COLIN KAPP

Colin Kapp was a British SF writer who had a few dozen short stories published, more than half of them never appearing in the US, and a dozen novels, some of which also failed to cross the Atlantic.  In fact I have never even seen a copy of one of his novels, The Timewinders (1980), and there isn't even a copy available through Abebooks.  When I decided to re-read his work for this article, I could vaguely recall really enjoying several of his short stories - particularly "Lambda One" - but none of his novels had stuck in my memory at all. But I'll start with the novels.

Transfinite Man (originally The Dark Mind) was published in 1964. It's a potboiler that wastes no time. In the first five pages we are introduced to private detective Ivan Dalroi who is investigating the disappearance of three men who went on a fact finding mission into Failway, a kind of futuristic entertainment complex, but who never came out. He is mildly threatened during his initial interview, discovers that there are undercurrents within Failway, and survives an attempt on his life after discovering that his telephone is tapped.  Kapp is obviously not going to waste time getting his story underway. There is no real attempt to establish the background society, which leaves the reader with unanswered questions like why aren't the authorities more involved in the search for their missing investigators? Five more pages has him track down the assassin and kill him, then rescue his secretary from an armed intruder, and we learn that Failway actually exists on another "energy level" so that anyone who enters the complex is no longer legally on Earth or protected by the law and that the woman Dalroi loved has left him for a job within Failway. On top of that, the people he is working for have set him up because they believe he is the only person who can successfully destroy the corporation.

That last is a major plot problem because it's just not plausible that they could have decided he was the one person who could do what they also believe an entire army could not accomplish. This latter point isn't clear either because it's passed off as the consequence of Failway having so many people in its control that the loss of life would be terrible. That's not likely to stop a government that believes its future is in jeopardy, even when we learn that they believe Dalroi cannot be killed - he survived three electrocutions before the book opens. Dalroi himself is captured by Failway's security and sent into alternate dimensions without a protective capsule. I could accept the fact that gravity might be the same where they sent him, but why would there be air in a universe that consists only of geometrical shapes? Anyway, somehow he returns to Earth and the fat is really in the fire because he has acquired superpowers where he begins destroying Failway in a prolonged violent attack. There's not much actual plot, but the explanation of the motives of the various parties involved is not very plausible.  It involves a primordial survival instinct, visits to a metaphorical Hell, and advanced technology that is barely distinguishable from magic.

The novel's everyday science is also dated. The characters use old fashioned telephones and some of the sabotage is accomplished by pulling fuses from a fusebox. Dalroi's girlfriend, who gave him up to become a prostitute, is a completely unbelievable character. Another investigator solves a mystery after hearing only the flimsiest of evidence, a device designed to tell us how brilliant he is, but which actually tells us how clumsy the author is. The number of coincidental meetings that advance the plot had me shaking my head. This is a first novel so I made some allowances, but basically it would not have been out of place in a 1930s pulp magazine. The final explanation reinforces that. The human race is descended from a species so violent and powerful that the rest of the universe confined them to a single planet in a single dimension. Dalroi is a throwback who can access the powers that almost caused the end of the universe and he has been the target of the entire conspiracy. The single man against the universe is a theme to which Kapp would soon return.

Patterns of Chaos (1972) bears some strong thematic similarities to Transfinite Man - one man against the universe, the protagonist having no parents, the double agent who isn't human - though it is somewhat better written. It also opens in the middle of an action sequence. Bron finds himself in a ruined city on the planet Onaris, with near total amnesia. An enemy force is about to land and a voice in his head provides directions. The voice is commanded by three people in a remote location who don't like each other very much. They explain that his mission is to infiltrate the invading army, the Destroyers, locate their homeworld and communicate back so that an attack can be launched. The Destroyers have been annihilating entire planets with impunity. He is to impersonate a local expert on chaos technology whom they believe the Destroyers wish to abduct. I wondered early on how the government could have advanced information about the time and place of the next Destroyer raid, including whom they would be looking for, early enough to prepare a substitute and get him in place, but still had no information about the origins or homeworld of the enemy. The set up is marred by authorial assumptions; Bron speaks of an animosity to one of his contacts but he had no way of knowing her personality beforehand so it is the author who is speaking, not the character. There is also much too heavy a use of coincidence. It turns out that the two most important people among the Destroyers are aboard the ship where Bron is imprisoned, and they give him the freedom of the ship even though they suspect he's an imposter. All of this is for the convenience of the author, of course, and while it moves the story forward, it staggers and lurches rather than walking straight.

