Book Talk: "From the Earth to the Moon" by Jules Verne - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: "From the Earth to the Moon" by Jules Verne

Alexander Wallace shoots for the moon.
One could argue that the mere act of sending a human being into space is one of utter insanity. It involves launching a person into an environment completely and utterly hostile to all forms of life at great cost to those doing the launching, and you need to keep human and machine intact during the whole ideal. One could call it … lunacy.

But the outlandishness of any particular concept has never been an obstacle for any science fiction writer; this goes from the hardest of the hard to the pulpiest of the pulp. If it makes people wonder, dream, or cower, it will be written about. Even in 1865, during the height of the French Empire and at the end of the war that ripped apart brother from brother in the United States, the notion of sending human beings to space was one that awed people. Here, we’ll focus on Jules Verne, one of the pioneers of the genre, who got more things right than you’d think from a book that’s a century and a half old.

Despite being written by a Frenchman, I’ve seen From the Earth to the Moon half-jokingly described as a contender for the Great American Novel. In a way, Verne joins the ranks of Alexis de Tocqueville in being a foreigner and a Frenchman who has observed the United States so astutely. There’s something about this book that feels like it could have been written today, not in terms of its oftentimes quite inaccurate predictions but rather in its portrayal of the American character (if one could be said to exist). Many of my countrymen will laugh hysterically upon how he portrays us.

Case in point: the plot starts with the members of the fictional Baltimore Gun Club, who had worked with cannons during the American Civil War, having a lack of anything to shoot at with the war’s end. They decide to remedy this by shooting at Earth’s lonely satellite. This is to be accomplished by the construction of a massive cannon to hurl a capsule with a human being at the gigantic ball of rock that dominates our night skies.

One of the major predictions that From the Earth to the Moon gets right is the location of the cannon in Florida. Now, it isn’t in Cape Canaveral, or even on the eastern coast of the state, but rather in Tampa. Verne seems not to have predicted the notion that it would be better for a faulty projectile to land in the water than on the land, but he got the distance within less than a hundred and fifty miles.

There’s a bit of national stereotyping going on in this novel, but it comes off as more hokily endearing than it does actively bigoted. You have American cowboyishness and jingoism on full display, both with the love of firearms and with some other, smaller aspects, like the bet between the Gun Club and a rival who thinks it is impossible (reminiscent of many great feuds in America during the time period, like that between the Hatfields and McCoys, or what has been dubbed the Bone Wars). As the launch draws ever closer, there’s a bit involving a German choir and an American response that feels ever so current. Regarding other countries, the actual astronaut in this capsule, a Mr. Michel Ardan, a Frenchman, is a daring adventurer, like many of Verne’s protagonists.

In one way, though, From the Earth to the Moon is quite optimistic, and I’m not talking about anything regarding technology. The funding for this massive gun comes through fundraising around the world; humanity is collectively enraptured by the entire scientific endeavor. Being alive in the middle of the 19th century, Verne would have been cognizant of the many wars going on during his lifetime, and yet he thought that the haste to space would come from an effort (if not an impetus) that was ultimately peaceful, not coming off the heels of rockets raining ruin over foreign cities. Verne, like many authors of the day, was optimistic, perhaps to a starry-eyed extent. In this day and age, such optimism can be refreshing.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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