In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
In the early years of the 20th century, the literature now called science fiction was still in a relatively unformed and undisciplined state. Because scientists did not fully understand the nature of even the worlds of our own solar system, the speculation on what explorers would find there was not anchored to much in the way of fact. One might think a trained scientist might have done better than other pulp authors in concocting a plausible tale…but, as noted inventor and scientist Archibald Low’s Adrift in the Stratosphere shows, that was not always the case. The book’s narrative truly is “adrift” at times, as three young men who stumble into an experimental craft find themselves careening from one implausible episode to another.
When my father was alive, he loved to go to science fiction conventions all around the Northeast. His favorites were Boskone and Lunacon, although he attended many others as well. My brothers and I often accompanied him, and the events would turn into impromptu family reunions. After he died, though, conventions just weren’t as much fun, so I stopped going. But a few years ago, I ventured to a Boskone, and rediscovered one of the great joys of convention-going: the Hucksters room. Among other treasures, I found an old science fiction adventure story from the 1930s, Adrift in the Stratosphere, which seemed to have all the trappings I’d enjoyed when I was young.
A quick scan of the illustrations and first few pages showed signs of a fun and adventure ahead. Young men aloft in a strange ship that combined balloon and rocket (built by an eccentric scientist in a shed in his backyard) encountered strange conditions and alien beings. So I snapped it up, but then forgot about it. Recently, I came across it again, and decided it was time to finally sit down and read it, which only took a few hours. The book was, to say the least, a bit underwhelming. But then I looked up the author on the internet, and what I found fascinated me. Archibald Low turns out to have been a highly colorful character who might have been a major name in the history of science, had he been better at completing what he started, been a better businessperson, and been better at working with others. If there was ever a person who fit the profile of the eccentric scientist that cooked up all sorts of inventions on his own, it was the author himself.
About the Author
Archibald Montgomery Low (1888-1956) was an English aeronautical engineer, research physicist, inventor, and author. He penned more than forty books, most of them non-fiction books on scientific topics. He was a colorful figure, reportedly moving from one project to the next without finishing and irritating others he worked with because of his lack of discipline (as well as his insistence on being referred to a “professor,” despite not holding a chair at any college).
The areas he worked in were wide-ranging. He started tinkering and experimenting in boyhood, joined his uncle’s engineering firm, and developed devices such as a fuel injector for internal combustion engines, an egg boiler that whistled to signal the cook, and gas turbines (although his turbine designs could not be supported by the metallurgy of the time). He also worked on an early television that transmitted images by wire. During World War One, Low was commissioned in the Royal Flying Corps and developed radio-controlled aircraft with a variety of capabilities, and also wire-guided rockets. He also worked on radio control systems for ships. The Germans were reportedly so alarmed by his innovations that two attempts were made on his life, once by shooting at his laboratory, and once by offering him a cigarette later found to be laced with poison. Looking at his accomplishments, you could easily refer to him as one of the fathers of unmanned aerial vehicles, a technology which is currently transforming modern battlefields with surveillance drones and precision-guided munitions.
After the war, Low founded his own engineering company, but he was not a good businessperson, and few of his projects came to fruition. His inventions were wide-ranging, and involved a number of disciplines. He was a member of the British Interplanetary Society, and for a time served as its president. In World War Two, he served as a civilian for the Air Ministry, and was later commissioned for additional service, again largely in a research capacity.
His writing career spanned the years from 1916 to 1954, and largely consisted of books on science and military topics. He also wrote four science fiction novels, including Adrift in the Stratosphere. You can find one of Low’s non-fiction books, Wireless Possibilities, on the Project Gutenberg website.
Adrift in the Stratosphere
The book begins with three chums—Peter, Phillip, and Victor—motorcycling through the English countryside. The three are described at the outset of the story, but those descriptions don’t end up mattering much, because from then on, they are pretty much interchangeable, with little in the way of personalities. The book is kind of a cross between a boy’s adventure book (like those found in the Great Marvel Series) and early space-based pulp adventures similar to E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Triplanetary. Unfortunately, Adrift in the Stratosphere draws upon the worst excesses of both forms. There are cliffhanger chapter endings, scads of exclamation points, problems that come seemingly out of nowhere just as another problem is solved, and solutions to these problems that emerge equally abruptly, without even a bit of foreshadowing.
