Thursday, September 21, 2023

The Winged Messenger

Mission to Mercury
by Hugh Walters

Mission to Mercury is essentially the same book as Journey to Jupiter. The heroes travel to an alien planet; they meet with a terrible disaster and certain death; and they return to earth again.
But this time, they encounter a strange new life-form -- more terrifying than Venusian goo or psychic Martian ghosts. More uncanny even than East End teddy boys.

They are going have to share their adventure with....a girl.

Actually, there was a "girl" in the last book. She was a PhD student at Jodrell Bank, who happened to be on duty when one of the boys' distress messages came through. Quite a canny little interlude on Mr Walters part, actually: take us away from the space-ship mid-crisis, and introduce a completely new character who we'll never hear from again, simply so we can see what urgent distress messages are like from the boffin's point of view. Neatly gets the point across that picking ups transmissions from a gadzillion miles away is harder than just clicking Receive on a walkie talkie, and it also generates a bit of suspense. And Janet is not a stereotype or anything. She keeps some knitting in her hold-all to pass the time when on a routine watch. (As opposed to, say, for example, some text-books.) Her boss, Sir William Evans is definitely a bloke. I bet he doesn't refer to the male interns as "Boy" and "Young Man". Or maybe he does. But at least there is a female speaking part when there didn't have to be. Contemporary reviewers had criticised Walters for not having any female characters, so this might have been a kind of apology.

So, anyway: Mercury. Closest planet to the Sun. Very hot on one side. Very cold on the other. And a really, really, really long way away.

A few years down the line, Douglas Adams would tell us that space is "really big" and we would all think he was terribly funny and terribly wise. But I do wonder, re-reading these books, whether the extreme bigness of space is one of the things which made the idea of astronauts so compelling. Why, after all, are stories about people spending days and days in cramped spaces en route to the Moon so much more exciting that stories about people stuck in similar tin cans several hundred leagues under the sea?

Not that stories about submarines aren't also cool. There is an intrinsic thrill in big cardboard boxes, dens and bunk-beds. The bottom of the ocean is as good a place as any to hide from homework and PE and tidying your bedroom. But there is a unique tingling-in-the-tummy sub-sexual thrill in the idea of being all alone in the vast immensity of dark blackness. A bit like that sensation when you come back to school in the evening for chess club and it is dark and empty and silent and all the lights are out and there is no-one there except maybe the caretaker.

Joseph Campbell said that the Immensity of Space was signifier for the Unconscious or the Final Incomprehensible Mystery or The Force. And Hugh Walters occasionally seems to have something like this in mind.

"For her own part she was still excited by the vision of the heavens that had been revealed to her. Now she was beginning to feel some of that mysterious attraction which starts and planets have for adventurers in space. Often she'd heard tell that once a person had journeyed across the threshold of space there was not turning back. The magic of the vast, empty silence acted as magic, drawing back all who ventured into those strange regions. No astronaut ever retired willingly. They were all hopeless addicted to the fascination, the excitement, the wonder of this new environment."

Space as a symbol of God would fit in well with his Church of England pieties and the idea that space travel as a form of human sacrifice.

Being in space is the exciting thing. Alien planets are pretty much all just cold lumps of rock.

But what with one thing and another and space being the size it is, communication with the home-world is a bit of a problem. In Journey to Jupiter we were told that it took thirteen minutes for a radio transmission to base, and thirteen minutes for base to reply. Moderate kudos to the author for making that difficulty the main plot engine of this eighth volume. I imagine it is coincidence that a story so concerned with the problems of sending and receiving messages is named after, er, the messenger of the gods. There was nothing very jovial in the last one, and the next one won't be any more deathly that usual. I suppose it is possible that the lack of any clear astrological symbolism is evidence that Walters disguised it in order to make a point about secrecy.

Sending messages to earth from space is difficult. The further away you are the longer it takes. Mercury is very far away indeed. And the solution proposed in these very-scientific and not-at-all pulpy stories is (drum-roll)...


The Boffins introduce Chris and his pals to Gail and Gill, a pair of twins who can infallibly communicate by thought-transference. He has quite a lot of fun demonstrating how the power works, and everyone is just skeptical enough to convince us that it really does. I do think that Walters attention to trivial detail is what made the stories so engrossing. Gail goes to the bottom of the garden with Serge and Morrey and Chris asks Gill to ask Gail to ask them what was in the green box they took to Jupiter, (something she couldn't possibly know) and Gail telepaths the answer back to Gill. (It was a dentistry kit; a cute detail that stuck in my mind when I first read it.) There was less sci-fi around in 1965, so maybe he thought school kids would need the idea of telepathy spelled out to them.

I, of course, took one look and said "Oh, just like in the Tomorrow People." I may even have created a mash-up in my little head.

Walters does attempt any scientific rationale. Radio waves take time to travel through space because they are limited to the speed of light; but telepathy is instantaneous. Which suggests that thought waves are not subject to special relativity. Or that they work by magic which would be prima facie evidence of an immortal soul...

But as a plot device, it's relatively neat.

What the crew find it hard to get their head rounds is not so much thought transference, but the existence of females. This is so over-done it's comical. Everyone pointedly spends a chapter wondering what the "two miracle men" will be like and hoping that the "new chap isn't a weirdy". The gender-reveal is an end-of-chapter cliffhanger:

"There was a new recruit all right...but it was a girl!"

"A girl! The gasp came from all four astronauts as they stared at their companion to be. A girl she certainly was, and quite a nice one at that..."

