Here are four reasons why this title is the greatest book ever published in any English-speaking country, ever.
1. The fact that, though published in 1967 it includes the following paragraph as part of its preliminary 'A Foreword and A Warning':
It is confidently predicted, in quarters both in Great Britain and on the continent of Europe and, of course, in the U.S.A., that, probably before the present hectic century passes into 2,001 A.D., the first man from earth will have made a landing on the moon. What will he find there? [7-8]What I love about this is not only its extraordinary Apollo-esque myopia, and the way Wilkins writes the year 2001 as '2,001'; but the fact that he answers his own question 'What will he find there?' with the assertion that it 'is not very unlikely' that the first astronaut will encounter aliens who
stand ready with ray-cannon, electric blast force guns, paralyzing ray projectors, or variants of Wells's Martian heat ray, or some "degravitator" device that may hold the first terrestrial space ship fast-bound to the floor of the crater, so that there may be no return to Earth. 1967, ladies and gentlemen.
2. The chapter titles. Some of these are utilitarian, of course ('The Coming of the Foo Fighters', 'Space Ships, the Moon, Mars and Venus'); but others are simply the best chapter titles of any book I have ever read. When I get round to forming a prog-rock band I shall choose from one of the following as my band name:
A Vast Bat-Like Machine.
The Martian Cat Among The Pigeons.
Colossal Death Ray Aeroform.
Britain's Navy And Air Force Awakened.
3. The prose. Wilkins writing style is a thing of splendour and wonder. Here's the opening sentence of 'A Vast Bat-Like Machine':
The finger of Fate, moving over the dial of our own planet in the war-years of 1944-45, ordained that many apparitions of unknown origin, single, or in disciplinary formations, should soar into the skies of western Europe and the Far East, but, in the following year, 1946, the cosmic spotlight shifted to North America, almost, it would seem, as if that vast continent had some peculiar attraction for these visitants. And here's the second sentence of that same chapter:
It might seem that "they" had observed, far out in space, some grave disturbance to the cosmic equilibrium emanating from dangerous experiments going on in this region of the "Wart" as the Jupiterians in Mark Twain's Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven irreverently called our Earth, whose location they had great difficulty finding on the vast and Brobdingnagian macrocosmic chart in the Heavenly Archive House!It's like this all the way through! I consider myself something of a connoisseur of bad prose, but this is far beyond comparison, emulation, or, on many pages, comprehension.
4. And finally: the UFOS themselves! They are ... extraordinary. One is 'umbrella shaped, and half the size of the moon' ; another is 'a large natural stone' that 'rolls itself forward from a steep rock' . The purpose of some 'friendly' UFOs is to release 'uranium green balls', fired like bullets, 'in order to clear up dangerous radio-active emenations after the detonation of atomic bombs' . Some UFOS are made of 'contra-terrene matter', and some out of 'filaments' in every respect resembling 'free floating webs of spiders' but 'assuredly not floating webs of spiders.' At one point Wilkins challenges the belief of 'air authorities' that the ice that sometimes forms on aircraft wings is simply ice, with the memorable claim that such ice 'may come from one of the frozen satellites of Saturn, which, by the way, is distant from the Earth by 797,300,000 miles' . That's one of my favourite uses of the conditional, 'may', there. Wilkins goes on, with the air of a man making an irrefutable point: 'it is possible, of course; but as the ice, when it is ice, bears no trade mark of origin, who is to prove it?' Who indeed? Who indeed.