Saturday, September 30, 2023

...And None Of Them Were Wearing Eyepatches!

The Mohole Mystery
Hugh Walters

Sooner or later, it had to be faced. Chris Godfrey spent four whole books exploring the Moon; but he whizzed through Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Mercury and Saturn in only five volumes. (He's apparently sharing Mars with some other astronauts; but their expeditions are distinctly Off Stage.) Is the series going to come to a preemptive close after Neptune, Pluto and The One With the Rude Name? Or are there other places where our heroes can confront Certain Death? Walters speculated about interstellar travel when introducing us to the idea of cryogenics; but in the end he shies away from it. He probably wouldn't have done alien civilisations; and crashing into a barren moon on Alpha Centuri wouldn't have been much more fun than crashing into one on Pluto.

So: this time around our heroes take a detour. A journey to the Centre of the Earth. Well; maybe not the centre, but forty miles down. Pretty darn deep, at any rate. It appears that between the earth's crust and the earth's mantel is something called the Mohorovicic Discontinuity, which it is impossible to drill through. So, naturally, the Boffins are trying really hard to drill through it, and they've found a weak spot in, er, Dudley; just near the Castle Zoo, as a matter of fact. (Tony comes from Birmingham, but no-one thinks it polite to say so.) Initial probes have discovered an absolutely ginormous cave, along with traces of nasty alien microbes. So the only option is to send some explorers down and find out what is going on. Sir George also claims that if they don't explore the cave, everyone will have to stop mining coal and drilling for oil and civilisation as we now know it will come to an end: but no-one seems particularly bothered by this.

So: we have an exciting variation on the archetypal Astronaut Goes Up / Astronaut Comes Down plot-line. Astronaut goes down. Astronaut's descent capsule lands awkwardly. Astronaut has no way of getting home and comes to terms with Certain Death. Astronaut's friends mount rescue attempt. Astronauts come up. 

It feels a little slight: the suspicion arises that Walters is engaged in what can only be described as padding. But overall it works better than it should. The comic relief and side plots manage to be a reasonable amount of fun; and the focus on the three heroes left on the surface lends a certain desperation to the plight of the one trapped all alone in the underworld. 

Once or twice, Walters seems to be attempting what I can only describe as humour. The capsule in which our heroes are going to make their descent is manufactured by Rubery Owen, a company who normally make aircraft and racing cars. Our author permits himself to be wryly amused by the formality and self-importance of British Industry.

A magnificent commissionaire, who was obviously also an archduke at the very least, emerged through swing glass doors to bid them welcome...The noble person who condescended to act as a commissionaire, personally conducted the director and his party to the Chairman's private office.

I think that it is probably a mistake to do this sort of thing in a children's book: I am pretty sure the irony was lost on me. If a grown up tells you that some West Midlands car firms are staffed by exiled Russian nobility, at ten years old you are inclined to assume that this is a true and obvious fact.

Wing Commander Gatreux -- "old Whiskers" -- who hasn't been heard from since the Mars adventure, makes a reappearance. His whole purpose in life is to provide comic relief, and he knows it. As soon as he arrives, our heroes start to act like naughty school children, putting an "apple pie bed" in his quarters and laughing at the colour of his PJs. 

He also has a very unreliable car:

It was one of the former officer's main occupations in life to wage a constant battle to keep the Red Peril in running order. Nevertheless it had made the journey from Buckinghamshire to the Midlands without any really vital parts dropping off.

Not, I concede, the funniest joke ever made: but it bespeaks a lighter tone than the previous volumes have had. Silly Whiskers and Stuffy Sir George Benson are a passable double act which adds some much needed light and shade to the roster of faceless boffins. 

And, slightly more surprisingly, the Chairman of RO comes across as, if not quite a character, then at least as an endearing caricature. He starts out as only one degree removed from Reginald Perrin's C.J. He  humourlessly insists that if the capsule is scheduled to be completed by 0320 then it can be tested at 0321. He boasts to the astronauts that he sometimes travels as much as half a million miles in a single year. But when our heroes are facing (SPOILER ALERT) Certain Death, he puts on some overalls and gets his own hands dirty on the factory floor. He even refuses to go to hospital until the rescue project is completed, despite having been involved in a serious industrial accident.

"But you must have an X-ray" the doctor declared firmly. "You may have a broken shoulder and crushed ribs."

"I don't care if I've been decapitated" the industrialist spluttered "I'm stopping on this job. Don't you realise there's a life at stake?"

