Pursuing Christopher Priest: The Space Machine


I’m not a fan of H. G. Wells, indeed I’ve read very little of his work, though I am aware of how influential he was in shaping the very early parameters of SF. The War of the Worlds has to be one of the most widely read and referenced books of all time, with The Time Machine close on its heels. I may have read the latter at School, I know I have read, and not particularly enjoyed, The Invisible Man.
Christopher Priest is, however, a great fan of Wells, and since 2006 has been the Vice-President of the International H. G. Wells Society. Wells makes an appearance in The Adjacent, in one of its early sections. And in 1976, Priest published an impeccably Wellsian SF novel, The Space Machine, in which he effectively and affectionately interwove the two classic novels into a single continuum, giving his characters an ongoing adventurous role in the background of the two books, and having them meet Wells again in the climax.
I can’t comment on the effectiveness of Priest’s pastiche, except to say that the flavour it conveyed was consistent and recognisably archaic. It certainly came over effectively to me, and most commentary on the book does applaud his ability to incarnate Wells’ voice and style. The only criticisms I have seen suggest that Priest did not go far enough, that he did not bring a more modern sensibility to subvert the effects he was counterfeiting, and that he was entirely too respectful of Wells. What did they expect of him?
The Space Machine is narrated to us by Edward Turnbull, who introduces himself as a commercial traveller in leather goods, with a special interest in a product of his own conception, devices that he describes as Visibility Protection Masks (Edward is not good on naming things, we fear). In short, they are motoring goggles, which Edward hopes to promote to those who are taking up these new-fangled motor cars. It is 1893, as fans of The Time Machine will understand.
Edward learns, to his considerable surprise that there is a lady commercial traveller staying (under strict chaperonage by the lady proprietor) at his commercial hotel in Skipton. Whereas other reps are much taken by the thought of Miss Amelia Fitzgibbon for reasons that I fear are not honourable, Edward is more fascinated by the fair Amelia (and indeed she is fair) being the special representative of Sir William Reynolds, the inventor of repute, and a motoring enthusiast.
Eager for an introduction that might lead, via Miss Fitzgibbon to Sir William’s patronage, Edward contrives a meeting that leads to the perilous situation of him being closeted with Miss Fitzgibbon in her bedroom. Nothing untoward arises – Edward is much too respectful of Miss Fitzgibbons for that, and indeed it is she who is freer of her conduct with him, without ever overstepping the bounds of physical contact – but he still gets slung out on his ear before breakfast. At least he has an invitation to contact Amelia at Richmond House, the home of Sir William.
Wellsians will, by now, be well aware of the direction Priest is travelling. Sir William is the un-named Time Traveller of The Time Machine and Edward is about to join Miss Fitzgibbon in the unexplored back-story of that novel, in the same way that Thursday Next keeps dropping into famous literature in Jasper Fforde’s series. For Amelia is aware of the Time Machine, and happy to take Edward on a trip in it, so that he will believe.
Their destination is 1903, which will have Wellsians nodding sagely again. The Time Machine travels in Time but not Space, set to return to its starting point on an automatic three-minute reset. Unfortunately, three minutes is enough for Edward to see Amelia, of whom he is already inordinately fond, burning to death in 1903. In attempting to avoid returning to her history, he upsets the controls of the Time Machine, delivering the pair to an unknown and foreign place, where they are tipped out and stranded beyond the point of auto-return.