When Victor’s motorcycle develops engine problems, the pals look around for tools or assistance and come across a shed. They enter and find not only tools, but also a vehicle, made largely of aluminum, which seems to combine the features of a balloon and a rocket. The craft, named Aeronauticus, is the creation of the honorable Alfred Joseph Slater, MD, MBE, who had just finished preparing it for its inaugural journey, pausing to have lunch before he left. One of the curious young men bumps into the ascending valve, and the craft bursts out of the shed. Professor Slater watches in horror as his creation rises into the air and nearly crashes into a nearby radio antenna. (Of course, such a backyard scientist might be dismissed as completely fanciful from any other author, but if there was anyone who actually fit that profile in real life, it was Archibald Low himself.)
The craft careens through the atmosphere until the three chums figure out that the balloon should have been detached before the rockets were ignited. Then, just before they expire from lack of oxygen, they figure that system out, and then they find concentrated food tablets, water, and descriptions of the ship and its systems. They begin to feel lighter as the ship leaves the area of Earth’s gravity (which made me think, “that’s not how any of this works”). At this point, I began to realize that the author’s definition of stratosphere was somewhat elastic, and at times, seems to include a good part of the solar system. And then the friends have an encounter with a space-based monster that breaths poison gas (I will leave the question of how they can smell that poison from within a sealed cabin as an exercise for the reader).
They then hear a strange language coming from their radio. Fortunately, Professor Slater has already encountered the language and built a translator into the radio system. Once they engage the translator, the chums hear Martian defense forces preparing to destroy the interloper from Earth. Soon their craft is bathed from afar with Martian Death Rays, for which the Professor has fortunately developed countermeasures. The Martians attempt to drive our protagonists crazy with a device called the Gabble, but this is countered by simply smashing their radio receiver. The Martians then use the Imagery of Evil to project images of invaders into the ship (as you may be noticing, the Martians tend to use capital letters in the names of all their dastardly devices). Then the Martians send a death ship to destroy the interlopers (the words ‘death ship’ remaining for some reason uncapitalized). But after taking a punishing blow from the death ship’s shells, our heroes’ craft enters a mysterious mist, and the pursuers lose them.
They find that they are approaching a “stratosphere island,” and there is a long passage where they nearly crash many times as they work to figure out the controls of the Aeronauticus. But when they finally do land, they find the island resembles the English countryside and is inhabited by humans who speak English, albeit with an accent somewhat resembling a “strong Devonshire burr.” The people are hyperintelligent, with even the children being much smarter than our three chums, and are quite familiar with things on Earth because they listen to BBC broadcasts. The people, though, live very simple lives, because they have found that many technological devices can have an adverse effect on health. After a friendly visit, they encourage the chums, now that they have learned to control their airship, to make their way back home to Earth.
They soon find another floating space island, only to find this one inhabited by gigantic, hooded beings, the Arcons, who turn out to be quite friendly. When the three chums ask why all these space islands are not visible from Earth, the Arcons explain that the space islands they are encountering are what Earth’s inhabitants call comets (although how these islands have breathable atmospheres and Earth-like gravity is not explained). There are some harrowing adventures within the Mystery Mountain of the Arcons as one of their high-tech devices goes awry (on this space island, they have not turned their backs on technology). The companions are invited to stay a while, but it turns out that one of the three is engaged to be married and wants to return home to his fiancée (this and a brief mention of Professor Slater’s wife are the only hints in the book that the human race includes women).
Peter, Phillip, and Victor then finally make it home to tell others about their adventures, and soon the whole world has learned of their exploits (and I was hoping that military forces were paying attention to this news, because I kept thinking Earth had not seen the last of the arrogant and hostile Martians). Fortunately for the three chums, they find that Professor Slater does not hold their theft of his craft against them, and is “quite decent about things after all.”
Adrift in the Stratosphere is one of the most haphazard science fiction books I have ever read. It is episodic almost to the point of lacking any guiding plot at all. Despite the scientific credentials of the author, it is definitely not anchored in the real, physical world in any way. But, much like a cheesy old black-and-white monster movie, it’s almost so bad that it’s good, and is a quick read.
The best thing about the book is that it introduced me to Archibald Low, an absolutely fascinating inventor, who—despite his many accomplishments, especially in the development of unmanned aerial vehicles—seems to have been nearly forgotten by history.
If there’s anyone else out there who has read Adrift in the Stratosphere, I would be delighted to hear your thoughts. I’d also be interested in hearing from anyone who has heard of Archibald Low, and has any more information about the man and his life and work. And finally, I’d love to hear some recommendations for other fun, older adventures and pulp tales that fall into the category of “So Bad, It’s Good.”
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.