A Questionable View of Science: Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet

Apparently I’m not the only one convinced that the remarkable discoveries, chronicled by children’s author Eleanor Cameron, of one Mr. Tyco Bass, that member of the Mushroom Planet who devoted a full human lifetime to creating various Strange Inventions, studying the stars, discovering new planetoids, and—in a new twist—finding what seem to be rather dangerous holes in space orbiting the Earth (GULP) should be brought to wider attention. Granted, my interest is purely scientific. That of Horatio Quimby Peabody, however, is rather less scientific, and rather more consumed with the joy of gaining renown—and possibly even tenure—by making such discoveries public. Thus his sudden decision to be a Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet.

That this trip is possible at all for Mr. Peabody—that is, Professor or Doctor Peabody, thank you very much, although it is not at all clear that he has earned either title at this juncture—is thanks to a gratifying set of circumstances. First, the arrival of a cousin of Mr. Tyco Bass, one Mr. Theo Bass (and yes, if you are wondering, the similarity in names and mushroom physiology does make it more than a bit difficult to distinguish the two), a great traveler and philosopher, who knows just enough to be able to bring some of Mr. Tyco Bass’ more interesting inventions to life, and second, the fact that—against all expectations—David and Chuck took the command to set up a Space Club at the end of the last book quite seriously indeed, to the point where they decided to invite speaking guests.

Mr. Peabody (on second thought, I’ve decided to omit any academic titles, since in my opinion he does not behave in an approved scholarly matter at any point in this book) just happens to be the sort of person who opens his employer’s email, finding the invitation. Although he has plenty of academic work on hand, the invitation tempts him just enough to abandon said work and rush down for the dubious honor to speak to the Club.

The chapters where he arrives and speaks will be, for many readers, the most annoying part of the book, thanks to an understandable lack of knowledge of the later Voyager and Cassini expeditions (this book was written in 1956) some rather less understandable major scientific errors, an annoying digression about why girls don’t know anything about science, a cheery discussion on whether or not dinosaurs live on Venus, some interesting and inaccurate stuff about planetoids, some very bad lying on the part of the protagonists, the general annoyingness of Mr. Peabody, and some fudge cake. Well, the fudge cake is good. And Mr. Peabody isn’t wrong about Martian canals, either.

Everything else is atrocious, and while I’d like to give Cameron some slack here on some points, in her previous book she had demonstrated that she did know better. And although Mr. Peabody is not meant to be a sympathetic, or even correct character, he is meant to represent Science with a capital S in this book—which shouldn’t include misleading information. Or anything about dinosaurs on Venus. Or information that contradicts the first book.

Moving on. Mr. Peabody is delighted to realize that Chuck and David, with Mr. Theo’s help, have built another spaceship and plan to make another expedition to the Mushroom Planet, this time with more chickens and Mr. Theo. To my genuine surprise, their parents seem just fine with the idea of their trip. Off the kids go—not realizing that Mr. Peabody is stowed away in the spaceship. At least, not realizing for long—Mr. Peabody soon panics, revealing his presence, and fights ensue.

However unsympathetic Mr. Peabody may be, however, he is able to fall under the spell of the Mushroom Planet and learn its language instantly. He is also able to immediately recognize that the planet has vast stores of gold and gems, and almost immediately offend and upset pretty much everyone on the planet. It’s not something that can be immediately dealt with, however—David and Chuck have two Mushroom people to save.

As in The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, much of this book seems to be inspired by the pulps, and one element in particular: the fear of science, and what it can do to culture and society. Cameron recognizes the general enthusiasm for scientific progress—not just from her protagonists, David and Chuck, but also for several side characters, including the girl arguing that dinosaurs live on Venus. At the same time, she undercuts this by showing the horror that scientific progress and experimentation will bring—emphasizing this by showing us two minor characters still suffering from the events of the last book, which happened thanks to science. Which, to further complicate things, happened in part because the minor characters weren’t scientific enough—but by failing to follow the rules in this book, they suffer still more, and problems result, giving a very complicated view of science.

Once again, this book uses something that I can best call “magic” to handwave away certain plot problems (mostly the language issues, but also to deal with Mr. Peabody without killing him, since this is a children’s book.) We get a touch of something more with the Ancient Ones, whose exact relationship with the Mushroom Planet is not precisely clear, but seems to be more religious than scientific, and we get other indications of things that work through faith, not science, that happen because they are meant to happen. If I had to choose a word, I might call it scientific mysticism. Maybe.

Once again I find myself at a loss about recommending this book. Like the last book, it’s a fast, quick read, with non stop action, and improves on the last book by adding a lot more to think about—not to mention better characterization for David and Chuck. Also, it relieved much of my fear about that poor chicken from the last book, so if you were worried about her fate, you might well want to check this particular book out. (Although I’ve just realized that I’m now worried about the ecology of the Mushroom Planet, thanks to those chickens.) That said, it must be admitted that portions of this book have not dated well, which may impact some readers’ enjoyment of the book.

Mari Ness is the author of “In the Greenwood,” and lives in central Florida.


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