Friday 27 May 2016

Books: Captain WE Johns 'KINGS OF SPACE'


 The Solar System was a strange place for Captain WE Johns 
and his crew of ‘The Spacemaster’. Through the 1950’s, and 
a series of action-novels, they explore the Moon, Mars, 
and then go on to worlds beyond. But how do those novels 
stand up to the critical attention of the twenty-first century…? 
Andrew Darlington re-reads them all… 


‘Our imaginations are limited to the things we know and understand. Anything beyond that we call fantasy’ explains Professor Lucius Brane. ‘There, perhaps, lies our greatest danger, for it is almost certain that on this trip we shall see things, and do things, which our common sense will tell us cannot be true. So be prepared.’

In the 1950’s, the Solar System was an odd place. But then, from our twenty-first-century perspective, 1950’s Earth itself looks like an alien planet too. After the drabness and restrictions of the previous decade, the future was suddenly a marketable commodity. Space became the place to be – clear across the age spectrum. And wedged in somewhere between ‘Dan Dare’s multiple picture-strip clones’, and adult-orientated Science Fiction, there was an eruption of hardback novel series aimed at pocket money and School Libraries, which played their own part in feeding ravenous myth-hungry minds. ‘Their adventures are reminiscent of the old days of magazine science fiction where anything could happen, and usually did’ comments ‘Authentic SF no.75’ (December 1956), ‘science simply does not exist, but its lack is made up by a succession of adventures which should delight the youngsters.’ The uncredited writer was reviewing ‘Now To The Stars’ – ‘a juvenile written by the famous author of the ‘Biggles’ series’, one of ten space-travel novels produced on a one-a-year basis by Captain WE Johns between 1954 – ‘The Kings Of Space’, and 1963 – ‘The Man Who Vanished Into Space’.

The first is subtitled ‘A Story Of Interplanetary Exploration’. It introduces Group Captain ‘Tiger’ Clinton, formerly of Bomber Command – now of Farnborough Research, and his son Rex. They lose their way in the fog during a deer-stalking holiday in the remote heather-clad glens of Inverness-shire, and unexpectedly stumble across a lonely shooting lodge called Glensalich Castle. Here, they encounter Professor Lucius Brane – ‘Brane by name and brainy by nature’. He’s a ‘wealthy eccentric scientist-philosopher’ given to bursts of boyish enthusiasm, his ‘hair untidy, spectacles on the end of his nose.’ He also has an eternal ‘bag of caramels’ which he dispenses at regular intervals throughout the narratives. There’s just a suggestion of a narcotic content when he explains ‘I make my own, using only the best ingredients, with just a little something added to keep my faculties alert’!

In the tradition of Mr Cavor – HG Wells’ self-financing Victorian pioneer, Brane has secretly invented the ‘Spacemaster’, a vertical take-off saucer-shaped craft powered by cosmic rays. And soon Tiger and Rex are joining Brane in a series of fast-paced and inventive adventures. Their first trips anticipate the step-by-step Space Programme, an experimental ascent, an orbital shot, a circum-lunar jaunt, followed by the eventual moon-landing. Once there, they discover that even the Moon harbours surprises – ‘my friends, the age-old question is answered’ burbles Brane, ‘there is life on the Moon, both animal and vegetable. What a splendid day we are having!’ Spiders, wormy-snakes, and glyptodons have adapted to living in extreme lunar conditions, but as Brane reasonably points out, life on Earth is also ‘highly specialised to meet their particular conditions.’

On Venus – instead of the crushingly dense atmosphere, surface temperatures that would melt lead and clouds laced with sulphuric acid revealed by twenty-first century probes, they discover prehistoric jungles with dinosaurs and proto-humans. With a brisk pacing barely impeded by the Professor’s regular lectures, they travel on to Mars, a dying world with ‘no mountains, cliffs or craters’, and the canals linking its crumbling cities overrun by deadly mosquitoes. But while on Mars they also observe a passing UFO, making it obvious that WE Johns is seeding scenarios for the sequels he’s already planning. So – although ‘Spacemaster’ is destroyed by foreign agents in the closing chapters, sure enough, in ‘less than a year’ Brane has built a better replacement. 

