Sunday 25 November 2018

Four-Sided Triangle, and Shoot at the Moon, by William F. Temple

The British Library is continuing to republish long-forgotten books in its Science Fiction Classics series. They have kindly sent me two of these for review: Four-Sided Triangle, and Shoot at the Moon, both by British author William F. Temple. The first was originally published in 1949, the second in 1966 – at the beginning and the end of his writing career.

I had certainly never read Four-Sided Triangle before, and found it intriguing for a number of reasons. In the introduction by Mike Ashley, we learn that the original idea appeared as a short story before World War 2. Temple decided it was worth expanding to novel length, but had to overcome a number of difficulties. First was being called up to the army during the war; he decided to write it anyway whenever he could find the time, and wrote about half of it, before the manuscript was lost during a battle in North Africa. So he started again and once more had reached about half-way when another battle, in Italy, saw it disappearing again. This time he waited until after the war before making a third, successful, attempt (no doubt with gritted teeth!).

The end result is quite long for an SF novel of the 1940s, at 300 pages. This gives plenty of space for developing the plot and the characters, and Temple makes full use of that. What would conventionally be the three principal characters – Bill, an erratic scientific genius; Rob, his friend and a steadier, more methodical type of experimenter; and Lena, a young woman who appears later – are not in fact the narrators. That task falls to a rather elderly family doctor who lives in the same town and knows the characters well; he gives his first person account of what happened.

There are some surprises in this story – elements I would not expect to see in an SF novel of this period. For example, the doctor describes Bill's dreadful early life in poverty, living with a drunken father who beat him for any reason or none; then adds: "There was, too, a certain Uncle Joe, a pervert, whose occasional appearance brought a grotesque strain into this symphony of existence." After the death of Bill's father the doctor becomes Bill's guardian, as "His odious Uncle Joe was at that time in the second week of a the first year of a long sojourn in Parkhurst Prison." Lena first comes to the doctor's attention as a result of a suicide attempt; and late one evening when the doctor first takes Bill to meet her, she causes some consternation as she appears "wearing that lovely cherry smile and not a thing else". All of this, combined with philosophical as well as scientific debates, makes it clear that this is
"grown up" fiction in contrast with the rather juvenile reputation of SF at that time.

Bill and Rob, with the aid of Rob's wealthy father, have set up a laboratory near the town to follow up some revolutionary ideas of Bill's. This is the stage when the SF element appears for the first time; over 80 pages into the novel! What Bill has invented is a Reproducer – a machine which scans any object and produces an exact copy, down to the atomic level. The two young experimenters go into mass production of unique artworks, but soon run into unexpected problems and find themselves in a downward spiral leading to disaster – albeit with a partially satisfactory ending eventually salvaged. I can't say more without major spoilers, so if you want to read the book, stop reading this review NOW!


The problems begin when both Rob and Bill fall in love with the captivating Lena. She chooses Rob, so Bill devises a plan to replicate her in order to have his own version of her. The plan succeeds and "Dorothy" duly emerges, but there is an obvious flaw in Bill's reasoning (which the reader is liable to forecast long before the author reveals it) – since Lena is madly in love with Rob, so also is Dorothy, as she is exactly the same, including emotions. This causes all manner of problems made even worse when Bill departs the scene, as Rob is a very traditional, religious, English gentleman, and refuses the women's reasonable suggestion that they should share him. Eventually, events provide a solution of a sort (with the help of some underhand tactics by the Doctor).

Overall, the main point to make is that although the SF element is essential in providing the conditions for the plot, it doesn't really play any other part. This is a novel of human relationships and the way in which people respond to an unprecedented situation, and it is full of thoughtful philosophical analysis and debate. This might seem to be rather dull, but I found it interesting. What I did not like was the author's fondness for rather depressing hints of future tragedy, as in "I am writing with memories of events yet to come in this narrative and with a sense of loss yet gnawing at my heart".

There is one respect in which the story is of its time – it adopts the SF trope of the genius scientist working alone and being left to exploit his invention as he thinks fit. In reality, of course, fundamental technological advances require considerable communal effort and if anyone did come up with anything like the Reproducer, it would promptly be acquired by the government and put under military guard, with the inventors being made an offer that they couldn't refuse! A film was made of this story in 1953 and while I have not seen it, the plot summary I have read reveals that, among other changes, there is considerably more emphasis on secrecy and security.

All in all, an unusual story which was highly regarded when it first appeared and is still well worth reading today.


Shoot at the Moon is a more conventional kind of SF story in its plot, although not in its satirical approach to it. The story is told in the first person by Franz Brunel, an embittered and cantankerous spacecraft pilot who had been given the chance to pilot an experimental and largely automated nuclear-powered spacecraft to the moon. There were four other crew members: Colonel Marley, a brutal bully in command of the expedition; his genius daughter Lou; Thomson, a doctor who enjoyed practical jokes; and Pettigue, a withdrawn and uncommunicative scientist. Altogether a very badly matched crew, as Brunel observes, complicated by the fact that the wayward Lou had decided that Brunel would be her next husband, regardless of his attempts to hold her at bay and despite the strong disapproval of her father.

One of the elements of the plot is the effect of increasing automation on employment; Brunel's own job is at risk. Like most writers of the time, Temple assumed that automation would mean that those with jobs would not have to work very hard so would have lots of spare time. The hard commercial reality that those in work would have to work a lot harder for no more money has undermined those utopian dreams.

