Philip Latham: The Juvenile SF Novels

Covers of two juvenile SF novels by Philip Latham

Although the hole made by the meteorite was too small to be readily seen, the hiss of escaping air was unmistakable. They were in dire peril, the worst that can befall a man in space.

Philip Latham, Missing Men Of Saturn (1953)

A while ago I wrote about two series of science-fiction-juvenile novels, written by Angus MacVicar and W.E. Johns. I entitled the post “Scottish Spaceflight In The 1950s”. More recently I wrote about John Ball’s two stand-alone science-fiction juveniles, written at the close of the ’50s—see “Flying-Boats In Space!” I fondly remember many of these stories from the shelves of my local public library in the 1960s.

So here I am again, with more childhood science fiction. This time I’m offering you two novels by Philip Latham: Five Against Venus (1952) and Missing Men Of Saturn (1953), both originally published in the United States by John C. Winston, as part of a series of science-fiction juvenile novels, by various authors, that spanned the 1950s.

Philip Latham” was the pseudonym used by astronomer Robert S. Richardson when writing fiction. I wasn’t aware of these two novels when I was a child—they seem never to have been published in the UK—but I did know of Latham through some of his much-anthologized early short stories. I recall reading “N Day” (1946), “The Blindness” (1946), “The Xi Effect” (1950) and “To Explain Mrs. Thompson” (1951) in various hard-cover anthologies from the library shelves. (My links take you to copies of the original publications in Astounding Science-Fiction magazine, which are all available on the Internet Archive.) They were generally characterized by: a) A lot of exposition on the technicalities of astronomy, and b) Something deeply disconcerting. Two of them featured first-person narrators who were actually called “Philip Latham” within the story, something that melted my brain as a young reader.

So I was drawn to these two novels when I noticed them in the e-book inventory of Thunderchild Publishing, who were also responsible for reissuing the two John Ball novels I mentioned previously. (Note added, December 2023: Thunderchild has recently been sold to Wildside Press, and their Kindle catalogue seems to have disappeared from Amazon—hopefully pending reissue by Wildside.)

In part, I wanted to see if Latham could write something engaging that didn’t involve extensive exposition and existential angst; in part, I wanted to see what an actual astronomer might be writing about spaceflight to other planets in the years before the Space Age began; and in part I just loved the spacecraft on the original cover of Missing Men Of Saturn (reproduced by Thunderchild and featured at the head of this post), which is a pretty direct copy of the moon-lander concept art by Chesley Bonestell, featured on the cover of Collier’s magazine in 1952:

Cover of Collier's 18 October 1952
Click to enlarge

(You can find out more about that from the log of my build of the Pegasus Hobbies model of this vehicle, and from my review of two books about early spaceflight concepts.)

Five Against Venus is set at a time shortly after spaceflight to the Moon has become routine (though still expensive), while planetary exploration remains in its infancy. A classic American nuclear family departs for the Moon, where the patriarch is to start a new job, but their spacecraft veers dramatically off-course and crash-lands on Venus. Crew members have either abandoned ship or died in the crash, so the family (predictably called Robinson) must try to survive using only their own wits and some supplies salvaged from the crashed ship. The protagonist is sixteen-year-old Bruce Robinson, a member of his school’s Space Club, who (courtesy of a rather lonely encyclopaedia-reading habit back on Earth) is a fount of useful information. The rest of the family consists of his father, a kind man who has long struggled to make a living to support his family; his mother, an anxious home-maker; and the customary pesky little brother.

“In stories you read, the characters are always such capable guys,” Bruce remarked gloomily. “There’ll be one fellow who’s a mechanic, another’s a geologist, and somebody else is a demon when it comes to making clothes out of bark or vine leaves. They never seem to be just ordinary people like us. Why, we even had a hard time getting along when we were back home on the Earth.”

(The fifth person implied by the title “Five Against Venus” is one of several puzzles Latham sets up during the course of the narrative.)

Venus is the usual jungle-planet of the 1950s, which Latham populates with luminescent plant-life, saurian dinosaurs and some rather nasty bat-people. The Robinsons endure repeated set-backs—their food becomes mouldy very quickly, the father is injured and develops an infected wound, the bat-people attack, and eventually even the atmospheric oxygen begins to become depleted. Bruce suddenly finds himself having to deal with adult responsibilities in a very uncertain world, and appreciates for the first time the burden his father carried:

Always before his father had been the leader of the family. Unconsciously they had come to rely upon him for advice and encouragement. Bruce thought of the many times in the past when the going had been tough, how his father must have grown tired and discouraged. Yet before the family he had always presented a cheerful face. Now it occurred to Bruce that possibly his father had not always been as cheerful as he seemed. That he might have had his moments of doubt and discouragement, too.

