Monday, December 10, 2012

Major Matt Mason: Moon Mission

Major Matt Mason: Moon Mission
George Elrick
A Big Little Book
Whitman, 1968

Genre: Science Fiction


Lieutenant Saunders and Jo Ann Harvey (the flight doctor) are aboard a space flight to the moon. Major Matt Mason is in charge of the operations called Nucleus Two and he wants everything perfect before they land and wake up Jo Ann’s brother who is in hibernation on the moon. Otto “Squeak” Harvey became famous in space exploration as the “Lunar Robinson Crusoe.” He had voluntarily agreed to spend months alone of the moon at the end of Nucleus One. His job was to remain in an underground station and observe the effects of prolonged isolation on his body and mind.

Jo Ann is worried for her brother. The hibernation pills are only supposed to work for three months and were only supposed to be used in case the Nucleus Two mission was delayed. It wasn’t supposed to be used in emergencies. She’s certain her brother is dead. The first eight months of Otto’s confinement on the moon went well. He made daily reports to Earth and said he was working on a pet project. He was receiving unusual radio signals from intergalactic space somewhere in the vicinity of “general rapidly receding quasars.” He believed it was a weird form of intelligence. However, as the days progressed something went wrong. He’s health and physical appearance was getting worse and he talked madly about hearing the sounds of lovebirds constantly cooing in his head. Mason decides to launch Nucleus Two early in order to go and rescue him but before they left they received one last transmission from him—a video of chaotic struggling and Otto yelling, “Help! Moon worms! They’re coming after me!” Mason yelled for him to take the hibernation pill.

When the shuttle lands, Mason and Jo Ann suit up and go to the isolation station. The interior of the station was in shambles and Otto was nowhere to be found. While waiting for Mason to emerge from the station, Jo Ann looks around outside and swears she sees two rocks moving. When Mason rejoins her, she points out the rocks and the suddenly see two of them snack together like magnets. Mason investigates and notices a cavern in the ground below the rocks. As he moves one aside, a hot orange smoke explodes from the hole and evaporates. Mason swore he heard a cooing sound. In the cavern, they find a labyrinth of tunnels that appear to be unoccupied. The walls are all smooth and shiny as it something made of leather carved them out that way. Soon a quake occurs and Mason hears the cooing again. Jo Ann trips over Otto’s empty space suit.

Meanwhile, back at the shuttle, Captain McAllister is doing experiments with two-ton rabbits the size of hippos and an experiment on a crater he’s called Uncle Wiggly. He is raising the gigantic rabbits to be “ground into yellow protein powder”! McAllister takes a space car to go investigate the progress of his experiments and as he’s driving he is shocked to see one giant rabbit leaping across the landscape. When he gets to the breeding station he’s happy to see that that is the only bunny missing. However, when he examines his three botanical gardens, A-3 is completely ransacked. He is shocked when a boney hand reaches up from under the ground and grabs his ankle. He gets away as the hand retreats down the hole. Looking around, he creates a minor cave in and lands in the underground tunnels. He sees a shadowy figure and, thinking it is Otto, runs after it.

Meanwhile, Mason and Jo Ann are investigating the space suit which appears to have been taken off by will and shows no signs of a struggle. Mason thinks that Otto would be okay underground without the suit on. It appears as it the tunnels have their own environment separate from the outside moon environment. He thinks the blast of orange dust they encountered was whatever is living underground that died when it was exposed to the Moon atmosphere. Soon they see what it was that evaporated—a moon worm! Luckily, they are able to run back to the hole they came down and the worm explodes into dust.

Meanwhile, McAllister is wandering the tunnels. He encounters a moon worm too and escapes into a side tunnel where he finds Otto. Wordlessly, Otto gets McAllister to follow him to a cave he carved out in the tunnel walls to hide from the worms. He blocks the entrance with a boulder and McAllister is freaked out when Otto begins cooing. Up on the surface, Sergeant Storm is placed in charge of tracking down the loose rabbit. After a bit of a struggle he is able to tranquilize it and move it back to the breeding station.

McAllister tries to get Otto to talk but fails. All Otto does is repeatedly smack himself over and over again. McAllister says they have to get him back to the ship and starts to move the heavy boulder. As he emerges from the man-made cave he runs into Mason and Jo Ann. It takes ten minutes to get Otto into his space suit and once he has his helmet on he regains all his mental capabilities. Otto explains that he was getting coded messages. He discovered they were from an alien life form that needed a weak conscious being in order to live. They took over the moon worms and eventually got him too. As the alien leaves Otto, Jo Ann explains that she’s getting a headache and collapses. Mason makes them move to the surface as soon as possible where they see the large bunny being returned to the breeding station. They place the unconscious Jo Ann next to the bunny who is slowly regaining consciousness. The alien presence transfers into the bunny, gets up, and hops away.

Thoughts and Nuggets of Wisdom for Research

Major Matt Mason was an action figure created by Mattel, an astronaut who lived and worked on the moon. When introduced in 1966, the toys were initially based on design information found in other aviation- and space-interest periodicals. Later, the line transitions more into the realm of science fiction. The toy line included four astronaut action figures, Matt Mason, Sergeant Storm, Doug Davis, and Lieutenant Jeff Long. The primary alien was Captain Lazer, a giant who towered over the astronauts. Mattel dropped the line in the mid-1970s as interest in the space program declined; however, the figure is still fondly remembered, and the collector's market for this line of toys can demand top dollar in mint condition. One mint figure of Mason has accompanied several U.S. Space Shuttle flights as an “unofficial crewman.”

