Thursday, May 3, 2007

Review: From Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne

Get it here.
What an odd book. Science-fiction, in its original, unalloyed form. Today, science-fiction assumes that our heros stride about in an artificially aged space ship, looking anti-heroic. We are not invited to ask: how does the ship travel from star to star? How is it that they are not floating? If travelling faster than light, how do they transmit live video messages to one another? Instead, we are invited to ask: Oooo! Do you think he finds her attractive?
This book, by contrast, is all involved with the nuts and bolts of how to get to the moon, using nineteenth century technology. A whole chapter is devoted to what material the cannon should be made from. Did I mention they wanted to use a cannon? And, initially, they only wanted to fire a shell at the moon, until a Frenchman appears, offering to travel inside the shell.
If you remember carefully, when the Apollo project was announced, they were careful to include 'bring them safely back home' in the work description. Verne is uncluttered with such twentieth century concerns: you can't make an omlette without breaking eggs, after all. I believe there is a sequel, in which collision with the moon is averted, and a safe return occurs - by spashdown.
So - very foresightful. And scientific, apart from one vital thing: no-one experiments. They all seem to follow the example of Aristotle: if you have a great problem to solve, then go and sit in a quiet room and think it through. On no account actually try out your theories in the real world.
It is unimaginable that such a book would be published today. I believe that engineering was seen as a much more glamorous profession in those days. In fact, I remember the heros of several victorian novels would always be about to go off to America to build railroads. We lack the confidence for such enterprises now. Perhaps this is a good thing. I was reminded of this today when I heard of a plan to seed plankton by pouring iron into the sea, thus reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A very nineteenth century idea. My, more modern, mind, immediately started pondering the equal and opposite reaction to this action. A victorian would not. Hills in the way of the railroad? Pass the dynamite.
And where are all these young men now - who read this book, and were inspired by the limitless possibilities of mans promise? The modern day version probably write the code that powers the internet - engineering by other means. But what is the Web 2.0 equivalent of going to the moon? And would we want to read about it?
"But surely, Monsieur, a Google Maps / Amazon mash-up using only a Palm Pilot with root access is impossible!..."

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