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Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham aka John Beynon

Vertigo

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John Wyndham only started writing under the name John Wyndham after the Second World War, around 1950, after a long hiatus since 1936, covering the war years and a while either side of them. His writing before the war was under the names John B Harris and John Beynon. This is the first book I’ve read from that period and I’m frankly shocked at how bad it is especially considering that the next book he wrote was the classic Day of the Triffids, published in 1951. He was already 33 in 1936 so it’s not just down to ‘youth’ but something certainly changed; maybe the war was the main factor. Regardless, this book is very much in the same vein as Verne’s much earlier From the Earth to the Moon it is a heroic account of the first manned voyage to Mars.

The one really big difference (apart, obviously, from the destination) is the stowaway of the title, a woman at a time when, despite the advances in equality made during the war, women’s place is still firmly considered to be in the home looking after the children. There is even one passage early on where the (male) main protagonist exclaims to his wife that denying him the pleasure of working with machines and competing in speed challenges would be like denying her her long awaited pregnancy! I mean I do try to be understanding of the changes in attitudes but this was a step too far for me and particularly surprising considering the lengths he went to later, in The Trouble with Lichen (1960), to deal sympathetically with the problems faced by women who wanted both children and careers.

However I pressed on telling myself times have changes (some) but then later our female stowaway is assaulted separately by two of the male crew (including the main protagonist) and it’s considered to be in poor taste but not anything exceptionally bad. I mean WTF!

The story itself was just okay with its content being a mix between the aforementioned From the Earth to the Moon and Burroughs’ Carter stories (mentioned in the book and discussed as, at the time, a possibly valid hypothesis of life on Mars). And I think that’s almost certainly the first time I’ve dammed John Wyndham with such faint praise. I was severely unimpressed with this book and now consider that I have read all the quality books by him and will not delve further into his earlier works. Sad but I’d rather remember his writing in the context of Triffids, Chrysalids, Cuckoos, Lichen and, of course, Chocky.

2/5 stars
 
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mosaix

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Wyndham's stories were some of my earliest in SF reading. He was recommended by my English Literature teacher at secondary school in the late 50s. Looking back now he (my teacher) was ahead of his time.

Not read Stowaway To Mars.
 

farntfar

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It's several years since I read this book, and I must admit to not particularly remembering the two assaults or the pregnancy reference. I must read it again to check.

This book was a continuation from a previous short story, called The Lost Machine, or something similar, if I recall, and I remember it, and Stowaway to Mars as being quite positive in terms of its portrayal at least of the heroine of both stories.
In the short story, the lost machine had come from Mars and had got stuck here.
Found by a retired professor and his daughter (who is at no point described in cliché as his “beautiful” daughter) they, and particularly she, managed eventually to communicate with it. It had spoken of its journey to earth and had then broken down.

In Stowaway to Mars, she stows away on the flight to Mars in order to find out more about where the machine had come from.

You speak of the “hero” (Dale something?), who was a sort of rich playboy mechanic, who, having broken all the land and air speed records available, decided to be the first bloke to travel to another planet.
Although there are necessarily several chapters about him, his spaceship and the flight (which is when the “assaults” take place I think), both he and it are in many ways superfluous.

The guts of the story are only really about our heroine (who's name I have forgotten.) and the Martian machines.

It is a discussion of compassion and law and order in a dying machine society as well as a retrospective on an ancient and now defunct Martian civilisation.

It is, in fact, one of the earliest discussions of AI of which I am aware, and predicts many of the questions which still remain on that subject today.

The book is a product of its time, and certainly contains cultural norms, particularly in terms of womens' position in society, which clash with our thoughts today, but in terms of Wyndham's main theme, I would suggest it deserves a higher mark than you have given. :)


Edit:
I've just read a couple of reviews of this book on other sites, where they suggest the machine related bit is much shorter than I remember it, so maybe I am wrong about it being the "main theme". It is certainly the major theme that I remember from it, so maybe I've just blotted the first 7/8s from my memory. :D
However The machine's world-view is definitely imprinted on my memory.
 
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Vertigo

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It's several years since I read this book, and I must admit to not particularly remembering the two assaults or the pregnancy reference. I must read it again to check.