Now: there are lots of way this plot-line might have developed. You've introduced a fifth member into a tight-knit group who would happily lay down their lives for each other (if only the others would let them). And, worse the fifth member is one of a pair of twins, with a huge emotional bond to someone outside the group. Does the new member spoil the alls-boys-together space den? Are there new friendships and new jealousies? What about, you know, love? The obvious thing would be for Tony (who is around twenty four years old according to internal chronology) to develop a crush on one of the ladies. But in fact, his attitude is roughly that of Calvin to Suzie. When Gail exhibits some nervousness he thinks "maybe girls are always a bit scared". The twins are nice "even though they are girls".  If only Walters could have remembered that Serge was a Russian long enough for there to be an argument about the greater degree of Women's Liberation in the Soviet Union.

And of course, any practical issue arising from a lady-person spending weeks in a tin can with four persons of the masculine persuasion can't be mentioned at all. There is in fact the barest, tiniest, demurest, almost homeopathic suggestion that the situation has the potential for awkwardness:

"We've, er, rigged up a special compartment for Gail" Mr Gilanders said, a little awkwardly, nodding towards one side of the cabin.

But the head of the space programme immediately shuts the conversation down.

"Just in case you get tired of this lot" Sir George smiled. "At least you can get some privacy whenever you want it."

The actual reason is obviously completely unspeakable.

I recall a scene in one of Willard Price's unreconstructed Adventure books in which the the young hero, Roger, takes a shower on the deck of a sailing ship and is tricked into thinking that a female woman of the opposite sex has come on board, to his acute comic embarrassment. Characters in children's fiction don't necessarily have to be entirely bodiless.

For a brief while, it looks as if there is going to be some characterisation: Tony is cross with Gail for being a girl and Morey is cross with Tony for being cross with Gail and Tony is cross with Morey for taking Gail's side and Chris is cross with them for being cross with each other. And then it turns out that cosmic rays from the sun are affecting their minds and it isn't really their fault at all.

The not entirely un-clever solution is to park the ship on the dark side of Mercury, where they are protected from the Sun's radiation, and sit it out until the sun-spot activity dies down. It is absolutely essential that they launch the ship at precisely the right moment, which would be impossible using time-lagged radio communication with earth: Gail's telepathic presence on the ship saves the day: but her flakiness is a major source of jeopardy. The dark side of Mercury faces away from the sun, so temperatures go right down to absolute zero, which is about as cold as it is possible to get. Everyone shivers and struggles and Gail falls into a coma. No-one actually threatens to kill themselves, but it is touch and go right up to the last moment...

But the main question the story has to answer is -- are boys better than girls? Better at being astronauts, at any rate? And, in fairness, Walters comes down heavy handedly on the correct side of the argument. In Moonbase One, Chris had a last-minute epiphany that Secondary Modern boys from the North who are good with their hands are just as worthwhile as Public School boys with proper brains. Mission to Mercury ends with the sudden insight that he's been unfair to the fair sex. It is even possible that all the "you're doing quite well -- for a girl!" stuff is deliberately overdone. Maybe Walters is trying to provoke his readers into yelling "Of course girls can be spacemen, you silly old duffer!" in Chris and Tony's patronising faces.

But dear oh dear oh dear in order to get to the punch line we have to be subjected to the most agonisingly transparent plot device ever. It infuriated me when I was a kid and it infuriates me now. Gail and Gill are identical twins; Gail is the more identical of the two. When they go on a double date with the boys they even switch ID broaches, just to make the point about how identical they are. (One of my most bestest friends has a twin brother. Whatever Shakespeare might have told you, they aren't that difficult to tell part.)

The plan is that Gill will stay on earth and act as a receiver, while Gail travels with the boys and acts as a transmitter. So Gail, but only Gail, goes through the training regime, gets spun around in centrifuges and locked in isolation simulators and briefed about how to suck space food out of a space food tube. She copes pretty well with the training, for a girl. Just before take off, there is a near disaster -- Gill is involved in a car accident, breaking her leg. Fortunately, she's deemed well enough to fulfil her part of the mission from her hospital bed, with her leg in plaster, and the mission goes ahead. But Gail find it very difficult to withstand the high g-force blast off, despite all her training. She doesn't understand that she is meant to drink liquids through plastic tubes in zero-g, despite all her training. This surprises Chris a great deal. "Had something happened to her memory?....Why had Gail forgotten this when she'd already drunk from plastic tubes during training?" She falls asleep when an essential telepathic message is on it's way from earth, and Chris is as chivalrous as you'd expect.

"Gosh! What shall we do?" asked Tony.

Chris didn't reply. He was too busy slapping the girl's face.

Gail does haul herself back into consciousness long enough to send the crucial messages to set up the trip home. And the telepathic system of communication is deemed a roaring success. But Chris has to conclude that sending girls into space was a terrible mistake: "Although she seemed to have been well prepared....she has, in fact, lost the physical tone that had been built up. Indeed at I times I have wondered if her pre-flight training hasn't been completely wasted" he writes in the Captain's Log. "It just means you can't prepare and train girls as you can men." he tells Tony.

And then, when they get back to earth, there is a completely unexpected twist. In an entirely surprising and not at all telegraphed development. 

Go on. See if you can guess. 

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James Kabala said...

There was a printing of Perelandra under the name Voyage to Venus, and now I honestly wonder if the alliteration was deliberately trying to capitalize on this series. I assume the title change must have been well after Lewis's death, though.

Paul King said...

Possibly Walters had started reading SF ? Heinlein used telepathy for communication with Earth in the 1957 novel, Time for the Stars.

Lirazel said...

Andrew, have you considered joining Mastodon? (Had to update all my Patreon info to see your latest stuff, sorry I've not been around, etc.) I'm there:

I'm 68, for some reason. A veritable Mother of the Church.

Lirazel said...

Andrew, have you considered joining Mastodon? (Had to update all my Patreon info to see your latest stuff, sorry I've not been around, etc.) I'm there:

I'm 68, for some reason. A veritable Mother of the Church.