Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Donald A. Wollheim’s The Secret of the Ninth Planet

Donald A. Wollheim’s 1959 science fiction novel The Secret of the Ninth Planet was written at a very interesting time. The Russians had launched several satellites but as yet there had been no manned spaceflights. The assumption behind the novel is, intriguingly, that manned spaceflight using the technology existing at the time (chemical rockets) would not a practical or safe proposition for travelling any further than the Moon. The further assumption is that much better technologies would be needed.

Wollheim’s belief was that anti-gravity technology would be the answer. These reflections on spaceflight are contained in Wollheim’s foreword rather than in the novel itself.

The novel was also written at a very interesting time in the sense that the nature of the other planets in the solar system was still largely a matter of conjecture. It was still possible to believe that some of the planets might be inhabited by life forms and maybe even intelligent life. It was still scientifically respectable to believe in the canals on Mars. Nobody had any idea what was beneath the clouds of Venus. It was known that Saturn and Jupiter had satellites the size of small planets but what these satellites were like nobody knew. Pluto was still regarded as a proper planet, and Pluto will play an important part in this story.

Within a few short years we would know just how depressingly uninhabitable the solar system is but in 1959 science fiction authors could still hope that the other planets would be suitable settings for rousing adventures.

The novel begins with unusually cool weather. And people get the impression that the sun looks slightly dimmer than usual. It is getting dimmer.

High school senior Burl Denning now enters the story. He and his father are on an archaeological dig in the Andes when they get a message by Guided Missile Post. Whatever is affecting the sun seems to be coming from a nearby spot in the Andes. Burl and his father are the only scientists close enough to get to the spot in time. They discover a huge building that cannot be of human origin. There’s a mass of machinery inside, and there are huge discs on the roof. The sun’s rays are being stolen!

Burl accidentally acquires some strange sort of charge which allows him to operate the alien machinery.

Both Burl’s adventure and the Earth’s problems have just begun. It will be necessary to circumnavigate the solar system in an experimental anti-gravity spaceship, the Magellan. It goes without saying that the power for the anti-gravity engines comes from atomic power - this was the 1950s. The sun-stealers have bases on every planet in the solar system and they all have to be destroyed, and Burl may be the only one who can do it.

The teenage hero tends to mark this as an example of 1950s juvenile science fiction but at least we get semi-plausible explanation for the presence of a high school senior on the Magellan.

Wolheim wastes no time getting his hero into space and into thrilling adventures. Burl’s trip around the solar system is a roller-coaster ride with plenty of danger and some action (including a battle with Martians).

Wolheim also doesn’t worry himself too much with scientific plausibility. Anti-gravity works because science is awesome.

There are some moderately cool aliens but this is really just a not terribly distinguished juvenile science fiction adventure yarn. Perhaps worth a look if you’re into that sort of thing.

Armchair Fiction have paired this one with S.N. Tenneshaw’s Beyond the Walls of Space in a double-novel paperback. I’ve bought a stack of these Armchair Fiction editions and they are almost all excellent and well worth buying. This is the first one I’ve come across that I’d suggest that you might want to pass on.

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