From the Earth to the Moon

by Jules Verne

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

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 the 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 forty 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 in 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 US 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.”

His book 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 the 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,
Around the Moon.
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

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Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


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
Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading
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