Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, October 23, 2015


Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham (1936)

John Wyndham (real name John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Benyon Harris, 1903-1969) is best known  for his science fiction work following World War II.  The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos (aka  The Village of the Damned), The Trouble with Lichen, and Chocky, among others, are all classics in the field.  This mature work often leads one to oerlook that Wyndham began writing science fiction as early as 1931, publishing his first story in Hugo Gernsback's Wonder Stories.

Stowaway to Mars, Wyndhams second novel in the field, was first published as a newspaper serial in Britain's The Passing Show in 1935.  An expanded version was published in book form the following year under the title Planet Plane as by "John Benyon."  Clearly written as a space opera laced with references to Wells, Verne, Weinbaum, John Jacob Astor, and other early SF writers, Stowaway to Mars shows a level of maturity that was rare for that time.

The time is 1981.  Dale Curtance is a wealthy record-holding pilot and daredevil who is secretly building a rocket that would take him to Mars.  An international prize of a million dollars has been offered to the first man to make an interplanetary journey and that is Dale's excuse to make the attempt.  When a saboteur breaks into Dale's factory, kills a guard, and attempts to kill Dale, the secret is out.

Now that the public knows about the project, Dale ramps up work.  Other interests are also working on space ships but Dale is convinced that he is ahead of all others.  With a crew of four (a navigator, an engineer, a journalist, and a doctor), Dale's ship the Gloria Mundi takes off in a televised spectacle for the six-week journey to Mars.  Shortly after takeoff, he realizes that there has been an errot in his calculations:  the ship appears to be carrying about 140 pounds more than he had estimated.  Course corrections are made and -- foreshadowing Tom Godwin's classic story "The Cold Equations" -- concern is raised whether the extra weight could cost them the fuel needed to complete the round trip.

This extra weight, of course, is the stowaway of the title, an attractive girl who would only give her name as Joan.  Her reasons for stowing away are unknown, but she seems to know a great deal of science and is able to help out during the voyage.  She is grudgingly accepted by Dale who is afraid of what the presence of a pretty girl could do to his crew over a long voyage.  She is far less grudgingly accepted by three of the crew members, who welcome her and her assistance.  Only one man, the dour Scottish engineer (shades of Star Trek!) appears resentful of her presence.

Joan, it turns out is the daughter of a disgraced scientist and is trying to redeem her family name.  Her father accidently stumbled upon a robot, a metal thing strangely shaped with tentacled appendages.  He took the him home to study and found it spoke a weirdly unpronouncable language but he and Joan learned to communciate by learning its written language.  When it came time for Joan's father to announce his discovery to the world, the robot self-destructed, melting into an unidentifiablee mass of metal -- leaving Joan's father no proof of its existence.  Ridiculed and no longer accepted by the scientific community, he was forced to move and settle in anominity.  The robot, Joan knew, came from Mars and the Gloria Mundi provided a means for her to prove that her father was right.

Mars, it turned out, was a dying world.  Its "canals" were artificial waterways built centuries ago to hold brackish water.  Strange plantlife bordered its shores.  The crew come across Joan's robots, but these are wildly and individually different and show aggression toward the humans.  One crew member is killed, a robot captures Joan in its tentacles and makes off, leaving the remaining four men to battle the robots.

From here on in, things move pretty fast.  An ancient Martian city, a dying race, the appearance of Soviets, a crashing rocket, a soliloquey on humanity and machines, sexual passions and sexual activity...everything rushes together in the last third of the book.  Hurry, hurry.

Stowaway to Mars has a lot going for it.  Many of the SF tropes are handled well.  The characters who at first appear to be stock stereotypes are complex, real, and flawed.  The science behind most of the book is current as of 1935 thinking.  And, yeah, there's sex, rare for 1930s SF and decretely handled, of course.  Despite its space opera sensibilities, the story attempts (sometimes succeeding) to bring a deeper thought to the subject.  The book obviously owes a lot to H. G. Wells and to Olaf Stapledon.

We are told at the beginning that the Glorai Mundi returned successfully from Mars, and halfway through the novel we learn that Dale and some of his crew (at least) survive, only to perish years later on an attempted flight to Venus.  Still, there's a final twist that comes as a surprise.

(Wyndam wrote a "sequel" to the novel three years later.  "Sleepers of Mars" [Tales of Wonder, March 1938] is a story about Russians stranded on the same Mars.  It was reprinted as the title novella in a 1973 British collection..)

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