Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Shooting Star - The Adventures of Tintin 10 by Hergé

The Shooting Star shows a decisive change of approach from previous Adventures. There's no great exploration of a country and no grand crime to investigate. Instead this is a story made up of incidents and action. As a result, the plot is somewhat slight. It's also the first tale to really venture into the realm of science fiction, though that's a genre that can often be misunderstood.

Science fiction has become so heavily associated with futuristic technology and/or aliens, with many examples not even attempting to link their concepts to modern scientific understanding, that it's easy to forget how much of it originated as speculative fiction about the discoveries of scientists. But over time much of that rooting fell away to the point that a lot of science fiction is really just adventure stories using a fantastic universe as a setting. Here we a story based around a giant meteorite approaching the Earth, with a brief look at how a city reacts to the resulting heatwave, followed by an expedition to reach the part of the meteorite that crashes to the ground, complete with some accelerated growth. I have no idea about what was the state of understanding about meteorites back in the early 1940s, but I somehow doubt scientists expected one to be composed of a substance that could deliver fast growth. Would they have expected a chunk to have floated in an ocean without causing a tsunami? Was the heatwave a prediction of the time that has fallen away? I don't know but a lot of this story seems to have set aside rigorous scientific understanding in favour of creating strange environments where things can happen at a moment's notice.

But then the Adventures are aiming to tell stories rather than be dry educational affairs and a realistic portrayal might have been an incredibly tedious piece. Instead there's an unusual pace that sees the early part of the story depicting a city facing imminent disaster, with both scientific and religious reactions. At one stage it seems as though the world is going to end, according to scientists' calculations. There's then a surreal night-time sequence as the city gets so hot that tarmac starts melting and rats flee the sewers whilst a man declares himself to be "Philippulus the prophet" and dresses in sheets as he goes around pronouncing the situation to be a great judgement. In fact, the calculations are slightly wrong with the result that world in fact survives, which brings to mind that even experts can make predictions that turn out to be spectacularly wrong. And this is not the only part of the story that will feel familiar in light on the debate on European integration.

A piece of the meteorite crashes into the Arctic Ocean, causing two rival expeditions to set out to reach it, but with very different aims and compositions. Tintin is about the Aurora with a scientific team made up of people from Belgium, Sweden, Spain, Germany, France and Portugal, with a captain whose name implies he is British. (Captain Haddock's nationality hasn't been made explicit, but given his name, portrayal and the rest of the crew it seems to be what Hergé was pushing for.) The purpose of the expedition is discovery on behalf of the European Foundation for Scientific Research. The background behind the rival ship Peary has been subject to changes in successive publications. Currently it comes from the fictional Latin American country of São Rico, financed by the Bohlwinkel Bank who have spotted the economic potential of the metal in the meteorite. Bohlwinkel resorts to a number of devious actions in order to win the race, including trying to blow up the Aurora in the harbour, sending another ship to ram it, trying to prevent the Aurora from refuelling in Iceland by pretending there is no oil available and then later sending a false distress signal to lure it off course. But what is worrying is that originally Mr Bohlwinkel was explicitly an American Jew by the name of "Blumenstein" and the Peary was very clearly a United States ship.

The comparison between virtuous European enquiry and ruthless (some sort of) American capitalism couldn't be clearer. Equally stark is the support for European co-operation and institutions, coming some years before the first steps towards European integration. But although the Aurora's expedition itself is presented in a positive manner, there's something rather disturbing about how it's presented as an alternative to a conspiracy by Jewish bankers - the name change has not been sufficient as the depiction and the new name are still pointing that way. (Another change, made between the original serialisation and the collected edition, removed a scene where two Jewish men discuss the impending end of the world with glee that they will not have to pay their creditors.) Changing the country to a fictional one does at least cover up the anti-Americanism, but overall this doesn't detract from the way much Europeanism is not so much genuine internationalism but rather (little) continentalism. The result is most unsatisfactory.

The actual story does contain some good comedy, ranging from Snowy's repeated raids on the ship's galley or Captain Haddock's continued enjoyment of whisky and encounter with an old sailor friend in Iceland. The Thom(p)sons are confined to a single panel cameo as part of a crowd coming to see the vessel off (also present are Quick and Flupke from Hergé's other work) and even Haddock is confined to the ship at the story's climax, leaving Tintin to explore the small island of the meteorite above water. The accelerated growth on the island makes for some shocking moments, though it's not clear why the spider and maggot suddenly grow so quickly yet Tintin and Snowy are unaffected. However, it's also unclear whether the earthquake which ultimately sinks the island is a natural phenomenon or the result of the rapid growth of apple trees from a core discarded by Tintin. The end of the story also sees the competition from the Peary simply drop out of view once Tintin has reached the island and planted the ESRF flag, with only a brief epilogue showing Bohlwinkel learning of the bad news and his impending arrest for masterminding the sabotage.

This is a highly experimental tale that focuses far more on exploration than before, but ultimately it feels rather inconsequential as the Aurora heads for home with just a small lump of "phostlite" metal recovered from the meteorite. There's no great showdown with the Peary or any sign of how Bohlwinkel's role was discovered. Overall this is a somewhat slight adventure with some rather disturbing elements to it, not all of which have been successfully filtered out for later publications.

No comments:

Post a Comment