17 June 2019

BRITAIN CONQUERS SPACE (IN 1956!)

Satellite in Space by Professor A.M. Low. London: Brown Watson Ltd, 1956.

I found this piece of fascinating British SF in a secondhand bookshop in Cheltenham. A.M. Low was, as the book's blurb said, a former president of the British Interplanetary Society and the author of many scientific papers. Science Fiction, it has been said, is as much about the time in which it's written as about the future, and this book is fascinating for what it says not just about how the British in the 1950s viewed the future, but also about the fears and hopes haunting their time.
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The book narrates the tale of the construction of the world's first space station by an elite team from the British aerospace company, Metro-Combine. Led by Richard Tyrrell, the head of aeroframe design, the crew includes Peter Hoy, a proud Scots engineer, Philip Van Roseweare, a Canadian, Nick Kenny, from Down Under and 'Mickey' Michaelovsky, a heroic Polish flight lieutenant, formerly of the RAF. 

They are trained in how to move in space by the firm's doctor, Dr. Archane, and the project is overseen and supported by the company's paternalistic managing director, Garfield Orchard, and the company chief, Lord Camborne. They are joined by Susan, Orchard's daughter, who begins a romance with and finally marries Tyrrell. Susan is also a doctor, and flies to the station to assist the men with two nurses, one of whom, Molly, also becomes romantically involved with Kenny.

Against them are the Americans, Germans, Russians and a group of mysterious space aliens from a long destroyed world. These have mastered the art of invisibility, and creep into the British space station and its German rival to steal their oxygen, poison them with radiation sickness and send them mad with power. Under their influence one of the British, Clinton, goes berserk and threatens the world with annihilation as he now believes he is the emperor of space. At first they believe his madness and the radiation sickness afflicting the crew and their German rivals are just the effects of the immense stresses of space, before Tyrrell sees and, with the help of his fellow crewmen, captures the aliens responsible.

The book is set sometime around the year 2000. The promise of the space age has not materialised. Although satellites have been launched into space, beginning with the Americans in 1957 and followed by the British, French, Germans and Russians, with predictions that man would land on the Moon by the year in which the book is set, this hasn't happened. Valuable scientific information was recovered, but the promised space stations were never built. Spaceflight has followed flying saucers off the front pages of the newspapers and finally ended up back in the pages of the comics.




But this changes when Tyrrell, talking in the design office library, states he believes that the company should build such a station, and speculates that they already have such plans in their safe. Orchard then reveals that he has accidentally stumbled on the truth, and now that the story has been announced to the world over the papers after it's been leaked to the press, they now have to move ahead and actually build it before another foreign power does. 

And so Metro-Combine builds a massive rocket base at Hartwell in Devon, so they can launch the rockets over the Atlantic. These spacecraft are immense. They're 300 ft long 3 stage rockets. The last stage, carrying the crew, is 80 ft in length, and possesses wings so that they can fly back to Earth. Unlike modern rockets, which are powered by chemical propellants like liquid oxygen and hydrogen, these are atomic. And instead of being launched vertically, they are launched from silos and ramps angled at 40 degrees.

International rivalry to build the first space station is intense. As the British proceed they face bitter opposition. The Americans, humiliated at not being the first to construct it, demand an equal partnership in the project with Britain. The Germans send up a rival space station from a secret base in Namibia, then Southwest Africa, crewed by White, ethnic Germans and Black Africans. This is smaller, and so achieves a higher orbit. Despite more than fifty years having passed since the end of the Second World, the Germans still behave like Nazis. They are arrogant and domineering. 

Rath, their leader, styles himself Spacefuehrer. They abuse the Blacks under their command, who have been forced to serve aboard their station. Suffering from radiation sickness, Rath demands that the British come aboard his station to bring medicine. There they are attacked as Rath and the Germans believe that it is they who are stealing their oxygen, and the Brits are forced to shoot their way out and back to the British spacecraft.

But the British themselves are also beginning to suffer from radiation sickness, and must send some of their own people back to Earth for treatment. And their oxygen is also being pilfered. The thieves are finally revealed to be a group of space aliens. These have lived in space since their home planet was destroyed, creating the asteroid belt. They communicate through a kind of buzzing, broadcast by radio, which Hoy decodes using a mechanical translator he devises. These aliens are sent down to Earth for further interrogation. 

However, the managing director's other daughter, Marian, firmly opposes space exploration. She becomes a member of the 'Stop the Space Maniacs' League, and escapes with three of the space aliens to the 'Red East', marrying one of the extraterrestrials. Angered by Britain's construction of the station, the Russians reoccupy the abandoned German station and use it to launch an all out attack on the British station under cover of the aliens' invisibility technology. They are on the point of winning when Tyrrell and his surviving crew lead a final attack on the Russian station. The British are victorious, but because the Russians have destroyed their radio equipment, the world believes that Russia has won. And the world is on the point of war.

