Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham

Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham writing as John Beynon, was first published in 1936 as Planet Plane (Newnes Limited, London), then serialised in the periodical The Passing Show as Stowaway to Mars, where it was described as:

an epic serial of the greatest exploration of all … by the man who writes half a century ahead of all the others.

It is set in 1981 when an international prize of £1,000,000 was being offered to the first man to complete an interplanetary journey. Dale Curtance, a British millionaire adventurer takes up the challenge and builds a rocket, the Gloria Mundi. With his crew of four men he blasts off from Salisbury Plain, his destination the planet Mars. Once free of the Earth’s atmosphere they discover a stowaway, a woman, Joan Shirning, the daughter of a professor! She has a strange tale to tell of a machine that her father found, which they believe came from Mars. Having landed on Mars they encounter what appears to be a planet occupied by ‘intelligent self-contained machines’. They claim Mars to be part of the British Commonwealth of Nations, a claim later disputed by the Russians when a second rocket lands.

My copy was published in 1972, with a foreword  stating how right John Beynon was in anticipating the international rivalry for the space race.

Stowaway to Mars is a novel of its time, the male crew members discuss what should be done with their stowaway – they can’t just chuck her overboard, as they would a man! They have a condescending attitude to women thinking that her ‘highest duty is motherhood’. She can be creative, concentrate on producing children rather than machines, because women :

simply have not got the imagination to see the machines as we see them, but they have the power to be jealous of them. … There is nothing good they can say for it. It’s noisy, it’s dirty, it’s ugly, it stinks: and anyway it’s only a jumble of metal bits – what can be really interesting in that? (page 98)

There is a lot of discussion about The Machine and its relationship with Humanity, what it means and what use is made of it. Man’s survival depends on his adaptability and must be willing to break with the past. The reason to venture into space is thought to be to make us wiser, to seek knowledge. Wyndham refers to earlier science fiction writers, such as J J Astor’s Journey in Other Worlds, written in 1894 where he states that ‘the future glory of the human race lies in the exploration of at least the Solar System.’ And Dale and his companions speculate about what they will find on Mars:

It’ll be amusing … to see which of the story-tellers was nearest the truth. Wells, with his jelly-like creatures, Weinbaum, with his queer birds, Burroughs, with his menageries of curiosities, or Stapleton, with his intelligent clouds? And of the theorists, too. Lowell, who started the canal irrigation notion, Lutyen, who said that the conditions are just, but only just, sufficient for life to exist at all. (page 67)

Even though this book is so obviously dated and contains quite lengthy sections theorising about machines, and the existence of life on other planets, I did enjoy it immensely. I really liked the descriptions of Mars, including its history and the reason for the construction of the canals, and the interplay between the characters, although some of them are only sketchily drawn and I couldn’t distinguish between them very easily.

The book ends on an intriguing note, referring to a subsequent tale. To say more would spoil the ending, at least it would have done for me. I don’t think Wyndham actually wrote a sequel, although there is a short story, Sleepers of Mars which deals with the Russians left  stranded on Mars.

John Wyndham’s (1903 – 1969) full name was John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, and he wrote under several different pseudonyms – John Beynon, John Beynon Harris,  Wyndham Parkes, Lucas Parkes and Johnson Harris.

I’ve had this book for a few years, so it qualifies for Bev’s Mount TBR Challenge and it is the second book I’ve read for Carl’s Science Fiction Experience. It was a really good read and it has got me so interested in finding out more about the history of science fiction itself!

The Sc-Fi Experience: The Midwich Cuckoos

Sci-Fi Experience

Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings is hosting the 2014 Sci-Fi Experience beginning on
December 1st, 2013 and ending on January 31st, 2014. Carl is inviting readers to:

a) Continue their love affair with science fiction
b) Return to science fiction after an absence, or
c) Experience for the first time just how exhilarating science fiction can be.

There are no set numbers of books to read, no pressure, you just get to read what you like, be it one book or twenty: it’s up to you.

I think I fall into the second category. I used to read a lot of science fiction many years ago but these days I only read one or two now and then. As it happens, now is one of those rare occasions as I’ve recently read The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, first published in 1957.

Book Description from Amazon

In the sleepy English village of Midwich, a mysterious silver object appears and all the inhabitants fall unconscious. A day later the object is gone and everyone awakens unharmed €“ except that all the women in the village are discovered to be pregnant.