They have, of course, been transported spacially to Mars, a Mars of tall, thin, spindly humans oppressed and used as cattle by tentacled monsters that use hundred foot high, three-legged war machines to travel around, and who are constructing great cannons to fire projectiles. In short, our heroes have been transferred into the back-story of The War of the Worlds.
Edward and Amelia survive no little time in this strange society, maintaining their Victorian appearances, and as much of their Victorian clothing as they can. Nor, despite their enforced reliance upon each other, as the only people either can speak to, does Amelia permit any liberties to be taken, not that Edward is especially pressing with them. He is in love. Amelia is not to be lead to any admissions on that score.
It’s only when they’re re-united after six months separation, when Edward has learned that the Martian masters are killable, and Amelia is building a rebel alliance among the Martian humans, that their feelings for one another – and the certainty that they will never see Earth and its standards again – lead to warm expression of a kind over which Edward draws a modest blanket.
But hope is re-kindled. Edward and Amelia realise that the Martian monsters plan to invade Earth and smuggle themselves aboard the first projectile, hoping to warn their home planet. Unfortunately, they don’t reckon with nine further projectiles being fired, at 24 hour intervals, in their wake.
Thus begins The War of the Worlds in earnest. I’m assuming that Priest is faithful to its events, whilst keeping Edward and Amelia – running around in their underwear – to the fore of his story and the rear of Wells’s. As I said above, whilst trying to reach Sir William’s home (where, alas, the Time Traveller has disappeared ten years earlier) they witness England’s helplessness before the vicious, brutal, enslaving invader and bump into a bare-chested man, a philosopher, a writer (Sir William’s biographer too), whose name is Wells. He is in exactly the situation of the un-named narrator of his own novel.
By now, this joyous romp wants only an ending in which the trio can strike back at the invaders until the end of Wells’ novel can be reached. This involves a massive departure from the approach of the story thus far, which has stealthily added plausible detail to behind-the-scenes scenes. Priest now has Wells construct a crude but working Time Machine, assisted by blueprints that Amelia can fortuitously lay her hands on, which the trip use as a Space Machine. The new machine is, literally, a flying bedstead that, when in attenuated form in the Time Dimension, is invisible and undetectable to the Martians, enabling our heroes to bomb the machines to buggery.
In the end, though, Earth vanquishes the invasion simply by being inimical. It’s soils, its atmosphere, even the blood of its own humans will not sustain the monsters. Victory is achieved, and Mr Wells goes off to find his wife in Leatherhead. Edward and Amelia wait for the humans to come back. Of course, now they are back on Earth, they have resumed proper clothing – outer as well as under – and have stopped shagging each other enthusiastically, but Amelia has allowed herself to admit to loving Edward,so we can assume wedding bells and screwing with propriety will feature in the foreseeable future.
Overall, I enjoyed the book, though it was a lot more fun of first reading. On a second, I was far more conscious of its (deliberate) stiffness and its length. Priest takes a very long time to build things up on Mars, especially after being relatively brisk in the Time Machine section, and the book does become a little wearying after a while. And you do rather have to like H. G. Wells to appreciate it.
Ultimately, it never rises above the level of a pastiche. Priest is in too much respect of Wells to seriously play around with him (and now says he couldn’t never repeat the exercise since he could no longer approach the idea unself-consciously). Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable exercise and the ingenuity with which Priest marries the two tales is natural and unforced. It’s certainly worth reading once but, unless you are a committed Wellsian, perhaps not often thereafter.

