|SFX magazine column by David Langford: issue #99, Christmas 2002|
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You can't go back, they say, but unfortunately you can. One of the first SF novels I read when I were but a lad was a Biggles story, and today's on-line book search engines make it all too easy to go back.
Captain W.E. Johns's famous air ace Major James "Biggles" Bigglesworth had a certain SF flavour, thanks to his strange, unnatural longevity. He began his career flying Sopwith Camels against the Huns in the First World War, was even more active in winning the Battle of Britain and the Second World War in general, and continued into the late 1960s as chief pilot of something called the Air Section of Scotland Yard, with his old enemy the Nazi (by now ex-Nazi) Erich von Stalhein making regular returns to have his wicked plans foiled by irrepressible Biggles. Only the author's death in 1968 could stop him.
Where did our hero get his mysterious immunity from age? The answer may be in the one outright SF novel among the 102 Biggles books, Biggles Hits the Trail (1935). Here he visits the mysterious Mountain of Light in Tibet, seemingly just up the road from Shangri-La: "people who dwelt near it never suffered from any form of illness, and lived to a great age." It's called the Mountain of Light because, of course, it glows in the dark.
Back then, the general public was extremely hazy about nuclear physics and radiation sickness. W.E. Johns vaguely knew that hospitals used radium – so logically a mountain full of the stuff must emit powerful healing vibes in all directions. That visible glow also makes it easy for Biggles to locate the right peak, with the whole Himalayas to choose from, by simply waiting for dusk. How convenient.
What's more, the Mountain contains a special sort of radium whose powers have been harnessed by its fiendish, slant-eyed inhabitants, to create what were to become the favourite secret weapons of 1940s war gossip. Death rays, gadgets to cripple engine ignition at a distance, and even invisibility. There's a wonderfully silly scene with an Oriental assassin lurking in a cabin trunk. People notice that it's mysteriously heavy and open it to see the villain's knife and bottle of invisibility potion inside, but no one actually pokes a finger in there to detect the invisible occupant.
The best bit of gruesomeness, which gave the infant Langford a nightmare or two, is the bad guys' endless supply of albino electric centipedes with improbable fangs: "from a cruel, shark-like mouth protruded needle-like, incurved teeth". When Biggles, Algy and their friends enter forbidden territory, the radium-electric power is switched on to (a) activate the centipedes, and (b) glue our heroes to the ground with static electricity so they can't run away from the approaching horror. (An idea stolen from Kipling's 1912 SF story "As Easy As A.B.C.") Fortunately, cheeky sidekick Ginger is wearing rubber-soled shoes and saves the day.
Worse follows. The sinister, politically incorrect "Chungs" of the Mountain are just about to conquer the world with their death rays! "The whole British army could be wiped out at one click of a switch ..." Biggles is made of sterner stuff, and survives the touch of the dread Blue Ray by ducking fast.
Things still look grim for the staunch, stiff-upper-lipped aeronauts. Don't worry, though – the author will see them right, just as in a James Bond movie. It happens that the Chungs' base at the foot of the Mountain is conveniently below their vast hydro-electric dam, and a huge outcrop of rock above the dam is so precariously balanced that it could be tipped over with devastating effect by quite a small explosion, and Biggles & Co have an awful lot of cordite in the ammo for their express rifles and Lewis guns, and – but let's not give away the ending.
That weird radium isotope brings further problems when the team escapes with a mere quarter of a million pounds' worth of the stuff. Its rays make their plane's compass spin in crazy circles. Lost in Himalayan airspace? Luckily the aged Scots engineer (I forgot to mention the aged Scots engineer) soon solves that little difficulty. Homeward bound!
W.E. Johns's story is fast, slick, silly and predictably melodramatic. His ideas of science were preposterous beyond belief. Still, Biggles Hits the Trail is held together by real aviation expertise, unlike the same author's "official" SF series of dire juvenile novels, beginning with Kings of Space (1954). It even has one almost accurate SF prediction. In this 1935 yarn, the Tibetan naughtiness proves to be run by intruders from China, and in 1950 China occupied Tibet. They're still there.
David Langford doesn't dare look up another remembered Early Influence, a fantasy by Enid Blyton ...
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