It is the oldest story in the book, the eternal triangle of boy and girl and boy; they both love her, she loves them both, but the rules of society dictate that she can only marry one. First published as a short in Amazing Stories in November 1939 and later expanded to a novel which was eventually published in July 1949 and now reprinted by the British Library in a new edition as part of their science fiction classics range, William F Temple conceived an alternative, the four-sided triangle.
Told by the kindly village physician Doctor Harvey ten years after the conclusion of events, the story started many years before that when he came to treat the fractured wrist of fourteen-year-old Bill Leggett; the boy’s mother long dead, his self-driven education in the public library had been an escape from his drunken and abusive father.
Doctor Harvey immediately realising that the boy is a prodigy who has preserved his sanity by immersing himself in science, “the most stable and sound structure in an unstable world,” he takes upon himself to further his education, and it is year later while working in the Cavendish Laboratory that Bill meets Robin Heath.
Rob the eldest son of a wealthy landowner and industrialist, despite their different social backgrounds and temperaments, as the only two boys from Howdean attending Cambridge University they become fast friends, Rob recognising in Bill’s astonishing grasp of physics the creative genius which will allow him to escape the shadow of his family and their expectations.
The third point of the triangle is Lena Maitland, unconventional, uncompromising, a wild orphan schooled in a convent but untamed; a patient of Doctor Harvey’s following a failed suicide attempt, he feels that the presence of Bill and Rob would benefit her and lift her spirits, and that their research could provide the intellectual stimulation which she craves in a world of limited opportunity.
What she also finds is a husband, equally surprising to both her and Rob, and heartbreaking to Bill who has kept his feelings secret, pouring himself into the development of the “reproducer,” capable of turning energy into physical matter matching exactly whatever template is provided, a key, a painting, a sculpture, and when Bill progresses to demonstrate the reproduction of living flesh is viable his obsession leads him to the unthinkable: will Lena consent to be duplicated so he may marry her duplicate?
Written and re-written when the manuscript was twice lost in wartime when Temple was on active service, set between the two wars Four-Sided Triangle exists in a perfect bubble of peacetime with little indication of the circumstances of its creation in the calm, measured and cerebral prose, with the despondency fuelled by humanity’s double standards and hypocrisies only arising in the more philosophical final chapter.
Bill’s brilliance intuitive while Rob’s strength is his methodical approach, despite the unpromising introduction to Lena she is the strongest and most dynamic character in the novel and it is believable why two such different men who previously concerned themselves only with science should each fall for her helplessly, though it is less believable that a woman as shrewd as Lena would not forsee the dangers.
It is ironic that something which starts as a celebration of individuality, of charting your own course in life, should transmute into a story of cloning, though written before the structure of DNA had been deciphered by Watson, Crick and their associates that term is not used in the book, chronicling a leap of scientific endeavour which collides with a wall of moral implications and personal complications.
As Lena is the template for the woman Bill names Dorothy, so the seeds of the conclusion are sewn throughout Four-Sided Triangle, the inevitability of it signposted, the tragedy being that the reader can see it but that Rob, Bill, Lena and Dot cannot, Doctor Harvey with hindsight drawing parallels with a machine running out of control to an inevitable end, the individual parts unable to change that ultimate fate.
Filmed in 1953 by Hammer and currently available free on their YouTube channel, Four-Sided Triangle keeps much of the narrative and structure of the source novel though for expedience the three principals are childhood friends and the conclusion is substantially abbreviated and changed from emotional drama to pyrotechnics with a predictable scene of burning the mad scientist in his own lab.
The focus on the minimal spectacle, it owes much to James Whale’s earlier Frankenstein in set design and lighting, and director Terence Fisher would later visit that character five times for Hammer, but opening with a Biblical quote and with Doctor Harvey obliged to tell Lena her suicidal impulses are blasphemy it is compromised by the prevailing standards of the time, and missing out much of the character, subtlety and humour which informs Temple’s work and keeps it readable and relevant it is a superficial imitation rather than a flawless recreation.