Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The Bringer of War

I first read Destination Mars (the sixth of Hugh Walter's boys' science fiction tales) when I was nine or ten. I remember feeling disappointed. Betrayed, even. Which is odd: because in a lot of ways it's the best of the series so far. 

I had read Daddy's book about Martians invading olden days England and dying of chicken pox. I had read the one in the school library about the fat vet flying to the moon on the back of a giant moth. I watched Doctor Who every Saturday. I expected to come out as a Tomorrow Person any day now. I had no issue with fantasy. But we kids knew what was what. We drew strong distinctions between the real and the made-up. Doctors Who and Doolittle are pretend. The whole point of Chris Godfrey was that he lived in the real world. At any rate in a world which might have been real, or a world which would have become real by the time I was a grown up. 

I am vitally interested in the future, said Arthur C Clark, because I plan to spend the rest of my life there. That's why kids in the 70s were interested in space travel. That's why kids today are interested in climate change.

But by the end of this volume, Chris Godfrey is just one more character in a story. A good story. Maybe Walters' best story since Blast Off At Woomera. But the rules of the game have changed. Back into story-land dragons have fled. The knights are no more and the dragons are dead.

Our heroes go to Mars. There is no catastrophe in the offing, no terrible threat to the human race. The boffins decide it is about time someone went off to Mars, so off to Mars someone goes.

Before setting out, Nice Sir George briefs them:

"All things considered, Mars is undoubtedly the most fascinating of all the planets. It is basically similar to the Earth; it is tolerably warm, it has atmosphere and water; and it has vegetation, so that even if it has long since passed the prime of life it is still far from being a dead or dying world. Though it is true to say that we have no proof of intelligent life upon it, it is equally true to say that we have no proof that advanced forms of life do not exist.”

He's quoting a text book. The book is called A Guide To The Planets and it's written by one Patrick Moore, published in 1960. It's not exactly what you would expect the head of the United Exploration Agency to be reading to his leading astronauts in The Future. (I make it 1969). But it is very much what you might expect a furniture salesman and Boy Scout leader to use as a crib when composing his new science fiction epic. And, in fairness, this volume is a lot more interested in space exploration and astronomy than the last one was. But it's not exactly built on cutting edge research. Some of the cast are still talking in terms of  canals.

The first half of the book is largely procedural. They decide to go to Mars in Chapter 2, blast off in Chapter 9 and arrive there in Chapter 12. Hughes' language is not self-consciously juvenile, but he relies on slow, blow by blow descriptions, often of quite trivial events, to draw readers into the story. We hear that there is going to be a Mars shot. Our heroes meet in a cafe and wonder if they are going to be the astronauts. They get a telegram from Nice Uncle George. They wonder what it can be about. They kill time while waiting:

At times they would all go to Morrey’s rooms. The American’s landlady would produce numerous cups of coffee while they talked endlessly about Mars and the possibility of going there. When they walked round to Serge’s quarters the Russian scientist himself would brew the drink. But always they returned to Chris’s lodgings, which he was sharing with Tony, to see if any news had come.

Finally they go to see Uncle George. They worry about what time to set out...

“How much longer?” Tony asked. 
“Forty-five minutes. You know it isn’t any use getting there before time,” Chris pointed out. 
“Uncle George is very precise.” 
“Mustn’t be late, either,” Morrey put in. “I remember getting into very serious trouble with him once when I was two minutes late for an appointment.” 
“We must arrive at noon precisely,” advised Serge, but Chris argued that they ought to reach the building two minutes to zero to allow time to contact Uncle George.

It isn't padding: it's a technique that J.K Rowling and Enid Blyton use very successfully. Describe what is going on and the reader will imagine it is all happening to them. It's a kind of guided day-dreaming: tell, don't show. Walters' characters also share with Rowling's the infuriating habit of "asking", "pointing out", "putting in", "advising" and "arguing" things that they might just as well have "said".

Nice Sir George talks to them about Mars and reads to them from Patrick Moore and finally tells them that they have been chosen for the mission. Tony, presumably embarrassed about all the blubbing last time round, says "Yippee!" Although he is said to be 22, he is still portrayed as a child and will be for the rest of the series. He even dances for joy in his spacesuit on the Martian surface.

Everyone is very relaxed about the interplanetary expedition. It may not be quite like nipping round the corner for a pint of milk, but it's certainly no bigger deal than a jaunt across to the Colonies for a spot of mountain climbing. (Last year, everyone was treating the end of the human race as a really major inconvenience. It's the British way.) That's also part of the appeal for us kids. We want to play at being astronauts: so landing on Mars ought to be more or less the same as building a den in the woods. You get shot through space in a tin can, and as soon as you land you take the lid off and have a jolly good look round. There is no Wellsian sense of the weight of infinite sidereal distances.

