, as Holder takes an interest in his strange surroundings and in discovering how to survive in them. He explains what he does, and why. The prose is strong throughout, and Holder is an engaging and thoughtful narrator. The flora and fauna on Mars Gordon invents sounds mostly believable, and the giant centipede Martians are otherworldly enough to feel alien – especially given the hands-on engineering tone of the rest of the novel.

No Man Friday is quick, fun and interesting, without being glib or ridiculously fanciful. It’s very much a “hard” science fiction novel of its time, but also very characteristically British. There’s no mistaking No Man Friday for an American sf novel. That’s where much of its charm lies. And, yes, it does belong on the British SF Masterwork list.


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20 British SF Novels You Should Read

It seems to be the season to exhort people to read books, or watch films, from some list of what-appear-to-be-randomly-chosen titles. So, move on over up there on the bandwagon, I’m climbing aboard.

But.

Most of the lists floating about the tinterweb are, let’s face it, a bit Americocentric. Here are twenty science fiction novels by British authors you should read.

Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland
Tabitha Jute is the captain of a space barge, and when she agrees to ferry a cabaret act, Contraband, from Mars to the alien space station Plenty, things go from bad to… well, to crashing her space barge on Venus. A seminal post-modern space opera, and a personal favourite (see here).

Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks
Cheradenine Zakalwe was an operative for Special Circumstances. While the drone Diziet Sma tries to persuade him to come out of retirement for one last job, a second narrative recounts Zakalwe’s career in reverse chronological order… leading to one of the most memorable revelations in science fiction. Probably the best of Banks’ Culture novels.

A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
Alex loves a bit of the old ultra-violence, but the authorities aren’t so keen on it. One such incident gets a bit out of hand, and Alex is arrested, tried and convicted. While in jail, he volunteers for a brainwashing experiment, designed to remove his urge for violence. A novel that’s famous for several reasons – its story, its invented language Nadsat, Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, and Kubrick banning his own film from being shown in the UK…

Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle
In an alternate past in which the mediaeval nation of Burgundy did not disappear, female mercenary captain Ash is battling against invading Visigoths from North Africa. Meanwhile, a present-day academic is researching the biography of the fictional Ash… only to discover his own world slowly changing to be more like hers.

Life, Gwyneth Jones
Anna Senoz is a genetics researcher, and this is her, well, her life. And her career. SFSite said of Life: “You can stop reading right now and go out and buy the book. Otherwise, you’ll have to endure yet another one of these diatribes about how science fiction doesn’t get any respect from the literary mainstream. Because you can’t read this book and not reflect on the fact that had this been written by, say, Margaret Atwood, Life would be receiving more of the widespread attention it deserves.”

Light, M John Harrison
Back in 1975, Harrison reinvented space opera with The Centauri Device. Twenty-seven years later, he did it again with Light. Physicist and serial killer Michael Kearney is haunted by the Shrander. He is also on the verge of breakthrough in theoretical physics which will allow humanity to spread into space… and so populate the edges of the Kefahuchi Tract, a region of space that obeys no known laws of physics. Which is where, in 2400 AD, K-ship captain Seria Mau Genlicher and ex-space pilot Ed Chianese now live.

Absolution Gap, Alastair Reynolds
This is one of those novels which has three separate narratives which seem to have no connection to each other. But, of course, they’re linked. The world of Ararat has found itself dragged into a war between humanity and the Inhibitors. Rashmika Els is looking for her brother, who has joined one of the “cathedrals” which perpetually travel across the face of the frozen moon, Hela. And the crew of the lighthugger Gnostic Ascension are desperately searching for something to improve their fortunes… Of Reynolds’ Revelation Space novels, this one shows the strangeness of his universe best.

Behold the Man, Michael Moorcock
Karl Glogauer travels back in time from Britain in 1970 to Judea in 28 AD. He is obsessed with meeting Jesus Christ… except the Jesus he meets is not the one described in the Bible. Britain in 1970 was a grim place, but Biblical Judea is little better. At least Glogauer finds the fate he was seeking, although it’s perhaps not the one he expected to find.

The Drowned World, JG Ballard
If we don’t get global warming sorted out soon, this might well turn not to be science fiction. Ballard’s second novel, and deservedly in the SF Masterworks series.

