You’ll never guess what arrived in the post today

sk1You probably think getting hold of an old omnibus of Edmond Hamilton’s Star Kings books is not much of an accomplishment. Nothing to boast about.

But you are wrong.

Here, in full, is the epic story of an improbable quest. All it lacks are those certain elements you need to market a film successfully: suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex, happy endings, especially happy endings.

Call me Bibliophile. Some months ago –  never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would order a copy of Edmond Hamilton’s Chronicles of the Star Kings. Reading old space operas is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get me some Hamilton or Williamson or early Simak, some Brackett, perhaps, or some Moore, even some Dickson or early Brunner, as soon as I can.

Why Chronicles of the Star Kings? I was working on something tangentially related so it seemed an ideal opportunity to pick up the cheapest copy I could find of this omnibus volume that I repeatedly looked at on the shelf but never bought back in my teens (I was having too much fun devouring all the Philip E. High published in the same series). So I checked amazon marketplace sellers and abebooks. Amazon was way cheaper so I ordered a copy. Little did I suspect I  was merely ordering my first copy.

The parcel arrived on 11 September. My eager little hands tore it open and found inside:
sk2Now, I have nothing against East End Sagas, whether gripping – as it claims – or not. But it was not what I wanted. So I set the returns process in motion and requested they replace it with the book I ordered. They acted with unexpected promptness, dispatching a replacement the same day. Of course, instead of replacing it with a copy of Chronicles of the Star Kings, they replaced it with a copy of Carol Rivers’s gripping East End saga Lizzie of Langley Street.

So I set the returns process in motion again, advised them of the glitch in their inventory system, requested a refund and checked for the next cheapest copy. Which again was from amazon. I ordered it, and waited.

And waited; and waited.

Then a week or so later got an email telling me it had been damaged in the post and returned to the seller. They could not provide me with another copy so gave me a refund.

I checked for the next cheapest copy. Which again was from amazon. And this time was next day delivery. I ordered it, and waited.

But nothing happened.

I left it an extra day but still nothing happened.

I checked the online tracking. Apparently it had been delivered.

Only it hadn’t.

A trip to the local sorting office ensued. The guy there explained that he could not search for the parcel without the notification card I had been left by the postman. Only I hadn’t been left a notification card, which is so unlike Colin, my lovely postman, that I knew something was rotten in the state of Denmark. (Rottenness! thy name is Barry, the lazy substitute postman! But I’m getting ahead of myself.) The best the guy could offer to do was organise a redelivery, and hope that would magic my parcel into being.

The mention of Colin’s name, however, prompted the woman behind the desk to leap into action. Colin would not make that kind of mistake. She asked if I had the tracking number – I did – and after a couple of minutes on the computer was able to confirm that indeed my parcel was lost in some peculiar back-eddy of the postal system. She went to check out back to see if the parcel was there – it wasn’t, but even if it had been, she wouldn’t have been able to hand it over since I did not have a notification card. “I’ll have a word with Colin when he gets in,” she said. “He’ll know what happened.”

A brief aside on Colin. He has been my postman since I moved here fifteen years ago, and somehow he has survived the deliberate sabotaging of the post office by successive governments – running down its services, forcing them to deliver mail below cost for the private carriers competing with them for business, prioritising business deliveries over private mail, etc, etc –  as they sought to privatise it, which they eventually achieved a few years ago, since when £500,000 per day has been paid out in dividends to hedge funds and city shareholders. Somehow, through all this, Colin has retained a sense of the role of the postman in the community, as part of the glue that holds a place and its people together. We are not just streets and doors and letterboxes to him. In this, he reminds me of my milkman grandad. Unlike lazy Barry.

Later that morning, Colin knocks on my door.

“Oh,” he says, ‘it was Wednesday. Barry did the route on Wednesday. He’s dead lazy. If it’s not at the sorting office, he’s left it with a neighbour. Won’t be any more than two houses away. I’ve got a couple of packages, so I’ll ask at those houses. If I have no luck, I’ll catch up with him later, and come back after my shift to tell you what he did with it.”

That’s Colin for you.

No way he needs to come back after his shift; he can let me know tomorrow. In the meantime, once I’ve finished my coffee, I’ll knock on some neighbours’ doors.

Colin was right. It was with a neighbour two doors down. I sought out Colin to let him know. Went home. Poured another cup of coffee and opened my parcel. To find within it a copy of:

sk2

So the glitch in the inventory was definitely an amazon problem, not an individual seller’s problem. I begin the returns process, ask for a refund, and this time inform amazon rather than merely the seller of the problem. And by good fortune, a couple of cheaper copies of Chronicles of the Star Kings have appeared on abebooks, so I order one.

And nothing happens.

