At the beginning of this year, The British Library launched its Science Fiction Classics series. I love their Crime Classics series – it has tremendously helped me in discovering authors previously known to me – and given that I’m a newbie to SciFi genre (I have only read The Time Machine, Dark Matter, and The Martian), I thought following this series would be a fun way for me to expand my horizons.
The first book in the series, Moonrise is put together by Mike Ashley who is a stalwart of Science Fiction. The eleven stories in the collection are followed by Ashley’s informative introduction where he recounts the early stories of Moon travel – before the age of aeronautics. From riding swans through volcanoes to reach the Moon to catapulting men to the Moon, writers had entertained some pretty interesting ideas! 😀 So to me, his introduction was just as captivating as the stories in Moonrise.
Judith Merril’s Dead Centre (1954), the opening story in the collection is a brilliant tale with a tragic ending. The story revolves around Jock Kruger, a seasoned astronaut who had earned his reputation by being the first man to orbit the Moon twice. Now he is on to his next adventure; a lunar exploration that will make him the first man on the Moon. However, on the day of the launch, few things don’t go according to the plan – Jock loses consciousness for 23 minutes after the take-off and sometime after that the rocket loses contact with Earth. So we see how his wife and six-year-old son attempt to grapple with this grievous blow, letting us have a glimpse of an unromanticized aspect of space exploration.
In A Visit to the Moon (1901) by George Griffith a couple of newlyweds (Lord and Lady Redgrave) on their honeymoon sets to explore what no one has ever seen in the universe, starting with the Moon. It’s a gripping story, but it is also a product of its time – while Lord Redgrave navigates the ship Lady Redgrave prepares meals for the two of them, and Andrew, the ship’s engineer prepares his own meals and eats by himself in his quarters!
The oldest story included in the collection is John Munro’s Sunrise on the Moon (1894). In it, the narrator, in his dreams, finds himself on the Moon admiring the views of Earth. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the writing or the story, and it’s the only one in the collection I didn’t enjoy.
First Men in the Moon (1901) is an excerpt from H. G. Well’s novel. It is narrated by Bedford, a neighbor of the eccentric scientist Cavor. Cavor had discovered Cavorite, a material which has the ability to block gravitational forces. Together with Bedford, Cavor travel to Moon in a sphere coated in Cavorite, however, before they have a chance to explore the Moon, they get captured by Selenites – the Moon natives. The duo somehow manage to escape Selenites, but they get separated during their flight, and Bedford assuming Cavor is dead returns to Earth alone using the sphere. When Earth receives messages from Cavor transmitted from the Moon, it becomes clear he is alive. Cavor gives fascinating accounts of Selenites who have recaptured him. Selenites treat Cavor like an honourable guest living among them – one of the Selentines even learn English to communicate with Cavor. And all goes well for Cavor until he naively goes on to explain wars and other human exploits to Grand Lunar, the leader of Selenites.
Charles Cloukey in Sub-Satellite (1928) imagines what would happen if a gun is fired on the surface of the moon. According to Ashley, Cloukey is the first author to write in detail about using a rocket to reach the Moon. Cloukey had been fifteen years old when he wrote Sub-Satellite, so it makes the sheer amount of imagination that had gone to writing this quite impressive. For instance, this is how Cloukey explained the basics of the rocket apparatus that was used to avoid meteor impacts.
Gibson and I took two years to complete the marvelous apparatus. This work was mostly detail, as the principle is not new. Radio waves, like light waves, and sound waves, reflect upon various objects. When any meteor large enough to be dangerous came within fifty thousand miles of the rocket, it reflected the radio signal sent out by the special transmitter at five second intervals. The time which elapsed between the sending and receiving of the reflected signal was measured by a new German instrument, which can accurately record thousands of a second.
Because of the remarkable advance that have been made in the last fifty years in the manufacture of the automatic calculating machines, the distance of the meteor could be ascertained, and its course automatically plotted on the celestial chart which Javis had prepared. As the course of the rocket was also electrically plotted on this chart, Javis could determine several minutes in advance if there were any danger of a collision. Then he had merely to press the button which exploded his gases at the right point on the rocket to send it off in a new direction, avoiding the meteor.
