Monday, January 31, 2022

Nineteen Sixty One A.D

Moonbase One is the last Hugh Walters book that I propose writing about. For the time being, at any rate. It kind of winds up an opening quartet. The first four books have all been about The Moon, and specifically about the mysterious alien artefacts on The Moon. The fifth one, Expedition Venus will be a soft reboot, repositioning the series as being about planetary exploration. All plot threads from the Moon sequence will be left dangling;  the Space Beings and their Domes are never properly explained.  Walter’s doesn’t so much conclude the Pico story as lose interest in it.

If Operation Columbus was about liberal theology, then Moonbase One is about English education and the phasing out of the Eleven Plus. 

Up until the 1940s, barring scholarships or rich parents, most children left school at 14 and got a job or an apprenticeship. Between about 1944 and 1965, children were put into a magic sorting hat which divided them into Academics (who went to Grammar School); Skilled Workers (who went to Technical School) and Workers (who went to Secondary Modern). Unfortunately, there weren’t actually any Technical Schools for them to go to, so the system turned into a straight competition in which the winners earned places at Grammar Schools and the losers were condemned to Secondary Moderns. The two kinds of school were supposed to have “parity of esteem” but in practice people who "failed" the Eleven Plus were widely regarded as having failed at life. In the 1960s, Harold Wilson swept the whole elitist system away, and replaced it with a more egalitarian model in which everyone was educated equally badly in vast mixed ability jungles. In the 1980s, this Comprehensive system was itself abolished and replaced with -- whatever the hell it is we have now. Hugh Walters would have been educated in the 1920s: he presumably either won a scholarship or had parents who could afford to pay for his secondary education. Chris Godfrey was born in 1940 and attends Wolverton Grammar presumably on the basis of having passed the Eleven Plus in 1951. (His Auntie runs a little shop and could never have afforded to educate him privately.) Schooldays over, he sails into Cambridge University: we never find out which college or indeed precisely what he studied. 

The initial set up, all those years ago, was an unashamed wish fulfilment fantasy, with Chris as the barely concealed Mary-Sue. A famous scientist just happened to be passing his school and just happened to realise that he just happened to be the ideal person to be Britain’s first astronaut. If it could happen to him, it could happen to you. Like Stan Lee, Hugh Walters has the sense to make the hero pay for his big dreams with an awful lot of grief. If you become a superhero, everyone will hate you and those you love will die. If you become an astronaut, you’ll have to do a lot of extra P.E with some particularly unpleasant P.E masters. And you will very probably die. 

But time has moved on, and Chris has become an idealised figure -- famous, brave, self-sacrificing, pious. He’s twenty-two now with a degree in -- something or other -- and feels that going to the moon is the apex of his life’s work. He is a shoo-in to be the leader of the latest mission. (Walters keeps referring to him as the Young Leader, making the US/Commonwealth moon programme sound a bit like the Boy Scouts.) Jolly stirring stuff, of course, but with a hero to whom it is increasingly hard to relate.

So, in this fourth volume,  Walters revisits the Schoolboy In Space motif.  And I have to say that he comes up with a distinctly clever plot device to justify it.

One definitely feels that as this fourth volume opens, a formula is being established. The main characters have all been thoroughly Flanderized. Or, to put it more kindly:  Walters has generated a plot machine that works, and sees no particular reason to modify it. Sir George is wise, avuncular, loves Chris just a little bit too much, but is largely absent. Sir Leo is ruthless and inhuman but gets the job done. Whiskers is nice and funny and calls people "fella-me-lad" and "young whipper-snapper". Chris is brave and noble and pious and modest and shy. Morrey is American and open-hearted; Serge is Russian and reserved. But Serge and Morrey are, truthfully, little more than names in this volume. The human interaction, such as it is, is almost all about Chris and Tony. Since Tony is in the same position that Chris was in the first book, this is rather nice, although it is a shame that Walters never makes the point directly.

There is going to be another trip to the moon; this time, three bold astronauts are going to construct a simple, pressurised dome on the surface and remain there for days or weeks, finding out all they can about the Space Beings and their increasingly repetitive Domes. There is never any question about Chris being one of the crew and (since it is an international mission) Yank Morrey and Russkie Serge, from the last volume, get to go along for the ride. Chris, Morrey, and Serge will become the protagonists of the remaining sixteen books in the series; and anyone with a background in comics may feel that Moonbase One is wrapping up an Origin Story. Nice Whiskers, the comedy RAF Wing Commander, compares them with the Three Musketeers, and at moments of peril, Chris makes the team shout “all for one and one for all” which must puzzle Serge. I suppose it could have been “to the toppermost of the poppermost.”