The Beagle Has Landed


No, not you

One of the sweetest pieces of news in the last couple of days is the discovery that the UK Space Agency probe, Beagle 2, sent to Mars in 2002, did not crash as was long since assumed, but actually landed successfully on the Martian surface, but only partially deployed, thus failing to send any information back to Earth.

It’s a terrible shame that Beagle 2‘s designer, Professor Colin Pillinger, could not be here to be vindicated, but it’s nice to know that his memory is enhanced by the knowledge that he did not design a flop.

I remember that time well. My then wife was a dog lover, and her favourite breed was the beagle. It was a standing joke between us that if she ever saw one of the breed, roaming around, she would excitedly squeak ‘Beagle!’ in my ear at an eardrum-threatening pitch.

Naturally, she, and I, transferred that affection to the capsule, and shared in the disappointment of its presumed loss. My wife was full of theories as to what the capsule was doing instead of broadcasting back to Britain, based on the natural characteristics and preoccupations of the breed, and even switched her squeaked ‘Beagle!’ to a low, mournful ‘Poor Beagle’ for several weeks.

It would be even better if, somehow, Beagle 2‘s partial deployment could be completed and we could find out that it’s been gathering a lot more than Martian bones this past dozen years. I can hear, and envy, the delighted squeak even now.

Dan Dare: The Red Moon Mystery


It’s hard to imagine it now, but there was a genuine sense of concern about the second Dan Dare story. Would it work again? Would the kids suddenly get bored with it. Could Hampson do it again?
Well, we know that the answer to that was ‘of course’, but that was not what was in the air at Eagle in the autumn of 1951, as the Venus Story came to an end and there was this sudden realisation that nothing had been prepared for its sequel. Hampson had worked himself hard, had twice had to take month long holidays from his self-imposed long hours at the drawing board. But now was the time to show that Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future was not a one-trick pony.
The Red Moon Mystery began on Mars. This would have come as little surprise: in the decades before rocketships, even unmanned, were anything like a reality, SF’s greatest fascination was with Earth’s sister planets, and Dan Dare had already been to Venus. The time was rapidly approaching when scientific understanding would prove false all those theories that had held hold about Earth’s neighbouring satellites. Venus would not have, beneath its cloud cover, anything remotely resembling a surface compatible for humans, nor would Mars prove to have the long-imagined canals.
But whilst the chance was still there, Dan Dare would have to go to Mars.
Whereas the uncertain passage of time was the greatest weakness of the ‘Venus Story’, The Red Moon Mystery works to a detailed, day by day chronology that is maintained throughout the story in a manner that would feature in no other Dan Dare adventure.
It’s already been established in Hampson’s chronology that Earth has reached Mars, almost a decade earlier, but found it a dead planet. Now, in 1998, two years after the Venus expedition, we begin by learning that the Red Planet is actually a Resort, with a thriving tourist industry (and by implication a very healthy Earth economy to sustain interplanetary holidays less than forty years on from the first Landing on the Moon.)
Dan’s on leave on Mars, intent on some skiing at the North Pole, and Digby, instead of going off to Wigan to spend some time with his wife and four children, is alongside him to look after his Colonel (just how helpless would Dan have been in reality if he had to get his own uniforms pressed?). They’re travelling in Anastasia, Dan’s personal, two-seater spaceship, named for Digby’s fearsome Aunt, and a gift from Venus for his part in ending the reign of the Mekon. Designed by Sondar himself, it combines four different propulsive systems, including Theron magnetic motors, which will make the Anastasia more than useful in the forthcoming events.
But before Dan can give himself over to any hedonistic pursuits, he has a courtesy call to make. The chief Archaeologist on Mars, investigating the ruins of Mars’ last emperor, and seeking out the reason for the destruction of the Martian civilization, is Doctor Ivor Dare, Dan’s uncle.
Uncle Ivor plays a significant part in The Red Moon Mystery. Later, he plays a cameo role in its sequel, Marooned on Mercury, as the representative of Dan’s family at a premature Memorial Service, and he has a small role to play in the late fifties story, The Phantom Fleet, but outside of this he plays no other part in the saga.
Which is why it’s interesting to speculate just how Uncle an ‘Uncle’ he is.

