William F. Temple was an early British SF author; he shared a flat with Arthur C. Clarke, was involved in the British Interplanetary Society, and was very active in SF fandom before he wrote his own science fiction story in 1935. I read one of his short novels/Ace Double halves a few years ago, Battle on Venus, and found it an uninspired journey-tale about a few people travelling across a bland Venus to end a war and un-power some automated death machines roaming the countryside. Temple’s most famous and best-remembered tale would be Four Sided Triangle, and I felt that if I was to give him another go, it may as well be with his best foot forward.
Narrated by Doctor “Doc” Harvey, this is the tale of two scientists and their impressive inventions. Bill is not quite an orphan, a quiet genius with an abusive father who was all but adopted by Doc. Rob is the son of the local lord, outgoing and raised with nothing but the best education money can buy. When they work together, nothing can stand in their way, and without ado they produce the Reproducer: a device which can create perfect copies of any object you want. Together with the beautiful young Lena—once a suicidal failed artist, now their secretary—they go into business reproducing valuable works of art and whatnot, keeping firm control over their invention to make sure it’s kept out of the hands of those who would abuse it. (To some, those who use this machine to make perfect copies of the Mona Lisa are the wrong hands, but what are you gonna do?)
Of course, there is some trouble in paradise; while Bill’s been chasing after Lena’s affections, she’s fallen for Rob, and Bill’s shattered when his coworkers announce their marriage. Still, Bill has a few thoughts about how science can get him out of this predicament. By now there’s a strong chance you’ve wondered what the title had to do with the price of rice; see, it’s not a reference to some new mathematics physics or a fourth-dimension state of being. Well, you’ve heard of a love triangle, right? This is the four-sided version, as Bill creates a copy of Lena for himself and names her Dorothy. (Which is telling of Bill’s state of mind when he thinks this is fine and I think it’s pretty ew.) Of course, the new copy of Lena is just that—a copy, which duplicated the original’s love for Rob. Then there’s an accident, where one of the two women is killed, and nobody is quite sure whether it was the original or the copy who survived.
The themes are throwbacks to the Gothics of old: the doppelganger, Frankenstein’s monster, the abuse of technology—playing God—to create life. And like those tales, this overreach of science is made only for personal gain. Bill is the sad and lonely little boy desperate for the mother he never had, clinging to his first crush like a dying man, never realizing that she’s already made a choice of her own free will. Making a copy of Lena seems like madness, copying someone’s identity and then attempting to force it to fill a void in his life. It comes almost as an afterthought to ask if Lena will consent to Bill creating—and immediately marrying—her body double; no, the first thought was to ask Rob if he’d consent to allow his wife to be copied. Temple doesn’t bother exploring moral or ethical dilemmas, but instead uses the story to prod at themes of individuality and authenticity.
Four Sided Triangle originated as “4-Sided Triangle,” a short story in a 1939 issue of Amazing Stories; it was well-regarded enough to show up in several collections of early SF, including Asimov’s “Great SF Stories” 1939 volume and Michael Ashley’s History of the Science Fiction Magazine (Vol. 2). In what feels like redundancy, Rob’s original name was Will, and I assume Temple made that change when he realized naming your main characters Bill and Will is a sure-fire sign that you hate your readers. There was also a 1952 film done by the infamous Hammer Film Productions who did all those classic horror films in the ’60s and ’70s; I haven’t seen it yet, but fellow blogger Sergio over at Tipping My Fedora wrote a film review about the same time I got a copy of the novel.
I’ve been pretty flippant in my synopsis and analysis; in all truth, it’s an interesting curio, but a story more for collectors and historians and of less interest to the general SF reader. Four Sided Triangle is light on science and heavy on melodrama. Temple’s writing style is affably British and suggests John Wyndham, among others; he has a readable, warm, easygoing style that avoids reading like pulp, despite coming from one of the… well, pulpier pulps. (He also has a few indicting rants about British nobility’s ethnocentrism and elitism.) The characters are distinct, well-realized, and while not fully-formed they have a kind of depth to them. Our everyman country doctor is a good narrator to espouse the same surprise, questioning, and concerns as the reader, though he has the unfortunate tendency to allow Bill’s crazed schemes to exist. Through him, we see Temple’s interesting twists—Dorothy’s revelation for her love of Rob, the agonizing memories she retained of Lena’s early life including her marriage and honeymoon…
Nowadays, we’re a bit more cynical and a lot less prim, and any of the story’s power has become quaint naivete. In fact, it’s dated itself as a product of the 1930s with its antiquated sexual politics and rather daft central idea powered by super-scientists and their magic machine. I understand why it was a well-regarded story in its day: it’s a well-written piece focused more on the people than the technology, reading more like mainstream fiction then a genre work, yet still retaining a science fictional core. I have an issue of Galaxy where anthologist Groff Conklin wrote a glowing review of it, calling it the “one of the best written… and warmest, most brilliantly charactered and humanly real science fiction tales.” Looking at the second half of the novel, and overlooking how it’s aged, I’d agree with him. I’d recommend it to readers investigating SF’s origins and early days as one of the better-written and better-characterized novels from the era. For the fair-weather reader, why aren’t you off reading The Demolished Man or something?