Book Review – From Earth to the Moon (By: Jules Verne)

I didn’t have the experience of many kids in the US of reading Jules Verne when I was growing up. Indeed this is the first novel of his I’ve read, despite knowing the plot of a few rather well. I was afraid that since From Earth to the Moon was written in the 1860’s it would be a clunky read like many other older pieces of literature and was very pleasantly surprised when it was not. Then I remembered that Verne was French, and that any of his works in English are translated. This slightly changed my view on what I was reading. I became aware that I wasn’t necessarily reading Verne’s work, but someone’s (particularly whoever translated the 19XX Scholastic printing’s) retelling of Verne’s work. That shouldn’t impact my reading too much (if the translating is better than the German that guy in Crime and Punishment wrote {I think I’m remembering that right}) but it is a necessary note as I examine the text, though one I can’t follow up on since I don’t read French. In any case, how well does it work?

There’s my standard “rare”, hard-to-find-a-good-image-of-reliably cover.

From Earth to the Moon follows the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club of artillerists in their journey from inception to firing of a humongous cannon that will send a projectile to the planet’s satellite (or from earth to the moon as it were). Despite seeming sci-fi-esque from the cover, and my knowledge of other Verne works (like Journey to the Center of the Earth or 20,000 Leagues under the Sea) it is surprisingly grounded and does indeed really only have to do with the firing of a cannon at the moon, and not travel back and forth or some other potential absurdity for the time. The basic plot is a bunch of Americans who made better and better cannons are bored after the Civil War ends and they don’t get to make cannons anymore, so they decide to make a cannon that can fire to the moon and “establish contact”. Everyone is surprisingly on board and people from all around the world (but mostly the USA) donate a lot of money. The rest of the book details the construction of the cannon and the actions of those who do not want it built along with a larger-than-expected amount of more-accurate-than-expected numbers and math about velocities, gravity, friction, metal weight, costs, casting procedures, etc. Though that makes it sound a lot more boring than it was. Because while very little happens in the technical sense, and there are a surprising number of numbers, it is all conveyed with a motion that keeps the reader advancing and interested the creation of such a fantastic device and the characters behind it.

And the characters are really the soul of the book. Mostly the Gun Club’s President Barbicane, who is the one with the idea for the cannon and apparently has it all figured out to the point that I’m not sure why the other members are involved. As Barbicane’s personality becomes boring, the book adds opposition in the form of Captain Nicholl and a more wild-card character in the form of a Frenchman (of course), Michel Ardan, who is a “(thorough ‘Frenchman’ {and worse) a ‘Parisian’(} to the last moment)”. These core men, with a smattering of other characters are all well drawn up with unique and interesting aspects, aspirations, and flaws, though it does sometimes fall back on “Barbicane is great at everything, Nicholl is a sourpuss, and Ardan is very wordy”. And I found the resolution of the conflict between them a bit flimsy (mainly from Nicholl’s end).

The overall form is very solid and understandable, including the dialog, which, while it wouldn’t be spoken today, is readable and far from something no one would ever say. There are a few moments where the words get tangled up like “…they did to others that which they would not they would do to them” and my favorite thing I still can’t understand: “hook fixed in the coving of the poop…”. I’m sure those were understandable at some point in the process, and even perhaps now but it could have used some tidying up. There are also just a few things that a man living in France in the 1860s might get wrong… like when he calls southerners “Yankees” (though only vaguely, he could be referring to the Gun Club members, who certainly are) and everyone sings Yankee Doodle when the gun is about to be fired, which I get is a patriotic song, but it’s not like it’s the national anthem, I wouldn’t suspect they’d sing it a lot when at a momentous occasion. And a few little details like the “polygon at Washington” What? I don’t understand. In any case, those are only my nitpicks as an American with the advantage of internet-based communication, and the writing is easily good enough to blaze over these minor details and get one enamored with the overall story of getting to (annexing too maybe?) the moon.

I liked the book, and I’ll probably read more Verne in the future because of it. It’s a quite upbeat and fast-moving novel of a technical marvel (with a few surprisingly melancholy moments toward the end) that presents good characters, interesting settings, and well-done research in a fun and compelling way. It isn’t quite up there in classic-ness and immersive level of interesting-ness as some more famous novels by Verne, but it does hold its own. I probably wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to his writing, but it isn’t a bad first one either. I’d say that it’s a good starting point if you’ve read some of the more famous of his works in the US and are looking for more, or are interested in some of the earliest science-fiction out there (or if you’re looking for translated works of a proto-surrealist that have had any potentially strange bits pulled out).

(And one final side note: there is a part in the story after they decide to put people in the projectile {great idea?} and they test it out on earth by putting a man in it for more than a week with nothing to even read. That was the most unrealistic part of the story for me, even with food and air you’d go crazy spending a week alone inside that thing.)

1 thought on “Book Review – From Earth to the Moon (By: Jules Verne)

  1. Yeah, the “polygon at Washington”? It means nothing in French either.

    Of course the “Pentagon” wouldn’t exist for another 60 years.

    But the facts and figures! The long list of banks collecting money for them was unnecessary. I have to think he was getting paid by the word because these things were always serialized one chapter at a time in a magazine.

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