Temple of the Sphinx

Some thoughts on the William F. Temple story, The Smile Of the Sphinx.

Temple Sphinx
Art by Harry Turner from Tales of Wonder #4

Tales of Wonder was a British science fiction magazine edited by Walter H. Gillings. It lasted for sixteen issues, the first of which appeared sometime in 1937 and the last in the spring of 1942. The general consensus seems to be that it only went under because wartime paper shortages made continued publication impossible. In actual fact it probably only lasted as long as it did due to the lack of competition, there being no other British science fiction magazines at the time.

The fact of the matter was that much of Tales of Wonder was filled with unchallenging fiction by the likes of Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, David H. Keller, Francis Flagg, and other authors whose time had already passed. Why this should be so was due in part because Walter H. Gillings had a very limited budget to work with. As he explained many years later in Vision Of Tomorrow #7 (April 1970) he could barely pay more than reprint rights for brand new material. More importantly the editorial philosophy of Gillings had a significant effect on the contents of the magazine. To quote the man quoting himself in Vision Of Tomorrow:

‘…new ideas and “thought-variant” plots such as are required by the leading American magazines are not necessary… On the contrary, it is the more simple straightforward theme that is required (however “hackneyed” it might be for America), in order that the story shall be acceptable to a reading public unused to the many fantastic notions that have been developed by American science fiction in the course of eleven years. In this country, the development of the science-fantasy is only just beginning, and although a large proportion of its readers are those who have become familiar with its more advanced forms…, Tales of Wonder will have to start at the beginning and go all over the old ground again if it is to capture the interest of a public big enough to enable it to survive.’

Not surprisingly then that the contents of the magazine was a mixture of less than stellar fiction by US authors (much of it reprinted) and whatever Gillings accepted from his local contacts. The end result was a selection as safe as Gillings had hoped for but which as Graham Stone wrote in Science Fiction News #76 (January 2011):

‘I was soon to realise that a lot of these stories had the same thing with them; they weren’t really stories at all, they had an idea, a possibility, some new departure from what we were used to, but they did nothing much with it. They could be adequately summarised in a few words as I’ve been doing here.’

What material Gillings published in Tales of Wonder that rose above this level was written by the British contingent. According to what I’ve been since told by Philip Harbottle, who I believe knows as much about the early days of British science fiction as anybody still alive, is that Gillings was inundated with material from authors such as John Russell Fearn, Bill Temple, Arthur Clarke, Eric Frank Russell, Les Johnson, and John Beynon Harris but rejected most of these offerings because the material didn’t fit in with his cautious editorial policy. Despite this the British content of Tales of Wonder remains the most interesting part of the magazine.

In particular Gillings published one story that I find absolutely fascinating, though perhaps not for the usual reasons. The story in question is a novelette by William F. Temple, his third published story. The Smile of the Sphinx appeared in Tales of Wonder #4 (Autumn 1938). In the introduction Gillings wrote:

‘…in the light of his logical reasoning, his fanciful notion loses its air of incredibility, and you will find yourself seriously considering whether it might not easily be fact…’

The story was well regarded at the time of publication. For example noted science fiction fan of the day (and later editor of New Worlds), Ted Carnell was so taken by The Smile of the Sphinx that in Novae Terrae #28 (December 1938) he was moved to claim:

‘For just as Bill Temple’s yarn in TOW will long be remembered as the cat story…’

Now at first glance all this makes very little sense as The Smile of the Sphinx is a rather absurd tale about an intelligent race of cats from the Moon who secretly rule the Earth. Editor Gillings to the contrary this story leaks logic like an incontinent sponge and is saddled with a plot that gives coincidence a bad name. Not surprisingly this has little to do with why I find The Smile of the Sphinx to be such an entertaining read. (Before I proceed any further I’d like to point out that the reasons why I enjoyed this tale are not entirely the same as those of Gillings, Temple, and other early fans. If nothing else some of my enjoyment comes from my familiarity with stories not published until after Temple’s effort had disappeared from the news stands.)

