The Backyard Spaceship

When I was little, my father told me he had a spaceship of his own, hidden back in the woods.  As an ardent space fan, I was wildly enthusiastic.  It was when he told me it was propelled by a hamster running in a wheel that I began to suspect he was putting me on.

But I wanted to believe it.

There’s a certain SF tradition of spacecraft built, more or less, in one’s backyard.  Of course, “backyard” may not be literal.  I’m thinking of spaceships constructed on an amateur basis, privately, and usually—though not always—by young people.Cover, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet

This was the appeal of a childhood favorite of mine, Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (1954).  Two boys (“between the ages of eight and eleven”) are recruited by a newspaper ad to put together a small rocket ship for the mysterious Mr. Tyco Bass, a small wispy man who turns out to be a “spore person.”  They fly the ship to a previously unknown miniature moon, “Basidium,” inhabited by other spore-based mushroom people.

Cameron is pretty good with her scientific facts—which means she lampshades the impossibilities carefully.  A rocket built by two kids isn’t going to get off the ground without plentiful helpings of what TV Tropes calls “Applied Phlebotinum,” the unexplained stuff or device(s) necessary to make the plot work.  A classic example is the faster-than-light space drive needed by a Star Trek or Star Wars story.  If the authors could explain how it worked, they wouldn’t be writing a story; they’d be off to the patent office and rake in billions.  Instead, the author and reader tacitly agree to postulate the necessary gizmo or substance for purposes of the tale.  It might as well be magic, in the sense of Clarke’s Third Law—“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Here, Mr. Bass supplies several crucial “inventions” needed to make the boys’ ship spaceworthy.  He provides the rocket motor, the special fuel, the clear sealant that makes the hull airtight, and the “oxygen urn” that provides breathable air—not to mention the “Stroboscopic Polaroid Filter” that allows a telescope to detect the otherwise-invisible Mushroom Planet.  These “phlebotinum” features make the boys’ vessel a little more plausible than my dad’s Hamster Drive.Cover, Rocket Ship Galileo

A more believable example (once you’re out of the middle grades) is Robert A. Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo (1947).  The project here is a private enterprise, with the spacecraft modified from an existing transcontinental “freighter-rocket” by four teenage boys.  They are, however, accompanied by one adult, Dr. Donald Cargraves, an uncle of one of the boys.  Cargraves provides the engineering expertise and the atomic drive he’s just invented, which (to paraphrase Doc Brown) “makes space travel possible.”

Starting with an existing well-equipped vessel, and kids who are already experienced amateur rocket-builders, makes the setup immediately more plausible.  Realistically, it takes months of elbow grease to do the conversion.  The Galileo isn’t actually built in a backyard, but out in the desert.  Still, the idea that kids like you or me could help build the first rocket to the moon is front and center in this story, which formed part of the basis for the early SF movie “Destination Moon.”

The notion of private-sector spaceflight was a favorite of Heinlein’s.  That theme reappears in his novella The Man Who Sold the Moon (1951), which also contributed elements to “Destination Moon.”  In that tale, however, the participants were all adults, and the project was a large and highly-publicized corporate endeavor more like the work of today’s SpaceX or Blue Origin.

A fully grown-up version of the backyard spaceship can be found in the widely influential first novel by E.E. “Doc” Smith, The Skylark of Space (1928, originally written about a decade earlier).  When scientist Dick Seaton stumbles upon an unknown substance that can be used to produce immense energy, his wealthy friend Martin Crane underwrites the construction of a spherical spacecraft to harness that power.  The work is started on Crane’s extensive property—not exactly a backyard, but close—and continues secretly in an independent steel plant after skulduggery enters the picture.  No kids are involved, but the private, secret, and essentially amateur operation makes Skylark an ancestor of this space opera trope.cover, Red Thunder

