After reviewing George Lamming’s The Emigrants last week, which I believe is massively underrated, I was inspired to talk more about awesome books that have been unfairly ignored. So in this series I’m going to share my thoughts on books which I think aren’t getting the attention they deserve. Keep reading to discover some hidden gems!
The first book I want to talk about is a relatively unknown short novel called Stowaway to Mars by the famous science fiction author John Wyndham. Best known for writing the sci-fi classic The Day of the Triffids, Wyndham published his early novels under the pen name John Beynon. This is probably why, despite considering myself a fan of John Wyndham’s work – particularly his short stories – I had not previously heard of Stowaway. In fact, I doubt I would have ever read the book if I hadn’t received it as part of a giveaway on Goodreads. I am so glad I did!
Stowaway to Mars tells the story of five men who attempt to make the first return flight to Mars. Their discovery of Joan, a stowaway snuck on board by a rogue journalist, causes conflict not because of the air and food rations she will inevitably deplete, but because the other passengers cannot deal with the fact of her gender. Even in the vacuum of space gender roles and expectations persist amongst humans. As Joan herself puts it, “I’m prepared to forget for twelve weeks that I’m a woman; why can’t they do the same?” I have seen many reviewers argue that that this book is sexist, but I do not agree with this judgement – though it is true that its characters are undeniably so. The astronauts carry to Mars the threat of more than just foreign bacteria: they bring their misogyny and imperialism too.
Stowaway‘s analysis (and, I think, criticism) of these concepts is paired with a fascinating discussion of the relationship between humans and machines and the blurring of boundaries between the two. Though the male characters spout a lot of nonsense on this subject, Wyndham manages to tease out some interesting ideas about the relationship between machinery and gender. Plus any irritation caused by the ludicrousness of the men’s arguments is diffused by Wyndham’s playful treatment of them. At the end of their discussion, one of the men turns to Joan:
‘Speaking as a woman, what did you think of that mouthful?’ he asked.
She smiled. ‘Not much.’
This playfulness is evident in other parts of the book, with Wyndham frequently poking fun at his fantastic plot (at one point, a character claims “If I read of this, I should throw the book away.”)
But, as is often the case with Wyndham, the ending lets the book down. Once the rocket finally lands on Mars, the narrative loses much of its focus. A love affair appears out of nowhere and Joan’s character changes dramatically and incomprehensibly. The story’s attempts in these final chapters to explore the nature of sentience are less successful than might have been hoped.
Despite these shortcomings, Stowaway to Mars remains a fantastic read and far exceeded my expectations (surely Wyndham could have come up with a more inventive name for this book? It deserves better). This is excellent science fiction – both thought-provoking and entertaining.
What are your favourite underrated books? Let me know in the comments!