This week’s Tears review is of an old classic I never planned to review because I never expected to find a copy. When I stumbled across one, how could I resist?
1957’s Blast Off at Woomera (also known as Blast Off at 0300 ) is the first novel in Hugh Walter’s Chris Godfrey of U.N.E.X.A.1 juvenile SF series.
A chance encounter between seventeen-year-old Chris Godfrey and Sir George Benson convinces Sir George that the college hopeful has just the qualifications required for a joint British-Australian space program.
Chris is bright, educated, and interested in rockets. Of greatest importance, Chris is only four foot, ten inches tall.
A crewed orbital flight by September 30th is of paramount importance to the program. Unfortunately, the largest rocket available for launch from Woomera is too small to accommodate an adult male. There are only ten weeks until launch — not enough time to design and build a larger rocket. They need a qualified candidate who can be crammed into a crew compartment only 52 inches long.
Why the hurry? Mysterious domes have been seen at Pico crater on the Moon. The domes appear to be artificial. Officials are certain that if there is any life elsewhere in the Solar System, it must be simple. Interstellar visitors seem unlikely. That means some terrestrial nation has to have built the domes. Probably the Soviets, which would be bad2.
The plan is send Chris and a spiffy hi-tech camera into low orbit. There is no atmosphere, so the photographs should be crystal clear. It is hoped they will give some clues to the dome builders.
The dastardly left-wing press somehow learns about the launch. So do the Russians. The authorities can only conclude that one of twelve people — Sir George, Deputy Director Gillanders, and ten senior technicians, the only folks how know about the launch — is a Russian mole!
And … if the mole is one of the technicians, they can ensure that even if Chris makes it to orbit, he will never return alive.
Alert readers may notice that Sir George’s decision to settle for Chris is driven in large part by the fact it never occurs to him to consider the idea of women astronauts.
While it is not clear exactly when Blast Off is set, it is clear it’s the early 1960s. The US had some Lady Astronaut Trainees, but the British (and their colonial partners) do not seem to have even considered that a woman might be able to do the job. Pity, because St. Trinian’s IN SPAAACE! almost writes itself.
On the other hand, there are a few women in the book, which is something rare in juvenile SF novels of the period. Two of the female characters seem to be there to give Chris a chance to show how well he deals with height-related prejudice. But Chris’ Aunt Mary and the young woman intelligence officer placed with her to protect her from Red agents are both intelligent and competent.
Chris has another qualifications besides his height and his wedding tackle, Chris is an orphan, raised by his Aunt Mary. It’s best for space programs if the people they send up in risky vehicles are not oversupplied with relatives who might A) grieve and/or B) make a fuss. Chris is also a proper British hero-in-prospect, a straitlaced young man who is embarrassed by public accolades and would never ever consider profiting from his adventure. Which is why the authorities don’t consider him a possible leak or mole. He isn’t, but …
Hugh Walters was inspired to start writing his own SF novels by his dissatisfaction with the state of the art in the late fifties. He had a clear idea of the purposes of SF, one of which was to educate young people. As a result, quite a few of the characters explain space travel to Chris (even basic stuff one would expect Chris to already know). Ah well … everyone must consume some intellectual roughage.
The novel spends much of its plot positioning the reader to expect a conventional Reds Versus the West conflict. In addition to the leaks (and the inconsiderate behavior of the excitable left wing press, no doubt taking its orders right from the Kremlin), Soviet intelligence agents take an unseemly interest in Chris’ aunt. And it soon becomes obvious that Sir George’s fears of a mole at Woomera are not misguided paranoia.
But … as I recall, Hughes took his series in a very different direction (not a simple West versus East space race). He has planted some red herrings in the first book, but by the end, it is clear that it was Sir George’s own security measures that triggered the Soviet interest in Chris. The communist trying to sabotage the rocket turns out to be a earnest true believer who never bothered to ask the Russians if sabotage would be convenient.
Having not read a U.N.E.X.A. book for decades, I have only the vaguest of memories of the series. Blast Off ends on something of a cliffhanger and I am curious how Walters developed his long-term arc. My curiousity may be partially assuaged. I misspoke when I said I stumbled across one U.N.E.X.A. book. In fact, I stumbled across three… But it would be nice to have more.
The U.N.E.X.A. books have been out of print for decades, and are so obscure that even TV Tropes lacks an entry for them. Yet the series still has its fans. I am surprised no nostalgia-focused ebook publisher has brought them back into print. Consider this a suggestion.
1: Although the series as a whole is named after the United Nations Exploration Agency, the agency does not come into being until book four, Moon Base One .
2: Walters (through Sir George) makes it clear he doesn’t think space war is a very likely development, as long as the sides are even matched:
“The belief that a satellite would be harmless has been based on the assumption of near parity of the opposing powers. This takes it for granted that if one side had the technique to construct a satellite, the other would have the means to shoot it like a sitting duck. If, however, there’s a great disparity between the opponents — as there would be if the Russians have reached the moon — then there may be an entirely different story. We can hazard a guess at several possibilities that such a completely unopposed achievement might open for a power bent on aggression.”