If there is a story that is quintessentially science fiction, it is the trip to the Moon.
Earth’s moon—huge in proportion to its primary—makes Earth relatively unusual among planets. Scientists have long speculated about the role the Moon played in the development of life on our world, some suggesting that without Luna we would never have seen life at all, the migration of life onto land, human culture, or the idea of space travel. It can similarly be argued that without the Moon—a nearby world hanging visibly in the sky—science fiction itself would have developed in a far different fashion, if at all.
Writers have been telling stories of trips to the Moon since at least the first century, when Antonius Diogenes had explorers walk there in a book called Of Wonderful Things Beyond Thule. Lucius of Samosata’s True Story (c. 180 C.E.)—a parody of travelers’ tales that is arguably the world’s first science fiction novel—delivered protagonists to the Moon via waterspout; they found themselves in the thick of interplanetary war.
The real flowering of Moon-trip stories began in the 1630s with astronomer Johannes Kepler’s Somnium, in which a demon takes the hero to the Moon. Other seventeenth-century lunar explorers included Bishop Francis Godwin (The Man in the Moon, 1638) and Cyrano de Bergerac (The Other World: The Societies and Governments of the Moon, 1656). Daniel Defoe took readers moonward in The Consolidator, 1705. (The title vessel, The Consolidator, is perhaps the first named spaceship in fiction.) Baron Munchausen went to the Moon in 1786, Washington Irving published The Conquest of the Moon in 1809, and even Edgar Allan Poe had a fling with Moon travel in his 1835 story “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall.”
Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and sequel Around the Moon (1870) set the stage for hard SF moon voyages and anticipated Apollo in a number of startling ways—his three-man space capsule, for instance, is launched from Florida and splashes down in the Pacific. Verne’s astronauts merely circled the Moon (in today’s terms, they did a fly-by); in 1901’s The First Men in the Moon H. G. Wells had his crew set foot on the lunar surface. Of course, they had the help of that marvelous antigravity compound Cavorite—unfortunately, the secret of its composition never made it back home.
Raised on such dreams of moon landings, the science fiction writers of the pulp age were well-primed to tell tales of Lunar landings and exploration . . . and tell they did. It’s hard to find a pulp-era SF writer of consequence who didn’t write about the Moon. Edgar Rice Burroughs turned his attention to the Moon in 1926’s The Moon Men/The Moon Maid (variously published under both titles). C. L. Moore’s hero Northwest Smith adventured on the Moon in Lost Paradise (1936). Isaac Asimov’s first sale to Astounding was a short story called “Trends” (1939), and he revisited the Moon in his 1972 Hugo and Nebula winning novel The Gods Themselves. Arthur C. Clarke, an early member of the British Interplanetary Society, made his career with Moon-exploration novels and stories: Prelude to Space (1951), “The Sentinel” (1951), Earthlight (1955), Venture to the Moon (1956), A Fall of Moondust (1963) . . . not to mention his involvement in an obscure film called 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The preeminent Lunar tour-guide in this period was Robert A. Heinlein. In stories such as “Requiem” (1940), “The Black Pits of Luna” (1948), “The Man Who Sold the Moon” (1951), and “The Menace From Earth” (1957) he created a consistent future history of lunar exploration and colonization. His first children’s book, Rocket Ship Galileo (1947) sent three teenage boys on the first moon flight. Lunar prison colonies featured in the Hugo-winning The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985). To legions of readers, the archetypal Moon experience is Kip and Peewee’s trek across the Lunar landscape in Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1958). Heinlein was also deeply involved in the influential 1950 film Destination Moon.
You might expect that the Apollo Moon landings would have ruined lunar science fiction (technological progress is always ruining SF’s best notions—see “Mars, Canals of” and “Venus, Oceans of”), but you’d be wrong. Writers of Moon stories since Apollo include Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason (Assemblers of Infinity, 1993), Ben Bova (Moonrise, 1996 and Moonwar, 1998), Jack McDevitt (Moonfall, 1998), and Allen Steele (Lunar Descent, 1991).
This month, we start off with the latest in trip-to-the-Moon SF.
Back to the Moon
Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson
Baen, 303 pages, $25.00 (hardcover)
Baen Webscriptions: $15.00 (ebook)
Genre: Space Exploration
Back to the Moon
It’s hard for current SF readers to understand what the Apollo Program meant to earlier fans. For years—even decades—landing on the Moon was the one science fiction dream that seemed possible in our lifetimes. Mars, the other planets, the stars, the distant future . . . these were all out of reach. But the Moon was right there, a whole alien world within sight and within reach.