The Smile of the Sphinx opens late one night when Mr Eric Williams, a well-known historical novelist meets a great swarm of cats on the Dover Road near Woolwich. This set my alarm bells ringing right away as I knew Eric C. Williams was one of Bill Temple’s fannish contemporaries during the thirties. It seemed very unlikely that our author would coincidentally name one of his characters thus. The plot thickened after I  discovered that in 1937 Eric C. Williams was living in the London district of Catford. Not only that but in Tomorrow #7 (August 1938) editor Doug Mayer published a short article by Bill Temple defending the amount of exposition included in The Smile of the Sphinx and telling how the idea came to him. It’s here that Bill mentions that the cat idea first surfaced at a party held in Ted Carnell’s house, a party where none other than Eric Williams was present. It was therefore no surprise to me that Bill had chosen Williams to be the narrator of this tale. Neither was I overly surprised to discover that Bill Temple was born in Woolwich. At this point I began to wonder if Bill was ever tempted to have his almost fictional narrator living at his parent’s address and writing for Astounding Stories

Anyway, Williams observes the cats fleeing along the road with a degree of precision not normally seen among the feline race. They slip neatly past Williams and promptly disappear into the roadside woods. Within minutes of this parade passing him by, and while Williams is busy describing this unusual phenomena to a policeman, the military arsenal adjacent to Woolwich erupts in a most spectacular manner. This event drives all cat related thoughts out of our protagonist’s head as he rushes into town to help with the rescue efforts.

The next day, while reading about the mysterious destruction of the Krupp munition works in Germany and the Skoda works in Czechoslavakia, Williams is visited by a middle-aged man who introduces himself as Mr Clarke. Bill gave this individual no more name than that and no more detail than that he possessed a large balding head surrounded by graying hair and rode a bicycle which had a brown attache case strapped to it but even so I had to stop the first time I read this paragraph and exclaim, “It’s Arthur C. Clarke!” In a sense the appearance of Arthur C. Clarke shouldn’t be a surprise given Temple and Clarke were sharing rooms at 88 Grey’s Inn Road when The Smile of the Sphinx was written. It’s also a fact that over the years Bill Temple wrote a number of articles in which he gently took the mickey out of his friend and one-time housemate. What surprised me was to discover how early on Bill’s ribbing of Clarke had begun and that it had invaded his professional work.

It’s also worth noting that in regards to the practice of an author introducing friends and associates into their fiction this isn’t the earliest example. For example H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Bloch had already killed each other in print. However Bill’s inclusion of Williams and Clarke occurred before Bob Tucker began including real people in his stories so frequently that this practice became known as Tuckerization so he’s owed some credit I think here (it also helps explain the popularity of the story among British science fiction fans of the day).

Back to the plot and Mr Clarke begins by insisting that Peter, Williams’ cat, be removed from the room before he proceeds to share with our narrator the sort of ‘facts’ which the rational, scientific mind of Arthur C. Clarke would surely reject with disgust. According to the fictional Mr Clarke it was the cats themselves who caused the arsenal at Woolwich to explode. He goes on to explain that cats are an ancient and alien race who live parasitically upon humanity. In other words ‘we are property’, the unwitting servants of felines who had migrated to the Earth from the Moon and adopted the ancient Egyptians as their servants. Apparently the Moon had once been a habitable world fought over by two races, one feline and one canine, until such time as the feline race finally emerged victorious. Unfortunately by then the Moon had been reduced to its current barren state.

Having won the war with a weapon which had rendered all dogs too stupid to remain a threat the cats decided that living on the ravaged remains of the Moon was too much effort. Naturally they designed and built a fleet of spaceships with which to transport themselves and a few of the surviving dogs to Earth, the majority of the remaining dogs being left behind on the Moon to starve. (Mr Clarke also explains that dogs chase cats because they have a racial memory of the war and they bay at the Moon because they have a racial memory of having lost their home world.) Once on our planet the feline race proceeded to use their superior mind power to subjugate our ancestors so that humanity would provide for their physical needs while they indulged themselves intellectually. Anyway, after centuries of peaceful coexistence with humanity the feline race was now alarmed by recent advances in human technology. It turns out that cats are virtually immortal due to their ability to reincarnate. According to Mr Clarke only one thing is capable of destroying a feline mind, a violent explosion. Not surprisingly having suffered numerous losses during WWI, the feline race was determined to ensure the clearly looming conflict in Europe would have to be fought without the aid of high explosives. Mr Clarke concludes by explaining that he has no tangible proof to back his story. He just knows all this because it has come to him and he knows it is true by the power of intuition. Anybody familiar with the strict scientific accuracy of Arthur C. Clarke’s work can be excused for having a good giggle at all this pseudo-scientific flannel.

