Sunday, January 23, 2022

Space: 1960

Operation Columbus by Hugh Walters is a very subtle refutation of J.A.T Robinson's Honest To God.

After the first manned space flight, the Soviet propaganda machine made up a quote for Yuri Gargarin: “I have been into space (the heavens) and I have not found God there.” 

Liberal Bishops responded with earnest books patiently explaining that Christians did not think that God was literally "up there" -- or even "out there". He was really, as Captain Kirk said "in here" -- in the human heart. Robinson’s proposed new theology in which “God” meant “whatever we most fully and deeply believe in” -- was, for most people, indistinguishable from atheism, which inadvertently proved Gargarin's or at any rate Kruschev's point. C.S Lewis noted that it wasn't very alarming to most Christians that the Russians hadn’t found “God” floating eight kilometers above the surface of the earth. “The really disquieting thing would be if they had.”

The burden of this difficult third album in the Chris Godfrey icosology is that you aren't any closer to God (or any further away from him) on the Moon as you would be anywhere else.  Although Chris utters a lot of silent prayers, we never see him reading the Bible; but one imagines he was familiar with Psalm 139. 

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? 
or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: 
if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.

Operation Columbus was published in 1959: two years before Vostock I and four years before the Bishop of Woolwich's book. So my theory may not entirely hold water. But people really were thinking about space travel in religious terms.  

Blast Off At Woomera, established the formula: boy goes up in rocket, boy comes down again. Domes of Pico, the second book, was a little bit louder and a little bit worse: boy goes all the way to moon; boy comes back to earth. This third volume takes things to their logical conclusion: boy lands on moon; boy comes home.

But this time, Walters struggles to make me care. I praised Blast Off At Woomera because Walters seemed to have thought through the logical consequences of his -- admittedly far-fetched -- premise. In Operation Columbus he seems to be pulling plot developments out of his space-hat in a desperate attempt to keep us interested. And then he beats us over the head with a moral even less subtle than the first two books. Even at the age of nine, the denouement made me say “Ooo....that’s a bit of a stretch”.

A year has passed since the last book; Chris is still at college. (That makes him 20, and the year 1960, if anyone is keeping track. The book was published in 1959, so we are gradually slipping into the future.) As the book opens, he is visiting nice old Sir Leo Frayling, who is recuperating from the terrible injuries he took saving Chris’s life in the last thrilling instalment. Walters has repositioned Frayling as a standard issue tough-but-fair housemaster: kind and avuncular when off duty, but an absolute bastard once the mission starts. He would like to get back to work: and it just so happens that there is a new space-mission in the offing.

The first two books began with a crisis: in each case there was a jolly good reason for sending a small boy to the moon right now. This one feels less urgent: the boffins have decided that it would probably be a good thing to go back to the moon and pick up a sample of the demolished Domes just in case the extraterrestrials -- referred to from now on as the Space Beings -- ever decide that they want to wipe out civilisation again. 

In Domes of Pico, Chris was quite cross about being asked to volunteer to fly to the moon, because he would much rather have been practicing amateur boxing at Coll. This time he is absolutely determined to be the first man on the moon. Chris persuades Sir George to reinstate Sir Leo as head of the new moon-shot, on condition that Sir Leo choose him to be the astronaut who makes the landing. When we first met him, Chris was an everyman figure who ended up at the sharp end of a rocket due to circumstance. But now he’s a very British Buzz Lightyear who feels that a chap has to do what a chap has to do. Walters reassures us that it isn’t mere “romantic ambition”, he doesn’t particularly want to “make a heroic sacrifice for science” and it certainly isn’t about “notoriety”. But “if he failed to offer himself for this final crowning achievement he would know peace no more”. I strongly suspect that there was a breathless hush in the close when he makes his decision. 

So: off we go again; training, trip to the moon, terrible dangers, return to earth. The first wrinkle is this. Operation Columbus is going to be a joint British/American moonshot but (naturally) there is only room in the capsule for one astronaut. The Yanks send their top candidate to go through the training alongside Chris at Farnborough, but Sir Leo will then decide which of them takes the trip. Once again, astronaut training is mainly about strength and endurance. The centrifuges and isolation tanks are there to “test and torture the human frame”; Whiskers the comedy wing-commander says that he expects “all these tortures to scare the Yank” and when the American arrives he and Chris are put through “the whole gamut of tests and tortures” that the air-base has available. The lad who takes his punishment most manfully gets the place on the space-ship.

