Thursday, July 10, 2014

Raiding the Stacks: From the Earth to the Moon, & Around the Moon, by Jules Verne

This week I've decided to delve back into the realm of incredibly old-school science-fiction by reading some Jules Verne. In this installment I've read two stories: From the Earth to the Moon, a story which details the creation of a giant cannon to launch a projectile at the moon and its eventual firing, and its sequel Around the Moon, which follows the misadventures of said projectile. Both of these stories are contained in one e-book available for free on (However, I'm sure there are plenty of other places where you could obtain a copy as well.)

Overall this work is in many ways very classic Verne and actually remind me of both 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth. In the first respect, this novel is filled with an almost pedantic attention to scientific detail, much like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which makes these stories in some cases prophetic about our eventual endeavors to reach the moon. On the other hand, these novels are also filled with a lot of oddball science that, although seeming cutting edge in the late 1800's, seems downright laughable today, much like Journey to the Center of the Earth. I will admit that the more technical aspects are definitely more difficult to read through, but it shows the Verne was keeping abreast of the latest scientific thought of his day.

What is particularly uncanny about this set of novels is that Verne writes about the Americans raising money to launch a projectile towards the moon and furthermore launching it from a location in Florida near Tampa. (Granted Cape Canaveral is on the opposite side of the peninsula, but what's a hundred-odd miles between friends?) And there is, of course, a very good reason for this. As Verne predicted, the most efficient way to send something towards the moon is to launch it from somewhere within the 28th Northern and Southern parallels. Florida and Texas were the only two states at the time below the 28th Northern parallel. (Hawaii of course is almost entirely below the 28th parallel but would not be annexed until 1898.) What is equally impressive was Verne's ability to calculate the necessary escape velocity of 11.2 km/s given the information and methods available to him at the time. In these respects the novel was rather prophetic, but it definitely starts to break down from there.

When you get into the later parts of the novel the science definitely starts to break down, although I guess you can't really judge Jules Verne for relying upon what was their best working knowledge in the 1860's. After all, new discoveries in science are being made all the time, constantly revising our understanding of the universe around us. Ideas such as the moon being oblong-shaped like an egg, that it contains some traces of atmosphere, and that it must have been inhabited at some point, seem downright silly in retrospect, but they were probably considered cutting-edge in the day. I personally found the assumption by the characters that we would one day launch a mission to the surface of the sun and develop machines to straighten the earth's axial tilt particularly funny. It seemed to capture the essence of the belief of the late nineteenth century that there was absolutely nothing that science could not achieve, given sufficient time and resources.

Overall these two books were kind of funny with the insanely optimistic belief in science and technology, as well as the assumption that only the Americans would be brash enough to attempt to take a trip to the moon. However, the extreme focus on science and mathematics really takes away from the story in many respects and it actually takes away from the story.

- Kalpar

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