Bron soon learns that it is not the Destroyers destroying planets but a mysterious force which strikes with precision moments after the raiders arrive. Somehow the Destroyers are anticipating these attacks and trying to remove whatever the attackers are trying to destroy, in this case Bron himself. Meanwhile we discover that one of the contact team is secretly destroying data and planning to seize control of the operation. We get a prolonged lecture on chaos theory - all of which is mumbo jumbo - and the consequence is that under certain circumstances - whenever it is convenient for the author essentially - specific future events can be predicted with incredible accuracy.  Sort of. Kapp really never explains this well enough to analyze it. He also allows his protagonist to steal planet busting weapons under the noses of a security team, who would have to have been incredibly incompetent to let him get away with it, and who never bother to check what he was doing unsupervised in the weapons bay of a starship. Bron plans to wipe out the Destroyer fleet by blowing a small planet into the local sun which - and I don't believe this for a second - will cause a massive solar flare that will obliterate the entire solar system.  Then he realizes that the Destroyers are humanity's only defense against the mysterious aliens who are behind the destruction of human inhabited worlds.

Eventually an alien armada shows up and the combined human forces move to confront it. We are told that the entire conflict among humans was designed to cause them to build space fleets since they wouldn't believe there could be an alien menace.  This is so completely implausible within the context of the story that I'm surprised Kapp had the temerity to offer it as an explanation. There's also a good deal more gobbledegook about Bron being a catalyst for chaos and finding a way to substitute one effect for another in the chain of causality (when actually he is doing nothing of the kind, but actually fulfilling what always was the chain of cause and effect), but the aliens have a weapon that creates non-effects, whatever that means.  The events they precipitate are for some reason classified as non-events and therefore independent of cause and effect. Perhaps Kapp hoped to confuse the reader into blind acceptance, or maybe he just confused himself. And then we are told that the aliens never evolved the use of weapons - their ships can only ram the human ones - but that ignores the hellburner bombs that they've been using to destroy planets all along.  Bron is put in charge of the combined fleet - of course they'd do that - and eventually he saves the human race.  The aliens are in fact long since extinct because, we are told, intelligence is only a temporary step in evolution, and they evolved back into non-sentience. Sloppily plotted and full of contradictions and anomalies.

Kapp's third novel was The Wizard of Anharitte (1973), which is science fiction despite the title. Roget is a feudal planet but also an important transfer point for interstellar trade.  When one of the local nobles begins educating his slaves and taking steps to reform the local society, the Free Trade organization from offworld discovers he is actually an Earthman who plans to upset their plush treatment on Roget.  They decide to oppose him, both through political and economic means, and by assassination if necessary. The rest of the book is essentially a duel between the two opposing forces, although the wizard's technology is apparently well in advance of theirs and he has planned things so meticulously that there is never any suggestion that he won't win the battle.  This, unfortunately, drains out any real suspense in the plot and while some of the individual plots are quite clever, the characters aren't interesting enough to really sustain our interest in the story.  It was an improvement on the rather mechanical style that he used for his first two novels, but still reminiscent of the space operas of A.E. van Vogt without their occasional inventiveness. The wizard is just too perfect to be credible; he anticipates every single move by his opponents and has a counter already in place.  The most interesting aspect is that Kapp tells the entire story from the point of view of one of the "villains", although he changes sides at the end. A sign of improvement but still nothing to get excited about.

Survival Game (1976) has humans lately come to the galactic community, although they are already a force to be respected by the various star kings, old fashioned warlords who rule scores of planets.  Two of these make a bet as to whether or not one human, Colonel Bogaert, can survive for six months on the uninhabited planet Avida, whose ecology is hostile. Ranged against him is another man who once lived on that world, and behind the scenes the two star kings plot to win their bet.  Meanwhile a third star king's wife and children have become fugitives thanks to a military attack and they end up accompanying Bogaert on his involuntary exile. The entire setup is implausible.  All of the various alien races are essentially human. Our hero even finds the woman attractive. They all speak the same language and eat the same kind of food and she even knows about ants and other aspects of Earth even though she's never been there or studied it. On the other hand, the story is much better written than Kapp's previous novels as it alternates between efforts to track down the missing heir to the throne and efforts to survive by both parties on Avida. Naturally Bogaert and his charges survive, the chief villain is outmaneuvered and captured by the Terran military, and the minor villain has a change of heart and sides with the humans at a crucial moment. Despite the shaky underpinnings, this is a pretty good adventure story, more focused and with considerably more believable characters. 

