Elisabeth Sladen the Autobiography

2005, My first day on the new job.

I took my place in front of my little paper sign and glanced around the table. And there, just across from me and down to my left, a face from my childhood leapt out from among the throng.
Sarah Jane Smith was quietly leafing through a script and composing herself for the afternoon ahead

If Sarah was here, there was nothing to worry about. Later that afternoon she would be calling me Doctor. The little eight-year-old in my head (who was frankly reeling at the fact I was in that room at all) was soothed, and of course thrilled, that the Doctor’s one true assistant was there to look out for him.

Extracts from the Foreword of this book by David Tennant

The final book in my August selection of Sci-fi autobiographies had to Elisabeth Sladen, best known for her role as Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who in the mid 1970’s, but who re-appeared in David Tennant’s fourth broadcast episode (but the third filmed) as the Doctor in 2005 and later went on to have her own programme ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ which ran for five series up until 2011. David Tennant was clearly a fan, and so was I, although not to the extent of having posters of her on his childhood bedroom walls as he did. This book was a joy to read and despite its 334 pages plus the foreword and acknowledgements from her daughter Sadie it positively flew past it is so well written. The final draft of the book was delivered for her to read through just before Christmas 2010 but family was always more important than work for Elisabeth so it was put in a drawer and she was always so tired recently. The scripts were coming through for series five of the Sarah Jane Adventures and she need to prioritise those before her own project but in February 2011 she was diagnosed with cancer and just two months later she died aged only sixty five. In a heart breaking final chapter her husband, Brian Miller, and her daughter describe picking the book up some months after her death and reading it, then deciding that it had to be published, I’m so glad they did.

The book is far more than her involvement with Doctor Who, Elisabeth was an established theatre actress for twenty years before getting the role that truly made her name and that part of her career is given proper coverage as she learnt her craft, met and married Brian and toured all over the country with occasional TV, radio and film parts. We also get her time post Doctor Who back in theatres and various TV roles as well as the times she spent in America on the convention circuit with her first Doctor, Jon Pertwee, where she was always a popular speaker. Unlike Tom Baker’s autobiography which I reviewed first in this brief series Sladen does focus on her time in Doctor Who. She was cast for the role by Barry Letts and also worked on the first two series of Tom Baker’s Doctor and frankly we learn more about the start of his time in the role from this book than in his own autobiography. The story continues up until she decides to retire from acting in the early 2000’s as the roles simply weren’t coming through, then in 2005 she gets a call from Russel T Davies who had restarted Doctor Who after more than fifteen years off the TV screens and suddenly she ended up busier than ever.

It’s a fascinating book and her memory for details going back decades adds a lot to the enjoyment of reading it but is sadly out of print. I bought my copy when it first came out and read it then and it was fun to get it back off the shelf eleven years later. Frankly I’ve been building up to this book all month, deliberately including Tom’s and Barry’s books and finishing with Elisabeth’s. I was eleven when her first Doctor Who story, ‘The Time Warrior’, was broadcast and she was in a total of eighty episodes in that first time in the role so for me she will always be, as David Tennant put it in his foreword ‘the Doctor’s one true assistant’ and so sadly taken from us when her career was blossoming all over again.

Who & Me – Barry Letts

Barry Letts was an actor, writer, director and producer for decades, mainly for the BBC, and is most famous as the series producer of Doctor Who from Jon Pertwee’s second story in 1969 to Tom Baker’s first in 1974 returning as executive producer at the end of Baker’s long run in the part in 1980. He also directed several stories for Doctor Who starting with the Patrick Troughton story ‘The Enemy of the World’ and wrote others although this was done using pseudonyms as the BBC at the time did not approve of the series producer also writing episodes. The front cover shows Barry, in the striped shirt, and Jon Pertwee, in full costume as his dandy Doctor Who leaning on a dalek. Terrence Dicks, who wrote the foreword, was script editor on Doctor Who between 1968 and 1974 and these two men formed a strong partnership which drove the programme back out of the doldrums of the end of the Troughton era and up the viewing ratings. Katy Manning played Jo Grant, one of the Doctor’s companions during this period.

The book doesn’t only cover Doctor Who but delves back into Barry Letts’ decades long acting career and how he progressed into a writer, then director before finally being persuaded to be a producer, which he would only do if he was still allowed to direct the occasional story line. It is worth noting for anyone who only knows the modern re-invention of Doctor Who that back in the 1960’s there would be over forty episodes a year, every year, and stories would normally be told over four, five, six or even seven episodes rather than the at most two episode individual stories in modern Who. The workload was tremendous and Letts was responsible for improving the process by reducing the number of episodes to twenty five a year along with recording episodes in pairs so reducing the need for constantly building and taking down sets so allowing more time for recording along with other changes to scheduling.