The Fourth Musketeer is Tony.  Tony is an alien. Well, almost as bad as being an alien. He’s from the North. And he’s distinctly common: Chris has to translate his broad Brummie accent into English for the benefit of the rest of the cast. And he didn’t pay attention at school, and he hardly ever goes to church. He’s moody. And he takes more than his fair share of chocolate. And he’s distinctly young even by the standard of agencies who routinely send sixth formers into space: he's only fifteen.

In Domes of Pico; a very bad thing happened: the nasty round monoliths bombarded the earth with nasty radiation, making all the nuclear power stations break down. In the ensuing years, a large number of younger people have come down with some sort of mysterious but always fatal blood cancer. But -- and this is actually quite clever, as blatant plot devices go -- the very small number of people who already had the cancer have equally mysteriously got better. The radiation kills healthy people but it cures sick people. (The slightly cleverer explanation is that perfectly ordinary cosmic radiation is what causes and cures the illness, and the nasty Dome rays made a temporary change to the earth’s atmosphere which let the radiation through.) Either way, the boffins want to send a sick child into space, let him absorb cosmic rays and, see if he gets better. If he does, then they can set to work making a synthetic cosmic ray generating device and save thousands of lives. 

Tony is tragically almost certain to die, and pathetically put on the space ship in a poignant attempt to save his life. Given all the tragedy, pathos and poignancy, it will come as no surprise to the reader to find out that he is ginger, freckled, happy-go-lucky, snub-nosed and endearingly naughty. He even teaches the Russian and the American to play marbles. One wanders why Walters didn’t simply name him Jimmy Olsen.

So the plot of Moonbase One partially retreads that of Domes of Pico. Chris knows that Tony is terminally ill, but isn’t allowed to tell anyone else, Tony least of all. (“Gosh! It would be awful to live with a chap you knew was dying!”) Death is regarded as mildly indecent and unmentionable. Tony’s Mum doesn’t want her dying son to come home from the hospital “Oh I don’t think I could bear it!” she says “I don’t think I could face him knowing he’s going to die.”

Sir Leo is distinctly dis-chuffed with Tony being added to his delicately prepared mission, and tells Chris to gas him, or failing that, knock him out if he causes any problem. (This line was removed from the American edition. English Grammar schools were notoriously fond of corporal punishment, but clubbing boys over the head was already considered a faux pas even in the 1950s.) Chris, however, is determined to treat Tony as a member of the crew. There is a moment of actual characterisation in which his and Sir Leo’s attitudes are contrasted:

“Very well, then. And what about the subject of the other experiment—I forget the boy’s name?” demanded the scientist.

“You’ve forgotten his name? It’s unusual for you to forget anything, isn’t it, sir?” Chris couldn’t resist the thrust at Sir Leo, and was rewarded with an angry glint in the scientist’s eyes.

“His name is unimportant. I regard him merely as an instrument. Have you any comments on his behaviour pattern to date?”

“Tony Hale—that’s his name, Sir Leo—has turned out to be a very likeable boy. “

In Blast Off At Woomera, we were told that the authorities went to some effort to provide a cover story for Chris -- no-one found out that the government was sending a teenager into space until the last possible moment. In Moonbase One, everyone kind of accepts that sticking a fifteen year old kid in a capsule with three fairly experienced astronauts is a perfectly sensible thing to do. If I had been writing the story, I might have decided that everyone in the whole world knew about Tony’s illness apart from Tony himself. He would have to be sequestered, like a jury, and there could be all sorts of tension when some damn fool brings a newspaper or a transistor radio set into the air-base. Or I might have suggested that the space agency ran a competition in which one lucky English schoolboy would win the chance to go into space, and faked the result so Tony wins the golden ticket.

So: we repeat the action of the first few books quite satisfactorily. The presence of Tony makes all the centrifuges and space-suit fittings almost as exciting as they were first time around, because they are new to Tony, and Tony is excited by them. (He is very excited indeed. He “dances round the spacesuits” in excitement when he first sees then; he “literally dances” when he first goes on an aircraft and he “babbles excitedly” when he sees the airfield.)  Although he gyrates his way through the endurance training, he sits out the serious mission briefings and science stuff. In a wry twist, he hangs around with the techies, watching them build stuff, and finds it all rather interesting. It occurs to him that if only he’d paid more attention at school, he could have been a technician as well.

Perhaps after he got back to Birmingham he’d get himself a job in a car factory. Not as an apprentice, of course, for you have to have exam certificates before you get taken on, he thought bitterly.

And so they go to the moon. Or, as Hughes, with his gift for understatement puts it: “Audacious man, in the persons of three young men and a boy, establish a foothold on earth’s satellite!” They start to do their research, having forays out onto the moon's surface and trying to learn more facts about the Domes. The Domes are still really functioning as Plot Devices, I am afraid, with no particular information about who they are and what they want. They send out a terrifying black smoke which gets everyone lost, and there is a moderately scary sequence in which our heroes have to get back from the bomb site to the moon-base despite not being able to see each other through the alien fog.

