Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review - The Shooting Star by Hergé

Short review: Its a race between a European crew accompanied by Tintin and an American crew financed by unscrupulous villains with a mysterious meteorite as the prize. Tintin does no reporting.

Fiery falling star
Is it the end of the world?
No, just huge spiders

Full review: The Shooting Star is the second of the Tintin books written during World War II, and one of the oddest books in the entire series. It is also one of the most disappointing. Although some minor fantastical elements have cropped up in previous books such as Cigars of the Pharaoh (read review), this is the first book in the series that could credibly be classified as science fiction. Despite his apparent attempts to avoid controversy by making his tale as fantastical as possible, some elements of Hergé's book were seen as appeasement of the occupying forces, helping to place a post-War cloud of suspicion over the artist.

The story of The Shooting Star is unusual for the Tintin series in that it is the first in the series that is not primarily focused on foiling criminal activity, and is instead focused on a mysterious shooting star that appears in the night sky. It is also the first (and one of the few) stories in the series in which Tintin is not knocked out with a blow to the head, chloroformed into unconsciousness, or shot. (Seriously, one has to wonder how Tintin has any skull bone left after the number of knocks he takes to the noggin, and if women think scars are sexy, then he must be a lady-magnet with all the bullet holes in his body). When the night becomes unseasonably warm, Tintin sneaks into the local observatory and finds out that it is a huge fireball headed in a collision course with the Earth. This sequence gives a little foreshadowing as a spider walks across the lens of the telescope Tintin observes the object with, making it appear that the fireball is bearing a huge spider. Tintin is informed by the director of the observatory that the fireball will strike the Earth and destroy the world, sending Tintin home to wait out the remaining hours. The following sequence also reinforces Tintin's apparent resistance to heat, as he is able to walk about outside when the air temperature is high enough to cause car tires to burst, the tar in street pavement to melt, heat the metal of a window frame so much that burns when touched. Tintin's resistance doesn't appear to be all that exceptional though, as everyone else in the world is apparently only slightly inconvenienced by the presumably oven level temperatures.

In a twist that should surprise no one reading the book, the world does not end, and the flaming threat passes by the Earth without striking it, merely causing an earthquake. Rushing through the aftermath the the observatory, Tintin stumbles in just in time for the observatory's director Decimus Phostle to discover, via the use of a spectroscope, a heretofore unknown metal on the passing meteor and name it phostlite. Their elation is short-lived when they learn that the chunk of meteorite that crashed into the Earth (and caused the earthquake) fell into the Arctic Ocean, a fact that causes Phostle to assume that his discovery of phostlite has been swallowed by the sea. Leaving aside the fact that he already has spectroscopic proof of the new metal, it seems odd that it takes Tintin slipping on some bricks that had fallen into the water to figure out that the meteorite fragment might still be sticking up through the water's surface.

Before too long the characters are heading off to find the semi-submerged meteorite and claim the discovery of phostlite for the European Foundation for Scientific Research, racing against a rival commercially funded expedition. And it is at this point in the story that Hergé drew criticism. The expedition Tintin accompanies is organized by and comprised of Europeans, mostly from Axis or Axis-friendly countries, nobly setting out to advance science in the research vessel "Aurora". The rival expedition, organized in pursuit of pure profit and engaged in numerous attempts to sabotage Tintin's compatriots, is based in the Americas (originally the United States), and funded by bankers who, in the original version, had very stereotypical Jewish names. These elements were somewhat toned down in later editions of the book, but enough remains that an astute reader will be able to see what the controversy was about.

With Captain Haddock along to run the ship (and acting as the newly elected president of the Sober Sailor's Society), Tintin, Phostle, and the collection of mostly interchangeable scientists who fill out the expedition's roster head into Arctic waters. After extensive adventures involving overcoming a crazed stowaway, storms, ice, a mysterious fuel shortage in Iceland (a problem solved when Captain Haddock runs across an old friend), and a false distress signal, the Aurora launches its seaplane and Tintin finally parachutes onto the meteorite and plants the E.F.S.R. flag to claim the prize. One thing that seems odd about this race is that it seems to suggest that scientific discoveries are kept from others, and whoever gets to the meteorite first will be able to keep the phostlite for themselves. I suppose in a wartime atmosphere this would be more or less true, but there isn't an indication that there is a war going on in Tintin's fictional reality, making the race for the prize seem more or less pointless.

But it is only when Tintin reaches the meteorite and sets his mind on camping out on it overnight accompanied only by Snowy (to prevent the Americans from claiming it in his absence) that the story gets really weird. First, it seems that Tintin's amazing invulnerability to extreme heat doesn't apply to hot water, as he is scalded when jumping ankle-deep in the water to get his dog. The heat of the water is somewhat odd too, since it is supposed to be heated by the meteorite. But if the water is hot enough to burn Tintin when he steps into it, why is the meteorite itself cool enough to walk around, sit down, and lie down on? Quirky inconsistencies like this seem to me to be an indication that Hergé wasn't yet comfortable writing a story that didn't involve tracking down opium smugglers. While camping on the island, Tintin discovers that the substance it is made of has some truly odd properties - as evidenced by the gigantic mushroom pictured on the cover of the book. Once again, it seems odd that an unknown metal would have the effect of causing plants and insects to grow to enormous size, especially an unknown metal that would have to be on the extreme heavy end of the periodic table (and thus would be highly radioactive and probably deadly to anyone camping on a huge hunk of it). It is this final segment that draws The Shooting Star firmly into the science fiction genre, and almost pulls it all the way into fantasy. It stays just short of fantasy, although it is weird science fiction.

In the end, Tintin scores yet another victory against those who oppose him and once again does no reporting. As a result of Tintin's efforts the E.F.S.R. claims a piece of the mysterious metal, news agencies report their triumph, and it is never mentioned again in any of the Tintin stories. In fact, unlike many other books in the Adventures of Tintin series, no one other than Tintin, Haddock, and Snowy, and no plot elements specific to this book ever crop up again in later installments. This book produced no recurring characters, no recurring villains, no recurring plot devices, and had essentially no lasting impact at all on the series. The only thing that makes this book noteworthy in the series is the introduction of full-blown science fiction elements to the series. The book is even lacking in the full page and half page pieces of artwork that had begun to crop up in the handful of books that immediately preceded it. The Shooting Star is, quite simply, a disappointing book that represents a downturn for the series. That said, it is still Tintin, and still full of humor, intrigue, and adventure, and is, as a result, worth a read.

Previous book in the series: The Crab with the Golden Claws
Subsequent book in the series: The Secret of the Unicorn

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