For 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.