Colin Kapp – One Man New Wave


Welcome to the expanded edition of The Unorthodox Engineers! As this is the product of print on demand publishing, this means that you’ve gone to some trouble to seek out this book. Perhaps you’re one of the many readers who have been loyally following the series: “John Pelan Presents: Classics of SF & Fantasy” (in which case, allow me to express my thanks for your part in making this series a tremendous success!), or perhaps you were doing an internet search for “Colin Kapp”, just in case there had been some new developments . . .

The latter scenario is a very viable possibility, as Colin Kapp’s work is the sort that once encountered is likely to stick with the reader to the point that occasional internet searches for news of re-releases of his books or stories may well become part of one’s routine. In my case, I’ve been awaiting the advent of this particular book for over thirty years! Having encountered Kapp’s stories of Fritz van Noon and his team when they were first published, and like many, having missed out on the Dobson collection in 1979, this expanded edition has been the very top of my wish-list for books that don’t exist (right up there with a collection of John Brunner’s “Mr. Secrett” stories, the fourth Anthony Villiers novel from Alexei Panshin, and other books that but for vagaries in the publishing industry could be sitting on your shelf right now!)

When we think of British science fiction in the 1960s and 1970s we almost invariably think of the New Wave and names such as Aldiss, Ballard, Brunner, and Moorcock and New Worlds magazine which morphed from one of the best traditional science fiction magazines in the 1950s to an interesting sort of pop-culture smorgasbord in the 1960s that managed to showcase the best and worst attributes of the New Wave all at the same time. With all the fanfare and controversy surrounding New Worlds many readers (particularly those in the States) overlooked John Carnell’s magazine series in book form (book-a-zine?), New Writings in SF, which is a real shame, for by definition it was more experimental in nature in that it had all the feel of being a magazine and in terms of quality it was consistently better than either New Worlds or Science Fantasy. What’s more, some authors had the bulk of their best short fiction published there and nowhere else . . .

One such author was Colin Kapp . . . Oh, certainly U.S. readers got to see all of his novels, beginning with The Dark Mind in 1964. And later in his career much of his short fiction was published in both the US and UK, and by the late 1970s, if not exactly a household name, Colin Kapp had at least achieved the status of “featured author” in that he was always mentioned on a magazine’s cover whenever he had a new story appearing.

Then in the 1980s the Colin Kapp was hired to author the Cageworld novels, a series set in the grand tradition of exploring humanity’s future in epic fashion. A tradition that dates back to Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men and is echoed in the current (and brilliant) saga of “the Great Ship” by Robert Reed. The sort of work that rekindles the sense of wonder in even the most jaded reader. Had Colin Kapp written nothing else besides Cageworld, he’d have earned a place in science fiction’s collective memory on the strength of those books alone. However, there was a good deal more and we fans in the States got the short end of the stick as a great deal of Kapp’s best work saw print only in the UK and only in John Carnell’s New Writings in SF.

I’m usually pretty good about recalling who does me the good turn of introducing me to an author’s work that I enjoy, but in the case of Colin Kapp, I can’t be 100% sure of whom to thank . . . I’m pretty sure that it was a bookseller in the UK, most likely Andy Richards, though it just as easily could have been Simon Gosden or George Locke . . . In any event, I had read and thoroughly enjoyed The Patterns of Chaos and must have raved about it in a letter, asking if there were any other titles by this author that I should look for . . . My correspondent surprised me with the news that much of the author’s best short fiction concerned a group of engineers using fantastic, but very logical methods to solve sfnal problems. Now under normal circumstances telling me that a series of stories are “written by a real scientist and concern the solution to engineering problems” is a good way to send me running in the other direction. Nowadays, when two of the best writers in the genre (Greg Egan and Alistair Reynolds) are scientists this may sound like an odd statement, but publishing was a different world back then and often as not a magazine editor would be so impressed with an individual’s academic credentials or degree that they would overlook the fact that said individual wasn’t really much of a writer. This was particularly true of the type of story that hinged on the resolution of a scientific puzzle for its plot (exactly the sort of tale that Kapp excelled at) . . .

However, I had already read The Patterns of Chaos and The Wizard of Anharitte as well as two of the three bonus stories included in this collection (“The Cloud Builders” and “Ambassador to Verdammt”), so I knew that Colin Kapp could write and write well, and furthermore, I trusted this bookseller, so in relatively short order a box containing a number of issues of New Worlds and a near-complete run of New Writings in SF showed up on the doorstep and I was now in possession of the first four episodes in the exploits of the “Unorthodox Engineers” (as well as a lot of other excellent material)!