In the second novel – ‘Return To Mars’, the Professor plans to eliminate the red planet’s insect plague, but unfortunately his attempts result in horrible growth mutations and ‘B’-movie monstrosities instead (including Rex’s pet kitten which grows into ‘The Man-Eater Of Mars’ in ‘Now To The Stars’). But in the process, they discover that the Martians, far from being extinct, have ‘cosmigrated’ to the safety of the asteroid belt from where their saucers range the galaxy. Along the way, the comrades become marooned on a death-plunge into Jupiter, and manage to halt an extinction-event killer-asteroid hurtling towards Earth.

So far, so incredible… but then, in the 1950’s the Solar System was an odd place. I originally devoured these tales around the cusp of twelve years old, most frequently in the refuge of the school library during dinner hour. And they remain compulsively readable. ‘The world is in its infancy. We’re on the verge of an era of such inventions as will pass belief’ enthuses Brane in ways guaranteed to ignite youthful anticipations about the world we would grow up into. Adding just enough sober warning to impart serious intent with ‘it’s the only hope for life on Earth’. Some of the images remain with me across the years. In the first novel the ‘Spacemaster’ visits Phobos, to discover that the tiny Martian moon is used as a cemetery-world, with its last corpse in a partially mummified state of dehydration. It’s an idea of considerable power. In the second novel, their new Martian friends take Tiger and Rex, from Mino – the asteroid, now dwarf-planet Ceres, to a neighbouring worldlet of ‘living trees’ that continue to writhe and squirm even after they’ve been felled for timber. To Rex ‘the whole thing looked unpleasantly like murder.’ All of the original Hodder & Stoughton editions – the first quartet priced at a modest 7s 6d, include colour plates by ‘Stead’, one of which, illustrating this ‘Forest of Fear’, also made a deep impression.

In many ways ‘Return To Mars’ is the key novel to the series. Contact with the Martian-Minoans gives the Earthmen their subsequent access to the stars. It was advertised in the Scottish-based magazine ‘Nebula’ with a splash-panel showing a rapidly ascending saucer, and blurbed ‘here is the second adventure of Group Captain ‘Tiger’ Clinton DSO RAF, his son Rex and Professor Lucius Brane, in which once again they set out in Spacemaster II to reach the Red Planet.’ But the reviewer for rival monthly ‘Authentic no.64’ (December 1955) – possibly editor EC Tubb, is less easily impressed. Brane ‘remains singularly unperturbed when firmly established scientific principles are flouted in front of his eyes’ he scoffs. This is ‘a book for young people who are not afraid to trifle with facts and well-founded theories – or for fantasy lovers, of course.’ So yes – Captain WE Johns’ novels are wildly fantastic, yet only so within the accepted, if admittedly flexible, fictional conventions of the time. ‘Bill’ Johns is a natural storyteller, but it’s his characterisation that lifts the tales above their competitors. Although ‘Tiger’ – ‘nicknamed after the well-known comic character Tiger Tim’, fulfils all the requirements of the space hero, it’s the inspired creation of Lucius Brane that ignites the novels. He is contagiously animated. A more likeable, but equally gigantic counterpart to Arthur Conan Doyle’s monstrous Professor Challenger of ‘The Lost World’. To extend the analogy, Challenger is also accompanied on his expedition by a ‘hero’ figure in the shape of Lord John Roxton, a sharp-shooting big-game hunter not dissimilar to Tiger Clinton. In the alien world of 1950’s Earth such a sporting slaughter of wildlife was considered admirable – a twenty-first-century perspective would see them more as eco-genocidal psychopaths. While the team’s travels continue, so be prepared… 

