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August 2008
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Adrift in the Stratosphere, by Professor A.M. Low (1937)

THOUGH not an academic professor, Archibald Montgomery Low was a genuine physicist who wrote much popular nonfiction. You'd expect his sf novel to be rigorously scientific. That wasn't necessary, he felt, when writing for youngsters like his three heroes, "boys" aged eighteen to twenty-three.

These lads accidentally launch a "rocket-balloon" spacecraft left unattended by the professor who built it. Soon they're "passing through a belt of X-rays," causing the ship and their own bodies to become transparent. Next they dodge a living, mile-long air monster that flies at 800 mph.…

Luckily the professor left notes on expected perils of space, such as: "Death Rays…How to deal with them." Our heroes are tormented by yellow radium beams from Mars. Will they discover the ship's anti-radium ray? You guess.

Mars strikes again with the Gabble, a radio broadcast of weirdly demoralizing noises: "With terrible cunning and subtlety the Martians were trying to drive them mad." Hysteria worsens until defeated by the brilliant counterploy of smashing the radio.

The King of Mars gloats over the hapless Earthlings via backup radio, unwittingly giving them useful information until—damaged by the enemy's Death Ship—they plunge to an emergency landing on a Fortean skyborne island.

Touring two island utopias, the trio learns that Earth should abandon automobiles, aircraft, and central heating in favor of a hygienic cavebound existence that could prolong life to 3,000 years. Then, in a sudden anticlimax, our lads go home.

In 1944 Low became the first-ever author named as a British sf convention's official guest. It must have been for his pop science.…

—David Langford

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