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Literature / From the Earth to the Moon

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From the Earth to the Moon (French: De la Terre à la Lune) is a novel published in 1865, written by Jules Verne about making a trip from the earth to the moon.

Some time after the American Civil War, members of a certain social club in Baltimore, called The Gun Club (because it consists largely of Civil War artillery officers and various defense industrialists) starts wondering what can they do in these times of peace — during the war they entertained themselves building guns that kept going bigger and bigger, but that's an expensive hobby in a peacetime.

The club members propose various wacky schemes, up to starting a new war, until one of them suggest doing something that sounds impossible: shooting a giant bullet towards the moon, for no reason other than to show they can do it. Things only get more interesting when an eccentric Frenchman, Michel Ardan, asks them to shoot a hollow projectile where he can travel to the moon.

The book is known for showing off Verne’s investigation; even though Science Marches On and some things he stipulated are now known to be incorrect, he still guessed a lot of facts right. It’s even more important if you consider that, when the book was written, there was almost nothing to investigate, since nobody knew anything about space travel or the characteristics of the moon.

Five years later, Verne wrote a follow up, Around the Moon (French: Autour de la Lune), about the situations that Ardan and his two companions on the projectile, Barbicane and Nicholl, have to deal with while on their way to the moon and back. As a curious fact, the book finished in his serialized form in 1869; exactly a hundred years later, man would land on the moon.

There was also a third novel, The Purchase of the North Pole (French: Sans dessus dessous). This one doesn’t deal with the moon at all and only has the characters in common; the plot is about the Gun Club’s attempt to destabilize the Earth’s orbit in order to exploit the wealth of the North Pole, completely disregarding the well-being of the rest of the inhabitants of the Earth. That's because it was written in the Verne's later, more misanthropic period, and is largely a satire at the rampant commercialization of the world.

From the Earth to the Moon was loosely adapted into the Georges Méliès silent film A Trip to the Moon (1903), which is regarded today as a milestone in the development of Early Films.

Shares the title with an 1998 docudrama series about the Apollo program. For that series, look here.

The book has the following tropes:

