Friday, April 15, 2016

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron

An adventure and a chance to do a good deed await the boys who build the best space ship.  Please bring your ship as soon as possible to Mr. Tyco M. Bass, 5 Thallo Street, Pacific Grove, California.

Back on March 23, internet science fiction gadfly Joachim Boaz alerted us to the fact that it was Eleanor Cameron's birthday. Cameron wrote the 1954 juvenile novel The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, which I borrowed from the library as a child over 30 years ago. When I told Joachim that I have long thought about rereading the book, he enthusiastically urged me to do so. So, I braved the dangerous roads of Central Ohio (every damn day I see some dramatic automobile accident here, the kinds of accidents I would see only a few times a year in Iowa or northern New Jersey) and borrowed a library copy of a recent hardcover edition (cover by Peter Sis.) I would have preferred the edition I read as a kid, a 1950s hardcover with Robert Henneberger illustrations, but this one will have to do. Hopefully Cameron's novel hasn't been bowdlerized like all those Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books have been over the decades.

(Check out some of the Henneberger illustrations for the first edition of The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet at the fun blog to be found here.)

David Topman is a prepubescent middle-class California boy who reads science fiction stories (Cameron mentions Doctor Dolittle in the Moon in the first sentence of this book) and who, at night, lays in bed fantasizing about being a space pilot.  In the novel's first chapter he declares "I'd like to find a planet just my that you could explore in a day or two."  Over the course of this novel his dreams come true!

Responding to a mysterious newspaper ad announcing a contest for boys (ages eight to eleven), David and his pal Chuck Masterson build a rocket ship out of wood and aluminum they find in Chuck's grandfather's boathouse, then bring it to the contest's judge, a Mr. Tyco Bass.  Bass is a strange-looking character, short and slightly green, who sells mushrooms for a living but is also an inventor of uncanny ability.  Bass enthusiastically welcomes the kids and reveals that he is not an Earthman, but instead the descendent of immigrants from a tiny, hidden moon of Earth which he has discovered with a one-of-a-kind lens he has invented.  Via some kind of psychic empathy, he senses that his fellows back on the little moon are in some unspecified, but dire, trouble!

Bass installs a rocket motor, oxygen supply and electronics of his own devise into David and Chuck's wooden space ship and assigns them the mission of flying to the mushroom planet to save his people!  Blast off is at the stroke of midnight, ETA on the Mushroom Planet is 2:00 AM!  Chuck is enjoined to keep an eye on his watch--he and David will have only two hours on the Mushroom Planet in which to solve the mushroom people's problems because if they don't leave the satellite at exactly 4:00 AM California time they will miss their launch window and likely be lost in space to die a lonely death!

On the satellite David and Chuck meet the low tech natives and solve their problem (mass illness due to climate change which has led to a poor harvest) in record time by donating to the mushroom people a chicken and the grain seed they fortuitously brought along.

We often see classic SF promoting science, and Cameron does her part in the effort to turn America's kids into a legion of Isaac Newtons and Albert Einsteins.  Over the course of The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet we get descriptions of the various planets of the solar system, an explanation of what it is like to travel faster than sound, and speculations on what things like the stars and Earth look like from space.  And it is not just astronomy--we get a little chemistry as well.  The mushroom peeps require a diet high in sulphur, and the eggs from David's hen, Mrs. Pennyfeather, will supply this essential element during the famine.  (There is a case to be made that Mrs. Pennyfeather, whom David conscripts to live on the satellite where she will never see her family again, is the real hero of this story!)

Perhaps more important than including assorted scientific facts is how Cameron promotes the very idea of science and its practices.  The boys explain the scientific method to the mushroom people, who seem to be mired in (a parody of) medieval scholasticism.
"But haven't your Wise Men ever made experiments to solve puzzles?"
"Experiments?  What is this word?....We think and think.  My Wise Men put down what they think  in the Rolls of Wisdom, then read aloud what they have written.  And we talk about these writings."  
I haven't read about medieval scholasticism in years, maybe since the 1980s!  I didn't expect a children's book to have me wracking my brain trying to remember stuff from my undergraduate days on the banks of the old Raritan!

We also often see SF used as a vehicle to criticize our society by presenting an alternative culture without greed or war or racism or whatever it is that is pissing the author off that day, and Cameron also takes this tack, though mildly. While the mushroom satellite is no utopia (the Earth kids have to dissuade the king from summarily executing the aforementioned Wise Men for their failure to solve the agricultural crisis), David and Chuck agree to keep the tiny moon secret so Earthlings won't ruin it with "geological expeditions...sight-seeing dog stands...pop bottles and paper bags thrown around."  Chuck and David are like those pinkos worried the workers' paradise of Cuba is about to be ruined by having a McDonald's and Starbucks open up on every block!

CUNY, whose grad school I dropped out of,
recently put on a musical based on
The Wonderful Flight
 to the Mushroom Planet

While promoting science, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet is also full of magical elements and has a quite dreamlike atmosphere.  Chuck and David build their ship almost as if "some strange power took hold of the hands of the two boys" and, as they drag the vessel to Bass's house, it seems to grow larger of its own accord.  Why do David's parents and Chuck's grandpa blithely let the boys risk their lives serving as Earth's first astronauts? How are Chuck and David able to speak the high-pitched language of the mushroom people?  It is sort of implied that Bass is hypnotizing and otherwise manipulating people and events, but these illogical occurrences, which Cameron does not hide but actually highlights, also suggest this is all David's dream. Further encouraging the reader to suspect this is all a dream is how Chuck and David fall asleep several times during their adventure.

In the third and final part of the book (32 of this edition's 195 pages) Chuck and David fly back to Earth, landing on the beach during a terrific storm.  This storm washes away the space ship and even carries Bass away into the air, apparently into outer space!  All evidence of David and Chuck's adventure is lost, and I began to think that it all really was a dream, or at least that David and Chuck's relatives would think the kids were making it all up!  To my relief, Bass left the boys a note, a last will and testament which leaves his library and observatory to them and encourages them to start a club for young scientists.  Then Chuck succeeds in finding the jewels the king of the mushroom people awarded them, proving conclusively that their adventure was real.

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet is a pleasant read.   A novel for children, it is very upbeat and positive.  There are no villains and no violence and Cameron encourages the reader to trust people, to be confident, and to pursue his or her dreams.  Bass's insistent advice is "You must have no doubt...You must never doubt!"  I also thought the jokes worked; my favorite was how the boys, in preparation for a six-hour expedition, gather sacks of food so heavy they can barely lift them; Cameron, in deadpan fashion, lists all the food David appropriates from the family pantry and fridge.  The sciency stuff is interesting, and the mystery over whether the journey was real or just a dream adds the kind of tension that maintains the reader's attention.  I feel that the time I took to relive this piece of my childhood was well spent.  

1 comment:

  1. I could be just riffing on the word "Mushroom," but could Bradbury's chilling "Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in your Cellar" (1962) be a chilling, horror tinged reaction to this book?

    Or for that matter, the dubiously wonderful 1963 Japanese horror flick, "Attack of the Mushroom People"?