Pan Books at 70: The SF Edit

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Reviewed by Annabel

Pan, founded in 1944, published its first mass market paperback in 1947 – Ten Stories by Rudyard Kipling with the famous Pan logo designed by Mervyn Peake and distinctive covers. Now they are 70 years old and Pan have published new editions of twenty of their most celebrated paperbacks with wonderful new in-house designed covers – which are a triumph of modern clean graphic design but fun too!  The books have, unusually in these days, been published in the small pocket-sized A-format like all old paperbacks. I’ve enjoyed a quartet of very different science fiction books from the list – two modern, two classic; two I’ve read before, two that have escaped me until now…

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

From the opening words of what would become a ‘trilogy in five parts’ Adams punctures our human pompousness and goes on to give his hero, everyman Arthur Dent, the adventure of a lifetime. When the Vogon constructor fleet arrive to destroy the Earth for a ‘hyperstpatial express route’, Arthur finds out his best friend, Ford Prefect, isn’t human – he comes from a ‘small star in the vicinity of Betelgeuse’ and manages to get them transported onto the Vogon ship in the nick of time as hitchhikers. Soon Arthur and Ford will join Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian and Marvin the paranoid android in a stolen spaceship powered by an improbability drive and head for the lost planet of Magrathea, where they meet the wonderfully named Slartibartfast, (who designed the fjords of Norway) and discover that the Earth had been a philosophical computer project to provide the question to the answer 42 which is the solution to Life, the Universe and Everything.

Every sentence is a delight to revisit, and if you ever heard the original radio series which was originally broadcast in 1978, the year before the book, you’ll read the text with Peter Jones as the droll voice of the titular book, Stephen Moore as Marvin and Simon Jones as Arthur. What surprised me on this, my third re-reading was how philosophical the underlying story of trying to understand how the universe works is. It is full of fantastic concepts which, as you get caught up in the lives of Arthur and co, appear utterly believable, but also totally hilarious. A masterpiece of comic writing.

Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

From one philosophical novel to another… and despite having read most of Clarke’s novels, this one, arguably one of his finest had escaped me. Originally published in 1954, Childhood’s End is a story of visitors from and paranormal evolution. Clarke rewrote the prologue and first chapter later after various aspects of the original had dated which he explains in a foreword.

The novel begins with first contact, the arrival of the Overlords in silver ships (inspired by barrage balloons over London in WWII). They choose the Secretary General of the United Nations as their channel of contact, and generally let the human race get on with its business, although they make it clear that they are always watching. They never actually appear, but agree that in 50 years’ time they will make themselves known on Earth.

Mankind enters a period of stability, but it is an increasingly bland existence, but they live in harmony with the Overlords. Some begin to question the Overlord’s purpose. One astrophysicist, Jan, manages to discover their home planet and hatches a plan to get on board one of their ships. Another group founds a colony on Earth, New Athens, to keep the arts, creativity and science alive, and it is when some of the children of colony members begin to display paranormal traits that the Overlord’s purpose as shepherds becomes clear.

From Well’s War of the Worlds to the film Independence Day, it is more usual for alien visitors to be violent, conquering foes (who can be defeated as we all know!). Childhood’s End is the first novel I can think of where the visitors are benign dictators. Indeed, I was struck by similarities between Clarke’s hypothesis of humans as galactic children with Adams’ humans as a galactic experiment.

The Time Machine by HG Wells

A scientist, only identified as the ‘Time Traveller’ tells his dinner party guests, also only identified by their learned trades, an after-dinner story.  He tells of the ‘time machine’ he invented and says he will travel into the future and report back the next week. It works – 800 centuries hence, our world is now inhabited by the Eloi, a race of small, childlike people. They are incurious, dreamy and peaceful fruit-eating folk. However, he has a shock in store, when he comes across another race, the Morlocks, who are ape-like troglodytes. The Morlocks have hidden his time machine, and in his searching for it he discovers that they feed on the Eloi. All his initial theories over mankind’s evolution and class structures are thrown into disarray.

He saves one of the Eloi from drowning and resolves to take her back to his time once he finds the time machine, which the Morlocks have hidden inside the Sphinx. Hotly pursued, he escapes, but Weena perishes in the attempt. The only proof of his adventure is two white flowers.

Poe may have been the first author to have expounded on time and space as the fourth dimension back in a 1948 essay, and several other authors had briefly considered or used it in their stories, but Wells’ was the first to explore it in more depth in this novella, published in 1895; an earlier short story had also used the concept. Wells coined the term ‘time machine’ thus enabling a rich seam of books and films to run with it ever since.

The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Although there is no time travel involved in Doyle’s wonderful adventure, first published in book form after serialisation in 1912, The Lost World feels like you’re travelling back in time. Doyle wasn’t the first to write a novel in which dinosaurs and other elsewhere extinct creatures survived, (that was Jules Verne in Journey to the Centre of the Earth), but his take is based on a more realistic view inspired by real-life adventurers in the Amazon.

A young journalist is desperate to impress a girl, and signs up to go on an expedition to find a remote plateau in the Amazon where it is reported prehistoric creatures thrive. Only Professor Challenger, ‘an imposing presence’, at the Zoological Society believes and Malone will get the scoop for his paper.

The team set off for the Amazon on their journey into the interior, led by fearful Indian guides. To cut a long story short, they find the plateau and eventually work out a way to get up onto it, only to maroon themselves. Only their ‘beloved negro’ servant the loyal Zambo waits there for their return. Unperturbed, they set out to explore and get attacked by pterodactyls and discover other dinosaurs, but also get embroiled in the war between a race of ape-men and an unknown human tribe. They help the humans defeat the ape-men, but the humans have now seen their guns and don’t want them to leave…

Again, I was sure I’d read this one, but I think I confused it with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s ‘Pellucidar’ books of a few years later. I loved The Lost World – all the scientists arguing with each other at the beginning and end with the expedition providing the meat in the sandwich. In comparison with the other three novels, there is less comment on the human condition and less philosophy in Doyle’s story. By modern standards, some of the dinosaur facts may be dodgy, but all this is made up for in the sheer bravado of the adventure.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors