|The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet|
Eleanor Cameron, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (1954)
Reviewed by John Hertz
Retrieved from the Internet Archive (originally at Collecting Science Fiction Books; copyright remains with the author). Used by permission.
Flight has been loved for decades. It is on dozens of children’s-book lists.
Upon publication The Atlantic (Dec 54, p. 98) called it “a perfectly made fantasy.... most realistic description of a trip that two boys make in their own space ship. I felt as if I were right there with them.” Four pages earlier the same reviewer praised Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who, and ten pages earlier her editors praised Ben Shahn’s Alphabet of Creation.
The New York Times Book Review (4 Nov 54, pt. 2 p. 30) said “scientific facts are emphasized in this well-built story. Since they are necessary to the development of the story the reader absorbs them naturally.” Just above was praise of Walter Brooks’ Freddy and the Men from Mars.
Coming from outside the s-f community this is high praise, and these reviewers show taste.
Hugo-winning editor Ellen Datlow has applauded Flight. So has novelist Walter Mosley. It has strangeness and charm.
We since 1992 have been giving the Golden Duck Awards to s-f written for children. In 2002 the Golden Duck Middle Grades Award was named for Cameron (1912-1996). She followed Flight with four more books about Tyco M. Bass and the little planet Basidium-X, Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet (1956), Mr. Bass's Planetoid (1959), A Mystery for Mr. Bass (1960), Time and Mr. Bass (1967). Of these the first is the best.
I'm writing just before the 2011 World Science Fiction Convention, "Renovation", to be held in Reno, Nevada, during August — the 69th Worldcon, incidentally, annual since 1939 except during World War II. Renovation accepted my suggestion to schedule three Classics of S-F discussions: Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon (1865); Fritz Leiber, The Wanderer (1964); and Flight.
I've been saying a classic is an artwork which survives its time; one which, after the currents which may have buoyed it have changed, can be seen to hold merit.
Can a children's book be a classic? Worth reading for an adult?
I've quoted the 20th Century writer Vladimir Nabokov (this is from his Lectures on Literature), "Read books not for the infantile purpose of identifying oneself with the characters, and not for the adolescent purpose of learning to live, and not for the academic purpose of indulging in generalizations.... read books for the sake of their form, their visions, their art."
At about the same time W.L. Renwick (English Literature 1789-1815) said "A good story does not depend on anything but how it is told." He was talking about Robert Burns.
Let's look at Flight. Some of us have read it; perhaps more than once.
We remember Mr. Bass, who keeps saying "precisely" although he confesses he is like a cook who can't tell anyone else afterward just how he did it. We remember his house on Thallo Street, and his newspaper want ad written, as Northcote Parkinson taught in Parkinson's Law three years later, to draw only one answer, the right one. We remember Mrs. Pennyfeather the hen, and the oxygen urn that went phee-eep, and the wise men who weren't very wise.
Why did the space ship have to be built by a boy, or two boys, between the ages of eight and eleven? Was it to make children the protagonists of the story, so that children would like it? Perhaps. Perhaps Mr. Bass is the protagonist. The First Boy, David Topman, and the Second Boy, Chuck Masterson, themselves ask — fifty pages into a two-hundred-page book, when we are well along. By then we know them and their parents, and we have spent the last twenty pages with Mr. Bass, a little old man who is an engineer, a farmer, and an astronomer.
In fact Mr. Bass is not of our planet, he and his ancestors being Mushroom People, basidiomycetous and thallophytic. The boys are going to them on Basidium. Why not get one of the big airplane companies?
"Dear me!... A huge rocket ship ... and all the great lumbering men in space suits with oxygen tanks and cameras and radar instruments, would have frightened the poor Mushroom People out of their wits. Then too," smiled Mr. Bass rather dryly, "what president of an airplane company would have believed me? You boys wasted no time in doubting."
We believe Mr. Bass because, by the time he gives this explanation, Cameron has already shown what makes him believable. Chapter 2 introduces him to us, before the boys meet him. We find him on a high stool, writing in an enormous ledger, under a light he invented, surrounded by a clutter of nails and wires and batteries. He finishes his arithmetic and squints through a telescope at his planetoid.
"Diameter — thirty-five miles. Yes, yes, there's no way out of it. And yet, if the diameter is so small, how in thunderation has it managed to hang onto its atmosphere?"
He is an individualist, an eccentric, but a scientist where it counts. So is the book. We also know about doubting.
In Chapter 4, David's father, a physician, who thought the want ad was odd because he knew the town and there was no Thallo Street, went to look. At dinner David said the boys had finished the space ship.
For some reason Dr. Topman's face grew red.... "You mean [David asks] that you've seen Mr. Bass?"... "Er — after a manner of speaking, yes. I thought I'd just take a peek in the window, as I couldn't rouse anyone, and would you believe it, the window was flung right up in my face, and a head appeared."... "Oh, but Father.... was it Mr. Bass? What did you say to him?" "Very little. I was rather in a hurry. Now kindly get on with your dinner."
Cameron's gentle comedy is only one of the gems set in her simple direct language.
At midnight of the day they deliver the ship, the boys blast off. The hour is set by Mr. Bass' calculations, and he is sorry for it. Nor do the boys sneak out their windows; he insists they ask their parents' permission, which to the boys' surprise is given.
This is a point schoolteachers recommending the book make much of, thinking with others in their world that an artwork is good if it portrays what they want to promote. Second-rate readers like to recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise. In Flight the point has literary merit. The flower is that things unsnarl in this adventure; the leaf is that there are many touches of magic unrealism, to reverse an expression. Of course the boys do not sleep through midnight, but get up and go.
On Basidium they meet Mebe and Oru, who would be the King's wise men, as they are called, if they were wiser. But they are painted lovingly, as is everyone in this book, another gem.
The king, Ta, proves dignified, gracious, and intelligent. He could easily have been made contemptible — a king! mustn't we jeer? — or without a twinkle in his eye, near the end when we are ready for it — mustn't we revere? But Cameron has imagined what her characters need be if they are to do what her story tells.
There are strange plants and clothes. There is trouble, which Mr. Bass has sent the boys to relieve.
"Perhaps," [the King responds to them] "you have a new thought ... that we must work with the thing itself which is causing the trouble."
Their learning, their deducing, their agonizing, and their answer, have the ring of truth for any scientist. Then home.
There is a reason Mr. Bass could not go himself. He had other fish to fry.
And there are touches of fantasy. Some are brushstrokes that make Cameron's painting what it is. In the first sentence we see David reading Dr. Dolittle in the Moon (1928), which A.L. Sirois rightly finds a telling detail.
Those who do not know that book get from the title alone something of David and his household; the rest, a sign. There in particular among Hugh Lofting's tales of a fantastic naturalist is a great deal beyond the possible, but it too is grounded, they all are as we see with a double-take, in science.
John Dolittle knew animals' language because he learned it by observing them. This is explicit in the Voyages (1922), and as he progresses from mammals, to fish, to insects, to plants, he would rather preserve his notebooks than his life.
Cameron was a craftsman who used to point out that Dylan Thomas' father read him Shakespeare at the age of four. Some of the fantasy in Flight seems as if it could have been brought within the possible — but this is like the way Sam Johnson or Ben Jonson blushed for Shakespeare whom they all but idolized — or at least like Lofting.
At the beginning of Flight David Topman goes to bed thinking about frameworks and air pressure and velocity (all, we get no other warning, are points of fantasy). At the end there is no ship left — which also kept happening to John Dolittle — but there are two notebooks and a souvenir of Ta.
Aren't Cameron's names wonderful?
So is the book.
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