Friday, July 15, 2022

The Bringer of Peace

When a bad thing happens to an English public school boy, he isn't supposed to cry. But if he does cry, a bigger boy will put his hand on his shoulders and tell him to buck up because it's not the end of the world.

Expedition: Venus is the fifth of Hugh Walters' science fiction series. A bad thing happens. It literally is the end of the world. And all the ex-schoolboys try very hard not to cry.

Six years have passed since the events of Moonbase One. Tony, the spunky freckle-faced 14 year old school-boy introduced in the last volume is now a spunky freckle-faced 20 years old space mechanic. Little Chris Godfrey is now Christopher Godfrey the famous physicist. The British Space Exploration Agency has been succeeded by Unexa, the Universal Exploration Agency, but Nice Uncle George is still in charge. (Nasty Sir Leo has snuffed it between volumes, which is a bit of a shame: every good schoolboy needs a harsh-but-fair headmaster to kick against.) The United Nations, rather charmingly, is still referred to as the U.N.O.
By my calculations, the year is 1968. (The book came out in '62.) We've arrived in The Future. There is a base on the Moon; regular unmanned space probes, and disagreement in the U.N.O about whether to map the moon in more detail or strike out the planets. Chris and his two pals -- the Russian One and the American One -- are now said to have been into space dozens of times. 

There's a plot. 

One of the probes has come back from Venus ("our twin planet") and botched quarantine, with the result that a scary grey goo is advancing across the earth, wiping out everything in its path. For the second time in ten years, civilisation is going to come to an end, although everyone treats the prospect of human extinction with a very British sang froid. It is absolutely taken for granted that the government can and should censor the press and the general populace are kept in the dark about what is going on.

The boffins reason that if Venus isn't entirely covered by Grey Ooze, then something fairly common in the Venusian atmosphere must be killing it. So in triple quick time our four heroes are despatched to Lunarville, and thence to Venus, to get samples and hopefully save the world. They are joined by a fifth team member named Pierre who, it will not amaze readers to discover, is French. (Whiskers, the nice retired RAF man who appears in every volume as light relief, briefly encounters an old friend called Jock, who says things like "Have ye heard where the mould has reached, Sir?" You may perhaps be able to guess his nationality.) Pierre is a bit of plot machinery: they need a super-competent biologist to process the Venusian soil samples and work out which one is the antidote to the Grey Goo. He isn't destined to become a regular member of the Famous Five. 

We don't get much sense of what a moon-base looks like, or what it would feel like to live on one. Morrey (the American one) improbably takes a bath on his arrival, and is slightly surprised that the water will be filtered and reused. (Toilet facilities are still not mentioned.) The Venus rocket catches fire during the planning stage, but everyone works really hard and the launch goes ahead. They refer to the rocket as Phoenix from then on, which is quite cute.

Walters can do nuts and bolts details, but he can't do sense of wonder. He cares that our heroes are given new khaki fatigues before going out to the Sahara to have a look at the Grey Goo first hand, and that poor Whiskers clothes get creased up before he tries them on. But the actual first manned trip to an alien planet feels rather perfunctory. We are told that the Phoenix can accelerate to half a million miles per hour, but that this won't actually feel any different to travelling at thousandth of that speed, and therefore the trip only takes a couple of days. We are told that messages from earth take four minutes to get to Venus, but our heroes don't really feel a long way from home: it's more like a diving expedition with a very long tube back to the mother ship.

The plan is to skirt the Venusian atmosphere and pick up samples for Frenchie to analyse, but when this doesn't work they briefly land on the surface. There is some speculation about whether the surface would be land, water, desert, rock or dust? "Or was it even a dense tropical jungle as some folks had suggested?" In the event, it feels as if they have landed "inside a bowl of cotton wool", but they sensibly don't open the doors, and it is too dark to see the surface of the planet on what is quaintly described as a "television set". When the ship seems to be sinking, they blast off in a hurry. Quite tense, but quite an anti-climax. Fortunately, Frenchie has got the sample he needs, and is already at work on an antidote. 

It's on the way home that Walters' standard plot formula -- I am slightly tempted to say his pathology -- kicks in. All the lads are in terrible danger. All the lads are going to experience quite a lot of physical pain. All the lads are quite definitely going to die horribly. And the important question is -- will they get through it without crying? 

Just before blast off, Tony notices an itch on his hand. Then he notices it again. Then he goes down to the engine room and refuses to come out. Chris is jolly cross, and even uses the word "mutiny". Is Tony still at heart the naughty oik from the lower class school? 

