Sunday 1 April 2018

Moonrise, edited by Mike Ashley

This anthology is subtitled "The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures" and is the first, along with Lost Mars (watch this space), to be published in the British Library's Science Fiction Classics series. The publishers have kindly sent me copies to review, but frankly I needed no incentive to get stuck into these books, which are intended to retrieve some of the more interesting but largely forgotten SF of the past.

There is a lengthy introduction by the editor, pointing out some of the high points of fiction concerning voyages to our Moon. The stories have of course evolved along with our understanding of our satellite. Accounts of what might be found, if only it were possible to visit, have been around for at least 2,000 years, and until the 20th century they mostly assumed that some sort of humanoid life would be found there, probably gigantic. In many cases the purpose of the stories was merely to satirise, or contrast with, human society on Earth. For most of this time, writers faced the problem of how to reach the Moon; early solutions included being sucked up into the air by a waterspout or blown up by a volcanic eruption, climbing a beanstalk, or strapping on giant wings. Others dodged the issue by portraying everything that happened as a dream.

The invention of the telescope allowed astronomers to provide much better descriptions of the Moon's surface. The German astronomer Johannes Kepler put his knowledge into fictional form in Somnium (published posthumously in 1634), in which he speculates that there can be little if any atmosphere between the Earth and the Moon (confirmed a few decades later), and that there would be extremes of temperature between day and night. Other authors were more concerned with religious and philosphical debates with the supposed inhabitants of the satellite. The well-known author Cyrano de Bergerac was the first to propose the use of a series of rockets to make the journey. One interesting early novel, published in 1783 by Belgian baroness Cornélie Wouters, was the first to utilise the newly-discovered technology of lighter-than-air balloons to reach the Moon, which proved to have a society entirely run by women – and all the better for it!

Much excitement was generated in 1835 with the publication in a newspaper of the discoveries of the famous astronomer Sir John Herschel, made using a powerful new telescope in South Africa. These included forests and all forms of animal life. This turned out to be merely a hoax by a journalist, but it did spark much public interest, as did the use of some form of "anti-gravity" as employed by H.G. Wells but first proposed by other authors, starting in 1827. After various proposals for using giant guns to launch spacecraft (notably by Jules Verne) the use of rockets was proposed by the Russian scientist Tsiolkovsky, around the end of the 19th century. These of course ultimately led to Werner von Braun and the start of the space age.

So to the stories:

Dead Centre by Judith Merril: first published 1954. This is very different in focus and tone from most of the rest of the stories, in that it concerns the impact on a family – and especially a small boy – when the boy's father is sent to be the first man to land on the Moon. A well-constructed but depressingly downbeat tale. There is one oddity – the main limitation on the length of time people can survive in a spacecraft is assumed to be food, not air.

A Visit to the Moon by George Griffith: first published 1901. An episode from a longer story, A Honeymoon in Space, which was initially serialised as was usual at the time. According to the editor's introduction to this episode Griffiths, a prolific writer of "scientific romance" was even more popular than H.G. Wells in his day, but he died in 1906 at the age of 49 and has been forgotten since.

This is a story of curious contrasts. It starts with a decidedly old-fashioned feel as a rich and titled man, having funded the development of a spaceship with a new form of propulsion, has decided to use it to take his bride around the solar system for their honeymoon. They are accompanied by a talented engineer who, being their social inferior, of course lives and eats in a separate part of the spacious vessel.

Their first stop is the Moon, and here the mood changes to something much more modern. The description of the conditions on the Moon are (up to a point) so accurate that they might have been written in the late 1960s. I was particularly startled to read a comment that while there was a lot of fine dust on the surface it wasn't a problem since, in the absence of an atmosphere, it dropped straight back to the surface when disturbed instead of billowing around. The narrator also comments that the "dark side" of the Moon is much the same as the part we can see (contrary to common belief at the time). There is one technical oversight which seems to have been widespread: while the need to wear face masks and carry oxygen while walking on the Moon was understood, the need to use a pressurised suit was not, and well-insulated clothing sufficed to deal with the temperature extremes! Where the author's description of the Moon departs from reality is (inevitably) in the discovery of life, but even that is a lot more reasoned and credible than in most such stories at the time.

Sunrise on the Moon by John Munro: first published 1894. An oddity, this one, as it starts out with a dream sequence, written in decidedly purple prose, describing what sunrise would look like. This then segues into a lecture on the conditions to be found on the Moon (the author mainly wrote popular science articles). Like Griffith's tale this is surprisingly accurate in general, although the probability that life developed and might still hang on in some form inevitably features. One error which was common at this time is to attribute the Moon's cratered landscape entirely to vulcanicity rather than asteroid strikes.

First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells: first published 1901. An extract from the end of the novel. This is the one really famous story featured in this collection, so is unlikely to need much of an introduction. The main point of interest in this extract is the nature of the Selenites who (for once) are not humanoids, but more like giant ants. It is particularly interesting to note the way in which their development is channelled into different forms for different purposes: a precursor to Huxley's Brave New World. 

Sub-Satellite by Charles Cloukey: first published 1928. This is mainly notable for the precocity of the author, who was only sixteen when this (his first success) was published, and died at the age of nineteen having published only eight more stories. The editor observes that this story contains one of the first references in fiction to rockets being used to propel spacecraft, rather than anti-gravity or other mystical power sources, and the vessel also contains a computer (he might have added that the computer was coupled to a radar set in order to detect and avoid any meteoroids). The author also explores a possible effect of firing a gun on the Moon, in terms of ballistics: while his proposal is just about theoretically possible, it's practically impossible, but is anyway the product of a remarkable imagination.

Lunar Lilliput by William F. Temple: first published 1938. A very strange tale this with a very dated feel, for me definitely in the field of fantasy rather than SF. The title is a clue…

Nothing Happens on the Moon, by Paul Ernst: first published 1939. A man is left on his own to manage an emergency base on the Moon for a period of months. An exceedingly boring job since nothing ever happens, until it does… The basic scenario is strongly reminiscent of Moon, the 2009 film directed by Duncan Jones, but the story shifts into a more exotic kind of horror as it develops.

Whatever Gods There Be by Gordon R. Dickson: first published 1961. A tense drama as the crew of a moon rocket try to recover from an accident in order to fly home. It's those cold equations…

Idiot's Delight by John Wyndham: first published 1958. An episode from a series on the Troon family, collected as The Outward Urge in 1959. A nuclear war has devastated the Earth and led to fighting between the Russian and American Moon bases, but the smaller British one has been left untouched – so far. A psychodrama in which the base commander is faced with mutiny as he wrestles with his dilemma.

After a Judgement Day by Edmond Hamilton: first published 1963. Like the previous story, this has a Moon base surviving the devastation of human life on Earth, this time by an accidental plague rather than nuclear war. There are only two people left on the base, but there is still one worthwhile job they can do.

The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke: first published 1951. A famous story as it provided the initial seed of what became the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. An excellent, rather haunting short story, but I couldn't help thinking at the end that Clarke unnecessarily stretched credibility too far by the enormous time scale he chose. Would an advanced civilisation still be interested in something they set up hundreds of millions of years ago?

Apart from First Men in the Moon (read too long ago to recall much) and The Sentinel, all of these stories were new to me. While many of the individual stories may be found elsewhere, it is fascinating and instructive to read them all together in this context. For me, the main discovery was George Griffith and I note that a 480-page paperback titled George Griffith, Science Fiction Collection was published in 2014, so I'll add that to my purchase list.

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