Letts is brutally honest about his successes and failures over the years and readily admits things he got wrong such as his first directing job on ‘The Enemy of the World’ which lacked pace in numerous parts especially in the one surviving episode which definitely drags out the material. I watched this again after reading the book and can see why he really wasn’t happy about the end result. In complete contrast he was also responsible for possibly my favourite story of ‘classic Doctor Who’ which was ‘The Daemons’ which came to its climax around my ninth birthday and with it’s story about black magic and the raising of a demon absolutely enthralled and terrified me as a young child. It also has probably the best line for The Brigadier in all his appearances instructing one of his soldiers “Chap with the wings there, five rounds rapid!“. Along the way he explains a lot of what both the director and producer actually did on TV programmes of the time and this was really interesting as it a side of the making of TV that isn’t covered very often. He also covers the work of Terrence Dicks in just how a script comes to be agreed and written from the initial ideas to outlines, then initial script, leading to fine tuning with cuts and additions to make each episode not only the right length but also to maintain the flow of the story.

So here we are at the end of our second season which is where I always intended to end this first volume.

Start of chapter 22 of Who & Me

The final chapter of the book starts with the words above, but sadly Letts didn’t even live to see this volume get released as he died in October 2009 aged 84, shortly before publication, leading to a final short postscript by his family thanking people for their good wishes after his death was announced. The book was an interesting read and he dropped so many hints of things that he wanted to cover in a later volume eventually leading up to Tom Baker’s first story as Doctor Who which would have tied back nicely to the first book in my August Sci-fi autobiography readings. It is such a pity that the cancer he had been suffering from for years got him before he could even start on the second book as I’m sure we would have learnt a lot more about the jobs of producer and director.

The Man in the Rubber Mask – Robert Llewellyn

Continuing my August theme of autobiographies by British sci-fi actors and writers and in complete contrast to last week’s Who on Earth is Tom Baker this book by Robert Llewellyn spends almost all its time talking about the making of Red Dwarf and also includes the update that was most missed in last weeks book. This, effectively second volume, added to the original from 1994 takes the total page count up to 341 rather than the 191 occupied by its first iteration and also the story from series five and the failed American pilot through to series ten and the return of Red Dwarf as a hopefully regular event. This updated edition was published by Unbound in 2013 so nineteen years after his original volume and because it concentrates on the subject implied by the cover is a considerably more interesting read for the sci-fi fan than Tom Baker’s book, although that was fun for different reasons.

For those not familiar with the series Red Dwarf is a very long running British comedy sci-fi programme set on a spaceship three million years in the future with a sole surviving human crew member along with a hologram of another of the crew created by the ships computer so that Lister doesn’t go mad. There is also The Cat, a humanoid descendent of a cat smuggled onto the ship by Lister three million years ago and the reason why he was placed into stasis as a punishment back then and why he survived the radiation leak which killed everyone else on the ship. Holly, the ship’s computer, decided not to end Lister’s stasis punishment until the radiation had fallen to a safe level, hence the millions of years leap in time.

Although the robot Kryten was introduced in series two of Red Dwarf it was supposedly a one episode appearance. however when the decision was made to bring him back in the next series as a regular character the original actor, David Ross, was no longer available and Robert Llewellyn was cast as his replacement so the book starts with series three when Llewellyn was involved. It is worth noting that at the end of almost every series it is clear from Llewellyn’s writing that there is no expectation by cast or writers that there will be another so the fact that in 2020 the feature length story ‘The Promised Land’ was first broadcast, thirty two years after series one and two and half years after the previous series twelve went out is a continuing surprise to everyone involved especially after the ten year gap between series eight and ‘Back to Earth’ which was retrospectively counted as series nine. Throughout the book Llewellyn provides considerable detail regarding the shooting of every episode which means he must have kept a diary as he is regularly bemoaning his lack of memory for his lines and refers to the rest of the cast as ‘proper actors’ who can actually remember what they are supposed to be doing. In fact he is particularly struck by Craig Charles’s apparent ability to remember a script after one or two basic read throughs. As the only member of the British cast to be involved in the disastrous, and never broadcast, American remake he also provides considerable insights as to how that went which actually seemed fine at the time once a usable script was produced.

