Saturday, February 24, 2018

Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon & Around the Moon


Opening Passages: From the Earth to the Moon:

During the American War of Secession a new and every influential club was formed in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. We all know with what rapidity the military instinct developed itself in this people of shipowners, merchants, and mechanics. Simple shopkeepers stepped over their counters transformed into captains, colonels, and generals, without having passed through the School of application at West Point; nevertheless, they were soon equal in the art of war to their colleagues of the Old World, and, like them, obtained their victories at the cost of an immense expenditure of bullets, money, and men. (p. 5)

Around the Moon:

During the year 186- the whole world was greatly excited by a scientific experiment without precedent in the annals of science. The members of the Gun Club -- an assembly of artillerists founded at Baltimore -- had conceived the idea of placing themselves in communication with the moon -- yes, with the moon! -- by means of a cannon-ball. Their president, Barbicane, the originator of the idea, having consulted on the subject the astronomers of the Cambridge Observatory, took all the measures necessary for the success of the extraordinary undertaking, which had been declared feasible by the majority of competent men. After having opened a public subscription, which realised nearly 30 millions of francs (£1,200,000), he commenced his gigantic works. (p. 209)

Summary: The Baltimore Gun Club, founded during the Civil War, is a club of artillery enthusiasts, who find themselves puzzled as to what they should do when the Civil War ends. All this enthusiasm for artillery, and no opportunity to use it, and, what is more, the political climate is such that it seems improbable that the President of the United States could be persuaded to rectify the suggestion, say, by invading Britain. It is enough to make an artillerist very depressed. But Impey Barbicane, president of the club, has a plan: to make the biggest, most powerful cannon that has ever been made and shoot a projectile to the moon, to see if they can communicate with any inhabitants there. Using the most advanced technology, like gun cotton and aluminum metal, it just might be possible. Donations pour in from all over America, and even from the world; even the French donate more than a million francs, although in their case it is because they think it will be hilariously funny when it fails. But the French have perhaps not reckoned on the audacious practicality of Americans, and there is one Frenchman -- Michel Ardan, noted adventurer -- who sees even more potential to the project than Barbicane. Barbicane wants to shoot something to the moon. Ardan wants to go there.

It has become common to think of science fiction as 'stories about the future', but while Verne has a few of those, it is worth remembering that this is a rare thing for him. Verne's stories are not generally about the future, but about the present or near past. He is not asking himself, "How might people get to the moon in the future?" He is asking, "If we tried to go to the moon right now, how might we try to do it?" He then extrapolates as best he can to fill the apparent gaps and get an exciting story out of it. It's not a story about what might be done in the future; it's a story about living in an exciting time in which, for all one knows, there might already be a plan in the works to do it.

Likewise, it's important not to overstate the extent to which Verne is trying to predict anything. Because of his enthusiasm both for state-of-the-art technologies and for letting the genuine science of his day structure part of his stories, as well as his attempt to think through these various adventures logically, he hits remarkably often, but he's not trying to be a prophet. For one thing, he is regularly dealing with the unknown: he knows that he is entering realms in which speculation necessarily has a heavy share. But, as Michel Ardan notes, they are speculations about problems that can't be solved unless one actually goes and sees. Scientists can extrapolate all they please in the most rigorous way possible, and it's still the case that they can't fully know that they have accounted for everything until they have actually tried it out.

Verne is also particularly interested in satire. For these two works, it is especially true of From the Earth to the Moon; Around the Moon has traces of this origin, but is mostly just an attempt to tell the story of an incredible journey. From the Earth to the Moon, like its later sequel Sans dessus dessous, is in part a send-up of Americans. How do you get something to the moon? You'd need to blast it off the earth at high acceleration, like a projectile from a cannon. What nation on earth could possibly be imagined to have ambitions so vast and optimism so unlimited that they might spend that much money to build a gun that big to do something that crazy? Only the Americans. In Around the Moon the landing of the projectile when it falls back to earth is made possible because the U.S.S. Susquehanna is in taking soundings of the Pacific floor in preparation of a less crazy, but still breathtakingly ambitious, project to connect every island in Oceania by submarine telegraph cable, and the book ends with an anticipation that the Baltimore Gun Club may someday soon form a company for interstellar travel.

Verne also satirizes the French, in the form of Michel Ardan, but Ardan's entrance shifts us out of a story that is primarily satire into a story that is primarily an adventure, because it moves it from being the quirk of a nation, and, what is more, a bunch of warmongers, into being a project of humanity itself. All of that immense technological and scientific expertise had been poured into war and into the interest of single nations. The technology inevitably was impressive, so much had gone into it. What couldn't we achieve if we poured ourselves out in the same way for scientific exploration and for all of humanity?

From the Earth to the Moon was clearly conceived by Verne as a standalone work. Its ending, taken on its own, shuts down the possibility of a sequel, although it leaves enough ambiguous to invite speculation about what might have happened. Verne seems to have had a taste for stories that ended in disaster; in a number of cases where the story does not end that way, like The Adventures of Captain Hatteras and Hector Servedac, it is only so because his publisher made him change it. He ingeniously manages to find a way to get Around the Moon -- a character in the previous book turns out to have made a serious mistake -- but there's also something of a disconnect in characterization, particularly with Ardan. In the original book, Ardan brings a poetic touch and shifts the story onto new ground; he comes across as flamboyant but informed. He comes across as considerably less informed and more flamboyant in Around the Moon, because his character has to have a different function in that book, as a counterweight to the overly serious Barbicane and Nicholls, as a way to give an opportunity for exposition, and as a way of keeping a story about being stuck in a small room from getting too dull. But there are other things that maintain a kind of continuity through both books, and not least the theme, that our adventures are all the more extraordinary for being shared with others.

Favorite Passages: From the Earth to the Moon:

As no one seemed to doubt this assertion, Michel Ardan continued.

'My dear hearers, if we were to believe what certain narrow-minded people maintain, humanity would be enclosed within a magic circle, and condemned to vegetate on this globe, without ever being able to reach the planetary spheres. This must not be. We shall travel to the moon, we shall travel to the planets and to the stars, as we journey today from Liverpool to New York -- easily, rapidly, and with safety; and the atmospheric ocean will soon be crossed as well as the oceans of the moon. Distance is a relative term which will soon be reduced to zero.' (p. 132)

Around the Moon:

'Bravo!' cried Barbicane. 'Do you know, Michel, that for an artist you are intelligent?'

'Yes,' replied Michel, negligently; 'we are all like that on the Boulevard des Italiens.' (p. 336)

Recommendation: Recommended.


Jules Verne, From the Earth & Around the Moon, Wordsworth Editions (New York: 2011).

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