Book name: Stowaway to Mars
Author: John Wyndham
Publisher: Newnes Ltd
Format: ebook, print, audiobook
Genre: Science fiction
Publication Date: 1936
This book has a fairly complex provenance, which is why it's right here on Way Back Whensday even though Penguin published it in 2016.
John Wyndham used many pen names, especially during the early part of his writing career. Stowaway to Mars was originally published as Planet Plane by John Beynon in 1936. It's been republished since as The Space Machine and now in this current title.
The UK is rapt by the juicy details of the latest race to space. Everyone wants to see which nation will claim glory via the Keuntz Prize, for the first manned trip to another planet and back.
Dale Curtance has the technical experience, the courage and the money to build a rocket capable of travelling to Mars. He's obsessed with winning the prize, spurred on by the possibility of German, Russian or American projects getting there first.
As the rocket leaves Earth's orbit with five men onboard, a stowaway is discovered. To the horror of the legitimate passengers on Curtance's rocket, she's a woman and they'll be trapped with her for twelve weeks in each direction.
Once the sexism of their response abates, Joan Shirning explains that she stowed away because she wishes to rescue her father's tattered reputation as a physicist.
Joan and her father discovered a rocket from Mars had landed on Earth, learned to understand the Martian language and then tried to explain everything to a sceptical public.
The response was pretty brutal, so Joan is determined to clear her father's name by journeying to Mars, acquiring proof that the rocket that arrived on Earth was from there and sharing it upon her return home.
Although Stowaway to Mars is quite an early work, John Wyndham deftly undermines societal expectations about missions to other planets (brave men will undertake the journey to be welcomed home in glory by their adoring womenfolk).
Joan is better equipped than any of the men on the voyage to reach out to the Martians because she can already read their language.
The men resort to brute force when challenged by the Martians, learning nothing of the civilisation on Mars and barely escaping with their lives.
The superficial nature of fame earned by daring exploits is laid bare by John Wyndham.
He was deeply sceptical of such endeavours and is much more sympathetic towards Joan's motives, grounded as they are in family loyalty and the desire to expand mankind's knowledge.
The cynicism of the print media is dealt with in a particularly sharp manner. The Press is something he felt very strongly, and very negatively about, as his wry treatment of them in other novels such as The Kraken Wakes shows.
John Wyndham displays a deep ambivalence towards whether voyaging to other planets is a good idea. His later work, such as The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos, regularly explores the disastrous consequences of alien civilizations arriving on Earth.
Stowaway to Mars considers what would happen if we were to land on another populated planet, and it doesn't suggest an outcome any more palatable than when aliens come to us.
Like all good science fiction it is visionarily ahead of its time, but the science elements were not especially daunting or technical and the focus (as is customary with John Wyndham) was more on action and character rather than hard science fiction.
A rare voice of sense at a time when the space race was just getting under way, and when it would be another generation before we could put another man on the moon, Stowaway to Mars has stood the test of time surprisingly well.
Despite John Wyndham's projections, we were nowhere near able to support manned flight to Mars by 1981. We're still working on it forty years later.
The lessons he sketches about what we might find on Mars and how we might respond to them remain pertinent today.
I loved Stowaway to Mars and, like many forgotten John Wyndham novels reissued or printed for the first time since his death in 1969, discovering it was a real pleasure.
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my article about family in the horror fiction of John Wyndham (They May Not Mean To) here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of The Day of the Triffids here.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Texts from Jane Eyre by Daniel M Ortberg here.