There have been various lengthy gaps between series where Llewellyn has been up to various other writing, performing and filming opportunities including the eleven years of hosting Scrapheap Challenge on Channel 4 when it looked like Red Dwarf was finally over. These are covered including what the other cast members were up to during these breaks but the book is largely concerned with Red Dwarf so although it could be read and enjoyed by somebody who has never seen the show ideally you need to have seen some if not all of the seventy three episodes and one full length TV movie. Needles to say I have…

As a side note seeing that the page count has gone up by 150, albeit with some blank pages around the start of the new section there is considerably more than 43.17% more smeg (see caption bottom right on the cover) which is roughly the figure you get if you divide the new printed pages by the total printed pages but which clearly isn’t the correct calculation as there are 148 new pages beyond the 191 original so in reality 77.49% more smeg. If you don’t know what smeg is you aren’t a Red Dwarf fan, suffice to say it is the word used instead of swearing in the scripts. This obvious, and to mathematicians mildly annoying, error is about the only bad thing I can say about the book, it was an excellent read and highly informative about not only the practical making of the shows and Robert’s regular moaning about the rubber prosthetics he had to wear for the part (which he keeps apologising for doing) but also gives an insight into the genius of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor the creators, writers and producers of the show.

Who on Earth is Tom Baker?

Every August I give myself a theme for the books that month and this year it is autobiographies of people associated with British science fiction or fantasy. I’m starting with the twenty five year old autobiography of, for me, the best Doctor Who, Tom Baker, who held the role from 1974 to 1981 and starred in 178 episodes during that time, far more than any other actor in the role.

The book is 262 pages long plus an unnumbered 8 page introduction, he doesn’t get the role he is most famous for until page 191 and leaves the job on page 229 so don’t expect huge revelations about Doctor Who despite the cover photo and indeed the title. In fact my favourite Who story in the book is when Baker desperately wanted to see a particular episode where he had been held underwater despite his deep fear of such a thing happening as he can’t swim and is terrified of water and he had never been able to see the episode as he was doing publicity tours, this is also years before home TV recording was possible. He had reached Preston on his way home by the time the episode was due and after trying to see it in the windows of TV shops none of which had it on eventually knocked on the door of a house with children’s bicycles outside and asked if they were going to watch the show. Being recognised he was led into the living room where the two children were already glued to the TV in anticipation and sat quietly at the back of the room so the children only gradually became aware that Doctor Who was sitting with them watching the show. Perfectly reasonably they couldn’t believe what was happening and it took numerous double takes, checking the TV screen and the person sitting behind them before they accepted the unlikely was actually true. The story was picked up by the local press thereby really making their school friends jealous.

Having said that there is surprising little about Doctor Who in the book Tom Baker’s life is fascinating and it is written with considerable humour. Born in 1934 he came from a poor Liverpudlian catholic family and he was very religious as a child and youth, eventually becoming a novice monk at the age of fifteen and remaining in holy orders for almost six years, initially in Jersey and later near Market Drayton in Shropshire. The description of his time in the monasteries is funny and terrible at the same time, he clearly had an awful time as a monk but this was nothing to the truly awful time he had with the family of his first wife who appear to have regarded him as little more than cheap labour for their various businesses and treated him with disdain. But his earliest ambition, as a young child in wartime Liverpool was to be an orphan… This was due to the gifts such as hats and jackets along with a card from the President that an child orphaned during the war could expect to receive from America and these were highly prized. He even told his teacher at school, when she started going round the class asking what her pupils wanted to be when they grew up, that he wanted to be an orphan and this earned him a swift trip to the headmasters office.

There are plenty of stories about his slowly building acting career, which until Doctor Who never paid enough for him not to have other jobs as well, indeed he was working as a building site labourer when he got the role of Doctor Who. Post Doctor Who there are tales of drinking in Soho clubs and bars with the likes of the artist Francis Bacon and journalist Jeffrey Bernard both notorious heavy drinkers until eventually his third wife, who he is still married to, managed to lure him away from the city to the countryside and a rural happiness that is where the book finishes. Overall it’s a good and entertaining read although I’d like an updated version, he was continued to work on film, TV and radio through most of the last twenty five years so an additional few chapters are certainly called for.

