The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet

This book, by Eleanor Cameron, was my first exposure to what might be called Science Fiction, and one of only a few books I remember from before about the sixth grade.  I think I was in third when I got hold of it.

It is hard to emphasize how influential this book was on my thinking.  Really, ever since I read it, I identified with Science Fiction, even before I probably had heard the term.  It had the right amount of adventure to appeal to me, it struck me at the right level of emotional engagement, and it clearly was the first of a series.

Let me take a moment to explain why that was important to me, even at that age.

I had been reading, by then, for half my life, and my level of decoding and comprehension skills were far beyond what was expected of my age.  For the first couple of years, the school library limited students to a double shelf of picture books, and I was deeply frustrated.  I remember one day, I found a book on that shelf that seemed enormous to me.  It was probably fifty pages, and it seemed even larger because it had been re-bound in that plastic-coated canvas that school libraries use.  I did not even read the title, just took it to the desk and checked it out.  I had visions of a book that might take me most of the afternoon to read.  Bliss!

When we got back to the classroom, I opened the book, and got a nasty shock.  It was just another stinking picture book.  I don’t remember the pictures, the topic, or anything, except this:  It had one word per page.  Literally.  I felt like I’d been deceived.

So, back to the Mushroom Planet, a book that was clearly the beginning of a series was like that “big book”, before I opened it up:  a promise of a long reading experience.

The basic plot, for those of you who haven’t encountered it:  An odd little man advertises for two boys to build a rocket.  The protagonists do it, the odd little man adds a motor, and sends them up to to solve a crisis on The Mushroom Planet, which invisibly orbits Earth considerably closer than the Moon.

Although this book clearly triggered my interest in Science Fiction, I was already interested in what I thought of as Science.  It’s a safe bet that I would have come to science fiction by some other path if I hadn’t encountered The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet.

In any case, I picked up a copy a few years back and re-read it.  With older eyes, I would now classify this book as Science Fantasy rather than Science Fiction.  Although it uses sciencey props (rocket, planet, polarization, spores, sulphur), the science is all window dressing.

  • The mechanics of the flight and orbit are worse than wrong
  • The use of the concept of escape velocity is misleading,
  • The boys’ ability to communicate with the Mushroom People is unexplained.
  • The inability of Mr. Bass (the Odd Little Man) to repeat his inventions or explain how they work is the opposite of science and engineering.

The other thing I noticed is that the rocket-building experience was not just glossed-over, it was explicitly described as a mystical experience.  The parts were magically available.  The scrap aluminum sheets the boys found fit perfectly on the boat-rib frame with no cutting.  The ship was completed in record time, with no squabbling between the boys.

I would prefer to see a version of the story that included false starts, the necessity to learn skills and undo mistakes, and a sense of accomplishment, rather than the boys just being pawns in a story on rails.  In other words, a story that provides a view of the world as a set of puzzles one can and should solve.

Still, as I say, it was an influential book of my childhood, and I retain a certain fondness for it.