Thu
Jun 5 2014 3:00pm

Sometimes, Abandonment is Better: Time and Mr. Bass

Time and Mr Bass Mushroom Planet Eleanor CameronAs we’ve seen in these rereads, authors have several ways to respond to the demands of young fans for more books in a series. They could announce that a certain otherwise perfect fairyland was inexplicably unable to set up a simple security system and thus decided to go invisible; they could, when this failed, choose to trudge on in increasing despair, fortunately dying before seeing the travesty a certain U.S. television series would later make of their work. They could merrily send everyone off to a glorious afterlife, or rather less merrily send all of their characters into a miserable totalitarian hellhole with bonus political corruption (I’m still at a loss for this one), or simply refuse to write further books in the series until reluctantly returning years later for a limping sort of finale.

And then there’s Eleanor Cameron, who in 1967 returned to the Mushroom Planet, with Time and Mr. Bass. Not to spoil things too quickly, but I kinda found myself wishing she’d taken the totalitarian hellhole route. Or at least the killing everyone who doesn’t wear lipstick route.

As I mentioned I had to skip the fourth book in the series, A Mystery for Mr. Bass, thanks to unavailability. Fortunately, Cameron more or less sums up the important parts of that book, namely that that remarkable inventor and scholar, Mr. Tyco Bass the Mushroom Person, has now added to his notable achievements the ability to teleport anywhere, including between two galaxies, with a single thought, and that when he is in this galaxy (which isn’t always) he is running something called the Mycetian League which acts as a sort of justice system for the 5,000 mushroom people—er, that is, spore people—on this planet. They have meetings in Wales, which is nice.

Anyway, as this book opens, Something Is Up with the Mycetian League which requires Mr. Bass, David and Chuck to rush over to Wales. Since David and Chuck, most unfairly, can’t teleport with a single thought, this requires taking out the space ship. As usual, the main concern from their parents is whether or not David and Chuck will have enough food. (Seriously, the casual attitude of these parents towards the existence of space aliens and their children travelling on rickety spaceships is just unreal, although at least this time Mrs. Topman does squeak when Mr. Bass does a bit of teleportation.)

Said something is the theft of a scroll and the necklace of Ra from a secret chest usually accessible only by spore people, but in this case accessed by a human, Penmean, because the lock broke and someone needed to fix it and only Penmean was readily available. The lesson here: if you want to keep your things in the hands of spore people only, train them to fix locks. Anyway. Towyn Niog, the spore person reporting this, is not excited about involving two more humans in the search, much less human boys, but Mr. Tyco insists, and since the boys came all this way, it’s just as well.

The larger problem isn’t David and Chuck, but rather the effect that the necklace has on anyone who takes it, turning the thief into a nutjob. Selling the stones just infects the buyer; the only actual solution is to get the necklace back into the hands of the shroom people, which means chasing after person after person to get them to give up the stones, which turns out to be pretty simple, which robs the entire quest of any suspense.

And then the next thing we know, the boys are chasing not just the thief of the scroll and the necklace, but finding out that Mr. Bass’s Old Grandfather was Merlin. Yes, that Merlin, of King Arthur and his knights fame. And that the villain of this book, Narrow Brain, is Merlin’s long lost enemy. Which leads to an all too brief trip to the Mushroom Planet—minus pretty much all of the wonder of previous visits—and then an archaeological dig of sorts in Wales where everyone gets scared by the sound of horses. And then a bit where everyone buries Merlin at last like yay.

Also there’s a bit where a fox leads David into a mountain to try to get him to enter a shroom people burial ground, but it’s probably better if we just skip all that.

It’s not exactly that I mind combining space aliens and King Arthur—the King Arthur myth can always stand to be shaken up a bit, and even if it didn’t, one encounter with strange mushroom people is probably not going to do Arthur and Excalibur much harm. And the Mushroom Planet books had always had a slightly mystical quality, and David’s visions and dreams seem to be a natural outgrowth of that, so that’s fine.

No, the issue is the complete abandonment of a fun, action packed, suspenseful series mostly if not entirely about travelling to space and to tiny unknown planetoids around Earth for a not tremendously exciting drive through Wales and England to London to go pay for a bits of a necklace, followed by an even less exciting process of translating some scrolls, followed by an archaeological dig of sorts. Also, dreams.