This book was a continuation from a previous short story, called The Lost Machine, or something similar, if I recall, and I remember it, and Stowaway to Mars as being quite positive in terms of its portrayal at least of the heroine of both stories.
In the short story, the lost machine had come from Mars and had got stuck here.
Found by a retired professor and his daughter (who is at no point described in cliché as his “beautiful” daughter) they, and particularly she, managed eventually to communicate with it. It had spoken of its journey to earth and had then broken down.

In Stowaway to Mars, she stows away on the flight to Mars in order to find out more about where the machine had come from.

You speak of the “hero” (Dale something?), who was a sort of rich playboy mechanic, who, having broken all the land and air speed records available, decided to be the first bloke to travel to another planet.
Although there are necessarily several chapters about him, his spaceship and the flight (which is when the “assaults” take place I think), both he and it are in many ways superfluous.

The guts of the story are only really about our heroine (who's name I have forgotten.) and the Martian machines.

It is a discussion of compassion and law and order in a dying machine society as well as a retrospective on an ancient and now defunct Martian civilisation.

It is, in fact, one of the earliest discussions of AI of which I am aware, and predicts many of the questions which still remain on that subject today.

The book is a product of its time, and certainly contains cultural norms, particularly in terms of womens' position in society, which clash with our thoughts today, but in terms of Wyndham's main theme, I would suggest it deserves a higher mark than you have given. :)


Edit:
I've just read a couple of reviews of this book on other sites, where they suggest the machine related bit is much shorter than I remember it, so maybe I am wrong about it being the "main theme". It is certainly the major theme that I remember from it, so maybe I've just blotted the first 7/8s from my memory. :D
However The machine's world-view is definitely imprinted on my memory.
I think you're right in that the main theme of the story was machines in general and the idea of the thinking Machine in particular and that for me was the main take away from the book (it was a follow on from the short story The Lost Machine though that story gets related by the girl so there is no need to have read it previously). If that had been it I would have accepted it as an adequate an interesting story. However the attitudes towards women drew me out completely. Now I love Wyndham's work (I too had him given to me by my English teacher to, successfully, get my younger self reading) and I've endured and lived with much sexism when reading older classic works but I truly found this to be exceptional, possibly because it was so casual, a you-know-how-it-is approach; getting women involved is always going to cause problems after all that's why we don't let them on warships.

No this was too bad for me. It started early and by the time the flight has started and the stowaway is found it has become painful. Then, with her arrival, they actually have a discussion about why women 'hate' machines and I'm thinking are now Wyndham's going to present the woman's defense, but no, it only gets worse. One argument put forward for the hatred of machines is jealousy! Apparently all women are useful for is their creativity and they are jealous of machines because machines make things and so are creative and threatening woman's place! Then it looks like we're finally going to get a comment on this argument from Joan, the stowaway, and what we get is:

‘Speaking as a woman, what did you think of that mouthful?’ he asked.
She smiled. ‘Not much.’

Then the assaults, which are fortunately only attempted assaults. After the engineer's ones is prevented by the journalist we get:

'...I’m prepared to forget for twelve weeks that I’m a woman; why can’t they do the same?’
‘Perhaps you’re not as successful at it as you think you are. Besides, both of them resented your presence here from the start, so up pop our old friends sex-antagonism, desire for domination and the rest of the famous cast. As long as you hold them off, they’ll harry you – at least, Burns will – and if you don’t hold them off, they’ll despise you.’

And that's it, no matter what happens it seems it's her fault for being too attractive. The journalist makes a big show about giving Joan a gun and the matter is never mentioned again. So it seems men living in a confined space with a woman cannot possibly survive just 12 weeks without assaulting her and that to do so does not even warrant discussion by the rest of the crew. And that such an assault is to be expected even from the 'captain' of the expedition. I'm sorry but this was worse than most books I've read from that era and it was not something I got from Wyndham's writing just 15 years later. And, yes, it did spoil the book for me.
 

farntfar

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As I said, it's a long time since I read it, and I don't remember much of it.

I thought that the treatment of her by Dale was initially bad, as you say but that he learned to by better. Wasn't the behavior of the men on the flight deliberately meant to portray bad male behaviour. My memory of it is scant, so I'll bow to your more recent reading.

As for the arguments of women being unable to cope with machines and jealous of them, surely that is amply countered by the fact that it is she, and none of the men who is able to deal with the intelligent machines themselves. (Both it seems because they are machines, and because they are intelligent. Dale, whilst a good engineer, didn't come across as a terrifically bright spark as I recall it.)

