Philip E. High

Bus driver turned sci-fi writer

Philip Empson High, writer and bus driver: born Biggleswade, Bedfordshire 28 April 1914; married 1950 Pamela Baker (deceased; two daughters); died Canterbury, Kent 9 August 2006.

Philip E. High was one of a small band of British writers of popular fiction who flourished for a while in the cut-throat world of English science-fiction magazines of the 1950s. Like some of his peers - John Brunner was the most famous; E.C. Tubb and Ken Bulmer were the most prolific - he first sold widely to journals like Authentic and Nebula, then stepped up-market to the United States, where the first of his 14 novels, Prodigal Sun, appeared in 1964.

High was not alone in understanding that full-time employment in this publishing environment was no way to make a living, unless one was willing, like Tubb or Bulmer, to write literally hundreds of novels for pennies. He was perhaps fortunate, therefore, to have come relatively late to his writing career.

Philip Empson High was born in 1914 in Bedfordshire, and never left the south of England. Before the war he worked as a reporter for local newspapers; after Navy service he became an insurance agent; and in 1950 he was hired as a bus driver for the East Kent Car Road Company, a job he retained until his retirement in 1979. His personal life was also stable and sustaining; his marriage to Pamela Baker lasted for more than 40 years.

So he was free to enter the killing fields, and to enjoy his life as a writer. It is a sign of his modest sense of his creative range that the only author he recognised as a model for his own work was Nevil Shute. Interestingly, his work does resemble that model not only in its easy, flexible clarity but also in a cultural pessimism not always found in popular writers.

Nothing High wrote was as unremittingly apocalyptic as Shute's On the Beach (1957), but his space operas consistently pit figures of valour (and science-fictional super powers) against dystopian cultures and worlds. One of the best of them, Butterfly Planet (1971), typically engages manipulative aliens against an Earth splayed into dystopian factions; telepathic sex for the good, and instant devolution for villains, arousingly ensue.

After one of the periodic collapses of the popular market for science fiction in America, High focused again on British outlets, publishing several novels of moderate interest until he stopped writing in 1979. Fortunately, this silence was not permanent. In 1997, now a widower, he found a new market in Fantasy Quarterly, publishing there and elsewhere over 30 new stories, some of them assembled in A Step to the Stars (2004). A further dozen or so tales await release.

John Clute