Tuesday, 30 August 2011

W. E. Johns, Return to Mars (1955)


The second of a series of ten space adventures by the Biggles man. My 50p car-boot-sale copy was dust-wrapper free, but all ten original dust jackets are on display here, and looking lovely. Nor can I do better than quote 'Stella and Rose' by way of giving a flavour of the books themselves:
A collection of 10 books where W.E. Johns tries his hand at Science Fiction novels. The main characters in the books are Group Captain Timothy (nicknamed 'Tiger') Clinton R.A.F. (retired) and his son, Rex Clinton and Professor Lucius Brane. They go off adventuring - initially around our Solar System, but as the books progress they go further and further afield meeting up will all sorts of alien life forms and visiting many planets.
Return to Mars is very Bigglesish, tonally: all foresquare derring do and adventure. The plot is episodic and peripatetic. The Professor has invented an insecticide to rid Mars of its apocalyptic plague of red mosquitoes (in a rather nice touch, it turns out that the 'red' colour of the red planet is down to these beasties; and the red opacities observed by astronomers passing over the face of Mars are not dust storms but swarms of billions of insects). They visit Phobos, land on Mars, meet some dying humanoid Martians, wrestle with the problem (lifted from Wells's Food of the Gods) of some agent that is making insects and plants grow to prodigious size, and eventually win through. The Martians are telepathic. Earth, it transpires, is going to be destroyed 'in ninety days' by a rogue planet called Vontor crashing into it. After some variegated to-and-fro Vontor is blown up by a Martian superweapon, in a rather underwhelming piece of pyrotechnic description: 'what appeared to be a flash of lightning passed ... almost simultaneously a great sheet of white light filled the section of space that held the intruder. Slowly it died, leaving in its centre a ragged cloud from which sprang a thousand sparks' [135]. It's all good clean fun, although in the preface Johns puts in a little Von Danikeny nonsense:
The moons [of Mars] were only discovered in 1877, after the telescope made it possible to see them. Yet the ancients must have known of them, for they gave them their names -- the names they still hold. Phobos (meaning Terror) and Deimos (Rout). Homer and Virgil talk of them as the two horses of Mars, dragging his chariot. Why horses? Did they have tails? Comets have tails. We are forced to the conclusion that Mars was at one time nearer to us than it is today. [14]
I was going to suggest that Johns has got this the wrong way round, the astronomers were quoting the myth rather than the other way around; but the implacable force of his logic is simply irresistible. Horses have tails. Comets have tails. Ergo ...

Anyhow, the best bit of this book are the illustrations. Some of these are just gorgeous [click any of them to embiggen]:

Some have a splendidly hokey-cokey vibe to them:

Here's the exhausted Martian.  Too much popcorn and Mars-juice, I'd say:

Doesn't that second astronaut, visiting the exhausted Martian there, look like a young Gordon Brown though? Anyhow, onwards. Here are some of the wisest words ever placed in a picture caption: 'That's what comes of monkeying with things you don't understand!':

And this one may be my favourite of all:

2 comments:

PeterJ said...

Ha! I remember reading that when I was at primary school, alongside Jennings and Kemlo. That giant ant illustration gave me bad dreams for days.

Come to think of it, I may still have a copy I bought later somewhere in the stacks.

PeteY said...

I couldn't get enough of Biggles, but I don't remember this stuff.

That spaceship at the top looks like a big Orion, btw.