May 15 2014 2:00pm

Exploring Space Before the Moon Landing: The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet Eleanor CameronYoung David Topman divides his time between reading and dreaming of travelling between planets in his completely imaginary spaceship. So, when a newspaper ad directly asks for a small spaceship built by two boys (I’m quoting, before you all start protesting) promising adventure to the boys delivering said ship, David immediately leaps at the chance.

He enlists the help of his friend Chuck, and with some scrap metal and other household products, they manage to put together a little spaceship—one that might just be able to make Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet.

As it turns out, the ad has been placed by Mr. Bass, a most peculiar little man. Quite excitable, he has invented scores of things, including a special sort of telescope that has allowed him to spot a very tiny planet about 50,000 miles away from Earth, which, in an elaborate pun, he has named Basidium. And, as it turns out, he isn’t exactly human, despite his humanoid appearance. Rather, he is one of the Mushroom People from that planet. The boys, I must say, take this proof of extraterrestrial life very calmly. They’ve either been reading too much science fiction, or not enough.

Mr. Bass wants boys to lead a scientific expedition to Basidium—on the basis that any residents of this planet would be terrified by adults, but not of children. (If you are wondering how on earth the planet’s residents, who apparently know nothing, zilch, nothing about humanity, would be able to tell the difference, I can only say, handwave, handwave, handwave.) So, with some quick improvements to the ship, some very careful calculations of the necessary speed and orbit, and a quick stop to pick up a chicken for a mascot (her name is Mrs. Pennyfeather) they are off to the Mushroom Planet.

Here’s where the book gets interesting, on two different levels.

Eleanor Cameron published The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet in 1954—three years before Sputnik, when orbiting the earth was still in the realm of theory and possibility, not reality, before anyone took pictures of the Earth and the Milky Way from orbit or from the Moon. This both hampered and freed her imagination. She knew enough to make some very accurate guesses about the effects of earthshine both on her kid pilots and on the mushroom planet, and enough to make some slightly less accurate guesses about the appearance of the sun and stars. It’s an intriguing glimpse of imagination just before spaceflight.

Even more interesting is what happens once David and Chuck arrive at the Mushroom Planet. Things are, to put it mildly, not going well there: the ecology is collapsing, and the magic plants the Mushroom people use to stay healthy and green (Cameron’s description, not mine) are dying. My sense is that Cameron did not put a lot of thought into the culture, ecology, or life cycle of the Mushroom People; nonetheless, in a few quick sentences, she shows a culture that does not think quite the same way, a culture that never considers experimentation or a focus on science, for instance.

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, however, does love experimentation and science, so, not surprisingly, in two short hours David and Chuck are able to save the Mushroom people through observation, deduction, and knowing something about sulfur.

But right after saving the Mushroom people with Science, David and Chuck immediately decide that they have to save the Mushroom people from Science: that is, they cannot and will not tell U.S. scientists and other interested observers (but mostly U.S.) about the Mushroom People. Announcing this discovery, they decide, will lead to several scientific expeditions to the Mushroom Planet, which will inevitably disrupt the lives and culture of the Mushroom people. For their own protection, the Mushroom Planet must be kept secret.

This is straight out of pulp fiction, of course, and it feels rather paternalistic, even coming from two kids. After all, no one asks the Mushroom People how they feel about potential scientific expeditions. Given that they very nearly died from something easy to prevent—and that several potential cures exist on Earth—I could even see arguing that keeping the Mushroom People secret means dooming them to extinction.

And, although I cannot blame Cameron for not foreseeing this, I couldn’t help but think that although at 50,000 miles above the earth, the Mushroom Planet should be free from the risk of accidental crashes from satellites, it should also be relatively easy to spot from the space shuttle or the International Space Station with any of a number of scientific instruments, not to mention any accidental crossing of the visual path of the Hubble Telescope, so the kids are really only buying the Mushroom Planet a few decades. And, now that I think about it, I’m not going to give Cameron a pass for not seeing this: she lived in an era where people were widely speculating that space travel would be common—so common she could even imagine that two kids would be able to build a spaceship capable of leaving Earth’s orbit.

On the other hand, this is also a nice acknowledgement, less than a decade after the end of World War II, that sometimes, plunging into the lives and countries of other people is not always a good thing, even if the effort is led by American scientists. And I can’t help feeling a secret gladness that the Mushroom Planet will be able to live in peace—at least until the launch of space shuttle Columbia, and whatever is replacing the space shuttle program.