Uncle Ivor

Hampson’s biography of Dan is necessarily spare. His father is the spacepilot and explorer Captain William ‘Mad Billy’ Dare, and his mother Lady Jean McGregor, whom Mad Billy rescued from her disapproving family in an elopement, but that’s all we learn. Dan describes Ivor as being from the ‘Welsh branch’ of the family, so I think we can rule out his being Billy Dare’s brother. And apart from the famous Dare eyebrow, there’s no physical resemblance, with Dr Ivor sporting red hair and extravagant moustaches. From which I’d infer that the Welsh branch of the Dare family diverges from the main branch at least one generation earlier, probably more, making Uncle Ivor more of a cousin than any other consanguinous relation, and the ‘Uncle’ being a courtesy title.
Either way, Doctor Dare has been busy excavating Dorton-uth-Agar’s palace, and has learned that the Martian Civilisation was destroyed by something called ‘the Red Moon’. What the Red Moon is is another thing entirely, though its mystery is not to be delayed as long as the good Doctor anticipates. Courtesy call done, Dan and Dig take off to start their holiday only for Sir Hubert to summon them back from leave: a mysterious asteroid has entered the Solar System on a direct course for Earth. It’s already been nick-named ‘the Red Moon’.
And this was only the first episode!
Nor did Hampson let-up. Whilst I wouldn’t accuse the ‘Venus Story’ of being slow at any time, in contrast there is no let-up to events in The Red Moon Mystery. The crisis is there from the first episode and the threat of the Red Moon drives every moment that follows.
Having had his leave so abruptly terminated, Dan needs to get to the Red Moon and find out what it is without delay. A very familiar team is quickly assembled at SFJ2, the main Mars satellite. It’s commander, the newly-promoted Pilot Major Pierre Lafayette, has commandeered a ship, the Hirondelle, for Dan and Dig. For co-pilot he has seconded the captain of the Space-Clipper, ‘Yankee’, currently at the station, Hank Hogan. And, to handle the spectroscope and thermocouple he has had installed, a scientist is needed, and who should be on the passenger manifests, vacationing at the south pole? None other than everybody’s favourite boffin, Professor Peabody. But for Sir Hubert being on Earth, the gang is all here.
While Sir Hubert picks Ivor Dare’s brain about ‘his’ Red Moon, Hirondelle makes haste to the current day version. Unfortunately, the Moon is generating a powerful magnetic field that overwhelms the craft and drags it in at incredible speed. Only by pushing the engines to full burn and exercising a slingshot turn can Dan push Hirondelle to the speeds necessary to escape the magnetic pull. But in the course of things, all the crew are knocked out by a mysterious, overwhelming throbbing noise generated from the Red Moon.
So its back to SFJ2, not to lick wounds but to make a second attempt, this time using Anastasia, whose Treen magnetic motors should be proof against the Red Moon’s attraction.
But that plan has to be abandoned. The Red Moon has altered course and is now approaching Mars. Given the devastation the Moon caused on its first visit, Earth has no option but to evacuate th planet, and Dan, as senior officer, is placed in charge. He has one major problem: it can’t be done.
It’s an example of the cold equations of space travel, and of Hampson’s determination that Dan Dare should occupy a realistic and scientifly justifiable Universe. There are over 1000 people on Mars, civilians and Spacefleet combined. The available passenger transport, including ships that can return to or reach Mars in the three day period before the Red Moon completes its attack, will jointly hold about 900.


Dan takes charge of the impossible ‘Dunkirk’, whilst Hank and Pierre are detached to make a second approach to the Red Moon in Anastasia. Though the magnetic motors have the desired effect, both are again affected by the throbbing noise. Pierre, who sees something fleetingly, is badly injured and Hank has to get him back. We never directly learn what Pierre has seen, for he disappears from the story at this point, but it’s safe to assume that he has seen one of the inhabitants of the rogue asteroid.
As for Dan, he, Dig, and the Mars ferry Captain, George Bryan, descend to Mars to check everyone has been evacuated, save for stubborn old Uncle Ivor, working frantically to find anything that the long gone Dortan-uth-Algar had left to identify the specific menace of the Red Moon.
In his absence, there is a riot on the station. Two passengers, given low priority numbers after women and children, panic, imagining that Spacefleet is saving themselves at the passenger’s expense. In one of the few moments that speak to the era, these two passemgers are clearly not English. Their nationality is not defined, but one wears a red fez. They are easily beaten by Progessor Peabody, who waits for them to reach the top of the control tower then simply suspends gravity, bringing the riot to a dramatic stop and demonstrating the Prof’s cool and good judgement.
It also inadvertently solves Dan’s problem. The Red Moon has moved into its third and final pass, and SFJ2 is caught in its magnetic grip. Not all the available ships, at full poqwer, can drag the station out of an inevtiable descent to the Moon’s surface, but Dan orders all the remaining staff and passengers up to the comming tower whilst he prepared Anastasia‘s disintegron shot to blow the control tower away from the bulk of the station and enable it to be towed to Earth, solving the evacuation.
It’s a desperate, deadly shot, and not even Dan can take it in safety. But chance, and the seven year old audience, are satisfied as the abandoned dog Digby brought back from Mars leaps on Dan’s firing hand, causing the perfect shot.
Under Hank Hogan’s command, the evacuees sail back to Earth, and Hank from further substantial participation in the story, and Dan is free to tackle the Red Moon head on. He retrieves Uncle Ivor and the metal box hidden by Dortan that the archeologist has discovered thanks to the last pass. But back on Earth a frantic Hank is making a final appearance in the story, gabbling excitedly to Sir Hubert that they have left someone behind: that Professor Peabody was trapped on the station and has fallen to the Red Moon.
Once again, Hampson obeys the cold equations. Sir Hubert refuses to notify Dan that the Professor is in need of rescue. Despite his own personal regard for Jocelyn, his recollection of the time they faced the silicon mass, he will not allow Dan to be distracted from a mission that affects the safety of the entire Earth.
Though it makes no difference in the grand scheme of things. Dan brings Anastasia in to land on a tall, rectangular column in an area of wild ranges and steep peaks. Exploration is limited but they have landed close to the area where the station has crashed, close enough to catch sight of Peabody’s SOS lights. Tracking her seems impossible, but with the Red Moon once more bound for earth, and the evidence of the devastation is causes all too evident, Spacefleet set out to try to stop/divert the Moon by using Earth’s last dozen A-Bombs. They are ineffectual, but they roll up the clouds surrounding the surface long for Dan to take Anastasia down, discover a Sargasso Sea of wrecked spaceships, held by the Red Moon’s magnetism, and pull Peabody’s fat out of the fire.


