Saturday, January 15, 2022

1959: A Space Odyssey.

To my relative surprise I enjoyed Hugh Walters' Blast Off At Woomera, so I decided I had better have a look at the sequel, which is called The Domes of Pico. There are eighteen books in the series, and you will be relieved to hear that I am not planning to read them all.

The book has a slightly unusual place in my personal canon. In the olden days, when books only existed in libraries, there was generally a list of “other titles you may be interested in” on the fly-leaf, and “books by the same author” opposite the title page. We proto-geeks read and memorised everything, even the ingredients of Sugar Puffs, so those lists of titles became a kind of poetic incantation. Warriors of Mars, Maid of Mars, Chessmen of Mars, the Voyages of Doctor Doolittle, Doctor Doolittle in the Moon; "this book tells how whole cities abandon the earth to wander in space". The titles were often more evocative than the actual books, and it was pot-luck whether or not you got to read them. The Martian chess men play a disappointingly minor role in the umpteenth Barsoom novel.

Hugh Walters' list was relatively easy to commit to memory: after the first couple of volumes, he went in for planetary alliteration: Journey to Jupiter, Mission to Mars, Passage to Pluto and so on until the solar system ran out of planet. But The Domes of Pico, the second book in the series, didn’t appear on the majority of fly-leaves. I suppose that not all the early volumes were kept in print so the older volumes weren’t listed in the newer editions. Some of the books went by more than one title:  I spent a long time hoping to find a copy of First On The Moon, which turns out to have been the American title of Operation Columbus. At some point I must have gone into a different library, possibly while I was on holiday, and learned that such a book as The Domes of Pico existed, but I knew I would never get to read it. This gave it a kind of talismanic magic. The book I never saw; the book that didn't exist, the book that all the kids would have read in the olden days, but which I, forced to live in an age of bronze knew about only via redacted flyleaves...

I didn't articulate it like that, of course, but it's the kind of thing which gets into kids' heads. Black and white Doctor Who; the Eagle; the wireless; Saturday morning pictures; air-raids -- part of the normal base-line world for which I was somehow born too late. This is the closest many of us came to C.S Lewis’s elusive joy. J.K Rowling based an entire career on a vague sense that olden-days schools were the most school-like schools.

At any rate: the Domes of Pico; the one book in the Chris Godfrey saga that was never in any East Barnet library. Unfinished business; a promise to my eight year old self. I am finally filling in the missing piece.

It is exactly like all the others. 

It is very obviously a sequel. In fact, it's a fairly transparent attempt to do Blast Off At Woomera all over again. Boy is trained. Boy flies to moon. Boy to all intents and purposes killed. Boy saved by borderline divine intervention. We don't find out the secret of the domes in this second volume; and the actual trip to the Moon is a bet “meh”. But there is a secondary, human, psychological plot which is much more compelling than the Russian spy sub-plot in book one. It is contrived and melodramatic and overwritten, with more of that mawkishly masochistic emotional scab-picking that characterised volume one. It’s incredibly far-fetched. I liked it very much indeed.

At the beginning of the story, Walters gives us readers a crucial piece of information which he withholds from most of the main characters, leading to all sorts of tension, irony and soul-searching. Then at the end of the story, he quite shamelessly leads his readers up the garden path by not giving them a piece of information which is entirely obvious to everyone in the actual story. 

I probably don't need to be over-worried about spoilers when talking about a book that has been out of print for half a century. I was flattered and indeed humbled whenever anyone said that they were reading or re-reading Steve Ditko's Spider-Man because of my essays. More so when they said they were reading Saint Mark's life of Jesus. But I would be very alarmed if anyone went off and read these pot-boilers as a result of my literary nostalgia. They're very much of their time and you probably wouldn’t enjoy them as much me 

But if anyone is reading along, you might like to skip this essay until you have got to the end of Domes of Pico. It is pretty much impossible to talk about the book without giving away The Twist.

Modern Young Adult writers love first person narratives in spunky kid voices. "Mum? Is that you? I guess you’re wondering why I wasn’t in school today? Well, I know this sounds a bit random but I'm on a space ship, let me explain...". We can probably blame Salinger; or come to think of it, Mark Twain.

Walters does not do this. At all. He starts three paces away from the action, with a boring adult doing boring adult things, described in boring adult language: 

Calder Hall. The name of the world's first plant for generating electricity from atomic energy still produced inside the Minister of Fuel and Power a warm glow of pride.

Warm glow of pride: do you see what he did there? 

The sentences are convoluted; the words are big; and no stock phrase or cliche remains unuttered.  When the minister hears that Calder Hall has shut down "beads of perspiration glisten on his forehead."  When the power station was first opened, the needle on the electricity meter had "begun its steady march round its large white dial" and “a new age had been born." Some kids -- one at least -- rather like this approach. It makes us feel that we are reading a proper book. It gives us permission to take all the outrageous action seriously. The hero of the hour is still Chris Godfrey, the undersized schoolboy who got zapped into orbit in the first book, but we readers get to overhear what the adults are saying about him when he's not in the room.