Peace, however, is secured. Tyrrell and his crew, having returned to Earth, and now forced to go once again into the deep black. To do so, they have first to avoid an attempt to bomb the base from helicopters by Marian and her collaborators. They manage to outwit her, return to their station, where they restore the giant solar dish they were building to provide power for it. This is used as a weapon, a giant heat ray, whose power they demonstrate to the world by destroying Mt. Everest as a warning against further moves to war.

But this is not the last danger Tyrrell and his crew have to face. The world is now threatened by a giant asteroid of the type which destroyed the aliens' home planet. The aliens thus leave, abandoning the Earth to its fate. But all is saved by Tyrrell and his team, who fill the disintegrating German station with strontium bombs. They pilot the station to the asteroid, abandoning it just before it hits. The asteroid is blown to piece, Earth is saved, and Tyrrell rejoins Susan. Together the couple look forward to a new age, when they have their home down on Earth, 'But all all around – this space, these planets, the stars themselves – are they our heritage, tomorrow's treasure? I think so.'

The book clearly reflects the tensions, strains and hopes of the post-War world in which it was written. The international composition of Tyrrell's crew, Scots, Australian, Canadian and Polish, reflects the close connection that still existed between the the peoples of the British Empire, strengthened during the War, as it was then transforming into the Commonwealth, and the great assistance we'd received from the Free Poles during the Battle of Britain. 

At the time, Britain, Australia and America were jointly conducting rocket research from Woomera under Project Gaslight, sending sounding rockets into space and monitoring their re-entry. Woomera's contribution to space research is briefly mentioned in the book, when Orchard tells Tyrrell and his colleagues that some of the company's research has been done there. It was expected that Britain would be a space power, and we continued developing a series of rocket launchers based on the Blue Steel nuclear missile, Black Knight and finally Black Arrow. The latter spacecraft launched Britain's Prospero satellite in the first and to date only launch of a satellite by a British space launcher in 1975 before the project was finally cancelled. 

And it was a staple of the Science Fiction of the time that the engineer would be a Scotsman. Scotland is famous for its proud history of engineering excellence since the 19th century, and this found its way into the SF of the time. The late Bob Monkhouse in an interview in Focus magazine back in the 1990s, said that when he was writing comics early in his career, he had an idea for an Science Fiction strip. This would feature a British spaceship called 'Enterprise', whose captain would be a Scotsman called Kirk. Not surprisingly, the headline for the article was how the great comedian nearly invented Star Trek. 

And, of course, the depiction of the Germans and Russians as the enemies represents lingering suspicion on the one hand from the Second World War and the tensions of the new Cold War on the other. This wasn't just confined to Low's book. In Ian Fleming's Bond novel, Moonraker, the villain, Drax, is a former Nazi, who has taken on the identity of a British aristocrat in order to sabotage the British space programme. Instead of entering space, the Moonraker rocket will instead be used as a nuclear missile to destroy London. Of course, the superspy wins by altering its course so that it destroys Drax and his henchmen as they are fleeing across the North Sea in their ship.

The use of atomic power for the rockets also reflects the scientific expectations of the age. This was to be a new era of cheap and immensely powerful energy. There were visions of mighty ships crossing the oceans powered by only a few kilos of uranium. For a long time it was also believed that they would power space vehicles. A nuclear rocket would allow Mars to be reached in three months or so, rather than the better part of a year. And there are still hopes that such ships may be possible. However, the environmental damage created by its use would probably prevent launches direct from Earth. While many satellites use nuclear reactors as a source of power, since the 1960s or so it's been illegal to explode nuclear weapons in space or in the upper atmosphere. 

The international treaties outlawing them are obviously intended to preserve the peace, but they also have the effect of preventing the use of nuclear propulsion for space travel in such vehicles as the Orion spacecraft. This would have been propelled by hydrogen bomblets thrown out of its rear, the explosion of which would have generated thrust against a 'pusher plate' at the rear of the ship thus forcing it forward. The astronauts in the book also possess atomic rifles, but here the use of atomic energy is a bit more confused, as they seem to fire normal bullets, including tracers, like conventional firearms. There also seems to be little understanding of how dangerous radiation poisoning is. The sick crewmen poisoned by the aliens' radiation guns are back, fit and active, after only a few weeks' treatment.

