Homemade Rockets and Invisible Moons: more of why I love sf/f

Cover of the 1958 hardcover edition of Mr. Bass's Planetoid by  Eleanor Cameron,.

Cover of the 1958 hardcover edition of Mr. Bass’s Planetoid by Eleanor Cameron, just like the one I found in the school library (click to embiggen).

In 1970 (I was in the Fourth Grade) the oil company my dad worked for transferred us to a tiny town in eastern Utah. When my sister and I were enrolled in the public school there, we exactly doubled the number of children in the school district who were not members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Over the next 10 months or so, as many more families (mostly from the south) were transferred to the town by various oil companies, the elementary school’s enrollment went from about 350 children to nearly 500 hundred. I’m not going to talk about the culture shock that occurred during that time, on both sides of the religious divide. But that incredible influx of unexpected kids to the school caused a lot of upheaval, including causing the school to pack up most of the books from the library to convert the library space into four classrooms. For a while, most of the library books were in storage, and a subset was rotated into the tiny old classroom which had been converted into the new library.

It was during one of those rotations that I first found a copy of Eleanor Cameron’s Mr. Bass’s Planetoid. Of course I had to check out right away because it had “planetoid” in the title! It was clear from nearly the first page that this was a sequel. Two best friends, Chuck and David, are friends with an eccentric scientist, Mr. Tyco Bass, who helped them with their homemade rocket previously. Another scientist, Prewytt Brumblydge, has stolen a sample of a mysterious metal Mr. Bass had discovered in a meteorite, and soon he is using this metal to power a machine with which he hopes to solve two of the world’s problems: the lack of safe drinking water in some parts of the world, and the need for electricity. Unfortunately, the machine has dangerous side effects that could destroy the entire planet. The boy’s learn this part from yet another scientist who happens to be Brumblydge’s former teacher, who is convinced the student is looking for the source of Mr. Bass’s mysterious metal.

The problem is that Mr. Bass is nowhere to be found…

Checking Mr. Bass’s notes, they see that he thought the meteor came from yet another invisible moon circling the Earth. The boys have reason to believe that Brumblydge has also seen the notes and will try to reach this moon to get more of the metal. Unfortunately, the boys’ homemade rocket ship was damaged at the end of their previous adventure, so they can’t just fly off to try to intercept Brumblydge. The boys have to contact Mr. Bass’s cousin, Mr. Theo Bass, who helps them repair the ship. Theo is also able to confirm that Tyco has left Earth and is visiting friends on the invisible moon, Basidium, which the boys visited in their earlier adventure.

The boys rocket off to the smaller planetoid. Brumblydge is found and convinced not to turn on his machine. He also meets the inhabitants of Basidium, and everything ends happily ever after.

Two of my favorite details from this book were: among the repairs that Mr. Theo Bass makes to the rocket is to install magnets on the fins of the rocket so when it lands on the very small planetoid it won’t drift off. I remember thinking that if magnets were needed for the fins, shouldn’t magnets also be added to the boys’ boots? But I don’t think that was ever addressed. The other is that the reason no one knows about the small planetoid orbiting merely 1000 miles above the earth is because it is only visible in “infragreen light.” So Mr. Theo Bass also has to make special goggles for the boys so that they can see it.

It was a very silly book. But, also very intriguing. Ten-year-old me couldn’t turn the pages fast enough on the first read-through. I read it a few times before taking it back to the library, where I asked the librarian whether the earlier book was available. The librarian told me that if they had it, it was in storage.

The cover of the 1960 hardcover edition of "A Mystery for Mr. Bass"

The cover of the 1960 hardcover edition of “A Mystery for Mr. Bass” (click to embiggen).

A month or so later, the librarian handed me A Mystery for Mr. Bass, which she thought was the first book. It isn’t, it’s the fourth book in the series. I remember a lot less about the plot of this one, other than a bunch of weird fossils are exposed by a storm, the fossils prove that before humans walked the Earth it was inhabited by the ancestors of the little green mushroom-people who live on the first invisible moon Mr. Bass discovered, and that Brumblydge, the villain from the previous book, is now an ally of the boys and is also descended from the mushroom-people, just like the two Mr. Basses are. Again, another very silly book, but also fun.