You can understand why the energy minister is sweating. It's not only Calder Hall that has shut down: every nuclear power station in the world has stopped working simultaneously. Some of the newspapers think that the big meltdown is a result of a previously unknown property of Uranium. "Yet the true cause was a different one. Staggeringly different!" Walters isn’t coy about grabbing the reader’s attention and keeping it grabbed.

The culprit is those mysterious Domes which young fella-me-lad Chris was sent up into space to photograph in book one. The Domes are continuing to do excellent work as an all purpose plot device which provide the Rocket Research Institute with an endless series of narrative excuses to put teenaged boy’s lives at risk. Walters keeps assuming that we need reasons to send children to the moon. “Because it’s there” isn’t a sufficient motivation. 

There is, incidentally, another fairly well-known science fiction story in which a big dumb object of presumably extra-terrestrial origin sits mysteriously on the moon waiting to be found. 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t come out until 1968, but the short story on which it was based was published in 1953, four years before Chris Godfrey's first encounter with the more rotund monoliths.

Since Blast Off At Woomera the Mysterious Domes have been joined by an equally Mysterious Cone. The Cone is firing out neutrons which is what is causing all the world's power stations to go critical at once.  And also giving people radiation sickness, which seems to manifest as blindness. This is likely to result in the end of civilisation as we know it: Walters actually uses that venerable phrase. The only solution is to, er, nuke the site from orbit. But a nuclear strike would only be possible if there were a missile guidance beacon on the moon near the Cone. And only a human astronaut would be able to accurately place such a beacon. Can you see where this is going?

Two years have passed since the first story. It is is specifically 1959 and and Chris is specifically 19, having finished his first year at Cambridge. It's the little things that remind us that we're in the 1950s. Chris share something called a "railway compartment" with two old ladies on a steam train; his Aunt has a coal fire and shops have "early closing days". Telephones are referred to as “instruments” and the news is heard on “radio sets”. Chris Godfrey’s own dialogue is straight out of Billy Bunter. ("It was a dirty trick! Uncle George was not playing the game!")

Since civilisation needs to be saved right now, and since Chris is the only person on earth with experience as an astronaut, Sir George Benson of the Rocket Research Establishment asks him to volunteer for another mission. 

I’m not sure I swallow this. One of the joys of the first book was that once you had accepted the premise of a school-boy in space, everything else followed logically and convincingly. But the idea that in the past two years it hasn’t occurred to anyone to train up an airman or a test pilot stretched my disbelief suspenders a little bit too far. (Chris’s last space flight has caused him to put on height, so there is no longer even the excuse that he will fit into the capsule.)

The first half of the book is a bit of a plodding retread of Blast Off At Woomera. It isn't as interesting, either for us readers or for Chris, because it's no longer new to us. Centrifuge, space suit, weightlessness; it’s jolly uncomfortable but all chaps’ upper lips remain resolutely stiff. Chris inconveniently acquires a new personality trait, "claustrophobic" to go on his character sheet alongside “small”, “shy”, “brave”, “hungry” and “pious”. This is something of a drawback since he is going to have to spend five days, rather than twelve minutes, squashed in a teeny-weeny space capsule. The boffins try putting him in a small capsule-shaped room for a few hours to acclimatise him, but he can't hack it. So they decide to anaesthetise him after take off and bring him round when he gets to the moon. Which is exactly what they used to do with the monkeys.

Chris can last five days without food or water; but they thoughtfully supply him with toothpaste tubes of glucose for him to suck when he wakes up. Real-life astronauts are always asked "How do you go to the bathroom in space?" but Walters is far too British for the question of space-potties or space-nappies to even occur to him. In volume three Chris will get to supplement his diet with "meat tablets" but there is still no bathroom.

And so we come to the Twist. 

Nice Uncle George isn't in charge of the mission: this time it is run by Nasty Sir Leo Frayling. Walters is really good at dropping big, dramatic, one liners at the end of chapters, and Chapter 6 is a doozy:

As he walked towards the door of the Cabinet Room Sir Leo Frayling found one of his fellow scientists at his side. As the two men passed through, his companion pulled Sir Leo back.

“If he goes, what chance has Godfrey got of getting back alive?” he asked in a quiet voice. Sir Leo looked his colleague squarely in the face. “

"Absolutely none,” he answered in the same low tone.

