Wednesday, January 26, 2005

So you want to be an Astronaut young man? Donald A. Wollheim and Mike Mars

Does anyone here remember career books? Slightly dull, but terribly pleasant stories about girls who become dress designers or air stewardesses and boys who become engineers or doctors. Well, Donald Wolheim seems to have written a set of them, showing the career path of young astronaut Mike Mars.

The thing about career books wasn't that they didn't have a plot, or exciting adventures or anything like that, it's that their purpose was to show as realistically as possible what it might be like to embark on a particular career. Anything else was a little superfluous and somehow, the writer could never help showing it.

So it is with Donald Wollheim's Mike Mars Around the Moon (Doubleday, 1964). In the series Mike progresses from flying experimental aircraft, to this adventure in which he and two others crew a rocket around the back of the Moon and back. He is part of project Quicksilver, which uses the young and footloose for risky projects on the stated basis that they are expendable. Everyone involved--including the astronauts--agrees this is quite sensible.

Ostensibly the excitement lies in beating the Russians and there is one of those officially "thrilling" scenes where the Russians kidnap the second US crew, and Mike and his friends have to free them, and another in which a rescue craft is sent to blow up Russian laid space mines with an atomic bomb (launched from an anti-aircraft type gun would you believe?)

But the real excitement in this book--and I use the term without irony--is in the descriptions of the incredibly mundane things astronauts and their crafts do:
"Although the best observation positions in the capsule were the viewplates at the control seat, any part of the heavens could be scanned by changing the attitude of the craft. Tiny jets of compressed gas, spurted out from the sides, would alter the position of the huge capsule. Without changing the direction and trajectory of the ship itself, this processcould spin it to observe anything.

Hence, periodically, observations were made of the receding Earth, each time a new and awesome scene."

I loved this book. It's staid, it's slow. It's got far too many info dumps to make a successful novel. The spy thriller/action adventure material is grafted on. Yet it absolutely nailed the wondrousness of human achievement with moments of real poetry. Just listen to this:

“The huge carrier slid out from under the platform base and began its withdrawal to the V.A.B. A mile away the deep-sunk, heavily fortified block-house rested, a full mile away from the launching pad, and there the two teams of boys gathered, while the last hour ticked away for the Saturn’s test.
It stood out there alone, on a man-made prarie of concrete, high up atop the platform, with a thin steel tower holding it, and notihing in the landscape around so big and so wonderful.”

Oh yes, and it has a Native American side kick who doesn't get stereotyped as a tracker or end up dead.

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