But although the book takes these and other science elements fairly seriously—there’s a good, solid explanation of just why a rocket needs to go so quickly to get off the planet’s surface—I can’t quite describe it as entirely science fiction, either. Far too many elements smack of just a touch of magic and whimsy: the way things just happen to work out, the way they mostly work out because David always remembers that he needs to have faith that things will work out. (In this, at least, the book shares some thematic consistencies with The Little White Horse.) Their mission is slightly more quest than scientific exploration, and Mr. Bass functions more as the wise old wizard mentor, or even a fairy, than the mad inventor he initially seems to be.

I don’t know if contemporary kids will go for this book or not—my best guess is maybe. Portions of the book—parts of the science, the way the invitation is issued to only boys, not girls, the various expressions used by the boys that would have seemed dated in The Andy Griffith Show—have not necessarily aged well. On the other hand, the book is pretty much non stop movement and action, and its hopeful message that kids really can change their destinies—and an entire world—is a reassuring one. And I’m definitely delighted with any book with the theme “Scientific knowledge saves lives.”

But if contemporary kids may or may not enjoy the book, kids reading the book in the 1950s loved it—to the point where Cameron, like many of the authors we’ve discussed here, found herself somewhat unwillingly writing a series, covered in the next post.

Mari Ness currently lives in central Florida, where she can sometimes catch a glimpse of rockets heading up into the sky.

1. hoopmanjh
Loved these books back in the day! Such of them as I was able to track down, that is. And I'm sad that right now most or all of the books are out of print and prohibitively expensive.
Pamela Adams
2. PamAdams
on the basis that any residents of this planet would be terrified by adults, but not of children. I believe this is because children are smaller than adults- I always thought of the Basidiumites as short.

For their own protection, the Mushroom Planet must be kept secret.
Remember how the scientists treated ET?

Thinking back, this was probably my first 'real' science fiction book.
Andrija Popovic
3. Urdith
I dug this book out of my Elementary school library when searching for anything science fiction-like to read. After reading it, I went for the sequels as well. Gods, the memories.
Bruce Arthurs
4. bruce-arthurs
IIRC, from reading the book umpty-ump years ago, "two kids would be able to build a spaceship capable of leaving Earth’s orbit" is a bit inaccurate. They were able to build the reasonably-streamlined shell of a spaceship; the working guts were installed by Mr. Bass.

SPACE CAT by Ruthven Todd, next, please? (SPACE CATwas the very first book I remember reading, and sparked a lifelong interest in both science fiction and cats.)
Brian Mann
5. hypnoskills
These were some of my favorite books in the '70s.
6. joelfinkle
This was one of the first two SF books I'd read, along with "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" in my elementary school library (and let's everyone give a shout out to elementary and middle school librarians) . I spent much of the following summer drawing up blueprints of a spaceship and scouting out launch locations in the vacant farm fields adjacent to my house. It being the late '60s, I knew finding Apollo-class fuel would be a problem, but I kept hoping for a Bass-like benefactor.
I found a copy of the book again not long ago, and it is pretty hard to swallow now, but as a nascent SF fan, it was indeed "Wonderful."
Alan Brown
7. AlanBrown
I remember this book clearly, and, in fact, reading the review brought back my memories of 1963 when I first read it: the marble floors of our local Carnegie-funded library building, the wooden shelves, that slightly musty smell of lots of books all in one place, even the satisfying thump of the date stamp on the book card, and the feeling of knowing the book was yours for the next two weeks.
Ah, those were the days.
jon meltzer
8. jmeltzer
Ah, yes. Mr Bass. Such a fun guy.

(Well, someone had to.)
9. Kaila
Oh my god I have seriously been trying to remember this book for years. Thank you!
Pamela Adams
11. PamAdams

And then you read all the Andre Norton in the library?

I myself tend to count my 'real SF reading' as starting with Space Cadet, and CatsEye.
Sally Mahoney
12. smahoney
@6 Yes, Shout our to school librarians.

I remember reading this. A great SF/Fantasy introduction.
13. Abu_Casey
I don't know how well kids today would enjoy them, but I loved them when I discovered them as a kid in the late 80's.
14. Areteo
This book (and another called Stranger From The Depths) was the gateway drug for my lifetime's addiction to sf. Will always be glad I stumbled across it as a kid in the 70s.
15. Russell H
This was also for me a "gateway" book to SF. Looking back, despite the rather fantastical elements, the author apparently did do some genuine research about space travel, at least in terms of the concept of a "launch window": I remember Mr. Bass insisting that the boys return from Basidium at an exact time, or else risk landing on some desolate part of Earth or missing it entirely and shooting off endlessly into space.
Hugh Alter
16. Hoverpope
This was one of my favourite childhood books. I barely remember the book, but I spent ages staring at the cover of the edition I had; it was a bit of a gateway to weird horror for me.
Clay Blankenship
17. snoweel
I read this in the 70's (or early 80's). I recently hunted it down to read to my boys.
Mari Ness
18. MariCats
@hoopmanjh The "out of print" or "prohibitively expensive" is why I'm not covering the entire series, but my library did have some of the books, so possibly your library or interlibrary loan?