My copy of the book is the 1997 first edition and is signed by Tom Baker.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

This is the 225th blog entry on Book Ramblings and I have chosen a dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451 named after the temperature at which paper starts to spontaneously combust and a book that brings terror to all lovers of books. I first read it in my mid teens and amazingly haven’t read it since, presumably the original book I read back then was from the local library, as although I believed I had a copy somewhere I couldn’t find it so had to buy a new paperback to do the review. The back page of this edition gives a brief, although slightly inaccurate (see later), summary of the book’s plot.

Rear cover of Harper Voyager edition

Guy Montag was a fireman, there was a rumour that firemen had once followed alarms to burning houses and put them out, but that couldn’t be true as houses were all fireproof weren’t they? So firemen followed alarms on reports of houses where books could be found and turned up in their great salamander engines full of kerosene and burnt everything inside. Then one day as Montag is walking home he meets sixteen year old Clarisse McClellan and unusually for a time and place where social interactions are far from the norm she starts to talk to him. Her family had recently moved in and unlike all the other houses which shut out the outside world this one had lights on in all the rooms, the windows were open and the sound of people talking could be heard as you passed, such a strange place and by implication a strange family. The reader starts to expect these encounters on the way home as the first ten percent of the novel is built around them as she introduces him to other experiences such as savouring the rain on your face or brushing a dandelion under his chin to see if he is in love and then just as suddenly as she is introduced she is gone. In the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition Bradbury states that killing her off was a mistake and in the play and opera versions he had written she survives and reappears near the end. In this he was inspired by François Truffaut, whose film adaptation in 1966 retained Clarisse, but in the novel we now focus on the fire station and Montag’s home and wife Mildred.

It is at the station that things start getting nasty for Montag, it is clear that the fire chief Beatty suspects Montag of saving books but Beatty himself is clearly well read, he quotes from lots of books during his conversations with Montag for instance, but he will be the driver that pushes Montag into his rebellion against the system. At the station there is also ‘The Hound’ an eight legged robotic killing machine which destroys pests at the station but can also be programmed to seek out humans that don’t ‘fit in’. As Montag gets more nervous regarding his safety, especially as The Hound’ starts reacting in his presence and intrigued about what may be in the books he has been systematically destroying he seeks out a man he met in a park a year ago. Faber is a retired English professor who quite rightly is initially nervous of Montag but will ultimately guide him to safety. From here the book takes a significantly more violent tone as Montag is forced to burn his own home and takes his revenge before making his televised escape.

There is a slow running subplot in the book and that is the regular mention of bombers flying high over the city at night. Is there a war on? There is no mention of it through the soporific TV channels broadcast twenty four hours a day onto wall sized screens but something is clearly building up and when it does it will be totally devastating.

This is Ray Bradbury’s first complete rather than fix-up novel and took for its inspiration five short stories he had written over the previous few years, specifically ‘The Fireman’ which was quite long at twenty five thousand words and starts the premise of books being burnt because they could lead to dissent or at least present alternate views to those in power. He had published ‘The Martian Chronicles’ three years earlier in 1950 but that was a fix-up consisting of several already published short stories with added bridging material and a minor rewrite to make them consistent. The short stories that inspired Fahrenheit 451 didn’t survive into the final novel but between them provided context for the final work. The reason for the rewrite was an approach from Ian Ballantine’s publishing company which was interested in ‘The Fireman’, which had been struggling to sell, but needed it to be fifty thousand words so it could be published as a book. At this point Bradbury realised that the other four short stories provided further structure to allow him to continue the story. It was a brave choice by Ballantines, 1953 was the peak of Senator John McCarthy’s purging of perceived anti-American activities and by now almost anyone could be accused and their works suppressed so a book about the evils of censorship was either well or really badly timed depending on your view.

There is another publishing milestone that should be mentioned here, to help get the book known parts of it were put out for magazine serialisation but nobody would touch it until a new publisher trying to launch a magazine was willing to take the risk. So in editions two, three and four of Playboy you will find extracts from Fahrenheit 451.

Oh, and for the slightly inaccurate piece on the back, clearly this is a reference to Montag’s brief chats with Clarisse at the beginning of the novel and also his chance meeting with Faber a year earlier. It is however with Clarisse that his world view starts to change, but crucially he had already started hiding books in the ventilation shaft of his home well before that as he refers to his guilty secret hidden there right after his first meeting with her. The rear cover summary implies that the book saving starts after both meetings but actually it probably started after his encounter with Faber.

Second Foundation – Isaac Asimov

Concluding the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov, the review of part one can be found here and part two here.

