Reviews of From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and related work

From the Earth to the Moon (1865Text)

Jules Verne (writer).

Read in 2019.

Having survived the US Civil War, engineers of the Baltimore Gun Club decide to fire a cannon at the Moon.

Iconic near-future hard science fiction. It’s a ridiculous adventure, written with tongue in cheek. Its feats of wishful thinking and pathetic attempts to omit the precise year are punctuated by sober calculations. Women exist but are not characters; a slight deterioration from Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864). Despite slavery being the main reason for the civil war, and Florida lying deep in the Confederate South, the only people of colour are the Seminoles. They’re savages, not “Americans”. There is no sense of conscience or critical thinking in this narrative: It is pure in its childish, self-serving naïvité. At the same time and unlike Journey to the Center, it is remarkably prescient, in a few of its predictions, for what would happen 104 years later. NASA applied a similar boyish optimism when it pulled off the Apollo program, which we still call the “moon shot”.

References here: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).

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Round the Moon (1870Text)

Jules Verne (writer).

Read in 2019.

Verne deftly transitions from a nebulous near future to the near alternative past by specifying that the trip took place in the eighteen sixties. He adds rockets, of the most primitive type, as the barest concession to realism. The extreme nerdiness of the material is aptly illustrated by the title of chapter 12: “Détails orographiques”, on fictional details of lunar mountains, with little resemblance to reality. Alas, the humour of the first book is almost gone: It is comically stupid for the travellers to bring a chicken coop, two dogs etc. on their journey, and they speak about their imagined conquest in symptomatic terms of displacing any natives they find and adapting the entire moon to active human use. Given that Verne wisely eschewed extraterrestrials and does not show the moon as habitable, this reads like Voltaire-style satire, but the extent of his critical thinking is hard to tell at a 150-year remove. He certainly didn’t understand Newton’s laws, despite being able to recite them: The travellers are only weightless at the moment of transition from the Earth’s gravity well to the Moon’s, which is not how free falls works.

References here: First Men in the Moon (1964).

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“A Trip to the Moon” (1902Moving picture, 13 minutes)

An ominous “first science fiction film”, dumbing down its already spectacular literary foundations in favour of nonsensical visual spectacle. A pendulum clock on a space ship, indeed.

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