Saturday, January 2, 2016

Black Holes and the Mushroom Planet

Not long ago, I wrote about Dr. Timothy S. Miller's Botanical Fiction Database. It's a great piece of work. I wish I had compiled it myself. These past few days, I have read a couple of books missing from Dr. Miller's list. Those books might be missing from a lot of lists, for they seem to have been overlooked by science fiction fans. I would like to put that right if I can.

When I was a kid, I read The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron (1954). I remember liking the book. I especially remember the beginning, in which a boy reads a newspaper advertisement asking for a spaceship "built by a boy, or by two boys, between the ages of eight and eleven. . . . An adventure and a chance to do a good deed await the boys who build the best space ship." That's a great way to begin a story, and I believe more than one science fiction writer of the 1940s or '50s began his story in a like manner. I also remember the boy's searching for a house on a forgotten backstreet in his town. (The forgotten backstreet is like something from H.P. Lovecraft.) Soon the boy finds the street, a strange mushroom-shaped house located there, and the even stranger inhabitant of that house, Mr. Tyco Bass. I have searched for The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet since I first read it. Finally, a few weeks ago, I found an old library edition at the local second-hand store. The book is well worn, but it's an original hardbound edition with illustrations by Robert Henneberger. (1) Reading it again after so many years was no disappointment at all.

In December 1954, Collier's ran a three-part serial called "The Body Snatchers" by Jack Finney. The book ends with the defeat of the pods. The narrator describes their departure from earth:
. . . the great pods lifted and rose, climbing up through the faint mist, on and out toward the space they had come from, leaving a fiercely inhospitable planet behind, to move aimlessly on once again, forever, or . . . it didn't matter. (Dell, 1967, p. 189; ellipses in the original) (2)
The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet was first published in 1954, almost certainly before "The Body Snatchers" appeared in print. It, too, ends with a lifting and rising, when Mr. Bass, a Mushroom person, simply blows away:
I looked out my window when the wind was really getting strong [a boy recounts] and I saw Mr. Bass go up in the air like a leaf in the sky . . . and that was the last of him. . . . He blew away all right. (Little, Brown, and Company, 1954, 1955, p. 195)
Eleanor Cameron and Jack Finney were probably writing their books at about the same time. I doubt that one was influenced or inspired by the other. The coincidence is probably just another example of two minds arriving at the same idea independently and at the same time.

Whether the idea of spores or plant people blown from one planet to another was original with Eleanor Cameron, she may have come up with an innovation in her sequel, Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet, published in 1956. In that book, her two boy heroes, David and Chuck, return to the Mushroom Planet, this time with Mr. Bass' cousin, Mr. Theodosius M. Bass, and an insufferable scientist, Horatio Quimby Peabody. Peabody is a menace of a kind, a type familiar to anyone who has ever known the pretentious, self-absorbed graduate student, hungry with avarice and ambition. He is easily taken care of by the wise people of the Mushroom Planet, Basidium. There is another danger, however, what the author calls a "hole in space," located between earth and Basidium. On their return to earth, the boys witness its power when "a swarm of meteors . . . . as though caught in some giant whirlpool, in some fearsome, invisible maelstrom" sweeps downward and vanishes from sight into the hole (Scholastic, n.d., p. 143). (3) Peabody doesn't witness the marvel himself and doesn't believe the boys. Too bad for him, for in trying to return to the Mushroom Planet on board a stolen spaceship, he is caught by the hole in space. David and Chuck ponder what has happened to him and come to understand that he will stay "just exactly the same as he was the second he plunged in" (p. 173; emphasis in the original). They envision the young scientist
alert, erect, beaming with eager anticipation, speeding through infinities of time, caught in one moment forever--and forever tilted on the invisible edge of attaining what he longed for most--the return to Basidium. (p. 174)
For Peabody, they realize, "there's no time . . . . It's all just one big long NOW" (p. 177). After escaping from the hole, the young scientist remembers his experience as a "horrible dream" of "being wrenched bone from bone" and of "saying over and over . . . without stopping, the words, 'This is forever--' " (p. 183).

So Horatio Quimby Peabody fell into a "hole in space," becoming caught in a never-ending instant, on an "invisible edge" in proximity to, within, or through the hole. Those things should sound familiar to us, for Eleanor Cameron seems to have been describing a black hole, gravitational time dilation, and possibly the event horizon around a black hole.

In 1956.

Prior to what is now called "the Golden Age of Black Holes."

