Phil: I love a bit of sci-fi. Not the heavy stuff with sprawling stories that span aeons, the more focussed tales where we crack on, have a bit of action and not too much psycho-babble. A series of recent train rides gave me the chance to indulge myself thanks to a couple of very different books picked up in Housemans excellent second hand section.
Kings of Space by “Biggles” author Captian WE Johns was published in 1954 and is typical of it’s time. A test pilot and his son are out hunting deer in Scotland when they see a flying saucer. Taking refuge in a nearby manor house it turns out they have stumbled upon the lonesome professor who has solved the problems of space flight by powering his ship with cosmic rays rather than all that pesky rocket fuel.
Our two heroes, the prof and his butler embark on a series of adventures visiting the moon, Venus and Mars in quick succession. Very quick as the whole thing is over in 175 pages and it takes nearly half a book to leave the Earth.
Each landing brings them face-to-face with alien creatures, worms on the moon, dinosaurs and prehistoric man on Venus and a dying race on Mars. All standard fare for this era of sci-fi.
If I’m honest, Johns could have strung this all out a bit. With the Biggles series behind him, I’m sure his publisher could have been persuaded that each planet warranted its own book. As it is, we land, see some creatures and then make a hasty exit.
Much more involved is Ascent by Jed Mercurio published in 2007. We have the life story of Yefgenii Yeremin, and orphan abused in Soviet era homes who works his way through flight school, the Korean War and finally into the Russian space programme.
The story is really about the abuses committed by Communism – Yeremin is the greatest fighter ace in Korea but wiped from history and posted to an Arctic wasteland to hide the Soviet involvement in a war they never officially took part in.
Eventually he is recruited into the space programme as part of the moon missions, being a man who will risk everything for Mother Russia.
Mercurio had taken real history and tweaked it to fit his story. Air combat involves close contact with many famous astronauts, the Americans recruited from those ranks after all so it’s plausible if a little contrived.
There’s also mention of the failed Russian moon programme and again, this is partly based on fact. There really was a plan to beat the Americans to the moon but no-one was actually launched in that direction due to technical problems with the rocket. As it is, elements of the Apollo 13 story are taken and woven in to the text, transferred to a fictitious Russian spacecraft.
This is much more modern sci-fi. Using a futuristic background to tell a real life story. Our “hero” suffers greatly at the hands of the state. Anyone who knows a little of this history will recognise many of his trials are perfectly accurate.
Two very different books then. The older one is a bit of a children’s book, simple story with plenty of daring do, just right for the audience it was aimed at. I quite like a bit of pulp sci-fi so I enjoyed it. Ascent is a very grown up book that isn’t comfortable reading at times. You’ve got to stick with it and if I’m honest, I didn’t care anything for the main character but then the removal of the personal to be replaced by the state was how the USSR worked, so maybe that’s how I was supposed to feel.