‘Now To The Stars’ arrived in 1956, running to 190-pages including six new colour plates by Stead. With ‘Spacemaster 2’ disintegrated due to cosmic-ray induced metal-fatigue, from now on the team hitch a ride with their Martian friends on the ‘Tavona’, a flying saucer of the Minoan Remote Survey Fleet. ‘Authentic’s verdict is predictably scathing, but this time it is also ill-digested, ‘the story itself concerns the further adventures of Professor Brance (sic), Mino (sic) and his other companions on a Grand Tour of the Asteroids (loosely called stars, planets, planetoids etc)… around a solar system which, unfortunately, exists only in the imagination of the author.’

It’s true they encounter a planetoid of glass, one of water, another of salt, another of ice, and they spend an extended sojourn on one called Arcadia which takes them perilously close to the sun. Some of them also take on the attributes of worlds in their own right, rather than mere space-rocks, including a worldlet of miniature monkey-men. And admittedly, WE Johns can give the impression that a trip to Jupiter is somewhat equivalent to, and only slightly more demanding than a brisk stroll to the corner shop. But although in most cases ‘Authentic’ accurately provides contemporary comment, it was far from being the only British SF magazine extant at the time. Others either include no book reviews at all – ‘Science Fantasy’ and ‘Science Fiction Adventures’, or else chose seldom to review ‘juveniles’ – ‘New Worlds’ and ‘Nebula’. But outside genre specialisations reaction was less savage, ‘Manchester Evening News’ finds the volume ‘very exciting and with sufficient deference to scientific fact to make it plausible.’

Rex now has a Martian girlfriend – Morino, who (chastely) joins the regular personnel for a romp as eventful as we’ve come to expect. Taking them to a world where, ‘without warning the beast shot forward… open-mouthed with its back arched, its carapace looking like a row of knives.’ ‘There is also a foreword in which the writer admits that the terms star, planet, planetoid and asteroid have been somewhat loosely used for the purpose of ‘easy reading’. Why this should be thought necessary is hard to understand’ groans an exasperated ‘Authentic no.75’ (December 1956). With more than a little justification. In WE Johns’ cosmology, the asteroid belt was formed by the apocalyptical explosion of the planet Kraka, which is described with cinematic Velikovsky ‘Worlds In Collision’ dramatics. Kraka was ‘torn asunder’ by a lunatic experiment from which Jupiter still smouldered, Saturn was ‘girdled by atomic dust that had yet to settle’ and Mars was blasted to aridity. Although now discredited, this ‘missing planet’ theory was widely held at the time. And it’s true that many accepted classics of Science Fiction use asteroidal locations – Leigh Brackett’s beautiful 1949 story “The Lake Of Gone-Forever”, for example, gives its worldlet both breatheable atmosphere and indigenous life-forms. So far, so permissible. 

Yet Professor Brane’s eccentric assertion that comets are spat – like sparks, from stars, and even from the ‘World Of Fire’ – Jupiter (!) is indefensible, particularly so when one of WE Johns’ own introductions claims that ‘interwoven in the story is a good deal of fact.’ The same essay goes on to explain – with a straight face, that due to its axial idiosyncrasy, the polar region of Uranus ‘enjoys tropical sunshine’! Johns appears to know nothing of complex eco-systems either – why should he, this the 1950’s after all? but surely Brane’s contention that a world can support just two species who mutually feed on each other is self-evidently questionable? And there’s a crude form of what is now known as ‘panspermia’ in which life-spores drift from world to world seeding life, although not perhaps in the literal sense that Johns’ describes.

It’s simpler to admit that for every one of Professor Brane’s philosophical asides, disquisitions and predictions about life’s impermanence, human aggression, the arms race, or environmental despoliation, there’s one of incomprehensible weirdness in which Captain Johns allows gullibility free unrestrained reign. What, for example, do we make of this – ‘I have an idea that some of those stars and planets are not as far away as we might imagine. They could well be the planetoids we see from Earth for the majority move in that direction, and we are now much nearer to them. If I am right then the brightest must be comparatively close.’

