Into Plutonian Depths by Stanton A. Coblentz
Starting in 1906, scientists began searching for definitive proof of a theorized ninth planet; a heavenly body that would go far in explaining Uranus’ perturbations of movement that could not be wholly ascribed to the presence of Neptune alone. And it was 23-year-old astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh who, in the winter of 1930, ultimately made that discovery, while employed at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ. The new planet would be dubbed Pluto on May 1st of that year, and was, naturally enough, a major news story at the time. Thus, it was this landmark discovery that led San Francisco-born author and poet Stanton A. Coblentz to pen his 5th novel (out of an eventual 23), Into Plutonian Depths, shortly thereafter. The book holds the distinction of being the first fictional work to be set on Earth’s most distant neighbor in the solar system, although it is little discussed and indeed well-nigh forgotten today. And that strikes this reader as something of a shame, as a recent perusal has revealed the book to be a heap of lighthearted, borderline comedic fun, even if it is fairly valueless as a lesson in astronomical science.
Into Plutonian Depths was initially released in the Spring 1931 issue of Hugo Gernsback’s Wonder Stories Quarterly, featuring beautiful if cartoonish illustrations by one Frank R. Paul. In 1950, it appeared again as a 25-cent Avon paperback. Thirty years later, in 1980, the Italian publisher Libra Editrice came out with a version of the novel sporting the title Negli Abissi di Plutone, and then, 31 years after that, in 2011, the fine folks at Armchair Fiction resurrected the novel once again. And it was the Armchair edition, naturally, that this reader recently and easily acquired; an edition that happily contains the selfsame Paul illustrations that had graced the novel 80 years before. I have already written here of another Coblentz title in the Armchair catalog, 1928’s The Sunken World, as well as the author’s 1945 fantasy masterpiece When the Birds Fly South, having loved both of those books, and had a feeling that Into Plutonian Depths would also be a fun ride. And boy oh boy, was it ever, although the book fails to rise to the heights of those other two works.
Coblentz’s 5th novel introduces us to two scientists — our narrator, an astronomer named Dan, and his old chum, physicist Andrew Lyman Stark — who were determined to build their own spaceship and do a little exploring of the solar system. And once Stark developed a substance that acted as a “gravity insulator,” their task was hugely simplified. A little over a year later, their ship, The Wanderer of the Skies, a spherical “car” some 70 feet in diameter, had been constructed, and was completely covered with movable plates of the gravity insulator. By manipulating some of these segments, the gravity of our Earth could be neutralized, while the gravitational pull of the other worlds could be utilized as a motive power. (More than anything, the ship is reminiscent of the one to be found in H. G. Wells’ 1900 classic The First Men in the Moon, with its covering of antigravitic Cavorite, and indeed, Dan at one point does mention that he and his partner had been influenced “by the tales of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and other romancers…”) And so, on the 1st of May (one year after Pluto’s christening, you’ll notice), our brave heroes had taken off, and, traveling at a speed of 300 miles a second, embarked on their seven-month journey. Despite a near-disastrous run-in with a meteor, the two, remarkably enough, did indeed make it to Pluto, and began to explore the planet on foot almost immediately. A sudden storm caused our heroes to seek shelter in a kind of crevasse, where they discovered the entrance to what appeared to be a steeply descending tunnel. Retreating from the maelstrom outside, Dan and Stark began to make their way down, and, long story short, were soon captured by the native Plutonians who lived 50 miles beneath the planet’s surface. These Plutonians stood 7’ in height and sported legs and arms as slender as sticks. But their most salient feature, it seems, were the lightbulbs that grew out of their skulls; bulbs of flesh that changed color in conformity with their owner’s passion at any given moment (yellow for fear, red for anger, etc.), like living mood rings! Almost inevitably, our heroes dubbed their captors the Lamp-Heads.
