Space travel is kind of taken for granted these days, to the point that many people have little or no idea that GPS is a constellation of satellites providing extremely precise timing signals, and not just an app on a smartphone. Whether or not the act of space travel can be considered commonplace today, the possibility of space travel is accepted as a basic fact and truth of reality, to the point that it has become one of those assumptions that we don’t actively consider before making. That was not always the case. Well into the twentieth century there were significant cadres of scientists and other learned individuals who held that space travel was impossible.
Now, imagine that the year is 1869. Heavier-than-air powered flight is a distant fantasy for reckless dreamers and adrenaline junkies willing to throw themselves off of cliffs to test their contraptions. The American Civil War only recently ended, and the transcontinental railroad is not quite complete. Steam-powered ships are just beginning to replace sailing vessels for oceanic travel. This is the context in which Jules Verne, one of the grandfathers of science fiction, told the story of the Apollo program.
Okay, so it’s not actually the story of the Apollo program, but From the Earth to the Moon and ‘Round the Moon is eerily prescient in ways both technical and cultural about the American enterprise to reach the moon a century after the book was published. It probably helps that almost all of the early rocketry pioneers, from Goddard to Von Braun, were in part inspired by this classic piece of science fiction (Von Braun even sought to write several science fiction books of a similar style, but none have proved so prophetic thus far, nor as enduring for their literary merit). Verne provided the launch site, the shape of the capsule, the oceanic recovery, atmospheric conditioners, and even the concept of the race to the Moon being a uniquely American response to a challenge. He predicted that space travel technology would arise from military technology. The fervor, zeal, and resources with which his characters approach the problem reflect the attitudes that would prevail a century hence, during the real mission to the Moon.
There are plenty of details he got wrong, like the fact that we did not end up launching astronauts from a giant cannon buried in the everglades (although launching them atop converted intercontinental ballistic missiles does not sound a whole lot more rational when you stop to think about it), and his speculation about the Moon’s details seem wildly antiquated and outlandish to a modern reader, but that does not even begin to compare with the amount that he got right. Perhaps most remarkable is the accuracy of his physics. In high school, I used multivariable calculus to rederive the parameters for a Moon mission such as Verne described, and found that the projectile would, in fact, have reached the Moon based on its initially imparted velocity and the external forces that act upon it.
Suffice to say, like space travel luminaries from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo and beyond, I have found this book inspirational since I first read it in elementary school, which is why I reread it every few years, and reference it so often. I doubt it is inspirational to me in the same way it was to those first trailblazers in the discipline, who were still trying to prove that space travel could be accomplished. For me, it is more like a validation, and a challenge to dream bigger with what we have now. Using just technology that existed in his day, Verne was able to dream up a way to get to the Moon. If 1860s technology could have gotten us there, imagine where today’s technology could one day take us. I think this is what today’s science fiction is missing. Verne and Wells were the grandfathers of science fiction, succeeded eventually by giants like Asimov, Clarke, Forward, and Heinlein, and then by authors like Orson Scott Card (how do I have no reviews for his books on the site?), but their heirs today are not apparent.
Not to get off topic, but I’ve been wondering recently if the reason that I’m dissatisfied with modern science fiction is because I’m looking for the wrong things. I’m expecting science fiction that flings us out amongst the stars and explores ideas of physics, the universe, and technology with a certain idealism, when perhaps what is being written is closer to home, more about the computers and connectivity technologies that pervade our lives, and much less optimistic about what the future holds. Maybe the science fiction being written today is just as good as that from previous generations, and I simply don’t like it.
Anyway, back to the book. First of all, if you haven’t read Jules Verne, you should read Jules Verne. Yes, even I skimmed the dozens of pages of descriptions of fishes in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but his books are fantastic, insightful, and creative, with wonderful writing and narratorial voice. Some people might recommend you start with something more well-known, like A Journey to the Center of the Earth, but I disagree. From the Earth to the Moon and ‘Round the Moon is by far my favorite Verne book, which is why I’m excited to now have a review for it here on the site, and why I really encourage you to give this one a read soon.