This book is in two sections ‘Search by The Mule’ which is sixty pages long and ‘Search by the Foundation’ which is almost twice the length at 117 pages. After the events in Foundation and Empire both The Mule and The Foundation come to the conclusion that the mysterious Second Foundation hinted at by Hari Seldon three hundred years ago when he created the First Foundation on Terminus is a danger to their continued existence although for very different reasons, but where is it? Seldon had stated that the Second Foundation would be created at the other end of the Galaxy to the First but where exactly was that?

Search by The Mule (Originally published in January 1948 as ‘Now You See It’). This story continues immediately after the ending of the previous book and looks at the five years The Mule spent looking for the Second Foundation using both his mentally controlled subjects and a man who wasn’t under his direct control in case the control itself was what was stopping the leaps of imagination needed to locate it. After five years he gave up determined that the Second Foundation didn’t exist and concentrated on his empire, this story explains why.

Search by The Foundation (Originally published in three parts from November 1949 to January 1950 as ‘Now You Don’t’). Another fifty or so years have passed and during that time the First Foundation has been studying the brain as never before, partly in an attempt to understand the almost mythical Second Foundation especially since The Mule had decided it wasn’t there to be found. But they were convinced that Seldon’s plan had to be true and that the Second Foundation had helped, in secretive ways, to defeat their enemies over the last 3½ centuries. At the start of the novella five men gather at a family home to start an audacious attempt to find the Second Foundation, this story is probably the most fun of all the ones making up the trilogy especially with the final unexpected twist right at the end.

The three covers from this Panther edition make a complete image and it’s a great one from Chris Foss who I’m glad to say is still designing spaceships, including for the film Guardians of the Galaxy.

In the 1980’s Asimov returned to the Foundation series in an effort to integrate them with the other novels he had written, specifically the Robot series. One of the most striking aspects of the Foundation series when considered amongst Asimov’s other works is the lack of robots particularly from an author famous for his ‘three laws of robotics’ and numerous books about man and robots living together. The additional books comprise two prequels ‘Prelude to Foundation’ (1988) and ‘Forward the Foundation’ (1993) along with two sequels ‘Foundation’s Edge’ (1982) and Foundation and Earth (1986). ‘Forward the Foundation’ was published posthumously as Asimov died in April 1992. Of these books I only have a copy of ‘Prelude to Foundation’ but maybe I should get copies of the other three and give them a read, I have after all enjoyed rereading the original trilogy after decades of the books sat on my shelves unopened.

Foundation and Empire – Isaac Asimov

Continuing my reading of the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov we have reached the second volume, my review of the first book can be found here.

This book consists of a longish short story (just over 50 pages) and a novella (113 pages) and continues the story of the Foundation on Terminus, both were first published in Astounding Science Fiction before being combined in this book in 1952.

The General (originally published in April 1945 as Dead Hand) – Set roughly 40 years after the end of the first book so 205 years after the creation of the Foundation on Terminus this short story reveals that the Galactic Empire is still considerably stronger than the Foundation believes it to be and is even now capable of launching an all out attack. Two men hope to stop them and they are prisoners of the Empire, Lathan Devers, a reckless trader and Ducern Barr, son of Onum Barr who had met Master Trader Hober Mallow on his investigations of the dangers of the Korell republic in the story The Merchant Princes.

The Mule (originally published in two parts November and December 1945) – It is now 300 years since the Foundation on Terminus was established and 80 years after the death of Lathan Devers and the trader planets are more or less independent of The Foundation which has come under a despotic ruling family. The Mule is an unknown, a mutant who has apparently effortlessly built himself a fleet and an empire and now threatens The Foundation. This story highlights why Asimov never became a mystery writer (although he did have a go at the genre), there is supposed to be a major twist at the end but I had guessed it within a couple of pages of the character being introduced right at the beginning of the novella. For all that though it is an entertaining story with a strong female lead character, which was somewhat unusual in 1940’s science fiction.

Coming to the end of the second book in the trilogy I realised something else about Asimov’s science fiction and that is the almost complete lack of aliens in any of his writing. The Foundation trilogy covers the entire galaxy but nowhere is there an alien species; it is covered instead in humanity that has spread out from a semi-mythical home planet millennia ago. I have read dozens of his books and apart from one short story, written for Playboy, and the much later novel The Gods Themselves (written in 1972) I cannot remember there ever being an alien species referenced and this is odd. Asimov was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University so was certainly aware that where life can exist it will, at least on Earth, why did he not then extend this to encompass life on other planets? It is suggested in the Wikipedia article about him that when he was starting out an early story was rejected for having aliens more powerful than humans so he decided to not write about them at all, but I don’t buy that explanation as other authors had powerful aliens so maybe we’ll never know the true reason for his humanocentric universe.

