Friday, 25 January 2013

1950's SF NOVEL - 'WHEN THE MOON DIED' by RICHARD SAVAGE



SKYFALL 1955:
WHEN THE
MOON DIED’ 

‘WHEN THE MOON DIED’
by RICHARD SAVAGE
(1955, Ward Lock & Co Ltd,
then 1963 ‘Digit’ paperback from
Brown, Watson Limited, London – 2/6d)

My name is Karsh. I am an ordinary man…

Diligent archaeologists grub about in the dust and relics of ancient empires, striving to explain the story of their decline and fall. Such as Howard Carter’s tomb-busting in Pharonic-Egypt which so caught the public imagination, or those piecing together the lost histories of Chichen Itza, Mycenae or Mesopotamia. Opportunistic Science Fiction writers fastened upon that evocative melancholia and took its mood to other worlds, excavating extinct Martian cities already abandoned before the time of the dinosaurs. Or else they project it into the far future of terrestrial civilisation itself. ‘AI’ – the 2001 Steven Spielberg movie based on the Brian Aldiss story, envisages alien-like Mecha investigating the submerged glacial remains of Manhattan. But Spielberg’s was far from the first team to use the future-history scenario. Richard Savage was there, with his 1955 novel ‘When The Moon Died’. Here, aliens from ‘Universe Five’ seek the remains of human cities that lie frozen beneath the ice that sheaths the dead planet once called Earth. By chance they happen upon a functioning tape-recording made by ‘Karsh’, through which the long-deceased narrator answers some of their questions.

Critically ignored as a junk-lit genre throwaway even at the time of first release, the novel was neglected and is now all but forgotten. ‘Richard Savage’ was the pseudonym used by London-born writer Ivan Roe (12 November 1917 to 1976), through which he embarked on this single SF venture subtitled ‘A Modern Novel Of Science And Imagination’, in which the destruction of the Moon prevents a nuclear war and inaugurates a new era of scientific peace. Under the same alias he also wrote crime thrillers and mainstream novels, including ‘Murder Goes To School’ (1946), ‘The Horrible Hat’ (1949) featuring his Dr Ferenc series-character, a psychoanalyst-detective who investigates strange manifestations, ‘Set Free Barabbas’ (aka ‘The Green Tree And The Dry’) (1950), the story of revolutionary Daniele Maroc on an unnamed Mediterranean island, and ‘The Salamander Touch’ (1952), telling of the unexpected consequences that result when an atomic scientist disappears.

The Digit paperback proclaims ‘When The Moon Died’ as ‘One Of The Most Startling Novels Of All Time…’ which is maybe pitching it a little high. But it’s certainly an intriguing curio. I came across this paperback edition while rummaging in a second-hand bookshop during my late teens, drawn by its garish cover showing a pall of black smoke hanging over a devastated red landscape dominated by the approaching Moon, and was sufficiently impressed to hang onto it across the intervening years, to rediscover it now. The opening italicised framing-section sets the scene as the aliens look out ‘across the grey deserts and ice-caps of the useless Earth’ and conjecture about the confusingly racially-diverse species who once occupied this ‘sad, abandoned sphere’.

In Simon Wells’ poor movie-remake of HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ (2002), the accidental destruction of the Moon by lunar colonists renders the Earth temporarily uninhabitable. But, typically – there were other yet-earlier precedents, at least in RC Sherriff’s ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’ (aka ‘The Cataclysm’) (1939), which might well have provided the template for the pseudonymous Richard Savage. Here, Abyssinian archaeologists a thousand years into the future discover a document supposedly written in 1944 by retired schoolmaster ‘Edgar Hopkins’ of rural Hampshire, relating how Hopkins’ Lunar society detects that the Moon is due to collide with Earth. Although intended as political satire, the dramatic build-up to the catastrophe is not without tension, the vision of devastating hurricanes and tsunamis created as the Moon conveniently falls into the Atlantic, and – as fortunately it turns out to be largely hollow, it forms new lands for disputed mineral resources, colonial expansion, and the terminal nationalistic conflicts that follow. Revised and reissued as a Pan paperback in 1958, then later by Persephone Books in 2005 with a new preface by Michael Moorcock, there are claims that its sober post-apocalypse description of a devastated England exerted an influence on John Wyndham and Brian Aldiss.

