Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Me and My Bunsen Burner: M. E. Patchett, Adam Troy, Astroman, (London: Lutterworth Press, 1954).

Plot: Earth is about to be destroyed by a meteor, so Adam Troy and his spacemen go to the moon to work on colonising Mars, leaving everyone behind to take refuge in Labyrinths or be killed by Tsunamis and radiation from the asteroid. You can tell it's a British book, because you get lines like these:

The deathly hush lying over London was unbroken., Not even a dog barked. The authorities of London knew that the people of London would rather stay behind than leave their animals. (62)

Even Whipsnade Zoo has been evacuated.

But all of that is by the by, as is the stiff upper lip, upright spines (trying to stand up in an earthquake strikes me as stupid, not brave, but this is 1954) and blue eyes, and the calm but worried observation of "brave men" who are evil villains dying despite rescue attempts (so justice is served without contaminating our heroes).

What interested me is the way the book handles science. At times, there are long explanations. At other moments, the authorial voice moves to an ignorant observer: the boat has a "prong like" device attacked to it. At the end, the scientist explains how he defeated the radiation monsters which have emerged on Earth by describing the process of reasoning rather than the actual science, so we get a little spiel about how they reasoned that the things developed in the sea and were a product of the reaction of the sun on radiation, and then very quickly a technical fix by which they need to send a man with poison rockets to change the sun's rays (he will die of course, except that it's Adam Troy, so he doesn't).

I think there are two things here:

1. Patchett understands science, but chokes when having to actually invent anything. At those points we always get handwaving--things "look like" things or do things, but we never get an explanation of how it might work.

2. In 1954 the world is about to change. We are in the last gasp of easily observable science, the idea that biology or physics can be seen in the surface of things. Other writers make the conceptual leap, but Patchett just can't. This is the science of the chemistry set and the little glass slide.


Blogger chance said...

something missing at the end of the post?

2:18 PM  
Blogger Farah said...


11:48 AM  

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