Jules Verne published From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, towards the end of the American Civil War. The novel had been written during the war. This is significant because it is the advances in ballistics achieved during the war that is the basis of Verne’s science in this novel. Verne preferred to base his stories of incredible journeys around real science, or what the science of his day might be capable of achieving; what was plausible. Added to this, Verne appears to have been something of an Americanophile, at least based upon his literary output, which often used America as a setting. And only that it would be an anachronism, one might even claim Verne to be an exponent of American Exceptionalism, based upon repeated statements in From the Earth to the Moon: “In America, everything is easy, everything is simple, and mechanical difficulties are dead before they are born”; “…no matter how great the difficulties, our industrial genius will easily overcome them”; “They’ll find a way, you’ll see!”
Nevertheless, the idea to go to the moon in this story begins as a result of boredom and a lack of purpose, as members of the Baltimore Gun Club find their hard-won ballistics skills have little use in post-war America. The opening chapters of this book are among the best, as Verne applies a satirical light to his subjects – from comments throughout the book he is clearly against war – that questions their ongoing commitment to weaponry, even if Verne is also quick to praise America as a leader in ballistics:
When it comes to grazing fire, plunging fire, direct fire, oblique fire, or raking fire, the English, French, and Prussians have nothing to learn, but their cannons, howitzers, and mortars are only pocket pistols compared to the awesome engines of American artillery. Members of the Gun Club seem unmindful of the high price they have paid for the war and their skills:
Crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms with iron hooks at the wrist, rubber jaws, silver skulls, platinum noses – nothing was lacking in the collection. The aforementioned Pitcairn calculated that in the Gun Club there was not quite one arm for every four men, and only one leg for every three.
When the club’s president, Impey Barbicane (who happens to still possess all his limbs) announces that the club will undertake to fire a projectile at the moon, the club is reinvigorated and the mission gains worldwide notoriety.
Much of the rest of the novel does not contain the satirical good humour of its opening chapters, suggesting to me that Verne was walking a line between advocating American technology as a viable means to achieve his moon mission, and gently rebuking the war that produced it. Verne is what some might call a ‘hard’ science fiction writer, by which I mean that he is interested in the minutiae of how the enterprise of firing a projectile at the moon would work. Everything from the making of the enormous cannon – the materials from which it will be made and its location – to discussions about what is known about the moon, how objects move through space, the effect of gravity as well as the heat generated on an object by the atmosphere on earth, to the combustion method to be used to ignite the projectile and even how the object will be tracked, are all a part of the story.
However, the book does not follow the same spirit of other books in Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires, devoted to incredible journeys. In fact, From the Earth to the Moon is something of a misnomer, since the three intrepid characters who eventually undertake to ride in a special projectile designed to carry humans, never make it to the moon, only achieving an orbit about the moon by the end of the novel. Verne wrote a sequel about five years later (Around the Moon or All Around the Moon depending on the translation from the French), but this first novel takes place entirely upon earth. Verne’s narrative sometimes suffers for the interest he has in the science of his characters’ enterprise, sometimes abandoning the pretence of a narrative almost entirely. In other scenes, Verne’s narrative becomes a little bizarre. Barbicane’s rival, Nicholl, insults Barbicane at a public gathering, and the story is almost knocked off course as the two men hunt each other in the woods as part of a Hunger Games-style duel, with a possibility of Elmer Fudd stalking ‘wabbits’ with his gun. None of the characters are complex. J.T.Maston transfers his jingoistic enthusiasm for war to an avid commitment to the moon mission (even to the point that he suggests declaring war on Mexico to get a more favourable launch site!), but there is little else to say about him. Michel Arden, the Frenchman Verne inserts into the narrative, is little more than a device for more exposition about the moon, as well as moving the project into a manned mission. Nicholl’s enmity for Barbicane feels like little more than a chance at exposition (apart from his satirical possibilities early in the book) and the resolution of hostilities between himself and Barbicane seem improbable and unconvincing.
