Friday, 26 December 2008

Professor A. M. Low and the 'Bunst' stories

I started reading SFF in the mid-1950s and, although I recollect very little of what – or who – I was reading at that time, one name has somehow stuck in my memory over all of those years through some quirk of memory; that of Professor A. M. Low. Recently I decided to track down this memory and was pleasantly surprised to find that he has a Wikipedia entry. Reading through it, it became clear that he was a lot more than a writer of children's SF stories; an engineer, inventor and research physicist, he was involved in experiments with radio-controlled aircraft and rockets during World War 1. He belonged to many different organisations in several fields and was a founder member and President of the British Interplanetary Society. He also wrote some forty books, many of them intended to explain scientific matters to the layman. This sounded like a man after my own heart, and another search pulled up a couple of his books for sale second-hand; Modern Armaments, published in 1939, and one of his four novels, Adrift in the Stratosphere (1937).

I read Modern Armaments with particular interest, especially because of its date of publication. It is an easy read, intended for the layman, and explains the principles of modern weaponry very clearly, although with little in the way of examples of actual equipment or hard data. Low took a broad view of his subject, with chapters on explosives, optics, parachutes, armour and the military uses of concrete, as well as the expected topics of army, navy and air force weapons. Some of his opinions reflected the mistaken and rather complacent views of the British military at the time: that submarines would pose little threat in a future war because of the advances made in detection systems; that contemporary anti-aircraft fire control systems would serve very well to protect warships against air attack; and that light tanks would predominate in any future conflict with little role for heavier vehicles other than in a direct assault.

He goes into some detail about locating aircraft by sound, although he doesn't mention the giant acoustic mirrors on the south-east coast for locating incoming bombers. He does not, of course, discuss radar, although there is a rather coy reference to experiments with devices which detect "the reflection of ether vibrations". He holds some interesting views on chemical warfare, pointing out that laws to restrict warfare would inevitably be broken in any major conflict and that the use of poison gas was far more humane than bullets or shell fragments, with casualties suffering a much lower death rate. On looking ahead, he discusses and dismisses the prospect of "death rays". Despite some flaws, this is a good book displaying a lot of sense as well as a clear understanding of armaments. However, I could have done without the long moral peroration on the nature of warfare which constitutes the entire first chapter.

Having absorbed that, I turned to Adrift in the Stratosphere with anticipation. I didn't expect it to be great literature, and I was aware that it was only intended for children, but given the author's interests I expected a tale which would be based on the scientific knowledge of the time. Sadly it was a major disappointment, being a barely readable fantasy in which hardly any of the "science" is correct or even remotely feasible. Three young men stumble across a stratospheric research vehicle being built in an inventor's barn (as one does) and accidentally launch it onto space, having various death-defying adventures before (inevitably) returning safely home to a hero's welcome. I didn't object to the hostile Martians who tried to kill them with various death rays (typical of SF of the period), but for the rest…There is no point in going through it in detail but it includes such matters as huge space-living dragons whose fiery breath almost overcomes the lads in their (sealed?) spaceship; Mars being approached in only a few hours while travelling at the ferocious speed of almost a thousand miles per hour (!); and "islands in the stratosphere" on which live humans with a perfect command of English. I'll leave it at that. It does make me appreciate the quality of modern fiction for young adults!

By another quirk of memory, I had remembered really enjoying a series of stories about a lad called Bunst which I was sure were by Professor Low but which turned out to be by someone else: John Newton Chance, who also published as John Lymington and under various other names. He has a Wiki entry, too. He wrote six children's books in the "Bunst" series, and I managed to find a copy of the penultimate one: Bunst and the Secret Six, published in 1951. On reading it I recalled one detail of the plot so and must have previously read it, some time in the late 1950s. The books feature a boy of unstated age but probably early to mid teens, whose nickname is a shortened version of "bunstuffer" from his habit of constantly eating. He is intelligent, resourceful, phlegmatic and mechanically minded, and works as an assistant to a scatterbrained and excitable inventor, an elderly ex-military type called Audacious Cotterell. This particular novel involves radio-controlled model aircraft, a secret new high explosive, a gang of six spies who try to steal it, and much chasing and hiding. It rather reminded me of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, only on a smaller scale, written for children and with a constant undercurrent of humour. The style is very much of its innocent time, but I still found it an enjoyable read. Good to know that my reading tastes as a young lad weren't all bad!


Fred said...


I don't remember any of the names or titles, except for John Lymington. And, after reviewing the extensive list of his publications under various pen names, I can't say for certain that I've read any of them.

It must have been fun, though, to go rummaging around in your memories and then come up with this information.

Aside from comic strips and comic books, my first encounter with SF/F was probably in the late 40s when I wandered out of the children's section of the library into the adult section (this was back when "adult" meant mature rather than erotic or pornographic) and discovered a shelf of SF anthologies, many of which were edited by Groff Conklin.

Anthony G Williams said...

Yep, it was rather satisfying to track down those tag-ends of memory and refresh them, even though the Low novel was a disappointment.

Fred said...

Yes, I've also found that some works that I've remembered fondly don't hold up on a reread decades later.

I've changed and SF has changed. Both changes lead to changes in expectations, I guess.

longfuse said...

Like you, for some reason, Prof Low's name has stuck in my memory too. In the early 1950's I used to visit my local library once a week and would devour the books that I took home to read. Among these was one by Low that fits the description that you give of the plot in Adrift in the Stratosphere. It frightened me to death. I'd like to read it again, however disappointing it might be. Similarly, I used to enjoy the radio series Journey into Space. I don't read much sci-fi these days but it's a genre for which I have a lot of respect. Particularly because I take the view that 'if man can imagine, man can achieve.' The number of times great discoveries, or great music, comes to people 'fully-formed' suggets to me that the unconsious mind is capable of tapping into a universal resource of which we have very little understanding. I am always amazed by the apparent alternative reality of the 'dream-world'

Anthony G Williams said...

Ah yes, I remember listening to "Journey into Space", by Charles Chilton (I still have one of his novels, "The World in Peril" published in 1960). His works were unusual because they were written as radio plays first and novels later.

That was a time when SF was a mainstream interest, with plays like this and books like Wyndham's "Day of the Triffids" very much a central part of popular culture. But then, "Star Trek" was in its day, too, and "Doctor Who" still is (although mostly for kids).