But our Hugh can unquestionably spin a good yarn. In Chapter 2, while preparing for their adventures, a Dutch astronaut called, inevitably, Van der Veen, tells Chris that he must not go to Mars and that he will be in terrible danger if he does and that it is vital that they cancel the mission. Having given this warning, he absconds from the base. Walters takes things very slowly:

Excusing himself to his three friends, Chris left the table when breakfast had barely finished. He soon found out that the Dutchman’s room was number 34D. Determined to discover what lay behind his early visitor’s strange actions, Chris strode along to D block. Outside number 34 he stopped and knocked firmly on the door. There was no reply. Again Chris knocked, but without result. Tentatively he tried the door. It was unfastened and he pushed it open. There was no one inside, but the room looked very untidy, as if Van der Veen had hurriedly packed his belongings. Drawers and cupboards were open and mostly empty. Where had the Dutchman gone?

Whiskers and Chris drive around the streets and try to find him. Then they go to the police. When they finally track him down, he tells Chris what is bothering him, and Chris tells Whiskers, and they all go back and tell Sir George. There is just the right amount of drip drip drip to keep you interested.

It seems that Lovecraftian Horror -- or at least Quatermassian mild alarm -- has invaded the shelves of the junior library. Between Earth and Mars there is a band of radiation, the La Prince belt, which not only cuts off communication with Earth, but also conveniently wipes magnetic tape which passes through it. As the Flying Dutchmen's ship went through the belt he heard, over his radio, Voices. Distinctly Voices with a capital letter. It isn't quite clear if the capital-vee Voices are terrible in themselves, or if the Dutchman has been stricken with Existential Angst because Man Is Not Alone In the Universe. (The first four books were about Lunar incursions by Space Beings, also with capital letters but people in science fiction stories have short memories for this kind of thing.)

Sir George tells Chris to tell the other chaps that he that hath no stomach for the fight is allowed to go home, but they are all jolly resolute in the face of certain etc. etc. etc.

In the first four books, people were shot into space from Australian rocket bases; in book five they were fired to Venus from the Moon, but in this one they travel to an orbiting space-station and pick up what we would now call a Shuttle but Walters thinks of as a Space Plane. The space plane has an Ion drive, which uses much less fuel than a chemical drive and can be kept running for longer, so the ship can accelerate to 500,000 MPH and get to Mars in only two and a half days. The space station is one of those rotating wheels, with fake gravity generated by centrifugal force. (Centrifugal Force still existed at this time: it was repealed a few years later and replaced with Centripetal Acceleration.) I remember enjoying the idea that as you walked through the tube you appeared to be going up hill, but never actually get any higher.

Walters mentions in passing that the man in charge of the satellite, Commander Barnwell, is an all around could egg but "Commander Hendriks, who relieved him at three-monthly intervals, wasn’t nearly such a pleasant chap." The next book in the series will be called Terror By Satellite. I wonder if you can guess the name of the baddie?
The book contains a lot of sciency language. At one point, and entirely without provocation, Serge explains what "solar wind" is to Tony. And Walters signals quite heavily when he is relying on authentic real world sources (i.e Mr Patrick Moore) and when he is inventing stuff to make life more exciting. I don't think I necessarily learned anything from the books but I certainly got the impression that I was learning, and that learning was potentially fun. It may have given me the urge to read some hard core text books, like, er, How It Works: The Rocket (Ladybird, 1967).

The main threat turns out not to be the Terrible Voices, although they certainly are Terrible. When our heroes get to Mars, they dig through the red moss that covers the planet (which Walters admits is a bit of a stretch) and find a lump of sandstone which appears to have writing on it. Then they dig a bit further and find another bit. Then they use the plane's engine to blast away some earth to uncover a lot more. Tony finds that "Yippee" doesn't sufficiently express his excitement, and he resorts to even stronger expletives. “Gosh!" he exclaims.

Patrick Moore believes that there could be, or could have been, life on Mars; and Percival Lowell believed there were canals, although it turns out he was the victim of an optical illusion. So Martian archeology is within the realms of Proper Science Fiction: stuff that might be true but probably isn't. I kind of think Walters should have left it at that, like he did with the lunar domes: a mystery without a solution. But the temptation is too great. Once our heroes get back to the ship they encounter ACTUAL MARTIANS.

Hughes' picture of the Solar System is pretty anachronistic. The inner planets are younger and more primitive; the outer ones, older and more developed. Venus is what earth was like millions of years in the past; Mars is what earth will become, millions of years in the future. The asteroid belt is the remains of an even more ancient planet that has come to an end. It is an image which science has long since discarded: but it's a pretty compelling myth. 

Evolution, as we know from the Tomorrow People and Doctor Who, is a pre-programmed process of levelling-up. The Martians have "evolved" to the point at which they no longer need their bodies and are pure intellect; and it is inevitable that this is what will happen to humans in the Far Future.

“Do you mean that, in the distant future we, too, will be like that?” gasped Serge. 
“It is inevitable,” the Martian’s reply came into their minds. “Already you have moved in that direction. Your teeth and hair are disappearing. Your muscles are less strong. At the same time your brain is growing larger and more powerful. Yes, you will follow along the same path as we did, as did those before us, and as will those after you.”