A few months later the librarian brought out the sixth book in the series, Time and Mr. Bass, whose plot I remember even less than the previous. I do remember that the book began at a secret conference of all the mushroom people who were living among humans in secret. But not much more.

Vintage cover of the first book.

Vintage cover of the first book.

A few years later our family moved back to Colorado, and sometime after that I discovered in the children’s section of the public library copies of the first two books in the series, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet, which filled in a lot of the gaps I had from reading the stories out of order. The most amusing detail to me was that the book’s action is kicked off by the boys reading an advertisement in the local paper offering a job to some adventurous boys who have built themselves a rocket. The boys, with a little help from their fathers, build the rocket ship from flattened tin cans and scrap wood, then take it to the address, where the meet the eccentric Mr. Bass. And the only thing that this super-scientist does to make the rocket spaceworthy is load it with a special fuel he has invented.

So, somehow, the engine and controls and navigation system the boys cobbled together literally from junk is just exactly perfect for the rocket fuel that they didn’t know any of the properties of. Anyway, he explains to them about this invisible second moon he has discovered orbiting 50,000 miles about the Earth, which you can only see with special equipment, and sends them to explore this mysterious planet. And before they leave, he advises them to take a mascot, because otherwise the mission will fail. So, on a whim before taking off the next day at the appointed time, they grab a chicken from one of the boys’ back yards, and take her to Basidium, which is covered in giant mushrooms and inhabited by green-skinned people with large heads. The aliens introduce themselves as Mycetians, who are evolved from mushrooms, but lament the fact that their entire population is dying of a mysterious disease. The boys, of curse, solve the disease problem (if you guessed that the chicken was involved in the solution, you would not be wrong), and journey back to Earth to report all to Mr. Bass. Oh, the the rocket is damaged on the return trip somehow.

The cover of the second book, "Stowaway to the Mushroon Planet."

The cover of the second book, “Stowaway to the Mushroon Planet.”

The second book in the series involves the boys working with Mr. Bass’s cousin, Theo Bass, who wants to rebuild the boys’ crashed rocket and use it to journey to Basidium to see if for himself. Another scientist, Horatio Peabody, has come to town to deliver a lecture of some sort, learns abot the rocket, and stows away on the trip with the boys. Peabody wants to exploit Basidium and its inhabitants in various ways. He does a lot of stupid things, nearly kills everybody a couple of times, and is generally an annoying git.

By the time I finally got to read the first two books in the series I had aged out of the target demographic. And even when I was the age they were meant for, I kept noticing lots of logical and scientific flaws in the books (How can all of these people, including David and Chuck’s parents, know about these invisible moons and the intelligent aliens living on them, but word never gets out? If Basidium and the other planetoid are made of super dense material such that they have nearly-Earth-like gravity, why haven’t scientists detected the gravitational effects of either one? How did Mr. Bass know that boys wouldn’t need spacesuits?). But there was something incredibly engaging about the way they were written. Not to mention the idea that one could build a rocket from scrap wood and junk tin and rocket off to other worlds for adventure!

And don’t get me started on the complete lack of any women or girls among the cast of characters!

But the idea that maybe I and a friend could build our own rocket and fly to another world was plenty exciting. That there were people like Mr. Bass who didn’t fit in and were thought of not just as crazy but as freaks, yet they could still be heroes was an important bit of encouragement for a ten-year-old queer science geek. So, these very silly books will always hold a special place in my heart.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live in Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

3 responses to “Homemade Rockets and Invisible Moons: more of why I love sf/f”

  1. chrishansenhome says :

    I remember those books quite fondly. The Marblehead Public Library had all of them and I devoured them all. I had forgotten them up until now, so thanks for dredging them up out of my memory.

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