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Kings of Space

The front cover of the Armada edition of Kings of SpaceFirst World War veteran Captain W. E. Johns is best known for his long-running series of children’s adventure stories involving the fighter pilot ace Biggles and his companions. Less well known are his science fiction stories. One of these sees Biggles hunting for a futuristic laser weapon. More obviously though, another series of Johns’ novels for children introduced RAF veteran and aeronautics designer Group Captain “Tiger” Clinton. Together with his son, Rex, he stumbled across the reclusive Professor Brane and joins the crew of his secretly-constructed “Spacemaster” on its groundbreaking expeditions into orbit and beyond, eventually teaming up with an alien race to explore the wider universe.

The first book in this series Kings of Space was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1954. Interestingly, this was a time when science fiction was surging in popularity, particularly in the UK. “Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future” had debuted in Eagle in 1950, and Jet Morgan had launched on his Journey Into Space on BBC Radio in 1953, while on television, The Quatermass Experiment had introduced the titular professor and his British Rocket Group in the same year. All were wildly popular. They reflected both an optimistic vision of a technological future and the aspirations of a Britain struggling to find its place in a post-War, post-Imperial world. It was, perhaps, inevitable that Johns would seek to launch his own heroes into this new arena, and although the main character Rex and his father Tiger lack the exuberant charisma of Dan Dare or even Biggles, the story does give us some interesting insights into how space and its potential was perceived at the time.

An article extracted from the Daily Mirror, 22nd May 1954This wasn’t without risks. In the opening lines of his foreword to Kings of Space, Johns notes that: “To tell a story like the one that follows, in which fact is interwoven with fiction, is not easy, and those who attempt it must be prepared for criticism.” As he goes on to explain, he aimed to site his fictions in the context of then-current scientific knowledge. And in the case of at least this first novel and its immediate sequel Return to Mars (1955), this means our own Solar System (the later books in the series become less rigorous and more fantastical, as well as more inaccurate in use of astronomical terms). This motivation was made even clearer in comments made to the Daily Mirror (22nd May 1954):

"I thought it time boys understood something of the basic laws that govern the Solar System and the problems before those who aim to travel vertically. I wrote 'Kings of Space' because the new science of astronautics offers a fascinating field for speculation and a flight to the moon is nearer than is generally supposed."

What, then, does Johns’ work tell us about the Solar System, and what would young readers of the early 1950s have taken away from a novel from which Johns foreword claimed “They will, I hope, learn something from the following pages.

A New Moon

“When I was at school I was taught that the Moon was once part of the Earth. When the whole thing was soft and spinning, a lump was torn off the Earth and sent whirling into space, leaving the enormous hole where the Pacific Ocean now is.”

“Quite right, that’s now the generally accepted theory.”

(Rex Clinton and Professor Brane, Kings of Space, chapter 4)

In the 1950s, as in preceding decades, a leading theory for the origin of the Moon was that it had been ejected from Earth. Over the previous decades, prominent astronomer and science communicator Sir James Jeans had proposed a model for the Solar System in which planets were ejected from the Sun through a form of tidal instability. Perhaps naturally, this was extended to a picture in which planets ejected their moons. As shown in the example above, Johns’ Professor Brane and his crew discusses this theory approvingly, while also speculating about the origin of lunar craters (with both eruptions from the Moon’s core and even a past catastrophic nuclear war suggested). In the light of our current understanding - the Moon’s origin in a great impact event early in the Solar System’s history, and subsequent asteroid bombardment, plate tectonics forming the ocean basins - these ideas now seem rather comical, but they reflect a robust discussion of then-current theories.

The surface is noted to have a very thin atmosphere (as was already known at the time) and to experience extremes of surface temperature between day and night as a result. The explorers also experience the Moon’s low surface gravity, with descriptions of a bouncing gait now familiar from Apollo Era imagery. However, unlike our current understanding, the ‘Kings of Space’ encounter a desert-like ecosystem, with wax-leaved cactus analogues, overgrown worms and other life, albeit now trapped in a slow decline. This was considered plausible and based on the premise of water surviving below the lunar surface, which now seems unlikely except perhaps in permanently-shadowed craters. All in all Johns’ Moon was a valid vision for its time and represents an insight into a time when young (male) readers were expected to be interested in science in their science fiction.

A Young Venus 

Similarly Johns’ Venus highlights some key aspects of contemporary scientific understanding, although in this case its one which was rapidly losing favour and would soon be entirely disproved by the Mariner and Venera probes of the 1960s. Venus was known by the 1950s to have a dense, carbon dioxide rich atmosphere, with dense clouds that entirely masked its surface from view. Putting this together with its closeness to the Sun and an erroneous paradigm in which planets closer to the Sun were younger, an image was captured in both popular science and popular science fiction of a damp, humid world akin to that of Earth in the carboniferous epoch during which coal beds were laid down. A few authors took this parallel further, and Johns was amongst these.