Lunar Lilliput (1938) by William F. Temple is a bit like Gulliver’s Travels. Three members of the British Interplanetary Society come across two-inch tall Humanoid Lunarians during this first-ever scientific expedition to Moon. These Lunar Lilliputs have observed humans on Earth and learnt to imitate our ways – so when the three astronauts accidentally knock down part of the Lilliput city, the Lilliputs immediately assume it is a declaration of war!
Set in the distant future, Paul Ernst’s Nothing Happens on the Moon (1939) is a thoroughly suspenseful story. United Spaceways, a company providing luxurious interplanetary tours has set up an emergency landing field on the Moon, and the story’s protagonist, Hartigan alone is manning the station where nothing ever happens. Hartigan’s responsibilities at the dome consist of mundane routine tasks, however, when an egg-shaped meteor falls out of the sky, it provides Hartigan with an escape from the monotony of his life. Hartigan brings the meteor back to the station, thinking the rock might contain valuable minerals which could worth something, and inside the station, the meteor begins to transform itself – first changing its color and then completely disappearing. These unusual events remind Hartigan of Stuyvesant, another planetary employee who was assigned to Mercury emergency dome. Sometime ago Stuyvesant had complained of moving rocks inside his dome, leading Spaceways to recall him from his assignment. “When a man begins to see rocks moving, it’s time to fire him,” is the unofficial verdict inside Spaceways, so worried of losing his job Hartigan tries to put his mind at ease. But when he has a strange encounter while taking a stroll on the Moon, it is clear to him that something dangerous is lurking around on the Moon surface.
Whatever Gods There Be (1961) by Gordon R. Dickson examines disasters astronauts face during space exploration. A lunar landslip had damaged Moon Ship Groundbreaker II and killed two astronauts out of its crew of six. While the remaining crew members rush to fix the rocket, they realize they can’t achieve the weight reduction necessary for take-off without leaving one man behind.
John Wyndham’s Idiot’s Delight (1958) set in 2044 ought to be the most thought-provoking story in Moonrise. America, Britain, and Russia have built military bases on the Moon, and when a Nuclear war breaks out on Earth, it raises some interesting dilemmas. Troon, the commander of the British military base on the Moon is facing a mutiny led by his officers who are out for blood. They suspect Troon is ignoring orders, and want to use their largest missiles to destroy enemy camps on Earth. In their determination to avenge the deaths of their loved ones, these officers had become shortsighted, and while it baffled me, I thought the story is very realistic.
After a Judgement Day (1963) written by Edmond Hamilton (aka Earth Wrecker) takes a familiar doomsday scenario. An outbreak of a plague caused by a mutated bacteria has wiped out the entire human population except for the five men who were working at the Lunar Station. Three of the men head back to Earth to check out the situation, but when the remaining two don’t hear from them, it confirms their worst fears. So they too decide to head back home to whatever is remaining, however, before that they feed a final message on behalf of humanity to the Charlies – cybernetic organisms humans had created to explore the universe. I feel this story which has a gloomy outlook, is more relevant today than when it was first written. Also, in the story, Hamilton ponders if human curiosity is a blessing or not.
It is hard to pick a favorite story in this amazing collection. But if I had to choose, my choice would be the anthology’s closing story, The Sentinel (1951) by Arthur C. Clarke. Its narrator, Wilson is a selenologist in charge of the team exploring parts of Mare Crisium. All goes as usual for them until one morning Wilson witnesses something peculiar shining upon a mountain peak on the Moon. So Wilson and Garnett, another member of his team, decide to climb the 12,000 ft mountain to get a closer look at it. The shining splendor turns out to be a pyramidal structure, “twice as high as a man, that was set in the rock like a gigantic many-faceted jewel,” confirming Wilson’s suspects that there may have been a lunar civilization long ago. Because of the size of the pyramid, Wilson’s instincts don’t allow him to imagine that Lunarians could have been more intelligent than the mankind. But when he realizes the pyramid is surrounded by some sort of an invisible shield, Wilson has to rethink his theory. I loved the conclusion Wilson reached in the end – it made the story nothing short of spectacular. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to learn Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey drew inspiration from it. I haven’t watched it yet, so watching it is on top of my to-do list for tomorrow! 😀
Moonrise is worth checking out even if you are not into Science Fiction. Most of the stories are not science heavy, so it is not challenging to read them, and almost all of them (sorry, Munro!) are immensely enjoyable!