We might consider this theme an artifact of the naïve early days of SF, but for its reappearance in John Varley’s 2003 novel Red Thunder.  The passage of time has made some differences.  The protagonists are young adults, though they compose a motley group that still reads like “kids” to me (or perhaps it’s just that I’m that much older myself).  Their goal is Mars, rather than the Moon.  The requisite adult supervision, or phlebotinum contribution, is supplied by Travis Broussard, a cashiered former astronaut, and his quasi-autistic genius brother Jubal, who has invented a “squeezer” force field that turns out to be a fabulous rocket drive (among other uses).  Varley’s methodical development of the funding, engineering, and planning for the homegrown spacecraft (built out of a railroad tank car) makes the amateur project believable even for a contemporary audience.  Wikipedia describes the resulting adventure as an homage to Heinlein’s juveniles—since it’s essentially a Rocket Ship Galileo for the 21st century.

 

Why are we so fond of the backyard spaceship?

This kind of plot enshrines the long American tradition of inspired tinkering, from the Wright brothers and Edison, to Tom Swift, to 1950s kids with hot rods, to space kids with hotter rods (Luke Skywalker asking to go into town for parts to soup up his landspeeder).  The clever gadgeteer is a permanent part of our mythology, right down to Bill Gates and Paul Allen in their garage.

More than that, the idea that ingenious amateurs could conquer space has a democratic, underdog quality that appeals to our mythmaking imaginations.  We love the idea that spaceflight could be easy and accessible to the ordinary person.  It’s a natural evolution of the way we root for the underdog in politics or war (the Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi”).  We cheer for the underdog just as much in personal life—for Cinderella, whose story exhibits, as Chesterton says, the lesson exaltavit humiles—“he shall lift up the humble.”

The backyard spaceship promises to lift the humble right off the earth, in the ancient dream of flight.  It makes for great inspiration, if dubious engineering.  And after all, the most sophisticated aeronautical engineer starts out as a wondering child and an aspiring teenager.  Our dreams rest among the stars; but the journey begins in our own backyard.

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The Missing Mentor

[Discussing stories in detail inevitably involves some spoilers.
The ones in this post, however, should be fairly mild.
]

Gandalf, polygon art portrait

Image from desktopimages.org

The wise old mentor is a staple, not only in fantasy, but in all kinds of stories.  From a narrative point of view, though, these mentor figures are rather an inconvenience – which is why they so frequently go missing.

Gandalf the Grey, the very archetype of the mentor in an adventuring party, is kept offstage by other engagements for much of The Hobbit.  In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien goes so far as to have him perish (not permanently, to be sure).

In the Harry Potter stories, Albus Dumbledore tends to be curiously inactive – he’s not around when the crises occur – though this changes over the course of the series, until he’s fully engaged toward the end.

Professor X, of the X-Men, is generally confined to a wheelchair, which keeps him out of the action.  In the first couple of X-Men movies, he’s also hors de combat much of the time.

Gordon Ashe, the main character’s mentor in Andre Norton’s Time Traders­ series, often happens to be sick or injured.

And of course Obi-Wan Kenobi dies about a third of the way through Star Wars:  A New Hope – even if he keeps popping up periodically through the three original episodes as a Force ghost.

Why does a writer introduce these characters, only to shuffle them offstage as soon as possible?  Consider what the mentor contributes:

  1. Power.  The mentor is often a fully-developed version of what the hero is becoming, as in Star Wars.  If not, like Gandalf, he is typically a powerful figure in his own right.
  2. Knowledge.  Gandalf knows how to terminate trolls and how to open the doors of Moria (Frodo helps in the movie, but not the book).  Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid (1984) know how to train in karate.  Obi-Wan knows where to find Yoda.
  3. Wisdom.  The mentor often advises the hero about life – not specific information, but how to live in a more global sense.  “Do, or do not; there is no try.”  “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”  “Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything.”

