In Honour of Today’s Encounter with Pluto

The Secret of the Ninth Planet — Donald A. Wollheim
Winston Science Fiction, book 32


I could have decided to reread and review Donald Wollheim’s 1959 novel The Secret of the Ninth Planet as part of an epic reread of the entire SF series published by Winston … but I didn’t. I decided to reread and review this book because it happens to be one of the few books which fall in the intersection of the following sets: 1) books in which Pluto plays a significant role, and 2) books of which I actually have a copy [1]. Today is, of course, the day when the American space probe New Horizons had its close encounter with Pluto, turning what was a dot on a photgraphic plate into this:

Go, applied science! And now, back to Pluto as it was imagined in 1959.

The years since Sputnik have seen great strides in manned [2] rocket travel to near space and the Moon, and in unmanned space travel to other worlds. As far as young Burl Denning knows, manned flight to other planets will have to wait until something better than the current primitive rockets comes along. What Burl doesn’t know is that the necessary advances in propulsion have already been made. Just not by humans.

Humans are not the first or most advanced civilization to develop space travel. One of humanity’s neighbors is working on a scheme that will doom life across the Solar System!

The first hint that some alien force is up to shenanigans comes when sunlight mysteriously dims across Earth. The Moon Base reports that the problem isn’t that the Sun itself has become dimmer. Rather, some mysterious force is diverting sunlight to a location in Central America.

Chance puts the archaeological party of which Burl is a member only miles from the mysterious alien facility that is stealing light from the Earth. As they approach the facility, Burl heedlessly touches the machinery. He is suddenly (and uniquely) imbued with an unknown energy that allows him to control the alien devices. He turns off the sun tap. Earth is saved!

Well … Earth’s doom has been slightly delayed. At least two other worlds, Mercury and Mars, are discovered to have sun taps, Scientists suspect that Venus is similarly equipped. In fact, it is possible that each and every planet in the solar system has been tapped! While the diversion of sunlight on other worlds is not in itself a problem for Earth, taps will cause the Sun to go nova for Science! Reasons!, a catastrophe that will scour life from every one of the inner planets.

Rather conveniently for the peoples of Earth and other worlds (and for the plot), a working anti-gravity drive has just been invented. A single anti-gravity ship has already been built. On this ship, dubbed the Magellan, all humanity’s hopes depend. Because Burl is the only human who can turn off sun taps, he is drafted to join the crew.

What follows is a tour of the Solar System as Donald A. Wollheim understood it in 1959. The ship meanders from tidally-locked Mercury, sea-soaked Venus, and arid Mars in the inner system, out to the moons of the gas giants in the outer system. Ultimately, the quest will lead to the Ninth Planet, a world whose history is far weirder than Burl could ever have imagined!


I must have read this a dozen times as a kid because the library at my school was tiny and it didn’t have many SF books. (Searing SF drought was a contributing factor to my later book hoarding.). This particular book was one of a line of SF novels published by Winston (which through twists and turns evolved into the Holt McDougal division of Houghton.). I remember the books in that line as variable in quality. This one fell somewhere in the middle of the pack; not so terrible I couldn’t finish it, but also both contrived (Burl gains what amount to magic powers? Ha! Someone else is mind-controlled through what amounts to electrostatic charge? Double ha!) and dated. Dated not just because our understanding of the other planets of the Solar System underwent huge changes between the 1950s and the present [3], but because everything about it reads like pulp from the 1940s or even 1930s. Only a few topical references make it clear that the setting is post-Sputnik [4].

It’s probably best not to think too deeply about the sequence of events that propelled Pluto and its moon from their original system to ours. Wollheim certainly didn’t:

Originally it revolved around another sun, some star which was light-years away. How it tore loose from that star we’ll probably never know—the star might have simply become too dim, their planet might have been on a shaky orbit, an experiment of theirs might have jarred it loose, many things could have happened.

Many things could have happened and at least one of them did!

One of the great things about reading SF as a kid is that we just accept scenes like the one in which the humans, having inadvertently provoked the ire of the ant-like Martians, gun the Martians down in great numbers. Like similar scenes in early Tarzan movies (explorers mowing down natives with a machine gun), this never registered as dubious in any way. The innocence of childhood!

There are two other scenes in this book that I had remembered as outstanding. The first is the destruction of the surface of Callisto by atom bombs. In my memory, it’s an epic scene. In the actual book, it’s this:

A sudden spurt of blazing gas shot up from the center of the station. “Duck!” yelled Haines, and they fell flat on the ground. Burl held his hands protectively over his head, as an explosion shook the building.

There was no rain of rocks. Whatever the blast, Callisto’s gravity was too weak to attract the debris that flew high above the station.
“It was an atomic explosion!” Haines shouted into his helmet mike. “They mined the station. Run for it!”

They raced for the rocket plane. As they ran, Burl felt the ground quiver beneath him, and huge cracks began to spread, rippling through the hard ground.

They reached the plane and piled in. Russ took off just as the surface cracked open in a thousand places like an ice sheet breaking in an Arctic thaw.

As they rocketed back to the Magellan, the whole polar cap, an area hundreds of miles around the Sun-tap station, split apart. Great spurts of liquid magma, the liquid gas-dust from the heart of the planet, shot up like fountains. Parts of the shell-like polar continent were disappearing beneath this new ocean.

“Their little atomic bomb shattered the thin crust. The whole polar island will probably sink,” said Russ. “It was a clever trap. They knew what would happen.”

This isn’t the first time I have returned to something I remembered as completely stupendous to discover that it’s actually just a few hastily written paragraphs around which my imagination and unreliable memory have constructed a grand edifice.

The other scene that stuck with me for the better part of a half a century is the sequence in which Burl meets and allies with other inhabitants of our Solar System. It’s a small part of the book—much more time is spent on a tour of the various planets—but the scene stood up better than the destruction of Callisto. I’ve wondered if that scene influenced Moffatt’s The Jupiter Theft; there are aspects of Moffatt’s novel that remind me strongly of this book.

The Secret of the Ninth Planet isn’t great literature, but it does zip along nicely in a rather Hardy Boys manner. The publisher did not renew the copyrights for their SF line, so if you want to read this, it is available on Project Gutenberg.

1: And have not already been reviewed here, as is the case with Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.

2: There is no evidence that women exist in this universe.

3: Wollheim commits a common error when he imagines the seas of Venus; he assumes that the absence of a moon means that the seas would be tideless. In fact, there are such things as solar tides. Because tides scale with the inverse cube of distance, Venus’s solar tides wouldn’t be much weaker than Earth’s lunar tides

Interestingly, while Wollheim’s idea that Triton used to orbit Pluto is wrong, it has been suggested that if Triton had a companion in the days before it was captured by Neptune, that would help explain how Triton was captured by Neptune.

4: In 1964, Wollheim wrote a somewhat testy introduction to to a reprint edition of Outside the Universe, an Edmond Hamilton Interstellar Patrol novel originally published in the 1920s,, an essay in which he complains about the rise of, IIRC, “slide rule SF”, which he never defines. Given that he had published the seriously anachronistic The Secret of the Ninth Planet a few years earlier, it is possible that he was reacting to reviews of this novel. His essay feels like half of a conversation whose other half I never saw.

Please note: comments will be read-only for the next week or two; Livefyre has ceased service, and we are doing some site maintenance.