Friday, September 29, 2023

The Bringer of Old Age

Spaceship to Saturn
Hugh Walters

In 1775, a Dutch American named Rip Van Winkle had slightly too much to drink. He woke up, twenty years later, to find that he had missed the War of Independence. Captain America fell into the Arctic Ocean at the height of World War II and wasn't defrosted until the swinging sixties. His namesake, Anthony "Buck" Rogers fared rather worse, falling into a gas induced coma in 1929 and emerging in the eponymous twenty fifth century.

The idea of suspended animation has been around since forever: but the idea of deliberately freezing people seems only to have come into vogue in the 1960s. In '64, Arthur C Clarke was confidently assuring TV audiences that in the near future Science! would be able to freeze sick people while they were still alive, and keep them on ice until the cure was found for whatever ailed them. In the same year, another science fiction writer, one Robert Ettinger, popularised the idea of cryonics -- freezing corpses in the sure and certain hope of a future resurrection. His book, the Prospect of Immortality, had been self-published in 1962, so Clarke may well have been aware of it. It was commercially published and circulated by the Book of the Month Club in 1964 -- the same year Stan Lee defrosted Captain America.

By the Summer of Love, the idea of cryogenic freezing was distinctly in the atmosphere. EC Tubb published the first of his infinitely prolonged Dumerest series in 1967: it envisages a galactic empire in which impoverished travellers can book "cold passage" in the holds of starships. (It was a major source for the Traveller role-playing game.) In that same year, Doctor Who discovered his enemies, the Cybermen, in frozen tombs on the planet Telos.  Spaceship crews are seen emerging from cold storage at the ends of long space voyages in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes (both 1968); and Phillip K Dick uses cryogenics as a means of life-extension in his iconic Ubik in 1969.

It may not be a coincidence that heavy smoking Walter Elias Disney died of lung cancer in December 1966. A few months later (early 1967) a tabloid journalist created the urban myth that Uncle Walt's body had been placed in cold storage and that in 1975, the animator would be reanimated. (He was, in fact, prosaically cremated a few days after his passing.) 1967 was also the year the Pirates of the Caribbean theme-park ride opened: the myth states that Disney's time-capsule is buried beneath it. The spot is presumably marked by an X. 

And it was in that same year Hugh Walters published this tenth volume of his juvenile SF series. On this occasion, he was riding the zeitgeist. He might even have been slightly in advance of it.


The central Peril in Mission to Mercury was the cold. The side of the planet facing away from the sun is absolute zero, which is very nearly as cold as it is possible to be. (Does that work? Does a planet which is very close to the sun but permanently facing the other way?) As everyone starts to get quite chilly Tony speculates about whether extreme cold could ever have a practical use.

As he looked again at each of his companions, Tony wondered how long it would be before human beings were deliberately frozen for long voyages. When the break out of the solar system came and Man decided to cross the fantastic distances to the stars, it would be necessary to put the crew into cold storage. Even with the terrific speeds obtainable from the ion motor, the journey to the nearest star would take several years. Scientists believed that by freezing the crew they could save food, oxygen, and -- above all -- boredom. The crew would be automatically de-frosted as the voyage neared its end. To them it would seem that the journey had been a very short one, for they would be unaware of the lapse of time during their period of suspended animation.

The present volume begins with our heroes walking through London's Hyde Park in January (by my count 1973 -- six years in the future.)

"Gosh, it's cold" exclaimed Tony to his three companions.

Walters doesn't really do subtlety. Serge says that it's not as cold as it would be in Russia, and Chris says that it's not as cold as it was on Mercury. When they arrive at dear old Uncle George's offices, he tells them that their next jaunt will be Saturn-wards and that the journey will take some nine months each way. (It only took them twenty days to get to Jupiter, which is only a couple of hundred million miles closer, but who is keeping score?) 

This is obviously going to be quite a problem: how is our author expected to fill a year and a half's worth of pages with character-free astronauts killing time with each other. Very ironically, the solution will freeze them.

I wonder if Walters was consciously foreshadowing Spaceship to Saturn when he allowed Tony to muse about deep-frozen astronauts in the previous volume? Better writers than him strip mine previous books when looking for inspiration for their new one.

Rather endearingly, our heroes have stopped using Junior School level science books to learn about their destinations: nowadays they go to the London Planetarium and have it explained by one of the kindly curators there. The Planetarium is right next to Madam Tussauds: Walters misses a trick by not allowing the boys to drop in and see if Chris's wax effigy is standing in the space occupied by Yuri Gagarin in the real world.

But, as ever, Walters is almost totally uninterested in the planet from an astronomical or scientific point of view. It exists purely as a source of Peril. Space is magical: planets are uninteresting. The journey is everything: the arrival practically nothing. 

Our heroes must be getting pretty frustrated at this point in the careers. While other crews are routinely travelling to Mars and Venus all Chris and his friends ever seem to do is get fired at far-away objects and entirely fail to land on them. 