I believe the book is more a part of the Better Big Little Books, which are actually smaller than the originals that date to the 1930s and feature color illustrations instead of black and white. Moon Mission reads like a classic sci-fi pulp story for children and teens! It was hilarious. The science is probably all erroneous information but it sounds impressive. The writing isn’t too bad which is shocking since the author is the same one who wrote one of the G-Men novels I recently read. (Maybe it is a pseudonym? I don’t know if BLB used ghostwriters.)The story is a quick read full of lots of action and crazy stuff—moon worms and hippo-sized rabbits? Hello, awesome! The color illustrations had a feel of watching a 1970s cartoon show.

In regards to the science information, readers learn from Lieutenant Saunders that if he eats “any more of these algae cakes, I’ll turn into a green glob. It’s great being back on the moon again, but I’d give my Jet Pak for a good salami sandwich” (p. 9). Clearly, early on we learn that astronauts can’t eat normal food and they do eat oddly packaged items. The green algae cakes are a creation of Captain McAllister who is a botanist but the cakes don’t taste like real food at all. The other scientific bit of information is when Mason and Jo Ann are walking on the surface of the moon and the narration reads, “Nine hours later they crossed the crescent-shaped line of demarcation between lunar light and lunar shadow, instantly passing from a scorching 224 degrees Fahrenheit to a minus 243 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of their temperature regulated space suits, however, neither felt the slightest discomfort” (p. 54).

The science behind McAllister’s bunnies is highly entertaining. We learn that “when, after endless experiments, he had succeeded in producing a strain of cottontails four feet high at the spine, he had been justifiably pleased. He had become ecstatic when he succeeded in planting oxygen capsules and temperature regulating pills under the skin at the base of their ears. He felt that, if all went well, after several generations his overgrown charges would be able to survive on the moon’s harsh surface without the protection provided by solar shields or other equipment. Of course, some would be struck down by meteorites. He shrugged. With rabbits, one didn’t have to worry about replacements” (p. 106-108). As he is going to the Uncle Wiggly crater (which is named after another series book character that was popular for years, Uncle Wiggly, who happens to be a rabbit) he sees “an object soaring skyward. Like an enormous projectile with ears, one of his two-ton rabbits had just made an unbelievable leap over the ragged upper lip of the crater and had crashed in a four-point landing three hundred yards away. Kirk slammed on the brake with his left foot and gazed in amazement at the flop-eared giant as it twitched its nose and bounded off again, clearing sixty-foot obstacles as though they didn’t exist” (p. 110). We also get a bit of a sci-fi moment when we see the inside of his breeding stations for the first time: “In air-conditioned stalls lining both sides of the huge hutch, four hundred rhinoceros-sized rabbits placidly munched on piles of powdered carrot pills. Except for the sewed-up incisions at the base of their floppy ears, where pills and capsules had been inserted, they looked like inflated versions of pet bunnies” (p. 114).

The moon worms are pretty creepy; especially the illustrations (think Tremors): “Its skin seemed to be leathery, dry, and tough. Its color appeared to be a dull rusty yellow, undoubtedly due to the mineral content of the rocks it relief on for nourishment. Its wide mouth was shaped like a manta ray’s and, as far as he could discern with his bobbing headlamp, had flat disks instead of teeth” (p. 148).

It is nice to see the only female character, Jo Ann, being the ship’s flight doctor. Since the book was written in the 1960s it could have easily featured nothing but male characters since it is sci-fi and deals with space exploration. Of course, she is unfortunately constantly being referred to as “pretty,” “skinny,” and “slender” in her descriptions. At one point she is shown taking off her weighted space boots and she thinks to herself, “Nothing like space boots to make a young woman psychiatrist resemble a baby elephant!” (p. 12).

She is also the classic damsel in distress—when she first encounters the moon worms she faints and has to be carried to safety by Mason (and later says, “I guess I’m not much of a flight doctor. I should be able to take this sort of thing in my stride.”). And then, of course, she is the member of the crew who is most susceptible to the alien consciousness taking over minds in order to exist. Otto explains that he was receiving coded signals “from an alien, gaslike form of parasitic life that has no actual body of its own, and can survive and reproduce itself only by entering a mind that hasn’t enough brainpower to resist it. . . . Worms don’t have much intelligence—if any—and can’t put up an effective resistance to an invasion of this sort” (p. 214-218). What does that say to readers? Otto was only susceptible because he his health was deteriorating because he had been on the moon for eight months in isolation. So it’s okay that his health put him in a weakened state. However, this seems to imply that Jo Ann is no more intelligent (despite being a doctor) than the moon worms since the alien presence is easily able to get in their minds and Jo Ann’s. How nice. Jo Ann, it doesn’t matter that you’re a highly trained doctor on a moon mission because when it all comes down to it you’re still a weak and inferior being compared to the mighty man!

Interestingly, Tom Hanks has co-written a script for a Major Matt Mason film. 

A Major Matt Mason Action Figure

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