“From out of the primeval slime that bordered the pools sprang a jungle of vegetation that was obviously engaged in a desperate struggle for supremacy. Rising from great reeds and masses of moss, tall palms and giant tree ferns, bursting their fronds in the air like green rockets, appeared to be winning, although even they were often dragged down by the weight of creepers which clutched at them in their efforts to reach the air”

(Kings of Space, chapter 10) 

Johns’ Venus is not only hot, humid and moist, it is populated by identifiable species of dinosaur, including brontosaurus, megalosaurus and pterodactyl, and even more startlingly, also by early hominids. While the conditions here may have aligned with (incomplete) scientific speculation, its population certainly does not. Not only were hominids never contemporaneous with dinosaurs, there is no explanation offered for how and why these species reached Venus from Earth. One is left to envisage some form of co-evolution which owes more to the planetary romances and pulp SF of the 1930s than the science of the 1950s. Already by 1955, Patrick Moore's popular Guide to the Planets argued that astronomers favoured either a dustbowl picture of Venus or an entirely ocean-covered world. Johns, then, was already behind his times, even if he fairly represented a view that had been prevalent not so many years before.

An Old Mars 

Front cover of the Armada edition of Return to MarsMars was a very familiar place to the readers of science fiction in the mid-twentieth century. At least as far back as the turn of the century, Mars, through a direct parallel to the young Venus trope was seen as an old world. Civilisations were shown as ancient or extinct, and resources depleted. This picture evolved as improving astronomical observations improved and expanded our knowledge of the red planet. By the 1950s, it was understood that Mars had a thin and oxygen-poor atmosphere, with little or no water. Reported observations of linear features (in fact an optical illusion) had been popularised as great canals, constructed by a dying, advanced race to transport water from the ice-bound poles. Although by the 1950s, the canals were no longer accepted by mainstream science, they still held the public imagination. There was also still widespread speculation about some degree of vegetative cover that might explain seasonal variations in Mars’ appearance, as well as widespread dust-storms. Despite clinging to the discredited canals, Johns was otherwise true to this scientifically motivated picture.

As far as it was possible to see the surface of the planet was one vast plain, creating an impression of monotony almost beyond belief. Nine-tenths of it, he estimated, was desert, flat, sterile, hope-less. The remaining part within his view was a broad band of green that ran as straight as a railway line across the landscape to where, in the far distance, it was crossed at right angles by another.” (Kings of Space, chapter 13)

 Unfortunately, thereafter the Spacemaster’s exploration diverges into the realms of science fantasy. Johns explains the dust storms (now well established by Mars landers) as vast swarms of mosquitoes which breed in the reed-clogged canals, carry disease and destroy the remnants of an ancient civilisation. That civilisation, in turn, is shown in later books of the series (starting from Return to Mars) to have been subject to a vast catastrophe that destroyed a planet, leaving the asteroid belt, ignited Jupiter’s atmosphere into flame and stripped Mars of most of its moisture.

From this point onwards then, Johns’ aim of using his Kings of Space to educate and inform about astronomical knowledge falls prey to the demands of narrative requirements. That does not mean there is nothing more to be learned

The world of the Kings of Space

Johns also imbues Kings of Space with an active social commentary on life in the 1950s. A running theme is the threat of Spacemaster being co-opted as a potentially lethal weapon of warfare. This is emphasised by the brief appearance of some “foreign” secret agents demanding its secrets, as well as public hysteria about flying saucers, and speculation that the craters and chasms on other worlds might have been the result of nuclear war. There is also a clear and overt commentary on the depletion of Earth’s resources, the threat of overpopulation and the growing evidence for desertification and the disturbance of ecological balance leading to the emergence of insect swarms.

Perhaps the most interesting speculation offered by “Kings of Space” is on the possible future human incursions into their near space.

“Can a country expect to own all space beyond the atmosphere? Ridiculous. When we were in free orbit any country could have said we were in its air space. Very soon someone will lay claim to the Moon.”

"Aren’t you going to claim it if you’re the first to land?” asked Rex.

“Certainly not. In the notes I have prepared, which will be handed with my photographs to the Royal Society should I fail to return from one of my voyages, I suggest that an international agreement should be reached forthwith making solar bodies public property - always supposing that they are not already occupied.”

(Professor Brane, Kings of Space, chapter 8)

This somewhat anticipates a rising international effort to depoliticise the race for space through the 1960s. This was led by the United Nations, who sponsored the Outer Space Treaty in 1967 (based on an earlier effort from 1963) and the somewhat less successful Moon Treaty in 1979. Both advocated the use of space for all and a ban on territorial claims or military usage. These treaties have not been overly successful, and in these days of commercialisation of space, new agreements are urgently needed, but it's interesting to see so early an argument along these lines.

Beyond this overt commentary though, there is a fascinating insight into social norms that Johns clearly accepted without question, but which nonetheless appear deeply dated from a twenty-first century perspective. Notable amongst these is the reaction of Professor Brane to the “primitives” of Venus: “I should like to stay and help them. Think what we could teach them.” (Kings of Space, ch 11). Redolent as this is with the echoes of Empire and the unquestioning faith of 1950s Britains in their own superiority, this now makes for uncomfortable reading. So does the role of Professor Brane’s servant Judkins, who accompanies the Spacemaster on all its expeditions, but is never seriously acknowledged as an adventurer in his own right or given any volition of his own. Perhaps most tellingly though is the title “Kings of Space” itself. Encoded in both the title and the worldview of the characters is a complete disregard for so much as the existence of women. Tiger Clinton is long-since widowed, Brane and Judkins both apparently single, and the aliens encountered (in at least the first two novels) entirely male with the single exception of a teenage girl introduced as a brief flirtation for young Rex.

Whatever Johns intended, then, his science fiction novels conjure images of a scientific understanding now largely superseded by later investigations, and also conjures a vision of British space innovation that sits comfortably in the masculine, imperialistic but war-weary model of other contemporary science fiction.

"Kings of Space", Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories blog, 18th April 2021.