Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, August 10, 2018


Rockets to Nowhere by "Philip St. John" (Lester del Rey) (1954)

Beginning in 1952, the John C. Winston Company of Philadelphia issued a series of juvenile books in their "Adventures in Science Fiction" series.  A total of 37 books were issued in the series, first by Winston (1952-1960), then by its successor Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1960-1961).  All but two of the entrees were novels, one was an anthology (The Year After Tomorrow edited by Lester del Rey, Cecile Matchak, and Carl Carmer) and one was nonfiction (Rockets Through Space by Lester del Rey).  The series promised exciting reading, with stories backed by technical accuracy, and written by recognized authors in the field.  Unlike much of the juvenile SF of the time, the stories emphasized character and the growth and the development of its young protagonists.  Most of the books were original publications.

The name of Lester del Rey is securely linked to the series -- ten of the 37 books were by him.  (This far outnumbered the number of books in the series by one author; the runners-up, with four books was Milton Lesser (now better known as Stephen Marlowe); vying for third place with three books apiece, were Raymond F. Jones, Donald A. Wollheim, and Evan Hunter.)  No surprise there -- it's my understanding that many of the plots in the series were developed by del Rey and by Lesser.)

There were a few absolute turkeys in the line-up, but most of the titles were good old-fashioned, exciting science fiction.  Besides the authors listed above, the series featured books by Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, Chad Oliver, Alan E. Nourse, and Ben Bova.  Quite a line-up and one of the many reasons this series is remembered so fondly by those whose childhood was brightened by them.

Lester del Rey is recognized as one science fiction's great authors and editors.  He was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1990.  Many of his short stories -- both science fiction and fantasy -- are acknowledged classics.  Rockets to Nowhere, however, does little to burnish del Rey's reputation.

The time is the near future.  Not that far that some of the characters met and worked with Werner von Braun and Willy Ley.  One of the characters is the son of science fiction writer (and 1940s Astounding Science Fiction regular) George O. Smith (!).  We learn that Smith is still alive and churning out SF when the novel takes place.

The world-wide political situation is dire and has affected man's attempt to conquer space.  No nation dares to build a space station in Earth's orbit.  Any country that does will have a military advantage that the others would not tolerate.  An attempt by the United Nations to build a space station died aborning when each nation realized that one or two men could take over the station and use it for their country's advantage.  The idea of a space station being used as a jumping off place to reach the moon has become unthinkable.

This distrust among the nation's has sparked a world-wide wave of paranoia.  For the past thirty years each country has instituted strict security precautions against spying and sabotage.  Actually, strict is not the right word.  Let's substitute the word "draconian."  When the taint of suspicion is one any one person, security services also applies the taint to his or her family, and acts accordingly.

Danny Scott is the son of two fairly high-level scientists, each with a security rating above his.  Also with a high security rating is his cousin Rip, a rocket test pilot.  (Although a space station is not feasible, rocket research continues.)

When Rip is killed in a rocket accident, Danny has suspicions.  Brave though Rip might be, he was also very cautious.  He would not go up in a rocket if there was an obvious fault or potential danger.  Around the same, leading scientists are vanishing, or dying in other rocket accidents.  In fact, everyone above Danny's father in his project is gone and Danny begins to fear for his father.  He suspects these people were not killed as the government has said.  Danny thinks they may have been kidnapped or murdered.  Then Danny discovers that not only scientists have been vanishing, a lot of other people have also -- people whose skills could be lent to build a space station.  Near the end of the book we learn that some 12,000 people have vanished.

But there is no space station.  It is impossible.  Regular rocket flights around Earth's orbit as well as various ground systems prove that a space station cannot exist.  But...

Danny steals a rocket in an attempt to prove or disprove his suspicions, only to discover no space station.  But he does discover rockets being launched from where no rockets should have been launched.

So what is going on?  Is it a plot from some enemy nation?  Or from some unknown subversive group?  Or is it from the government?  Or a cabal of traitors withing the government?  Danny is going to have a hard time finding out because now he is a criminal and is branded a traitor.

Rockets Through Space has a number of faults, from illogical plotting to weak characterization to an ending that had been telegraphed almost in CAPITAL LETTERS and bold, italicized type.  But its greatest fault is that it is not exciting.  It moves slooowly.  It took me over three day to plod through the book -- something that most fans of the series would think impossible.

Surprisingly the telegraphed ending lent some credence to the book, moving the story up to what I would consider a solid C grade.  Rockets Through Space is at the lower end of the 37 book in the series but certainly not at the bottom.

Of del Rey's eight novels in the Winston series, this is the only one that has not has an English language paperback reprint.  I think I know why.

You may find more virtue in this story.  I certainly hope you do.


  1. I loved the Winston books when I was a kid reading them, and read every one my library had, which wasn't even a third of the total. I never saw these in a book store or book department of a department store, where the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift Jr. and Nancy Drew dominated. The collector in me, which I fight frequently, wishes I had a pristine set of the whole series.

  2. Like Rick, I loved the WINSTON SF series of books as a kid. Loved the covers! I remember reading ROCKETS TO NOWHERE. But my favorites were Poul Anderson's VAULT OF THE AGES and Jack Vance's VANDALS FROM THE VOID.

  3. Long vanished by my youth...Dell Laurel Leaf, Scholastic and (of all publishers) Thomas Nelson were doing most of the best youth-targeted sf publishing in the '70s.

    Del Rey was having his serious writer's block problems by the turn of the '60s...wonder if this was an early symptom...certainly, I hated the Paul Fairman ghosted Del Rey novels of the '60s I tried (among the worst things Scholastic kept in print for years).