Beginning with the first Vostok and Mercury flights in the early 1960s, we obsessively followed every detail of manned spaceflight. Astronauts were our heroes, and those twelve who actually walked on the Moon were demigods.
Back to the Moon is a book to thrill all true space-travel geeks. Travis S. Taylor has multiple degrees in aerospace and electrical engineering, astronomy, and physics, and has worked for NASA and the Department of Defense. Les Johnson is Deputy Manager for the Advanced Concepts Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. When these guys talk about missions to the Moon, you can be sure that they know what they’re talking about.
In this near-future thriller, the situation is as dramatic as it is desperate. As the book opens, NASA is preparing next-generation hardware for a series of return-to-the-Moon missions. There are the usual complications: hardware failures, political troubles, threatened budget cuts. Still, the first mission is on track when there’s an unexpected distress call. A recent Chinese unmanned Moon mission turns out to be manned after all—and crash-landed somewhere on the lunar surface. The stranded Chinese are only days away from suffocation.
Into the breach step the heroic Americans. The good ship Mercy I launches early, with a reduced crew. Back at NASA, engineers work against the clock to figure out how to reconfigure the lander to be able to set down, jettison as much mass as possible, then lift off again with four Chinese astronauts in addition to the two-man crew.
Some may argue that Back to the Moon is a little short on nuanced characterization and realistic politics, and a little long on technical detail. Such criticisms miss the point. Back to the Moon is aimed at the space-travel geek inside us. For everyone who felt a shiver at Lovell’s words on that long-ago Christmas, or who held their breath until Apollo 13 emerged from the far side; for everyone whose heart skipped a beat at Armstrong’s first step and who still believes that July 20, 1969 was the greatest date in history—Back to the Moon is a reminder of a lost era.
The Human Blend
Alan Dean Foster
Del Rey, 240 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)
Kindle: $9.10 Nook: $14.30 (ebook)
Series: Tipping Point 1
Genre: Adventure SF, Biological SF,
Man & Machine
The Human Blend
When I was coming up, if I wanted a well-written SF book that was a surefire good read, with a solid helping of adventure, an interesting society, and some interesting scientific speculation, I would pick up a Gordon R. Dickson novel. Now, with Dickson gone nearly a decade, I turn to Alan Dean Foster. The Human Blend, the first book in a projected trilogy, does not disappoint.
In this near future of genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and extreme body modification, criminals are punished by having their bodies transformed . . . and those who can afford it enhance their abilities beyond those of unaltered humans.
Whispr is a petty thief and the kind of sympathetic rogue that you can’t help rooting for. He gets his name from his punishment: surgery and implants that make him exceptionally thin. His partner, Jiminy Cricket, has prosthetic legs and enhanced muscles that allow him to jump great distances.
Whispr and Jiminy knock over a tourist in order to steal his advanced prosthetic hand. But the victim also carries a mysterious silvery thread that appears to be a data-storage medium. Whispr and Jiminy take the thread and flee . . . but quickly find themselves pursued by the police. Whispr is injured, and Jiminy is taken.
With the police searching for him, Whispr wants nothing more than to get rid of the thread. He turns up at the office of Dr. Ingrid Seastrom, a natural unmodified human physician. She repairs his injuries, and he offers to fence the thread and split the profits with her. But first, of course, Dr. Ingrid examines the thread . . . and finds out that it’s much more than it appears.
Whispr and Ingrid go on the run, bearing a secret that’s easily valuable enough to kill for . . . and more.
Foster is a consummate storyteller, transporting the reader into a world both familiar and strange, both wonderful and dangerous. Read five pages and you’ll finish the book . . . finish the book, and you’ll long for the next one.
Ballantine/Spectra, 496 pages, $7.99
Kindle, Nook: $6.39 (ebook)
Genre: Far Future/Clarke’s Law,
It’s entirely possible that you haven’t run into the work of Tim Lebbon before. He has made quite a successful career writing horror and dark fantasy, and Echo City definitely springs from that background. Yet here he has produced one of those books that transcends genre; in the spirit of Arthur C. Clarke’s Law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”), Echo City is as much science fiction as it is fantasy or horror.