Astute readers realise what has happened. While helping Frenchie in the lab and asking intelligent questions for the benefit of readers, Tony has been infected by the Grey Goo and he's gone into the hold and put on a space suit in order to die quietly without out infecting the rest of the crew. He doesn't directly say "I'm going out and I may be gone some time" but he might as well have done.

The scene in which Chris follows him down to the engine room and realise what has happened is the only really dramatic moment in the book: 

As soon as he was clear, Chris went over to the suit-clad figure which they had strapped to a couch. Anxiously Chris bent over to undo the fastenings of the helmet. Then he sprang back with a cry of horror that startled all the others. They looked at their leader in surprise. He looked pale—as if he had seen a ghost. Then he seemed to pull himself together and bent over Tony again. Yes, he was not mistaken. Through the front-piece of the mechanic’s helmet he could see his face inside. It was covered with grey mould.

Fortunately, Frenchie has already created a potential Grey Good Antidote out of the Venusian samples. So, there is nothing to do but use Tony as a guinea-pig. The rest of the crew don't put their own suits on before taking his off. Because if the antidote works, it won't matter if they get infected. And if it doesn't work, it won't matter either. When asked at a press conference whether the Famous Five will come back to earth without an antidote, nice Uncle George says "Well there wouldn't be much point, would there?"

It works, of course. Tony looses his composure, but Chris is jolly decent about it.  

An immense surge of relief welled up inside him, and the next moment he was weeping like a baby.

"Sorry" Tony gasped between sobs.

"Think nothing of it, old chap" Chris said. "This will do you a world of good."

Naturally, everyone is jolly pleased that civilisation has been saved:

"Sorry, I couldn't swallow it at first" the Director went on "but I can now confess we'd all given up hope here. It--takes some getting used to when you learn that the world isn't going to end after all."

Chris goes all pious on us:

"The World can be saved" was all the biologist said.

Chris, as leader of the expedition, put his hands together in an attitude of prayer

"Thank God" he said simply.

They race home aboard the phoenix, custodian of the secret phial that can save the human race. But it suddenly occurs to them that they used too much fuel blasting off from Venus and have got no way of slowing down. They are once again quite definitely all going to die. They nobly work out a way of sending the antidote down to earth in a canister before they crash, and even more nobly make the parachute out of the covering of their acceleration couches. So the process of slowing down is going to really hurt. But they grit their teeth and take it like a man. Hughes is in the habit of describing the training process for space travel as "torture" and the description of deceleration goes more than usually over the top:

Without proper support they found the terrific pressure excruciating. It was almost as much as they could do to remain in control of their reeling senses. Yet they all wanted the agony to continue as long as possible....

Miraculously, the welcome torture continued, but it must end at any moment now...

But like schoolboys outside the headmasters office, they try extra hard not to cry:  

Tony couldn't trust himself to speak. He found it increasingly hard to choke back the sobs that kept rising in his throat. He wasn't going to break down in front of the others. He'd keep a stiff upper lip even if it killed him to do it. 

The send the life saving canister towards the earth and prepare to quite definitely die. But of course Nice Uncle George hasn't really given up on them. He sends up one of the special space tugs which is used to retrieve obsolete satellites and space junk to slow down the fast moving ship. It's a long shot but it works. Our five heroes are once again not dead. Tony disgraces himself, but the others all take it like men. The prose turns a brighter shade of purple.

The tears were gushing from Tony's eyes and floating round the cabin like little balls of silver, so great was the mechanics relief at the news. No young man wants to die if he can help it.

Chris and the others were just as deeply affected, but somehow managed to maintain their self control.

The book ends with Sir George comforting Tony in hospital -- and promising he's going to go into space again. Because naturally when a chap has spent 48 hours contracting plague, committing suicide to save his friends and being subjected to torture for the salvation of the human race, the one thing he needs is reassurance that he's going to do it all again in the next volume.

Sir George and Hugh Walters have spotted the same problem. Chris Godfrey, pint sized space-monkey, was an excellent viewpoint character. Christopher Godfrey, seasoned space traveller and Cambridge academic, not so much. So Tony Hale, spunky chocolate-nicking mechanic is going to take over his position as series lead. Provided he can get the hang of the rule that boys don't cry.  

1 comment:

postodave said...

I just wanted to say, belatedly, that I remember this one. I decided the idea of a spaceship called the Phoenix after it was saved from fire I would bring it into my own space games. (games in those days meant things you did when running around on the street, a bit like LARPing but without dressing up). We had got as far as the fire when I accidentally called the ship the Phoenix before the rescue. These things stick in the memory.

I don't think the absence of atmosphere troubled me. In his intro to Swords of Lankhmar Neil Gaimen points out that often when you return to books you read as a child those fabulous scenes you remember are not there, you construct on the flimsiest textual base.