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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 12: Around the time "The Martian Army" arrived

    Juza Unno's "The Martian Army" was published as a serial of 460 episodes in "Sho-Kokumin Newspaper (The Young Citizens Newspaper) from September 24, 1939 to December 31, 1940, the following year. Unno specialized in science fiction for children and published many stories. I have no doubt that, of all his works, none other than "The Martian Army" excited the young Japanese of his time so much and stirred their fascination about space. In those days we were living in unusual circumstances of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and understandably many novels were written intending to whip up war sentiment. However, I don't think people were desperate enough to be wrapped up in militarism in every aspect of their lives.

    Around the same time an adventure story of extraordinary scale was serialized in the Sho-Kokumin Newspaper and fascinated so many young readers. The plot eventually leads to the discovery of a subterranean kingdom, but right before the climax of the story the serial was unexpectedly cancelled. The author of this story, a young SF writer, was called up for conscription. Readers were terribly disappointed as the serial was interrupted with so many mysteries unsolved. The editor promised that the serial would be resumed when the writer returned safely, but this young writer did not come back from war shattering the editor's wish. I believe it was about the same time that the famous novel "Robo-no-ishi" (A Wayside Stone) by Yuzo Yamamoto was suspended by the pressure from the military, which had been serialized in a women's magazine. In the midst of this uneasy wartime atmosphere "The Martian Army" emerged. In those days the hypothetical enemies of Japan should naturally be the U.S. and U.K., but Unno had the people's eyes to Mars instead.

    The plot develops this way: Late at night in a certain year of the Showa period (1926-1989), a number of rockets landed somewhere deep in the mountains of Gunma prefecture. A few days later, creatures resembling octopuses emerged in the city of Tokyo. Wearing dark cloaks and dark hats, these creatures guarded with iron pipes went on a rampage at will throughout the city.

    It was during these times when the studies by Schiaparelli of Italy and Lowell of the U.S. claimed that advanced life might exist on Mars. Unno seems to have come up with an image of strange-looking Martians similar to that conceived by some scientists. It is an interesting idea by Unno that these creatures are not animals, but cruel emotionless plants . Inevitably, a furious fighting developed between scientists on the earth and the invading Martians. At that time, a strange thing was happening in space. It became clear that Comet Moro discovered by an observatory in the U.K. was approaching the earth minute by minute and eventually would collide with the earth. The fear of the colliding comet perhaps reflects his own experience of witnessing approaching Halley's Comet in 1910, when he was 13 years old.

    The Martians abandoned the idea of occupying the earth and left quickly to escape the collision. The earth-based scientists pursued the Martians into their world on a rocket which had been belatedly completed. I thought it was very intriguing and mysterious that the scientists had found empty cans on the supposedly still untouched moon's surface when they had landed there on their way to Mars. A huge comet, far bigger than Comet Hale-Bopp, threatened to hit the earth, the beautiful blue planet that had always been seen from the spaceship on their long (though very quick in the novel) journey to Mars. I heard that the author had received a flood of letters from enthusiastic readers across Japan begging to protect the earth or not to have the comet collide with this beautiful planet.

    As long as Comet Moro's orbit follows precisely the law of universal gravity, the collision with the earth will be inevitable. Scientists worked out the time of this gcollisional dramahdown to the minute of the day. If the world ends with the comet's collision with the earth, the novel would end right there too. To keep the story going Juza Unno had to prevent the collision by a scientifically-sound method. He, as a scientist, came up with an incredible idea that other SF writers would never imagine. Today we would make a human intervention to avoid collision by launching a rocket to blow up the comet or change its course before the collision with nuclear explosion. But in Unno's days such a method was apparently unimaginable.

    The time of collision on this fateful day passed, but the beautiful silvery crescent earth continued to shine filling the porthole of the spaceship.

    In the next episode I will tell you about Unno's amazing ideas to prevent the comet-earth collision.

    A little clicking sound brought me back to the reality. I was still in Juza Unno's study. A mouse might have made that noise in the ceiling. I realized that I had been completely lost in reminiscence about "The Martian Army" standing next to his ancient desk. The landscape painting on the surrounding old sliding doors covered with the Chinese-style paper looked like a desolate Martian world to me. Unno, the first person who traveled to Mars, though only in his SF novel, saw a bleak, desolate world and peculiar-looking Martians around the rocket. I heard the creaking sound of footsteps. When I opened the old sliding door, I had a tense moment imagining a Martian called "maruki" (or a log) created by Unno would be standing right in front of me.

    Unno's novel was full of thrills and suspense like this. Perhaps, the amazing creations seen in his "Martian Army" were born in this small tatami-mat room and succeeded in exciting young readers all over Japan. More than half a century later, one of his enthusiastic readers at that time is standing here. I thanked Mr. Unno putting my hands together in the already darkened room. In the sky above the town wrapped in the early spring evening twilight, I saw Jupiter just about to glow brighter. @

Copyright (C) 2018 Tsutomu Seki.