From the Earth to the Moon (De la Terre à la Lune) is one of Verne’s most immediately recognizable novels, the first part of a duology in which a typical trio of Vernean adventurers ride a bullet fired from Florida around the Moon. First published in 1865, From the Earth to the Moon ends rather abruptly, right after the successful launch of the projectile; for what happens to our adventurers, readers had to wait until 1870, when the sequel, Around the Moon (Autour de la Lune), was published. In this post I will only deal with the first book.
There are apparently a number of bad English translations. I’ve opted to read this one at Project Gutenberg, which seems less problematic; if nothing else, it includes the marvellously batshit first chapter. Frederick Paul Walter has published a modern translation of this and other Verne novels.
Like its predecessors, it tells the story of a mad git hell-bent on doing something marvellous but absolutely crackers. Except that in this case it’s not just one mad git, it’s a whole gun club’s — and country’s — worth.
So far, mad gits in Verne’s novels tend to get one of two responses when they announce in a grandiose fashion that they’re off to do something crazy: the assembled multitudes say huzzah; the mad git’s companions get extremely apprehensive at the danger their mad git friend is about to get them in and try to get out of it. What narrative tension we get from Verne’s novels — again, so far — comes from that second reaction, from Axel’s sullen behaviour in Journey to the Centre of the Earth to the mutiny aboard Captain Hatteras’s ship.
We see plenty of the former and none of the latter in From the Earth to the Moon. Fresh after fighting the Civil War, the assorted members of the Baltimore Gun Club — gunsmiths and cannon-makers, most of whom have had various parts of them blown off — are casting about for something to do. These crazed gits go gaga when their crazed president, one Impey Barbicane, proposes that they build a fucking huge cannon to shoot a projectile at the Moon. In an uncharacteristic and unprecedented display of American unanimity, the country falls quickly into line behind them and the funds are raised to build said massive cannon.
The rest of the novel is filled with the kind of obsessive technical and logistical detail that we have seen a lot of so far in Verne’s works. Cambridge University provides the math; the Gun Club goes about figuring out how large a cannon is needed (900 feet) and where it ought to be built (Florida), among other things. An old rival, Captain Nicholl, bets against the enterprise; a French adventurer, Michel Ardan, arrives to propose that a manned projectile, rather than a cannonball, be fired; in the end, once even more logistics have been worked out, Nicholl and Ardan join Barbicane aboard the projectile. The cannon is fired; the projectile is spotted by telescopes in orbit around the Moon. And that’s it for the book.
It’s a return to the form we’ve seen before in The Adventures of Captain Hatteras and Five Weeks in a Balloon: single-minded adventurers; lots of technical details and calculations; no girls. It’s one of Verne’s best-known works: it’s been adapted into opera and film; and if you’ve read one or more Verne novels there’s an excellent chance that this is one of them.
But its abrupt ending is unsatisfying; From the Earth to the Moon should really be considered the first part of a two-part work. But for this project, the second part will have to wait until two other Verne novels are dealt with.