11 literary narratives inspired by Moon voyages

Dr Caroline Edwards Senior Lecturer in Modern & Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, University of London.

Moon voyage narratives have inspired writers for almost two thousand years, since the ancient Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata projected sea voyagers caught in an Atlantic whirlwind onto the moon’s surface in his True History. Lunar travel became a popular subject for speculation in the seventeenth century, as the new science of astronomy brought Earth’s only satellite tantalisingly into view. After the publication of Galileo’s telescopic observations in Siderius Nuncius (1610), the idea of inhabited moon worlds was explored in a number of travel and philosophical narratives of lunar contact. By the mid-nineteenth century, tales of troglodytic moon civilisations had become increasingly focussed on the scientific principles of space travel, replacing earlier satires and fables of extra-terrestrial utopian societies with detailed accounts of projectiles and proto-rockets travelling to the moon.

During the Cold War’s space race and America’s Apollo lunar programme in the 1960s, a number of well-known science fiction writers imagined near-future scenarios of settlement, travel and even tourism on the moon. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon on 20th July 1969, two of the genre’s best-known authors were interviewed as part of a live CBS television broadcast. Watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step onto the lunar landscape, Robert A. Heinlein confidently asserted that “before the end of the century we will have hospitals on the Moon for elderly people to enable them to live quite a lot longer,” whilst Arthur C. Clarke concurred, informing viewers: “Do you realize the first baby is going to be born off the Earth before the end of this century?”

Only a handful of moon landing narratives have been published since the Apollo programme closed in 1972 – mainly written in the tradition of “hard” science fiction, featuring scientist protagonists and detailed expositions of lunar colonisation and terraforming. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Apollo landing, a small number of narratives about reaching the moon have recently been published – most notably two novels that consider African space programmes (Deji Bryce Olukotun’s international thriller Nigerians in Space (2014) and Namwali Serpell’s Zambian epic The Old Drift (2019)). Today, internationally co-ordinated efforts to reach Mars have eclipsed the old dream of visiting the moon, with missions such as Mars One capturing the public imagination. The moon remains a crucial first step in building nascent space programmes, however, with Chinese and Israeli programmes sending robotic spacecraft to analyse lunar geology. As we inch closer towards commercial space travel, literature continues to explore what lunar landings mean for different nations and their narratives of progress – both in the near-future as well as during the 1950s and 1960s space race.

Francis Godwin, The Man in the Moone (1638)

Considered by many scholars to be the first work of English science fiction, The Man in the Moone (1638) drew on the rapidly expanding frontiers of geographic and scientific knowledge in the early seventeenth century. The story features a Spanish protagonist, Domingo Gonsales, who flies to the moon in a chariot powered by geese and encounters an ancient lunar civilisation. Written by Francis Godwin, bishop of Hereford, and published posthumously, the text confused contemporary readers who took it to be a genuine travel narrative translated from Spanish. Situated within seventeenth-century discourses of astronomy and cosmology, The Man in the Moone offered its readers the utopian prospect of discovering a new world via interplanetary travel that echoed the real-world discoveries of Columbus and Galileo.

Cyrano de Bergerac, The Other World: Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (1657)

In his satirical novel, The Other World: Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (1657), French dramatist Cyrano de Bergerac responds to Godwin’s Man in the Moone with his own eccentric story of lunar civilisation. Ascending to the moon in a carriage powered by fireworks, Cyrano’s first-person narrator discovers a lunar society that critiques contemporary European politics by imagining a utopian inverse – appearing to be “this world upside down.” Monetary value is established not by possessing gold but by composing poetic verse, roasted larks fall from the sky already cooked and the season is spring all year round. Cyrano uses the moon to defamiliarise European conventions and engage his narrator in a philosophical discourse about morality and religion, ultimately refuting standard Christian beliefs (including the existence of God and the immortal soul), causing him to be cast out of the moon and descending back to Earth.

Aphra Behn, The Emperor of the Moon (1687)

Inspired by an Italian commedia dell’arte, Aphra Benn’s last produced play The Emperor of the Moon (1687) combines popular interest in celestial travel and the expanding frontiers of the New World with a satirical critique of the Royal Society. The play’s protagonist, Doctor Baliardo, thinks he has communicated with a lunar race when he spies cavorting nymphs through his telescope (which, at over twenty feet long, is a comically phallic prop in the play). Lunar habitation is, as the audience realises, a hoax played on the gullible doctor by his own family and servants, who dress up as the lunar royal family and its ambassadors and place images on the glass of his telescope. Featuring state-of-the-art stage machinery and crowd-pleasing song-and-dance routines, Behn’s play was extremely popular and its use of slapstick and burlesque to criticise the empiricism of contemporary astronomy chimed with Restoration audiences.

Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon (1865)

One of Jules Verne’s hugely popular Voyages extraordinaires, From the Earth to the Moon (1865) combines a humorous tale about weapons enthusiasts with impressively accurate and prophetic scientific speculation. The members of the Baltimore Gun Club have been tasked with projecting men onto the lunar surface by constructing a cannon as long as the Eiffel Tower. Despite the comedic silliness of the American protagonists and their imperial ambitions, the novel contains extended calculations on how to build a projectile capable of launching into space. Although the acceleration necessary to launch their gun-rocket would have pulverised the astronauts, many of the text’s scientific predictions anticipated aspects of the Apollo 11 mission – including locating the launch site in Florida, building the capsule out of aluminium and naming it Columbiad (the Apollo 11 command module was named Columbia in honour of Verne’s book). The novel’s cultural importance was confirmed when Mission Commander Neil Armstrong cited Verne’s narrative in a communication broadcast on 23 July 1969 as Apollo 11 returned home from its successful moon landing.

H. G. Wells, The First Men in the Moon (1901)

Originally serialised in The Strand Magazine, H. G. Wells’ scientific romance The First Men in the Moon (1901) imagines mankind’s first lunar mission as the result of an unlikely collaboration between the eccentric mathematician Dr Cavor and a bankrupt young businessman, Mr Bedford. Dr Cavor has developed a helium-like substance, which the pair use to power a glass flying machine. Armed with a copy of Tit-Bits, several thick blankets and some cases of provisions they set off into space, navigating their course by using steel roller blinds to attract or deflect the gravitational pull of the moon. Bedford’s shamelessly avaricious plans to colonise the moon and prospect for gold are scuppered by their discovery, on arrival, of an advanced race of Selenites. Wells drew on Johannes Kepler for inspiration, echoing Kepler’s posthumously published Somnium (Dream) (1608) by setting his Selenite civilisation underground in a network of industrialised tunnels and caves. Unlike his predecessor Jules Verne, however, Wells’ lunar narrative is less concerned with the scientific accuracy of rocket launches and lunar landing than the utopian possibilities of the moon’s otherworldliness as a setting. Full of weird fungoid plant life, throbbing subterranean machinery and insectoid alien moon men with tentacular appendages, Wells’ narrative remains an enjoyably grotesque action adventure as well as a philosophical inquiry into man’s relationship with non-human life.

Thea von Harbou, The Woman in the Moon (Die Frau im Mond) (1928)

The author of over 100 film scripts, novels and short stories, Thea von Harbou’s impressive literary output has been almost forgotten and her role as one of Germany’s most prolific screenwriters overlooked in favour of her role as Fritz Lang’s wife and collaborator. Lang’s 1929 science fiction silent film Frau im Mond (The Woman in the Moon) (1929) was adapted from von Harbou’s 1928 novel of the same title, which featured a technophilic tale of rocket launch and successful moon landing filtered through a melodramatic romance plot. Von Harbou incorporated technical issues in contemporary rocket science, astro-medicine and astronomy, as well as echoing the earlier moon voyage narratives of Verne and Wells. Like Wells’ lunar prospector Mr Bedford in The First Men in the Moon, von Harbou’s Frau im Mond also features a breathable atmosphere and plentiful gold reserves on the dark side of the moon. Lang’s film adaptation (which involved technical input from Romanian rocket scientist Hermann Oberth) stunned audiences with its realistic two-stage rocket launch and is credited with inventing the countdown to zero that was later used in the American space programme.

Arthur C Clarke, A Fall of Moondust (1961)

Following his 1951 lunar novel Prelude to Space, which combined scientific verisimilitude with poetic vision in a narrative of space flight to the moon, Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust (1961) remains a thrilling tale of lunar survival. In the mid-21st century, mankind has established a scientific research community on the moon and lunar tourism attracts wealthy sightseers visiting the lunar seas. When a moonquake sinks a cruise ship, the passengers and crew are trapped with a finite air supply, awaiting rescue. Clarke’s work as a spaceflight advocate and active member of the British astronautics community not only informed his fiction but also influenced the aerospace industry – his text on rocket design and orbital mechanics, Interplanetary Flight: An Introduction to Astronautics (1950), outlined methods of spaceflight that were later used by the Apollo programme. A tense page-turner, A Fall of Moondust extends Clarke’s astrofuturist vision of mankind’s conquest of space as both necessary and inevitable.

Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966)

Published just 3 years before the Apollo 11 moon landing, Heinlein’s award-winning The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) envisioned lunar colonisation as the first step in mankind’s inevitable migration into space. The novel matches thrilling adventure with technological speculation and a compelling cast of characters. Lunar colonists (“Loonies”) live in vast underground warrens and harvest wheat to be sent back to an over-populated Earth, which has established the moon as a penal outpost. Featuring polyamory, frontier libertarianism and a lunar uprising that echoes the American Revolution and the Bolshevik October Revolution and is spearheaded by a sentient supercomputer, this novel remains a classic work of science fiction.

Tawfiq al-Hakim, Taqrir qamari (Moon Report) (1970)

Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim’s mature works examine key issues associated with the space race that the Apollo moon landing brought into sharp focus: should national space projects attract more funding than social programmes to prevent hunger and eradicate poverty? Could scientific research be better directed towards the elimination of disease? Echoing the scientific romances of H. G. Wells, al-Hakim’s 1957 play Voyage to Tomorrow asks audiences to consider whether technological progress can be equated with human progress, ultimately rejecting scientific utopia in favour of utilising science to eradicate hunger and poverty. The moon was of particular interest to al-Hakim – his short story Taqrir qamari (Moon Report) (1970) and one-act play Shair ala al-qamar (Poet on the Moon) (1972) drew on lunar locations as settings for exploring these ethical dilemmas. Published shortly after the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, Moon Report dramatises the story of two extra-terrestrials writing a report about life on Earth in which they call for the world’s resources to be distributed more equitably. Poet on the Moon (a sequel to al-Hakim’s earlier Brechtian play Food for the Millions) similarly uses its engineer protagonist to pursue the dream of eliminating hunger. Written in colloquial Arabic, al-Hakim’s science fiction plays use this popular form of entertainment to raise serious questions about scientific and technological achievement, reminding us of the long tradition of science fiction in Arab literature and theatre.

Deji Bryce Olukotun, Nigerians in Space (2014)

Although the Nigerian protagonists of Deji Bryce Olukotun’s debut novel Nigerians in Space (2014) don’t actually make it into space, this is a novel centrally concerned with man’s relationship with the moon. Set in Houston in the early 1990s, the protagonist is a Nigerian lunar geologist tasked with stealing a sample of moon rock from NASA’s lab to bring back to West Africa to kickstart Nigeria’s space programme. Dr Wale Olufunmi dreams of the technological advances that a successful Nigerian moon landing will bring – communications satellites that can help improve crop yields and track population censuses, bringing innovation to the country as well as reversing colonisation (the scientists plan to return the rock samples to the moon). Shortly after publishing the novel, Olukotun learned to his surprise that the idea of a Nigerian (or African) space programme wasn’t quite as outlandish as he had imagined – Nigeria had actually been running a space programme since 2003 and in 2015 a non-profit foundation Africa2Moon launched a crowdfunded continental mission to the moon. 

Namwali Serpell, The Old Drift (2019)

Namwali Serpell’s genre-blurring epic debut The Old Drift shines a light on one of the space race’s more bizarre sub-plots. In the early 1960s Edward Makuka Nkoloso, a member of the Zambian resistance movement, founded an ambitious National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy with the single aim of sending a teenage girl (and several cats) to the moon before the Americans or the Russians. Launched on Zambian Independence Day in 1964, Nkoloso invited the world’s press to inspect his training ground at an abandoned farm near Lusaka – where his Afronauts were rolled down a hill in an old oil drum to simulate the experience of weightlessness. Based on extensive archival research, Serpell’s novel brings to vivid life a fascinating moment in Zambia’s resistance movement that blended anti-colonial performance art and humorous protest with a genuine scientific desire to reach the moon.

Dr Caroline Edwards

Dr Caroline Edwards

Dr Caroline Edwards is Senior Lecturer in Modern & Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. She is author of Utopia and the Contemporary British Novel (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and co-editor of China Miéville: Critical Essays (Gylphi, 2015) and Maggie Gee: Critical Essays (Gylphi, 2015). Her research focuses on the utopian imagination in contemporary literature, science fiction, apocalyptic narratives, and Western Marxism. Caroline is currently writing a book about science fiction and extreme environments, including Mars, Antarctica, the moon, the deep sea, and the centre of the Earth.

1 Comment

Comments are closed.