Thursday, July 16, 2015

Wollheim's Pluto

I have always loved Pluto.

Ever since I was a little kid in elementary school and I learned about the nine planets of the solar system, Pluto, way out there on the on the icy frontier (although it's clearly not the actual edge of the system), has fascinated me. Maybe because it was so far out, or because it would take so long to get there by rocketship, or because so little was known about it, or because we'd never sent a probe there, it was my favourite, and it played a central role in my dreams about outer space. I remember in Grade 3, when we were given a creative writing assignment with the theme of "space," I wrote a story about flying away in a spaceship with the people of Pluto to fight off evil conquerors from Jupiter.

But the best came the next year, in Grade 4, in the older kids' school, when I went into the library and discovered The Secret of the Ninth Planet by Donald A. Wollheim.

The ninth planet? Guys on the cover wearing spacesuits? A strange, domed building in the distance with a shitload of antenna dishes on top? I judged this book by its cover, and in that instant, I judged it to be good. And when I cracked it open (and cracked is the right word: this was an original from the late 50s that had been read, reread, and re-reread in the same little country school library up until I got my mitts on it in the fall of '83, so that old spine was cracked all right), it got even better. In the two years I was at that school before we moved out west, I must have checked The Secret of the Ninth Planet out a dozen times or more. I'm sure if you found the old check-out card from inside the front cover, you'd find my name every three or four lines.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed all three of Wollheim's Secret books (The Secret of the Martian Moons and The Secret of Saturn's Rings) and read them all several times, and read fairly widely throughout the entire library, but 'The Ninth Planet was the best.

The story is about Burl Denning (Burl? Yes, Burl. By that name alone, you know this book was written in America in the 50s.), a teen who's on an archaeological expedition in the Andes with his father, when they get a message (by drone rocket!) from the US government ordering them to investigate a strange phenomenon causing communications problems and a steady drop in global temperature — a mystery with a source apparently in the mountains nearby. The Dennings discover an automated alien base. They force their way in, and after initially being unable to make the controls work, Burl is zapped by a strange ray and is suddenly able to use the alien console to shut the system down. Eventually, it's determined that the facility was syphoning off the vital solar energy that would normally be hitting the Earth. Scientists then discover this is happening on every planet in the solar system. Worse: not only would the process have rendered the Earth cold and dark (in a matter of weeks!) if left unchecked, it is going to cause the sun to go nova! Because he's the only one who can manipulate the alien controls, Burl is recruited by the US government to join a group of adventurers aboard the Magellan, a spaceship that will use nuclear energy to power a newly-developed anti-gravity drive. Their mission: to travel to every world in the solar system, find and destroy each solar sucking station, discover who or what is behind this deadly scheme, and put a stop to them. Interplanetary adventure ensues, and the Magellan's crew faces everything from a giant, hungry mat of fungus heaving up from the seas of Venus, to Martians living in an unthinking ant-like society who get pissed-off when the wrong signal is given, to booby-trapped  solar installations, to show-downs with the evil minds behind the nova plot — the nefarious arachnoid people of Pluto! It seems Pluto is a rogue planet (and one that was once Earth-like) that wandered into our solar system not too long ago, and its inhabitants want to make the sun go nova to defrost their world and make it livable again. Helped by crystalline warriors from Neptune, and later by a menagerie of intergalactic prisoners kept in an exhibit on Pluto, the Earthmen destroy the badguys and restore safety to our solar system.

The Secret of the Ninth Planet is immensely problematic. In fact, if you try to look at it rationally, especially with what we now know about... science, and in terms of what we expect of acceptable behaviour and ethnic and gender representation, this novel has a shitstorm of problems. The science is downright laughable: harvesting solar energy will not make the Earth freeze up or make the sun go nova. Basically, the Plutonians? Plutokins (as I thought of them when I was a kid)? Plutoites? Hadesians?— spider dudes are a bunch of hippies. In fact, they're —in some ways — rather considerate of the locals, because they put their solar power stations in really out of the way places on most of the worlds and moons and then (usually) leave said locals alone. Granted, the spider people of Pluto are slavers, genocidal, and into the religious sacrifice of intelligent beings, but they're environmentally friendly. Sort of. But this book was written in the 50s, so solar power stations are bad, and nuclear's good. Then there's the notion that a good deal of the solar system is teeming with sophisticated life — some of it having achieved technological civilizations. It would be cool if that were so, but it isn't. Hell, watch the news enough, and it often seems like our civilization, while technological, isn't that sophisticated.

