Monday, January 26, 2015

John Wyndham's Stowaway to Mars (Planet Plane)

In 1951 The Day of the Triffids made John Wyndham (1903-1969) the most popular science fiction writer in Britain. In fact Wydnham’s overnight success had taken him more than 25 years to accomplish. He had started writing in 1925, was selling stories to the American pulps by the early 1930s and published his first novel in 1935. It was a detective story but later the same year his first science fiction novel, The Secret People, saw the light of day. It was quickly followed by Planet Plane (later republished as Stowaway to Mars). These first two science fiction novels were published under the pseudonym John Beynon. 

Stowaway to Mars is set in 1981. Leading British aircraft manufacturer Dale Curtance has decided to take a crack at the Keuntz Prize. This rich prize has been offered to the first man to make a successful voyage to another planet. In the novel’s fictional world men have already reached the Moon but every attempt to reach the planets has ended in disaster.

Curtance has been constructing a rocket under conditions of the utmost secrecy. A break-in at the works, a break-in that leaves two men dead, has blown all that secrecy out of the water. Henceforth the spotlight of the world’s media will be on Dale Curtance and his planned mission to Mars.

Curtance’s rocket, the Gloria Mundi, blasts off with its five-man crew - Curtance, his young co-pilot Geoffrey Dugan, engineer James Burns, middle-aged Doctor Grayson and journalist Froud. Not long after blast-off they discover they have a sixth person on board, a stowaway. The stowaway, a young woman named Joan, turns out to know a lot more about Mars than any of the other crew members - in fact she knows the Martian language!

While Mars is about to be visited by the inhabitants of Earth it seems that Earth has already been visited by the Martians. At least in a manner of speaking. The Martian visitor was a machine. Not an ordinary machine, but a machine capable of thinking for itself.

As to who built this machine, or whether Mars is still inhabited by intelligent life forms, these are questions to which Joan does not have the answers. It was her determination to find these answers that led to her decision to go to Mars.

Wyndham changed his style radically at the beginning of the 1950s but already in this very early novel we see some of the major preoccupations of his later science fiction already in evidence. The increasing mechanisation of the world was already causing concern to many people in the 1930s. It was widely feared (correctly as it turned out) that this would change society drastically. The clash between traditional ways of life and the modern world would be a major theme in Wyndham’s later work and it’s intriguing to see this earlier treatment of the same theme. Dale Curtance is very much in love with modernity and the machine age. His wife Mary hates and fears machines and sees them as a threat to everything she holds dear. Joan has mixed feelings on the subject. 

When they reach Mars our space explorers will find that the Martians have had their own dramatic experiences with machines. This might sound like the novel is a typical example of the fear-the-future sub-genre but Wyndham is much more subtle than that. The Martian experience with machines has changed their world and their civilisation profoundly but these Martian machines are not demonic machines that enslave their creators. The relationship between the Martians and their machines is complex and ambiguous.

Wyndham’s other great preoccupation was with civilisation under threat. The Martian civilisation is certainly under threat, but not from its machines.

This is not an alien invasion story, nor is it a story of an encounter with alien monsters. There are no real monsters nor are there any real villains. There is no actual clash of civilisations, merely encounters with civilisations so different as to be mutually incompatible and incomprehensible. There are in fact two Martian civilisations, that of the Martians themselves and that of their machines. These civilisations co-exist, although with some tensions. One civilisation has a future; one does not.

Don’t expect any space battles with laser cannons in this novel. There is some action but it is handled in a somewhat unconventional manner. This is by no means typical 1930s space opera. Despite some major differences in style and approach it has far more in common with Wyndham’s later work than you might expect. 

This is also a story with some surprisingly dark aspects to it. It’s not a dystopian novel but nor does it have the optimism of much early space opera. That’s not to say that it suffers from the nihilism and self-indulgent pessimism of so much later science fiction. Even in 1935 Wyndham was a thoughtful and provocative writer. He had not yet found a formula that suited his purposes but you can see that he was working towards finding one.

Stowaway to Mars is perhaps not entirely successful (certainly in comparison to his later masterpieces like The Midwich Cuckoos) but it should not be dismissed as mere juvenilia. It’s actually quite an interesting tale. Recommended.

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