Monday, December 20, 2021

Something to do with space...


So, it is 1957. England has its own space-programme. It has sent unmanned probes and monkeys into space; but the time has come to send up a human being. A full-grown man wouldn't fit in the capsule, so Sir George Benson recruits a seventeen year old schoolboy, who is so small he could pass for 12. The boy is trained for some weeks, and an Englishman duly becomes the first human being in space.

"Boy volunteers; boy is trained; boy goes up; boy comes down." That's very nearly all there is to it. 

The boy hero, Chris Godfrey, is the most transparent of Mary Sues. He has very little personality or interior life; he's brave and clever and shy and not much else. We follow him on trips to a scuba-diving company to get his experimental space-suit fitted; to a centrifuge where he experiences artificial G-force and to an RAF base where he experiences weightlessness in a supersonic jet. We also follow him on an R&R trip to Battersea funfair (where he has the unfortunate encounter with the Teds); to a music-hall where he sees the Crazy Gang; and on a pre-launch picnic in one of the prettier parts of the Australian outback.

Hughes keeps our feet on terra firma. We get a blow by blow account of Chris's experience: how well he slept each night, what he had for breakfast each morning and at what time. (Come to think of it, "eating a lot" is another personality trait.) Hughes shares with Enid Blyton and J.K Rowling a habit which drives grown-ups mad but which often grips kids. He never skips over a piece of action or offers a summary of what is going on. Anything which can be expanded into a scene, is expanded into a scene: characters often provide a running commentary about what is happening next. Nothing is shown which cannot be told. When Chris is driven from his home in Wolverton to London in a military vehicle, the tension reaches fever pitch:

The Royal Air Force corporal who was driving the car turned to Chris and asked if he would like to pull up for a coffee. Chris replied that he didn’t mind and would leave it to the corporal, who, after cogitation, volunteered that coffee wasn’t much in his line—so they continued their drive to London.

The scene in which he changes his underwear before putting on his space suit is very nearly as thrilling:

Following the white coated man into a small side room, the boy saw that he was to strip and put on one of the light cotton garments placed ready for him. This covered the whole of his body except for his hands and his head, and was secured by a long slim zip fastener up the front. A pair of special socks were pulled on, and he walked a little self-consciously into the larger room where the others were still examining the suit.

I don't know how much Hughes actually knew about aeronautics but it all feels convincing to me. The premise takes a little bit of swallowing -- are there really no adults of restricted growth? couldn't they have recruited a jockey? -- but it is treated with logic and conviction, and followed through to its logical conclusion. The manned space flight has to happen right now because the boffins have spotted possibly artificial constructions on the moon and need photographs of them. The test rockets have capsules in them, because they have been launching monkeys into space. The capsules are monkey-sized, and can't be made grown-up sized in the time-frame. There has to be a human occupant, because there is no way of training a monkey to operate a camera. 

The space agency takes sensible steps to cover their tracks: when Chris is whisked off to London without a cup of coffee, it provides a sensible cover story that he has gone on holiday. When Chris arrives at Woomera, the crew of the base are told that he is Sir George's nephew. When the truth leaks out -- the government is putting children in experimental rockets! -- the media backlash is wholly plausible. We really feel that if the English government had put a grammar school boy in space in the 1950s, this is how it would have happened. 

Why did I find the book so hard to put down? I knew perfectly well -- and I must have known perfectly well when I was in Miss Beale's class -- that the launch was going to be a success. Hughes was hardly going to make us plough through a hundred and fifty page chapter book (with no pictures) only for the rocket to explode on the launch pad or for Chris to chicken out at the last minute. But I found myself racing through the final chapters to get to the denouement. Not because I wanted to know what happened: but because I wanted to imagine that it was happening to me. 

And even when the twelve minute adventure finally takes place, Hughes dials it down. Chris's message from orbit is not "one giant leap" or "my god, it's full of stars" but "Moon....big....clear".

So. In some ways, quite a dull book. It renders space-travel prosaic and unromantic and even ordinary. And for precisely that reason, the most exciting book I ever read. It feels real. It feels like you are there. I went from shouting five, four, three, two, one in a toy space helmet to knowing I definitely wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. This book told me truthfully what it would be like. Reading it was as close to being an astronaut as I am ever likely to get. 

However "Boy goes up. Boy comes down" is not quite enough plot to sustain a novella. So Hughes adds a subplot. It orbits the margins of the main story: just sufficiently to add some tension and some jeopardy to the narrative. And to provide a punchline and a sub-text that I didn't quite see coming.

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

It renders space-travel prosaic and unromantic and even ordinary. And for precisely that reason, the most exciting book I ever read. It feels real. It feels like you are there.

This is precisely what makes Andy Weir's The Martian so compelling: the brutal realism of it all. If you've not read the book, I highly highly recommend it. (The film version is also surprisingly good.)