‘To Outer Space’ (1957) flirts with Space Opera concepts as the cosmic-ray-powered Tavona strays beyond the solar system into the middle of a war between an ancient space-faring race called the Andoan, who they’d originally befriended by rescuing a stranded crew marooned on the asteroid Arcadia, and big unknown ships from space. While ‘The Edge Of Beyond’ (1958) extends their forays to ‘the outside edge of the Milky Way’ armed only with gleeful optimism and a ready supply of caramels. The expedition introduces them to what WE Johns refers to as ‘the older planets of the Second Region’, then to the ‘almost perfect civilisation of Terromagna in the Third Region’. Like Mino, this planet becomes a friendly base for further cosmic jaunts. It might constitute ‘by far their longest non-stop’ voyage, but in narrative terms cosmic distances are no great obstacle. The difference between exploring planetoids, and then visiting extra-solar worlds, gives the impression of being only different in the sense that Tesco’s is further than Sainsbury’s, an irksome inconvenience rather than the circumvention of Einsteinian constants.

Yet the stellar initiative also leads them to ‘The Death Rays Of Ardilla’ (1959) which, in my sweaty-palmed pubescence, I considered the most accomplished of the entire series – second only, perhaps, to ‘Return To Mars’. Ardilla is first mentioned as a source of menace in ‘The Edge Of Beyond’ – in which Rex deters a hostile red saucer with tracer bullets fired from the airlock. Here there be a rare sense of real menace, as this excerpt indicates – ‘Ardilla is putting out a veritable barrage of rays. A stranger from beyond the Third Region told us that all ships in their section of the universe have been warned to keep well clear of Ardilla. One of their ships, after sending out a signal that it was being tracked by a Red Stranger, failed to return to its base… This is causing Terromagna considerable anxiety. We are not exactly helpless, but we have no wish to be involved in an interplanetary war.’ This time, action is tightly plotted and focussed, in a way that others in the series are not.

‘Someone should face up to this problem’ declared the Professor. ‘Now wait a minute, Professor’ protests Toby, ‘I hope you’re not getting any funny notions about going to the rescue of Terromagna.’ Naturally, both funny notion and rescue work out, and with the team’s hazardous involvement the ray-belt menace is reflected back upon its planet of origin, and ‘Ardilla’s ambitious scheme for interplanetary expansion’ is eliminated. ‘Toby’ is another recruit to the team – Squadron Leader Clarence ‘Toby’ Paul MD, ‘a small, chubby little man of early middle age, with a cheerful expression which, with his figure, had no doubt been responsible for his nickname. A man of tremendous energy, as small men often are…’ Other regulars include the Minoan Vargo Lentos – who perhaps borrows his forename from notorious fifties pseudonym ‘Vargo Statten’, a pen-name frequently used by John Russell Fearn? There’s also Judkins – Professor Brane’s ‘imperturbable seldom-speaking Butler-Mechanic’, and Minoan bad-guy Rolto who visits Earth intent on conquest, and later misbehaves on planet Lila (in ‘To Worlds Unknown’).

With the arrival of ‘To Worlds Unknown’ (1960), our heroes visit planet Parvo which is threatened by obliteration as its moon drifts out of orbit. Then they embark on a ‘Quest For The Perfect Planet’ (1961), intended to locate a refuge-world for humans in case a global war devastates Earth. They space-hop to a variety of worlds – a red volcanic world and a minor planet of spiders, they meet Troglodytes, a world of Giants and a Kingdom of Apes. But after visiting wandering world Zora Ten they abruptly return home when it becomes apparent that no such ‘perfect planet’ exists. Perhaps the Earth could assist the repopulation of Mars instead, suggests Gator. By then Hodder & Stoughton had economised to a single colour plate with monochrome line-drawings for the interior illustrations. But undismayed ‘…how Jules Verne would have loved all this’ gloats Professor Brane – perhaps not-too accurately.


