Around the Moon

by Jules Verne

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

At the conclusion of his book From the Earth to the Moon (1865),
Jules Verne left his readers—and his astronauts—hanging in the
starry ether. The readers had it the worst, since Verne forced them
to wait five years before he resolved the plot complications in his
Around the Moon.

But here’s a surprise . . . none of Verne’s space travelers seem at all
put out by the danger. Their commitment to science trumps
concerns for personal safety, and while the rest of us would be
scheming how to get back to terra firma, they are studying lunar
geography, debating hypotheses and taking notes. This undercuts
much of the natural drama of Verne’s tale, and makes the book seem
far more dated these days than would have been the case if the
author had published a more conventional narrative.  
Around the
has the makings of a fine adventure story, but the author too
often forgets the pacing and prefers to show off his grasp of
scientific concepts.

Of course, drawing on the best ideas of the Ulysses S. Grant
administration, Verne makes a few blunders. Although he spends a
lot of time explaining how the reduction in gravity impacts the travel
of his projectile, he doesn’t have a good grasp
of how weightlessness might disrupt the
journey of his astronauts. They are pouring
glasses of wine, and cooking up meals as
though they were back on Mother Earth and
aiming for three stars in the Michelin Guide.

Verne brings back the same cast of characters
from his earlier book, and populates his
spaceship—really more a giant projectile
with room inside for a small crew—with
President Barbicane, Captain Nicholl ,
Michel Ardan, two dogs and some other
small farm animals. It is not quite Noah’s Ark—although Nicholl
laments the absence of more creatures. “The fact is," he notes, "that
cows, bulls, and horses, and all ruminants, would have been very
useful on the lunar continent.” Clearly these ambitious travelers
have big dreams for their new home.

But as their trip goes off course, the passengers temper their zeal for
colonization and devote more energy to . . . trying to get back home?
Guess again! They now become absorbed in studying the
topography of the moon from afar. The only thing Verne liked
better than writing about science, it seems, was writing about travel.
His most famous works were invariably about journeys—to the
center of the earth or the bottom of the sea or around the world. So
he comfortably switches gears from adventure story to travelogue,
and lets us look over the shoulders of his protagonists as they
observe mountains and craters and other geological formations.

This guide to lunar landmarks comprises a substantial portion of
Around the Moon, and is the slowest-moving part in a book that is
more lethargy-provoking than is necessary—a surprising state of
affairs given the life-or-death situation of his three heroes.
Fortunately for the reader, Verne recovers his sense of pacing and
narrative development in the closing pages, when he recounts the
final stages of his intrepid passengers’ adventure. He pulls out a few
surprises, and even adds an undersea exploration angle—perhaps
due to his work concurrently on
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under
the Sea

This book is not what readers call a “page-turner.” Yet Verne does
an impressive job of mustering the technological know-how of his
day in crafting his tale. By comparison, H.G. Wells’
The First Men in
the Moon
(1901) is far less plausible (if more artfully written)
despite the advantage of having thirty more years of progress at the
author’s disposal when it was written. For this reason, Verne’s work,
for all its limitations, remains a milestone in the genre.
conceptual fiction
Back to the home page
If the first book was Verne’s
equivalent of the Apollo 11 mission,
then his follow-up effort was the
predecessor of Apollo 13. The lunar
expedition goes wrong soon after
launch, and the three astronauts not
only face the prospect of failing in
their original plan of landing on the
moon, but are unlikely to survive
the trip. No one actually says:
“Houston, we have a problem,” but
otherwise this story is ready for
Tom Hanks treatment on the big
Jules Verne
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Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading

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