Next came Manalone (1977), which never appeared in the US. The title is the name of the protagonist, a not very subtle label for a nonconformist in a fairly typical dystopian future, although with some twists. For one thing, the law of gravity and the function of momentum have changed slightly. London is awash with advertising, holographic projections being the favored method, so pervasive that they are distracting. Young adults are a class apart, travel about armed at all times, and are uniformly obnoxious. For some reason, one in twenty pregnancies results in the death of the mother and unemployment is over fifty percent, not surprising given the very high population. As our hero and an associate investigate further, they discover that archaeological digs are illegal, that secret courts conduct a sizeable number of trials, and that the government is applying draconian security measures even though there is no apparent external or internal threat.  The story proceeds predictably though rather awkwardly. Manalone discovers that he is being systematically watched, his closest friend is murdered, his wife becomes even more estranged than when the book started, and he continues to find evidence that there is a worldwide conspiracy to conceal the fact that the laws of nature have changed, somehow linked to efforts to eradicate all traces of human history. The scale of the operation is so enormous that there is no possible way this could have been kept secret, and the characters interact in odd and not very credible ways. The science is pretty bad as well, including misunderstandings of how computers work - perhaps understandable in 1977 - and the assertion that the human race had mutated and would regress in intelligence to primitive status within five generations.  Kapp apparently did not recognize the difference between intelligence and education. On one occasion, our hero sets up a camera to photograph a computer screen and then tries to access secured information. It appears on the screen for a split second before being blanked out, but he has a photograph of the screen! The solution, when revealed, is laughable. Scientists mutated humans to one third their original size to save on food and living space - and no one noticed! And Kapp doesn't seem to realize that momentum and gravity would not even appear to have changed under those circumstances.  I'm rather surprised that this ever got published.

The Chaos Weapon (1977) is a kind of sequel to Patterns of Chaos. The premise, as before, is that it is possible to chart chains of cause and effect and anticipate future events, though not necessarily in much detail, and even alter the course of events by taking prudent action. The galactic federation has determined that someone is manipulating these probabilities so that natural disasters are displaced in time in order that they might kill prominent leaders. Kapp doesn't quite understand his own set up here because the incident involving the destruction of the headquarters building on Earth clearly involves the creation of an event rather than the time displacement of one. The galactic leaders also have symbiotic partners of some sort - not clearly defined - who are insubstantial but can communicate with them and even affect the rate of the passage of time. They survive a series of fast paced encounters with space pirates, an enemy spacefleet, and so forth thanks to her ability to predict the future and the mysterious entity - it lives in multiple dimensions - stops time when necessary for them to escape. All of this is rather too easy actually and the plot doesn't hold together very well. It turns out the weapon is being used from another universe in preparation for an invasion of our universe. The invaders are, coincidentally, quite human and some of the characters we've met turn out to be renegades trying to prevent the invasion. The dialogue is dreadful during the middle of the novel in particular and sometimes the characters act very strangely and without explanation. Nor are the tactics credible. Although the vast majority of our universe is empty, the invaders launch a suicidal attack on the inhabited part rather than establish bases which they need elsewhere in our universe. The good guys get into trouble because they never bother to explain things to one another. But since they're practically invulnerable, it really doesn't matter.  They destroy the chaos weapon, defeat the invaders, and live happily ever after. The novel reads like A.E. van Vogt on an off day.

Kapp's next novel was The Ion War (1978), in which a repressive Terran empire forces its colonies to help militarily subjugate any who try to break free. The story alternates between two protagonists. One is a colonial officer who arrives on Terra to fulfill his planet's service obligation only to be promptly framed for murder.  The other is an agent of rebellious forces whom we meet when he discovers Terra's newest weapon, commandoes who are transformed into a gaseous version of themselves making them immune to all forms of weapons but able to use their own.  The science here is clearly nonsense. The officer is convicted and accepts being transformed to avoid execution. The colony worlds, predictably, refuse to band together and confront Terra with a united front, so a handful of people have to manipulate things behind the scenes to force Terra to overplay its hand. They manage to steal the secret of the Ion Warriors, but cannot make the equipment function.  Fortunately, our convicted felon is about to go into the field as a reluctant member of that elite group. Most of the story involves escalating tactics on both sides and not surprisingly the beautiful but nasty woman who plagues our captive protagonist turns out to actually be working for the rebels. She helps him escape with the newest technology in order to even the odds. Some of the ruses used by the agent are so patently transparent that it's impossible to believe they would have worked, but of course they always do. The ending is very rushed - Terra isn't defeated but we are told that the end is now inevitable.  Has a few interesting interludes but otherwise it's still pretty minor.

