The Outward Urge, by John Wyndham and Lucas Parkes

Outward Urge cvr1

The Outward Urge, by John Wyndham writing with an alter ego, the fictional Lucas Parkes, was published in 1959, a mere decade before astronauts set foot on the moon.  Yet in tone it seems to share more with old yellowing copies of Eagle and Lion than Stanley Kubrick’s shiny 1968 film 2001, and Wyndham’s ability as a futurologist leaves something to be desired.  However, while this is not among his best work, it has relevant things to say about space exploration as a tool of national prestige and how its advance is stimulated by rivalry in much the same way colonial expansion has been in the past.

The book comprises five self-contained stories charting the adventures of the Troon family as they follow the yen to explore space that has manifested since its first faltering steps by the first flying Troon, an RAF pilot in the Second World War, through nearly every subsequent generation.  The first four stories are straightforward hard science fiction, examining the difficulties of developing a space programme against a background of global tension.  The fifth is more philosophical, pondering the implications of suspended animation on the individual in terms of family relationships, and whether having technically died, albeit capable of revival, entails the loss of the soul.

In the first one, George Montgomery ‘Ticker’ Troon has the opportunity to go into space in 1994 to help build the first British space station (confusingly called a satellite), establishing the links between the Troon family and space.  We follow the death of ‘Ticker’ as he is working on the space station when it is attacked by (presumably) a Russian missile, and the stories show the Troons’ primary relationship to space exploration to be one of sacrifice.

Thereafter each story jumps fifty years, charting the Troon presence in a permanent settlement on the moon in 2044 (the British base is commanded by Ticker’s son Michael) while nuclear war rages below; Mars in 2094 (one of the family is in the first landing); Venus in 2144 (ditto the first successful landing); and finally the rather odd addition set mainly among the asteroids in 2194, though recounted on earth.  The first four sections appeared in instalments in New Worlds Science Fiction, published in book form in 1959, and the last was added for a 1961 edition.

In some ways Wyndham’s vision proved to be very wide of the mark, though understandably so bearing in mind the Cold War times.  He had no inkling that the USSR would fall apart thirty years after he was writing.  Instead he saw a nuclear war devastating the northern hemisphere, allowing Brazil and Australia to become dominant players.  He clearly hadn’t considered the effects of drifting nuclear fallout.  Nevil Shute had considered the possibility in his 1957 novel On the Beach, so there was no excuse for Wyndham ignoring a key implication of his scenario.

In terms of space exploration he only thinks in terms of manned travel and does not consider that unmanned probes would precede people in order to reconnoitre destinations (remarkably the Venusian expedition’s rocket is capable of horizontal atmospheric flight, a capability it has to employ in order to find a suitable landing spot, and a number are tested before one is located).  He underestimates just how long it takes to put a space project together, and the idea that a country could expect to build substantial infrastructure in space without other countries knowing what they were doing is not feasible.

He assumed, not unreasonably but incorrectly, that space stations (1990s in his scheme) would precede a moon expedition (2020s).  His view of Venus as a perpetually raining place proved to be wide of the mark, as did his assumption that plant life would exist on both Mars and Venus (and basic creatures, including lungfish, on the latter).  Most of all he is touchingly optimistic about Britain’s financial ability to mount a space programme, build a space station and have a permanent, albeit budget-priced, settlement on the moon alongside the Americans and Soviets.

Despite the technical aspects having dated badly, and the two-dimensional characters being merely vehicles for his ideas, Wyndham’s vision of space exploration is essentially a positive one.  Even though the impetus for the move into space is undertaken to gain national advantage, ultimately the outward urge puts those national rivalries into their proper perspective.  Part of the Troon family emigrates to Brazil, changing the name to Trunho, and a branch later becomes Australian.  After Brazil ‘annexes’ space as a province, two Troon cousins cooperate to challenge its claim.  In the diplomatic row which follows the covert Australian landing on Venus, Troons are on opposing sides, and it is a result of Brazil’s defeat that Space declares independence, free of control by any single terrestrial state.  The Troons, like space itself, cannot be claimed by one country, but are international harbingers of humanity’s outward journey, representing possibly the next step in its evolution.

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