There's little in the way of overt politics in the book, but it's clear that Marian Orchard and her 'Stop the Space Maniacs' League are based on CND and the anti-nuclear protesters of the time. And just like now, they are presented as willing collaborators with the Soviets. The company is presented as benign and paternalistic. Orchard holds informal evenings with his staff, and promises everyone working on the project that their wives and families will be looked after, no matter what may happen to them. It also has a mixed attitude to the unions. Although one of the characters initially believes that one of the delays affecting the project may be a strike, a trade union foreman is a vital part of the team going into space. As a trade unionist, he works according to regular hours, and so Tyrrell is partly alerted to the psychological strain space is putting on them when the union man begins to work longer and more irregular hours than usual. 

The book also shows the affects of the events on domestic politics. The government, headed by Lord Charles, keenly supports the project, but loses an election. However, the succeeding government falls when hostilities between Britain and the German satellite, occupied by the Russians, breaks out. Lord Charles is restored to power, and government support for our gallant heroes is secure. The identity of the two parties isn't named, but as Charles is a member of the aristocracy, he's probably a Tory. But the inclusion of the trade unionist in the crew, who remarkably isn't lampooned as ready to call a strike at a moment's notice, seems to reflect the influence of the wartime ideology in which we all had to pull together, regardless of class. And it was during those years that the trade unions achieved a strong measure of influence over industrial decisions.




But what will interest Magonian readers the most is the description of the aliens themselves. They are the classic UFO type, with large heads and small, atrophied bodies, aided by cybernetic limbs and medical transplants. They are described as a short sort of men, or apes, about five feet tall, with large heads, 'but not unpleasant – not weird. Rather like Japanese with tanned skins'. They have large chests, and squat, thick legs. They walk on sucker feet, which seems to allow them to move somewhat like snails. They are described as elderly, though their human interrogators do not know whether that means that they are old in human terms, like eighty or a hundred. The creatures are given a closer examination by Susan Orchard when they and their captors return to Earth.

Watching them move, Susan found that their large heads were closely encased in a slightly pliable type of mask or helmet. Their sucker feet rippled them forward. And then she discovered that the attachments she had thought were delicate arms and hands were mechanical devices joining their bodies slightly above the hips. Moved with pity, she leaves a further examination to Professor Archane. This reveals that these creatures lived a queerly artificial life...
 Contact lenses of peculiar shape sharpened to needle point the seeing their inner eyes. They wore a nose attachment that gave them a sense of smell. Yet strangely enough, although they had no teeth- they were extracted at birth, an answer had declared-they wore no artificial teeth. Nor had they hair upon their chests or on their bodies anywhere.
Their eyes and ears were almost rudimentary-from the outward signs. They had to use an aid to hearing. Yet this, so small, so inconspicuous, was almost hypersensitive enough to pick up sounds beyond the human range of hearing. Was this, the questioners asked each other, was this-and not telepathy-the answer to the interruptions at a distance?

Apart from the similarity to Dan Dare's Mekon, this is the type of alien described by the mighty Martin Kottmeyer in his series of articles, 'Varicose Brains' in Magonia back in the '90s. Martin showed that these aliens, dwarfs with large brains and small, puny bodies, were ultimately derived from Victorian ideas of human evolution. This predicted that humans would become increasingly intelligent at the expense of their physical frame and senses, with the result that the brain would expand while the body and its sensory organs shrank as a consequence.

The space men's existence on Earth causes public horror when details are leaked by the press. Lurid articles describe how the aliens extend their lives through transplant surgery. 
Then, in sentences of carefully veiled language, revealing so much, and then a little more as if by accident, the torrent was unleashed. Space men – and women – who suffered the loss of an eye, a leg, an arm, were fitted with a new one on the operating table. Spare living parts were maintained in saline fluid in a semi-frozen condition.
What was more, from those who died a natural death or through accident, internal organs of the body were removed and stored until they could be used again in someone else who lacked this or that perfect part.
The brain was an organ of this type. Lifted from a wasting body, it had been grafted to the young and healthy body of a child. A man's old brain had been set into the skull of a young woman-even into command of an animal body!
The newspaper breaking the news of the aliens' surgical techniques declares that it is 'garnered from some godless fount of infamy' and denounces it as 'so incredible, so fantastic, so horrific, that we would not dare to bring to bring it to your eyes in all its dastardly detail if it were not likely to influence our leading surgeons to practise the same shocking operations on you – and those you love!'

This is the horror of Frankenstein's monster, of creatures made up out of flesh and organs stripped from others. Although transplant surgery has become widely accepted since Christiaan Barnard performed the first heart transplant, it is still a major source of anxiety. And this anxiety finds expression in Science Fiction and the UFO mythology. The aliens in the 1970s Gerry Anderson series, UFO, capture humans in order to use them as a source of organs for such surgery. The Blake 7 episode, 'Power Play', saw Vila, Cally and the villainous Servalan taken to a world, whose technologically sophisticated inhabitants, Hi-Teks, hunt the people of the other, technologically primitive human culture, for use as spare parts. 