The second twist is this. On the other side of the world, Bad Guys are engaged in an even nastier game of Endurance. In Blast Off At Woomera, Chris’s heroism had inspired Russia and the West to pool their resources and meet the threat of the Domes as a unified humanity. The Domes having been thoroughly nuked, Russia is now striking out on its own and is determined to get its guy to the moon first. Even by the standards of the 1950s, the characterisation of the Russians is pretty broad. A nasty Comissar threatens to redeploy a scientist to the New Regions near the arctic circle; the same fate meets anyone who “deviates from the communist party line” or “begins to have ideas and thoughts of their own”. We hear the cosmonaut thinking that a landing on the moon would be...

“A great day for the Soviet Union. A great day for him, Serge Smyslov. His name would be recorded in the history books of future generations along with those of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Kruschev. Nothing, nothing, must be allowed to rob him, or his great country, of this glorious honour!”

We don’t hear Chris monologging that he should go to the moon in the name of the British Empire or hoping that his name will go down along with Churchill, Nelson and Henry the Fifth. The British rocket is named after Christopher Columbus but the Russian one is named after Lenin. 

One assumes that Sir Leo will use Science! to decide who goes to the Moon, but the Ruskies cut right to the chase. They put all their candidates in isolation chambers and tell them that the one who sticks it out longest gets to go. I remember finding this section quite compelling when I read it as a kid: the young Russian (“Serge”) stuck in the fake capsule, looking for ways to pass the time, counting seconds, taking gulps of glucose and hoping to sleep as much as possible seemed quite compelling when I first read them: the idea of being in solitary confinement, being free to come out by pushing a button, but trying to delay doing so as long as possible was quite scary. In the end he sticks it out for “twelve days, two hours, fifty-six minutes” and wins the golden ticket. The need for catheters and diapers has still not occurred to anyone.

Despite being his bitter rival, Chris’s American counterpart, Morrison (“Morrey”) naturally turns out to be a jolly decent chap, and the two of them form a close friendship. We rather have to take Walters' word for this: we don’t see enough of the training to get much of a sense of their relationship. I could imagine a story in which two people are trying very hard to beat each other in a competition while becoming close friends off the pitch, but this is not that story. Chris continues to talk like an English schoolboy, but Walters works very hard to capture the nuances of Morrey’s U.S dialect. (“Say - you’ve been up in a rocket, haven’t you...Gee, thats swell.”)

Morrison wins the torture show and is sent to Australia for the Moon shot, while Chris is put on the first train back to Cambridge feeling distinctly sorry for himself. (He feels better after he's said his prayers.) However, within two paragraphs of his arrival at Woomera, Morrey very sensibly decides to go horseback riding with Betty, the Australian girl with whom Chris has the barest homeopathic suggestion of a romantic relationship. Naturally, he falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and Chris gets to go to the Moon after all. 

One of the few things which sticks distinctly in mind from when I read the book in the school library is Chris being all tongue tied and apologetic to Morrey and Morrey being very American and open about it.

“Sorry about your leg, Morrey,” he burst out at last, “though it would be silly to deny I’m pleased it means I can go on the rocket trip. Still, I wish it had been something else.—Er. I mean—that is, I don’t mean I wish you’d broken something else, but–––” 

That’s all right,” the American laughed. “I know what you mean, Chris. You’re glad to be going, but you’re sorry it’s had to be my accident that’s let you in.”

This side of the story feels distinctly pointless, except to show what good sports everyone is. Chris is turned down, and Morrey breaks his leg in the space of one chapter: there is no time for us to feel that it matters very much. Books feel longer when you are eight, and I created a great deal of fan fiction in my head. Chris looked, and still looks, exactly like John from the Tomorrow People.

Walters envisages the top section of Chris's rocket landing on the moon, with retractable legs: the idea of a separate lunar module doesn't occur to him. Chris is able to leave the capsule and walk on the Moon's surface in a pressurised space-suit. The Russians have the arguably more sensible idea of providing Serge with a small, battery powered caterpillar tracked vehicle; so he can explore the moon without actually setting foot on it. Hughes is not great at describing landscapes: the moment when Chris steps on the Moon is, if anything, rather an anticlimax. The Moon is dusty and marked with craters, but not particularly  strange or alien.

Undulations and more craters seemed to be the general pattern. Some distance away he could see a change in the colour of the ground from brown to a bluey-grey.  This, he decided, must be the lunar dust, and to discover as much about it as possible was one of his tasks....