  • An Arm and a Leg: Most of Gun-Club members have missing limbs, as they are Civil War veterans and worked with explosives.
    Crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc jaws, silver craniums, platinum noses, were all to be found in the collection; and it was calculated by the great statistician Pitcairn that throughout the Gun Club there was not quite one arm between four persons and two legs between six.
  • Artistic License – Physics: The astronauts get to the moon by being shot out of a 900-foot-long cannon. In order to reach sufficient velocity to reach the Moon while traveling the length of the cannon, the ship would have to accelerate at 22,000 gravities, which would squash the astronauts inside it flat, no matter what precautions were taken.
  • Batman Can Breathe in Space: Michael Ardan is asked whether the project is foolish, since there is little or no air on the Moon. "Then I will only breathe on special occasions!" he quips.
  • Bigger Is Better: The Gun-Club really likes this trope, but none more that J. T. Maston, who envisions a gun half a mile long. Da Orks would be proud.
  • BFG: The cannon used to launch the projectile. It has a caliber approaching three meters.
  • Bold Explorer: Michael Ardan, who persuades the Gun Club to build a hollow shell that can carry him (and some others) to the moon.
  • The Complainer Is Always Wrong: The only person in the entire United States of America who doesn't think it's a good idea to spend millions of dollars so they can shoot the moon is shown to have had a previous grudge against the president of the Gun Club, and is only protesting because of said grudge. And then they reconcile and he decides to go along with the plan anyway, going so far as to go to the moon with them. Also, the only country that is asked to give money for this venture and doesn't is Britain, who claims it's because they believe it's not going to work, "But this was nothing more than mere English jealousy."
  • Determinator: The American people. More precisely, the members of the Gun Club.
  • Dope Slap: J. T. Maston gives one to himself when he realizes that the projectile is less dense than water, making all the efforts to find it at the bottom of the sea completely useless. Unfortunately, he accidentally uses his Hook Hand and knocks himself out.
  • Duel to the Death: Nicholl challenges Barbicane to a duel with rifles. Both were late, though, for different reasons
  • Eagleland: A Type III, the United States are portrayed as a bunch of Trigger-Happy, hard-working Determinators.
  • Everything is Big in Texas: A rivalry sparks up between Texans and Floridians over which state should host the Mooncannon. The Floridians win.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: From the Earth to the Moon is about making a gun big enough to shoot a bullet from the earth to the moon. Around the Moon is about the voyage of the three astronauts around the moon.
  • Fermi Paradox: Discussed in Around the Moon. While the crew is speculating about Lunarians Ardan asks why, if they are older and more advanced than humans, they haven't tried to communicate with Earth and haven't sent a projectile here. Barbicane proposes that this happened in the distant past and that the projectile likely fell in the oceans. Ardan suggests that the putative Selenites were so moral that they didn't invent gunpowder, and thus never discovered space travel.
  • Frictionless Reentry: Explicitly stated in From the Earth to the Moon: the characters doing the trajectory calculations state that atmospheric friction can be ignored because the shell will traverse the atmosphere in less than five seconds.
  • Gun Nut: The Gun Club. For them, a true gun started from a cannon upwards.
    J. T. Maston (upon hearing the Moon Gun should be a reasonable 225ft long): "Ridiculous! Might as well take a pistol."
  • Here We Go Again!: Averted when the Gun Club is trying to choose where the Moon Cannon will be built. After all the problems with fighting between Texan and Floridian envoys to convince the Gun Club to pick them, Barbicane realizes (and tells the others) that choosing Texas would simply cause the fighting to start again between counties, while Florida only has one county fitting their needs.
  • Hook Hand: J. T. Maston, due to him being a Civil War veteran. The given explanation is he lost the hand and got a horrible head wound (which he covers with a guttapercha skullcap) when a giant mortar he designed exploded at first shot killing 375 men and disabling even more.
    • All but one member of the Gun Club (its president) are missing a limb or two. They work with explosives all the time, pre-TNT and pre-computers.
  • Human Aliens/Rubber-Forehead Aliens: The astronauts talk about how the moonmen they expect to find are and if they, in fact, exist. It’s not exactly a spoiler to say they find none.
  • Human Cannonball: Well, they at least use a vehicle here. Nevermind that the G-forces should have crushed them.
  • Inertial Dampening: The projectile has "thick lining of leather fastened on springs of best steel", together with some sort of hydraulic system, meant to absorb the shock of shot. There's no way for it to be effective, but at least Verne gave some thought to the problem of acceleration.
  • Interplanetary Voyage: One of the earliest examples, and the one which turned the trope into a popular topic in science fiction. The original plan of the main characters was to simply launch a large bullet to the moon, but then the idea of them boarding the bullet to reach there was brought to the table, and the rest is history.
  • Lab Pet: A 19th century inversion: in order to test whether the rocket's living compartment is secure, several animals are put inside including a cat and a pet squirrel belonging to one of the Gun Club. A week later, the compartment is opened, but the squirrel has evidently been eaten by the cat. The distraught owner wants to put its name on a monument as a martyr For Science!.
  • Large Ham: Michel Ardan and J. T. Maston.
