Monday, 28 November 2016

The Brick Moon

Edward Everett Hale The Brick Moon (1869)
This is one of those books, or at least novellas, which lodged in my consciousness quite early on thanks to the fairly lurid cover of some pulp magazine in which it was reproduced having appeared in a big glossy book of science-fiction history I read as a kid, or at least which I took out from the library so I could look at the pictures as a kid. The narrative, which is fairly brief, describes an artificial moon built from wood and brick catapulted into orbit so as to provide Victorian mariners with some means of gauging longitude. Inevitably something goes wrong and the Brick Moon is launched ahead of time still with a load of people inside. Months pass before it is sighted in the heavens, following which communication is established through morse code signalled by the new satellite's inhabitants jumping up and down as observed with a telescope.

I'm going to avoid committing the customary rant about steampunk on the grounds that Hale's world may as well have been Georgian rather than fully Victorian if this novella is any indication, which is probably why I seem to recall The Brick Moon having been tagged as brickpunk somewhere or other, an assertion which can frankly piss off so far as I'm concerned.

The tale begins with lengthy discussion on the practicalities of launching an artificial satellite in nineteenth century America, possibly taking cues from Verne's From the Earth to the Moon of 1865, although this one is shorter and more fun, or more fun than whichever Verne translation I read. The technological level of Hale's enterprise is early industrial revolution but without much reference to even steam let alone anything else, hence the Georgian affectations which are similarly reflected in his literary style. Hale was a Unitarian minister, a big fan of progressive thought and not so keen on the practice of slavery, which I mention for the sake of clarity rather than because it is of any particular relevance to this book. Darwin's On the Origin of Species had been published in 1859, just a decade before, and is acknowledged in those animals marooned on the Brick Moon - goats, chickens and the like - quickly evolving into ostriches or beasts of burden so that those aboard might sustain themselves. Of course, Hale may have been taking the piss, but the generous spirit of his prose suggests it's more likely that he'd simply skipped a few chapters of Darwin's book.

America had not yet enjoyed a full century of independence from England when this was written, and so The Brick Moon is ultimately a hymn to political autonomy expressed as its people are seen to get on very well up there despite their isolation, not least thanks to lichen quickly evolving into trees and plants bearing fruit. Of course, none of it is particularly logical by contemporary standards even without pointing out that there probably wouldn't be any air up there in the ether, five-thousand miles above the Earth's surface; but Hale's testimony, stilted though it may well seem today, nevertheless wins us over. Political autonomy has taken on unpleasant associations in recent times what with Brexit and the Annoying Orange presidency and everything, but here it was a positive ideal and is communicated as such; and Hale really seems to be all about the positive and progressive.

The Brick Moon is a great book, one which really makes me wish he'd written more of its type, and one which leaves us with an impression of an author who was probably a nice guy, someone we would like to know. In terms of science-fiction history, The Brick Moon really should loom larger than presently seems to be the case.

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