An Interview with Duncan Lunan - Part One - Unabridged Version
By Michael S. Collins
and the Winterwind staff
Duncan Lunan is a man of many talents. Astronomer, editor and author, folk musician: you name it, Duncan has made his formidable mark on the subject. With a career stretching back over forty years, and with friendships and acquaintances with all of the best-known writers and scientists in recent history, he has been referred to as “The Godfather” of modern Scottish Sci-Fi. Here, for Winterwind, is an exclusive interview with questions put to Duncan by myself and the Winterwind team. The rest is all Duncan’s own words. I regard Duncan as not only a writer of the highest calibre, but also a dear friend. Enjoy.
Editor's Note: Due to the pleasantly surprising detailed and in-depth answers in the interview, it was decided to publish it in two parts, and in two formats: an abridged version in the ezine and an unabridged version on the main site. This is the unabridged version.
When/how did you first get interested in astronomy and space?
To a certain extent, I feel my card was marked, because the Scots name ‘Lunan’ does apparently derive from the Moon. Lud, who gave his name to 'Lud's town’ (London) was the English version of the Celtic sky-god Lugh, particularly the Moon-god, whose harvest festival was Lugnasagh. The Celts had actually stressed the wrong syllable of the Sumerian Lu-Nanna, 'Moonlight', where the prefix 'Lu' signified light and Nanna was the Moon-god of the tributary cities of Ur; but in the Indo-European languages the Moon became Luna or 'La Lune'. My late Uncle Gordon's investigation of our family history was triggered by a watchmaker in Edinburgh, who told him in 1930 that we were descended from the astronomers of ancient Chaldea. We had invented the calendar, hence making agriculture and civilisation possible, "and to charge you for the repair of a timepiece would be an effrontery". The old chap actually knew his stuff: there is a statue in the Louvre of a high priest called Lu-Nanna making an offering to the Moon-god. And my family is descended from Alexander Stuart, an illegitimate son of Robert II, who bought 'the Lands of Lunaine' in Aberdeen in 1340 and styled himself 'de Lunaine' thereafter. When people who don't know my work ask, "Do you write under your own name?", the reply is that in my field it would be pretty daft not to.
My parents weren’t strongly interested in astronomy, but I remember my father stopping the car for us to watch the aurora borealis when I was three or four, and them getting me up to see an eclipse of the Moon at the same age. I was four in 1950 when my granny took me down to Troon beach to see the Blue Sun, which was caused by high-altitude smog of oil droplets from a forest fire in Canada. The sky was bronze, the Sun was blue and the whole familiar landscape of the swimming pool and the bandstand was alien, like being on another planet. It had a big effect on me. A year or so later a friend of mine had a picture book of modern wonders including a photo of a Viking Mark 1 sounding rocket, and I remember thinking, “Hey, a real spaceship!” But my first love was still the sea, and what turned it around was Angus MacVicar’s The Lost Planet on Children’s Hour, the original radio version. The boy across the street had “The Young Traveller in Space” by Arthur C. Clarke, and I bullied my parents into giving it to me for my eighth birthday. That got me completely hooked on space, and my mother at 97 is still waiting for me to grow out of it. When I edited “Starfield”, the anthology of science fiction by Scots for Orkney Press in 1989, I asked Angus MacVicar to write the introduction, and I felt that closed a circle. The cover was by Sydney Jordan, whose Jeff Hawke started in February 1954 and that was another big influence as I grew up.
Who is Jeff Hawke?
Jeff Hawke was Britain’s chief astronaut, the hero of the world's longest-running science fiction strip cartoon, drawn by Sydney Jordan from Dundee. It ran in the Daily Express with 66 stories between 15th February 1954 and 18th April 1974, followed by another story in the Scottish Daily News, and two more in syndication in Europe. A last 7-episode story appeared in the comic A1, in 1991, bringing the total run to 70 stories with 6527 episodes. The stories were syndicated in 45 countries and were so popular in Europe that when the European papers came to the end of the run, there was a special linking episode in which Jeff Hawke died and was reincarnated as the medical officer on a starship a hundred years in the future, the hero of Lance McLane, Sydney Jordan's new strip which was running in the Daily Record, in Scotland. Lance McLane continued to run in Europe as Jeff Hawke for a further 10½ years, but purists regard that as (literally) another story. The new ‘Jeff Hawke’ ended on H9454, but with extra episodes, missing episodes and stories published only as McLane, by my reckoning the final total is 9858.