Yet the vivid spectacle of the Moon’s destruction is located at the halfway point of the Richard Savage novel. Not as the build-up climax, more the hinge on which the narrative operates. It happens during the final years of the 1990’s, overlapping into the start of the twenty-first century. Half-a-century into Savage’s future, but already receding further into our past. And it’s not years that we’d recognise. If Savage intended it as a conjectural future, it now appears a parallel universe, an alternate time-stream. Instead of our grappling with the lethal resurgence of stultifying medieval fundamentalism, the time he envisages is dominated by still-escalating Cold War tensions. Then, as the year 2000 approaches, a secret cabal of scientists band together and step in to halt the superpower mutually-assured-destruction, demonstrating their power by using an ‘N’-bomb to destroy the Moon, then emerging after the ‘ten days of terror’ as the Moon dies, to assume global control and establish the Interim Rule. What is left of the Moon forms an arc of luminous fragments subsequent generations call the ‘supernova’.

For his protagonists, the real future-action is located thousands of years later, with people living in an enlightened World Technocracy, a scientific dictatorship administered through eight semi-autonomous regional committees. Back when I first read it, Savage’s vision of cities seemed a viable future scenario to me. The region formerly known as France consists of a series of 1,500 sky-scraping cities, each with a five-million population, yet separated by bush and wild forest-land, connected only by air-freight. It’s a curiously engaging image. Paris is the Quiet City of Glass where Karsh’s usual workday as a ‘humble electronics Tech’ at the Media Video Communications-Propaganda System lasts no longer than four-hours. But there’s a price to pay for living in this sustainable new-build utopia, which only gradually becomes apparent. For Karsh there’s an enforced forgetting of the barbaric warlike past. ‘A perfect state, a utopia, has no history. It is unchangeable.’ Nostalgia, the ‘sickness of the past’ is a treatable condition that can be controlled by pills, ‘we had pills for everything’. Yet Karsh experiences strange yearnings for the past.

His formless unease is given substance when he meets up with former-colleague Drew, a discontent who has illegally produced a new element, a red crystal called Xonos. There’s an evocative early passage in which Karsh relates light to time, that by simply gazing up into the night sky he is peering into the distant past, that the starlight he sees is already thousands of years old, the ghosts of stars that may already be dead. Xonos takes that idea further. It enables visual access to the past, at first alarmingly so when it accidentally conjures a vision of a French Revolution execution by tapping into the cameras during a Videocon broadcast. Deciphering its principles – that light leaves its retrievable residue on old buildings, Karsh secretly constructs his own monitor as a ‘dangerous telescope’ into the past, not always understanding what he sees. When he eavesdrops on the destruction of the Moon, and the ‘monstrous birth’ of his own era which grew from it, he believes the lost satellite to be fictitious, the product of collective hysteria. After all, the stable unchanging Earth has no Moon! Surely, it has never had a Moon? But, as a ‘man who had leaped the barriers of time’, the more he sees, the more he understands the limitations of his own society.

Stalked by sinister investigating Inspector Blok, he’s informed that Drew died in ‘Psycho-Refuge 87’. And travels to neglected London intent on uncovering the truth, to find the city a dilapidated European backwater gradually being reabsorbed into the encroaching bush-lands of Middlesex and the forests of Essex. Somewhere beyond its sad decay, possibly Oxford, he uses his device to observe the more recent past. Drew had not died. He was drowned by two thuggish Refuge warders. All the while Karsh uses his ‘peepshow that troubled my mind and heart’ to learn more, like a diligent archaeologist grubbing about in the dust and relics of past times striving to understand its unfolding story. Like the aliens of ‘Universe Five’ listening to his preserved tape-narrative. Level upon level of glimpses into future-histories.

With co-conspirator and ally Landers, a London-based Datum Clerk, and his own mute servant Cooper he taps into, and records, a Zone Committee meeting, coming to realise how seventy-two men control the world through their seats on these regional committees, eliminating risk and innovation, maintaining conformity through a kind of eugenics that entombs excess population in a state of suspended animation, to be reactivated or retired as required. And they conspire to return change to their world by disseminating film-copies through the network of Cooper’s marginalised servant-class menial-workers. ‘Our aim was not a modest one. We proposed to start a world revolution.’ Meanwhile, he watches, so fascinated by and more than a little in love with Donna, a poet who has been interred as a social misfit, that he travels to Zone 6 in the American Arctic Circle, bluffs his way past the custodian of the ‘Chamber of Rest’, revives and rescues her.

