by Duncan Lunan

I’ve mentioned science fiction a lot in Orkney News in the last three years, including my own. My late colleague Alan Evans (obituary, ON May 22nd, 2022) hated my doing that, and kept begging me not to. But SF was how I started my writing career, and although I write mostly nonfiction, I’ve published 43 SF stories and 4 books (one edited), contributed fiction to 13 more, and been an SF critic since 1971, as well as running a national story competition for six years. So I don’t see any reason to play it down.

Growing up in Troon, my first love was the sea, and I’ve never lost that interest.  But when I was 4 years old, I remember my father stopping the car between Prestwick and Troon for us to watch the Northern Lights, and my parents getting me up to see an eclipse of the Moon.  But as I wrote in the August 2023 ‘The Sky Above You’, for me the definitive event of that year was the Blue Sun of September 1950, caused by a smog of oil droplets from forest fires in Canada.  My grannie took me to Troon beach to see it:  the Sun was blue, the sky was bronze, and the whole familiar landscape of the Bathing Lake, the Grandstand, etc  (all long gone now)  was alien.  I remember thinking, ‘This is like being on another planet’ – I had the concept, even then – and I remember seeing a photo of one of the early Viking rockets in a book which a friend had, and thinking, ‘Wow, a real spaceship’.  But what got me completely hooked was the first ‘Lost Planet’ radio serial  (Fig. 1), on Children’s Hour, by the late Angus MacVicar  (Fig. 2), in 1953. 

The boy across the road had The Young Traveller in Space, by Arthur C. Clarke;  I bullied my parents into buying it for my 8th birthday, and my fate was sealed.  I discovered that the Public Library had both adult and junior SF, and I read Clarke’s Expedition to Earth and Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker at the age of 9, without fully understanding either.  But I read and reread my copy of Clarke’s first novel, The Sands of Mars, until the Corgi paperback fell to bits  (Fig. 3).  I discovered the serialisation of Dan Dare, sponsored by Horlicks on Radio Luxembourg, and finally persuaded my parents to buy me the Eagle, which every boy in my class was reading, instead of the worthy but dull Children’s Newspaper.  By that time the ongoing story had reached ‘Prisoners of Space’ in 1955  (Fig. 4). 

Journey into Space on the Light Programme  (Figs. 5 & 6)  was too scary for me in 1954, but I joined the second serial at the third episode in 1955, just when it got really scary.  As I said in my book Man and the Planets, there must be an entire generation which turns pale at the mere mention of Whitaker.

My introduction to adult SF had come with the start of the ‘Jeff Hawke’ serial in the Daily Express in February 1954  (Fig. 7), popular with readers from the outset  (Fig. 8), and I collected it throughout its run and its reincarnation in the Daily Record as ‘Lance McLane’, which made it the world’s longest-running SF comic strip, 1954-1988. 

Fig. 7. Jeff Hawke episode H1, Daily Express, 15th February 1954
Fig. 8. Reader’s letter, Daily Express c.1955
Fig. 9. Moon landing prediction, Time Out of Mind, Daily Express, 21st November 1959

In 1969, I pointed out to the Express that Sydney had predicted the date of the Moon landing almost exactly, ten years earlier  (Fig. 9).  That got Sydney a BBC-TV appearance on the night of the landing, and put us in touch. 

When we finally met at the UK Easter SF convention in 1978, his first words to me were, “Oh, you’re Duncan Lunan, I want you to write stories for me”  (Fig. 10). 

Fig. 10. Sydney Jordan with DL, Hatfield Polytechnic SF convention, 1989

In the next 10 years before the strip ended, I wrote or contributed to 10 stories, 8 of which were published at the time  (Fig. 11), and the story-lines for the last two were published on the Jeff Hawke Club website, then in William Rudling, ed., Jeff Hawke, The Epilogue, both in 2017.  That brought to an end the Club’s republication, starting in 2003  (Fig. 12), of the entire canon:  114 stories in 10,208 episodes, reprinted in 30 magazines, a supplement and five books.  It was my privilege to write critical notes for them throughout, and when I tallied up the total content, Sydney’s comment was, “No wonder I feel so tired!”

Figs 11 “I Talk to the Trees” opening episode, story by DL, Daily Record, December 1983 & 12 , JHC Vol. 1 No. 1 cover, March 2003.