Other science fiction authors had written about time dilation at speeds approaching that of light. In a quick Internet search, I came up with the Viagens series by L. Sprague de Camp (1948-1958), "To the Stars" by L. Ron Hubbard (Feb.-Mar. 1950), Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953), "Common Time" by James Blish (Aug. 1953), "One Love Have I" by William F. Nolan (Apr. 1955), "The Long Way Home" by Poul Anderson (Apr.-July 1955), and Time for Stars by Robert A. Heinlein (1956). Others followed, of course. I thought of the movies Interstellar from 2014 and The Black Hole from 1979 (which, like Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet, has a passage through a black hole rather than an orbit around it or a spiraling into it). I also thought of Gateway by Frederik Pohl (1977), which seems to come closest to Eleanor Cameron's original image of being "caught in one moment forever." Strangely enough, I also thought of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats (1819) and its lines:

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal--yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

But did any author of fiction before Eleanor Cameron write about time dilation around a black hole or about an event horizon? It doesn't seem very likely, and for that, I think she deserves some credit. (4)

(1) Robert Henneberger was a prolific illustrator, yet I am astonished to find that there is nothing about him on the Internet as an artist. I looked through my books on children's literature and still found nothing until I looked in Illustrators of Books for Young People by Martha E. Ward and Dorothy A. Marquardt (1970) and Illustrators of Children's Books, 1946-1956 compiled by Bertha Mahoney Miller, et al. (1958). Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 8, 1921, Robert Gow Henneberger was the son of Harry Cole Henneberger (1888-1983) and Anna Esther Bailey (1896-1985). Despite living in the city as a child, Henneberger loved animals and the outdoors. His menagerie included eighty spiders kept in jars in the basement. Henneberger served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, first as an illustrator at Bethesda Naval Hospital, then as a boxer in the South Pacific. His boxing career effectively ended when he was knocked out by the eventual champion, Regis O'Brien of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (who also went on to a professional career of 3 wins and 2 losses). After the war, Henneberger attended the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1950, he married Kathryn Lorraine Dalton (1917-2000) in York, Maine. The couple had two children and apparently divided their time between Maine and their home in East Providence, Rhode Island. Mrs. Henneberger, a reporter, feature writer, and editor, worked for newspapers in New York and spent twenty years with the Providence Journal. Her husband illustrated many books over the years, including the first two books of Eleanor Cameron's Mushroom Planet series. He died on January 31, 1999, in York, Maine. In case you're wondering, he and Jacob Clark Henneberger, co-founder of Weird Tales, were fourth cousins, once removed.
(2) That lifting and rising comes at the beginning of the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a movie that ends in a different kind of defeat.
(3) For more on spirals, see my posting from the other day, "Circles and Spirals on the Cover of Weird Tales."
(4) The time dilation effect in Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet seems to be attributed more to travel at the speed of light and to interdimensional travel than to gravitation. However, Eleanor Cameron seems to have had an intuitive grasp of relativity and its relationships among time, gravity, and the speed of light. I am not the first to recognize the "hole in space" in Stowaway as a black hole. An anonymous contributor to Wikipedia got there before me. You can read a little about Eleanor Cameron and her book on that website in what you might call the "Black Hole Fiction Database" by clicking here
Incidentally, I thought as I was reading her two books that Eleanor Cameron (1912-1996) was British. As it turns out, she was Canadian. Close enough. There is a vague Britishness about her writing. She even has one of the boys exclaim "Crikey!" No American boy has ever said "Crikey!" That Britishness--and a faint too-wholesomeness and sentimentality--only very slightly mars an otherwise fine series.

Text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Fantastic piece! Like you, I read Wonderful Flight as a kid and spent many years trying to find it again. Then in 2013 I decided I wanted to know more about the life and career Eleanor Cameron. One thing led to another and I ended up writing a biography of her. It's due to be published by the University Press of Mississippi this fall.

    I've also been running a website for the last couple of years (

    I came across this site because I was looking for biographical info on Robert Henneberger to contact his family to get permission to print one of his illustrations. You have the most information about him anywhere on the Internet...thanks for your research!

  2. Forgot to add: Cameron wasn't British, but both of her parents were! They both grew up in London and immigrated to Canada as young adults.

    1. Dear Paul,

      Congratulations on the publication of your book. I'm always glad when simple curiosity turns into something bigger through research and publication. And what a great development that her papers were on deposit only a couple of miles from your house.

      I have read your website. I think you can be proud of it and what you have accomplished. I have created a link on my Links page. (See the menu item on the right.)

      I hope your book has plenty of pictures. Thanks for writing.