A novel of anticipation

Felix Nadar c 1860 self portrait by Nadar, (Gaspard Felix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, out of copyright
Félix Nadar c 1860: self portrait by Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Jules Verne From the Earth to the Moon
translated by Edward Roth
Dover publications 2009 (translation 1874, French original 1865)

From the Earth to the Moon was Verne’s prophetic space romance about space travel. Set after the American Civil War — the conflict coincidentally finishing just as the novel was first published in France — the novel details the implementing of a concept by the President of the Baltimore Gun Club, namely the firing of a projectile to the moon. From concept, practice is attained in a little over a year: worldwide funding is raised, a site chosen, infrastructure established, a monstrous cannon or Columbiad cast, a giant refracting telescope built to track the projectile, and finally the projectile itself launched. Several of the details anticipate what was to happen in this part of the world nearly a century later but while this is interesting in itself what surprised me was how more engaged I was in the personalities involved and in the authorial asides than I remember being when I first read it a few decades ago.

First of all this is a eulogy praising American enterprise and the get-up-and-go attitude that has characterised its people for a good few centuries now. It’s also a very broad satirical (and possibly cynical) commentary on attitudes espoused by many of the United States inhabitants then — and, maybe still now. For example, several characters express a very gung-ho approach to human lives in respect of guns. The Honorable Secretary of the Maryland institution, J T Marston, is very blasé about collateral deaths when one of his prototype mortars blows up, killing and maiming 337 spectators — and curiously no one thinks of prosecuting him — nor are there public warnings about the mortal dangers of being in the vicinity when the Columbiad is finally fired. It is a Frenchman who dares to declare “half joke whole earnest” that the Baltimore Gun Club members are “amiable murderers and scientific life-shorteners,” and in pouring cold water on armaments being a civilising factor (“Heartless, heathenish idea!”) he declares that he “never could bear the sight of your monstrous engines for burning, crushing, killing, mangling wretched human beings by the score!”

In the words of the song, “This is a man’s world,” with nary a woman on the horizon, but there is no hint at all of the bitterness and sense of being lost that James Brown and Betty Newsome later express in their lyrics. These men are just big children with their big boys’ toys, playing games of a magnitude we can scarcely imagine. And yet for all their lack of self-awareness they manage to achieve great, even noble things. The President of the Club, Barbican challenges his great opponent McNicholl to a no-holds-barred duel in a wood, but when the two are eventually discovered they have each forgotten their quarrel and are busy engaged in innocent scientific pursuits. And when the aforementioned Frenchman, Michel Ardan, proposes that the projectile should be manned rather than merely ballistic the Gun Club members enthusiastically discuss the notion before settling to making it a reality.

To us moderns the science is fatally flawed, of course: not only would the projectile fail to reach escape velocity but any living creatures within would be killed instantly by the forces exerted when the cannon is fired. But credit where it’s due: Verne anticipated Florida being a suitable launch site (Tampa as against Cape Canaveral), that Americans would make the voyage to the moon (orbiting it where a century later they would also step onto its surface) and that a splash landing in the ocean, as described in a sequel, would help solve some of the problems inherent in a return to earth.

The Interior of the Projective: original French illustration. (And yes, dogs were on board.)
The Interior of the Projective: original French illustration. (And yes, dogs were on board.) http://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/the_interior_of_the_projectile.jpg

Verne’s principal protagonists are strongly characterised. The 50-year-old J P Barbican is superbly rational, practical and energetic, just once exhibiting a choleric side; Joshua D McNicholl is at first an offstage critic, then appears onstage in all his severe magnificence before volunteering as one of the astronauts; the corpulent J T Marston is the eccentric mathematical computator who inadvertently provides some of the light relief in what at times can be a number-heavy narrative; and the irrepressible Michel Ardan (based on the real-life pioneering aerial photographer Félix Nadar) brings some true Gallic joie de vivre into proceedings.

I read the Edward Roth translation of 1874 — which perhaps should be more correctly called a rendition; in his own prefatory words it would follow the spirit of the author though he would

try to make the most of [Verne’s] strong points, throw the weak ones into shade, soften off extravagances, give the names a familiar sound, correct palpable errors … simplify crabbed science, explain difficulties, amplify local coloring, clear up known allusions, put a little more blood and heart into the human beings …

Whether more Roth than Verne I cannot tell, but reading the text with a close eye on words, phrases, nuances, satire and humour I can honestly say I enjoyed this roman d’anticipation. Completing a chapter or two at a time — there are 28 in all — I may well have mirrored the original French publication of De la Terre à la Lune as a serial between the 14th September and the 14th October 1865; this for me emphasised its episodic character and a fleeting impression that it could at times even have been a factual report.

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