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.