Nevertheless, Verne did offer a glimpse at what might be possible to his contemporary readers, and I can imagine that I would have been enthralled with the future this novel anticipated had I read it in 1865, and most likely would have been very forgiving of some of its weaknesses. As modern readers, the book is something of a curiosity, I feel, rather than an entertainment. It’s interesting to see how ideas were formulating about the moon during this period, and it’s interesting to see how close Verne’s narrative comes to the actual Apollo missions. Of course, Verne’s idea of firing a projectile was wide of the mark, since the Americans used rocketry instead, which allowed for survivable forces upon take-off. Verne tries to address the problem of the enormous G-forces his method would have upon the body, but it’s evident that he was fudging it. Of course, the optimistic assessment of surviving upon the moon – there would be no return journey – is also wrong. But Verne predicted a few aspects. He understood that a launch would be best as close to the equator as possible. In his story this makes Florida and Texas the best candidates, since Barbicane wants the mission to remain on American soil. Eventually, a place called Stone Hill is chosen in Florida. The Apollo mission was also launched in Florida and it was tracked in Houston, Texas. Three men attempt the voyage in Verne’s story, and each of the Apollo missions were flown by three men.
Verne’s stories continue to find an audience, although I think some who look forward to an extraordinary voyage will find this book a little disappointing. There is a lot of planning and theorising and a step-by-step process that outlines the ‘how’ of the business of going to the moon. But there is not a gripping human story that accompanies this and the novel’s ending doesn’t realise the premise of the story, even if Verne addressed this in a second novel five years later. From the Earth to the Moon is a interesting to read, but less entertaining than it should be.
H.G. Well’s The First Men in the Moon, published 35 years after Jules Verne’s novel on the same topic, is less ‘science’ and more fiction. While Verne devotes almost the entirety of his first novel about a journey to the moon based upon a theoretical pushing-of-the-limits of the technology developed in the American Civil War, Wells is content to set practical matters aside for the purposes of his narrative and dispense with the overwhelming difficulties of space travel with the invention of Cavorite. Named after its scientific inventor, Mr Carvor, Carvorite is a metal alloy that negates the effects of gravity. When Carvorite is placed between an object and the Earth the effects of gravity are negated. When Carvor first tests his new metal, he destroys his house and its surrounds as they are ripped apart and flung heavenward. With a more cautious approach, and after many months of work with the assistance of the narrator, Mr Bedford, Carvor is able to create a glass sphere with Carvorite panels that can be opened and closed all around the sphere, thereby allowing gravity to act upon the sphere in a controlled manner, or negate its effects. By this means, Carvor reasons, he would be able to use the gravitational forces from the Earth, Moon and Sun to navigate his vessel. It’s easy to judge the difference in Well’s approach by this invention alone. Verne was dismissive of Wells.
I make use of physics, Verne said.
He [Wells, of course] invents … Show me this metal. Let him produce it!
Nevertheless, Wells’s Carvorite invention allows the plot to move quickly. Unlike Verne’s three heroes in From the Earth to the Moon, Bedford and Carvor actually make it to the moon, and quite early in the story, too. It’s at this point that differences are again apparent. Whereas Verne knew (and his characters could explain how it was known) that the moon had no atmosphere (or that it had been drawn to the other side of the moon through a denser gravitational pull – Verne was speculating) Wells dispenses with this difficulty as well and describes a moon with life-sustaining oxygen, a luscious growth of plants and a large humanoid race with features likened to ants. Carvor calls them Selenites. One might guess aspects of the plot after this discovery: Bedford and Carvor become separated from their sphere, they are captured by the Selenites, they try to escape and so on.
