These two novels by that early master of science fiction Jules Verne mark the start of my annual August reading block of books with a link between them and this year I have decided on ‘translated from French’ as my theme. The plan is to top and tail the five essays with these two and an even earlier pair of French science fiction novels with some more ‘classic’ works in between.
The two books were published four years apart, ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ in 1865 with ‘Round the Moon’ being serialised in 1869 then coming out in book form in 1870 but they really have to be read together to get anything like a satisfying resolution. I will also refer to the second book as ‘Round the Moon’ as that is the title in this edition, ‘Autour de la Lune’ is more commonly translated as ‘Around the Moon’. Although my book is just entitled ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ on the spine it does actually include both novels.
From the Earth to the Moon
The story is set in a fictional Baltimore Gun Club whose members had been developing ever more powerful cannons and artillery pieces during the recently concluded American Civil War. Disappointed that there was no longer an outlet for their talents following the cessation of hostilities the mood in the club had been somewhat downbeat until the President, Impey Barbicane, decides on an audacious plan, they would build a gun that could fire a projectile to the moon. The book then follows a series of progressions as the projectile becomes modified to become a capsule following the arrival of a Frenchman whom is determined to ride within it after hearing the worldwide publicity. It is quite difficult to avoid giving away a lot of the plot, especially as I also need to cover the second novel, but what is interesting is that Verne did some surprisingly accurate calculations and there are also some remarkable coincidences between the fictional trip and the Apollo program a century later including taking his crew up to three as not only does Frenchman Micheal Ardan go but so does Barbicane and his rival Captain Nicholl who had bet Barbicane that the project couldn’t be done.
Verne to his considerable credit correctly worked out escape velocity and realised that the optimum launch site whilst still remaining within the USA mainland is Florida due to it being the closest to the equator. He also gets the time taken to get to the moon remarkably close and therefore where the moon should be at the time of the launch. The dimensions of his capsule for the three men travelling in it is amazingly not far from that of the Apollo command module. What wouldn’t work is his launch method of a huge cannon barrel sunk into the Earth as the massive forces applying on them would simply crush the occupants regardless of the sprung beds and the quite ingenious water cushion that he came up with to soften the acceleration.
Round the Moon
It is in his much requested follow up novel that science quite literally goes out of the window. Verne needed to write a sequel as he leaves his heroes apparently orbiting the moon having being diverted off their intended route by a large asteroid that they encounter soon after leaving the Earth. Their original plan was to have settled in valleys on the Moon as it was assumed at the time that there may be an atmosphere surviving in the lowlands. In fact at the end of the first book it is not even known if they are still alive as the entire narrative takes place from the viewpoint of people on Earth. This second book instead takes us with the astronauts, picking up their side of the story from just before the launch. Unfortunately despite Verne’s cleverness in getting the launch almost right he then has his astronauts sitting down to eat ordinary meals washed down with bottles of wine and disposes of the rubbish by simply opening a window and throwing it out. To those of us reading the book now this is clearly nonsense and detracts from an otherwise excellent tale but for his Victorian era readers this was presumably perfectly reasonable.
That they used the planned means of safe landing on the Moon to manage to get back to Earth is reminiscent of Apollo 13 although in a completely different way and again even assuming that it was possible to survive the launch as depicted by Verne there is no way they could have survived the return journey and splashdown.
I first read these two short novels as a child in a rather nice illustrated edition which I borrowed from the local library. My current copy is from the International Collectors Library and has no illustrations, no publication date and not even the name of the actual publisher. There were over four hundred titles published by Doubleday as a discount line in America as ICL editions, almost all of which have fake leather look bindings and are designed to look expensive whilst actually being quite cheap. The real giveaway as to the cheapness is the poor quality of the paper which in this edition has been rough cut to resemble handmade paper but clearly isn’t. Rereading them I enjoyed these so much I think I ought to invest in a nicer copy which will perhaps encourage me to read them more often because despite their scientific shortcomings it is a really fun story.