It seems that the cosmic rays coming from The Cone would kill any astronaut before they got anywhere near the moon: so the capsule has to be shielded with lead. But lead is quite heavy; and although the rocket has got enough fuel to take Chris to the moon, it won't have enough to bring him back. Uncle George obviously wouldn't consent to killing such a nice young man as Chris (even to save Civilisation As We Know It) so Sir Leo doesn't tell anyone what he has planned. It's kept on a strict need-to-know basis. The people who do need to know become very awkward and tongue tied around Chris, but naturally, he doesn't particularly spot that anything is wrong.

This is the fulcrum around which the second half of the book turns. I am not going to use the expression "moments of psychological complexity" but there is no doubt that in Chapter 16 actual characterisation occurs.

Bad Sir Leo waits until Chris is asleep to tell Nice Uncle George that he is intending to kill the boy. But Chris, who is, after all, only 19, decides to play a funny jape. He pretends the anaesthetic has kicked in before it actually has. Ergo, he hears sentence pronounced. (Bad Sir Leo is a fine rocket scientist, but he isn't bright enough to switch off the radio.) This is the lynchpin around which the story spins. Chris wakes up in orbit around the Moon. He tells ground control that he knows they have sent him to his death.  And he sulks.

“You might as well know I heard your announcement that I can never get back. Yet all along you’d been telling me I’d be all right. It was a dirty trick.....I—I’ve finished with everybody. I’m not going to despatch your precious beacon.....But you’ve all played me a dirty trick, so I’m through.”

You sent me on a suicide mission without telling me. Well, I'm not playing. I'm going to go to my room and just let civilisation come to an end without me. So there.

Nice Uncle George has to persuade Chris to lay down his life selflessly to save the world. And the resolution is genuinely quite affecting. Chris asks Sir George if he would have still asked him to fly the rocket if he had known it was a suicide mission. And Sir George replies "Yes Chris, I should--and I know you would have done it." So Chris completes the mission, knowing he has no chance of ever coming home. Everyone starts having surges (of pleasure, exaltation, and excitement) and the narrative voice spends a few paragraphs going completely over the top:

For had not the youth of each generation, Chris thought, willingly sacrificed themselves in the defence of their fellows? Why should he, typical of the young people of the day, be more of a coward than the young men of former days? Christopher remembered those thrilling accounts he’d read of the soldiers, sailors and airmen in the last war, and of their heroic deeds....

My friends you would not tell with such high zest, etc etc etc.

Overall, the book is less pious than the first one was (and much less so than the next one is going to be). Chris and Nice Uncle George do say their prayers before going off on the mission, but there is a slight sense that everyone is embarrassed by it. Chris himself is prone to say "God grant that I can hold out" when things get hard and to "thank God for his deliverance" when they turn out okay, although the grown ups all use "my God" and "good heavens!" as mild expletives. But Chris's willingness to become a victim in order to avert the end of civilisation as we now it is absolutely explicit. It would be going too far to see him as the Lamb Of George, taking the full force of the cosmic rays so the world doesn't have to. But there is no question that for Walters, heroism means self-sacrifice and vicarious suffering. In the first book, Nice Uncle George directly likened the walk to the space capsule to the condemned man's walk to the gallows. This time, Chris's suicide mission is repeatedly described as sacrificial. Granted, we talk about sacrificing soldiers lives in wars; and Walters talk about the spirit of self-sacrifice (i.e working hard and doing without) that animated Londoners during the Blitz. But when Bad Sir Leo's plan is first proposed, the Minister of Defence wonders whether he should ask the Cabinet to decide "whether this human sacrifice should be made". (He directly compares Chris with Laika, incidentally.)

Obviously, all heroes dice with the Reaper. I can remember watching Star Trek when I was a little too young for it, and starting to notice that nearly everyone was nearly killed in nearly every episode -- by space plagues, wars, alien execution chambers and duels with space lizards... The stories weren't to do with Space; they were to do with Death. And of course all pop songs were to do with Love. It's like, Love and Death were the only things that grown ups were interested in. (I only found out about the Thing they were most interested in a bit later.) But Walters doesn't put his characters into cliffhangers in which they might die, and then show how bravely and ingeniously they got out of them. He keeps telling us that they definitely will die, and tries to make us believe that they have died -- and then, at the last minute, reveals that they are not dead after all. "I'm going out and I may be gone some time" could stand as an epigram for the series. Hugh Walters helped to run the local Boy Scout Troop.

It is not quite true to say (as some people did after my last monograph) that Hugh Walter's Church of England God is a deist figure who never does anything. It would be truer to say that Walter's invokes the  Christian deity as a deus ex machina, particularly when he has got the heroes into holes he can't otherwise get them out of. In the first book, Chris is literally on the point of entering Heaven but is pulled back by the thoughts and prayers of everyone in the whole wide world. In this one, he is saved from certain death by a some fairly unlikely plot machinations -- and immediately (sitting in his capsule after touchdown) "humble words of gratitude to his Maker fill the young man's mind".