@Pam Adams - The Mushroom people are described as short, yes, but Mr. Bass makes a point of saying that the people he sends to the Mushroom Planet also have to be young.

@Bruce-Arthurs - I already returned this to the library, so I can't check, but I think Mr. Bass mostly just tinkered with things and provided the right fuel/time/coordinates. It's still pretty impressive that two ten year olds were able to build the shell.

Oooh, Space Cat! The problem is, the local library doesn't seem to have it, and used copies seem to be back into the "prohibitively expensive" category. My library has come through before with interlibrary loans, however, so let's keep our fingers crossed that they can come through with this one.

@joelfinkle - Great story; thanks :)

@AlanBrown - I had a STACK of books that were all my own for two weeks!

@Everyone else - This does seem to have been a gateway drug book/childhood nostalgia book for a lot of people!
Shelly wb
19. shellywb
Wow, @14, I hadn't thought of Stranger From The Depths in decades. That was probably my sf gateway, and was good sf too!
Alan Brown
20. AlanBrown
My next books after this were:
-One about a boy who shrunk down to about an inch tall, befriended a pigeon, built a cockpit for its back, and flew around having adventures.
-One by Alan Nourse about pirates who lived in the asteroid belt.
-And then all the old Stratemeyer syndicate juvenile books my dad had in the basement.
-And lots and lots of Andre Norton, and then lots of those Asimov edited anthologies, and then I was old enough for my dad's Astounding/Analog magazines, and I never looked back!
21. Eugene R.
So now we know where the Prime Directive came from!
22. hoopmanjh
@20 -- Was the Nourse book Scavengers in Space? Man, I haven't thought about that one in many, many years. I also remember reading some paperback about a boy who lived in an undersea research station and communicated with dolphins, although I have no idea of the author or title. My first "real" SF book, though, was probably Heinlein's Red Planet. Or John Christopher's Tripods trilogy.
Alan Brown
23. AlanBrown
@22 It might have been Scavengers in Space. Nourse wrote some good ones--too bad most youngsters today don't get the chance to encounter his work.
24. HelenS
It's a pity that Mr. Bass's setup now sounds so much like a child molestation scenario -- all that "you must never doubt anything I tell you" and so on.
25. Nik_the_Heratik
I was very fond of these books as a kid, though some of the sciency stuff ended up not jiving with what I knew about space travel. It was just fun to think about building a spaceship in your backyard and travelling to another world. I can think of a few movies and one or two parts of a video game that must have been thought up by people who read these books as well.

However, even at the time, I felt like the kids were being naive and the author a bit too "Mother knows best" with some of the way the story went. Didn't stop me from wanting to read more of it, however.
Pamela Adams
26. PamAdams

Clarke's Dolphin Island may be your dolphin book.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
27. Lisamarie
Oh, wow!!! When I was young (don't remember how young - elementary school aged at any rate), my mom took me to the library in the little town up north that my grandparents lived in so we could get books for our annual vacation to their cottage. This was one of them! I still rember it being a nondescript, blank hardcover (the type of bindings frequently seen on library books) with a little mushroom icon on the spine. I remember really liking it then because it was 'science-y', and also getting one of the sequels.

I haven't thought about it in years. I have a vague memory of, a few years ago, thinking about it and trying to remember if this book existed. A book about mushrooms and space and in which sulfur was a main part of the plot. Every now and then something would niggle in the back of my mind, but I couldn't remember and pretty much forgot about it until I saw the picture on this post and it immediately came flooding back. Thanks for the write up :)
28. Elaine T
I remembered these fondly enough to pick them up mostly reasonably inexpensively about 20 years ago. Also, about 10 years ago, read them to kids who enjoyed them very much, especially the 4th, where the king of the Basidiumites comes to Earth. They do get a bit weird in the last one. OTOH, it was the first place I learned about Arthur's grave in Glastonbury.
29. hoopmanjh
@26 -- Actually, after spending too much time on Google, I think it was Secret Under the Sea by Gordon R. Dickson. But the Clarke book definitely looks like something else I should check out. Thanks!
Clay Blankenship
30. snoweel
I think the thing about these that was most interesting to me as a kid was the possibility that there could be an undiscovered tiny moon that had life on it.

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