We are told that there are now a thousand people living permanently on the moon (they live underground and grow algae in tanks) but we get no sense of what an extraterrestrial city looks like. We are told (sensibly) that rockets are now launched from the moon (as opposed to Cape Kennedy or Woomera) because of the lower gravity; but we don't find out what the Saturn probe looks like. You would think that Cool Hardware would be the kind of thing a little boy would want to hear about, but literally all we get is:

The Commander took the astronauts on a moving roadway along a tunnel leading to the launching hall. In the centre Saturn I stood proudly awaiting the finishing touches, its tall, silver shape towering towards the cavern roof.

The launch passes without comment (the crew are asleep) and space is signalled using Walters' standard cliches. ("The black velvet space was sprinkled with countless points of light.... ") Like many a bad poet, he thinks drifting into cod archaisms can be substituted for description: the rings of Saturn consist of "myriads of points of light" and the rings themselves are made up of "myriad points of light". And unlike other visitors to the planetarium, the astronauts have seen the stars "and myriads more" from space.

Once again, the main source of peril for the boys is the force of gravity. The one thing that everybody knows about Saturn is that it has Rings. The Boffins are pretty sure that the Rings are fragments of exploded moons -- myriads and myriads of them, I shouldn't wonder -- or else several myriads of particles of space dust that have been drawn into the planet's orbit. But what doesn't occur to the Boffins until it is too late is that all those myriads of space debris are going to exert a gravitational pull of their own. We are told they have a mass almost as great as the actual planet; so the ship is pulled off course towards Certain Death. 

This week it is young Tony the engineer's turn to say I'm-going-out-and-I-may-be-gone-some-time. At the point at which the ship's course has to be corrected, he's on a space walk, trying to fix a hole made by a stray meteor. If they Chris the retro rockets, Tony will die. If he doesn't, everyone will die. And Tony has self-sacrificingly and nobly and recklessly pretended that his radio has broken, so he can't be ordered back on board. ("Two can play at that game, Horatio" he thinks, which is such a good joke that Walters has to explain it to us readers.) Walters uses the usual morbid imagery to drive home how much Certain Death we are dealing with:

If Chris fired the rocket he would be condemning Tony to death instantly...

She shrunk from the task of conveying Tony's death warrant...

It seemed to be writing Tony's death warrant....

The solution is actually pretty dramatic. Chris allows the spaceship to fall towards the planet, giving Tony time, just barely, to get back inside; and then he fires the retro thrusters and does some precision manoeuvring to navigate the ship through Cassini's Devision (the narrow space between the rings) and onward home to earth. 

Which ought to feel somewhere between James Kirk and James Bigglesworth: proper seat of your pants adventure stuff. It needs to be an ILM special effects sequence, or at least a Chris Achilleos cover. But in fact we are pretty much just told what the plan is, that it's hugely risky; but that in the end, it works okay.

In this respect, Walters is probably quite in step with the Serious Grown Up Writers of his day. Your Asimovs and your Blishes are full of mind-boggling concepts like galaxy wide empires and wandering hobo cities...but they never quite get around to telling you what one of their great big ideas would look or feel or smell like.


Spaceship to Saturn is almost entirely procedural, and all the better for it. The original Blast of at Woomera is essentially a novel about a school boy being trained for a space mission; and as the characters become more and more experienced and the missions more and more routine, it's been harder and harder to make pre-launch preparations seem particularly interesting. This time around, Walters spends a full hundred and thirty pages -- two third of the book -- introducing readers to the idea of cryogenic suspended animation, or, as he charmingly calls it hypothermia -- a word which makes me think of old ladies who can't afford to pay their central heating bills. 

I'd seen the Planet of the Apes TV show and read comic book adaptations of the movie: possibly I'd even seen Ark in Space. So the idea wasn't exactly new to me. But Walters takes it very slowly -- both giving some thought to how it would work; and playing around speculatively with what could be done with it. The cryonic immortalists tend to think that merely freezing a dead person is sufficient -- if you can stop a body decaying, it will be revivable at some point further down the timeline. Walters spots the problems with this and comes up with some solutions. The subject has what is described as "anti-freeze" injected into his body -- otherwise his bodily fluids would freeze solid. He has a small stent fixed into his arm, so that they can pump in just enough oxygen to stop his brain cells dying. A tiny little pacemaker is introduced into his artery, so that the blood carries on circulating even though the heart has been switched off. 

Are you convinced? I certainly was.

Walters is fascinated by the whole idea of "hypothermia". What would it feel like? He pushes the idea that being frozen is a kind of non-time -- weeks or months simply edited out of your life. The first time Chris is put under, he thinks the experiment has been cancelled. Tony is intrigued by the idea that repeated periods of deep freeze could result in a child being "older" than its father. "And a man of twenty one, if he were put to sleep for forty four years, would have his old age pension when he awoke." It would be terrible to wake up and find that your relatives were all old or dead but fascinating to witness all the scientific advances that had been made in the intervening period. The idea of interstellar travel keeps being raised. Would a spaceship be forgotten during a journey of centuries? No: because there would probably be statues and monuments to the departed astronauts; and because take off and landing would be automated by then. But the returning astronauts might be themselves museum specimens by the time they return. These are all ideas that whole science fiction stories could, and have, been based on. (The idea of monuments is specifically raised in the opening minutes of Planet of the Apes.) But it was heady stuff if you are ten years old and coming across it for nearly the first time.

