Wyndham first published this work with the title, Planet Plane in 1936 under the pen name John Beynon. It was later published as a serial novel under the names The Space Machine and Stowaway to Mars. Stowaway is one of his first works, and it shows. The plot lacks the drive and balance of his later efforts.
The story centres around one person’s drive to be the first to reach Mars and return. Of course, there is a stowaway—a woman named Joan.
It’s interesting to see how Wyndham handled gender issues. On the one hand, Joan is portrayed as a tough woman who is determined to break free of preassigned roles (in contrast to the protagonists’s earthbound and pregnant wife). Her iconoclastic role is undermined, however, as the story continues.
The philosophic role of machines and technology in society is the most interesting part of the book. The protagonist is enamored with his machines and the accolades they have won him. His wife, on the other hand, is threatened by them. Martian society has fully accepted and allowed machinery to flourish. Joan, in a conversation with the Martian Vaygan questions his acceptance of them:
‘The Machines?’ Joan repeated. ‘What are the Machines? They are the puzzle which brought me here.’ She told him of the machine which had somehow reached Earth. ‘I felt nervous of it,’ she owned, ‘and I felt nervous of your machines last night. I think that is the first reaction of all of us to our own machines. Some never get beyond it, others get used to it, but when we think of machines we feel that in spite of all they have given us and all they do for us there is something malignant about them. Their very presence forces us down ways we do not want to go.’ (149)
Joan continues to question the Martian’s apparent subservience to their machines. Vaygan later admits:
‘In a sense the machine must rule from the moment it is put to work. One surrenders to its higher efficiency—that is why it was made.’ (168)
These thoughts anticipate the work of Jacques Ellul!
Stowaway is not one of Wyndham’s great stories, but it’s still a thought-provoking read.
—John Wyndham, Stowaway to Mars (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977).