The 19th Century Space Race
From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne (1865, 213pp, £3.63)
Here is an unlikely marriage between speculative, almost eerily prophetic fiction and dark, absurdist humour. The science is explained in painstakingly detailed language; by characters who really shouldn’t exist alongside such Victorian earnestness.
The starting-pistol of From the Earth to the Moon is that of the effort and triumphalism of exploration due to the boredom at the lack of death and destruction, rather than the rather more prosaic notions as set out by President Kennedy in 1962 at Rice University: “the Moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.” Verne gives the conquering of space to the Baltimore Gun Club, veterans of the American Civil War, sat around with no fighting and an itchy desire to blow stuff up with amazingly heavy artillery. The club’s President, Impey Barbicane, concocts the idea of firing a shell to the moon as a way of filling in the time, a retirement project, since there’s no murdering left to be done. The Gun Club puts the plan into action, explaining their every decision as they do, meaning much of the book is an extended physics lesson in ballistics and basic calculus. There is a brief side plot involving the obligatory plucky Frenchman -which Verne included in all his novels. Then the firing happens, the shell disappears into orbit towards the moon, setting up the scenario for the sequel Around the Moon published 5 years later.
There is a curious, and not unwelcome, marriage of complex science and humour in Verne’s work, possibly more successfully here than in many other of his works. The characters in the Baltimore Gun Club are so fantastically drawn, such grotesque parodies that their eccentricities become a glowing baroque fresco of silliness and gunpowder. Every member is described as disfigured in some way by their experiments with explosives:
[A]nd of those who came back the greater part bore marks of their indisputable valour. Crutches, wooden legs, articulated arms, hands with hooks, gutta-percha jaws, silver craniums, platinum noses, nothing was wanting to the collection; and the above-mentioned Pitcairn calculated that in the Gun Club there was not quite one arm for every four men, and only one leg among three. (p.4)
Here is the description of the Club’s interior decoration at the time of the announcement of the plan:
Lofty pillars formed of cannon, superposed upon huge mortars as a base, supported the fine ironwork of the arches—real cast-iron lacework.
Trophies of blunderbusses, matchlocks, arquebuses, carbines, all sorts of ancient or modern firearms, were picturesquely enlaced against the walls. The gas, in full flame, came out of a thousand revolvers grouped in the form of lustres, whilst candlesticks of pistols, and candelabra made of guns done up in sheaves, completed this display of light. Models of cannons, specimens of bronze, targets spotted with shot-marks, plaques broken by the shock of the Gun Club, balls, assortments of rammers and sponges, chaplets of shells, necklaces of projectiles, garlands of howitzers—in a word, all the tools of the artilleryman surprised the eyes by their wonderful arrangement, and induced a belief that their real purpose was more ornamental than deadly. (p.12)
The characters, such as J. T. Maston, for instance, become such delicious absurdist, fanatical personalities that they only exist in a realistic universe by the most tenuous of threads. And yet exist they do. Their raison d’être is the mass murder of people: each gun is only considered in terms of its deadly effectiveness, their worth determined by the number of lives it takes, hence these two exchanges:
In the ” good old days,” a 36-pound cannon ball would go through 36 horses and 68 men at a distance of 100 yards. The art was still in its infancy. It has come a long way since then. The Rodman cannon, which shot a projectile weighing half a ton a distance of seven miles could easily have flattened 150 horses and 300 men. The Gun Club considered testing this, but while the horses raised no objections, it was unfortunately impossible to find men willing to take part. (p.3)
And shortly after:
At the battle of Gettysburg, a conical projectile thrown by a rifled-cannon struck down 173 Confederates, and at the crossing of the Potomac a Rodman ball sent 215 Southerners into an evidently better world. We must also mention the formidable mortar invented by J.T. Maston, a distinguished member and permanent secretary of the Gun Club. It was more lethal than any of the others, for it killed 337 people the first time it was fired, though it is true it did so by bursting. (p.3-4)
There is a silly, sick humour, reminiscent of Tom Sharpe, Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, in which the absurd takes place alongside the real, life becomes a comic strip in which side characters are too easily blown away like a looney tunes cartoon.
What is scary is the amount of sheer, prophetic accuracy there is in here. Although the science Verne employs to get a vehicle to the moon is wrong, it is accurate based on the contemporary thinking, even if it would have resulted in the astronauts becoming a fine red paste on the interior. What Verne correctly prophesised was: the use of the zenith in the equatorial circumference to get closer to the moon; in doing so he places the cannon on exactly the same latitude as Cape Kennedy, the launch site of the Apollo mission; the dimensions and use of aluminium for the capsule; and the number of men launched within it. The similarities were remarked upon in 1969 when Neil Armstrong said, in a TV broadcast: “A hundred years ago, Jules Verne wrote a book about a voyage to the Moon. His spaceship, Columbia [sic], took off from Florida and landed in the Pacific Ocean after completing a trip to the Moon. It seems appropriate to us to share with you some of the reflections of the crew as the modern-day Columbia completes its rendezvous with the planet Earth and the same Pacific Ocean tomorrow.”
The accuracy evident within his novel, the extensive exposition to inform the reader of the maths and science involved lead to a verisimilitude born of a patent desire to really suggest that anything was possible. Verne’s burning passion for exploration, both in terms of geographical and scientific, is brightly lit in From the Earth to the Moon. His approach to story-telling is maybe an acquired taste however. This novel only succeeds due to the humour: if it weren’t for that it would be a dry lesson in mathematics and speculative physical science. Many of his other books are really no more than guide books, scientific explorations with very little in the way of plot to trouble the zealous education he performs. In opposition to Verne’s approach is that of H. G. Wells, the other grandfather of science-fiction. Wells’s background thinking is more towards politics and philosophy than the science and engineering of Verne. Hence in Wells’s The First Men in the Moon, the method of reaching the moon was in a fantastical chemical which apparently blocked the effects of gravity. Verne was scathing of such an unscientifically sound work, possibly because Wells had written a more exciting story though.