Getting away from the "science," when one reads this book from a modern perspective, there's also something intensely weird about parents allowing their teenager to go galavanting off into the unexplored depths of space on what's sure to be a suicide mission in the company of a bunch of strange men without any family supervision. But then we remember that this was written in the '50s, so, from the perspective of absolute duty to one's country and trust in the moral authority of, well, the authorities, and the naive take-it-for-granted attitude that your countrymen are all good and trustworthy gentlemen, the whole thing is basically a prolonged Boy Scout adventure weekend, so it's all fine and dandy.

There are also no women in this book. Yes, Burl's mom is mentioned — in passing, for about a second and a half, and has no speaking role at all. Again, '50s YA novel, givin' the nod to June Cleaver.

There is also no ethnic diversity among the human crew. From their brief descriptions, we can guess they're all apparently white. Now, to be fair, about half the Magellan's crew members are referenced  so briefly and described so barely that you could imagine that some of them might be African-American (but not Hispanic or Asian or South Asian or First Nations, or any other ethnic group)... but probably not. And even if you did imagine there was some degree of undescribed ethnic diversity among the crew, half of them stay belowdecks for most of the story and don't play much of a role, so it wouldn't be a very flattering representation even if it was there.

Then there's the fact that our heroes are themselves pretty genocidal. They figure out that the people of Pluto are the last vestiges of their civilization and only just surviving, but there's no thought of talking things out with them, making peace and trying to set them straight, and offering them an opportunity to maybe resettle to, say, Venus, since they're so desperate for warmer climes. Nope. Without a trace of irony, the solution to the problem of the genocidal Pluto people, right off the bat, is to blow 'em up real good. Every last one of 'em. No talking. No attempting to create an understanding. Just nuke 'em. And, you know, in the final battle, rip them limb from limb in a grisly multi-species hand-to-hand brawl. Yeah, we're better than the people of Pluto.

And plot holes? Did I mention plot holes? Plot holes that you could fly a dumbbell-shaped Plutonian battlecruiser through? How could the Magellan possibly stand a chance against even one Plutonian ship, made by an enemy with a centuries or millennia head-start in technology? These people can engineer a friggin nova - they're not gonna have a problem wiping aside one measly little prototype from Earth. And yet, time and again, the Magellan slugs it out with its alien rivals and — except when it's ambushed — it comes out on top. Come to figure, if the Plutonian civilization has that much technical know-how, what do they need with a nova? Why not relocate themselves to Venus? Why not shove off for an uninhabited star system and turn on the juice somewhere where no other race will be harmed — and where no other race will come and wipe them out?

And yet, for all that, I love this goddamn story. The Secret of the Ninth Planet is such a fast-paced, rip-roarin', page-turning, optimistic and earnest story galavanting through a solar system teeming with life and adventure — a solar system as was imagined of old, so much more interesting and vital than the one we really have — that even now, after having reread it so many times, after coming back to it as an adult and seeing it for all its flaws, even now it still carries me along from the first page to the last page and I have fun the whole time.

About two weeks ago, in celebration of the imminent flyby of the New Horizons probe past Pluto and its moons, I picked up The Secret of the Ninth Planet and read it again. There are astronomers like Clyde Tombaugh who certainly deserve to be immortalized in the naming of geographic features on Pluto. And I'm fine with all of the other names that have been suggested for features of the planet, drawing from literature and pop culture and legend. But because way back at the end of the '50s Donald A. Wollheim let his imagination stray to that strange little world at the farthest reaches of the solar system, and wrote such an enjoyable, if flawed, story about it and its inhabitants, I'd really like to see some part of it named after him. Because Wollheim took so many readers there before New Horizons, I'd like it to be his Pluto too.

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