As had the protagonists in the Atlantis of The Sunken World, Dan and Stark were soon taught the language of their captors and spent many months with them. The two even found themselves attracted to one of the Plutonian females, their tutor Zandaye Zandippar, who was a shade more human in appearance than her fellows, and learned that the highest goal attainable on Pluto is to become a sexless Neuter via a chemical operation; an honor only conferred upon the most intellectually worthy of candidates. All seemed to be going well, despite the pair’s being trapped underground and far away from their ship, when the two made the huge mistake of killing an eight-legged, rabbitlike creature to grill and eat, as a respite from the synthetic mush that was their daily fare. The Plutonians had been appalled at this savage act, and had determined that the only thing to do was to perform an operation on our heroes’ brains, and install a fleshy light for their own. Fearing for their lives, Dan and Stark had fled for the surface, with Zandaye as their guide. But that was just the beginning of the pair’s adventures beneath the surface of the frozen world…
Now, lest you be wondering just how far off Coblentz was in depicting the environment on the surface of Pluto, let me just point out that today it is well known that the planet’s average temperature ranges from a low of -380 degrees F. to a balmy high of -360 degrees F. And yet, when Dan and Stark first emerge from their ship, they encounter a climate of a mere -21 degrees F! “Why, that would be called mild and pleasant in the Antarctic,” Stark rightfully opines. Too, while modern-day scientists have confirmed that the Plutonian atmosphere is a toxic mélange of nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide, our heroes are able to breathe the stuff quite easily, with Dan even declaring it “the most delicious, live-giving breath I ever drew”; an “inexpressibly sweet breath of air”! As I said, don’t go looking for astronomical accuracy here! And another thing: If our spacefarers really were traveling at 300 miles/second for seven months, wouldn’t they have gone some 5.4 billion miles at the end of that period, and not the requisite 2 billion that Dan mentioned was necessary to arrive at their Plutonian destination? Hey, my calculator doesn’t lie! (To be fair, though, the distance from Earth to Pluto varies from 2. 6 to 4.6 billion miles.)
But if Coblentz’s novel is fairly useless as a science primer, it must be deemed a striking success as a fast-moving and fun exercise in Radium Age sci-fi. The book is written in a manner that comes off almost like a YA book, with fewer instances of the beautiful language that had graced the 1945 novel, while yet retaining its author’s remarkably readable style. The book is often quite funny, with those know-it-all Lamp-Heads — who refuse to believe in the existence of any other world besides their own, maintaining that Dan and Stark must have originated from farther beneath their planet’s surface — often coming off as simpletons and buffoons. And the comedy really comes to a head rather late in the story, when the entire Plutonian populace comes down with a nasty case of the mumps, of all things! Paul’s illustrations only accentuate the comedic elements by making the Plutonians appear like enormous-headed stick figures, those bulbs on their noggins serving as the crowning touch. So yes, the novel is both fun and funny, with a touch of rather charming naivete and innocence thrown in. I mean, what other word besides “innocent” can one use to describe two Earthmen who bring along oxygen canisters on their journey “lest, on reaching Pluto, we should find the atmosphere unfit to breathe” (!), and who, upon touchdown, are surprised to find “no evidence of city or forest, river or sea…”
As in The Sunken World, Coblentz uses his lost civilization, its mores and customs, to make trenchant commentary on our own society. During one extended segment, Dan and Zandaye make their way through a slum district … that is comprised of golden architecture and encrusted with precious gems. As Zandaye explains to the goggle-eyed Earthman, “…the accumulation of gold or silver … was regarded by most … as a sign of poverty; for a person could at best possess only a certain amount, and if his hoardings were of a material nature, then they excluded those mental and spiritual acquisitions that constituted the true wealth…” (Hmm, perhaps those Plutonians aren’t so stupid after all!) And when Zandaye later points out some splendidly attired personages who she refers to as “menials” and “drudges” and “slaves,” we soon learn that these Plutonians are, in actuality, bankers, lenders, lawyers and stockbrokers! “Pity them — the poor slaves,” Zandaye exclaims. “…Isn’t it unfortunate that such beings exist?” Anyway, for me, any book that features lighthearted, fast-moving fun, a goodly dose of comedy, and some social commentary cannot be all bad, despite the inaccuracy of its scientific predictions. And thus, a wholehearted recommendation from me for this 5th novel by Stanton A. Coblentz; an author who is currently a very solid 3 for 3 with this reader.
And up next for me, I have a feeling, will be still another book by the same author; his 8th novel, 1933’s The Man From Tomorrow. Will Coblentz soon be 4 for 4 with this reader? Stay tuned…
Wow, Sandy, that cover.
Originally on the 1950 paperback, I believe, and not at all faithful to the book itself….