So the novel is a rather thoughtful coming-of-age story as well as an adventure that rattles along at pace.

Latham’s background in astronomy shows through, of course, but he doesn’t indulge in the long lectures that appeared in his early short stories. Instead, he provides an Afterword in which he tells his readers which features of his story reflect real scientific knowledge, and which he has concocted. Within the narrative, Bruce provides the occasional data-dump for his woefully ignorant parents, most notably when he suddenly understands what causes the mysterious “ashen light” of Venus. And there’s a one-line mention of the Coriolis effect in a rotating space habitat that made me smile, given how much I’ve written about.

The artificial [rotational] gravity worked all right as long as you were perfectly still but whenever you moved you felt a force acting to pull you sideways. It was like trying to walk on a moving merry-go-round.

The protagonist of Missing Men Of Saturn is Dale Sutton, a cynical and manipulative graduate of the Terrestro Space Academy who is immediately unlikeable when we first meet him—quite a bold departure for children’s literature of the time, I think. His instructors have seen through his façade, however, assigning him high grades in course work, but a bare pass on his “Character Index”, which prevents him from getting the plum posting he feels he deserves, and consigns him to serving aboard the dilapidated spaceship Albatross.

Latham gives us an idea of how his future space-faring society works when Sutton arrives at his hotel on the Moon:

Many of the men were a steady, honest sort who held down minor jobs on ships specializing in short runs between the Earth and moon with an occasional trip to Venus and Mars. Sometimes one saw a deep-space man who had ventured within the asteroid belt or even to such distant posts as the Jovian satellites. These were readily recognized by their gruff manner and general air of reserve. Then there was always a host of miscellaneous characters around, who never seemed to have any visible means of support, but still always managed to have a little money in their pockets.

Sutton is, predictably, not well received by the rough-and-ready crew of the Albatross, and undergoes a slow but steady character transformation as a result.

Albatross is soon sent to investigate the disappearance of an expedition ship at Saturn’s moon Titan, and Latham is soon creating a series of disconcerting mysteries for his characters again. And again, the story rattles along, full of perilous episodes, lightly leavened with astronomical exposition.

I particularly enjoyed the characters’ response to the air leak that introduces this post—forewarned of the danger of passing too close to Saturn’s rings, they have equipped themselves with sealant guns and a dozen balloons. The balloons drift in the air current induced by the leak, allowing its location to be quickly identified.

There’s also a neat use of Saturn’s “lost” moon, Themis, as a plot element, and what might be the first fictional use of the toxic effects induced by ingestion of heavy water. And, again, Latham included something that gave me a private smile, by having his protagonist identify the pole star of Titan as Gamma Cephei. This star is, in reality, not too far from the location of Saturn’s north rotational pole in the sky, and I assume Latham knew that—the orientation of Saturn’s rotation axis is an important parameter in predicting the visual phenomena associated with the planet’s rings, and so would have been well-established in the 1950s. It was a reasonable supposition that the north pole of Titan would lie close to the same location.* And again, there’s an appendix that separates fact from fiction.

So these were both good fun—I enjoyed the coming-of-age narratives for the two protagonists, and I enjoyed watching Latham play around with the limited understanding of the solar system we had in an era before computers and spaceflight. His space-faring society is very much that of 1950s America, venturing out confidently to establish itself on other worlds, and his characters discuss topics that were preoccupations of the time—the conquest of Everest and the “four-minute mile” caught my eye, but I’m sure I missed others.

You can still pick up second-hand copies of the original Winston editions. Thunderchild has shut up shop, but their catalogue will presumably be reissued by Wildside in due course.

* And so it proved to be. We’ve since established that the north rotational pole of Titan is only about half a degree from that of Saturn. The two poles lie within the northern boundaries of the constellation of Cepheus, amid an area containing only rather dim stars and about ten degrees away from Gamma Cephei. They are, in fact, marginally closer to our own pole star, Polaris, but neither star is a good match.

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