Anastasia high-tails it for Earth coming in for a crash-landing at the very doors of Spacefleet HQ, under Sir Hubert’s nose, literally.
The crash gives Hampson a visual narrative for the only slow spot in the entire story: it takes several issues to fully explain what Dan’s team have discovered about the Red Moon. Between the discovery in Dortan’s box of primitive natural photographic plates, and the discovery of a dead body blown into Anastasia’s engines, the story of the Red Moon is unfolded. Against a background of Construction Branch moving it to retrieve and remove Anastasia, and start repairing the scene whilst five people stand around in coats and spacesuits and discourse!
The Red Moon, it appears is home to a race of insects that Hampson calls Space-Bees, though a more appropriate term would be Space-Locusts. The Bees are magnetically polarised and can cause the Red Moon to travel through space by jointly displaying one pole or other in the desired direction. In sight of a planet with vegetation, the Bees send the Moon into a three day orbit, creating the throbbing noise by rubbing the sounding boards on their legs, effectively blasting away opposition, before issuing forth to strip the planet, after which they go into hibernation on the journey to the next target.
The Bees are lethal, destructive on a planetary scale, yet it is typical of Hampson’s Universe, of the morality that Eagle existed to promote, that there is no condemnation of the Bees as evil: they are just an example of ‘life twisted into an unsual pattern by circumstances’. This line is vitally important to understanding the Dan Dare series and its central character. Even the Mekon has a motive for what he does. There is no such thing as evil per se, no easy or soft options for dismissing anyone, no excuse therefore to just blindly slaughter even in self-defence.
Better yet, Peabody’s involuntary excursion has equipped Earth with a means to save itself. The Professor’s spectographic readings show a decided change in that region corresponding to chlorophyll before and after: Peabody analyses from this that the Red Moon navigates by response to that part of the visual spectrum corresponding to chlorophyll: how else can the Space Bees detect a target. It can therefore be decoyed away by dangling ‘a tastier planet’ in front of it. There may be no such thing on hand, but Dan seizes on the concept to suggest a powerful space beacon, draped with chlorophyll filters, to create the same effect.
This ingenious solution is quickly adopted. Anastasia is repaired and Dan is presented with the beacon, all set to decoy away the danger. It’s a tense wait whilst the confused Moon tries to handle the sudden emergence of a better target, but once it moves in pursuit, Dan and digby are off at full-speed to rendezvous with a Treen-Theron fleet, headed by Governor Sondar himself, carrying a weapon that they believe will paralyze the Red Moon in its tracks. It’s only when Anastasia is committed that the stowaway emerges from her hiding place with recommendations for Digby’s dusting: Peabody has no intention of missing out on the fun, just because she’s a woman.
At the rendezvous point, the crew transfer to Sondar’s ship. What is not made explicit at this point is that Dan and co are abandoning Anastasia. That clearly wasn’t the intention, but the Treen superweapon fails to immobilise the Red Moon, which responds like a cat whose tail has been trapped under arocking chair, and takes off sunwards. In the rush to pursue, in the decision to destroy the Moon to prevent it from ever menacing another planet, Anastasia is silently left behind. The ship will not surface for many years…