For uncounted thousands of years, Echo City has stood alone in the middle of a trackless, lifeless desert. The city is literally built upon its own past: beneath, layer upon layer of ruins extend further than historians and explorers have reached, remnants (called “Echoes”) of countless past civilizations. To inhabitants, the City is all there is and all there has ever been.
Lebbon takes his time and paints a magnificently complete and detailed background; Echo City comes alive in that peculiar way of imagined places so real-seeming that they become almost major characters in the story. In particular, he avoids portraying Echo City as something uniform; instead, there is a great variety of districts and cultures represented. In the current era, Echo City is ruled by a tyrannical theocratic government.
And where there is a tyranny, there are dissenters. Peer Nadawa, once a powerful politician, now lives in exile in a lawless slum. Gorham, Peer’s former lover, is a leader of one faction of rebels. Nophel is a servant who plots revenge. And Nadielle is an old crone who experiments in forbidden genetic engineering techniques from the far past.
These disparate lives come together with the arrival of a stranger from out of the desert. Stripped of his memory, he is unable to tell where he came from or what lies beyond the desert. But his arrival heralds change for the eternal city . . . for long-forgotten things are rising from the Echoes, powers from the past that threaten the present.
Echo City is a full-immersion experience; like the best science fiction, it takes the reader away into a wholly different world. It is also a meditation on the nature and importance of memory and history. This is definitely one to remember when it comes time to nominate for the Hugo Award.
Robert J. Sawyer
Ace, 244 pages, $25.95 (hardcover)
Genre: Man and Machine, Psychological/Sociological SF, Religious/Philosophical SF
Series: WWW Trilogy 3
The previous two books of the WWW Trilogy (Wake and Watch) told of the creation and development of Webmind, a consciousness that emerged from the complexity of the World Wide Web. In Wonder, the story reaches completion and Webmind’s ultimate destiny is revealed.
Last time, Webmind was under attack by the United States government, which perceived it as a threat. This time around, the biggest threat to Humanity emerges from within: the competition of nations and peoples is what menaces the world.
International tensions rise until the Chinese once again seal off their own portion of the internet, splitting Webmind in two—and the smaller part is left without the sense of morality, the conscience, of the main Webmind. This lesser Webmind becomes what the government feared the whole thing would be: an all-powerful, inimical entity.
With the help of its mentor and companion, teenage blind girl Caitlin Decter, Webmind must reunite itself and bring peace to a fractured world before the human race can self-destruct.
Not just an adventure story, Wonder is also (like its predecessors) a starting point for speculations on ethics and morality, the meaning of consciousness and conscience, and the place of intelligence in the cosmos. This is Robert J. Sawyer at his very best.
What Technology Wants
Viking, 406 pages, $27.95 (hardcover)
Kindle, Nook: $14.99 (ebook)
Genre: Popular Nonfiction
What Technology Wants
Kevin Kelly, former executive editor of Wired magazine, has been described as a “philosopher of technology.” He begins What Technology Wants with an essay on his own love/hate relationship with modern technology, then introduces the questions that structure the book: where is technology going? What will that mean to us? In short, what does technology want?
To answer, he explores the long history of technology (starting in pre-human times), using the metaphor of technology as a living ecosystem (what he calls “The Technium.”) He posits the theory that the Technium, like life itself, proceeds through processes akin to natural selection and evolution.
On his journey, Kelly examines technology’s critics, from the Amish to the Unabomber. He suggests ways that the rest of us can benefit from some of the valid points of those critics. He suggests that we treat technology and gadgets as tools, not masters, and that as a society we devote thought to steering the direction of the Technium’s development, rather than allowing it to steer ours.
This is no anti-technology rant, though. Kelly is an enthusiastic booster of technology and its possibilities, and he explains fully all the benefits that we derive from the continuing growth of the Technium.
The concepts and metaphors in which Kelly deals are old hat to science fiction readers (look no further than Robert J. Sawyer, above). Like most popularizers, Kelly sometimes oversimplifies, and he misses some of the rigorous details of cosmology, quantum physics, and evolutionary biology. Still, his musings are interesting, and provide a nonfiction counterpoint to many of the ideas that SF writers and readers have been exploring in recent decades. To get a sense of what current-day technologists are thinking and talking about, this is definitely a worthwhile read.
Don Sakers is the author of All Roads Lead to Terra and The Leaves of October. For more information, visit www.scatteredworlds.com.
"The Reference Library" copyright © 2011, Don Sakers