The resultant children of Midwich do not belong to their parents: all are blonde, all are golden eyed. They grow up too fast and their minds exhibit frightening abilities that give them control over others and brings them into conflict with the villagers just as a chilling realisation dawns on the world outside . . .

The Midwich Cuckoos is the classic tale of aliens in our midst, exploring how we respond when confronted by those who are innately superior to us in every conceivable way.

My view:

The story is set in an ordinary village, with a village green and a white-railed pond, a church and vicarage, an inn, smithy, post office, village shop and sixty cottages and small houses, a village hall, and two large houses, Kyle Manor and The Grange. A very ordinary village where not much goes on, which makes what happens there even more extraordinary.

It’s a product of its time and is dated in the way it portrays women – for example, comments about the female mind being empty because of the dullness of the majority of female tasks and focusing on the shame of being an unmarried mother. Maybe there is too much philosophising and discussion about topics about collective-individualism, morality, the nature of God and evolution. But even so the level of tension and fear rose as the children grew and revealed their powers and not having seen the film version I had no idea how it would end.

Actually, I really enjoyed The Midwich Cuckoos more than I thought I would. It’s eerie and very chilling, a story of alien invasion and the apparent helplessness of humanity to put up any resistance.

Book Beginnings: The Midwich Cuckoos

Every Friday Gilion at Rose City Reader hosts Book Beginnings on Friday, where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires..

I’ve borrowed The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham from the Kindle Lending Library and have only read the opening paragraphs so far. I’ve liked other books by Wyndham, such as Chocky, The Chrysalids, and The Kraken Wakes, so I’m expecting to enjoy this one too.

It begins:

One of the luckiest accidents in my wife’s life is that she happened to marry a man who was born on the 26th of September. But for that, we should both of us undoubtedly have been at home in Midwich on the night of the 26th-27th, with consequences which, I have never ceased to be thankful, she was spared.

According to the reviews on Amazon this Kindle version is full of grammatical errors and typos, so I’m hoping I can overlook them and enjoy this book set in the sleepy English village of Midwich, where a mysterious silver object appears and all the inhabitants fall unconscious.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham


My copy of The Chrysalids by John Wyndham is the Penguin Books edition published in 1955. This is the second book I’ve read in the Once Upon a Time Challenge.

As this is science fiction and I’d read The Kraken Wakes, about an alien invasion of Earth and I know that The Day of the Triffids (which I haven’t read) is about grotesque animal eating plants, I was expecting The Chrysalids to be about monster insects hatching out of pupae. It isn’t.

It’s a post-apocalyptic novel set in an imaginary Labrador. The people have vague recollections of the ‘Old People’ who lived before the Tribulation (maybe a nuclear war), which they believe God sent to punish the population for their sins. The society they live in now is strictly governed by a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, one of the few books that survived the Tribulation. Anything that deviates from the Norm had to be rooted out and destroyed or sent to the Fringes. This applied to people, animals and plants. David Strorm has grown up in a house where the walls are covered in texts such as,

‘THE NORM IS THE WILL OF GOD’, ‘THE DEVIL IS THE FATHER OF DEVIATION’ and ‘WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT!’

So when he realises that his friend Sophie has six toes he is worried, and with reason. Sophie is not the only deviant from the Norm, David himself and a group of other young people have telepathic powers and can tune in to each other’s thoughts. When they realise that Petra, David’s little sister is developing even stronger telepathic abilities, David and Petra and his friends flee to the Fringes, where they expect to find fearsome mutations, but hope to find sanctuary. Petra’s long-range telepathy puts them in touch with a woman in Sealand, on the other side of the world, who promises to rescue them.

Wyndham’s story still has relevance today, with its central theme of intolerance of anyone or anything that does not conform to what is considered to be ‘normal’. Intolerance based on what a group of people ‘know’ to be the truth is always scary, especially when they persecute others who believe or think differently. The question of identity is also explored – what it is to be an individual and also part of society. His characters are real people, the story is compelling, and I had to read on to find out what happened as the tension built.

The title, I suppose, comes from the analogy with the evolution of insects from grubs to the adult stage. The people of Labrador are stuck in the chrysalis stage; they have not evolved and do not want to change. David and his friends are changing however and moving towards a more advanced stage of humanity. As the woman from Sealand tells them:

The essential quality of life is living; the essential quality of living is change; change is evolution; and we are part of it.

It’s a book I should like to re-read, now that I know the story. I thoroughly enjoyed it.