Monday, 27 February 2017

Stowaway to Mars

John Wyndham Stowaway to Mars (1935)
Here's an oddity - written by John Wyndham prior to his adopting John Wyndham as pen name and having a massive hit with Day of the Triffids: the forgotten, pulpy stuff from before he learned how to write, you might think; and you'd be so wrong that it hurts. See that Wrongy McWrongface from the wrong side of Wrongtown?

That's you.

Unfortunate first impressions can probably be forgiven considering the vintage and a back cover blurb promising that not only are the chaps utterly miffed to discover that they have a bally stowaway on their flight to the red planet, but dash it all, Ginger - the stowaway is a woman!

Born from the golden age of rocketry, Stowaway to Mars kicks off as a seemingly typical tale of scientifically inclined gentlemen hoping to bag the prize money in a race to be the first to make it to Mars, and our main dude has a mousey wife who doesn't want him to go, and is more interested in babies, and believes he needs to grow up and so on. Nevertheless, they all set sail only to discover that there's a woman on board - the plucky daughter of a disgraced scientist who will almost certainly boss them around, complain about the ironing, and wipe their faces with a piece of kitchen roll covered in saliva.

The science is a bit loose and floppy if you look too close, but as for the mechanics of space flight, life beyond gravity, and extraterrestrial ecosystems - you can at least tell that Wyndham gave it more thought than many had done by that point; and the occasional reminders of Flash Gordon are diffused by how seriously he takes his story. Our stowaway is on board following an encounter with some sort of machine creature - and keeping in mind here that robots were a relatively new idea in 1935 - compelling her to trace its ancestry back to Mars, as she later does. What elevates all of this above the bare bones of its plot is the dialogue which bears less comparison to Asimov having his characters tell us about protons, and more to Plato and his pals stood around discussing morality, reality, and all that other good stuff. Here the gang even go so far as to approach an acknowledgement of the genre they inhabit with references to Frankenstein and - of more direct relevance - H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and J. J. Astor's A Journey in Other Worlds, with this as preamble to discourse on machine intelligence, what is meant by the term machine, transhumanism, evolution, and the folly of faith placed in the emergence of a race of supermen. So there are thrills and spills and plenty food for thought.

Not only is it a great pleasure to read science-fiction of this vintage and general stripe with a philosophical dimension, but it's a great pleasure to read science-fiction of this vintage with a philosophical dimension which isn't pitched in the direction of subjects demanding we bite our twenty-first century lips and mumble well, he was of his time. Stowaway to Mars is a far more satisfying read than the title suggests, and it might even be Wyndham's greatest novel.

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