Here’s where the problems start to arise.  If the mentor is a powerful figure, why isn’t the mentor out fighting the battle, rather than sending the hapless (hero) apprentice?  The more impressive the mentor’s abilities, the harder it is to avoid having the mentor displace the hero.  With the mentor in action, things would be too easy for the main characters.  (There’s a parallel problem in children’s adventure stories – how to get the children away from parents and other caregivers so they have to act on their own.)

Knowledge poses a lesser problem, but a good storyteller still rations the mentor’s advice closely.  It makes for better drama if the hero doesn’t quite know what to do and isn’t fully trained.  (The tagline for the first World of Warcraft game expansion was:  “YOU ARE NOT PREPARED!”)  Luke Skywalker is more thrilling as a brash but vulnerable neophyte facing Darth Vader than he would have been as a fully seasoned Jedi knight.  The writer may prefer to have the hero not fully informed – if only to enable a shocking surprise at the right moment.

The problems are not as severe with the mentor’s third role, as dispenser of wisdom – though it still falls to the hero to implement the teacher’s wise counsel, when the crisis comes.

Authors thus expend a lot of effort to keep mentors out of the action, leaving the heroes on their own to apply what they have learned – or fail to do so.

Gandalf dies in Moria; he returns, but by that time he’s cut off from Frodo and Sam, who most need his guidance.  (“Its name was Cirith Ungol . . . Aragorn could perhaps have told them that name and its significance; Gandalf would have warned them.”  The Two Towers, ch. IV.3)  Gandalf is present, however, for the big battle scenes, and is ready to take on the Witch-King at Minas Tirith.  In effect, Tolkien has held Gandalf’s might in reserve:  as the enemies get bigger and worse over the course of the story, it makes sense to bring the powerful mentor back in, to even the scales.  We see the same kind of progression in Harry Potter, where Dumbledore takes a more direct hand as the story goes on (though he’s removed to make the final battle more challenging).

In the Silver Age comics, the wheelchair was enough to keep Professor Xavier out of the action most of the time.  In the movies, his range and power is vastly expanded, and he has to be rendered comatose to keep him out of the fray.

George Lucas managed to eat his cake and still have it.  He opts for the drastic solution by killing off Obi-Wan for good.  But Obi-Wan’s continuation as a ghost allows him to keep providing occasional advice – not to mention retconned explanations (“From a certain point of view”).

E.E. Smith’s classic Lensman series gives us an entire species, the Arisians, as mentors.  One character, a “fusion” of four Arisians, is actually known as Mentor.  Smith crafts his story to produce fairly subtle and plot-central reasons for keeping the Arisians out of the main conflicts.  At first they need to conceal their existence from their Eddorian adversaries.  Later, they need to keep their vast powers under wraps so as not to undermine the confidence and self-reliance of the Galactic Patrol.  But the Arisians do emerge in time for the climactic battle – which could not be won without both the Arisians and the Patrol (and the Children of the Lens, but that’s another story).

The mentor isn’t always missing in action.  A writer can engage the mentor figure in the story, if proper caution is employed to dodge the above problems.  For example, the social conditions of The Karate Kid mean that Mr. Miyagi can’t simply obliterate the adversaries.  He has to equip Daniel to fight a duel, in which third parties aren’t allowed to intervene.

Another way of handling it is to have the hero and mentor fighting on separate tracks.  Thus, in The Mask of Zorro (1998), the older Zorro is supposed to be dead and has to stay in disguise for most of the story.  But during the climax he is revealed and takes on his old nemesis, while the new Zorro is saving lives and fighting his own opposite number.

One of the reasons the absent mentor appeals to us, I think, is that it reflects something we experience in real life.  As we grow older, we do leave our mentors behind.  Generally, we outlive them – and sometimes feel inadequate without the advice and assistance of those who seemed towering figures in our youth.  Yet, just as in a story, this is necessary if we are to grow up.  In the end we succeed our mentors, and become the heroes of our own stories — and, in turn, mentors to the next generation.