Exiles on Asperus by John Wyndham (writing as John Beynon)

Coronet, 1979, 154 p.

John Wyndham was one of the big names of British SF in the 1950s and early 60s, most famous for The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned.) Gifted with a plethora of forenames (John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon; his surname was Harris) he wrote under several almost aliases – Lucas Parkes as well as John Harris, John Beynon and John Wyndham. It is those latter, more mature works for which he will be remembered – even if Brian Aldiss did dub the sub-genre of the disaster novel for which they stand as exemplars as ‘cosy catastrophes’. This book contains three tales, two novellas plus one shorter story and could not be more different in intent from those novels.

Exiles on Asperus. Humans have colonised Mars and Venus and the three planets are at loggerheads with each other. A Martian faction has rebelled and prisoners are being taken to the asteroids. On the way they turn the tables on their captors but are forced to land on the asteroid Asperus where another ship had crashed many years before. They find winged aliens called Batrachs have captured the previous humans and forced them to work underground. The factions join together to try to free them. It is not plain sailing. To modern eyes Asperus is an impossibly lush and hospitable place for an asteroid but this novella first appeared in 1933. Expressive of that era’s attitudes the characters too readily resort to violence, marriage is an unquestioned institution and women are called girls.

In No Place Like Earth (first published in 1951) humans live only on Mars and Venus as Earth was shattered into a collection of asteroids (presumably by acts of planetary war.) At the story’s beginning, viewpoint character Bert – this surely verges on breaking Gene Wolfe’s prescription on naming characters Fred – is living on Mars but longs for the old days on Earth. He is persuaded to leave Mars, and the prospect of settling down with Zaylo, a local “girl”, by the arrival of a manned spaceship from Venus offering “a future”. On that planet he works overseeing the labour of the indigenous life-form called griffas but the promise of advancement and acceptance into the dominant layer of Venusian society fails to materialise. He comes to realise there’s no place like Earth.

The Venus Adventure (from 1932) incidentally has people usually come into the world by incubation rather than natural birth but its main tale is of the first two human journeys to Venus – many centuries apart. In that elapsed time the original arrivals have separated into two groups, Dingtons and Wots, descended from the two heads of the expedition, an idea probably prompted by Wells’s The Time Machine. The Dingtons have made friends with the Venusian Gorlaks with whom the Wots are more or less at war. The newcomers by force of circumstance take the side of the Dingtons against the “degenerated” Wots. The characters’ dialogue displays colonial attitudes. One uses the phrase, “went native,” and explains it by, “‘In the tropics we find that a white man either conquers the conditions, or is conquered by them.’”

These stories nowadays have to be read through a filter. It is in the nature of such early tales of interplanetary adventure that science has since overtaken the details of the narrative. Mars does not have sufficient oxygen (or indeed partial pressure) for humans to exist on its surface unprotected. Never mind perpetual rain and lack of visibility, Venus is totally inhospitable. An asteroid such as Asperus will have no atmosphere, full stop. Societal norms have evolved, especially in terms of sexual roles and the prevalence of cigarette smoking. Attitudes to the writing and reading of SF itself have changed profoundly. Characterisation here is rudimentary and the assumption of hostility to humans by aliens is not interrogated. These are primarily stories of action adventure, though No Place Like Earth does have a more reflective side, perhaps since it was presumably written about twenty years after the other two stories here; about the same time as The Day of the Triffids.

Pedant’s corner:- “A broad path let from the ship” (led from.) “They had run into a meteor shower and had been lucky in not being carved to bits. Happily most of their score of leaks had been small.” I suspect an encounter like this would have destroyed any spaceship and stripped it of air, however small the leaks,) the text refers to Venus as a younger planet (it isn’t of course, but the sense is metaphorical in terms of exploiting its resources,) transcendant (transcendent,) “they champed in silence” (they were eating, so, ‘they chomped in silence’,) “but it is probably that you have not found more” (probable.) “Crawshaw, himself, and Heerdahl” (it wasn’t three people, it was two – Crawshaw himself, and Heerdahl,) “from their alarm of the unearthly roar” (alarm at the unearthly roar,) “for old time’s sake” (old times’.)

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

free hit counter script