Although biographical details are scarce, it’s apparent that Ivan Roe had a spread of abilities. It’s as though he uses the ‘Richard Savage’ alias to keep his more serious Lit-crit work unsullied by association. For his other listed titles include ‘Breath Of Corruption: An Interpretation Of Dostoievsky’ (1946), ‘Style Of Your Own: A Commonsense Guide To Clear English’ (March 1972) and the literary biography ‘Shelley: The Last Phase’ (1973). And such ambitions are not entirely absent from ‘When The Moon Died’. The extinguishing of the Moon becomes a metaphor that represents the end of poetry, of dreams, moonbeams, moondance, moonlight and moonshine. But illogic has its uses. As Karsh and his friends realise.

Before their proposed revolution can begin there’s betrayal, capture and brutal interrogation. In some of Savage’s best, most reflective writing the trio – Karsh, Cooper, and ‘fortieth-century girl’ Donna are forced to flee into the wilderness beyond the Great Lakes where they find refuge in the ‘friendly tower’ of a reclusive lighthouse couple. From their far isolation they watch the global insurrection they’ve seeded begin, enabling the ruthless Blok’s counter-insurgency coup. With the world realigning into two east-west powerblocks Karsh activates his final gamble, releasing the rest of the frozen prisoners from the Chambers of Rest to form a new White Army, ‘the past itself had awakened and the technocrats had fallen’. How will the conflict be resolved? There’s no final chapter. The tape has ended. The men of Universe Five speculate as they look around the dead planet. Is this frigid desolation the result of humanity’s last war? Savage lets the question hang.

There’s some wildly overheated and scientifically absurd purple-prose, ‘had they in their fury splintered the Earth? Had they sent it reeling like the Moon in its orbit, till it broke away and went spinning, white hot, to the farthest and coldest fields of its own galaxy, there to burn, a bright star, through the aeons, then gradually cool and condense, its outer skin cracking and sloughing, till now it moved slowly, the sluggard planet, forever beyond the warmth of the sun that had given it life in the beginning? Had men done this to their home, or was the banishment the result of some cosmic caprice, or the eternal flight of the whole universe from its central star, the yellow one?’ Wow! For me, caught up in Cold War uncertainties that threatened their own global annihilation, there seemed a kind of poetic profundity at work here amid these vast cosmic questions. And it still exerts a certain undeniable power.

So is it a good novel? A lost classic awaiting rediscovery? No, obviously not in any objective way. Even by the admittedly shoddy standards of much genre fiction of its time. Names are single-word blunt, Karsh, Blok, Donna, Drew. Conversations are sparse and used largely for the exchange of information. Characterisation is razored so slight as to be negligible. And he portrays a strangely retro future in which they still smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, and use a typewriter. The plot zigzags alarmingly with little sense of logical development or pacing. It’s difficult to see how such a fiction would even achieve print or ebook status in today’s focus-group publication environment. Yet it has a compulsive readability absent from more conventionally-structured formula-fiction. Noel Coward once mused about ‘extraordinary how potent cheap music is’. The same can be said for overlooked genre fiction. As Richard Savage proves, illogic has its uses, and attractions.


Books by ‘Richard Savage’:
‘Murder Goes To School’ (Jarrolds, 1946)
‘Murder For Fun’ (Jarrolds, 1947)
‘The Horrible Hat’ (Jarrolds, 1948)
‘The Poison And The Root’ (Jarrolds, 1950)
‘Set Free Barabbas (aka ‘The Green Tree And The Dry’)’ (1950, Harper)
‘The Salamander Touch’ (1952, Hutchinson)
‘When The Moon Died’ (Ward Lock, 1955, Digit Paperback, 1963)
‘The Lightning’s Eye’ (Museum Press, 1957)
‘Stranger’s Meeting’ (Museum, 1957)
‘The Innocents’ (Museum, 1958)

Books as Ivan Roe:
‘Breath Of Corruption: An Interpretation Of Dostoievsky’ (1946, Hutchinson & Co, Kennikat Press), ‘Style Of Your Own: A Commonsense Guide To Clear English’ (March 1972, David & Charles) ‘Shelley: The Last Phase’ Literary biography (1973, Cooper Square Publications).

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