Following their comprehensive collection of essays published late last year, Science Fiction: A Literary History, the British Library continue their exploration of the realms of that genre with a range of classic short story collections, the first of which is Moonrise, subtitled The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures, bringing together eleven works published within the period editor Mike Ashley has chosen to focus on, the 1880s to the 1960s.
Visions of a hoped-for future which never came to be, at least not yet, Ashley offers a comprehensive introduction examining the inspirations of lunar fiction and the impact and importance of each, and although the stories are drawn from a specific era he offers a thorough overview of the history of earlier narratives on the subject – astonishingly, the first fiction to use staged rockets as propulsion was written by Cyrano de Bergerac, possibly as early as 1650 – as well as the shifting conception and understanding of the Moon from a mythical to a proto-scientific viewpoint to the modern day.
The opening story is Judith Meril’s Dead Centre, first published in November 1954 in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the story of young Toby Kruger, centre of the universe for his parents Ruth and Jock, she a designer and he a pilot of rockets. Recognising the dedication and the responsibility but also admitting and accepting the possibility of tragedy, Ruth is rational and intelligent but also human and afraid, and Meril writes precisely and concisely, putting the emotional and engineering complications on equal footing.
Next up and more light-hearted to the point of frivolity is George Griffith’s A Visit to the Moon, a turn-of-the-(last)-century whimsy of a recently married couple’s lunar honeymoon, Rollo Lenox Aubrey Smeaton, Earl of Redgrave, and his bride, Lilia Zaidie, conveyed upon their anti-gravity ship, the Astronef. First published in Person’s Magazine in January 1901, Lady Redgrave initially retires to bed, overcome by the fatigue and emotions of the trip, but she is restored by “breakfast on the Moon… just too lovely for words!”
The focus on the wonder, there is inconsistency in the technology; the buoyancy of the Astronef provided by “the repulsion drive” but the propulsion by propellers, and Lenox and Zaidie’s “breathing dresses” have no wireless so they must remain tethered to allow them to communicate by “telephonic apparatus,” but Griffith has considered the matters arising from such a trip and the brief narrative is of exploration and discovery.
The oldest piece in the collection, published even before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, John Munro’s Sunrise on the Moon dates to 1894, a well-informed non-narrative speculation of the surface of the Moon, the drama built entirely through the imagining of that spectacular vista.
Perhaps the most famous inclusion is an extract of H G Wells’ The First Men in the Moon first published in The Strand Magazine in the summer of 1901, here following neatly from Munro as it explores the Moon more deeply in terms of the internal structure and the society of the native inhabitants.
As a transcribed discourse from the conclusion of the story it lacks the context of the novel, and while it can perhaps be assumed that most readers will be familiar with prior events, the story having been filmed twice, it is not a selection which in isolation best represents the work or the writer, though it is interesting in that similar to the adaptive war machines of the Martians of his earlier novel The War of the Worlds the Selenites have evolved and self-engineered into specific niches of function.
Published twenty-seven years after Wells though set in the “enlightened era of the twenty-first century,” Charles Cloukey’s Sub-Satellite is a more technically ambitious trip ahead of its time when the science of rocketry was in its pre-World War Two infancy, written when Cloukey was only a teenager, and taken by typhoid fever he never even made it to his twenties; what a waste, starry dreamer.
Wrapped in a framing story which serves little purpose other than to facilitate the telling, with a distinct narrative reflecting the adventure and mystery fiction popular in the twenties, the age of Buchan and Christie, it speaks of a grasp of the subject far ahead of the age in which Cloukey lived and died; five years younger than Heinlein, five years older than Clarke, had his career continued his almost-forgotten name might now be as familiar as many of his peers.
A direct connection with Clarke follows in William F Temple’s Lunar Lillput, for both were members of the British Interplanetary Society at the same time, serving respectively as treasurer and publicity director, and that organisation forms a backdrop for Temples’ excursion aboard The Pioneer as his three crew “step blindly out into the darkness where none have been before.”
Offering a global perspective on the Earth as seen from above even as they dodge micro-meteorites, the characters may be simply drawn but it is a more human story than many of the others and is one of the few other than Meril’s example where a woman has a presence other than as a plot device, but although published in 1938 as indicated by the title the narrative falls back to the fantastical fiction of an earlier age rather than the developing science of the mid-twentieth century.