Rather neatly, the plot device from the last book is combined with the plot device from this one. The Boffins detect an unexpected meteor shower between earth and Saturn, and very nearly call the whole thing off. The crew can't make course corrections while they are in deep freeze, and the time lag means the boffins can't do it by remote control.

GOOD NEWS: We established last year that telepathy is instantaneous, and Gail and Gill are happy to lend the service to UNEXA again.

BAD NEWS: The twin on the space ship will still have to be frozen, and frozen telepaths just transmit a kind of mental static.

GOOD NEWS: This mental static is affected by external stimuli, even when the telepath is asleep.

SOLUTION: Freeze both girls; hook them up to EEG monitors. Apply a slight physical -- a tiny pin prick, not a slap round the face --  and see the needle on Girl B's EEG reader jump. Given an afternoon's work, the Boffins can sort out a system where the ships remote sensor reading; and Mission Controls course collections can be translated into systems of pin pricks, and voila! instant faster-than-light communication.

We sometimes complained that Star Trek's only female officer was not-much-more than a radio operator: here the only female characters have been reduced to the status of the actual radio set. But it's a weirdly logical solution to a genuine narrative problem, and the idea of an astronaut in cold storage with a big set of electrodes attached to their helmet has a certain Golden Age charm. For the electrodes to work, the telepaths have to have a special chemical goo rubbed into their scalps -- which leads to endless, tedious  running jokes about girls, shampoo and hairdressers.

But despite the set up, hypothermia is only a narrative facilitator: nothing actually comes of it in the story. The ship does indeed encounter meteors and the Boffins are indeed able to change its direction via telepathic remote control. The only Peril kicks in when Chris, er, nearly wipes out his entire crew by forgetting to inject them with anti-freeze at the beginning of the return voyage. He wants to admit the cock-up when he gets home and resign, but his friends characteristically say that they are all to blame and should face the music together. Chris reciprocally refrains from tittle-tattling about Tony's lying and disobeying orders when he switched his helmet off.


Hopefully, by now everyone has forgotten Planet Narnia. You will recall that Michael Ward theorised at vast length that the seven volumes of C.S Lewis's Narnia series are each themed around one of the seven planets of medieval astrology, and that Lewis hid this fact, and indeed laid a false trail, because he wanted to make a theological point about secrecy. Lewis didn't believe in astrology but he did see the value of the planetary archetypes; so the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is meant to evoke, through its "atmosphere" the concept of Joviality and the Silver Chair a Lunar, and indeed Lunatic ambience. Opinion is divided on the validity of the book. I think it is bollocks, but everyone else (including a lot of eminent Lewisians) thinks it's a work of seminal genius.

Now: I find it hard to believe that Hugh Walters knew anything about medieval astrology. He doesn't show that much interest in the romantic or imaginative associations of the planets. He does a whole book about Mars without alluding to the God of War once. (He doesn't even mention the man in the moon, lovers under a blue moon in June, or the possibility of finding green cheese there.) But he probably studied a smattering of Classics; and would certainly have been familiar with Holst's Planets. You can bet that Chris Godfrey sang I Vow To Thee My Country at his posh school. Your CD of the Planets Suite almost certainly has a NASA photo of Saturn or Jupiter on the cover; but the music is specifically evoking the astrological associations. Mars is the bringer of War, with all those drums; the ethereal choral music is meant to evoke Neptune, not as a sea-god, but a mystic.

We noticed last time around that Walters' Mission to Mercury was very much concerned with the problem of sending messages from home when you are several light-minutes away from earth; and that mythologically Mercury is the messenger of the gods. I was happy to write this off as coincidence: after all, the whole point of astrology is that any symbol can be convincingly applied to a wide variety of different circumstances. But turning to the latest volume, I am not so sure. 

The very minor character on whom the hypothermia process is first tested, is amused because he is now technically younger than his twin brother. Gail and Gil are concerned that if they go on the mission, they will miss their twenty first birthdays; and are adamant that they are both frozen for the exact same length of time as each other; other wise they won't be twins any more. There is speculation about using cryogenics as a system of time-travel. And when the idea of hypothermia goes public, a millionaire offers a fortune to use it to infinitely prolong his own life. His scheme is to be frozen, and then woken up for one day a century.

Our heroes are getting older: Chris can hardly be less than 33, and we've been told that 40 is the compulsory retirement age of astronauts. It would be a stretch to suggest that in this book, what is dragging our heroes to certain death is not myriads and myriads of tiny moonlets, but Time itself -- their own mortality, represented  by the planet Cronos. But it is hard not to notice that a book so much preoccupied with the passage of time, with birthdays, and in particular with the cessation of the aging process is named after Holst's Bringer of Old Age.

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