Wells’s debt to Verne is such that he can’t help but mention him, in the context of a valve that will be fitted to the glass sphere. And Wells chooses a sphere as the transportation device, even though it is somewhat impractical for carrying passengers (and quite unneeded given the properties of Carvorite). Verne’s Barbicane initially has a round projectile in mind before the mission becomes manned because it will be fired from a giant cannon. One wonders, also, whether Wells had Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth in mind when he wrote this book. Verne based that novel on the Hollow Earth Theory that had some currency in the nineteenth century. To be fair, Carvor attributes his knowledge of a theory of a hollow moon to Kepler:
Kepler with his subvolvani, was right after all. (Note: It’s a bit unclear to me what this refers to, even after some looking about on the net, although there is a discussion of it – with some typical angry spats – on this discussion page). Neverthless, like Verne’s novel, there is an ocean at the centre of the moon, and the idea of a hollow moon serves Wells because it explains why no moon civilisation is apparent to Earth telescopes, as well as further characterising the hive-like civilisation of the Selenites.
The differences in approach between Verne and Wells are also apparent through the narrative voice. Verne mostly uses a third-person narrator to cover the many aspects of his mission and to give the novel a satirical edge. Wells, on the other hand, uses Bedford as a first-person narrator, and even has him adopt the pseudonym ‘Wells’ when he publishes his account of the moon voyage. Two things come of this. First, is that Bedford as scientific ingenu allows Wells to avoid the equivocal nature of the ‘science’, even if Bedford expresses doubts about its application. Second, is that it is not too much of a stretch to attribute Bedford’s views with Wells own held beliefs.
This is where Wells’ writing seems most interesting to me, where he gives glimpses into his own thinking. In The Time Machine he touches upon the idea of knowledge and class, while in The Invisible Man he explores the link between morality and consequence. The First Men in the Moon, taken at face value, is something of a light adventure story, somewhat silly but probably entertaining enough. But Bedford’s attitude towards the Selenites recall nineteenth century attitudes towards race and colonialism. Bedford, a bankrupt business man, sees the moon as ripe for exploitation, made more so by the discovery of an abundance of gold. The Selenites, insect-like with bodies evolved by one-sixth the gravity of Earth, are fragile and easily vanquished. Bedford adopts an age-old colonialist position -
What a home for our surplus population! Our poor population - recalling England’s policies of convict transportation to America and Australia.
We must annex this moon he also tells Carvor.
This is part of the White Man’s burden. Kipling’s poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’ is considered a racist assumption that white people had the responsibility to ‘civilise’ other races. By referencing the poem Bedford is assuming a superiority to the Selenites, an assumption that confers responsibility and a right. Yet Carvor perceives a complex class structure developed upon the moon, with technology and intelligences that have superseded those on Earth. That his two characters can articulate these opposing positions demonstrates the futility of simply attributing Bedford’s views to Wells, himself. Yet in 1901, the year in which this story finished its serialisation, Wells wrote in Anticipations of the Reaction and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought:
And how will the new republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? how will it deal with the yellow man? how will it tackle that alleged termite in the civilized woodwork, the Jew? Certainly not as races at all. It will aim to establish, and it will at last, though probably only after a second century has passed, establish a world state with a common language and a common rule.
Wells also articulated anti-racist views in later writings.
While Wells might owe at least a little something to the writing of Jules Verne, his influence on future classics is also evident in this novel. Aldous Huxley, for instance, acknowledged Wells as an inspiration for aspects of his own dystopian future in Brave New World. Huxley’s world, in which each individual is grown in bottles for their specific purposes and roles, comes straight from the Selenite society of Wells’ moon. Wells, even anticipates Huxley’s Soma: worker Selenites are drugged and kept asleep so as not to be in the way or cause trouble when they have no social function to perform.
Wells’ science fiction, then, is not much to do with known science of his time. Wells unburdens himself of the complexities that Jules Verne embraces, and understands that his pseudo-science (did he make up that reference to Kepler?) is merely a vehicle for the broader plot and the ideas he wishes his readers to explore. This makes him less a scientific visionary, and more of a moralist. What he has to say, however, as a writer standing apart from the pronouncements of his characters, is somewhat ambiguous, and each reader will decide for themselves where Wells stands on issues of race, his attitudes to poverty and colonialism.