Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Bringer of Jollity

Journey to Jupiter
by Hugh Walters

When we left Chris Godfrey and his chums, a psychotic scientist was threatening the earth with an orbital death ray. The series started out in 1957 as a "realistic" yarn about a boy astronaut; but it seemed to have morphed into a collection of standard-issue space-opera tropes.

This eighth volume (only twelve more to go!) takes the series back to its roots. It's about a group of space-men going into space on a space rocket. Volume nine is going to involve a mission to Mercury. Volume ten will concern a spaceship to Saturn; but this time we are on a journey to Jupiter. Alliterative determinism will require that the Neptune expedition be a marginal failure.

Up to now, the lads have been shot into space for specific reasons -- to investigate possible extraterrestrial artefacts on the Moon; or to counter a terrible grey ooze from Venus -- but this time, they are off on a jaunt to Jupiter because that's the kind of thing chaps like them do.

Where previous volumes have taken us meticulously through the training process, this one cuts right to the chase. Everyone is on their launch couches; the countdown is underway, and the very first line of the book is "Jupiter, here we come!"

Modern screen-writers might call it a "bottle episode": a group of characters stuck in very close proximity, so their personalities can come into sharp focus. But Walters' heroes don't really have personalities. They are just astronauts. Chris is the leader-astronaut. The point of him used to be that he was a young schoolboy, but now he's the boring grown up one. Morrey is the American-astronaut, but Walters no longer remembers to make him say "Gee whiz!" and "Sure!". Serge is the Russian astronaut but he has no discernible Soviet characteristics. Tony is the working-class-good-with-his-hands-chirpy-astronaut. Despite internal chronology placing him in his early twenties, he knows less science than the average eleven year old. But he can whistle really well, which comes in handy when they need to send a message by Morse code.

The four of them are "the closest possible friends". Not only that, but there is also an "an inseparable bond between them". And they are very brave. "Each had given up counting the number of times his life had been saved by one or other of his companions", Walters tells us. And furthermore "Each of them had saved the lives of the others on many occasions". And in case you haven't got the point yet. "Each knew that he would gladly give his own life to save that of a friend."

The book isn't as pious as the previous volumes. But Walters has a very specific moral compass. Heroism always comes down to conscious self-sacrifice. Greater love hath no man, as the fellow said.

Walters is still fairly interested in keeping his internal chronology straight. Morrey mentions that it is eleven or twelve years since he first met Chris. Well: the books have been published annually since 1957, and Morrey first appeared in Operation: Columbus which came out in 1959. There's a six-year story-internal gap between Moonbase One and Expedition Venus (to give Tony a chance to grow up) which places Journey to Jupiter in or about 1971 -- which is indeed eleven or twelve years after 1959.

There is also some suggestion that the author is doing some minimal world-building. Three volumes ago, our heroes discovered the remains of a lost civilisation on Mars. In this volume, a consignment of scientists and archaeologists are on their way to investigate the ruins in more detail. And this is said to be the third expedition: Walters is imagining multiple interplanetary missions each year. The Captain of the Mars mission speaks of a "brotherhood" of astronauts: we are no longer talking about a minuscule number of test-pilots, but a fairly large professional body. The fraternity has an "unwritten law" that "one astronaut should sacrifice all -- even life itself -- to succour another." 

I summarised the plot of volume one (Blast Off At Woomera!) as "Boy goes up in rocket; boy comes down in rocket". Journey to Jupiter establishes a definite formula for the next few books. "Chaps go to to alien planet. Chaps meet with catastrophic disaster. Chaps face certain death. Chaps come back from alien planet."

I don't mean to knock it. Well, I do mean to knock it, but not too hard. Walters is not very good at writing. He can never resist reaching for a cliche. Rockets "raise themselves on deafening tails of fire." Stars look like "countless points of light shining brilliantly against a black velvet backcloth." When our heroes receive a hopeful message from earth it "brings forth peals of laughter" until "tears were coursing down their cheeks." And, of course, people "announce", "muse", "grumble", "laugh" and "point out" things that they could perfectly well have just "said".