The Glasgow Herald  (The Herald since 1992), the longest running national newspaper in the world, reached its 200th anniversary in 1983, and the late Chris Boyce, working in the Herald Library, proposed several science-fiction projects to mark the event.  The one which the paper eventually set up was an annual SF and fantasy short story competition for new writers, which I ran from 1986 to its sudden cancellation in 1992.  The judges in the first year were Chris, the late Prof. Archie Roy, Alasdair Gray and myself; the prizes were an Amstrad word processor and an astronomical telescope, presented by Joe Haldeman and Keith Roberts at that year’s Albacon III SF Convention in Glasgow.  Angus McAllister replaced Alasdair Gray as a judge in the second year, and Veronica Colin and Bill Morris were judges later.  It was one of the most successful newspaper short story competitions in the UK, drawing over 300 entries in most years, and many of the finalists went on to make their professional mark.  Among them Janice Galloway, the second year’s winner, went on to become one of Scotland’s most prominent mainstream writers;  Elsie Donald, a runner-up in 1986, won the competition in 1989;  William King, runner-up in 1987, became a top writer for Warhammer.  Each year, the competition was followed by a 20-week ‘science fiction and writing’ course which I ran at Glasgow University’s Department of Adult & Continuing Education. Its first year led to the formation of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers’ Circle, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in October 2016 by publishing an anthology of SF and fantasy by Scottish writers, Thirty Years of Rain.  Back in 1983, another of Chris’s suggestions had been for such an anthology, which would be the first of its kind.  Prof. Edwin Morgan, Naomi Mitchison (later Dame Naomi) and Alasdair Gray all agreed to take part, but the paper didn’t go for it.  In 1988, however, the Director of the first Edinburgh International Science Festival, Howard Firth, commissioned me to create the anthology for his Orkney Press in 1989.  It was Howie who suggested the title Starfield, with Edwin, Naomi and Alasdair as the stars, and I was especially pleased to have the book introduced by Angus MacVicar, with a cover by Sydney Jordan, illustrating ‘The Rig’ by Chris Boyce  (Fig. 13), reprocessed for the 2018 paperback edition by Shoreline of Infinity  (Fig. 14).

By the time I got to University in 1963, I was getting serious about writing SF, though only in the vacations, a rule I stuck to throughout.  In 1965, aged 19, I went to the World Science Fiction Convention in London with the particular aim of meeting other writers and publishers.  I was newly growing a beard and wearing the kilt, because I had come off a Vespa some weeks earlier, deeply grazing my chin and cutting my knee  (Fig. 15). 

Fig. 15. .Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison, DL at rear, London World SF Convention, 1965

The kilt was my father’s dress rig as a Captain in the Seaforth Highlanders, and as a result the most influential editor in the field, the late John W. Campbell, Jr., asked to meet me because he wanted a jacket like mine.  Of course I told him about the novel I was writing, and although he didn’t publish it, he got me a contract with the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, then the world’s largest.

The first story of mine that they sold was ‘Derelict’, to Amazing Stories in 1967, though it wasn’t published till seven years later  (Figs. 16 & 17) – and then it got a nomination for a Nebula Award of the Science Fiction Writers of America, which I was invited to join!  In 1968-71 I was writing an ambitious novel called Timescale, with chapters based on the traditional ballads, and because it was going slowly I spun off from it a second novel called The War Fleet, which was under contract with Gold Medal Books until the Managing Director suddenly changed his mind.  Thinking it would be published shortly, I spun off from that a series of stories called ‘Interface’, and the first of these was my first full professionally published work, in the June 1970 issue of Galaxy  (July in the UK).  This was the story I described in ‘Unbuild Your Own Solar System’  (ON, 13th August 2023), where the editors asked for my background because they were impressed by the rigorous Maths underlying it, and gave ‘The Moon of Thin Reality’ the cover by a big-name artist, Jack Gaughan. 

Fig. 18. Ed Buckley, Sasarenn RLV[1]

He didn’t know what the spaceship in my story looked like  (the late Ed Buckley drew it, painted it and modelled it the following year – Fig. 18), so because it was a rescue vehicle he portrayed it as a cluster of sensors  (Fig. 19), with a still more stylized version on the third story  (Fig. 20).  For the sixth story Worlds of If gave me top billing on the cover  (Fig. 21), but there was a problem with unauthorised rewriting of my stories at the Galaxy group of magazines.  That story was so heavily rewritten that it wasn’t compatible with the rest of the series, so the last two stories didn’t appear until 48 years later – see below.

‘Derelict’ featured an ancient, empty starship entering the Solar System.  My most popular story has been ‘The Comet, the Cairn and the Capsule’, based on my own observations of Comet Bennett in 1970, in which astronauts visit a passing interstellar comet and find a cairn of scientific instruments deposited on it in other solar systems.  Both stories suddenly became topical again with the passage through the Solar System of the interstellar object ’Oumuamua in 2017.  Note how Worlds of If altered the ‘Cairn’ title  (Fig. 22);  they also left off my final sentence, which subtly changed the ending, but nevertheless the story has been published seven times to date, including translations into German  (by the late Bernd Rullkötter of Glasgow)  and Polish.  It appeared in distinguished company in The Science Fictional Solar System, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Harry Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh  (UK edition Sidgwick & Jackson, 1980, Fig. 23), along with classic stories about each of the planets.

However I’m most proud of my time-travel stories, partly because some of them have involved intensive research.  The first to be written was ‘The Day and the Hour’, which was published first in my friend Jim Campbell’s fanzine Celtic Warrior.  It’s about a futuristic tank battle 150 years after World War 3, in which the Highlands are rebelling against Soviet rule imposed by the British People’s Army.  The late Jerry Pournelle commissioned an updated version for Vol. 5 of the series There Will Be War, co-edited with John F. Carr.  I’m not sure that they got all the jokes in it.  That one, too, was translated into Polish, and I found out only recently that it been given the cover in the magazine Fenix, in 1982  (Fig. 24).