I think C.S Lewis would have complained that the books are insufficiently focussed on the idea of space-travel: the Moon is difficult to get to (like a mountain) and very hazardous to explore (like a desert) but Walters is not interested in evoking the Mooniness of the Moon. But he is good at imagining how things would present themselves to his human hero's senses: there is a lot of entertaining stuff about Chris figuring out how to move around in low gravity.

In his childhood he’d read fairy stories about seven league boots and he remembered how badly he’d wanted a pair. Now he found that with little effort he could sail forward four or five yards at each stride. It was great fun and he covered the ground.

The Commies haven’t officially sent Serge to the Moon to murder Chris: but they have used their dirty brain-washing techniques to make sure that he will decide to kill him all by himself. Chapter 8 has one of Walters’ killer closing lines:

If they both made a safe landing and came face to face on the Moon, there was no doubt in Smyslov’s mind as to what he would do. His eyes fell on the firing trigger of the rocket gun carried by his little tank.

So: while Chris is checking out the site of the now-vaporised cones and even collecting a sample, the  Russian tank is trundling over to his spaceship and firing a gun at it. Serge blasts a hole in the ship, so Chris has no way of getting home, but the recoil turns the Tank over leaving him trapped as well.

Gosh, as they used to say in Superman comics. How ironic!

So: we have an Englishman on the Moon with not enough oxygen and no way of getting home; and a Russian with plenty of oxygen and a working spaceship, stuck in an overturned landing vehicle. The solution they eventually come to is, wait for it, mutual cooperation. Chris helps Serge get the lander right side up, and they both fly back to earth in the Russian space ship and live happily ever after.

Chris and Serge have a good old British try at making friends; even trying to teach each other a few words of their respective languages. But things gradually get tense. Serge has been brought up to think that Chris is a dirty capitalist imperialist and Chris presumably thinks Serge is a godless freedom hating commie.  And Serge did recently try to murder Chris; and they’ve been forced to spend 72 hours in a very small room with no toilet. You could forgive them if their nerves got a little frayed. But Walters has a better explanation on hand: being in free-fall for long periods has a strange and barely understood effect on the human mind. It does not go well.

....Benson’s voice came back full of relief. “Only just in time. What’s been happening up there?”

Chris felt himself flush with shame. “I—I don’t quite know,” he stammered. "I think we’ve been scrapping.” 
“I should jolly well think you have,” Sir George called back. “Do you know you’ve smashed everything up and we can’t do a thing from here?” 

“Yes, it looks like it,” the young man answered ruefully.

I’m afraid I just found this silly. Serge trying to shoot Chris for the greater glory of the Soviet Union, maybe. Chris trashing the ship because he’s failing to get on with his new companion, not so much.

Although the rocket is substantially controlled from Earth, it is necessary for the human occupant to manually fire the retro rockets at exactly the right moment. With both humans thrashing each other, things look bleak. Fortunately, Walters has a full-on deus ex machina up his sleeve. Chris is, if anything, even more pious in this volume than he was in the first two. He is the sort of chap who leaps up in the middle of the night if he has forgotten to say his prayers. Before going up into space, he sends for the Padre to take Holy Communion. Just before setting foot on the Moon, he becomes involved in a full-on Sunday School sermon illustration:

Just as he was about to jump an awful thought struck him. He hadn’t yet thanked God for his safety so far. How easy it is, he thought remorsefully, to ask for Divine protection and then, when you get it, to take it for granted. He offered up a silent prayer and asked for help in the task ahead.

And all this praying pays off. During the mad fight with Serge, Chris happens to fall against the correct switch at the correct moment and put the ship back on course. Once again, God has stepped in and saved the day. Hugh Walters is absolutely clear that this is what has happened:

One switch had so far escaped miraculously. It was that which would ignite the retro-rocket in the event of failure to function by the impulse from control. Now—call it Chance or Divine Providence, as you will—the tangled bodies fell against the switch at just the moment control would have chosen. The circuit was completed and the retro-rocket roared into life.

Oh dear.

People feel got at by the Narnia books because the leader of the goodies is quite a lot like Jesus. If anything the complaint is that Lewis’s propaganda isn’t blatant enough: Lion-Jesus somehow slips in under the radar. But I have never heard anyone complain that Walters was writing Christian propaganda. (The very helpful Unexa.Org website does find the later volumes in the series, in which humans encounter increasingly angelic aliens, are a little hard to take.) A bit old fashioned and obsessed with the stiff-upper lip, yes. But all this stuff seems to have whizzed directly over our heads. When I read the book as a child (good Sunday School boy though I was) I didn’t think that the author could be serious about divine intervention as a solution to the crisis. My main reaction was that the character just happening to fall onto the crucial button at the crucial moment was a bit of a cop-out that I wouldn’t have got away with in one of my composition essays.

