Conceptual Fiction is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on major works of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism and alternate history. These books are celebrated in recognition that literary experimentation with ways of conceptualizing reality has been as important as experimentation with language in creating fiction of lasting value. Dismissing these books as genre or escapist works has created a blind-spot in literary studies that this feature aims, in some small part, to rectify.
Is Jules Verne the father of science fiction? Too bad they don’t have a DNA test to settle this paternity case. With an offspring so successful, there is no shortage of candidates seeking custody. Yet alongside Verne’s claim, one needs to assess the cases for H.G. Wells or Hugo Gernsback as pater familias of the genre.
Verne sometimes seems to have more in common with the travel and adventure writers of his day, such as Richard Burton (no, not Liz Taylor’s husband), Mary Kingsley and Isabella Bird. But with this difference: Verne preferred to write accounts of imaginary trips beyond anything these others had ever dared – to the center of the earth or the bottom of the sea, around the world in eighty days, or to the moon. To quote the famous infinitive-splitting, gender-insensitive boast, he aimed “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
From Earth to the Moon, Verne’s account of a lunar expedition penned more than a century before the Apollo mission, is the closest thing to hard science fiction one will find in this author’s oeuvre. You may think that this writer is just an escapist storyteller constructing modern fables for adolescents, but at least half of the book is devoted to discussing, debating, and hypothesizing on scientific matters. The plot moves slowly to make room for all the tech talk – so much so that the most interesting character in the work, the French “astronaut” Michel Ardan, doesn’t appear until halfway through the novel.
By then Verne has meticulously outlined how the launch date was determined, where the launch should take place, the construction and materials for the capsule, the chemical nature of the propulsion and the safety hazards involved in its manufacture and use, the financial arrangements for funding the project, the duration of the journey, the nature of the telescope that would monitor the trip from Earth, and a hundred other details. When I was studying journalism years ago, I was told that my accounts needed to answer the five Ws (who, what, when, where, why) and the one H (how). Verne, in this book, is very H-heavy.
The early portion of the story moves with — in that grand bit of judicial doubletalk — “all deliberate speed.” In other words, it plods along. Yet Verne gets high marks for how much he anticipated the details of the later Apollo journey, from the starting point (he launches his astronauts within a two hour drive of Cape Canaveral) to the size of the capsule and the duration of the trip. Not all the science here adds up — when I tried to check some of the sources cited by Verne, I came up empty-handed, so he clearly bent his “facts” to match his story. And you will be amused to find the launch team counting up to 40 rather than down to zero for blastoff into space, while five million bystanders sing "Yankee Doodle." Even so, I have a hunch that, if a gathering of leading technologists and industrialists had been convened in 1865 to come up with the most realistic plan for a moon trip based on means available to them at the time, they would have arrived at a plan largely similar to the one Verne concocts.
Verne was also sensitive to the cultural and political ramifications of his subject. His nineteenth century space program is the result of the armaments industry in the U.S. trying to cope with the end of the Civil War. They need a new goal to justify their role in a time of peace. The exact same scenario played out after World War II, when advances in rocketry were achieved by Werner von Braun and others who had been closely involved in weapons production. So Verne not only predicted many of the specifics of space travel, but also must be seen as one of the first to call attention to what was later dubbed the “military-industrial complex.”
From Earth to the Moon starts with the deliberations of the Baltimore Gun Club, under the leadership of its President Impey Barbicane, as its members struggle to address the declining need for big artillery after the conclusion of hostilities between the North and the South. Their solution: the construction of an enormous cannon, large enough to fire a projectile at the moon. The idea is so newsworthy and exciting that donations pour in from all over the globe to fund the project.
But soon even this audacious plan is not bold enough for their tastes. Michel Ardan, a convivial if somewhat implausible Frenchman arrives on the scene, and volunteers to be a passenger on the flight to the moon. Soon he engages Barbicane and Barbicane’s arch-rival Captian Nicholl to join him on the trip. By any measure they form an unlikely team, and one doubts whether this threesome possesses much of what Tom Wolfe called “the Right Stuff.” Yet somehow they form a workable unit.
When he was writing this book, Verne had not yet visited the United States, yet he doesn’t let that stop him from indulging in some sly cross-cultural commentary. He plays with the prevailing stereotypes, albeit in a goodhearted manner, and gets as much mileage as he can from the set-up of a joint Franco-American space mission. Needless to say, the Yankees bring the weapons, while their Gallic friend supplies the wine.
Despite the heavy dose of pseudo-science and the comedy of manners elements to the story, From Earth to the Moon maintains a fair degree of suspense throughout its unfolding. And Verne even leaves his audience with a cliffhanger at the end. Some readers might gripe at the inconclusive final chapter here, but this was simply one more area in which Verne was ahead of his time. Long before Star Wars, this skilled storyteller realized that the best space operas always need to leave room for a sequel – and in this instance, Verne obliged with his 1870 follow-up, Round the Moon.