Anastasia

The pursuing fleet finally catches up with the Red Moon in the vicinity of Mercury. Sondar’s ship advances, firing the shot that destroys the Moon once and for all. But the destruction is greater than anticipated. The blast sphere expands faster than anticipated. It sweeps over Sondar’s ship, carrying Dan, Dig and the Professor. No trace of it is found, and the death of the gallant allies is reported to Earth, which is plunged into morning.
Only the reader sees the crippled flagship descending to the surface of Mercury…
The Red Moon Mystery was a very different story to its predecessor, maintaining a high-paced, all-action storyline with the dial continually turned up to Crisis. As such, Frank Hampson was able to complete a wholly satisfying, exciting story in a mere 38 weeks, a fraction over half the length of ‘The Venus Story’.
Of course, he had some natural advantages. On the one hand, we know all the characters, and they know each other: interactions are smoother and easier and are on the level of pleasant insults that characterises so many friendships. On the other, the action takes place primarily on Mars, which is a) a known quantity to the characters, who do not need to discover anything about it and b) is a dead planet. The only alien race to be dealt with is the Martians, who have been dead for a couple of millennia, unless you count Uncle Ivor, as a Welshman of minuscule modesty.
And the ending of the story demonstrated a technique that would be utilised on subsequent occasions, whereby the end of one story would segue directly into another adventure. This would be used most notably in The Man from Nowhere Trilogy, and again in the Terra Nova Trilogy, and would even be revived in the Sixties when future creative team David Motton and Keith Watson would have their shackles unloosed.
One aspect that ought to receive greater attention than it does is the closing sequence. Earth faces attack from the Red Moon: it’s Venusian allies are working together to come to Earth’s assistance, although their distance from Earth means they cannot arrive in time to directly affect any attack. But it’s not yet three years since the Venusian war and the driving off of the Mekon, and the Treens are allowed a space force and access to lethal battle technology. It shows a remarkably trusting attitude from Earth, although one that is at least consistent with the approach taken at the end of ‘The Venus Story’.
Over the years, many Dan Dare fans have constructed elaborate chronologies that try to encompass all the stories from Eagle and its Annuals. New Zealand based fan Denis Steeper has been one of the most zealous among these, and has written a number of Dan Dare prose stories, including four full-length novels, that develop this overarching chronology, and in finding Earth’s leniency naive at this point, we must bear in mind that Frank Hampson did not create any overarching chronology, and had no idea at this time just how many times the Mekon would return.
The Red Moon Mystery was the first story to be wholly completed in Epsom, at Bayford Lodge, in surroundings much more conducive to luxuries like breathing in independently of someone else breathing out, and during the course of the story, a new assistant joined the team, Don Harley, who would go on to become, in Frank Hampson’s own words, ‘the second-best Dan Dare artist in the world’. Don’s first panel appeared during the riot and featured its culprits.
One final point: Except where it was absolutely essential to the plot, as it regrettably became, I’ve avoided mention of Digby’s dog. I’m no longer seven years old, and to be truthful I wasn’t even born when The Red Moon Mystery was appearing, but I was and am completely out of sympathy with the hound. Digby picks him up, abandoned, on the Martian surface and smuggles him into his spacesuit. Originally, he nicknames the dog ‘Towzer’, a once popular name for dogs that slipped completely out of fashion half a century ago, but after the pooch’s feats of marksmanship, Dan renames him Sir William Tell. For some reason, the dog goes with Dan and Dig in Anastasia on the mission to dangle the beacon in front of the Red Moon, when he really ought to have been dropped from the story at that point. Digby makes him a ‘cute’ spacesuit of his own and the hound is transferred to Sondar’s flagship, meaning of course that he is counted among the survivors that continue into the sequel.
Not a wise move, methinks.

For more information about Dan Dare and for new stories fit to stand alongside the originals, go to Spaceship Away…

See also Nicholas Hill’s excellent site at Dan-Dare.org