The shaft that has been drilled from Dudley Zoo to the mysterious cave is very narrow; and there is no time to make it wider; so a single astronaut ("subterrainaut") is going to have to squeeze into a very small capsule and be dropped forty miles into the cavern below. This is one reason why the mission is going to be undertaken by astronauts and not, say pot-holers: they have experience with free-fall. There is quite a lot of not entirely implausible technical detail about how the capsule works:when the altimeter tells the pilot that the capsule is close to the cave bottom, he can activate rockets (using his knees) to slow his descent; and the boffins on the surface will shine an infrared beam down the hole which will guide him home. But only a small astronaut can squeeze into the tiny capsule; and an inordinate amount of time is spent watching our heroes desperately hoping that they will be chosen for this mission. Morrey, being an American, has "broad shouldered" printed on his character sheet and is ruled out from the beginning: Tony and Chris are both a little on the large side. Like Doc Smiths Lensemen, they seem to subsist entirely on a diet of bacon and eggs, steak, and apple pie. But Serge, being Russian, is small enough to squeeze into the tin can. 

This leads to a sub-plot which almost amounts to a shaggy dog story. The aforementioned Whiskers, being ex-RAF is wheeled in to train Serge for the mission. The others join the gym sessions in solidarity and to show they are still a team. Whiskers makes a big deal out of being too old for this sort of thing; and affects to be surprised that there are only four sets of gym equipment, forcing him to sit and watch while the young men do their keep fit sessions. Naturally, Chris sees right through this ruse and finds spare exercise bikes and rowing machines which Whiskers has hidden, shaming the old man to do PE lessons with the lads. But of course, this precisely what Whiskers intended: he knows that working together to catch out the old man will have wonderful effect on the boys' morale. 

Serge is shot down the shaft; and instantly meets with one of those Certain Death Scenarios. The absent-minded boffins didn't realise that all the the debris from their drilling will be piled up on the cave floor. When the capsule lands on the mountain of rubble it topples onto its side, making a return to the surface impossible. (And forty miles of solid rock means he can't radio for help. A shame they didn't have any telepathic twins on hand.) Serge immediately flips into the standard heroic suicidal ideation. 

He would have to compose himself and await his end as calmly as possible.

He would explore the underworld until his oxygen gave out. Then he would die with his courage intact.

He would only have to cut off his oxygen supply and he's soon fade out for ever. Or he would remove his helmet and allow his lungs to be scorched by the searing heat. Valiant Serge shrugged off those unworthy thoughts. It was his duty, instilled in him by years of training, to remain alive to the bitter end...

If he had to die, at least he'd die cleanly...

Serge expects to die of starvation, or for his oxygen to run out; but weirdly and rather arbitrarily, Walters introduces an additional Peril. The Cave is inhabited by a strange life-form which may be a faceless limbless animal but which may also be an unusually mobile mushroom. A swarm of hollow eggs which are capable of rolling up the hill; and which, for no clear reason, are converging on our hero...and which periodically burst and shower him with potentially deadly alien dust. There is something uncanny -- at times very slightly Lovecraftian -- about this idea. But at the same time it feels exactly like the sort of thing you'd get in 1960s BBC TV show. You can just picture the black and white astronaut on the studio floor while BBC special effect eggs on strings move slowly towards him, just before the cliffhanger music kicks in.

No-one seems to have the slightest curiosity about this new life-form: Serge's immediate reaction is to throw stones at it. 

In the end, it is engineering and PE which saves the day. The heroic mechanics at RO jerry-rig a capsule with two compartments; and, crucially, legs, so that it can land safely on the uneven cave floor. And Chris realises that because he joined in Whiskers' gym sessions he has lost nearly a stone and will now fit in the tiny capsule. (I told you there would be a punch line.) So he makes another descent, and drags Serge back to the surface, in the nick of time. The borehole is sealed. No-one tells Chris that he isn't allowed to glance backwards, and everyone seems to have forgotten about the imminent threat to Civilisation. 

Overall, the book is surprisingly effective, even though it is obvious that Walters is sometimes scraping the barrel to find space-filling strategies. ("At Hendon, Serge joined the motorway and was bowling along nicely until he came to the Aylesbury road fork...") But there is something genuinely nightmarish about Serge's predicament; dropped forty miles down into a dark cave he has to chance of getting out of; isloated from your friends; trying to face The End bravely as weird alien animals creep inexorably towards you.

NOTE: Whiskers' got married in Blast Off at Woomera (1957); his children were away at school in Expedition Venus and are now at university, which is consistent with this book being set in 1976 or 77. Spaceship To Saturn, with its 18 month round trip and 6 months of preparation and a longer than usual internal timeline. Earth mainly gave up burning coal for fuel in "the late 60s and early 70s" and the Cold War -- weapons in general -- are now part of "the bad old days". However, the boys bet "half a crown" on a game of snooker and Tony manages to win "eleven shillings" off Whiskers. 

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