‘Even fifty years ago’ enthused WE Johns, ‘it would have needed a brave man to predict speed faster than sound. Now it has been done, and speeds of three-thousand miles an hour with the new ram-jets are in sight.’ Like Conan Doyle, he came late to science fiction, bringing a refreshingly boyish zest to the genre. He was already sixty-one when he wrote ‘The Kings Of Space’, leaving him open to accusations of opportunism and of gate-crashing the ‘new thing’. Yet equally WE Johns’ continuing infatuation with aerial adventure makes Professor Brane’s voyages beyond the atmosphere a natural evolution. After all, the writer had been an active participant in the infancy of flight himself, joining the Royal Flying Corp in 1916 – to be shot down and captured during a bombing mission over France two years later. It was only then, after serving further time in the post-war RAF, that Flying Officer Johns allowed his fictional counterparts to take over and act out the fascination on his behalf. Tiger Clinton has RAF precedents, as a back-room member of the Royal Aircraft Experimental Establishment. But Johns’ most famous creation, Captain James ‘Biggles’ Bigglesworth RAF, debuted in a 1932 short story for ‘Popular Flying’ – a magazine WE Johns himself edited.

From there, adventures proliferated at an astonishing rate, with long-running serials and stand-alone text-stories a regular feature of ‘Modern Boy’, as well as contributions to ‘Boys Own Paper’. Not only Biggles, but Worrals and Gimlet too. Later, in the fifties, Biggles text-tales such as ‘Biggles In The Gobi’ appeared in ‘Eagle’, as he went on to new adventures in comic-strip format as ‘The Adventures Of Biggles’, with nine issues drawn by Albert Devine for Strato Publications. By 1960 Air Police Inspector Biggles, with his pals Bertie and Ginger made it to the TV screen – with Ginger, popularly played by John Leyton, even hitting no.1 on the pop charts! The TV series also spawned a comic-strip spin-off, a full-colour front-&-back-page spread beautifully illustrated, first by Ron Embleton and then Mike Western for ‘TV Express’ (nos.306 to 376, 1960-1962). Here our hero is hot on the heels of Von Stahlein, an international crook responsible for the kidnap of a British diplomat’s son on behalf of the treacherous San Filipian government. A not untypical Biggles-ian scenario, but even before its first episode there were intimations of new developments.

In a 1953 novel ‘Biggles Hits The Trail’ WE Johns’ trio tackle a mysterious race of invisible men with deadly ray-guns. Early in the decade Bill Johns met Willy Ley – German-born author of ‘The Conquest Of Space’ (1949) and a tireless propagandist for space exploration. Ley, alongside other rocket enthusiasts, shifted and fired Johns’ interest in the fictional potential of these newer possibilities in aeronautics, to when – in Johns’ words, ‘interplanetary flight becomes as commonplace as air travel is today.’ Lucius Brane could trace his ancestry directly to that meeting, and before that to young Bill Johns’ adrenalin high on his own first flight. The Scots setting of Glensalich Castle also has its roots in reality. Before moving to Hampton Court, WE Johns lived for several years in Scotland. And even there the threat and promise of the new age made its presence felt in dramatic fashion, as he recalls ‘when the first American atomic bomb was exploded, sending sand into the upper atmosphere, people in the Highlands of Scotland – which includes the author – were astonished to see the sun turn blue, light and dark in turn according to the density of the dust.’

Meanwhile, there are two final Space novels – ‘Worlds Of Wonder’ (1962), and a powerfully imagined ‘The Man Who Vanished Into Space’ (1963) with a price hike to 9s 6d, and – for the second, no illustration at all. The action in the last book opens with the Tavona, the Martian saucer constructed of everlasting orichalcum, on its way to Venus when a mysterious object they discover floating in space turns out to be a kilted Macpherson ghillie (Gamekeeper). Once they’ve retrieved and interred the body in a cairn on the Moon, they commence investigations and discover that not one, but two Scotsmen have been abducted by an unknown spaceship.