Anyway, it’s pretty easy to see by this point that Bill is having far too much fun. He was clearly hoping to wind Arthur up by having his fictional doppelganger deliver what is a very silly piece of exposition. I can imagine Arthur ‘Ego’ Clarke opened up his copy of Tales of Wonder and nearly choked on his indignation when reading the words Temple had put in his mouth.

Even somebody without Clarke’s keen intellect can see that this story was ridiculous from beginning to end. How, for example, did a celestial body the size of the Moon manage to hold onto an atmosphere and where is it now? Why did the cats bother bring any of their canine foes along with them to Earth? Why is the Moon now utterly bereft of any observable features which could back up this story? If the cats wield such power over humanity why did they allow so many of their number to perish during WWI? The unanswerable questions raised by this piece of exposition are legion.

Of course Mr Clarke’s monologue also makes me wonder if Bill Temple wasn’t also having a little fun at the expense of fellow author Eric Frank Russell. They certainly knew each other because back then just about everybody involved with science fiction in Britain knew everybody else.

Did Russell tell Bill about his Fortean inspired plot at some point?  The plot which would eventually become Russell’s best known novel, Sinister Barrier? John W. Campbell bought Sinister Barrier and published it in the first issue of his new fantasy magazine, Unknown (March 1939) so the timing is right at least. Sinister Barrier was based on Charles Fort’s famous speculation, ‘I think we’re property’. In it the human race is little more than cattle to aliens called Vitons. They share the world with us and feed off of our nervous energy, the more intense our emotions the better, especially fear and anger. The story revolves around the eventual discovery of this fact and how humanity eventual frees itself. I like to think that EFR did indeed mention what he was working on in a letter to Bill. Given Bill’s reputation as a joker I can then easily imagine him deciding to take the ‘we are property’ idea in an absurd direction. If nothing else it would surely amuse Bill to see if he could get a rise out of Russell.

Of course I don’t suppose I’ll ever know if Bill did intend to wind-up Russell or what EFR thought of The Smile of the Sphinx. Certainly I’ve never seen any correspondence between the two on this topic. On the other hand I’d be surprised if anybody familiar with Russell’s fiction wasn’t already pondering his short story, Into Your Tent I’ll Creep which appeared in Analog/Astounding Science Fiction ( September 1957). If you’re not familiar with this one it involves the people of Earth giving a delegation of aliens from Altair a pair of dogs as a gift to celebrate the signing of an agreement between the two races. However one of the Altarians, Morfad, has discovered that through some anomaly he can read canine thoughts and has discovered that dogs communicate telepathically and are using humanity as their servants. Not in exactly the same manner as Temple has cats doing in The Smile of the Sphinx though. Rather than directly controlling humanity Russell has his dogs using the mighty power of fawning and adulation to get their way. The end result was essentially the same however and dogs prove equally ruthless once they realise somebody has discovered their plan to subjugate the Alterians. Morfad is quickly murdered in such a way as to make it look like an accident so that no suspicion falls upon the dogs. It’s a rather good short story with very typical EFR musings on how an alien race might have objectives we can comprehend but then go about achieving them in a totally unexpected way and how even the commonplace can look different and threatening if viewed from a slightly different angle.

There’s probably no connection between the two stories but I do like to think that one reason Russell wrote Into Your Tent I’ll Creep was to prove that dogs make more sense as masters of the human race than cats. And can it be a coincidence that Morfad suggests that the best way to avoid canine subjugation without offending Terran sensibilities is to settle the dogs on an uninhabited moon?  I can imagine Russell finishing this story and sitting back to think, “Ha! Take that Temple!”

Getting back to the plot of The Smile of the Sphinx Mr Clarke returns the next day and points out that the Sphinx, a photo of which Williams’ has hanging on the wall of his home, is actually modelled on the ‘Ruling Mind’ of the feline race. Williams and Clarke then cycle out to Stonehenge for a cat free chat and while there Mr Clarke delivers some more exposition about the relationship between cats and the Egyptians. He concludes by confiding to Williams that he’s certain the ‘Ruling Mind’ is somewhere very near to him. This monologue is interrupted by another series of explosions as munitions hidden under the plain near Stonehenge are mysteriously set off.