Indeed, the Mushroom Planet trip is so brief that it barely seems to happen—it’s just inserted as an extra chapter to handwave the translation of the mystical scroll, along with a brief discussion of cuneiform tablets to suggest that yes, yes, Cameron really does know something about translating ancient texts. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that except that the translation seems to happen far, far too quickly even once they have the code to crack the mysterious language, or maybe I’m just projecting miserable memories of attempting to translate ancient Greek. And except that it’s happening in an already slow paced book, which a conversation about cuneiform tablets does nothing to speed up.

And then there’s the character issues: as I said, David had consistently been described as a day dreamer and a visionary, with Chuck as the more practical one. Here, however, Chuck is almost sidelined, never getting to participate in David’s dreams of the future or the past, and rarely getting to make the same correct conclusions that he did in prior books. An angry moment later in the book might show some resentment about this, but since it’s Chuck, it’s hard to tell. For the most part, he functions only as David’s sidekick when he gets to function at all.

Also mostly abandoned: the boys’ initiative: on the one hand, it’s great to have Mr. Tyco Bass around so much, and on the other hand, this means that for the most part, they just do what Mr. Bass tells them to do, showing initiative only for minor things, not major things like building a spaceship or running after mad scientists. Also mostly abandoned: the scientific studies that the boys previously engaged on—or any hope that they are scientists.

And completely abandoned: the sense of urgency and peril. In previous books, the survival of an entire planet—either the Mushroom Planet or the Earth—was at stake. In this book, er, not so much. If they don’t get the gems back a few people will be miserable, and if they don’t translate the scroll the Mushroom People might not be as creative, and people might not learn as much about King Arthur, which as threats go, is just not the same thing.

Oh, and once again, the women are sidelined, but by now I was so used to that it hardly seemed to matter.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that by 1967, when this book was published, humans had been to space, and were heading to the moon. The initial orbits had confirmed some of Cameron’s speculations about what space would look like from space, while refuting others. Cameron had to know that future trips would only make her fantasies about the Mushroom Planet look ever less accurate. She was on much firmer ground with the cuneiform tablets and her descriptions of Britain.

But I think a larger problem is that by the time she chose to respond to fan demands for yet another Mushroom Planet book, her initial vision was gone. So instead of the joy of science and space flight, we got this—a dismal ride in search of a necklace and a scroll, with a rather abrupt ending. It was not a series that she would ever return to again.

She would, however, return to fantasy with a much better book: The Court of the Stone Children, up next.

 


Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

6 comments
HelenS
1. HelenS
Huh. I adored this book, once I was old enough not to be too frightened by Narrow Brain and the fell ponies, and found The Court of the Stone Children fairly dull.
Clay Blankenship
2. snoweel
I never even knew about this book! (Probably won't be seeking it out though.)
HelenS
3. Elaine T
I thought GGD had been Taliesin, not Merlin. Bard, you know, and that name means shining brow. I always liked this book and the predecessor a lot. I think I enjoyed all the different ways the stones messed with creative people's minds. And the hidden room - I loved the hidden room in the hidden city.
Mari Ness
4. MariCats
@HelenS - Heh. Tastes do differ. Maybe The Court of the Stone Children just spoke to me more because it was in a museum? Not quite as great as The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiter, but close?

@snoweel - The best part of this gig for Tor.com is finding out about books I never knew. I knew about Mushroom Planet and Stone Children, but not the others.

@Elaine T - Maybe I was just reading Taliesin and Merlin as the same person.
HelenS
5. HelenS
I think it's partly that this was the first book I'd read with much about Wales and Arthur and what not, so those tropes came to me quite fresh, whereas The Court of the Stone Children, which I read as a more sophisticated reader of, wow, ten or eleven, seemed very like a lot of other books about kids discovering history. But Cameron tends to be very much about the atmosphere for me, and when she doesn't get the atmosphere right, it all goes to bits. I think my favorite of hers these days is A Room Made of Windows.
HelenS
6. Ted Lemon
This book scared the crap out of me (in a good way) when I read it as a kid. I think at least one takeaway here is that what appeals to young readers is not always what appeals to adults, despite the runaway success of YA as an adult pastime.

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