Wednesday, December 22, 2021



Chris Godfrey is an almost completely passive protagonist. He has no agency whatsoever. His heroism consists being subjected to the discomfort of g-force, the nausea of zero-gravity, the indignity of endless medicals and injections and changes of underwear and Taking It Like A Man. He puts himself in a position where he is quite likely to be killed, and he doesn't chicken out, even though it is made clear to him that he could.

The English are proud of the stiffness of their upper lips. There are no terms of endearment when Chris takes leave of his Aunt. On the day before the mission everyone keeps saying "see you in a few minutes" even though they know he is likely to die. There is a queasy sense of male closeness: Greatrex, the whiskered battle of Britain veteran who takes him under his wing refers to Chris as "young feller-me-lad" to his face and "that kid" out of earshot.

The Battersea Park Teddy Boys demand that Chris literally licks their boots, and Chris acquiesces. Sir George and Greatrex are shocked that Chris allowed himself to be humiliated rather than fighting back.  “If the kid really has a yellow streak, he’ll start squealing when the time gets near for the blast-off." But then they realise that Chris would have liked to have punched one of the group of bigger men with knives who outnumbered him. But he held back, because he knew that his getting hurt would jeopardise the mission. "In some circumstances it takes a great deal of courage to be a coward" says Sir George. Much manly squeezing of hands and gruff clearing of throats ensues. 

And on the final day, after Chris has said his prayers and refused a hearty breakfast, it's Sir George who starts to have second thoughts 

With every yard that they covered, Benson had to fight the thought that he was sending this lad to his death, that he was accompanying him to his execution.

Everyone is conscious, but no-one quite says, that what they are engaging in is child sacrifice. We overhear a conversation among the scientists about the ethics of sending monkeys into space: some think that it is wrong to kill dumb beasts who can't possibly understand what is happening; others think that killing a few animals for advancement of human knowledge is justifiable. When the monkeys survive, the families on the base make a great fuss of them and give then names. Hughes does not draw the obvious conclusion -- that Chris is somewhere between and experimental subject and a pet: but the thought must have occurred to many of his brighter readers. 

We see the launch twice, once from Sir George's point of view, and once from Chris's. In mission control, we hear Chris sobbing; in the claustrophobia of the rocket, we hear all the doubts that are going through his mind.

Would he be seeing any of them again? Of course he could if he wanted to. He had only to call out that he was too scared to carry on, and Sir George wouldn’t press the switch. Or would he? It wasn’t fair of them to ask him to undergo this mental agony, let alone the physical torture that would probably follow.

Uncle, if it be possible, save me from this hour. In case we miss the point, as the rocket falls to earth, God makes a brief, on-stage appearance.

Nearer grew the brightness at the end and all Christopher knew was that he wanted to reach it more than anything he had ever wanted before, for somehow he was sure that in that bright glow lay happiness and peace and rest. With a half-formed prayer in his mind he came to the end of the tunnel or corridor and all about him was the light.

English literature has also involved an element of sentimentality which borders on the sadomasochistic. From the sacrifice of Isaac to the Prioress's Tale, via Little Nell and Babes in the Wood, right through to tabloid salivation over "Maddie" and "Jamie", there is nothing we like better than blubbing about dead kids. The language when Chris is apparently killed is completely over-the-top:

Would to God young Chris had been spared, [Sir George] breathed to himself in silent anxiety. With a choking in his throat he admitted to himself how much this youngster had come to mean to him.

And weeks later, in the hospital:

Two large, dark eyes like miniature pools in a thin, white face. For a second or two Benson stared, too full of emotion to speak. Then the incredible boy, still too ill to speak, slowly winked an eye. In spite of himself and to his eternal chagrin Sir George felt the tears smart in his eyes. Again that slow movement of Christopher’s eyelid—so full of meaning, so very precious. Silently Benson left the ward, a prayer of gratitude singing in his heart.

So: a scientific procedural, told very much in the language of a school story, conceals a clear Christian metaphor. Virtual death and virtual resurrection. He is lead like a monkey to slaughter. He is humiliated and bears his suffering cheerfully. He is betrayed by one of his own. His suffering brings the world together.

The Russian spy, we are told, is not doing it for the money: he is a completely sincere Communist. We don't find out what Communism is all about, but we do find out that the spy had a difficult childhood which set him on the wrong track. I don't know if this is supposed to be a redeeming feature -- he kills one of his friends because of an honest political conviction -- or if it makes him more of a monster. He politely arranges to be shot in the head in the final scene, and ends up in a mental hospital, saving everyone the embarrassment of a real execution. His communism is described as a faith; more oddly, as a kink. It is the language that relatively tolerant people in 1957 might have used about gay men: it's not really their fault and they can't help it. But it's the act of a godless commie that brings Chris back from the Light and indirectly causes peace to break out. How, if nothing else, ironic. 

Blast Off At Woomera is not an allegory. It's a space story about a boy astronaut by an amateur boffin; beloved by junior library geeks who wanted to be astronauts when they grew up. Hughes puts Christian morals into story in the same way he puts in thermal underwear and cooked breakfast: they are the kinds of things that go into stories of this kind. 

And yet. Hughes wasn't above playing around with names. His pen-name is a kind of pun: Walter Hughes the furniture salesman became Hugh Walters the science fiction writer. (A science fiction writer named Wally Hughes appears in one of the later volumes.) I doubt that he consciously intended the symbolism, but it is hard to avoid noticing syllables of the main character's name. Chris Godfrey. Chris/God. The story of how Chris sacrificed himself for the world. 

And it would be remiss of me not to mention that Christopher Godfrey literally means "Christ-Bearer Peace-of-God."

1 comment:

Richard Worth said...

Curiously, Burgess & Mclean had defected to the Soviet Union in 1951, but Philby wasn't identified as the Third Man until the 1960s. Alan Turing was prosecuted in 1952 and died in 1954. I am wondering how far some of this will have filtered into the popular conciousness, and British people in the 1950s would have regarded both Communism and homosexuality as 'kinks' which would undermine the careers of people in responsible public roles.