The following day Mr Clarke visits yet again. This time he is in a terrible state as he has now realised that the ‘Ruling Mind’ is actually occupying a majority of his own brain. This apparently explains how he came to know so much about the feline race and their history, it’s been leaking into his conscious from that of the ‘Ruling Mind’ all along. (However, some explanation of how he was managing to function with the majority of his brain occupied by a foreign intelligence would have been nice but I guess given what had gone before this would be too much to expect.)

At this point Mr Clarke leaps up and declares that he must do something about the situation but won’t say what:

‘”Good-bye, Williams,” he flung at me. “I can’t tell you anything more. I mustn’t even think about it.” And was out and down the path before I could comprehend his swift words.’

The finale comes as Williams watches through a telescope, Mr Clarke having cycled away:

‘…I peered through, and the dark little mote out there between the obscure land and pale green sky fairly leapt at me, and became the figure of Clarke, dismounted now and crouching on the lip of one of the recent craters.

He was unstrapping the brown bag. I could not see his face, for the brim of his hit shadowed it. He produced a bunch of keys, and used one of them to unlock the case.

I watched with interest, waiting to see what was in the mysterious case. Wads of newspaper–evidently packing–came out first, and then Clarke extracted some sticks–yellow sticks, about ten inches long.

He put them down , and stood up. He gazed around at the darkling plain. He seemed to undergoing some sort of mental struggle. Then, as if in sudden resolution, he bent swiftly, gathering the stick in his arms and seemed literally to hurl himself over the rim of the crater.

I gasped as he disappeared from view, for those craters were pretty deep–some went right underground. I waited a minute or two hardly daring to breathe, my eye glued to the spot where he had vanished. His bicycle and the abandoned case were still there on the rim.

Then, without warning, a fountain of dirt, smoke, and flame spurted up from the interior of the crater, catching up and tossing the bicycle fifty yards away, and spraying out like a tall, grey plume.’

Despite some rather dubious phrasing, the bit about some craters going right underground in particular confuses me, it’s an interesting climax to the story. Given the absurdity of the initial premise the extreme nature of this scene is more arresting than it might otherwise be. More to the point I can’t help but wonder if fellow Tales of Wonder contributor, John Beynon Harris, was intrigued enough by Temple’s manner of defeating a telepath that he decided to try it himself in his 1957 novel, The Midwich Cuckoos. For that matter fellow Tales of Wonder contributor, Eric Frank Russell, had a story called Impulse, later retitled as A Matter of Instinct, published in the September 1938 issue of Astounding Science Fiction which revolved around the thwarting a telepathic alien by acting without conscious thought. The publication dates of The Smile of the Sphinx and Impulse are a little too close to make it likely that one inspired the other but on the other hand it does seem possible that Bill Temple and Eric Frank Russell at some point discussed how one might defeat a telepath. Also, given John Beynon Harris was a regular visitor to Clarke and Temple’s rooms at 88 Grey’s Inn Road it’s entirely possible the topic of how to defeat a telepath was thrashed out there too. To assume these three authors who knew each other and had at the very least occasional contact all came up with the same rather specific idea independently of each other seems far too unlikely. I’m betting the topic was thoroughly discussed by all three before any of the above mentioned stories were even written.

The Smile of the Sphinx concludes with a page of ‘where are they now’ type reportage. There are no more mysterious explosions because apparently the cats have detonated every repository of explosives they considered a threat to them, nobody is game to make more bombs for fear of premature detonation, Scotland Yard has been reorganised due to the nervous collapse of the Special Branch, and there is talk of a World Government being set up. It is also left up in the air as to whether the ‘Ruling Mind’ was actually destroyed or if there was any truth to Clarke’s wild story about cats from the Moon ruling humanity. In other words the story ends with a whimper rather than another bang, and without providing any more grist for this particular mill.

None the less, despite the way the story trails off and as absurd as The Smile of the Sphinx is it delights me to consider how this story might be placed right in the middle of British science fiction of the thirties as the thread that holds so much together.

3 thoughts on “Temple of the Sphinx”

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