My life in outer space

1800s

Flatland – Edwin A Abbott (1884)

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

‘This masterpiece of science (and mathematical) fiction is a delightfully unique and highly entertaining satire that has charmed readers for more than 100 years. The work of English clergyman, educator and Shakespearean scholar Edwin A Abbott (1838-1926) it describes the journeys of A. Square , a mathematician and resident of the two-dimensional Flatland where women – thin straight lines – are the lowliest of shapes and where men may have any number of sides, depending on their social status.
Through strange occurrences that bring him into contact with a host of geometric forms, Square has adventures in Spaceland (three dimensions), Lineland (one dimension) and Pointland (no dimensions) and ultimately entertains thoughts of visiting a land of four dimensions – a revolutionary idea for which he is returned to his two-dimensional world. Charmingly illustrated by the author, ‘Flatland’ is not only fascinating reading, it is still a first rate fictional introduction to the concept of the multiple dimensions of space.’

Blurb from the 1992 Dover Thrift paperback edition

it is difficult to imagine how Edwin A Abbott’s seemingly innocuous (though philosophically profound) and slender work was received by ‘ordinary’ readers back in 1884. The fact that, some one hundred and twenty years later, it is still in print, says much for its importance and its continued appeal.
To conceive of its nature, one has to imagine a universe in which only two dimensions exist (or to be accurate, a universe whose height is only a fraction above zero). There is no up and down, there is only North South East and West. A gravitational pull exerts from the South. This world is inhabited by polygons, the females of which are all straight lines.
Our narrator, A. Square, paints us a rosy picture of life in Flatland, where one’s children ascend the social scale generation by generation, by adding a side to their shape. Thus, A. Square’s sons are pentagons, his grandchildren are hexagons.
The lower orders, particularly those ‘isosceles triangles with a narrow base’ are employed in either manual labour or in the military and are considered as expendable.
The book is full of subtle ironies which all serve to point out that this is merely an allegory of the social structure of the time, where one knew one’s place in the social hierarchy.
Later A. Square discovers the existence of the lower dimensions of Lineland and Pointland and, through a visitation by a sphere, is forced to accept the existence of Spaceland, a Universe of Three dimensions, discussion of which the ultimate heresy in Flatland. Thus, A. Square, driven to tell the authorities that such a place as Spaceland exists, is imprisoned for endangering the status quo.
For its time, it was a brave and original piece of work, at the same time humourous, philosophically profound and unique.
A posthumous sequel, ‘Flatterland’ by Ian Stewart, is currently in print.

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The Mysterious Island – Jules Verne (1874)

The Mysterious Island

Like other Verne novels, this does take God’s own time for the plot to get underway.
Five men and a dog escape from their incarceration as prisoners of war by Southern forces in the American Civil War. They commandeer a balloon and set off during a storm.
The storm takes them off across the sea, and having shed all possible ballast they finally come to land on a seemingly deserted island.
Much of the novel is the standard fare along ‘survival on desert island’ lines. Verne’s twist on this idea is to have along Captain Hardy, an engineer who can build a barometer from two quail eggs and the string from a sailor’s vest. (He doesn’t actually do this, but given sufficient encouragement I am certain he could).
Along with the Captain’s free ‘Negro’ servant Neb, there is Pencroft, a sailor and carpenter, Gideon, a reporter, and Herbert, a teenager who seems to have spent his entire life studying vegetables.
The castaways quickly transform their environment into a functioning farming/manufacturing society, eventually smelting iron, casting pottery and making glass.
The group is extended by the addition of the dog, Top and a tame ourangoutang named Jup. Later, a castaway is rescued from a neighbouring island; a character from an earlier Verne novel.
During their stay they occasionally receive unexpected help from a mysterious source but it is not until the finale that we discover who their benefactor may be.
It’s basically an extended masterclass on applied science, demonstrated by the fact that Verne goes into pages of mind-numbing descriptions of:-
a) the construction of the forge/basketlift/windmill and
b) the scientific processes behind the concept and
c) what the mechanism actually does, which is handy to know.
What will appal many readers today is that Verne clearly shows the relationship between humanity and the natural world at the time.
No sooner are the group of survivors set up with a base of operations and some home-made weaponry than they embark on a rampage of wholesale slaughter against the island’s wildlife. No doubt people of the mid-nineteenth century saw the world as an endlessly self-replenishing breadbasket and one which should be plundered at will.
On a more positive note, Verne gives a very positive portrayal of Neb, which other than Othello, is one of the first appearances of a black person as a major character in Western literature. I feel Verne does him good service, despite not giving him a great deal of dialogue.