Later in the '90s, the crew of the star ship 'Voyager', in the Star Trek series of that name, encounter a similar race in their exploration of the Gamma Quadrant. These are aliens, who have fallen victim to a terrible plague, the Phage, which rots their bodies. Unable to find a cure, they have been reduced to hunting through space preying on other creatures for their body parts, which they use to sustain themselves. And that intense fear and discomfort remains. I know many people, who were deeply disturbed by the report in the press in April 2019 that surgeons had successfully transplanted the brain from one pig into the severed head of another. 

As for the transplantation of human brains into animals in Science Fiction, or rather the reverse, one of the victims was Dog Brain in the 2000 AD strip, 'Bad Company'. This was a future war strip, whose hero, Danny Franks, had been rescued by the Bad Company of the title. These were a rogue unit of human soldiers, who had been captured and brutally experimented on by the alien Krool. Their leader, Major Kano, was a Frankenstein's monster, whose head had been opened and one half of his brain replaced with that of their Krool enemy. Another had had his human arm removed and replaced with one of the alien world's carnivorous plants. And Dog Brain had had his human brain removed completely and replaced with a dog's.

And in the 1980s the classic alien abduction myth appeared, with its tales that aliens were abducting humans for use in strange, surgical experiments. The aliens were keen to interbreed with us, taking men and women in order to procreate children with them. But humans were also being dissected, and the secret bases the aliens had established here on Earth with the willing collaboration of the American government included vats of human body parts. Although not dependent on spare party surgery and of normal, human height, the invading aliens in the 1950s Ray Harryhausen film, Earth Versus the Flying Saucers, are similarly physically wizened, and have to rely on their suits to move around easily.

Low was clearly aware of the UFO literature of the time, and the aliens' spacecraft seems to be derived from the classic 'flying saucer'. It is described as a 'bulbous oval'. It and its alien occupants are able to make themselves invisible through a coating that makes ordinary light pass around them. This is the same technique which British scientists used a few years ago to create a kind of invisibility around suitably treated vehicles and clothing as a highly sophisticated version of military camouflage. 

There is also a brief discussion of the propulsion system used by the alien ships. This uses light to attract the ships to their destinations, while darkness repels them. This is pure pseudoscience, though it's no worse than some of the other ideas about UFO space propulsion then going round. Eric and Leif Nesheim's Saucer Attack! Pop Culture in the Golden Age of Flying Saucers (Los Angeles: Kitchen Sink Press 1997) shows how the classic imagery of disc shaped flying objects predates the appearance of the UFO flying saucer. Similarly Science Fiction magazines and comics showed their occupants as dwarfs with large heads from the early '50s onwards.

Low was clearly influenced by this literature in his own depiction of the aliens. This in turn may have helped create the type of alien experienced in the imagery of the abduction narratives. It also anticipates other aspects of the abduction mythology in the fears about dissection and transplant surgery as alien and dehumanising.

Fortunately, history hasn't followed the course predicted in the book. Yuri Gagarin made his historic flight into space in 1961, five years after the book was published, and two years before it was reprinted in 1963 by Digit. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin famously landed on the Moon in 1969, and the Russians launched the first of their Salyut space stations two years later in 1971. This was followed by the American with Skylab in 1975, the Russian Mir in 1986 and now the International Space Station. 

Unfortunately there have also been plans for military space stations. The Americans had plans for one in the Manned Orbiting Laboratory in 1965, though the programme was later cancelled. But the Russians launched a series of military space stations as part of the Salyut programme, the abortive Salyut 2 in 1973, and the fully operational Salyut 3 in 1974 and Salyut 5 in 1976-7. Mercifully, space has not become a battleground, although Ronald Reagan wanted to launch a series of military satellites that could strike at Earth as part of his wretched 'Star Wars' programme in the 1980s. And that spectre has returned under Trump, who has announced that he wants to see the creation of an American military space force.

The book has been out of print, as far as I know, since it was republished back in 1963. But it still makes for interesting reading. It is a stirring tale from the early post-War years, when Britain was still a major, though declining global power. But it also shows the cosmic hopes and fears that British space and science fiction fans had for their country's future in space, and for contact with alien life. Hopes that were dashed with the cancellation of Black Arrow in 1975, but which may yet revive with the establishment of the Orbix satellite launcher in Scotland. -- David Sivier


For anyone interested, a few copies of this book are offered for sale on Amazon:


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