Rarely has a story or stories so wildly exceeded my expectations . . . After all, I’d been briefed as to what the general idea was, and I knew Colin Kapp to be an author of no small skill and that he was literally in his sandbox when it came to working out the premises for these tales, so they ought to be good! But no, they were so much better than merely “good”, that despite their UK-centric publishing history, I am still surprised that none of the tales made the final Nebula or Hugo ballots. Hyperbole? Not at all . . . With these (and several other pieces), Colin Kapp pulled off what only a very few authors seem capable of . . . He wrote what to my mind are the perfect hard science fiction stories. The definition I’m using is that these are all puzzle or gimmick stories, and were it not for the scientific background extrapolated, the problem would not exist and there would be no story.

That in itself is an impressive feat, but more importantly, these are all great character driven stories . . . Not only is the puzzle captivating, but you also care about what becomes of the characters. Ask any writer, developing a character that the reader cares about is the most difficult aspect of a short story. In a novel, you can literally follow a character from cradle to grave and come to either like or loathe as the author intends, in short story you have very little room to convey enough information about your protagonist for the reader to have a sense of who the character is and what makes them tick.

Doing the former is easy, however doing it well is rare . . .  There are libraries full of unreadable “gimmick” stories wherein the solution to the puzzle is the entirety of the story. Doing the latter is also uncommon, though there are any number of very fine writers who set strong character-driven tales in an sfnal setting and achieve great results, certainly Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, and Richard Wilson made careers at this, but the science in their stories was (to be kind) pretty thin. What Colin Kapp does as well as anyone ever has, is to combine strong characterization with scientific puzzles that will hold up to scrutiny by a panel of his peers in the engineering disciplines.

So how did this phenomenon come about? In an event that parallels the beginning of another of my favorite authors’ career (Bob Leman), Kapp reveals in an interview conducted by Chris Morgan that one day upon returning home with the latest sf magazine, he expressed disgust with the contents and proclaimed that he could do better himself. Apparently, we have Betty Kapp to thank for sensibly making the suggestion that if he felt that way, perhaps he should give it a try. . .

The result was “Life Plan”, which John Carnell accepted for New Worlds, with the request “please write some more.” This was in 1958 and John Carnell remained a loyal customer throughout Kapp’s career purchasing several more tales during his tenure as editor at New Worlds and picking up another dozen stories for his New Writings in SF series, which had the prestige of being issued in hardcover as well as paperback.

Successful in his profession as an electronics engineer, Kapp mentions being very seriously tempted to try writing full time, he also mentions that market forces at the time argued pretty strongly against doing so and when one looks back at the period, it’s pretty clear that he made the right decision. The 1970s-1980s may seem to be a boom period for science fiction in terms of the number of titles released, but the sad reality is that with more books published, each individual book has a shorter window of opportunity to find its audience. For an author without an extensive and perpetually in-print back-list of twenty or so titles, these conditions almost ensure no individual book does more than (maybe) earning out its advance.

For any but the most prolific, these are not conditions conducive to supporting a family.

Taken as I was with the Unorthodox Engineers stories, I foolishly ignored the Dobson edition when it was released. The reason for this was that I simply couldn’t imagine a US publisher not reissuing the book and doing a much better job of it than Dobson . . . (For some strange reason, from the 1960s-1980s most UK publishers seemed dedicated to producing their hardcovers with the cheapest, nastiest materials available. On the other hand, the paperbacks of the time with the various formats are generally sturdy and attractive volumes, printed on quality paper that will stand the test of time. Why this disparity? I can’t begin to guess . . .)

Sadly, a US edition of The Unorthodox Engineers never appeared and US publishers started to subtly shift towards equating bulk with value and books started to become larger and larger as a matter of course, with the slender volumes of 50,000 to 60,000 words (once a standard), now a rarity. This perception still exists in the marketplace today to the point that my only concern when it came to producing this new edition of The Unorthodox Engineers was that it might be perceived as “too small” by our customers. I had the same concern with John Brunner’s “Mr. Secrett” stories. In both cases, the solution was the same, I added two extra stories to each book that if not part of the series were at least thematically related to the point that they seem to belong there. In the case of this volume, it was a very easy selection as the two stories of the three bonus stories I’ve included were instrumental in my becoming a devotee of Colin Kapp’s work, some forty years ago.

Our titular tale, “The Cloudbuilders” is one that may well be familiar to US readers, as it was included in the Wollheim/Carr World’s Best SF for 1969, where Kapp appears alongside such familiar names as Vonnegut, Delaney, Aldiss, Carr, Silverberg, and Leiber. In 1969 the New Wave was at its very height in the US and the story that received the most attention was Delaney’s “Time Considered as A Helix of Semi-Precious Stones”. “The Cloudbuilders” is pure, classic Kapp, with a very believable society functioning under some interesting technological restraints and how its very growth and survival is carefully shepherded by the controlled release of technology known only to a select few. In other words, a very traditional science fiction story . . . I leave it to the reader to decide which story has better stood the test of time.