As teased in the first review the covers join together to make a whole image, with the first two books it is less obvious but if you follow the smoke and light trails you can see that we are looking at two thirds of one painting. It must have been tricky to select this as each cover has to work on its own whilst also being part of the whole thing.

Foundation – Isaac Asimov

With the imminent release on Apple TV of a blockbuster adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy it seemed appropriate to reread these books that I haven’t picked up since I was a teenager and I’m going to do one a month rather than block out the rest of September. Fortunately I still have the copies I bought back in 1979 with their wonderful covers by Chris Foss that drew me to them in the first place. Panther Science Fiction used a lot of Foss’s paintings for their Asimov covers and as you will see as the months go on the covers on this trilogy are a little special.

Foundation was first published in book form in 1951 and tells the story of the collapse of the Galactic Federation or more accurately the plan of one man, Hari Seldon, to reduce the impact of that failure from 30,000 years of anarchy to a mere 1,000 years. He has predicted the collapse using a branch of mathematics invented by Asimov called psycho-history which takes statistical analysis of crowd behaviour to the nth degree and allows predictions to be made on populations with a trackable degree of accuracy. Seldon ostensibly formed his Foundation to write an Encyclopedia Galactica which would be a repository of all knowledge with a plan to have copies supplied to all the inhabited worlds of the galaxy and right at the beginning of the book engineers their exile to a planet on the furthest reaches of empire where the rulers consider them away from disturbing the peace with stories of empire collapse but where Seldon knows they will be left alone to further his master plan. Here on Terminus his researchers would form a nucleus of science in the increasing barbarism of the surrounding planetary systems as their understanding of technology melts away.

Seldon never makes it to Terminus himself, after less than thirty pages into the book he is dead and this is going to be the major challenge of any TV adaptation, the cast is going to need to be constantly changing as the centuries roll past, in Foundation alone 155 years pass from the first page to the last with major characters rising and then disappearing into history. Seldon alone can re-appear, as a hologram, but only to confirm that what becomes known as Seldon Crisis’s have been successfully negotiated and these are timed events and only occur twice in the first book of the trilogy so how will they maintain a following audience if the characters are never the same from one episode to another?

The major figure in Foundation is the mayor of Terminus fifty years after the settlement of the planet, Salvor Hardin, and if I was going to be persnickety about the book then having the two biggest names being so similar (Salvor Hardin and Hari Seldon) is the one lack of imagination shown by Asimov in what is otherwise a excellent exercise in world building with a truly believable back story and development of characters and technologies. It isn’t to the depth of Iain M Banks’ Culture series (1987 to 2012) but he was writing over forty years earlier and for a very different audience, teenagers and early twenties who were avid consumers of the science fiction pulp magazines of the day as 80% of the book had been published in Astounding Science Fiction between 1942 and 1944, Asimov added the introductory section for the 1951 book publication. The great historical leaps between the five sections is largely explained by the fact that it is a collection of short stories which were originally published separately but we go from an isolated exile planet to Terminus controlling the surrounding star systems and slowly spreading its technological know how with at each step a problem from aggressive neighbours being solved without using force themselves.

The five short stories that make up the book are as follows:

The Psychohistorians – This was written specifically for the book and serves as an introduction to the series, it is the only part where Hari Seldon is actually alive and tries to explain what psycho-history is so that it makes more sense in the stories that follow.

The Encyclopedists (Originally published in May 1942 as Foundation) – Fifty years after the settlement of Terminus and their first crisis as one of the surrounding star systems tries to take over what is still a planet dedicated to the production of the Encyclopedia Galactica. The aggressors plan is thwarted by the young mayor Salvor Hardin and a hologram of Hari Seldon reveals that all is not what it seems on Terminus.

The Mayors (Originally published in June 1942 as Bridle and Saddle) – Thirty more years have passed and Hardin is still mayor of Terminus and again faces aggression from a neighbouring star system although this time a far more powerful one. The Foundation have used the intervening years however to spread atomic power to the surrounding systems but kept the technical details as to how it works to themselves hiding the methods behind a mystical religious belief system where only the priests have access to the controls.