The Separation, Christopher Priest
The Second World War ended in 1941. Except it didn’t. It’s all because of identical twins Joe and Jack Sawyer. After competing in the 1936 Olympics, they fall out. One becomes a RAF bomber pilot, while the other is a conscientious objector. Priest rings the variations on their two lives, and the consequences of one or the other, or both, dying.

Somewhere East of Life, Brian W Aldiss
Someone has stolen ten years of Roy Burnell’s memories, and so he wanders about Central Asia hunting for the magic bullet which will restore them. This is one of those near-future sf novels which, now that its future has passed, bears an uncanny resemblance to mainstream fiction. And yet it’s still sf.

The Time Machine, HG Wells
A man invents a time machine and travels to the future. To the year 802,701 AD, in fact. But you probably knew that already.

The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter
This is the authorised sequel to The Time Machine – and in it the publication of Wells’ novel has changed the future. The Time Traveller can no longer rescue Weena from the Morlocks. So he goes back in time to prevent his earlier self from inventing the time machine. Only that changes the future yet again… Baxter manages to pull a happy ending out of his story, but you’ll have to read the novel to find out how.

1984, George Orwell
Some say this isn’t science fiction. I say that just because some governments are using techniques described in the book – left-wing doubleplusungood, right wing doubleplusgood; Christianity doubleplusgood, atheism doubleplusungood – that doesn’t mean 1984 isn’t science fiction. The UK might as well be Airstrip One, anyway. And not even George Orwell would have dared invent Gitmo and “extraordinary rendition” for his novel.

Pavane, Keith Roberts
Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated in 1588, and England remains Catholic. The stories in this fix-up novel are set in a 1968 following on from this, but it’s not a 1968 we’d recognise. Pavane is still one of the best alternate history novels ever written, and Keith Roberts deserves to be better known than he is.

The Road to Corlay, Richard Cowper
A thousand years in the future, the ice-caps have melted and the UK is now a series of small islands (it’s that global warming thing again). Modern technology has been mostly forgotten, and a Church Militant rules everything. But the prophesied White Bird of Dawning could break their rule. It all depends on Tom, whose pipe-playing has the power to stir minds. While this novel may sound like fantasy, it’s very definitely science fiction. It’s also very English.

Chronocules, DG Compton
This novel has one of the all-time great opening sentences: “About twenty years before this story begins—give or take a few years, the Simmons s.b. effect being untried and seriously (not that it mattered) inaccurate—the desolate silence on Penheniot Village, at the top of Penheniot Pill which is a creek off the small harbour of St. Kinnow in the county of Cornwall, was shattered by the practised farting of young Roses Varco.” But then it was originally published under the title Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper sides of used Matchboxes, and something that might have been Castor Oil, so what do you expect?

Silver Screen, Justina Robson
Anjuli O’Connell is a psychologist working with the Artificial Intelligence 901. Just before his death, a colleague filed a petition with the World Court to emancipate the AI, but the company which built and owns it is resisting. Not many debut novels are shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, but Silver Screen was. And it also appeared on the shortlist for the BSFA Award.

Oracle, Ian Watson
A Roman centurion is dragged forward to the present day by an experiment and finds himself in, of all places, Milton Keynes (that’s the town with the concrete cows). He’s picked up by a British researcher… But then the security services get involved. And so do the IRA. And the book heads smartly into thriller territory.

The Star Fraction, Ken MacLeod
This was MacLeod’s debut novel, and takes place in a balkanised UK. Revolution is in the air, and three very different characters find themselves involved. And behind it all is the mysterious Star Fraction. And the rogue AI, the Watchmaker. An astonishing debut from MacLeod.

Now go and read them.

(Before you all start spluttering about various books I’ve missed off the list, I picked titles which are either set (mostly) in the UK, or at some point in the future at which nation states are irrelevant. So no Black Man or Brasyl. Or Rendezvous with Rama. They’re also books I’ve both read and enjoyed. So no John Wyndham (never read him). Nevertheless, I’ve probably missed an entire county’s worth of UK authors who deserve mention. If you can think of any, then feel free to name them in a comment.)