The War of The Worlds – HG Wells (1898)

The War Of The Worlds

The problem with the current public perception of this novel is that it suffers from a certain level of subsequent re-imagining in various forms, from Orson Welles’ 1938 historic real-time broadcast through to the 1953 film; Jeff Wayne’s truncated but brilliant concept album version and – in the Nineties – an execrable American TV series which is best forgotten, as is the Cruise/Spielberg shenanigans that is so far from Wells’ vision they might just as well have called it something else .
Re-reading this afresh is a liberating experience and an affirming one since Wells’ original version is as chilling and compulsive a read as I remember it, and dispels some of the subsequent myths which have arisen more from the American film version than from the book. The Martians, for instance, do not have three eyes or travel in threes. Apart from the fact that their fighting machines are tripods there is no other mention of ‘threes’. The Martians are beautifully described early on in the novel and have only the two eyes.
One legacy of other versions is that it is now difficult to read without imagining Richard Burton’s voice narrating in one’s head, which is not on the whole a bad thing.
Wells’ problem in limiting his book to first person narrative is that he is faced with having to describe both the Martian arrival and initial attacks in Woking, and then their subsequent rout of London, which he does by giving a retrospective account of his brother’s escape from the Capital. It’s a clumsy device which telegraphs the fact that he is eventually reunited with his brother and that the Martians are defeated, but this is a minor criticism of what is the definitive novel of Earth invasion which features most importantly Wells’ sharply observed characters and the range of reactions of humanity to such an event.
As in ‘The Time Machine’ we are shown that despite the trappings of civilisation we are still capable of regressing to animal behaviour albeit peppered with occasional acts of selfless heroism.
Cleverly, the scenes which are truly horrific are those in which humanity turns on itself, such as when the narrator’s brother – shepherding two women out of London – encounters a stampeding mob being driven by the Martians. Symbolically, one man, attempting to protect his gold, fights off an offer of help and – after having his back broken – falls under the wheels of a carriage.
Wells also gives us two contrasting characters; The Curate and The Artilleryman.
The narrator’s conversation with the Artilleryman is telling, for although he is shown to be a braggart and has no real inclination to put his grandiose schemes of Resistance into operation, his opinion of the future of humans living under Martian control has the chilling ring of truth.

He paused.
‘Very likely these Martians will make pets of some of them; train them to do tricks – who knows? – get sentimental over the pet boy who grew up and had to be killed. And some, maybe, they will train to hunt us.’
‘No.’ I cried. ‘that’s impossible! No human being—‘
‘What’s the good of going on with such lies?’ said the artilleryman. ‘There’s men who’d do it cheerful. What nonsense to pretend there isn’t!’
And I succumbed to his conviction.
(page 251)

The Curate is a curious figure, a broken rambling coward, his faith driven to breaking point by the very existence of the Martians. It is interesting to note that in the US, some fifty years after the book was written, the film version portrays The Curate as a heroic figure who faces the Martians openly and defies them. Whether this is an attack on organised religion is unclear, Wells himself, at the denouement – in which the Martians are destroyed by the Earth’s bacteria – describes them as ‘the smallest of God’s creatures’ which some might interpret as a kind of Divine plan.
Putting the book in a historical context, we have to look at Britain of the time, still essentially an Empire with Victoria as Empress/Governess of many foreign countries which were being ruled under unwanted occupation. Wells is simply here putting the British people in the position of the citizens of many of those occupied territories. He is clear to point out, in the section of the novel in which the narrator describes the physiology of the Martians, that we are upon the same evolutionary path. In literary terms Wells’ Martians are early cyborgs, using their mechanisms as extensions of their bodies, without which they are helpless. Their development has taken them to a point where they are merely a brain, some sense organs and a cluster of tentacular ‘fingers’. Once, the novel suggests, they must have been much like us. It is not too much of a mental leap to imagine humanity on a dying world, watching a younger, life-bearing world with envious eyes, and to make comparisons between our Victorian Empire-building and the Martian invasion.


Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Jules Verne (1864)

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (Puffin Classics)