Kapp's next four novels comprised a single series. The first volume, Search for the Sun (1982), sets up the universe. The sun is surrounded by a series of artificial shells of enormous size that are inhabited by countless numbers of separate civilizations. Each shell is continuous but there is no communication from one shell to the next and our heroes, who live between the Mars and Asteroid shells, have no idea what the interior of the system looks like except from legends. The entire complex is run by Zeus, a computer system that no longer answers to human control and is so paranoids about security that merely inquiring about its nature results in the death penalty.  Three characters - a stage magician/pilot, a professional assassin, and a beautiful woman who can generate fatal electric charges within her body - are recruited to take an experimental ship that can pass through pivot points in each shell and travel toward the center to find the sun. Not having any idea what to expect, they are armed to the teeth but still manage to get into serious trouble at their very first stop. In fact they blunder into trouble at every place they land, and Zeus seems similarly inefficient at stopping them despite having vast fleets of gigantic ships at his disposal. On one occasion, all five members of the crew accept an invitation from an obvious barbarian warlord with designs on their ship, suggesting that either the characters or the author has pretty poor tactical sense. Eventually they reach the vicinity of the sun and have a confrontation with Zeus which they win far too easily to be plausible.  Not a scintillating start to the series.

Next in the series was The Lost Worlds of Cronus (1982). The various inhabited shells constructed around the sun are all known, or are they? There are rumors of a hidden shell and our three protagonists team up again to find it after analysts conclude it should lie somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn. Initially they believe that the shell is empty, with no population and no light or energy source. On their journey, however, they find dangerous automated machines and  when they arrive they discover a race of mutated humans adapted for that environment, along with hostile and unusual animal life. The usual captures and escapes ensue but they are only pallid imitations of those in the first book, which weren't all that scintillating anyway.  There's some mildly interesting speculation about how one defines humanity, but its superficial and comes only as an afterthought. I was reminded of the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, which often strung a series of repetitive adventures into what would become a single novel.

The third in the series was The Tyrants of Hades (1982), which sends our three heroes in the opposite direction this time, to find out what is happening on the outer shells of the solar system, where some other intelligence has wrested control from Zeus. They encounter a similar sequence of violent and dangerous encounters with the various civilizations - all of which speak the same language for some reason.  This one is badly thought out. We are told that the human population doubles every thirty years and that outward expansion has become truncated for some reason.  Some time can be bought by filling in the occasional empty spaces - no one seems to have considered birth control - but then we are told that these minor spaces can buy the human race only a few hundred years.  If the human population doubles in thirty years, then the space would be exhausted in a manner of months, not centuries. When they reach the Neptune shell, they find a much lower population density and a higher technological level, which makes them suspicious of the influence of the Tyrant of Hades, about which Zeus has told them virtually nothing. They foil the Tyrant - who turns out to be some renegade computers - with ridiculous ease.

The final cageworld novel was Star-Search (1983). Predictably, this time our heroes want to get beyond the last shell and see the stars for the first time. The final voyage is accompanied by minor variations of their earlier adventures, storms in space, hostile native cultures, etc. Eventually they discover that the solar system is surrounded by an artificial force field created by Zeus, but also that two stars are about to pass close by the outer shell. At first this seems like a disaster in the making, but eventually we discover that it is intended that a chunk of the population will migrate to these new star systems, which will then wander off elsewhere in the galaxy.  The reader is told that this is the future of humanity and that we will eventually populate the entire universe - no mention of aliens -  but it all seemed rather mechanistic to me.  There is no real advance in human civilization, just an increase in the numbers.  This brought the series, and essentially Kapp's career as a writer, to an end.

The short stories seem to me on average to be somewhat better than the novels. Kapp got his start writing for New Worlds magazine with "Life Plan" in 1958.  It's a tolerably well written story about dealing with an artificially evolved human but the basis is the thoroughly debunked myth of humans as killer apes as espoused by Konrad Lorentz and others. Part of the setup is odd. The protagonist is a professional philosopher employed by the government as a consultant with extraordinary powers over scientific research. It is not clear why they would do so, and he really doesn't do or say anything philosophical.  He and his assistant return in "Survival Problem," which has the same conceptual problem, and which conveniently forgets that we've been told Seroia Passover, the protagonist, and one other man are now super-geniuses. Instead we have a scientific experiment designed to punch a hole in reality, and one of Passover's assistants is given authority over the project for reasons unstated. This is a very bad story, reprinted as "Problem: Survival." Passover arranges to destroy the government project because discovery of a gateway to another world would tempt foreign powers to start a war - the chain of logic here doesn't stand up. And then Kapp destroys his own thesis by having Passover decide to duplicate the project independently.

