Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Arthur C. Clarke's "Mysterious" Involvement in Ian Fleming's Moonraker (1955)

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008), author of over one hundred books of fiction and non-fiction and broadcaster, seemingly had connections with Ian Fleming’s third James Bond novel, Moonraker (1955). In James Bond: The Man and His World: The Official Companion to Ian Fleming’s Creation(2005) by Henry Chancellor there is the following passage in the ‘Inspirations’ section for the novel Moonraker:

“The story of the Moonraker rocket targeting London and Bond’s attempts to stop it was originally conceived for a film. ‘The reason why it breaks so badly in half as a book,’ Fleming explained to Joyce Briggs, Rank’s script editor at Pinewood, ‘is because I had to more or less graft the first half of the book on to my film idea in order to bring it up to the necessary length.’ Ian’s film idea had been about a German V-2 rocket, which he had updated to an early intercontinental nuclear weapon – an extremely topical subject, as both the Americans and the Russians were rushing to develop this new technology. As he was not an expert in this field, Ian went to great lengths to make sure his Moonraker rocket was correct, writing to Arthur C. Clarke and the British Interplanetary Society to check his facts about range and accuracy.”

(Henry Chancellor, James Bond: The Man and His World: The Official Companion to Ian Fleming’s Creation, John Murray, London, 2005, p. 56).

Arthur Charles Clarke, born in Minehead, Somerset was to science fiction what Ian Fleming was to spy fiction, an innovator who changed the genre forever. Just as John Buchan and "Sapper" influenced Fleming’s spy novels, so the works of H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon influenced Clarke, and like Fleming with his literary predecessors, he was their literary heir. In 1937 Clarke joined the British Interplanetary Society, for which he twice served as Chairman, in 1946-7 and 1950-3 respectively, just before Fleming was referred to him when writing and researching Moonraker. The British Interplanetary Society was a small, advanced group, which met regularly to contemplate ways in which Man could be sent to the Moon. In London, from 1937 to 1941 Clarke was an Assistant Auditor with the Exchequer. During the Second World War, Clarke joined the Royal Air Force, serving from 1941-46, eventually becoming a radar instructor and technical officer on the first Ground Controlled Approach radar. In 1945, before leaving the RAF with the rank of Flight Lieutenant, and more than a decade before the first orbital rocket flight, he published a technical paper, “Extraterrestrial Relays”, in Wireless World, which became one of his most influential pieces of writing as in it he was the first to propose (and describe) a geosynchronous communications satellite. He discussed the possibility that radio signals could be bounced off a satellite with a geosynchronous orbit, calculating that, at a height of 23, 000 miles above the Earth, an object could sustain a fixed position over one particular place on the Earth. Clarke was paid £15 for his article, which anticipated the age of satellite communications. Clarke’s lawyer, who insisted it was too outlandish to be taken seriously, dissuaded him from patenting this idea. Clarke subsequently wrote a book on this subject, with the subtitle How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time.[1]   After the war Clarke entered King’s College London, completing his BSc. degree with a First in Physics and Mathematics in 1948.

In the early 1950s Clarke discovered the southern oceans through scuba diving and in 1954 he moved to Sri Lanka, where he remained until his death in March 2008. This interest represents another connection with Ian Fleming as he was also a keen scuba diver who wrote evocative underwater scenes in novels like Live and Let Die (1954) and Thunderball (1961) and several of his short stories like ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’ and ‘Octopussy.’ Clarke wrote several celebratory non-fiction books about the ocean, namely The Coast of Coral (1956) and Indian Ocean Adventure (1961), which was written along with his diving partner, Mike Wilson. The fiction of this period, such as The Deep Range (1957) also reflected his new interest in the ocean. Clarke’s interest in scuba diving enabled him to experience something of the weightlessness of outer space. He established a deep-sea diving school in Sri Lanka, and he became an honoured resident of the island and Chancellor of Moratuwa University. The diving school, at Hikkaduwa, south of Colombo, was destroyed in the December 2004 tsunami and then rebuilt. It was Clarke’s collaboration with the film director Stanley Kubrick, however, which really led to his extraordinary fame as a science fiction writer and expert. When Kubrick asked him to expand his early short story ‘The Sentinel’ (1951) the result was the film script of the enormously successful 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Clarke simultaneously fleshed out the story into a novel. In later years, Clarke became a household name beyond the realm of science fiction after the release of his two series, Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World (1980) and Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers (1985). His appearances in these television series brought him to a wider audience, which shared his fascination with the contemplation of events and circumstances, which seemed to be scientifically intractable. Clarke also provided the commentary for the American CBS television network on the lunar flights of Apollos 11, 12 and 15. Clarke was appointed CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1989 and knighted in 1998. Clarke had become a semi-hermit in Colombo and during his latter years he was partially immobilised in a wheelchair after contracting polio as a young man. 