Except the last amazon marketplace seller tells me to not bother returning Carol Rivers’s gripping East End saga Lizzie of Langley Street – and in addition to refunding me, they will try to locate a copy of Chronicles of the Star Kings in their warehouse for me, free of charge, for all the comical inconvenience to which I have been put. So for a moment there it looks like I might end up with three books in total, rather than the single one I first ordered back in the mists of time, around the dawn of man.

But phew! they can’t find a copy.

But I don’t fucking believe this! my parcel containing – at last, I hope – Chronicles of the Star Kings has been damaged in the post and returned to the abebooks seller, who arrange a refund as they do not have a replacement copy in stock.

Back to abebooks. A sixth attempt to buy this fucking book.

And today this arrives:

sk1The only problem is, I no longer have any fucking clue what I wanted it for in the first place.

So, no, despite appearances, not even a happy ending.

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Out of the Unknown: ‘Some Lapse of Time’, BBC2 8 December 1965

John Brunner
John Brunner

One of the things ‘Some Lapse of Time’ gets right (and would have probably got right even if it had been a 75-minute episode as originally intended) is selecting to adapt a source of appropriate length – John Brunner’s novella of the same name, originally published in Science Fantasy (February 1963) and reprinted in Brunner’s collection Now Then just a couple of months before the episode aired. A novella has more than sufficient complication for an hour-long drama without any need for additional elaboration (or padding), while also not requiring the compression that adapting a novel might entail, such as season two’s Level Seven, season three’s Immortality, Inc and The Naked Sun or season four’s Deathday.

lapse-02Dr Max Harrow – whose young son recently died of a rare disease, heterochylia, the product of a genetic mutation caused by radiation – is plagued by a nightmare of the distant past, of immiserated primitives dominated by a shaman figure. In the small hours of the morning, after the nightmare has woken him once more, a policeman arrives at the door, having found an unconscious tramp outside Harrow’s house. To the doctor’s astonishment, the tramp seems to have survived into his thirties or forties despite suffering from heterochylia, which is every bit as impossible as him even having the disease since he was born long before there were any nuclear weapons. And he somehow found his way to the doorstep of one of the handful of doctors in the country capable of recognising the symptoms…

These are not the only odd thing about the vagrant.lapse

He carries a finger bone with a distinctive curve, he speaks no known language and is, it turns out, radioactive. He is not from the past at all, but from the future. From after the nuclear war. His language is an evolved or, rather devolved, version of English (like in Threads (1985) or Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980)).

And when Harrow loses the top of one finger – accidentally slammed in a car door during an argument with his wife – and it goes missing, he realises it is the shaman/tramp’s fetish bone, used to focus his journey back in time. (Nigel Kneale’s The Road (1964) relied on a similar reversal of temporal perspective.)

Also being treated at hospital is Wilfred Fitz-Prior, the Minister of War – precisely the kind of person Harrow holds responsible for causing his son’s death. (What choice does Harrow have but to steal the Fitz-Prior’s’s amputated leg and hide it so that it’s bones, too, can become a fetish object for some post-apocalyptic shaman to use to come back and haunt the Minister?) On a rather less macabre note, when Harrow wants to carbon-date the finger bone, he consults with Gerry Anderson (presumably taking a break from filming Supercar or Fireball XL5).

Brunner’s novella is structurally a little clunky, and bows some under the weight of a compositional principle that seems to consist of cramming in everything he could think of, but this does help to generate a sense of inescapable nightmare. (A nightmare that ties in closely with Brunner’s work with the National Council for the Abolition of Nuclear Tests and with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.)

The script by Leon Griffiths – who also wrote John Gillings’ Burke and Hare movie The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), and adapted Raymond F. Jones’s  ‘Divided We Fall’ (1950) and Rog Phillips’ ‘The Yellow Pill’ (1958) for Out of this World (25 August and 30 June 1962, respectively, the latter also reworked for Out of the Unknown (25 March 1969)) – cuts away a lot of the clutter. This reduces the nightmarish quality somewhat, even as the pace of the episode teeters on the brink of hysteria.

The production design is by some chap called Ridley Scott, and includes some impressively moderne hospital spaces, especially an angular corridor. The brief exteriors – filmed at the Technical College and the School of Art in (appropriately enough) Harrow – further convey this sense of the very near future; and one shot, in which the camera hurriedly tracks alongside one side of a fence while Dr Harrow races down the other, is especially effective.

Other things to look out for:
– the copper who finds the tramp is played by a young Peter Bowles, delightfully struggling to do the accent of a rural plod
– one of the medical students lurking in the background is played by Victor Pemberton, who wrote the Doctor Who serial ‘Fury from the Deep’ (1968), as well as episodes of Timeslip (1971) and Ace of Wands (1972)

lapse-03Previous episode, ‘Andover and the Android’

Sources
John Brunner, ‘Some Lapse of Time’, Now and Then (London: Mayflower-Dell, 1965)
Mark Ward, Out of the Unknown: A Guide to the Legendary Series (Bristol: Kaleidoscope, 2004)
Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI, 2014.