The Conquest of the Moon

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

Aliens with Tentacles

I’m in the process of assembling a presentation for Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, Arizona that discusses the origins of terrifying aliens from space coming to invade the Earth. The presentation dovetails with the convention’s theme, “Cthulhu For President.” H.P. Lovecraft describes his most famous creation as, “a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.” During my research, I discovered that Cthulhu is part of a long line of terrifying monsters inspired by octopi and squids.

Personally, I’ve always found cephalopods fascinating and a little mysterious. Octopi often seem elusive when I visit aquariums and either hide or don’t give me very good photo ops. This is one of the best photos I’ve taken of an octopus at the Seattle Aquarium in 2008:

octopus

That said, when I invented the Alpha Centaurans for my novel The Pirates of Sufiro, I gave them tentacles to make them immediately distinct and “alien” as I was getting the action off the ground. When Captain Firebrandt from The Pirates of Sufiro returns in Kepler’s Cowboys, I wanted to give him a truly dangerous and frightening opponent in the water. The first thing that came to mind was a giant squid.

My octopus-inspired aliens and scary squid are really heirs to a science fiction trope that goes well back to the nineteenth century. For some reason, the Victorians found squids and octopi truly frightening. Camille Flammarion was, in many ways, the Neil deGrasse Tyson of his day. He wrote popular science books about astronomy and biology. He also wrote science fiction. In his book, Lumen, he imagines extraterrestrial beings from a star in the constellation Andromeda who live in water and must “keep their tentacles in unceasing motion.”

In The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells described the Martians as having pulsating bodies, a beak-like mouth, and lank, tentacular appendages. Although Jules Verne tended to steer away from aliens in his fiction, one can make a case that he capitalized on the Victorian terror regarding cephalopods when he had a giant squid attack the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

By all accounts, H.P. Lovecraft was an avid reader and would have been familiar with the works of Wells and Verne—and possibly Flammarion as well, who was widely translated and in circulation during Lovecraft’s youth. So, it’s really no surprise that in 1926 when Lovecraft created his most famous monster, he would invoke the image of the octopus to inspire terror in his readers.

When I created my tentacled alien for The Pirates of Sufiro, I gave it little conscious thought, but it’s clear I was being inspired by those early works as well. When I put Captain Firebrandt up against a giant squid, I knew Verne had inspired me. Whether conscious inspiration or not, it’s all enough to make me think twice the next time I order octopus sushi or calamari rings. I’d hate for our cephalopod overlords to be displeased!