Mini-Review: Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon

In 1865 at the end of the American Civil War, Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moonone of the earliest Sci Fi novels and an utter scream of a satire of Americans, all in one book. He imagines a Baltimore Gun Club, with 30K+ members, who devote themselves to designing and perfecting big guns. I can imagine his French readers practically rolling on the floor at passages like:

It is but fair to add that these Yankees, brave as they have ever proved themselves to be, did not confine themselves to theories and formulae, but that they paid heavily, in propria persona, for their inventions. Among them were to be counted officers of all ranks, from lieutenants to generals; military men of every age, from those who were just making their debut in the profession of arms up to those who had grown old in the gun-carriage. Many had found their rest on the field of battle whose names figured in the “Book of Honor” of the Gun Club; and of those who made good their return the greater proportion bore the marks of their indisputable valor. Crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc jaws, silver craniums, platinum noses, were all to be found in the collection; and it was calculated by the great statistician Pitcairn that throughout the Gun Club there was not quite one arm between four persons and two legs between six.

Nevertheless, these valiant artillerists took no particular account of these little facts, and felt justly proud when the despatches of a battle returned the number of victims at ten-fold the quantity of projectiles expended.

And then peace breaks out all over:

“This is horrible!” said Tom Hunter one evening, while rapidly carbonizing his wooden legs in the fireplace of the smoking-room; “nothing to do! nothing to look forward to! what a loathsome existence! When again shall the guns arouse us in the morning with their delightful reports?”

“Those days are gone by,” said jolly Bilsby, trying to extend his missing arms. “It was delightful once upon a time! One invented a gun, and hardly was it cast, when one hastened to try it in the face of the enemy! Then one returned to camp with a word of encouragement from Sherman or a friendly shake of the hand from McClellan. But now the generals are gone back to their counters; and in place of projectiles, they despatch bales of cotton. By Jove, the future of gunnery in America is lost!”

“Ay! and no war in prospect!” continued the famous James T. Maston, scratching with his steel hook his gutta-percha cranium…

It is casually proposed that the Gun Club could stir up some war or other rather than let artillery science languish in peace, a prospect that has all the cripples in the club yearning for death. Various  scenarios are examined and rejected for one reason or another. Finally, Impey Barbicane, the President of the Gun Club, proposes, to wild cheers, that they build a cannon to shoot a projectile to the moon!

From then on, the story alternates biting and humorous portrayals of Americans with some pretty darn good science. The Gun Club announces its intentions, collects money from around the world, settles on a design (200,000 lbs of gun cotton packed into a 900′ barrel with a 9′ bore to propel a hollow aluminium sphere at an initial velocity of 12,000 yards/sec) and location (Florida, on the other side of the peninsula from Cape Canaveral) and start building. I read that Verne had underestimated the necessary initial velocity to reach the moon, but other than that, the only mistake I, the non-scientist, caught was that he assumed you could find high ground – he says 1,500′ – in Florida. There are hardly any spots more than 300′ above sea level in that state except near the Georgia border – and they’re hardly any higher.

As the gun nears completion, Michel Ardan, a wild Frenchman, shows up, to add plot complications and a European foil, and proposes to ride *in* the projectile. It is finally determined, after the plot complications, that Ardan will ride in the shell, along with Barbicane and his arch rival Nicholl . (One other science issue – pretty sure the acceleration would kill them, regardless of the elaborate efforts to defeat it. But hey, what did they know when a train was the fastest thing they’d ever ridden in?)

Fun book. It ends shortly after the successful launch. There’s a sequel I have not read yet, that treats of their adventures on the moon.

An aside: in this story, prominent Gun Club member James T. Maston is refused passage on the trip because of his missing hand and damaged skull. President Barbicane is afraid that, if there are men in the moon, they would need to explain to them how it was that Matson was so mangled, and it might set the relationship on a poor footing if earthlings had to own up to spending much of their time and wealth killing each other. Then, when Wells writes First Men in the Moon, he has Cavour explain exactly that to the Great Lunar – and that ends the communications to Earth. Finally, C.S. Lewis has Weston try to explain to the Oyarsa of Mars that it is somehow Man’s destiny to invade, subdue and colonize Mars – and gets himself and the others banished. We know Lewis was inspired by Wells, and it seems impossible now to imagine Wells was not inspired by Verne.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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