Review: Mel Oliver and Space Rover on Mars

William Morrison
1954

This book achieves the distinction of being the first of my collection that I’ve read for review without actually reading the book itself – it was read through the Kindle app on my iPhone.  I talked a bit about that in a recent post.  I have two more books to get through in this way Invaders from the Infinite and The Vortex Blaster, and I’m looking forward to it.  Three actually if you count Highways in Hiding when I re-launch into that.  The whole Kindle experience has re-inspired and reinvigorated my reading.  There is also the not-insignificant benefit of eliminating the chance of accidental damage to my precious books!!  Another advantage of reading on the iPhone is that it’s very easy for me to make notes for the review.  I can bookmark pages or highlight text for reference later using Kindle, or pop out of the app and make short text or audio memos using the Evernote app that will sync with my MacBook the next time I connect to the ‘net.  This is awesome.

I’ve occasionally mentioned in this blog about my formative reading years, checking Mr. Heinlein and Hugh Walters out of the Napier Public Library.  This was a time around 1980 just before I became a teenager.  I used to love going to the library after school.  My mum (that’s British English. For those who use inferior versions of the language, translate that as ‘mom’) , took me there and let me go for an hour or so while I grazed along the shelves, sampling the fare on offer.

Just to digress a little here, I hardly ever write in British English anymore (I think it’s referred to as International English these days..), I almost always use American English.  The reason for this is that in Korea here, where I’ve spent the last 8+ years living and teaching, the education system uses American English – a legacy of the American participation and occupation since the Korean War.  If I slip up and spell a word on the black/whiteboard the way I was taught in school, the kids pull me up about it.  “Teacher!!  Wrong spelling!!”  So I’ve adopted ‘color’ instead of ‘colour’ and ‘theater’ as opposed to ‘theatre’ to name a couple of examples.  The students find it quite interesting when I explain some of the differences between the two versions of the language.  Some foreign English teachers here are quite militant one way or the other, but it doesn’t worry me too much.  Just so long as the kids understand that neither is right or wrong, they’re just different.

Anyway… the Napier Public Library.  It’s not there anymore.  At least, not the one I enjoyed going to.  It was bulldozed and rebuilt nearby.  Rebuilt as a big, bright, airy and soulless structure in the late ’80s I think.  Actually, if I’m objective about it, it needed to be.  It had become way too small for Napier’s growing population and a new facility was badly needed.  I’m just bemoaning the fact that it’s gone, the place that I loved so much.  The place where books like Starman Jones and Journey to Jupiter became touchstones of my lifelong love of science fiction literature.

I’ve gotten (more British English, got, for you AE speakers..) quite a bit off track here.  Why have I spent some space rambling about stuff not related to Mel & Rover?  Books like this and those I’ve mentioned bring back treasured reading memories.  Despite my younger brother turning 40 in September last year, I still just love well written juvenile SF, and this particular book falls into that category for me.  There is a real skill writing in this style.  Heinlein was an absolute master at it.  To be able to connect to the young reader, to make you feel as a youngster that this really could be you.  The protagonist in these tales thinks and reacts to fantastic situations in ways that you yourself could imagine or relate to, or aspire to from the point of view of the young reader looking up to teenage maturity.  It’s a skill I fear is disappearing, or at least, no longer viable as the young reader these days (are there any?) is so much more sophisticated and cannot relate to a time when the telephone for example, was a household fixture in the same way as refrigerators or toilets are.  Of course, there’s a tried and true formula for writing YA novels which I’ll touch on later, but I can’t really think of any decent modern YA or juvenile SF around at the moment.  Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker is probably the best example I’ve read recently.  The Hunger Games also springs to mind.  But they’re just not the same.  Or maybe I’m somewhat blinded because I’m older now and fall prey to nostalgia.  I’m getting off track again…

What this reinforces to me, and the reason I give this a Stellar! rating, is that if you enjoy YA SF then you’ll enjoy this.