  • Lensman Arms Race: The reason for Nicholl and Barbicane's rivalry: the former makes armor plating, the latter designs cannons. So, of course, each man's product is tested on the other's (they were both on the Union side), and the end of the war means the question remains unresolved.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Captain Nicholl, as Ardan and Maston find out the day of the duel. He's a massive animal lover.
  • Journey to the Sky: Originally, the plan of the members of the Gun Club was to merely shoot a large bullet to the moon for the sake of experimentation, but then Ardan suggested to them the idea of building a hollow projectile so they could launch themselves to the revered satellite. The voyagers manage to execute the launch, but don't actually manage to land on the moon as they end up stuck in decaying orbit and land back in the Pacific. This concept is revisited in the book's first sequel (Around the Moon), and inspired the idea of Interplanetary Voyage in fiction and eventually real life.
  • The Mountains of Illinois: Although Verne gets full marks for locating the launch site in Florida, he loses half of it for digging the gun into a hill much taller than the highest spot in the state.
  • National Anthem: "Yankee Doodle" serves as one here, since at the time, the United States didn't have an official national anthem.
  • Nobody Poops: The inside of the shell is about 2.5 meters in diameter or roughly the size of a minivan's interior, it holds three men and a significant quantity of luggage stowed in wall-mounted wooden cabinets for a few days. Neither the book, nor 1865 illustrations have any hint of any toilet facilities. Being the Victorian Age, nobody even asks questions.
  • Omnibus: Nowadays, the first two books are issued as one.
  • One-Liner, Name... One-Liner: "White all, Barbicane, white all!" (they are playing domino)
  • Only Sane Man: Barbicane is this to the Gun Club.
  • Patriotic Fervor: Again, the American people.
  • Pet the Dog: Captain Nicholl, who misses his duel with Barbicane since he stopped on the way to save a small bird who has got stuck in a tarantula's net.
  • Sequel Hook: From the Earth to the Moon ends with some uncertainty as to the fate of the astronauts, which is resolved in the sequel.
  • Scenery Porn: Around the Moon contains loving, highly-detailed descriptions of the Moonscape the astronauts are passing over. Unfortunately, virtually every word of it is wrong.
  • Science Fantasy
  • Shown Their Work: Verne went to great lengths to specify solid numbers to support the characters’ plan.
    • From Earth to the Moon has become somewhat famous for this, where Verne correctly predicted not only the location the astronauts would launch from, but the height and weight of the craft, the number of astronauts, and was accurate to being only about two and a half miles off from where the craft splashed down. Oh, and the projectile looks suspiciously like the command module. The book was popular with astronauts, and Yuri Gagarin read the Russian edition a lot.
    • And in Around the Moon, he predicted most of the activities the astronauts would do in 1969 (with the exception of Ardan spraying perfume everywhere) and, near the end, a prototype of satellite communication.
    • There was one inaccuracy though: Verne assumed the price of aluminium in 1865 conditions to be $9 per pound ($19.8 per kg), which would have made the projectile the most expensive part of the entire project. In practice, aluminium in 1859-1865 conditions was worth more than $40 per kg (and this was a great step forward from the 1850-1855 level of technology, which made aluminium more expensive than gold). At that particular step in time, there had been a wave of pro-aluminium enthusiasm in the French upper circles, it had been seen as the metal of the future and Emperor Napoleon III himself hoped the French Army could be equipped with lightweight armor made from it. And then just 20 years later the electrolytic Hall–Héroult process was invented, which radically dropped the prices and made the aluminum cost basically only about the price of electricity it is made with — today the cost of energy is ~40-50% of the overall cost of the primary aluminum, the ore extraction, purification, delivery and the end metal distribution taking the other half. So, it's more the case of the Tech Not Marching On fast enough.
  • Soft Water: A key element of both the return to Earth and testing the shell's shock-absorbing system is the fact that falling into deep water completely eliminates the force of impact. Oops.
  • Space Is Cold: Specifically, -140ºC (-220ºF), as measured by sticking an alcohol thermometer outside the projectile for a few hours. One of the more realistic depictions, as cooling isn't instant, and is only an issue when the astronauts are out of direct sunlight for a while.
  • Trigger-Happy: Most of the Gun Club, but J. T. Maston deserves a special mention.
  • Trip to the Moon Plot: Although they don't actually land there, only orbit.
  • Unknown Rival: Averted: Nicholl and Barbicane are very much aware of each other's existence (see Lensman Arms Race), but they've never met in person thanks to mutual friends. The trope comes in full force when the end of the war prevents Nicholl's latest invention from being tested, he demands Barbicane shoot it from ever-shorter distances, but he refuses. Nicholl's final offer is to put his plate at twenty-five yards from the cannon and stand behind it, Barbicane answers that were Nicholl to stand in front of it, he wouldn't fire.
  • Wacky Americans Have Wacky Names: Subverted with Impey Barbicane - while he has a wacky name, he's a serious character, and the normally named J. T. Maston is much wackier than him.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Maston was more than willing to start a war with France because they laughed at an American and another war with Mexico only to acquire land for the launching, never mind the fact that they already had land below the latitude required. In The Purchase of the North Pole, the Gun Club didn’t seem to mind that tilting the axis of the Earth would provoke floods in other parts of the world.