Four-Sided Triangle by William F. Temple is the first SciFi novel the British Library Science Fiction Classics series reprinted in their quest to unearth forgotten classics. The only other SciFi classic novel I have read before is H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, so if you, like me, are a newbie to the genre and taking baby steps, I think Four-Sided Triangle will be a good starting point. Four-Sided Triangle is set on Earth and not science-heavy, making it easily accessible. Also, at the heart of the story, there’s something we all have experience in; love. 🙂
I had a brief introduction to Temple’s writing when I read his short story Lunar Lilliput last year. (Lunar Lilliput appears in the British Library Science Fiction Classics series’s Moonrise, and it’s an anthology I highly recommend) That story featuring two-inch tall Humanoid Lunarians who had learnt to imitate our ways convinced me Temple is a good writer, and I was thrilled by British Library’s decision to reissue Four-Sided Triangle which is considered to be his most notable work.
Four-Sided Triangle is an expansion of a short story Temple wrote for Amazing Stories magazine in 1939. According to Mike Ashley’s Introduction, Temple had written the initial short story while he was dating Joan who would later become his wife. At the time Temple had considered what he’d do if there was ever a rival for Joan’s affections, which had given him the idea of duplication, and that ‘solution’ had been his inspiration for writing Four-Sided Triangle.
Narrated by Dr Harvey (“Doc”), the novel begins when young Bill Leggett presents himself at Doc’s surgery. Bill tells Doc that he broke his wrist while he was trying to gauge the breaking strain of a rope, and it doesn’t take long for Doc to realize that Bill with his inquiring mind is not an ordinary fourteen-year-old boy. Owing to Doc’s graying hair, the kid takes Doc as someone with enough knowledge and authority to answer questions on X-rays – the whole shebang from its history to nature – so he keeps bombarding the poor Doc with numerous questions!
… the boy’s persistent questions were embarrassing. At first I tried to pass it off with the suggestion that it was all very difficult and hard to explain, and that the boy wouldn’t understand anyway. But the boy made it quite clear that he would understand. He said he had studied the pioneer work of Rontgen and the Curies and other people whose names were less familiar, and generously “reminded” me of it in some detail. I wasn’t certain about Rontgen, but I happened just recently to have read a magazine article about the Curies, so I was able to keep up a facade of knowledge there. For a time. Then the boy smashed through it with the mathematics of the radiation of energy, trampled all over me with the Quantum theory, and was wielding the Special Theory of Relativity like a bludgeon when I finally pulled up at the hospital with globules of sweat starting on my brow.
A Prodigy had come into my life.
Soon after their trip to the hospital, Doc takes Bill under his wings. Doc gives Bill access to his library and lets Bill drown in the wealth of knowledge his books has to offer. By this time Bill had read all the science books in the village library. But under Doc’s guidance, Bill gains a further appreciation of the subject, and once Bill’s good-for-nothing father (the surviving parent) passes away, he becomes Doc’s foster child.
When Bill enters Cambridge University on a scholarship, he befriends Robin Heath (“Rob”) who later becomes his best friend and business partner. Even though Rob comes from the same village as Bill, their backgrounds are entirely different as Rob is the son of the local lord. Rob’s father had given him the best education money can buy and raised him to be a proper English gentleman, expecting he’d take over the family’s plastic manufacturing business one day. However, once Bill and Rob figure out that they could achieve bigger things if they join forces – Bill with his brilliance, and Rob with his steady approach to solving scientific problems – they decide to go their own way with a small capital Rob’s father had provided at hand. Their first invention is the Reproducer – an apparatus that could scan objects and create replicas. And this is where Lena, a beautiful failing artist – one of Doc’s suicidal patients, enters into their lives.
I’m not going to delve deeper into the plot, but I think the novel’s title and the stunning cover of November 1939 Amazing Stories issue hints at what’s to follow.
As I mentioned earlier, Four-Sided Triangle doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on technical details, instead choosing to highlight the moral implications of one of Bill’s scientific endeavors. Because the story’s focus lays on its characters, Temple manages to do that in a compelling way, so even though the modern readers will roll their eyes at the archaic views on gender roles (at one point Rob tells Doc “Frankly, I hate clever girls from Bloomsbury. Girls shouldn’t be intellectual – only nice,” and the list goes on), this is still an engrossing read. 4 stars.