The Eagle Has Landed

Literature was More Fun in the Seventies

Whenever possible, I try to go through my to-be-read pile in the order in which I acquired or borrowed the books.  Though this sounds incredibly obsessive, and probably is, I’ve found that it helps me to actually read all the stuff I lay my hands on.  Otherwise, I’d immediately read the shiny new stuff and some books would wallow in the pile forever.

But that method also means that stuff tends to come in thematic clumps.  If I happened to swing by a science fiction con, I will have a pile of SF books to read.  If I did an Amazon order, it’s likely that the books will all be from series I’m in the middle of.

This time, I’ve hit a patch of trashy 1970s paperbacks.  They are trashy both because of the quality of the printed object itself (acidic paper seemed to reach its peak in the 70s) as well as for the writing.  By looking at the covers, I’m guessing that there aren’t many literary pretentions in this lot.

But when I read the first, I was immediately delighted to have landed in this batch.

Toll for the Brave - Jack Higgins

Jack Higgins is not a writer I was familiar with (although I later realized that he wrote the semi-classic The Eagle has Landed), but I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more of his work after reading Toll for the Brave.

This was a classic-style seventies thriller where a guy survives against all odds, defeats communism and also beats his tortured (in this case rather literally) past.  Unlike modern takes on the theme, this is a slim volume at just under 200 pages, and yet seems to pack all the necessary action into the story.  The characters are also sufficiently well done that you start to wonder why any book should be thicker than this.

The enemy here are communists, and it’s a particularly nice to see them get their butts kicked by an individualist, filthy-rich product of capitalism.  The whole thing is cheesy and unbelievable, but fun as hell.  I’d felt the same way, quite recently, about The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin, which probably ticked the same boxes for the same audience in the era.

I read and enjoy plenty of modern books, but whenever I dip into the seventies, I wonder if we’re not all making a huge mistake by focusing so much energy on avoiding stereotypes and being more character-driven and literary.  That has its place, of course, but there’s also a strong argument to be made for the fun factor.

Seen in a different way, stereotypes are also archetypes–figures that many people who share a cultural background will be able to identify.  They’re a shorthand way of putting the reader at ease, letting him know what’s happening around him without dumping four hundred pages of exposition.  Those little tools make a book more enjoyable for the person picking it up.

There’s a reason books like this one sold in the millions and that’s because they were actually better than watching TV.  They’re also better than watching TV today.

So what should have been a light read of an admittedly preposterous thriller has actually made me think, which is an unexpected bonus.

The first benefit, of course, was that I enjoyed the hell out of it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist whose own preposterous thriller is called Ice Station: Death.  He thinks it’s even more farfetched than the Higgins above, but urges you to check it out for yourself.

The Pale, Small, Blue Dot

Pale Blue Dot

If anyone asks what the most important words ever spoken by mankind are, you have our permission to use the following four: “Houston, Tranquility Base here.”

We are assuming here that they will limit you to around four or five words.  If you have more, you can continue the phrase, but it kind of ruins the subsequent argument, because part of the fun is seeing if the recipient knows what you’re referring to.

Pause for those still trying to figure it out…

The next words are, of course, “The Eagle has landed”, which concludes the first non-technical phrase spoken by men on the moon (it seems the first actual words were “contact light”, which was an instrument reading and nowhere near as fun).

Eight words, and easily the most important ever spoken by a human.

Many people will disagree with this.  And those people will fall into many groups, but mostly, they are people with a serious lack of a sense of proportion, created by various subjective readings of the world.

Let’s dismiss the easiest group first.  The lunatics (in an ironic turn of phrase).  This is the group composed of people who insist that mankind hasn’t walked on the moon, that it was all faked in a Hollywood basement.  This same group will also tell you that astrology is a science, just like math*, that a bunch of Templar-influenced Illuminati run the world (see here for our other thoughts about this), and that you should really stop limiting yourself to what science says is correct, as there are so many things science just can’t explain.  Then they’ll recommend a homeopathic doctor.