He doesn't have much of an imagination. You might think that the point of sending your heroes on a journey to Jupiter is to imagine what Jupiter would look like close up; or else to engage in scientific conjecture about what one might discover if one dived into that stripy atmosphere. But Walters' knowledge of and interest in the planet doesn't extend far beyond the Ladybird Book of the Solar System which the heroes dutifully recite to each other in the opening pages. ("Jupiter takes nearly twelve years to travel round the Sun but it spins round on its axis faster than any other planet.") He seems reluctant to send his heroes into the atmosphere of Jupiter because no-one knows what they would really find there and he doesn't want to be caught making stuff up. No giant floating jelly fish; no sword-wielding skeleton men. The pals end up merely landing on Io. Which turns out to be just like the Moon, only spikier. 

So, the plot amounts to a series of set-backs. And it has to be admitted that what Walters is really genuinely good at putting our heroes in danger and just barely getting them out of it again.

They are now using an Ion Engine, which can exert continuous low level acceleration on the ship and build it it up to very high speeds. The crew haven't been told in advance that this is what is happening, because UNEXA wants to find out what effect near light-speed has on astronauts "without any preconceptions". Chris started out one rung up from being an experimental chimp, and it seems that the boffins still think of the astronauts in those terms. Serge helpfully explains the doppler effect to Tony; but relativity is regarded primarily as an engineering problem. "Someday someone will break through the light barrier, just as many years ago they crashed through the sound barrier." On this trip, they are only going to get up to three million miles per hour, which is still quite fast. As a result, they find that everything on the ship goes blurry because "human eyes were never designed to look at anything travelling at that speed."

"At a rough guess, looking at something across the cabin, it will have moved almost half an inch by the time light from it has reached our eyes."

I only have O level science, but this sounds to me a lot like bollocks: on a level with the idea that if you throw a ball on the plane, it will fly over your head through the back window. The crew have to blindfold themselves to operate the ship, and Chris very nearly makes a joke.

"Think you can call the Cape without looking."

"Do it with my eyes shut!"

But then they run into more serious problems.

Unfortunately the ship does not decelerate as it is supposed to. This means that it will overshoot Jupiter, or else crash into it, quite definitely killing everyone on board. It does not, I am happy to say, turn out that the Boffins on earth forgot to take the gravitational pull of Jupiter into account when they made their calculations. Indeed, it is never made particularly clear what does cause the disaster. 

Fortunately Chris comes up with a brilliant scheme whereby the ship matches orbital velocity with the Jovian Moon Io, and then, when the moon reaches a suitable point in its own orbit, launches themselves back to earth.

Unfortunately Chris spots that even if this scheme works there wouldn't be enough oxygen for the crew to survive the return trip. 

Fortunately, he realises that there would be enough oxygen for three people to survive. So naturally he decides to do his Col. Oates routine again, deliberately marooning himself on Io to give the other three a fighting chance. 

Unfortunately the other three guess what he is doing, and forcibly drag him back onto the rocket, meaning that everyone is quite definitely going to die (again). But at least they will all go together when they go.

Doesn't this go against the code of the brotherhood of astronauts? If space-men have to lay-down their lives for each other, oughtn't other space-men allow them too? And wouldn't there be protocols for this situation? Couldn't they at least have drawn lots, like marooned sailors deciding who is going to be lunch? 

 Initially, Chris is quite cross, but Morrey talks him round:

"Answer me this question. If I'd planned to make you leave me behind, what would you have done?"

Fortunately there is already another spaceship on it's way to Mars (as foreshadowed in the opening chapter) and "Uncle" George is able to persuade the earth-bound boffins to divert the Martian expedition to rescue the Jovian one. So everyone lives to face certain death in the next volume.

