Friday, 21 October 2016

Dan Dare on Mars - a Novel

Nothing ages like the future.  For all that Science Fiction is often set years ahead of today, it tends to reflect the time in which it is written as much as any other genre.  This post deals with “Dan Dare on Mars”, the book which introduced me to prose science–fiction at the age of eight.   I didn’t recognise it at the time, but by the time I got to read this spin-off novel from the Eagle comic it was already a book out of its own time and hopelessly anachronistic.

Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, was the star of the Eagle comic from its beginnings in April 1950.   His wholesome, family-friendly adventures quickly made him one of the popular fictional characters of his time in the UK.  And the planet-hopping adventures of Dan and his crew helped the Eagle to sell what is now an unthinkable three-quarters of a million copies each week in the UK alone.

The Eagle had been designed to be a comic that parents would be happy to let their children read.  It contained bible stories and improving tales from history.  There were stories of explorers and heroes of the empire and the various wars they had won for Britain.  Dan Dare was the centrepiece, a science fiction story designed to appeal to the same kids away who were reading the American horror comics that were the subject of a moral panic in the newspapers at the time.

Dan had originally been conceived as a Christian Superhero by Rev. Marcus Morris before mutating, probably under the influence of Frank Hampson, into Dan Dare Chaplin of the Spaceways, and finally into the chief pilot of the Interplanetary Space fleet, based, off course, in good old blighty.   Toff Dan, together with his, salt of the earth, working class assistant Digby, defeated the enemies of the earth, solved mysteries and restored earth’s (Britain’s) benevolent control across our solar system.

The Rev. Morris was a colourful character himself, his article in the Sunday Dispatch, "Comics which Bring Horror into the Nursery" was one of the key factors in stoking the campaign against 'horror' comics that was so effective in fifties and early sixties Britain.  As an ordained minister and a former RAF Chaplin, Morris' warnings were highly respected and, more importantly, accepted without question or challenge.  Had it been widely known that he was carrying on an "energetic and exotic love-life on the side” right through his marriage to actress Jessica Dunning, his words may have carried a less weight in a time of post-war puritanism? 

His concept of the Eagle was to create a comic that had the quality of art that Morris saw in some US comics and to combine that with moral and improving content.   Dan Dare was to be its centrepiece, a moral and heroic example to the children of Britain.   Perhaps even a reflection of how Morris saw himself.   

The strip was beautifully drawn by Hampson, whose designs for spaceships and technology were a huge part of the success of the strip.   Such was his popularity that Dan Dare merchandise was everywhere.  There was a Dan Dare radio show, toys, games and in 1956 this novel written by Basil Dawson.

This appears to have been Dawson’s only novel, he was better known as a scriptwriter for wireless shows and television.  He wrote Dick Barton for the radio and Robin Hood and Crossroads scripts for TV.

I inherited my copy of the book from someone called Ian Sinclair who had received it as a Christmas gift in the year of publication.  It had been bought as part of a large collection of children’s books by my grandmother in a house sale.  Mostly Enid Blyton and Biggles the Dan Dare book with its bright yellow cover stood out.   I must read it in 1968, something I can tell from the review, and I’m ashamed to say, I wrote on the inside front cover in coloured pencil, even drawing some illustrations of aliens shooting laser beans at each other.  Perhaps an early preparation for Splank!

This was my first exposure to prose science fiction.  Set in the distant future of 2002 the story revolves around the loss of contact with the mines of Mars.  Mines which produced the precious Helenium on which the spaceships which ferry food from Venus to Earth preventing the human race from starving, depend.    Dan is sent to Mars to restore production and find out what is going on.  The science fiction elements of the book are largely trappings, little bits of detail that allow a basic detective story to appear to be science fiction.   At one point Dan even paraphrases Sherlock Holmes when he says “It’s improbable, I know. But didn’t somebody say once, ‘When you’ve eliminated all the impossibles, what’s left must be the solution, however improbable’?”

At the time this was more than enough for me.  I was enthralled by the idea of other worlds, by alien races and by the thrilling adventures of the oh-so respectable hero who seemed to be able to solve every puzzle that was placed before him.

Rereading the book today I’m struck by how easily I accepted a future where Earth was exploiting the inhabitants of two planets.  The Martian Helenium could easily be seen as analogous with the raw materials that the European empires stripped from the developing world during the colonial period.   There are specific parallels with the exploitation of oil which took place around WW1, and may have been one of the prime causes of the Great War.   

The Venusians are feeding the earth, for no other reason than that earth forces had defeated the tyrant who had ruled them, the bright green, big-headed alien floating on a tea-tray, the Mekon.  But seen another way, the earth took over Venus, stripping it of natural resources for the benefit of mankind.

The Mekon
There is no question that earth has the right to exploit its neighbours, or that England should be the place from which the Space fleet should be led.  But even when it was published, it was already as much a novel of the past as it was of the future.   The European hold on their colonies was already slipping.  The deference to the officer class had gone.  Dan Dare on Mars may have featured spaceships and fantastic technology, but it was all about a society that was rapidly disappearing.

Overall it isn't a very good book, it’s poorly written and is really no more than hack-work.  It isn't even good science fiction, there is no real thought about the SF elements, just a rehashing of certain elements from the Dan Dare comic strip for a little added colour.  But for an eight year old it was a revelation.  I quickly moved on to some of the other books in the suitcases my Grandmother had bought.  Skipping the Biggles books I went on the space stories of Capt. W. E. Johns and then to anything else I could find that featured space travel or aliens.

Now little more than an oddity, but back then this was the greatest book ever written.   It would be good to be that eight year old again and to experience the excitement of reading this book for the first time.  But sadly, now I only have a faded memory of the “Dan Dare on Mars” that I loved back then.

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