I was eight years old when Jeff Hawke began in the Daily Express. When it had been going for about three weeks, I said to my mother, "This is so good, I'm going to collect it". As mothers do, she replied, "Oh no you're not... you're not piling up dirty newsprint... you'll never look at them..." but I collected all but 100 episodes during its run and now have a complete collection. The Jeff Hawke Club is now reproducing the complete canon of Hawke and McLane in Jeff Hawke's Cosmos and I’m writing notes on the stories as they appear, which is a real labour of love.
In 1969, in the run-up to the Moon landing, I recalled that Sydney Jordan had predicted the date of it as August 4th, 1969, in a story called 'Time Out of Mind'. I gave the number of the episode to my librarian friend and fellow SF writer, the late Chris Boyce, and he got me the exact date of publication, so Sydney was on BBC and STV the night of the landing. Five years later, when I wanted to quote Hawke in my first book "Man and the Stars", I wrote to Sydney for permission and that put us in touch.
Meanwhile, Chris had been influential in getting Jeff Hawke into the Scottish Daily News after it was dropped by the Express, and also in getting the Daily Record (for whom he worked in the late 1970s) to commission Lance McLane. When I met Sydney at the British Easter Science Fiction Convention in 1978, his first words to me were, "Oh, you're Duncan Lunan. I want you to write stories for me." It took four more years to happen, but late in 1982 I began writing for McLane with 'The Phoenix at Easter' and by the end of the strip in 1988, I had written or contributed to ten stories.
By then Sydney had begun illustrating articles and stories for me, starting with McLane strips for an article in Nuclear Free Scotland and including World Magazine and the Journal of Practical Applications in Space. In 1989 he created the jacket for "Starfield", the first ever anthology of science fiction by Scottish writers, which I edited for Orkney Press; he did the introductory painting for the article 'Flight in Non-terrestrial Atmospheres, or, The Hang-Glider's Guide to the Galaxy', Analog, January 1993, which I wrote with Gordon Dick, and illustrated my novelette, 'With Time Comes Concord', Analog, September 1993. Sydney has prepared a detailed set of illustrations for my current book project "Children from the Sky", investigating the mediaeval mystery of the Green Children of Woolpit. We’re working on several other books including a discussion project on protecting the Earth from impacts, within ASTRA, the Association in Scotland to Research into Astronautics.
How did your interest in space get more organised, i.e. through ASTRA?
The Scottish Branch of the British Interplanetary Society was founded in 1953 by the late Oscar Schwiglhofer, who had studied physics in Transylvania under Hermann Oberth before the second world war. In March 1962 the late Terence Nonweiler, the new Professor of Aerodynamics and Fluid Mechanics at Glasgow University, spoke on 'The Future in Space', at G.U. Observatory. (Some points which he made that night are quoted in my book "New Worlds for Old".)
At that time I was a fourth-year pupil at Marr College, Troon, and had recently become friends with a new boy, John McIntyre, whose father worked for GPO Telephones. John's father had come across a misdirected circular for the Nonweiler meeting, and had appropriated it because he thought I'd be interested. That was how I came to meet Oscar, Dr. (now Prof.) Archie Roy, Terence Nonweiler, Ed Buckley, Andy Nimmo and many others who are still friends. As events which change your life go, it was a cracker, and finding a group of adults who shared my interest was a life-saver.
By the following year it was clear than the BIS branch arrangement wasn’t working, and we became independent as ASTRA (the Association in Scotland to Research into Astronautics) in December 1963. I was elected to the new Council as a student member, and with just one gap of a few months, I’ve been on the Council ever since. I’ve been President, Vice-President, Secretary and Treasurer several times over, and my career as a science writer, lecturer etc specialising in space and astronomy has been channelled through the society throughout. Three of my four books to date took shape as discussion projects within the society, and there are three more pending.