The Four-Sided Triangle by William F. Temple

Although there are umpteen sci-fi books knocking around the Ramblings, and despite the fact I *do* like certain types of the genre, I still don’t find myself reading enough of it. However, I’m eternally grateful to the lovely British Library publishing wing who’ve now started to produce Science Fiction Classics in the same stunning style as their Crime Classics editions. I reviewed a couple of collections of short stories, which were the first releases in the series, and these were marvellous. So I was very pleased to receive review copies of the first two full novels, a pair of books by William F. Temple, who was featured in the short story collections.

Temple was an early practitioner of British Sci Fi writing, as well as a member of the British Interplanetary Society, and he published a number of short stories before the outbreak of World War 2; he also famously once shared a flat with Arthur C. Clarke! I decided to start with the oldest of the books, “Four-Sided Triangle”, and this was Temple’s first novel; based on a short story he’d published in 1939, it was eventually reworked and published in novel form ten years later. Mike Ashley’s excellent introduction relates the tortured story of the book’s journey into print (the manuscript was lost twice before being finally rewritten and submitted for publication!) and a later film ensured it was the work he was best known for. “Four-sided…” is the kind of Wellsian science fiction set on Earth that I really enjoy, and the scientific element is important to the story – as is the effect of science on human beings.

All I have concluded from a lifetime of studying man and his sickness of body and mind is that if the liver and intestines are in good condition and the sexual urges satisfied, then God’s in his Heaven and all’s right with the world. But if all or any of these are out of order or frustrated, then during that time there is no God and no Heaven, and the world is a sorry, grey, dismal mess. We are in the invisible cages in nature’s mad zoo, cages too big or too small for us; but the bars are very real

The book is narrated by Doctor Harvey, a bachelor country medic nearing retirement who’s usually just referred to as Doc. He chooses to tantalize the reader with a glimpse of some fantastic invention in the first couple of pages, then goes back to the start of the story to relate the events which led up to that discovering. The Doc is a good man, very much caring for his flock of patients in the local village, and he adopts a young boy called Bill. The latter is a prodigy from a violent home, and his scientific knowledge is immense. Doc bring him up and sends him to university, where he befriends the son of local gentry, Robin Heath. Normally these two men would never have mixed and met, but university is a great leveller and they share an interest in all things scientific. When they return to their village they naturally set up a lab together with money Robin manages to squeeze out of his father, and the two begin to invent.

However, a complication is added into the mix in the form of Lena; a beautiful woman with a complicated background and suicidal tendencies, she’s drawn into the circle of the inventors and Doc, and naturally enough both men fall head over heels. Lena, of course, only loves one of them, and so it seems we’re set for all kinds of emotional turmoil. However, Bill and Robin’s invention may be able to assist a little – or is a little scientific knowledge a dangerous thing? I’m not going to say any more about the plot because once you’ve started to read you can probably guess what’s going to happen. Let’s just say the wonderful invention is very good at replicating objects…

“Four-Sided…” is perhaps an unusual choice as one of the first SF Classics but I think it’s a very brave and interesting one. At nearly 300 pages the book is longer than a lot of sci-fi pot boilers were, which allows for much more character development than is probably usual. Again, with a limited range of characters the author is able to do more with them. The book was actually finally finished just after the Second World War (in which Temple served) and the subject matter is quite daring in places: there is nudity (Lena is an early ‘free spirit’ with a feral upbringing behind her); frank discussion of suicide; and equally frank coverage of domestic violence and all but stated outright sexual abuse. The latter is significant in the character of Bill (to whom this happened) as his reaction to Lena is intense and coloured by his young experiences.

Oh, this incurable English habit of pretending to treat as a joke the strange and the new, whether idea or fact; and the more important the subject the lighter the treatment!

Additionally, the book takes on large topics like authenticity (is an identically reproduced copy of the Mona Lisa as valuable as the original?) and human morality. The Reproducer creates something which should solve the problems of the scientists, but it doesn’t; human emotions are complex and unpredictable, and in this story happiness seems to elude everyone. Doc spends much of his time in despair, but manages to effect some kind of balance in the end. More I shall not say… As for the science, well fortunately for me with my non-scientific, grasshopper brain, it doesn’t dominate and the reader pretty much just has to accept that what happens, happens. Which was fine for me! Doc seemed to find it all a little bemusing too, and I’m with him on that:

I can’t quite remember what Newton had thought, nor Dalton, who followed him. As for Thomson (J.J.), Rutherford, Dirac and Planck, they came in to confuse utterly a conception that was already clouding. Bohr had something to do with the Theory of Indeterminacy, which either explained or didn’t explain why electrons jumped from orbit to orbit without apparent cause and oddly taking no time at all for the journey, and Rutherford shot millions of alpha-particles (which might have been the same things as ‘photons’… no, on second thoughts, perhaps they were not) from a cathode ray tube at atoms in the early attempts to split them. Gentlemen named Siegbahn and Hahn were somehow involved with “Uranium 235”, there was such a thing as “heavy water”, and an Italian named Fermi had discovered something pretty important too.

Quite…

Were there any downsides to the book? Well, if I’m honest I *did* struggle a little bit with the author’s (or Doc’s) view of women; Lena, despite her free spirit, is apparently only seeking the fulfilment of a husband, family and home (or so her artistic efforts are dismissed). Additionally, the terminology used to describe her is often somewhat clichéd and verges on titillation at points; I guess that’s a potential issue with all books from this era, but it *did* grate a little.

Nevertheless, “Four-Sided Triangle” was a really engrossing read. I loved its exploration of the morality behind scientific inventions, the consequences of uncontrolled progress (as Bill’s hasty experiments have tragic effects at one point) and also the investigation of human emotions and indeed the effects of class mores. So although Temple’s book might seem an unexpected choice to open this new series with, I think it’s an excellent and fascinating work and I’m keen to spend some time with his other BLSFC, “Shoot at the Moon” some time soon! 🙂

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