Andrew Lycett’s biography of Fleming contains further details and gives a conflicting account of Arthur C. Clarke’s involvement which seems to contradict Chancellor:

“To check technical details of rocketry, Ian called on Writers’ and Speakers’ Research, the small agency set up by Joan Bright and Joan Saunders, wife of another of his wartime NID colleagues. They proposed he should get in touch with Arthur C. Clarke. But, since Clarke was away in the United States, the British Interplanetary Society suggested another scientist to cast his eye over the manuscript.”

(Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming, Phoenix, London, 2002, p. 257.)

As Chancellor’s book lists “Lycett, Andrew, Ian Fleming, Wiedenfield & Nicolson, 1995” in the Bibliography of James Bond: The Man and His World at page 243, his information on Arthur C. Clarke and Moonraker appears to have possibly been corrupted from this original source, or perhaps it is from a letter Fleming received from Arthur C. Clarke or the British Interplanetary Society, or even a copy of the letter Fleming may have sent to Clarke. Chancellor’s book also contains a photograph of space-related clippings collected by Fleming. One particular picture of various satellites and spacecraft has the following text printed below it:

“This selection of cross-sections of satellites and other spacecraft features in a clipping collected by Fleming. This is precisely the sort of technology that would appeal to the Bond villain, and the later Bond films developed this further.”

(Henry Chancellor, James Bond: The Man and His World: The Official Companion to Ian Fleming’s Creation, John Murray, London, 2005, p. 123.)

The next two pages contain a side view and plan view photograph of a flying saucer. The text printed below the flying saucer reads:

“Fleming once interviewed the French inventor Henri Coanda, a scientist who had successfully designed and built a flying saucer, called a ‘lenticular aerodyne’ (above). It was powered by achieving a vacuum around the edge of the wing – see opposite from above.”

(Henry Chancellor, James Bond: The Man and His World: The Official Companion to Ian Fleming’s Creation, John Murray, London, 2005, pp. 124-5.)

It is clear from these connections and the clippings he kept for inspiration, that Fleming had an interest in space-age technology. The Space Race between the superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union was burgeoning alongside the Arms Race at the time Fleming was writing Moonraker, so in this sense the novel was very topical and played on the very real fears of nuclear annihilation held by society at large. Although both Lycett and Chancellor give conflicting accounts of Arthur C. Clarke’s involvement in Fleming’s research and writing of Moonraker, Clarke, or perhaps some other notable scientist or expert of the time appear to have a small cameo in Fleming’s novel. When James Bond visits the Ministry of Supply to study Major Tallon’s record there, Fleming describes the expert Bond was assigned on rocket technology:

“Then he had had an inadequate half-hour in the Operations Room of the Ministry with Professor Train, a fat, scruffy, undistinguished-looking man who had been runner-up for the Physics Division of the Nobel Prize the year before and who was one of the greatest experts on guided missiles in the world.

Professor Train had walked up to a row of huge wall maps and had pulled down the cord of one of them. Bond was faced with a ten-foot horizontal scale diagram of some thing that looked like a V2 with big fins.

“Now,” said Professor Train, “you know nothing about rockets so I’m going to put this in simple terms and not fill you up with a lot of stuff about Nozzle Expansion Ratios, Exhaust Velocity, and the Keplerian Ellipse. The Moonraker, as Drax chooses to call it, is a single-stage rocket. It uses up all its fuel shooting itself into the air and then it homes on to the objective. The V2’s trajectory was more like a shell fired from a gun. At the top of its 200-mile flight it had climbed to about 70 miles. It was fuelled with a very combustible mixture of alcohol and liquid oxygen which was watered down so as not to burn out the mild steel which was all they were allocated for the engine. There are far more powerful fuels available but until now we hadn’t been able to achieve very much with them for the same reason, their combustion temperature is so high that they would burn out the toughest engine.”

