Now I like John Wyndham, correction, I love John Wyndham. The man, I thought, could do no literary wrong.
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.
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.
*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.