Unlike the previous few novels in the series which had fallen into a loose shapeless formula of a visit to a strange planet, a visit to another strange planet, then another, and then home, this strong opening narrative hook develops into a tight focus around a single world. Following a near-brush with inquisitive police they begin tracking the stolen highlander through space. They call off for an update on the reclamation of Mars, and Rex’s ongoing romance with Morino, then the clue of a cultural reference to a ‘jam sandwich’, leads them into the Fourth Region of Space and the new planet Vallon. Approaching cautiously, they stop to reconnoitre the jungle-world Zeta in the same system, apparently uninhabited they find a ‘Players Navy Cut’ tin containing a stubbed-out Woodbine beside a lake, then a lost spacecraft, and Ebutu, an abducted Zulu who doesn’t even realise he’s no longer on Earth! This seems to indicate a plot-glitch, or maybe a clue to the writer’s plotting process. The cigarette-tin is surely meant to provide proof of the gamekeeper’s recent presence, yet – unconvincingly, it turns out to have been dropped by Ebutu. Woodbine? In an African village? Surely it’s more likely to be the possession of a ghillie? Maybe Johns revised his intention as a better idea occurred?

The bizarre aquatic ecology of the planet becomes more apparent as a friendly ship from Vallon makes its appearance. The abductions from Earth, the newcomer explains, are part of a data-gathering exercise. The ghillie, Graham, had been treated as a celebrity on Vallon, and was on his way back to Earth when the ship carrying him was lost. Meanwhile what they’d assumed was the surface of Zeta turns out to be no more than an organic crust covering a vast ocean. With directions to Mintona, the only other world lying on the course taken by the lost ship, they manage to rescue the marooned Highlander, spotting him from aloft amid its cannibalistic inhabitants! Yet there’s a parting twist still to come. The gamekeeper intends to stay on Vallon, where he has married, and was only returning home to pick up some books to assist him in teaching his new planetary friends about Earth. So, mission accomplished. Safely back on Earth, the novel, and the novel cycle’s final words have Rex soliloquising that as ‘wonderful as some other worlds might be, there was no place like home.’

Johns takes time to point out that across the arc of novels ‘as we predicted in the first book of this series, men from the planet Earth have now been launched into the vast region of emptiness which has been called Space.’ Yuri Gagarin had happened. But although Professor Brane’s voyages end with WE Johns’ death, Biggles forays into science fiction would go on to outlive them both. A graphic novel ‘Biggles And The Menace From Space’ (Swedish Semics 1978, UK Hodder and Stoughton 1981) was impressively written and illustrated by Björn Karlström.

In the ‘Kings Of Space’ foreword, although he observes it’s ‘a common complaint among the youth of today that there is no scope left for adventure’ Captain WE Johns’ contends that ‘the greatest age of discovery has not yet begun… Not only will these things come to pass but there will be other things, far beyond the limits of our imagination now, for that is the normal story of invention and development.’ From a twenty-first-century perspective his universe seems an odd place indeed. But, with certain reservations, it’s still a hugely enjoyable placed to be. So be prepared…

‘…the shining star that was Earth, easily recognizable 
by its moon, was once more in sight. He watched it 
becoming brighter as a mariner, homeward bound, 
might watch the guiding light of his home port…’ 
                                                     (‘Return To Mars’) 


‘KINGS OF SPACE’ (Hodder & Stoughton, June 1954/ Piccolo 1980)

‘RETURN TO MARS’ (Hodder & Stoughton 1955/ Piccolo 1980)

‘NOW TO THE STARS’ (Hodder & Stoughton 1956/ Piccolo 1980)

‘TO OUTER SPACE’ (Hodder & Stoughton 1957 Piccolo 1980)







Published in:
(UK – January 2013)

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