Tuesday, December 21, 2021



It's the damn Russians, of course.

The English believe that the mysterious domes that have appeared on the moon were built by the Russians: that's why the mission is so urgent. But one of the Woomera scientists is a Russian spy. (It is rather hard to tell one scientist from another, so the spot-the-traitor whodunnit falls a bit flat.) The spy sabotages the mission; the rocket crashes on re-entry...and Chris is killed! The photos are saved (the plucky lad hugged them to his body on the way down) and it turns out that the domes are not created by the Russians after all, but possibly alien. As a result, the British and the Russians end their rivalry and pledge to work together. Our hero's self-sacrificial pluck has ended the the Cold War and secured the future of the space programme.

Ronald Reagan reportedly told Gorbachov that if the earth were invaded by aliens, then the Americans and the Russians would bury their differences and come together as fellow members of the humans race. In Clarke's disappointing sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, America and Russia step back from the brink because the Black Slab turns Jupiter into a second sun. And, of course, it is the ending of Watchmen: Ozymandias's faked squid incursion averts World War III at the eleventh hour. It is nice to think that a furniture salesman and part-time boffin had the same thought twenty five years earlier. It is quite possible that Alan Moore has read Blast Off at Woomera: Alan Moore has read everything.

Fortunately, Chris turns out to only have been mostly dead. Not only does he miraculously recover, but the cosmic radiation has given him a growth-spurt! So Hughes gets to have it both days: a death scene of monumental sentimentality in Chapter 20, and a happy ending in Chapter 21. In a way, it would have been a better story if he had stayed dead: but you don't kill off heroes in kids fiction, and anyway, it would have been a shame to have missed out on sequels with names like Passage to Pluto, Mission to Mars and Something to Saturn.

But there is another reason why our hero survives his near-certain death. Astute readers will have spotted it already. The book doesn't only have a plot and a sub-plot. It has a sub-text. A huge, massive, in your-face subtext that I was totally unaware of for 50 years.


Gavin Burrows said...

Sorry if it's a bit of a derail from your main train of thought, but this bit interests me. It's a space race story, but the aliens turn out to be a separate thing from Those Darn Commies. That's effectively breaking the fundamental premise of Red Menace SF! Something too dow with..?

1957 being a bit after the Red Menace trope had peaked?

It never being so much of a British thing as it was American?

The whole premise of the story is really about concocting reasons to get a boy in a spacesuit, rather than make us all fearfully watching the skies?

Andrew Stevens said...

Ozymandias's faked squid incursion averts World War III at the eleventh hour

Very clear to me that you are supposed to infer that Ozymandias's scheme does not ultimately work.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think that the whole force of Watchmen is that Ozymandias's scheme would work, provided no-one reads the diary, and we are left not knowing if anyone does or not. If it was likely that everyone would see through the scheme because it was so outrageous, then the final panels would have no force.

The awful terrible not good bad comic-book sequel says that the New Frontiersman read the journal and the scheme ultimately failed (but that's okay because Doctor Manhattan turns into Clark Kent...or something). The really rather decent TV sequel says that the scheme succeeded, and that a generation later small squids still occassionally fall from the sky, but that the post-Ozymandias world is not exactly a Utopia.

Andrew Rilstone said...

It's presented as a twist. The British assuming the Mysterious Domes are Russian; they rush to find out what is happening -- but, surprise!, it turns out that the Russians are just as puzzled as we are.

SPOILERS By volume three, Chris is best buddies with a Cosmonaut named Serge.

But yes, the whole domes / Russians plot is a narrative pretext to get young Chris into the capsule.

Richard Worth said...

I think that for younger people in Britain in the 1950s, there was a sense that the Russians were our Cold War rival, but also our war-time ally who has helped beat the Nazis, but the Communists had put up an Iron Curtain but fought against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War and that Mao had beaten the Japs but not yet led the Great Leap Famine-ward. I suspect that some of the scientists would have preferred to find aliens, who would be easier to understand than the Soviets.

Gavin Burrows said...

I wonder if those reasons ultimately run together. You don't pull a twist on a trope when it's emerging but when it's starting to play out.

Unknown, throughout the original Cold War there was a tendency for Britain to see itself as the measure of sensible moderation between the two antagonistic ideologies. Perhaps strange when you think Britain had one side's military bases on its soil. But.. well, to an extent it was true, wasn't it? At least up till the Eighties, when we decided to go all free market, with far-from-hilarious consequences.

But at the same time I think it was compensatory. If Britain wasn't on the same scale as the two superpowers, we could think that at least we had something special going on here.

BTW, "too dow" is the cool new way of saying "to do", a bit like "pwned", and it will be all over the internet in 2022. There is no need to do your own research here. Just take my word for it...

Andrew Rilstone said...

Also, wasn't there a sense that the British Communist Party was Wrong But Respectable? One was always hearing about principled old-fashioned lefties who resigned from The Party after the invasion of Hungary?

Gavin Burrows said...

I'd say both are true. But the second still cancels out the first. Let me hypothesise...

The post-war consensus successfully swung much working class support away from the CP, indeed it was one of the reasons Attlee gave for its necessity. This left them with their middle class support, which had always been more ideological than pragmatic. Tweedy Oxbridge types rather than Glaswegian ship-builders, it was easier to frame then as Wrong But Respectable. (Rather than A Terrible Threat to Our Way of Life.)

But this was scuppered by the tanks rolling into Hungary, in '56. Worse, the CP essentially fudged the issue. So while some left disillusioned at the sight, others went because their stance didn't seem hard-line enough. If the CP didn't fold, from that point it attracted almost no new recruits. By the time I'd come to Brighton in the mid-80s they still existed, but didn't have a single member under pension age. Their main activity was organising Communist Cheese and Wine Evenings.

The decline of the Red Menace trope is usually attributed to the decline of McCarthyism, and its induced paranoia. But I'd contend the invasion of Hungary, and consequent discrediting of the Soviet Union, was just as much a factor.

Forgive me if I wax a little too lyrical. Still watching my way through the Troughton era, so have Red Menaces on the brain.