It is, as has been stated before, funny how the mind works. If I was nine or ten when I read this book, Tony was unimaginably older than me: a little bit younger than the heroes, sure, but still essentially a grown up who had been right through Big School. In my head-cannon, he is a slightly whiney and troublesome adult. Reading the actual text, he is in all respects a naughty and irritating child; and treated as such by the other characters. The scene in which he steals some chocolate rations sticks in my mind from my first reading. Chris is incredibly patronising about it, but I think I was largely on board with Tony when he said that he’d simply eaten some of his own share in advance. (Chris’s objection, that the others would be far too nice to eat chocolate while Tony goes without, didn’t really make sense to me then, and even now reads a little like moral blackmail.) By the end of the adventure, he is sulking and refusing to work with the other heroes; Chris doesn’t actually thump him across the head as Sir Leo proposed, but he does ground him in the Moonbase while the others work on the space capsule and on the surface of the moon.

But then, of course disaster strikes. A supply rocket, bringing food and fuel and even some treats, crashes. It damages the main cable connecting the three Beacons together. Without three functioning Beacons there is no way of taking off and returning safely to earth.

The whole take-off operation was dependent upon the radio beams from the beacons, for the initial guidance of Pegasus. Just as the great rocket had been carefully nursed on to its outward course by signals from Control, so its homeward journey would depend on all three radio beacons. If either of them failed to function correctly the odds were that the projectile would speed off its course and be lost in the depths of space.

So: there is no way of getting home, and everyone is, once again, quite definitely going to die. They are all very noble and brave and talk about whether a million to one chance is better than no chance at all and if it would be better to blow themselves up trying a manual launch or just suffocate slowly when the oxygen runs out.  And just when all seems to be completely hopeless....Tony agrees to come down from his room and play nicely. And he reveals a surprising twist: while he was mooching around with the techies, he learned some basic skills. He knows how to solder cables together! And although they don’t actually have a soldering iron, Tony has apparently read Lord of the Flies. Out here on the moon with no atmosphere in the way, they can use glass from a space helmet to focus the suns rays and generate enough heat to melt wire. If Tony the common working class lad hadn’t been there, the mission would have ended in disaster and everyone really would have died.

(In 1970, when the real life Apollo 13 was in similarly dire straits, the technicians at mission control gave the astronauts very detailed instructions about how to fix their stricken vessel. I can’t help thinking that if mending the cable was that easy, someone on Earth could have talked Chris or Serge or Morrey through the procedure, rather than leaving it to a stroppy chocolate pinching teen to save the day. But I am quite prepared to let this one go, because it’s a nice dramatic neat plot tie-off.)

When they get back to earth, Chris explains the moral for all to hear. Last time, we learned that evil freedom hating commie scum and normal English people would do better if they learned to work happily together. This time, we learned that workers by hand and workers by brain have an equal role to play. Again, Walters is completely explicit about this:

“Neither Serge, nor Morrey, nor I, though we are hoping to become scientists, had the knowledge or skill to make the repair. Only Tony here...had the ability to do the job. Without him, we should not be standing here now....So you space travel a good mechanic is as valuable as a good scientist. Just as we can’t all work with our heads, so we can’t all work with our hands. I think that, whatever we work with, if we do a job well we should all respect each other’s skills....”

And there you have it. In the future, Grammar Schools and Secondary Moderns really will have Parity of Esteem. 

Tony is cured of his fatal illness, of course, but we've all forgotten that subplot by this point. 

And there we leave it (for now). Chris, Morrey, Serge and Tony are a team, all set up to accompany me through the closing years of Junior School and the first few years of Big School, right up until the frabjous day when Luke and Han will burst into my life. The books are badly written; the emotionalism sometimes makes me a little queasy; the characterisation struggles to make one dimension; and the piety makes one’s jaw drop a little. But they were space books, and they were in the school library, and they did what they said on the space tin. 

I wish I could return to Stan Lee's original Marvel Universe and A.A Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood, and to some extent I sometimes do. But I can’t re-enter the world of centrifuges and space-suits and chaps laying down their lives for each other without a second thought. But I did enjoy pressing my nose against the glass and looking into that world; I can see why I was happy living there for a while.  

A long time ago, in the space age.


Thomas said...

As I understand it, the works of Alexandre Dumas (père) were actually quite popular in Russia, both before and after the Soviet Revolution! Serge was probably familiar with them.

Andrew Rilstone said...


Serves me right for trying to be a smart Alexi.