The professor paused and stuck a finger in Bond’s chest.

“All you, my dear sir, have to remember about this rocket is that, thanks to Drax’s Columbite, which has a melting point of about 3500 degrees Centrigrade, compared with 1300 in the V2 engines, we can use one of the super fuels without burning out the engine. In fact,” he looked at Bond as if Bond should be impressed, “we are using fluorine and hydrogen.”

“Oh, really,” said Bond reverently.

The Professor looked at him sharply. “So we hope to achieve a speed in the neighbourhood of 1500 miles an hour and a vertical range of about 1000 miles. This should produce an operational range of about 4000 miles, bringing every European capital within reach of England. Very useful,” he added drily, “in certain circumstances. But, for the scientists, chiefly desirable as a step towards escape from the earth. Any questions?”

(Ian Fleming, Moonraker, Pan Books Ltd., London, 1963, pp. 71-2.)

In this passage it is evident that Fleming has copied almost verbatim the words of possibly Arthur C. Clarke, or if Lycett’s account is correct, some other eminent scientist or expert in the field from the British Interplanetary Society. Clarke was certainly qualified to give expert advice to Fleming on the technical details of rocketry in Moonraker. In 1961 he won the Unesco Kalinga Prize for his numerous factual books on popular-science, and later he won the American Association for the Advancement of Science Westinghouse Award in 1969. This technical knowledge also informed the narrative of his science fiction. In 1986 the Science Fiction Writers of America made him a Nebula Awards Grand Master. The ‘Professor Train’ sequence from Moonraker, with its technical exposition on rocketry for Bond and the reader, is like a blueprint for the Q/Bond scenes with Q the boffin giving Bond the run-down on his various gadgetry and Bond being very flippant, rather as the literary Bond is here at one point. There is a hint of this where in the quoted passage above Bond reverently replies, “Oh, really” to Professor Train’s imparted technical information. Perhaps this scene from Moonraker was as much of a influence on the Q/Bond relationship in the films as the Major Boothroyd ‘Armourer’ character from the novel Dr. No was, who eventually developed into Q, the head of Q Branch in the subsequent films after Dr. No (1962), as played by Desmond Llewelyn. The relationship between Bond and an expert is certainly similar in this sequence.

While it is unclear exactly whether Arthur C. Clarke was involved in helping Ian Fleming get the technical details correct in Moonraker, it is certainly an interesting fact that Fleming was referred to him as an expert and may well have decided to embellish his information in a character called ‘Professor Train’ in an amusing, but also informative sequence from his third Bond novel which may have been a literary influence for the later Q/Bond sequences from the Bond films. It also shows Fleming’s dedication to his writing and his desire to represent technical and scientific information in an accurate and believable way, to ease the reader into Bond’s more outlandish world, in much the same way as he used famous brand names to also ease the reader into Bond’s world. It remains a “mysterious” chapter of the already fascinating history of the Moonraker novel, and the discrepancy between the accounts of Lycett and Chancellor does not provide a definite confirmation of Arthur C. Clarke’s involvement in Ian Fleming’s Moonraker. The truth surrounding his involvement in Moonraker therefore remains a mystery worthy of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World.

[The Sir Arthur C. Clarke biographical details are taken from the Obituaries for the author printed in The Times (pp. 76-7), Thursday 20 March 2008, and The Independent (pp. 50-1), Thursday 20 March 2008.]

This article is dedicated to the memory of Sir Arthur C. Clarke was born in Minehead, Somerset on 16 December 1917, and died in Colombo, Sri Lanka on 19 March 2008, aged 90.

TBB Article No. 4

 © Brian McKaig, 2008

[1] MacIntyre, Ben, ‘A man on the Moon? It was all thanks to H.G. Wells,’ The Times, Friday 21 March 2008, p. 23.