The resolution is hugely contrived, and the Twist is so transparent they omitted it from the American edition. But it is such fun -- where 'fun' is defined as piling agony on agony and turning the melodrama up to eleven -- that it is hard for the reader to object. 

Chris puts the homing device on the Moon. With characteristic understatement, Walters describes this as "a grand finale, perfectly performed, precise and accurate in its execution" which "writes with a flourish, 'The End', on the last page of the slim volume of his life." Mission control zaps him with anaesthetic to spare him the inconvenience of starving to death.

It has been heavily foreshadowed from the beginning of the story that there is a spare, back-up rocket at Woomera base. Once Chris has been figuratively and literally put to sleep, and once the nukes have been launched, Bad Sir Leo and Good Sir George have a very frank exchange of views in a separate room. It ends with a punch being thrown and the second rocket being launched. Naturally, we assume that Nice Uncle George has punched Nasty Sir Leo out, taken over the mission, and volunteered to lay down his own life in a daring, miraculous “it's a long shot but it might just work” rescue of Christopher.

But Walters doesn't say this. He says that Sir George and Sir Leo went into the back room; there was a fight; one man came out of the room, and the man who was still standing put the rescue operation in place.

I wonder if you can guess what is coming?

The plan makes sense -- or as much sense as plans in stories can reasonably be expected to make. Chris has been sent up in the lead shielded rocket because the Cones are sending out evil Cone Radiation; but once the Cones have been nuked, there is no reason that the second, lighter, unshielded rocket shouldn’t be sent up, with enough fuel to make a round trip. Indeed, it isn't quite clear why that couldn't have been the plan from Day 1. And since the whole point of the story is that Chris is the only person who can possibly fly the ship, is it really plausible that Sir George -- sorry, the man who came out of the room -- would be able to launch himself into space at three minutes notice? Couldn’t they at least have trained a back-up astronaut alongside Chris, what with the future of civilisation hanging in the balance, and everything? Three weeks training would presumably have been better than three minutes.

But that said, it's all very dramatic, with Sir George -- sorry, the man in the space ship -- experiencing blood clots in his eyes and all manner of indignities while carrying out the daring rescue. The language is pretty bloody for a kids book -- I momentarily thought of Kimball Kinnison being consumed by space-fungus and the various forms of dismemberment visited on the Last Legionary.

The man crouched uncomfortably in the small cabin of P. 1 was in great pain. Not only was the compartment too small for him, but his inadequate protection against the terrific strain of the blast-off had caused him serious internal injuries. Grimly he struggled to fight off nausea and insensibility as he peered through the film of blood that filled his eyes.

He pulls it off, of course, using mechanical grabbers and retro rockets to turn Chris round and point him back at the earth.

So: Chris survives. And he guesses what has happened. The first thing he does is say thank you to God, and the second thing he does is ask to say thank you to Nice Uncle George who has (in all probability) laid down his own life to save his surrogate nephew’s.

And Chris is told -- stop me if you've already guessed -- that it wasn't Nice Uncle George who saved him: it was Nasty Sir Leo. Sir Leo punched Sir George out; Sir Leo went up in the back up rocket; Sir Leo was willing to die to save Chris. Because nasty Sir Leo was never nasty to begin with. He was just doing his duty, to Queen and country, and his duty was clearly to sacrifice one volunteer in order to save the lives of nearly everyone on earth.

The whole book has basically been a really easy trolly problem. The greatest good to the greatest number clearly demands that someone lay down their life. But if the person is not a theoretical faceless grunt, but your son, or surrogate son, or nephew, would you do it? (It is an interesting conjecture. A fascinating idea. But would you do it?) Earlier in the book the Minister of Defence had been dead set against human sacrifice until his own wife falls victim to Cone induced radiation sickness, at which point his ethics become considerably more flexible.

In the first book, Chris's sacrifice brought about the end of the cold war, or at least the space race. In this one, Chris and Sir Leo's mutual sacrifice creates an eternal bond between the two of them and Sir George. The three are going to be the core of the space exploration team for the next several books.

I didn't enjoy Domes of Pico as much as Blast Off At Woomera, and I don't think I would have done so when I was a child. It rushes through the nuts and bolts; and the climax seems slightly too easy. But I decided I had better have a glance at volume three, Operation Columbus, which begins:

"A landing must be made on the moon!”

Like I say: Walters may be a corny old over-written sentimentalist, but when he grabs my attention it certainly stays grabbed. 

1 comment:

postodave said...

I am glad you are going to be looking at Operation Columbus. That was the one my English teacher gave me as a child and I am pretty sure I read it again many years later after finding a copy in a charity shop. They certainly did keep me gripped as a child. I am also fairly sure I read this one, the plot sounds familiar. And I am fairly sure I never noticed the plot holes you point out.

I still don't know why my teacher thought Walters was so good that he had to recommend him over the classic science fiction writers I wanted to read but I can't deny they are a good read.