Another fantastical tale, Paul Ernst’s Nothing Happens on the Moon dates to an edition of Amazing SF from 1939, as Clow Hartigan, custodian of Emergency Station RC3 goes about his lonely business; while not of particular merit in and of itself and oddly shortsighted – despite being required to work solo because the penny-pinching United Spaceways will not fund two lunar workers Hartigan expects to keep any valuable minerals he procures – it is interesting in how it has echoed into filmed science fiction.
The consideration of loneliness and isolation and the fear of being labelled crazy appropriately apparent in Duncan Jones’ Moon, the melding of science fiction and horror was used by Nigel Kneale in The Quatermass Experiment while an invading threat mediated by meteors became central to Quatermass II, and the invisible force assaulting the dome to gain entry, buckling the metal and only glimpsed in the arc of electric fire almost perfectly describes the Id monster of Forbidden Planet.
A much more grounded approach, Gordon R Dickson’s 1961 Whatever Gods There Be is the tale of the efforts of a mission which has suffered a catastrophic accident after landing in the Mare Imbrium, two members of the crew killed and the Groundbreaker II severely damaged, unable to achieve orbit for return to Earth without substantial repair work impossible in the circumstances or shedding significant mass, and like Meril’s piece it recognises the danger and sacrifice of exploration and is both melancholy and proud.
Best known for his “modified form of science fiction” which examined the social impact of tweaking the complex web of modern life in such works as The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes and the too-often overlooked Trouble with Lichen, in the thirties John Wyndham had explored more traditional space adventure in such novels as Stowaway to Mars published under the name John Beynon, and he would later return to this in many stories including Idiot’s Delight which is presented here.
It is ten days since the war started on Earth, and from the Moon Michael Troon is not blind to what is happening, but nor has he released the missiles under his command, his eyes on a further horizon of the outer planets to which the Moon is only a jumping-off point, a preoccupation with preserving the integrity of the base during wartime which the officers beneath him regard as unpatriotic.
A representative example of Wyndham’s work, Troon and his medical officer, Ellen, intelligently and maturely debate the psychological imperatives which have driven mankind to space and to conflict, he the pragmatist whose head is in the stars in the most practical sense, she one who understands him but also the hot-headed men with whom she acts as go-between, as the history of the station is laid out for the reader, the necessities and manipulations and concessions involved to secure man’s place in space and the ultimate costs.
The most recent inclusion, Edmond Hamilton’s After Judgement Day from 1963 sees the reactions of possibly the last two surviving humans after the A-plague has ravaged the Earth and all contact has been lost, the two of them facing the end differently, Ellam giving in to despair and destroying himself with tranquilisers, sabotaging the efforts of Martinsen to leave a legacy of their species and commit it to the distant stars.
Not knowing if the message will ever be received or understood but knowing that it must be done, Martinsen is driven for the same reason that took them to the Moon in the first place, that as a species “we preferred the risk of the stars to the safety of always standing still,” described by Wyndham as the “divine discontent” which drives men of vision; it is by no accident his linked pieces of the generations of the Troon family together form a whole titled The Outward Urge.
Humankind following where the imagination has gone first, Ashley’s chosen cut-off point is the decade in which the Moon ceased to be a place of fantasy and speculation and became real, broadcast live in grainy black and white video to a global audience as Neil Armstrong descended the steps Apollo 11’s Eagle lander in the summer of 1969.
Shown to be a dead world, the excitement of the anticipation and those eventual video broadcasts inspired a generation of visual explorations of the Moon, among them 2001: A Space Odyssey and Moon Zero Two on the big screen while the seventies saw UFO, Moonbase 3 and Space: 1999 even as written fiction moved to grander horizons.
Among them and briefly considered by Griffth and Temple is the focus of the British Library’s other collection published simultaneously, Lost Mars, but even here Hamilton and Wyndham both look farther – “The stars are before you” – as does Arthur C Clarke in the final selection and another of the most widely known pieces included as aspects of it served as inspiration for one of the plot threads of 2001, the keenly observed description of the mountains around the plateau of the Mare Crisium where is found The Sentinel.
Written in the first person with neither a wasted nor a superfluous word it is executed with such confidence that the reader can easily believe that the tale is recounted by one who actually took part in the momentous events, Clarke engineering his scenario with precision and powering it with a concept too huge to fit in the unexpanded mind, allowing only a glimpse of what might be, the numinous wonder beyond the edge of the page and the realisation that loneliness might not be a condition solely confined to humanity in a work both optimistic and ominous, a fitting and sagely closer on edge of the greatest frontier.