"The Railways Up on Cannis" (1959) was the first of his Unorthodox Engineers stories. The UE are sent to an occupied planet to rebuild its railway system, even though volcanoes appear randomly over the planet's surface constantly and there is no steel to be found on the planet with sufficient tensile strength. It's a problem story similar to those that filled the pages of Astounding for several years, but the end is weak.  "Calling Mr. Francis" (1959) is a very minor story about the discovery, accidentally, of a means to create a collapsed molecular state. "Breaking Point" (1959) is nonsense. Civilization collapses because rational behavior is an evolutionary dead end. "Enigma" (1960) is boring and implausible. In a future war, bombs are dropped but don't explode as long as they aren't touched because the threat of explosion is worse than the actuality. "The Exposing Eye:  (1960)  "For the Love of Pete" (1961) is a rather silly story about a man who has uncontrollable psychokinesis. Or is he haunted?

I remembered actively liking "Lambda One" (1962) when I first read it, and while I was less impressed this time, it is still one of his best stories. A means has been found to cycle solid objects out of phase with the rest of the universe so that they can be moved through solid matter. When a large ship is trapped in this otherspace, a desperate rescue mission is undertaken. "The Night Flame" (1964) is a bit preachy and not very plausible. A man discovers that his cottage is in line for a new weapon fighting a secret war against orbiting killer satellites. He personally fires it and kills his wife when a new satellite threatens.  "Hunger Over Sweet Waters" (1965) is a minor problem story about building a boat on a planet where the water has strange qualities.

"The Subways of Tazoo" (1965) is the second Unorthodox Engineers story. This time the problem involves transportation on a planet whose environment includes violent storms, acid rain, and heavy winds. Conveniently there's an ancient subway system that our heroes are able to get back into operation. They return in "The Pen and the Dark" (1966). This time they figure out, or almost figure out, an enigmatic alien artifact left on an abandoned planet. "The Imagination Trap" (1967) is the sequel to "Lambda One".  Scientists hope to use the radical new technology they've developed to achieve interstellar flight. The first journey has interesting consequences including making them so large that stars are almost too small to see. "Ambassador to Verdammt" (1967) is one of his best stories. An alien race has been discovered whose view of reality is so radically different from that of humans that no communication seems possible. The solution didn't work for me but the development is nicely executed.

"I Bring You Hands" (1968) is a fair story about a new form of automation that leads to some unusual violence.  "The Cloudbuilders" (1968) is a very good story about a post collapse society being guided back to technology by a secretive Guild, while travel by hot air balloon becomes the context in which a promising new population center gets a push in the right direction.  "The Teacher" (1969) is less interesting although it does raise questions about how much help a superior human culture should give to relatively primitive indigenous aliens. "Getaway from Getawehi" (1969) brings back the Unorthodox Engineers. This time they have to deal with a planet where the direction of gravitational attraction changes periodically.  Typical problem story. "Gottlos" (1969) anticipated Keith Laumer's bolos. It's about a sentient tank in a war of the future. "Letter from an Unknown Genius" (1971) is another Seroia Passover story, although he doesn't appear in it. A genius is providing hints of a technology that causes disasters rather than advances. The story is very minor and nothing really happens. "Crimescan" is also minor, dealing with the ethical problems of having a device that can scan through solid objects and back through time.

"What the Thunder Said" (1972) is a good story about an investigation into whether or not the birdlike creatures on an alien planet are intelligent. "The Old King's Answers" (1973) is somewhat similar but not as good, this time involving a race which can project its emotions on human visitors.  "War of the Wastelife" (1973) involves the ability to enter the mind of another and explore their worldview, with almost predictable consequences when the subject is a madwoman. There's an okay sequel, "Cassius and the Mind-Jaunt" (1975).  "Mephisto and the Ion Explorer" (1974) is about a journey into the sun's corona. "The Black Hole of Negrav" (1975) brings back the Unorthodox Engineers. They have to figure out how to affix an observation station to an asteroid that literally orbits a black hole.

There was a gap of nearly a decade before Kapp's final two stories appeared.  "Something in the City" (1984) concerns an experimental mission during a war against terrorists.  "An Alternative to Salt" (1986) involves a man beating the system in the near future.  The Unorthodox Engineers stories were collected under that title in 1979 but never published in the US.  Although they vary in quality, the best of Kapp's writing is at shorter length, particularly "Lambda One" and "The Cloud Builders", but he is destined to remain a minor figure.