The Traders (Originally published in October 1944 as The Wedge) – Another 55 years have passed and the religious cult behind atomics has slightly waned as traders have started to take over the spreading of the Foundations power in their corner of the Galaxy. This is a fairly simple tale of one trader going a bit too far but getting away with it and is sort of a fill in tale written after The Big and the Little to explain the leap between that and Bridle and Saddle.

The Merchant Princes (Originally published in August 1944 as The Big and the Little) – Twenty years after The Traders so 155 years after The Psychohistorians this introduces Master Trader Hober Mallow who is sent on a mission to investigate unusually technically advanced equipment in the planetary republic of Korell. It turns out that the Galactic Empire is not quite as dead as expected.

The immense popularity of the books in the 1960’s and 70’s can be gauged by the list of reprints, and remember this is just the UK paperback edition.

I suspect that Asimov is no longer as popular as he was but the Apple TV series should hopefully put that right and bring to the fore a writer who was producing what must now be called Young Adult fiction decades before that term was even invented.

Voyages to the Moon and the Sun – Cyrano de Bergerac

For a long time I believed that the author of this book wasn’t a real person but had been made up in some obscure French novel and that the character had lived on beyond the original work, so to find that Cyrano de Bergerac was not only real but an author as well as the famous soldier and duellist was a pleasant surprise. His life is however poorly documented, but this work can be dated reasonably well as it mentions the death of the philosopher Descartes, which happened in 1650 and de Bergerac himself died in 1654. My copy is the Folio Society edition published in 2018, illustrated by Quentin Blake and rounds off my selection of works translated from French that I have been reading throughout August. The illustrations to this blog were taken from the Folio Society web site entry on the book.

The book is in three sections so I’ll review it in the same way:

Journey to The Moon

The time that de Bergerac was writing in was a period of considerable scientific advancement as people moved away from the ancient Greek science towards the start of physics as we know it but there was much that was still up for debate such as if the Earth was the centre of the universe with everything else revolving around it. It is clear right from the start that de Bergerac had moved on from this notion and he understood that the Earth rotated, that the Moon orbited the Earth and that together they orbited the Sun. Journey to the Moon starts with the hero trying to reach the Moon by means of dew collected in jam jars. The reasoning is fair, dew rises in the morning so if you could collect enough of it and attach it to your body then it should take you with it, this he duly does and rises up into the air from Paris one morning. After a few hours he decides to land, releases the dew and is surprised to find it is still morning and he is in Canada as the Earth has rotated underneath him, de Bergerac didn’t consider that the atmosphere also rotates with the land beneath. Later he builds another machine this time powered by fireworks which does lift him to the Moon, leaving from Quebec.

The Moon he arrives at is however unrecognisable from the one we know as he finds the Garden of Eden there along with several old testament prophets and here the book starts to fail as he indulges in pages of theological arguments which drag the pace so much that I almost gave up at this point and began searching for another book to read, however I’m glad I persevered. Ultimately he leaves religion behind and goes on a fantastical exploration of his version of the Moon before returning to Earth by catching hold of the Devil on his way to deposit an inhabitant of the Moon to Hell and of course he has to pass the Earth on the way.

Journey to The Sun

For a long time it looked as if Journey to the Sun wasn’t actually going to get there, for the first twenty five pages it covers being persuaded to write up and publish Journey to the Moon and his subsequent denouncement as a sorcerer. Which leads to him being jailed, escaping and undertaking a very funny chase sequence which results in him accidentally running full circle and seeking shelter from his pursuers through the back door of the very jail he had escaped from. Eventually he builds a contraption which uses the power of sunlight via lenses to build up lift so that he can escape again, however he misjudges the power of his invention and instead of just rising and then landing again he is drawn all the way to the Sun and aims to land on a sun spot which he takes to be an area of land floating on the sun’s surface. The Sun in the book is not the flaming ball of gas that we understand but simply a larger globe that it is perfectly possible to traverse.

Eventually he meets a tiny king who with his subjects can transform themselves into anything they wish either singly or as a group to make something as large as a tree and in this tree is a Nightingale who leads him to the Kingdom of the Birds.

Story of the Birds

On arrival in the Kingdom of the Birds he is arrested and put on trial for the heinous crime of being a man and therefore a destroyer and killer of birds. Here de Bergerac demonstrates his ecological credentials and tries our hero for the damage mankind has done to the Earth and the wanton killing of bird life. He is ultimately sentenced to be eaten to death by insects but is reprieved when a parrot that he once set free from its cage speaks up in his defence.