Walters does suspense really, really well. I spent the first fifty pages grinning patronisingly at the at the decent-chaps-got-do-what-a-decent-chaps-gotta-do heroics; and the remaining hundred turning the pages fairly quickly because I actually wanted to know what happens next. Sometimes the audience knows the crew are Doomed before the crew does; but sometimes characters know things that they don't vouchsafe to us readers. We are told early on that Chris has made a Terrible Decision; but there are fifty or sixty pages of gathering doom before we find out about the air-situation and his plan to nobly lay down his life. And the final rescue by the Mars ship goes right up to the wire. There's only sixty minutes of oxygen left, and they can't possibly dock the two ships in that time, but the Captain brilliantly realises that the rocket blaster they were going to use to drill holes in the Martian surface could be used as a shuttle to ferry the crew between the two ships. (In a nice bit of continuity, Chris had the idea of using rockets to dig holes a couple of volumes ago.) The astronauts have to sit astride the rocket while it zooms between ships, and  Walters immediately grabs the obvious comparison:

"Then he calmly jumped off it and tethered it to Jupiter 1 just as if it were a horse in a western film."

But fortunately he doesn't milk the metaphor.

"With a cylinder of tapes clasped tightly to him, he jointed Captain Yull on his fiery charger and together they rode across the plains of space..."

I think we could file that last metaphor under "so dreadful it's brilliant", actually.

When Chris first tells his crew that they are quite definitely going to die, everything turns very morbid:

"What would the end be like. If they crashed into the giant planet, it would be swift and merciful. If they shot past an wandered off into space it might be slow and agonizing. There would be a gradual exhaustion of both oxygen and food. One by one they would die. Who would be first and who would be last."

When it looks like the rescue mission is going to fail, the Martian crew think along the same cheerful lines.

"What would their last hours be like when, one after another, they expired through lack of oxygen... The scientist wondered whether, in the same circumstances, they would have had the courage to meet their own end?"

At first the crew are in denial -- obsessing about trivial jobs and engaging in light hearted chit-chat. "It was as if each of the quartet was determined to shut out of his mind for as long as possible the awful thoughts that had come crowding into it." Chris suggests that this isn't healthy, and that if they "accept their fate and discuss it dispassionately" and it indeed "get used to talking about it freely" it would "come to seem natural and lose its terrors." This seems to be relatively good psychology on the author's part, although we could have done with more showing and less telling. I think this how terminally ill patients are encouraged to deal with mortality. Weren't fighter pilots encouraged to assume that they were already dead and enjoy themselves as much as possible in the meantime? There might also be a good message for those of us who are not on doomed spaceships: come to terms with the fact that you are going to die some day and it will be easier to cope with the idea. Chris may be old-fashioned enough to say his prayers; but at no point does he mention Heaven or suggest that his companions ought to make their peace with the Creator.

The big thing, of course, is to not make a fuss. Chris warns them that bad news is on the way "to make sure that they pass their last few days of life in calmness and dignity". They decide to tell the boffins on earth that they have worked out what is going to happen because they know it will be a great relief "if we can let them know we're facing things calmly." So they send a message, reassuring them that "we've talked it over and we've decided to take things calmly." "Uncle" George complements them on the "courage and calmness" with which they've accepted the situation. Later, when Chris decides to sacrifice himself for his crew, his main concern is that they should be "sensible" and that they should "let him make his sacrifice without any painful scenes". Chris's decision, we are told several times was "cold and deliberate": his friends decision to save him was emotional. 

It's admirable that Chris would sacrifice himself to save his crew; but it's also admirable that his crew would save him; even though they are effectively choosing to end their own lives. Suicide seems to be the main way chaps show affection.

Heroes have to be in danger, of course, and they can't always be saving the world from brown streaks. Hugh Walters astronauts are rarely leaping across canyons or sprinting through shark infested waters. But the focus on noble suicide and calmness in the face of death; and questions about who is going to die first and whether it would be better to go out with a bang or suffocate slowly is a heavy trip to lay on a ten-year old.

At risk of dialling the morbidity up to eleven: this book was published in 1965. In August 1964, the British government had hanged two small-time burglars for a stabbing a man during a bungled robbery; the last executions committed in this country. Perhaps "What would be like to know you are going to die and would I be able to face it calmly, sensibly, and without making a scene?" was a question on lot of people's minds.

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1 comment:

Stephen Watson said...

I only have O level science, but this sounds to me a lot like bollocks

I have a degree in theoretical physics, and I think this is very much like bollocks.