Fig. 24, The Day and the Hour, Andrzej Łaski cover, Fenix Vol. 3 No. 3, 1992

The second was ‘In the Arctic, Out of Time’, set on an actual Arctic expedition of 1850, but turning out very differently from the real one.  This was one which didn’t get published immediately, due to the glut of stories by British writers on the US market in the aftermath of the 1971 UK postal strike.  I eventually placed it with Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, where it appeared 18½ years after I wrote it, and received nine nominations for the Nebula Award – one more would have put it on the short list.  The editor Gardner Dozois gave it the cover, but he insisted on one significant change:  where I had a helicopter appearing over the 1850 HMS Resolute, he was afraid it would look too much like a scene from the Tall Ships Race.  He changed my word ‘whirring’ to ‘glowing’, and that was enough for the artist to render it as a spaceship like a giant ladybird  (Fig. 25).

Fig. 25. Asimov July 1989

‘With Time Comes Concord’ took even longer to appear, but that was because I made it up in 1967, and the action was split between 1969 and 1999.  I needed to make the history of the intervening years convincing, so I didn’t finalise it until 1992.  Together they made a trilogy of time-travel by land, sea and air, but around the same time Gordon Ross’s work on flexible Waveriders, and particularly our concept of a highly volcanic ‘Lucifer planet’  (ON, December 4th, 2022), gave me the idea for ‘Riding the Fire’, and the use of all four classical elements gave me The Elements of Time as the title for a collection of my time-travel stories, published by Shoreline of Infinity in 2016.  Sydney Jordan had illustrated ‘With Time Comes Concord’ for Analog, and he did so for the other six stories in the book.

Looking at the notes in The Elements of Time, I found myself wishing that I could do the same for ‘The Square Fella’, my story in Starfield.  (That story is also doing quite well, with 5 print appearances to date.)  That grew into the idea of collecting my space-travel stories in two volumes published by Other Side Books:  From the Moon to the Stars in 2019, for the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, and The Other Side of the Interface, in late 2021.  All 8 of the Interface stories have been published at last, and sometimes problems cancel one another out.  When they were sold to Galaxy, copyright laws were different in the US and UK, and magazines routinely claimed copyright in the stories they purchased.  When the laws were standardised, UK writers could reclaim it, but it was a complicated and expensive legal process.  But as my Interface stories had been so heavily rewritten, I could publish the original versions with no problems.  Due to advancing years, Sydney Jordan wasn’t able to produce new artwork for either book, but he allowed me to select relevant images from his previous work for each story.

The Interface stories, the time-travel stories, ‘Derelict’ and ‘In the Arctic, Out of Time’ are all what are called ‘hard’ SF:  serious stories with plausible if not factual backgrounds.  But the others are lighter:  The Other Side of the Interface ends with four ‘Drabbles’, stories of exactly 100 words, first written for a project in aid of Talking Books for the Blind.  From the Moon to the Stars has a section called ‘Alternative Apollos’, humorous different histories of the programme, and The Other Side of the Interface has a section called ‘Other Worlds than Ours’, ranging further afield.  ‘The Square Fella’ is set on a cubical planet, with thanks to Michael Bentine and apologies to Dominic Behan.  They say every hard SF writer has one vampire story in him, and ‘The Great Australian Vampire’ is mine, though they also get a mention in ‘Glasgow’s Forgotten Castles’.  The Australian story takes place over a lunar month, from one Full Moon to the next, but I couldn’t put it in From the Moon to the Stars because it’s not space-travel by any stretch.

I was SF critic for The Glasgow Herald, as it then was, from 1971 to 1985.  I began reviewing fiction again for the online journal Concatenation in 2009, later changing to nonfiction, but I still review fiction for Interzone  (Fig. 26), Shoreline of Infinity  (Fig. 27)  and ParSec  (Fig. 28).  Many of the more recent pieces have been reprinted by Orkney News, sometimes with updating, by permission of the original editors.  Publication of ‘Demon’ in The Other Side Book of Ghosts, December 2021, has put almost all of my short fiction into print or back into print.  I’ve written very little fiction in recent years, partly for reasons that I’ll go into next time, but I have hopes that I can start that flowing again.

(To be continued).

Duncan’s fiction books The Elements of Time and Starfield, science fiction by Scottish writers  (edited)  are both available from the publishers Shoreline of Infinity, from bookshops or through Amazon.  From the Moon to the Stars, The Other Side of the Interface and The Other Side Book of Ghosts are all available through Amazon.

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  1. Wow! Running the competition must have been an incredible amount of work, sifting through all those short stories. Bravo! I absolutely love searching for sci-fi short stories within magazines like Worlds of IF- a lot of the older stories I can find on the public domain (Project Gutenburg) so that’s been fun searching the older stories 🙂 I produce a podcast that features a sci-fi short every now and then. I stumbled across Road Stop by David Mason written in the 60’s…it’s about a haunted automatic driving vehicle. Such a fun read seeing as how so many of us own similar vehicles these days 😉

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