Lunar Footprint

While you’ll never be able to make thinking beings out of this group, you can at least make them think a little by asking them why the Soviet Union never denied the moon landings.  If that doesn’t work, just send them here; with any luck they’ll spend so much time attempting to refute the overwhelming evidence that they won’t annoy you again.

The other group are more insidious.  They are articulate, educated people who have lived their entire lives under the mistaken assumption that there are more important things to do with public funds than explore space.  These people will, with perfectly straight faces, and a look of concern, point out that there have been many more important words spoken in history.

“There have been declarations of war,” they will say.  “Declarations of peace.  Announcements of the curing of a disease.  Even Bell’s ‘Mr. Watson – Come here – I want to see you,’ changed the world more thoroughly. Hell,” they will say, “have you forgotten Churchill’s speech about the many and the few?  Or the founding sparks of the French revolution? Civil rights announcements!  Friends, Romans, Countrymen! Are you actually serious?”  They are likely quie agitated at this point.

Sadly, many intellectuals feel this way.  That’s bad enough, but so do a lot of people who aren’t intellectuals, which in this case is worse.  You see, the great mass of voters are basically the group that has kept humanity on the ground.  Do you really see the people supporting space exploration when the alternative is more health benefits?  Neither do I…  the solid salt of the Earth isn’t noted for being particularly far-sighted.  This doesn’t stop governments with billions of dollars to spend from listening to them.

And yet, what all of these people are forgetting is that every single one of the “acceptable” candidates for “humanity’s most important words” have one thing in common.  They were all spoken on one single planet far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy which orbits a small unregarded yellow sun.  It is where most of human history has transpired, but it is also the prison of humanity until we can break the chains.

Just by being spoken on a different world, Armstrong’s phrase immediately overcomes them.  Look at it from a wider angle, and it becomes clear: the universe is huge, Earth is inconsequential, and the occurrences on its surface are clearly less important than those in a wider area.  Anyone who feels that humanity’s future is on the planet needs to get an urgent transfusion of ambition and the capacity to dream.

Fortunately, for the first time in decades, the future of meaningful human exploration is actually looking up.  China, of course, is planning to go to the moon, to follow its unmanned rover with manned missions, and to do it soon.  They don’t really have to worry about popular opinion, fortunately, plus, the program seems to actually have plenty of support.  Hopefully they’ll ignite the west, the Russians and the Indians.

But things are also looking up in the West.  The Russian space agency has recently completed it’s first craft built with no Soviet technology, and space tourism is still booming.  Getting humanity into space means getting people into space… and space tourism programs are doing that in relatively good numbers.

Martian Surface

Virgin Galactic is another venture that is definitely going to help.  As private companies take more people into space, costs will go down (strange that governments never seem to manage that), and more people will go into space.  It’s exciting to see this starting, and all the spaceports being built… with places as unlikely as Scotland leading the charge.

Even the US, primary culprit in the stumble on the road to space, is developing a better spaceflight roadmap.  Not only has it contracted out many lift operations to private rockets (SpaceX and Orbital Sciences currently fly to the International Space Station – and both are developing manned vehicles), but even the NASA itself is developing a new manned program, wonder of wonders.  They seem to want to harness an asteroid, bring it a bit closer to earth and send people out to have a look.  Seeing how dormant NASA has been since the shuttle era, it’s nice to see something that ambitious being seriously developed.  The launcher and capsules are in advanced testing stage and are BIG.

The ultimate prize for having perspective, however, must go to Mars One.  This Dutch company has understood that, while humanity as a group will always have to succumb to the whims of its most plodding members, there will always exist individual humans who have a bit more vision.  This company is planning to start sending humans on one way trips to Mars in 2024. They had 200,000 volunteers for the first call – and they are pretty realistic about how to fund the efforts.  One can only hope they succeed.

Perhaps, with all this private activity in space, we can soon hear words that are more important, on an objective scale, than Armstrong’s.  After all, staying on one planet simply dooms us to insignificance on any valid scale.

*This was an exact phrase said to the editor of this site.