Sunday, December 28, 2014

Cranky Book Review: The Mouse on the Moon


Way back in the summer of 1990, I picked up a box of vintage 1950s paperbacks from an elderly couple having a garage sale. Mixed in with the Richard Nixon and Vance Packard was a skinny humor book called The Mouse That Roared. The next school year I would be amused to discover the senior class putting on the play version as a response to the Iraq war. Because that's what English departments do.

Not that I blame them. I think most of us at that age were horrified to watch the U.S. armed forces getting involved in a local dispute over oil prices. It seemed like a plot from a farcical novel.

And so The Mouse That Roared, in which the tiny Duchy of Grand Fenwick declares war on the United States over wine exports. Of course, they don't expect to win such a war, but look forward to gaining foreign aid after being defeated in "battle." Hi-jinks ensue, as they will.

Not quite what happened in the 1990s, but still politically valid and funny. The "end" of the cold war was still ongoing, after all. The narrative of competition was still going strong. Perhaps that's why the sequel works for me after all these years, also.

In The Mouse On The Moon, the prime minister puts in a request for a loan to the United States, couched in a language to insinuate that the Duchy of Fenwick wants to take up the U.S.'s spirit of international corporation and start a space program. Really, the goal is to modernize the small country over the head of the opposition leadership. And buy the Duchess a fur coat.
"Mr. Bentner, representing, as has been noted, the workingmen of Grand Fenwick, was by the curious alchemy of politics a radical conservative. Although the word 'conservative' to him was an expression close to poisonous, and although he regarded himself as a progressive socialist, the fact was that in the interests of the workingman, he opposed all change in the Duchy."
Wibberley's spot-on parody of dialectic politics is probably even more relevant today, in our time of having a "liberal" yet fiscally conservative President opposed by "conservatives" who want to do away with long-existing government programs.

Anyway, the U.S. decides to give the small country $50 million dollars in aid, not expecting any actual rockets to appear, but to embarrass the Soviet Union in front of the world. Not that the rest of the world actually cares:
"Prior to the announcement there had been an open discussion of the problem of internationalizing space exploration -- to the utter befuddlement of some of the representatives of some of the younger nations. These, sent at enormous expense to New York from remote parts of Equatorial Africa, each nursing some acute problem concerning its claim to a gold mine or a section of a muddy river, or a thousand square miles of jungle into which few but pygmies had ever penetrated, found the great nations of the world at loggerheads over who should own the moon."
 Needless to say, Fenwick actually succeeds in coming up with a ship that can travel to the moon. The technology is based on a mythical radio-active element that occurs within certain types of the native Pinot Noir.  The idea of cheap, wine-based rocket fuel is a bit of silliness, but the author actually has done a lot of research into space travel and manages to justify some of the ridiculous aspects. And make fun of the U.S./Russia competition for getting to the moon using as much speed and power as possible.
"'We're in no hurry and a great increase in speed brings a huge number of problems...heat, for instance. The outer shell of the rocket would get heated up to such a degree that it might vaporize. Then there are meteorites which are microscopic in size...We'll just chug along at a nice, steady thousand miles an hour..'."
This is a quick, one-day read; a good plane trip book, perhaps. Because of it's shortness, there is a bit of jumping around. Rather than having segues, the reader is expected to keep up with little jumps in the plot as each chapter tends to concentrate on one pair of characters at a time. But this is more of a stylistic tic of 1960s humor writing than a failure of the writer. Also, if you are a fan of vintage paperback covers, this series features some art by illustrator Robert Bugg. So, go ahead, take a break and laugh at the world for a bit. While we still have it.
As they stood looking toward this appalling horizon which, though so distant, seemed near enough to touch, earth raised herself over the lunar desolation -- a lovely huge blue liquid jewel, hung in a sky of sable. The sight was so entrancing that neither of them could speak. It was magnificent beyond anything they had ever seen, and the light which earth now gave to the moon was not the harsh, blinding light of the burning sun, but a gentle bluish light, consoling as a benediction, taking the savagery out of the terrible craters and fissures and mountains of the moon and investing them with a softness that made them almost lovely in turn.
 'I never knew it was so beautiful, said Vincent at last. 'It is lovely beyond everything else in all the heavens.'
 'It is our home,' said Dr. Kokintz simply and sadly.'

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