From “The Cloudbuilders” we go straight to the main portion of the collection, the four novelettes and one short story that comprised the original collection, The Unorthodox Engineers. The first story, “The Railways up on Cannis” (New Worlds UK 1959, New Worlds US 1960) does a splendid job of setting the stage for the series and introducing the brilliant and irrepressible Lieutenant Fritz van Noon. Despite being available to US readers, New Worlds (in paperback format) never really caught on. Readers weren’t sure what to make of it, (was it a book, or was it a magazine? If the latter, then what was the schedule?) Unfortunately, these questions weren’t addressed by the publisher, which pretty much assured that the US version of New Worlds would be doomed to failure. The end result was that a great opportunity to build an international fanbase fell by the wayside.

The next (and longer) installment didn’t appear until four years later . . . By this time John Carnall had launched New Writings in SF and taken many of his regular contributors to New Worlds with him. Colin Kapp was on board with “The Night Flame” in the second issue, returning in the third with “The Subways of Tazoo”. A longer and more ambitious piece, “Subways” also successfully portrays the remnants of a truly alien civilization adding the wrinkle of having to understand a completely non-human frame of reference as well as the remaining pieces of alien technology.

From this point on, the UE stories appeared sporadically in New Writings in SF, interspersed with other fine stories such as “Hunger Over Sweet Waters” and “The Imagination Trap”. By the time that “The Black Hole of Negrav” (the fifth installment) appeared in the twenty-fifth volume of New Writings in SF, Kapp’s career as a novelist was well-established and his short fiction familiar to readers on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Unorthodox Engineers as a series seems to have been a victim of bad timing and under-exposure. This bad luck seems to extend to the fictional characters as well . . . After pulling off four successful feats of unorthodox engineering, and saving his government untold billions of dollars, poor van Noon is still only a Lieutenant as “The Black Hole of Negrav” opens . . . One would think that after sixteen years a promotion of at least one rank might’ve been in order . . .

Despite my comments on the state of the marketplace in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there’s certainly no reason to think that a US edition of The Unorthodox Engineers following the UK wouldn’t have been successful and DAW would have seemed a likely outlet due to DAW being the publishers of Cageworld. Further, the top man at DAW, Donald A.Wollheim had been instrumental in promoting Kapp to US readers by virtue of selecting both “The Verdammt Ambassador” and “The Cloudbuilders” for inclusion in his World’s Best Science Fiction series during his tenure as the editor of Ace Books’ science fiction line. Also, Cageworld was an event, on both sides of the pond . . . It isn’t often that this sort of collaborative process is used to create a single book, let alone a series of four novels and anything released in 1982-1985 with the banner “By the author of Cageworld” would likely have done well.

For whatever reason, the opportunity to capitalize on Cageworld and build a larger audience for Colin Kapp’s work came and went. While there were no additional “UE” stories, two very fine pieces “Something in the City” and “An Alternative to Salt” saw print in Analog in the mid-1980s. In any event, after a period of over thirty years, these excellent stories are available in both permanent hardcover format as well as attractive and inexpensive trade paperback. With a UK publisher preparing to issue e-books of several novels, it seems that Colin Kapp’s work will be readily available to a new generation of readers.

On a less-happy note I have to report that the long-rumored-to-exist sixth Unorthodox Engineers story doesn’t . . . (exist, that is), at least not in a usable form . . . I’ve been advised that the story does exist, but only in rough draft form and with notes of concern in the margins that the science postulated might not be workable and needs to be re-thought . . .

In stories where scientific accuracy plays such a key role, a weakness such as this could be fatal. That the author was concerned to the point that he felt that the whole premise might have to be re-worked makes the likelihood of a posthumous collaboration pretty unlikely. In my professional career I’ve been called on a time or two to polish up or finish work by an author who has passed on, but I’d be well and truly out of my depths in any project that involved the hard sciences. I’m afraid that we’ll probably just have to concede that there are and always will be only five Unorthodox Engineers tales and leave it at that.

On a much brighter note, I can disclose that the UKs major publisher of SF, the venerable Victor Gollancz is embarking on an ambitious program of e-books, which will include a good deal of Kapp’s work and further, that the contract for this collection also stipulated a second volume of tales, (which will likely see print in late-2013) and as I look over Mr. Kapp’s bibliography, I see that there are certainly enough quality stories to make up a third volume of stories and I can’t think of any reason why these collections shouldn’t also come to pass. Then of course, there’s also the “lost” novel The Timewinders. We know that it was purchased by Dobson and never released. It’s now on my personal bucket list of books that I shall somehow cause to be published . . . As to how and when, at this point your guess is every bit as good as mine, but trust that I shall be working on it . . . Until then, I hope you enjoy these stories and the other Colin Kapp collection (coming next year) as much as I did when I first read them many years ago!


John Pelan

Somewhere Near Area 51

New Mexico, 2012