When most people today think of nineteenth century French science fiction, I suspect the first name that comes to mind is Jules Verne. However, he wasn’t the only writer who speculated about extraordinary journeys around the world or to other worlds. While doing research for the panel “From Jules Verne to Jacques Tardi” which I presented with James Keeline at Gaslight Steampunk Expo earlier this month, I came across the works of André Laurie. Like Jules Verne, Laurie was published by Pierre-Jules Hetzel. André Laurie was the pen-name of Jean Grousset, a politician and journalist. Laurie even “collaborated” with Verne on three novels. I put that in quotes because some experts believe that Laurie wrote the works and Hetzel asked Verne to rewrite them for publication.
One of André Laurie’s most interesting works is called Les Exilés de la Terre – Selene-Company Limited, which is usually translated as The Conquest of the Moon. Published in 1889, it tells the story of an astronomer named Norbert Mauny who leads an expedition to a mountain rich in iron ore in the Sudan to use as the base of a powerful electromagnet which he will use pull the moon to the Earth, so that people can cross over at ease, explore, mine, and colonize. It turns out, this whole plan was started by a group of hucksters who tried to trick people into investing in a lunar colonizing expedition. However, the hucksters had no idea how to pull it off. Mauny convinced the investors of his plan and builds the magnet. As he’s working, a faction of Sudanese are planning to overthrow the European colonizers and they surround Mauny’s observatory with its solar-powered electromagnet. Despite this, Mauny finishes construction and succeeds in pulling the moon to the Earth, only to have the mountain that houses his facility ripped from the Earth and dropped onto the moon. The moon then drifts back out to it’s orbit leaving Mauny and the people with him stranded.
Now, pulling the moon to the Earth sounds like an exceedingly bad idea. In reality this would create a terrible cataclysm. In the novel, he only succeeds in ripping the one mountain from the Earth, raising the tides for a few days and covering Europe in clouds. Though I had to suspend my disbelief a lot for this part of the plot, the rest of the novel presents an interesting look at exploring the moon. Of some note, early in the novel, it’s supposed that the events of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to Moon have already occurred. Once our characters reach the moon, they discover an atmosphere so thin they can’t breathe, so they have to go out with air tanks. Laurie imagines everyone on the moon hopping like kangaroos because of the low gravity and there’s an interesting discussion about how the gravitation of a body would impact the creatures that would evolve on that body. He also notes the temperature extremes that come from the long days and long nights in the “thin” atmosphere.
All in all, The Conquest of the Moon was a fun read. I especially liked how our protagonist was an astronomer who was given a romantic subplot. I could see some of the ideas in this book being given a fun steampunk twist for a more modern story that better understands the nature of the moon, or what would happen if you tried to draw it near.
The edition of The Conquest of the Moon I read was edited by artist and writer, Ron Miller perhaps best known for his 1981 collaboration with William K. Hartmann, The Grand Tour. I was pleased to discover that Miller has edited an entire series of early science fiction novels for Baen which he called “The Conquest of Space” series. All are still available as ebooks. My only complaint with this edition was that it appeared to be scanned using Optical Character Recognition technology, so some characters were misinterpreted and the book wasn’t given a proofread after conversion. Despite that, I enjoyed the book and especially enjoyed Miller’s essay at the end about the growth of science in science fiction through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. You can find the Conquest of Space series along with other books Ron Miller has written and edited at: https://www.baen.com/allbooks/category/index/id/1849
Good day to ye, laddie, and I hope it finds ye well! Interesting take from a professional astronomer on this old “science” fiction. What a wonderful, innocent time it was when professional astronomers drew maps of Mars’ canals and speculated about the dying civilization thereon. The technology wasn’t ready to support our curiosity, but a mind without facts is a fertile ground for rumors, and I enjoyed all sorts of things from my trip around the Moon with Verne to my adventures on Mars, courtesy of Mr. Burroughs. Even Earth-based adventures burned a little more brightly in the African jungles of Haggard, the Antarctic cities of Lovecraft, or on a drive across the floor of the Pacific in The Seagoing Tank (Roy J. Snell, 1924).
I suspect it was an easier time to be a writer, when all you needed was a good imagination and not a science degree to go with it. I unabashedly consider myself lucky to have caught the tail end of the innocence, when the emphasis was more on the Fiction than the Science, and a writer wasn’t dragged over the coals by the critics if he got the orbital period of Phobos wrong. Oh, dear. I’m a product of a simpler time, and I’m afraid my age is showing. A wonderful post, though, and I thank you for turning me on to a story that seems to be long on fun, even if it did miss a point or two that we’ve learned since!
Be safe, my friend, and keep on enjoying. Oh, and when you write that steampunk treatment, send me a link for purchase. I’ll be your first sale!
Good to see you Jack and thanks for your thoughts. My impression from reading science fiction written across different decades is that the earliest writers such as Verne, Laurie, and Wells had far more respect for science and knowledge of the current-for-them state of science than most modern writers do. Verne actually did the calculations for his moon shot. Sure putting humans in a projectile and shooting it at the moon would, in fact, turn out very bad for the passengers, and there are suggestions he understood that. Verne also understood you’d have to find a way to give people enough velocity for them to escape Earth’s gravitational field in order to send them to the moon and he wanted to poke fun at America’s obsession with guns. It wasn’t his responsibility to come up with the final answer, but he, in fact, inspired many scientists to find the correct answer through rocketry.
In fact, the reason I point out issues with the science in these old books is not to pick on those “poor ignorant writers from times past.” It’s more my own interest in how scientific knowledge has changed and evolved. If anything, I’m impressed at how much Laurie got right! He didn’t get the moon right because he was making up stuff about the moon. He got it right because he read contemporary articles discussing what was known about the moon and incorporated that knowledge into his writing.