Stowaway to Mars – John Wyndham

extraweightFor British pilot Dale Curtance the Keuntz Prize – to be awarded to the first person to take a spaceship to another planet and back – is the ultimate challenge. Not only has he to build a ship to survive the journey, assemble a top-notch crew and choose a destination, he’s also got to beat the Russians and Americans.

Soon the GLORIA MUNDI blasts off from Salisbury Plain, bound for Mars. There’s only one problem – a stowaway called Joan. Not only does her presence wreck calculations and threaten the mission, but her tale suggests that Mars may be a more dangerous destination than they ever expected.

Written in the 30s, this is an early effort by John Wyndham and it shows.  This is not a bad thing though as the book is a fun read and despite its flaws there is plenty here to enjoy.

The story feels like a solid B-movie effort, of which I like to term ‘B-Literature’ and not the Wyndham that I am used to.  This a more speculative effort rather than the ‘logical fantasy’ he later wrote, with much success.  In this case, Britain is Great again at the forefront of exploration and a major contender in the space race and in particular to reach Mars first.

The story flows well, action is mixed up with speculation on the mysteries of the universe and the boredom of floating about in space, as well as the anticipations surrounding arrival to Mars and take off are captured well. The satire of the Press, especially the British is remarkably spot on now as it no doubt was back in the day; as is the Cold War feel he almost presciently managed to summon up a decade before the term was even used.

There are enough signs of the writer the author would become scattered throughout the pages especially when the astronauts speculate on the big questions.  Space always brings out the pertinent existential questions of our place in the universe and what precisely life is and there are some fascinating conversations set up throughout.

It was strange to think that high in those mountains were observatories where even now telescopes were trained on them.  Still more odd to think of all the millions of men swarming with all their unimportant importance upon that beautiful piece of cosmic decay…

Sadly the characters are all underdeveloped, encroaching well into the territory of cliché and it was hard to gauge if the inherent sexism is written in a knowing way,although the addition of Joan to the crew does see a feminist touch which brings a nice contrast to all the testosterone fuelled antics.  Still at times the whole thing reads like a hilarious parody:

‘Oh, my God…it’s a woman,’ he said in a tone of devastating disgust,

‘Dear me’ said Froud’s voice calmly, ‘just like the movies, isn’t it?  Quaint how these things happen.’

There are plenty of knowing nods as well, references to Wells and Burroughs and one character even remarks that if he were reading this adventure as a story he would have thrown the book away.

As with the best Sci-Fi there is a pleasing bleakness to the story and some suitably strange wonders to allow the reader’s imagination to muse on, which is always a good counterpoint to the indomitable spirit of the human race and the sheer craziness of our questing ways which never fails to impress me.

I wouldn’t nominate this as a first Wyndham book to read if you are new to the author – unless you a fan of pulpy stories – his later style is much stronger and something like The Chrysalids has substantially more to recommend it.  It is worth a read though, if you stumble across it, owing to its shortness (180 pages) and when all is said and done it’s a fun adventure which really steps up towards the end.

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37 Replies to “Stowaway to Mars – John Wyndham”

  1. Well, I don’t know how the book ends, and I’m sure you don’t want to issue a spoiler, but of course there HAS to be a woman on board, in case they have to re-propagate the species anew on Mars. I mean, what if they get stuck there. Oh, suspense! Ha! ha! Just joking. Sort of like “Me Dale, you Joan” stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is strange to think of a time when this was the accepted norm in literature. As a child I was always annoyed that there had to be a love interest in films and especially in adventure films of the time, when women were all so helpless. Without spoiling the ending for you, the book does have a better ending than that, in fact the whole revealed ideas are remarkably thought provoking in a nihilistic sort of way.

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    1. Wyndham wrote a bunch of good books, to keep an eye out for him. Free is always good and combined with books, it’s the perfect match. Happy New Year my friend!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. LOL I wish you’d stop doing that Ste J. You’re always telling me about books and then I decide I have to read it ~sigh~ Mind you, I do have a very vague feeling I read this 30-40 years ago. (yes, I’m that old) 😀
    P/S One of my favourite Wyndham books is Chocky

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    1. You are the second commenter to think you had read it before, how intriguing. I hope it does get a bit of a renaissance as it is a decent read. Chocky was a good one and quite sinister as well. I need to put all my Wyndham’s back together from wherever they are on the bookshelves now.

