The Astronauts Must Not Land – John Brunner (1963)
‘It was a time of glory and it was a time of fear. After two years, Starventure, the first spaceship to reach the stars beyond our solar system, was returning to Earth and all the world rejoiced. But it was to be a shallow triumph, for on the day Starventure landed, a huge monster appeared in the sky above southern Chile, and the terror that gripped mankind was the worst in the annals of recorded history.
Scientists were convinced that only the crew of the spaceship could unravel the mystery of the apparition. But, when the ship’s latches were opened it was discovered that the astronauts had been transformed into six-limbed creatures with twisted and warped bodies – and they knew no more about their fate than the terror-stricken people on Earth.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
As a science-writer he was used to explaining difficult ideas in simple terms – but now he had to explain the completely impossible
Her ancestry, she held, was one quarter Spanish, Irish, Amerind – and jaguar.
He had to struggle to remember what it felt like to have only one pair of hands.
Desperation drove him to reveal the deadly secret of the starship’s cargo.
Like any good scientist, he knew that when natural laws are broken you have to scrap them and start over.
Thanks to him, the world was saved from panic by a convincing lie – which he hated.
Carmen’s brother… only he wasn’t. Not any longer. He was someone – or something – alien.’
Blurbs from the F-227 1963 Ace Double paperback edition.
An experimental FTL ship employing hyperspace technology is sent to Alpha Centauri. On board is Leon Drummond, brother of top science writer, David Drummond.
On the day of the ship’s return to normal space within the Solar System, Drummond is convinced that he saw his brother in the street, who then disappeared.
Monstrous alien faces appear in the sky over various cities and Drummond – although he has received a transcript of a message from his brother on the ship – believes that a conspiracy of silence is preventing him discovering something that has happened on board.
David meets up with Carmen Iglesias, an occasional love interest who also has her brother Hermanos on board. Carmen also claims to have seen Hermanos recently in the street but he also disappeared.
It isn’t long before David is brought within the circle of secrecy and is told that the crew of the ship have been physically transformed into six-limbed aliens while retaining their minds and personalities.
David is sent on board the ship to speak with Leon in an effort to determine whether it is really Leon or an alien impostor, playing the role of Leon Drummond.
This (apparently later revised and released as ‘More Things in Heaven’) is one of the better Brunner Ace Double novels. It’s fairly lengthy for a double, being paired with the far shorter ‘The Space-Time Juggler’.
One is led to the increasingly likely conclusion that the aliens have switched minds with the crew and are roaming Earth in their bodies. Soon it is discovered that the visitors are not just observing humans but are preaching and drawing larger crowds each day. Thus eventually Drummond is able to trace and meet Hermanos who explains who the visitors are and why they are here.
It is, one feels, a weak denouement, with Brunner suddenly throwing in a link between Humanity and the fallen angels of Christian mythology. Hyperspace is apparently our real home, as we fled to our ‘imperfect’ universe following some unspecified heinous crime. We will return there it seems but it will take some twenty thousand years.
It’s not that it’s a bad idea but it seems – at least in the Ace double version – to be a conclusion hastily tacked on at the end.
Again, as in many Ace Doubles, there is a surfeit of characters who lack the space to develop into anything beyond the two-dimensional.
It may be interesting however to see how this novel sits chronologically in Brunner’s writing career since it certainly shows a better grasp of character and structure than some others in the Doubles series.
I do like those novels which are hard to classify. Despite being on the genre award lists this is certainly not SF and it is perhaps only borderline Fantasy. It is however, a wonderfully written piece full of poetic imagery and metaphor.
Martha is a middle-aged musician, a classically trained violinist who – for various reasons – now tours the country with a ceili band. She has come to San Francisco having received a worrying invitation from her daughter Liz who has booked her into an expensive hotel on the coast.
At the bar, the barman introduces her to an intriguing oriental guest, Mayland Long, who invites her to take tea with him. There she explains that her daughter has gone missing, while being absently fascinated by Mayland’s extraordinarily long fingers.
Mayland is much taken with Martha, since it seems that she embodies something he has been searching for.
We soon learn that Mayland has not always been human and was once a Chinese Imperial Black dragon. Why and how Mayland became human is not important but is revealed later in the novel.
Mayland offers to help Martha search for her daughter and thus begins a brief but marvellous adventure which combines Buddhist philosophy, tea, computer science, crooked businessman, hi tech fraud and love.
MacAvoy has a very individual style and in this novel at least there is a keen sense of the visual. When Mayland discovers Martha’s daughter we are treated to his view of her taste in décor and furnishings which seems to change from room to room.
‘Liz Macnamara’s home was sharp angled, glacial pale. The walls were neither ecru, dove nor cream but a white so pure as to shimmer with blue. On the bare, bleached oak floor were scattered cobalt Rya rugs, like holes in smooth ice, On a table in the dining ell rested a tray of Swedish glass, glinting smooth and colorless.’ (Chapter 6)
I have often criticised short novels for containing more characters than the word count can comfortably support. This however is a masterclass in how to deploy characters. There are probably no more than eight characters in the entire book and every one (even those that appear briefly) are deftly painted.
It’s an unusual novel which no doubt contains additional symbolism that one may not pick up on a first reading. Highly recommended.