In millions of years, the life forms on Venus will have evolved into humans, and will travel to earth, and find that the humans have turned into disembodied consciousnesses. Olaf Stapelton it may not be, but it did give this particular nine-year old an agreeably spine-tingly sense that space is big and time lasts for a long time.

The Martian Consciousness talks to Tony through his dreams, and gradually communicates with the other members of the crew telepathically. The philosophical conundrums around disembodiment don't trouble anyone in the slightest. We are told that the Martians are minds without bodies and that they do not have physical forms, but the fact that they manifest as balls of light suggests they interact with the material world in some way. (Possibly Hughes thinks that minds are a kind of energy that can theoretically be detached from the brain?) Even so pious a young man as Chris Godfrey doesn't associate these free-floating consciousnesses with souls: religion and science live in different conceptual boxes.

Having progressed beyond the need for material bodies, the Martians don't have technology; but if their world were to be destroyed, they would still cease to exist. “You would not understand if I tried to explain this" says the Martian, helpfully. So, naturally, they want to hitch a lift on the boys' ship and come back to earth, where they would share all their wonderful science with the primitive humans. But there is a catch: "because we are a higher species than Man, we shall control him."

“We shall bring you untold benefits. We shall improve your technology beyond your imagination. We shall change the face of your planet.”

“And, in return, we shall be your slaves,” Morrey thought to himself.

Chris thinks that turning control of the earth over to the Martians is probably a bad idea and refuses to give them a lift, so the Martians take direct possession of the crew's minds. They find Tony the easiest to infiltrate, presumably because he is young, northern, and prone to bursting into tears and shouting "yippee". But Chris, turns out to be immune, because he is the hero and the series is named after him.Which brings us to the scene without which no Hugh Walters novel is complete: the noble act of hari-kari. The only thing that Chris can think of to do is throw open the airlocks, killing everyone on board. Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down the lives of his friends to save civilisation as we know it...

Fortunately it doesn't come to this. One of the others bashes him over the head. Everyone else is mind-controlled and the Martians are telepathic so it was not too hard for them to find out what was going on.

Fortunately there is a deus ex machina on hand, although this time Walters doesn't directly blame it on the actual deus. It turns out that the Martians are also terrified of the Terrible Voices and the radiation in the La Prince belt is fatal to them. It's a cop out: but it's the kind of cop out Herbert George himself used, so maybe we can forgive it.

The tale ends on an ironic note. Our heroes have just saved the earth, again, but because of the radiation belt, no-one knows what they have done. But on their return to Earth the first thing which happens is that Whiskers breathlessly tells them the results of a sporting fixture! It feels too much like a Scooby Doo ending: everyone laughs, and the status quo is resumed. The great adventure wasn't that great after all. It is the Original Sin of an ongoing series. For the saga to carry on, not too much can be allowed to happen. Moonbases can replace Woomera and space stations can replace Moonbases, but our heroes can't be psychologically changed by their multiple brushes with certain death. Civilisation can't be changed by almost definitely being wiped out for the third or fourth time. The English one, the Russian one, the American one and the Northern one are the only four people who have ever spoken with non-humans, but in a few months their main preoccupation will be tinkering with amateur radio sets. If UNEXA sends xenoarcheologists to follow up our hero's discoveries, or diplomatics to make peace with the surviving martians, or soldiers to nuke the site from orbit, we never hear about it. 

So. A good yarn. But still: Martians. Glowy mind controlly telepathic Martians who want to CONQUER THE EARTH. It's a lot to believe. It's the wrong kind of belief. I somehow don't want Chris who fell off the ladder at sports day and was too shy to say his prayers out loud to be saving the world from malevolent floaty glow worms. And the aliens are one dimensional even by comic-book standards. It doesn't feel right for the sorts of characters who drink tea and bicker about chocolate rations to encounter aliens who want to enslave humans because dammit, Jim, that's what aliens in science fiction stories do. (I suppose in the immediate aftermath of empire, Superior Races becoming masters of Inferior Races wasn't a point anyone wanted to press too hard?)

I wonder if Walters had read The Silver Locusts? Ray Bradbury's world of infinite mid-western summer vacations could hardly be further removed from Walters' second class carriages and early closing days. But ghostly martians who manifest as glowing balls of light can hardly fail to put you in mind of the Martian Chronicles. But there are plenty of other place that the idea of a dying planet could have come from. H.G Wells' Martians are brains (not minds) that have evolved to the point at which their tripods and other tools are practically spare bodies.

But here's a thing.

This book was published in December 1963. In that exact same month, a schoolgirl named Susan Foreman failed to spot that the radiation dedicator has shifted to Danger, and she, her grandfather, and two teachers, stepped out onto the surface of a Dead Planet...


Loke said...

Huh -- I'm rereading the Space Trilogy right now and Lewis also does the thing where Venus is a young world and Mars is an old world. I don't think I realized that was a trope.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think Edgar Rice Burroughs does it as well. And it's explicit in the old RPG Space: 1889