Review of John Wyndham: Stowaway to Mars

Stowaway to Mars (Coronet Books) John Wyndham
Stowaway to Mars
[rate 2] I want it to be more, I really do, but I have to obey the rating system!

Now I like John Wyndham, correction, I love John Wyndham. The man, I thought, could do no literary wrong. Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes are two of my all time favourite books, bar none. The Midwich Cuckoos is also a cracking read, and an even scarier film (the Village of the Damned). As I said, Wyndham is a master of classic science fiction. Note I say ‘classic’ science fiction. By this I mean the story happens in the real world, based on Einsteinian & Newtonian physics, and quite firmly does not subscribe to the fantastical in any way. The stories are more to do with how ordinary people react to situations that, if a little odd, have their basis in what is happening hear and now. If you ignore the alien causation *1*, The Kraken Wakes is as relevant a tale about global warming today as it was when it was written in the 1950s. Ditto Day of the Triffids on genetic modification.

So I was more than a little disappointed by Stowaway. I hadn’t heard of the book before, and after reading it, I can see why. Published in 1935 under the pseudonym John Beynon, this is pulp pure and simple. Not even very good pulp at that. One thing I always liked about Wyndham’s work was that the women weren’t your stereotypical bimbos – they were strong, in many cases saving the day time over time – which is rare even in modern science fiction, let alone pieces written over half a century ago. In Stowaway the two women are plot devices with no redeeming features. The wife of the main character is an educated woman who, once married, looses all idea of self-worth and reverts to stereotype, whilst the other woman… Again, meant to be a strong educated woman, but not so much with the brains. She’d been in the book one page and I was rooting for her to be pushed out of the nearest airlock, and I’m not a violent person!

Nothing about this book recommends it to the reader. The prose is forced, showing none of Wyndham’s characteristic lyric turn; the dialogue is laughable and memorable only in its sheer appallingness; and there is no tension. Zip. Nada. On practically the very first page you are told that all the characters reach Mars, have fun, and survive the return trip to try again another day. Ok, Wyndham never was one for killing off his main characters, so we’ll let that one slide a bit, but I felt no anxiety about what was happening, no curiosity about how it was going to turn out ok. There was no connection between the reader and what was happening on the page.

If I could come up with one redeeming feature, it is this: there is a constant undertone of the media as corrupt, wielding too much power, and willing to destroy anyone in the way of a story. In one lovely scene, two journalists are talking about how the wife of the main astronaunt/billionaire/playboy/adventurer couldn’t bring herself to say goodbye before her husband set off to be the first man on Mars *2*. The first journalist is bewailing the lack of good photos. His friend turns to him and says “you should see the montage your photo people put together last night. Very touching. Bring tears to your eyes”. Spectacle, throughout the book, is more important than facts.

Wyndham does try to get in the expected biting subtext, warning us of something in our present day culture that could easily go wrong in the future. He’s a good little science-fiction writer in that respect. But it just goes wrong.

I wanted to like this book and am going to read it again just to make sure I didn’t miss anything, but I don’t think that I did. It just misses on all counts. When you read it, it is clear that it was one of those stories churned out for the pulp magazines in their hundreds. Something to pay the bills, but not to stand the test of time. It is a great sadness that John Wyndham didn’t write more books, so we wouldn’t be so desperate for any scrap of his genius left.

Endnotes:
*1*Yes, he resorts to aliens, but only as plot-device. In most of his ‘alien’ books, you never even see single alien from cover to cover.
*2*For she is a woman, and all women hate and fear machines, because they threaten our reproductive prerogative. Yeah, I have no idea what Wyndham was on when he wrote this either.

One thought on “Review of John Wyndham: Stowaway to Mars

  1. Hi

    Stowaway to Mars is really poorly done. Some things seemed really silly, even in the 80’s when I first read this. Never mind in the 21st century. Even though the book was written in 1935, and set in 1981, it’s not just a case of not getting how things have developed.

    For example: The launch of the first mission to Mars, manned at that, is a big media event. There is a police operation to control the crowds who have come to watch. This includes helicopters (well, sort off!). It’s covered by BBC Television. Only, it seems they have only provided 1 camera for the whole event. (“Excuse us while we change the lens on the camera. The pictures will briefly disappear,” says the announcer.) Not knowing what will happen with this new TV is now excuse for thinking that in 45 years time, just 1 camera will be use.

    Also, there appears to be NO RADIO. The police in their aircraft have to shout to each other. A radio is not mentioned in the description of the space ship. Nor any attempt to try and contact Earth during the journey. It does mention that they will be followed using optical telescopes.

    The rest of the book is not much better. That includes characters and dialog.

    What you might find interesting to read is a short story set before this book, about the stowaway and her father and their encounter. Being a short story, it is actually better. Unfortunately, I haven’t got a copy of the book it was in. I don’t remember the title for either, and haven’t been about to find out yet.

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