It’s still not over. They are now hit by a meteor, even though “it had always been reckoned that the chance of a space vehicle being struck by a meteor the size of a marble was only once in several thousand years.” I’m not quite sure why God gets to take the credit for the retro-rockets but the meteor is blamed on “the cruellest of luck”. Wouldn’t it have been more fun if it had been Satan's fault, or the Ghost of Karl Marx, or something? There is some good information about meteors and micro-meteors and shooting stars: I assume it is broadly correct. The dust on the moon seems to jump about because it is being perpetually hit by tiny particles of space sand which would burn up if there was any atmosphere, which was a good guess for the time, I think. What we perceive as shooting stars are tiny dust-sized micro-meteors, and the Moon is covered in craters because there is no atmosphere to burn up the large ones.

So now Lenin is full of holes and I can’t help imagining Arthur Dent’s voice saying that this time they are quite definitely going to die. But Chris has the idea of acting like the little boy in the dyke, and Serge, who probably doesn’t read Dutch folk lore, follows suit. They each cover a hole with their hand, and the spaceship gets back home in one piece. Hurrah! (Or rather “utter a silent prayer of thanks”.)

The final scene finds Chris and Serge in a Russian hospital. The stigmata on their respective hands are bandaged up. “Uncle George” is on hand to explain the very cryptic moral of the story while the theme tune plays in the background:

“But the most important lesson we’ve learnt from your expedition is not a scientific one. It’s something we ought to have known all along. Only by co-operation and the comradeship of all men can Mankind hope to venture into other worlds, and it is only in friendship that we can go forward together.”

Thanks, George. And just in case we miss the point

“As if to give tangible expression to this truth the two young men looked at each other.  Their two good hands stretched out and they clasped each other in a grip that seemed symbolic.”

Thank you, Hugh. But I think we were able to spot the symbolism by ourselves. Chris and Serge, raised to hate each other, but not that different inside. Symbolic. Russian aggression ends up rebounding on the Russians themselves. Symbolic. Russian lad trapped inside his lunar lander, British lad outside it, separated by a steel wall, unable to communicate, while their masters on earth wrangle and argue and an international incident threatens to break out. Symbolic. The British and the Russian, in a space ship, their lives in mortal danger, who fight each other rather than pull together to save the day. The final divine act which forces them together. Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten.

If the Russians are as monstrous and evil as they have been represented, then surely making peace with them is the last thing we ought to be doing. We ought to be building up our nuclear missile collection and militarising the moon. Chris can still be friends with Serge, of course, provided Serge has seen how horrible Russia is and defected to the West and become a Christian. But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t tell us a story in which the Russians are pure evil and then tell us that we should all live together in peace and harmony.

So: a bit of a disappointment, this one: but I will have a look at the next one, which completes the initial quartet. Will we finally find out who made the domes? Will Chris stop being quite so pious and develop some flaws? And which two supporting characters from volume 3 are going to become regular team members in volume four? Stay, as they used to say, tuned. 


Thomas said...

The story of the boy who put his thumb in the dyke is not exactly Dutch folkore! The origin of the story is French. It was popularized by an American novel.


Andrew Rilstone said...

Good point.

postodave said...

Was the mention of John Robinson pre-emptive? You did the last one and we ended up with stuff in the comments section about David Jenkins and Sea of Faith. Anglican radicals seems to be a theme.

This was the first Hugh Walters novel I read as a teenager and I remember the details fairly well. The idea that the Russian way of finding an astronaut was sinister and the kind of thing only they would come up with sticks in my mind. But, I barely noticed the religious aspects. The was it luck or was it God thing seems workable to me. I think he could have found a way round that quite easily but wanted that there.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I wasn't specifically thinking of the Jenkins Digression -- the book made me think of Lewis's essay "the Seeing Eye" (aka "onward, Christian, spacemen") and I sort of ran with it. In my defence, it was late at night.

The "was it luck or was it God" would have been innocuous on its own; but coming after a service of Holy Communion and lots of references to prayer, it's rather hard to ignore. No reason for a Christian engineer who likes science fiction not to incorporate his faith his books, of course, but I'd rather have heard, say, Chris discussing Christianity and Marxism with Serge on the way home...

Final essay, for the time being, on Moonbase One follows as soon as I get a Round Tuit.