Various adventures follow his release as he travels towards the Kingdom of Philosophers, although again de Bergerac gets distracted and spends pages retelling Greek myths without progressing with the story. Eventually this rather tedious section finishes and the hero continues on his way, meeting people from the Kingdom of Truth and the Kingdom of Lovers before the book suddenly finishes mid paragraph.

Overall I enjoyed the book but the large sections of ‘philosophising’ I could definitely have done without.

From the Earth to the Moon & Round the Moon – Jules Verne

These two novels by that early master of science fiction Jules Verne mark the start of my annual August reading block of books with a link between them and this year I have decided on ‘translated from French’ as my theme. The plan is to top and tail the five essays with these two and an even earlier pair of French science fiction novels with some more ‘classic’ works in between.

The two books were published four years apart, ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ in 1865 with ‘Round the Moon’ being serialised in 1869 then coming out in book form in 1870 but they really have to be read together to get anything like a satisfying resolution. I will also refer to the second book as ‘Round the Moon’ as that is the title in this edition, ‘Autour de la Lune’ is more commonly translated as ‘Around the Moon’. Although my book is just entitled ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ on the spine it does actually include both novels.

From the Earth to the Moon

The story is set in a fictional Baltimore Gun Club whose members had been developing ever more powerful cannons and artillery pieces during the recently concluded American Civil War. Disappointed that there was no longer an outlet for their talents following the cessation of hostilities the mood in the club had been somewhat downbeat until the President, Impey Barbicane, decides on an audacious plan, they would build a gun that could fire a projectile to the moon. The book then follows a series of progressions as the projectile becomes modified to become a capsule following the arrival of a Frenchman whom is determined to ride within it after hearing the worldwide publicity. It is quite difficult to avoid giving away a lot of the plot, especially as I also need to cover the second novel, but what is interesting is that Verne did some surprisingly accurate calculations and there are also some remarkable coincidences between the fictional trip and the Apollo program a century later including taking his crew up to three as not only does Frenchman Micheal Ardan go but so does Barbicane and his rival Captain Nicholl who had bet Barbicane that the project couldn’t be done.

Verne to his considerable credit correctly worked out escape velocity and realised that the optimum launch site whilst still remaining within the USA mainland is Florida due to it being the closest to the equator. He also gets the time taken to get to the moon remarkably close and therefore where the moon should be at the time of the launch. The dimensions of his capsule for the three men travelling in it is amazingly not far from that of the Apollo command module. What wouldn’t work is his launch method of a huge cannon barrel sunk into the Earth as the massive forces applying on them would simply crush the occupants regardless of the sprung beds and the quite ingenious water cushion that he came up with to soften the acceleration.

Round the Moon

It is in his much requested follow up novel that science quite literally goes out of the window. Verne needed to write a sequel as he leaves his heroes apparently orbiting the moon having being diverted off their intended route by a large asteroid that they encounter soon after leaving the Earth. Their original plan was to have settled in valleys on the Moon as it was assumed at the time that there may be an atmosphere surviving in the lowlands. In fact at the end of the first book it is not even known if they are still alive as the entire narrative takes place from the viewpoint of people on Earth. This second book instead takes us with the astronauts, picking up their side of the story from just before the launch. Unfortunately despite Verne’s cleverness in getting the launch almost right he then has his astronauts sitting down to eat ordinary meals washed down with bottles of wine and disposes of the rubbish by simply opening a window and throwing it out. To those of us reading the book now this is clearly nonsense and detracts from an otherwise excellent tale but for his Victorian era readers this was presumably perfectly reasonable.

That they used the planned means of safe landing on the Moon to manage to get back to Earth is reminiscent of Apollo 13 although in a completely different way and again even assuming that it was possible to survive the launch as depicted by Verne there is no way they could have survived the return journey and splashdown.

I first read these two short novels as a child in a rather nice illustrated edition which I borrowed from the local library. My current copy is from the International Collectors Library and has no illustrations, no publication date and not even the name of the actual publisher. There were over four hundred titles published by Doubleday as a discount line in America as ICL editions, almost all of which have fake leather look bindings and are designed to look expensive whilst actually being quite cheap. The real giveaway as to the cheapness is the poor quality of the paper which in this edition has been rough cut to resemble handmade paper but clearly isn’t. Rereading them I enjoyed these so much I think I ought to invest in a nicer copy which will perhaps encourage me to read them more often because despite their scientific shortcomings it is a really fun story.