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    1. That is a good point but they never felt like they lapsed into total cliché. It is worth a read for the later chapters which will appeal to, without spoilers it is hard to say but you would certainly get a kick out of that part at least.

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  3. Ste J, I’ve never read Wyndham and I tend toward fantasy, not sci-fi, BUT I have to say, after seeing the movie “The Martian” (which this review reminded me of), I purchased the book for my son for his birthday and I hope to read it myself. Does Wyndham typically write sci-fi?

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    1. Ah, The Martian a film about people telling you what they are about to do and then doing it for you to see. I wasn’t much of a fan of that film but there is some really good Sci-Fi films and books out there. Wyndham wrote a lot of logical fantasy where he tried to take a realistic look at would happen say, years after a nuclear war or how Earth would deal with alien invaders (or rabid plants)…this is his most out and out space one, his later and more popular work was grounded and stronger for it.

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  4. How interesting! I have a weird feeling I read this in my teens, when I had a space phase, it seems really familiar. Hope your reading is going well generally in 2017. I’m a bit stuck in two substantial books at the mo, with one I’m waiting to review until the author’s birthday.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My reading is going very well, almost through book book of A Dance and will probably go through book six straight after before picking up something else. Substantial books can go either way I find so I hope you manage to get through them soon. Timing your reviews sounds like luxury to me haha, it’s all I can do to keep them coming out twice a week, I am struggling with a review for a Hungarian book at the moment which will hopefully be out on Tuesday when I have time to sit and attempt to consolidate my notes. It is certainly a hard life for us reviewers!

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  5. I haven’t read any Wyndham and really should get round to it. My husband has all the classic Wyndhams so I have no excuse. You are right to suggest that the best of an author’s books should be read first before their juvenilia etc. If you like their writing you can be indulgent of their first attempts.

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    1. I am almost loathe to read all the best books first, when it comes to an author, I love to read their one greatest work and then mix and match between the others, so I always know that even if one is a disappointment, I have more to look forward too. If I come across Wyndham’s other earlier efforts I will probably pick them up but only if they are fairly cheap.

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  6. That’s some cheesy, sexist, dialogue there however, it made me laugh. It’s amazing how terrible dialogue can be when the author is just starting out. But then, it’s cool to watch them develop and transform. This book though it most definitely does sounds like B literature, seems like it would be an interesting read. Or a hardy laugh at the dialogue attempts.

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    1. It does raise its smiles and there are flashes of what was to come but it is also downright fun to just go with it and enjoy everything that is wrong with it these days. If it makes people say that they can do better than that then it is also a good thing!

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  7. That “it was strange to think that high in the mountains…” paragraph made me think “no one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century. …” from War of the Worlds.

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    1. I hadn’t thought of that, for some reason when I first read this I got mixed up with the bloke saying his bit on the opening of the original Battlestar Galactica…So much Sci-Fi so little time.

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      1. Now, my hearing of it has changed from Richard Burton’s voice to Lorne Green’s.

        When I used to watch the original series, I always expected the background to start burning and the word “Bonanza!” to come up 🙂

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  8. I love that first quote, especially the part about “their unimportant importance” and will have to check out The Chrysalids since I haven’t read any of his books yet. It can be entertaining to see how women are portrayed in some books from generations ago so maybe I’ll venture into this one too – thank you!

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    1. It is good to see how far we have come on as well. The Chrysalids is a good book, really good on the psychological terror that we invent for ourselves but a very good read. Stowaways has its moments too, thankfully.

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  9. I’m a fan of B-Movies. I might like B-Literature. Would you consider “The Time Machine” B-Literature?
    What about Wells’ other books? If these are B-Lit, then I’m a fan!

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    1. I must say I haven’t read any Wells yet, despite owning seven of his books, this oversight will be rectified as soon as possible…when I next head into the Sci-Fi landscape.

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  10. I hadn’t heard of this one by Wyndham but I do adore The Chrysalids. I’ve read it twice 😉 I trust your judgement that I needn’t rush to read Stowaway to Mars… so I’ll “stow it away” for a bit to read another time.. see what I did there 😉

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    1. Majestically phrased, my friend! It is a world away(!) from his later works but if you see it in a second hand shop it will be worth picking it up for a couple of dollars and still be a bargain.

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