One-hundred and fifty years ago some French guy named Jules published a book. The book was filled with human hubris and pride all surrounding the idea of somehow reaching the moon. The setting that this French guy choose for this fantastical feat of human engineering, imagination, and courage was none other than the United States of America. This book, as I am sure you all know (if the last post wasn’t a big enough hint) is “From the Earth to the Moon,” and our friend Jules had the full name of Jules Verne.
It is a common idea that people often use fiction, use lies, to tell greater truths. The same goes for science fiction. Quite often our science fiction tackles huge issues, issues that mankind may not have even run into yet, but are certainly on the horizon. Issues like artificial intelligence, interaction scenarios between humans and life-forms yet to be met, the limits of human law and privacy, and a edgeless sea of other possibilities all find their places in the pages of science fiction. Jules Verne chose to tackle something much closer and much more, dare I say, prophetic.
I do not want to turn this in to a puff piece on American patriotism, but I do find it interesting that this French author chose to set his novel in Baltimore and Florida as opposed to France. One could immediately mistake this choice as one of necessity, and though I agree that the feat would have been more difficult for the French Empire of the time, it certainly wouldn’t have been impossible (assuming that the task, as Verne put forth, was possible to begin with). They had land near the equator in Africa, they certainly had the resources, but instead Verne decided to put the weight of this massive task in the hands of the Americans because the task “to any other country would appear wholly impracticable.” The Americans were allies of the French and, from a political standpoint, putting more wind in American sails was putting more wind in the sails of the French way of life. “This fact need surprise no one. The Yankees, the first mechanicians in the world, are engineers- just as the Italians are musicians and the Germans metaphysicians- by right of birth.” He simplifies the issue by way of stereotypes, but as someone born over one-hundred years after the publication of this work I cannot help but find the observation interesting.
What did Verne write exactly? Well, his novel details the sending of a projectile to the moon. At first the prospect itself has little merit. It is a thing to be accomplished, a milestone, something that we only learn from by doing and not by accomplishing. Then the idea of sending actual people to the moon comes into the story. In this way the people that are sent stand to learn a lot, but they have no way back. They will be stranded, a mission that will only result in their death, and they know that going in. It is a testament to human courage. A voyage that shares very few parallels with actual human voyages. The Earth by its very nature cannot provide such journeys. Any place you can go on the Earth’s surface you can usually get back from by traveling in the direction from which you came, but Verne knows this is not the same for a voyage to the moon. To get there one has to travel at immense speeds by utilizing vast amounts of focused energy, a not insignificant amount of this energy must be counteracted in order to return to the Earth. Rockets weren’t what they are now. Gunnery was the only logical way to shoot something that far and that fast. Short of building a similar, albeit far smaller gun on the moon, Verne could not imagine a way to get home, at least not with the technology that was at the human race’s disposal one-hundred and fifty years ago.
This novel is less of a novel and more of a brilliant thought experiment. We still do similar things today. It would be a monumental task to try to send people to another star system with our current technology, but it is certainly possible. It would take time, well designed systems, an on-board population capable of reproduction, luck, and a great deal of imagination, but it could certainly be done. It may not be worth while (mostly because a ship we could send in this decade could be passed by a ship sent in the next decade), but it is still a worthy thought experiment. A thought experiment that shares a great deal in common with Verne’s moon fancy.
What Verne really wrote here is an educational book written as a thought experiment and disguised as a novel. The characters are certainly not that important or interesting for that matter, but they do not have to be. Instead he writes page after page of numbers, facts, theories, designs, and observations. It has two things working against it for the modern English speaking mind. Firstly, it is a translation, and though French usually translates well, some of the nuance and style is bound to be lost during the transference. Secondly, as I have repeated numerous times, the novel is one-hundred and fifty years old, as such a portion of its science is simply outdated. Even with all of that working against it the facts still manage to be interesting and engaging, and the thoughts and designs beautiful in their own right. It takes on a different interest, if the men and women in the year 1865 attempted to go to the moon, they really couldn’t come up with a much better plan. Even so, I wish I could have been there then, reading this book for the first time, drinking in the moon with all of its untold wonders.
Next up I will aim my sights at something a little newer, but still with a few decades under its belt. I will be reading “Children of Men” by P.D. James, a science fiction novel written by an author who does not typically write science fiction. Here the science fiction becomes the back drop. It’s time for a heavy handed dystopia in these reviews, and I think I have found the perfect candidate.