As with his first book, thoughtful philosophy features as well as analyses of the personalities and mental states of the crew, especially the schizophrenic but irresistible Lou. There is more action in this story, however: as one person after another is killed in suspicious circumstances, Brunel has to try to pin down the cause before anyone else dies. The resolution of that mystery is a classic piece of SF imagination leading to a triumphant conclusion. I read the 240-page book in two sessions, reading late into the night, which is always a good recommendation.  I particularly liked the darkly sardonic humour threaded through the tale. An enjoyable read!

William F. Temple was one of the most popular British SF writers in the 1950s but, unlike his contemporary John Wyndham, is largely forgotten today. In some ways he was unlucky: his tribulations in getting The Four-Sided Triangle written are described above, but the fate of Shoot at the Moon was worse. It was initially very well received and both a major publicity effort and film rights were being negotiated in the USA, when (as described by Mike Ashley in his usual interesting introduction) one newspaper critic wrote a sarcastic review. This caused the publisher to cancel the publicity, and the proposed film was never made. Temple did write one other story, but he basically gave up writing after that. A sad way to finish a productive career.

Sunday 4 November 2018

Windhaven: The Graphic Novel, by George R.R. Martin & Lisa Tuttle

A graphic novel is a new experience for me. I have never considered buying one, probably because I associate them with the comic books of my youth (mostly featuring derring-do in World War 2). However, I understand they are popular with a wider audience these days, and since Windhaven is a novel I like and have reviewed here, I accepted the offer from Titan Comics to review the graphic version of it.

I will start by replicating my review of the print version:

This stand-alone 1981 novel consists of three novellas (the first two originally published separately in 1975 and 1980) and an epilogue. The stories are set on the planet of Windhaven which is almost entirely covered by ocean except for a few widely-scattered groups of islands. These islands were populated by the survivors of a spaceship crash-landing generations before the events in the novel. Due to resource shortages the civilisation has regressed to the medieval level with one exception: they still possess quantities of almost indestructible but extremely thin and light fabric, ideal for making glider wings. The Windhaven weather is almost always windy and frequently stormy and, although not specified in the book, the combination of surface gravity and air density is sufficient to support long gliding flights by highly-skilled hereditary "flyers", with the aid of folding wings with a twenty-foot span. The high-status flyers form the main communication links between the islands, as shipping is hazardous due to the storms and sea monsters.

Although nominally SF, there are no mind-stretching concepts other than the initial premise described above. The story is really about people; their alliances and antagonisms, struggles to succeed, failures and successes.

The novellas focus on the story of three stages in the life of Maris, a girl of humble origins who is adopted by a flyer and thereby given the chance to learn to fly – the only thing she has ever wanted to do. She is faced by many obstacles and problems throughout her life, and this is far from a "happily ever after" story. It is something of an emotional roller-coaster ride, being very moving in places. There are some impressive set-pieces such as the intense and brilliantly argued debate at the end of the first part in which the flyers decide who should and should not have the right to be trained to join them.

The character of Maris is superbly developed throughout the book and the richness of the descriptions of the society, the personalities and the emotional intensity of their complex and ever-evolving relationships irresistably drew me in. I found myself really caring about what happened, sometimes even reluctant to carry on reading because of the dangers Maris courted and the pain and disappointments she suffered.

Windhaven is not a long book by modern standards but nonetheless tells an epic story, the stuff of legend. It is beautifully told and deserves to be far better known, and I highly recommend it.

The first point to note about the graphic version is that the adaptation was done by Lisa Tuttle, co-author of the original novel, which is a big plus point. The artwork is by Elsa Charretier. The book is a smart hardback, the full-colour graphics printed on high-quality paper; it is an attractive book to handle and look through. Unlike the comics of my childhood, the illustrations of the characters are, well, somewhat stylised and cartoonish rather than realistic, but I understand that is the popular fashion these days. Most of the text consists of dialogue, supplemented by a few short information boxes per page. Effectively the text forms a precis of the print book, and a good one too – all of the key moments are there.

I approached this book with some reservations (which would also apply to any other graphic novel) because of the way in which I normally experience a novel. While I don't do this consciously, I realise that when I read a text, the words generate pictures in my mind; effectively, I create my own movie as I read. This quite strongly affects my experience of the story. For example, if the text describes a building on one side of a river, I form an image of the view with the building located on what I think is the correct side. If, later on, it turns out that the author means the building to be on the other side of the river, I find this very disorientating. I generally find that it is very difficult to rewind and "reshoot" the view in my mind to match the change;  it is easier to ignore the author's words and continue to picture it on the "wrong" side, unless that really messes up the plot. With a graphic novel of course this situation cannot arise: in effect, the reader is seeing the illustrator's movie of the story (or stills from it, at any rate). This reduces my involvement in the story as I become a spectator rather than a participant.

However, I need not have worried. Somewhat to my surprise, I was immediately drawn into the story once more and read it without a break (it took about an hour, a quarter of the time it takes me to read the print version). Of course, it is a different kind of experience to reading the print novel but I found that I had no problems with getting into and appreciating the story, and the conclusion was still moving. I was aware that my familiarity with the tale may have enabled me to understand the context rather more easily than a newcomer to the story could manage, but it's impossible for me to assess that.

What is the value of the graphic version of this (or any) novel? It certainly saves time and some mental effort, so is an easier way to enjoy the story. It is more accessible, potentially stimulating an interest in the story which could be a lead-in to the print version. It is unlikely that I will ever prefer the graphic format, as I gain so much pleasure from exercising my imagination as I read, but I found the graphic Windhaven surprisingly enjoyable.