While the Moon had been the obvious destination of choice from the earliest adventures of fictional space adventure, as detailed in the British Library’s short story collection Moonrise and their comprehensive Science Fiction: A Literary History, the declaration of President Kennedy in 1961 that it was to be achieved before the end of the decade made it a goal for every writer to shoot at the Moon.
Beating Neil Armstrong to his destination by a year was Stanley Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, and a year before that the TARDIS arrived near The Moonbase, but William F Temple beat both of them with his novel Shoot at the Moon in 1966, now republished by the British Library as the latest in their Science Fiction Classics range.
Set in an unspecified future, the flight of Yuri Gagarin referred to as a historical event, it tells the course of the maiden flight of the Endeavour, a new design of spacecraft fitted with the Harwell Atomic Propulsion Unit and a rotating main hull to simulate gravity while in flight.
Captained by experienced rocketeer Franz Brunel, he sees a threat in the largely automated processes of the Endeavour in which the human element is almost a failsafe rather than a crucial component, and his apprehension is not helped by his squabbling and antagonistic crewmates.
There are parallels with Temple’s more famous Four-Sided Triangle, also recently republished, characters from different social backgrounds working towards a common goal, the same devilish sense of humour, the awareness of how quickly life can come and go, Brunel having lost a close friend in a recent space accident, but it is told at a tangent, the harmonious collaboration of that novel replaced by a crew so badly matched it could almost be sabotage.
Led by the pompous and short-tempered Colonel Marley, hoping to find gold on the Moon and restore the family fortune, they are joined by his daughter Lou, a noted scientist whose fierce intellect is matched by her tempestuous mood swings, Doctor Thomson, a bully and a malicious practical joker as well as Lou’s ex-husband, and the enigma of the near silent Pettigue, subject of Thomson’s attentions.
“I can tolerate my own bad manners but not other people’s,” Brunel says early; he knows he is far from perfect but he gets the job done, yet with no escape but into the vacuum of space he begins to wish that the door to his quarters had a lock, so strained do relations become on the voyage to the lunar surface.
The setting, the challenge and the formal prose reminding of the contemporary work of Sir Arthur C Clarke, Temple’s approach to character could not be more different from the detached professionalism of Clarke’s protagonists, the colonel and his daughter a shocking parody of a healthy relationship, cloying, manipulative, controlling and emotionally stunted.
As painful as the crew are to Brunel, they are equally insufferable to the reader and Temple may aim for hilarious but the passage quickly becomes tiresome, the plot playing out like an early Heinlein though with some adult themes which are dealt with in a manner best described by the less positive connotations of the word “juvenile.”
Yet Temple knows his subject, aware of the importance of cooling systems and concerned with damage to spacesuits by micrometeorites, and when tragedy strikes on the surface of the Moon the tone changes for the better, the hostility giving way to a more sombre response, reminding just how good Temple can be at creating complex characters and backstories of tangled emotional disappointments and betrayals.