This has the dubious distinction of being the first novel I ever read on a Kindle, which is somewhat ironic, since Verne I am sure would have loved the idea of his work being shared on a device which could be read electronically. In a sense it is also fitting, since ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ or Journey to The Interior of The Earth (depending on which translator you end up with) is itself, like Arnie Saknussem’s message, digitally appearing nearly one hundred and fifty years after its publication, and once translated will show us the way to the Centre of The Earth.
In a nutshell, Prof. Liedenbrook shows his nephew Axel a book he has just bought, some five hundred years old, from which slips a document, written in a runic cipher. This is a note from lost explorer Arne Saknussem who has discovered a route to the Centre of The Earth. The Professor, inflamed, immediately begins packing for a trip to Iceland, and it is automatically assumed that Axel will go too.
Axel, to the author’s credit, seems not to be composed of the stuff of which heroes are normally made, and frets a great deal as to what may befall him once they are below ground.
It is indeed an extended bout of fretting since it is a goodly while before our duo reach Iceland (the entry point to the Underworld) and then another good fraction of the novel disappears before they finally abandon daylight.
It is not a wasted journey, since Verne acquaints us with the scenery and customs of a Denmark and Iceland perhaps long lost now. On the way, we acquire a guide, the redoubtable eiderdown hunter, Hans, who brings a monosyllabic Scandinavian sense of brooding masculinity to the proceedings.
To the modern reader, the journey to the volcano of Snaeffels is perhaps a little slow, but once we are underground, it is sheer joy.
Verne, eschewing any romantic religious notions, is rigorously scientific, for the most part via the observations of Professor Liedenbrok although one has to remember this was the science of the mid 19th century. Verne proposes some interesting evolutionary developments with regard to flora and fauna below ground.
It is interesting to note that Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ was published only five years before this (although it is also true that ideas surrounding evolutionary processes had been around for some time) and fascinating to see how quickly such innovative thinking spreads out into the public domain.


The Time Machine – HG Wells (1895)

The Time Machine (Penguin Classics)

Wells’ debut novel certainly made its mark since not many other names are today remembered from the gulf that separates Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1812) from the inception of Wells’ body of Scientific Romance.
It is a brief novel, at some 30,000 words, but one in which not a sentence is wasted.
The introductory chapter is intriguing, one in which the narrator introduces us to The Time Traveller ‘(for so it will be convenient to speak of him)’ and his dining companions, of which the narrator is one, referred to by their occupations (lulling the reader into thinking that this may be a true story by protecting the names of those involved) apart from Filby, curiously, who is described as an ‘argumentative person with red hair’. There is also a Very Young Man, a Provincial mayor, a Medical man and a Psychologist. To these six The Time Traveller demonstrates his prototype Time Machine which vanishes before their eyes, and promises that he will soon prove to them that he himself has travelled in Time.
The narrator returns for the next invitation to dinner at which there is now an additional Editor, Reporter and a Silent Man. The Time Traveller arrives late, dishevelled and starving. Having eaten and changed his clothes, he then proceeds to take up the narration of his adventures in Earth’s Far Future.
Wells’ descriptive prose is as fresh and controlled today as it was a hundred years ago. His descriptions of the journey through Time are some of the best-remembered and oft-referred to scenes in genre history.
More importantly, Wells’ view of the future of Humanity is a complex one and based on a soundly Darwinian extrapolation. Certainly Wells’ is depicting what he feels may be the ultimate result of rigid class division between the elite (the Eloi) and the working class (The Morlocks; those below stairs) although at the same time, as Patrick Parrinder points out in ‘Science Fiction: Its Teaching and Criticism’ Wells is also attacking the concept of the toil-free Utopia by suggesting that the indolent and feckless Eloi could be the ultimate result of such a concept.
Brian Aldiss points out in ‘A Trillion Year Spree’ (Paladin. 1988) that Wells was also evoking for the Victorians a potent symbol of their social, physical and perhaps private lives.
On the surface are the Eloi, beautiful, childlike, innocent. The perfect façade. But beneath the surface lies corruption. One can interpret this in a number of ways, from the physical streets and homes of The Victorians – who would not be keen to discuss or even think of the sewers which lay below – to the façade of Victorian society which masked such evils as child prostitution and workhouses.
It is to Wells’ credit that he was not tempted to placate the reader with any form of happy ending. Weena, the Eloi girl is lost – presumably to the cannibalistic Morlocks, and the Time Traveller escapes into the future to a dark entropic time where the sun has grown huge and red and the land is left to the dominance of crustaceans and amphibians flopping about in the shallows of a twilight world. It is a thesis of Darwinian pessimism if nothing else, and very controversial for its day, as well as being as scientifically faithful to the science of the time as it could be.
There is an amazing sense of wonder created here, albeit a negative one, for Wells, by employing this Darwinian nihilism reduces Humanity to the status of a mere aberration, an irrelevance within the Universe thrown up by the whims of Evolution and just as dispassionately thrown aside.
Conversely the posthumous sequel, Stephen Baxter’s ‘The Time Ships’, although brilliantly written and catching Well’s laconic yet atmospheric style, throws this pessimism to the winds and presents a future, indeed an infinity of alternate futures in which Humanity (in the form of evolved and beneficent Morlocks) populate the Universe.