The Fiftieth Anniversary of a Crazy Notion

A collection of definitely off-trail stories. This edition published by Sphere Books 1967.

As we enter the fiftieth anniversary year of the first Moon landing by Apollo 11, we should bear in mind that a voyage to the Moon has been an obvious focus for fantastic fiction throughout the centuries.  After all, the proposed destination appears clearly in the night sky, yet remained enticingly out of reach for nearly all of human history.  And once the surface of the Earth itself had been reasonably well charted and explored by the eighteenth century, it was only to be expected that the surface of the Moon would be a prime location for fictional journeys into the unknown.

The author Daniel Defoe, best known as the writer of Robinson Crusoe, used such a voyage as the basis for a series of satirical comments on society at the time in his 1705 novel The Consolidator, the vehicle of the title being a sort of flying chariot powered by winged beings.  Murtagh McDermot’s A Trip to the Moon of 1728 provided further satirical observations, and interestingly proposed being blasted into space through a cannon using gunpowder as a means of propulsion, some 130 years before Jules Verne suggested a similar method in his classic story From the Earth to the Moon.  Yet more social satire appeared in the 1727 book A Voyage to Cacklogallinia by an anonymous author identified as Captain Samuel Brunt, though his trip to the Moon was by means of the more traditional mode of transport in such literature – using birds to carry the adventurous traveller.

In his 1951 anthology Far Boundaries, the novelist August Derleth focused on some of the more “off trail” science fiction stories.  He included several that pre-dated both Verne and HG Wells and which showed that certain of the themes that became common in the post-Wells period had nevertheless been proposed some time earlier.  The first story in his collection is noticeably peculiar.

The great English landscape gardener Humphry Repton is not a name one would normally associate with this sort of fiction but, in 1788, he published Variety, a collection of essays on various subjects, including a story of a visit to the Moon – his one venture into what we might now call science fiction.  His protagonist makes the journey in “a magnificent balloon”, which would have been the favoured, and most realistic, method of aerial travel at the time.  The Montgolfier brothers had only recently made their first public demonstration of flight using a hot air balloon in 1783, with Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier taking the credit that year as the first human being to actually lift off from the Earth.

Repton’s description of the Moon and the life-form that is found there is decidedly surreal – no attempt to use this tale for satirical thoughts on his own society.  The being is “an intellectual something, for I cannot call it Matter, because it has no parts; nor Spirit, because it seemed materially visible” – it is best compared to a human eye, and the narrator of his story finds it almost impossible to explain the “intuitive conversation” he has with it.  Almost telepathy, it seems.

However, what may be particularly significant is the title of Repton’s story – From a Private Mad-house.  The narrator has been confined to an asylum for the insane.  Obviously, anyone who had such a crazy belief that it would be possible to travel to the Moon would clearly be out of his mind.

This has been a remarkably persistent attitude, and may even exist in one form today in the many conspiracy theories which insist that the Apollo Moon landings never took place.  Whatever form they take, whether alleging that the astronauts could never have survived the radiation in the Van Allen belts, or that the Moon’s surface temperature would have been vastly too hot for comfort, the underlying thought is that you’d be insane to think that the Apollo missions really happened.  But that’s where knowledge of science and technology comes in – the evidence that such assertions are invalid could mean you’d be a little bit deluded to believe that travel to the Moon couldn’t happen.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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