But what about the author William Morrison?  Joseph Samachson (William Morrison was a pseudonym) was a biochemist and besides writing in that capacity, of interest to us he wrote for comics and magazines, and this was apparently his one and only novel.  A pity.  You can learn more about him on wikipedia or check out his bibliography on the ISFDB.

Finally I might start talking about this book now!! Mel is a teenager whom we meet while he’s stowed away about a thousand miles above Earth’s surface, accelerating into a journey to Mars.  He ventures forth, meets fellow stowaway Rover, gets in (and out) trouble, joins the circus and all the while is uncovering a murderous plot against him.  That’s it!!  In true YA fashion the story is as straight as an arrow.  I would just like to elaborate on some aspects of the book.

First, the science, or aspects of the science.  Mr Morrison tries to keep everything grounded in reality, but of course this is the reality of the 1950s, so many ideas are of course dated.  One example is when Mel & Rover are in transit between Earth and Mars.  Mel sends a message ahead to his father’s business partner, Mr Armstrong.  When no reply is forthcoming, it’s assumed that Mr Armstrong is traveling and won’t get the message until he returns home.  Reasonable assumption 60-odd years ago, but today I can get email or messages on my iPhone from anywhere worldwide instantly wherever I might be.  Mel’s human race are a part of a system-wide civilization, inter-planetary travel is routine, yet they can’t receive messages because they aren’t home??  Hmmm…  But, being the die-hard golden-age scientific fiction aficionados we are, we accept these things.

In terms of the hard science that keeps the book grounded (excuse the pun, you’ll see why in a moment..), Mr Morrison employs gravity in several different ways.  There are several examples throughout the book, in fact, I felt he could (or should) have found other devices to showcase his skills in illustrating his grasp of literary hard science. Before I mention a couple of gravitational examples, one non-gravitational example he did use (also on more than one occasion..) was the thin Martian atmosphere – distance didn’t significantly diminish clarity.

With regards to gravity, he used a couple of very interesting examples.  One was when Mel and his circus employer/friend, Bolam the strongman were in a taxi.  Mel becomes frustrated at the lack of speed.  When they hit a low or high spot in the road, the cab’s wheels left the ground to spin uselessly.  Bolam comments that there are some advantages to higher gravity such as that on Earth.  Mel wonders why not just make the vehicles heavier to simulate a higher G?  Bolam responds that it would be a waste of precious materials and power.  They also encounter the necessity to remove a lot of speed to negotiate corners.  Bolam explains that due to the low gravity that applying hard braking easily capsizes the vehicle going around the corner or leads to spinning out. “Accidents of that kind are fifty times as frequent here as on Earth, although it’s true they’re less serious when they do happen.”

Mars has apparently just the right gravity for circus-style acrobatics.  The Moon allows prodigious leaps, but everything is performed much too slowly to engage the audience.  Earth’s gravity allows for fast and exciting routines, but the higher gravity raises the risks of injury.  Mars in comparison offers the large leaps yet the one third G means that the potential for injury is greatly reduced while still providing an engaging performance for the punters.

As I mentioned earlier, the plot is crystal clear and there are no side issues or significant deviations.  We’re with Mel the whole way.  It’s well paced and the book maintained my interest consistently by keeping the action up.   These things are typical (and important) for a juvenile novel, and there’s still a bit of a twist at the end to keep things interesting.  If I had one gripe about the story it’s that we never get a satisfactory resolution for Rover.  Why was he stowing away en route to Mars?  He was the number two character in the book after all… I felt there was a story there to be told.  Perhaps William Morrison planned to explore Rover a bit further in a subsequent volume.

This is clean, innocent fun, and any fan of golden age YA fare will absolutely enjoy this.  I really wish that Mr Morrison took Mel and Rover on further escapades around the solar system.  An interplanetary circus would have been the perfect vehicle for some simple adventure.

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