Anyway, as you also said, Wyndham redeemed himself somewhat in later books such as Trouble with Lichen and also, I would say the Crystalids, as well as some of his short stories, although it has to be said Chocky is disappointingly male only. (Except for Chocky herself, I suppose).
 

Toby Frost

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I’ve always thought that there are two distinct periods of Wyndham – the early pulp stuff, which is pretty forgettable, and the later books where he “finds his voice” and starts to create his own kind of low-key, disturbing apocalypses, which I find far more interesting. There’s a moment in The Midwich Cuckoos where a character remarks that an alien invasion won’t include the hallmarks of pulp SF, which feels almost like a criticism of the sort of stuff that Wyndham himself used to write.

The last time I read it, I was struck by the dated attitude to women in The Day of the Triffids. I think this is partially because it’s so forward-thinking in style: it could almost be set at any time in the pre-internet age, and hence the sexism stands out. Wyndham seems partake of an older view of women as not so much inferior (although the practical results are much the same) but totally weird and alien, almost a different species. Simply show them a baby or a mildly frightening thing, and they’ll go completely nuts, and the few who don’t go nuts are clearly wrong in a different way. However, as Farntfar says, Wyndham seemed to get better in this regard as time went on.
 

Vertigo

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Anyway, as you also said, Wyndham redeemed himself somewhat in later books such as Trouble with Lichen
Wyndham seemed to get better in this regard as time went on
I think maybe reading the later ones first meant this all came across too strongly and shockingly for me. But, yes, he did get better though as @Toby Frost says even in those later books he always seemed grounded in a sort of middle class suburban view of the world which did tend to be very male centric in those days.
 

Nozzle Velocity

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I'm sorry but this was worse than most books I've read from that era and it was not something I got from Wyndham's writing just 15 years later. And, yes, it did spoil the book for me.
I had forgotten how many cringe-inducing moments are in that book. I think it was a failure to fill the time on the voyage with anything interesting, so we're given endless dialogue, actions, and motivations that make Edgar Rice Burroughs look almost subtle in comparison. Very amateurish, and Wyndham was accused of writing too much dialog in general in the early years. But I thought the book took a surprising turn near the end with a very "adult" decision by the female stowaway - at least compared to other science fiction from that era. Every dumb trope the book had been building up to actually did not happen, quite the opposite. Her decision and the way it was written struck me as surprisingly sophisticated, something that would fit closer to the cutting edge 30 years later. Still, I wouldn't recommend it. The voyage itself was agonizing. The Secret People from the previous year is no great shakes either.
 

Vertigo

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I had forgotten how many cringe-inducing moments are in that book. I think it was a failure to fill the time on the voyage with anything interesting, so we're given endless dialogue, actions, and motivations that make Edgar Rice Burroughs look almost subtle in comparison. Very amateurish, and Wyndham was accused of writing too much dialog in general in the early years. But I thought the book took a surprising turn near the end with a very "adult" decision by the female stowaway - at least compared to other science fiction from that era. Every dumb trope the book had been building up to actually did not happen, quite the opposite. Her decision and the way it was written struck me as surprisingly sophisticated, something that would fit closer to the cutting edge 30 years later. Still, I wouldn't recommend it. The voyage itself was agonizing. The Secret People from the previous year is no great shakes either.
Yes I think I'm going to leave his pre war writing alone from now on! Seems to me that he only really found his voice with The Day of the Triffids.
 

Toby Frost

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I love the fact that John Wyndham gets to write the introduction to John Beynon Harris' novel! Maybe one day Toby Frost will get to write an introduction to the works of T.A. Frost!

Incidentally, there is a "lost" book between the early novels and Day of the Triffids, called Plan For Chaos. It surfaced a few years ago, and seems to be a Boys From Brazil type story about fugitive Nazis plotting a return to power. From what I've heard, it's not very good.
 

Vertigo

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I love the fact that John Wyndham gets to write the introduction to John Beynon Harris' novel! Maybe one day Toby Frost will get to write an introduction to the works of T.A. Frost!

Incidentally, there is a "lost" book between the early novels and Day of the Triffids, called Plan For Chaos. It surfaced a few years ago, and seems to be a Boys From Brazil type story about fugitive Nazis plotting a return to power. From what I've heard, it's not very good.
Yes I saw that one, published posthumously, and the general comment I've seen seems to suggest there was a very good reason it was not published at the time!
 
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