Mike Ashley, ed. Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures (The British Library, 2018, 224 pp, £8.99) and Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet (The British Library, 2018, 224 pp, £8.99)
Reviewed by Edward Powell
These are the first instalments in the Science Fiction Classics series which, like the British Library’s existing Crime Classics, publishes significant but forgotten, overlooked or out-of-print titles. Moonrise and Lost Mars bring together short stories published between 1883 and 1963. The timeframe, then, encompasses the genre’s emergence from the scientific romance as well as the entire Golden Age. The writers hail from the USA and the UK, including some of the most iconic authors: H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, J.G. Ballard, Arthur C. Clarke, John Wyndham, Judith Merril and William F. Temple. Not all of these stories might be considered lost or overlooked: for example, Moonrise features an excerpt from The First Men in the Moon (1901) and ends, fittingly, with Clarke’s ‘The Sentinel’ (1951). Meanwhile, Lost Mars also includes a story by Wells, albeit not the one you might expect.
It is a good time to revisit classic visions of human journeys to the Moon and Mars, given the recently renewed interest in exploring and colonising the Moon, alongside continuing efforts to land humans on Mars. In the 37 years between the last Soviet mission to the Moon and China’s Chang’e-3 landing in 2013, human exploration of space appeared to have moved on from the Moon, in favour of more remote horizons to cross, including Mars and the outer Solar System. Within a year of Moonrise’s publication, though, China landed Chang’e-4 on the far side of the Moon; the Israeli Beresheet lander crashed into the Mare Serenitatis; and senior members of the Trump Administration declared their intention to return American astronauts to the Moon by 2024. Meanwhile, other developments indicate that military and economic interests in space exploration are both becoming increasingly urgent and publicly visible. India’s controversial testing of an anti-satellite missile, the creation of the US Space Corps, the launch of NATO’s first Strategy for Militarizing Space and China’s plans for a permanent moonbase all suggest that space is about to become a new theatre of war. Moreover, the increasing involvement of private ventures in space exploration suggests that we are on the verge of a scramble for the Solar System. Throughout popular culture, space exploration still continues to carry romantic connotations of human curiosity, ingenuity, endeavour and a sense of wonder not just at the vastness of the universe, but also at humanity’s ability to continually exceed our physical limitations and, by extension, our estimations of our own potential.
This tension between romantic wonder and prosaic interests runs through both Moonrise and Lost Mars, with the stories roughly falling into one of two groups corresponding to these two trends. The early stories are generally more romantic than the later ones, and their depictions of the Moon, Mars and human spaceflight appear quaint in light of contemporary knowledge. In most of these stories, both worlds have, or had once, breathable atmospheres, running surface water and life, including technologically-advanced civilisations. Indeed, there’s a strong appetite among the early stories for encounters with civilised life, or at least what’s left of it. Moreover, given when these stories were written, it’s unsurprising to see that in certain respects, these encounters resemble those of European explorers with ‘lost’ African civilisations depicted in colonial romance novels of the nineteenth century. One prominent similarity here is the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms of life that turns on sentience, techno-scientific achievement and monumental architecture. This distinction is especially noticeable in Moonrise, if only because in most cases, the first encounters with alien life depicted are made possible by another epochal moment: the first human steps on a celestial body. As such, these encounters accentuate the predictably triumphal tone with which this latter achievement is portrayed, as if it were some kind of apotheosis that establishes humanity’s status as a higher form of life whose rightful place in the universe lies beyond Earth. Humanity joins a celestial community of higher life-forms that find more common cause with one another than they do with the ‘lower’ life-forms with which they share their respective home-worlds, and with which they might otherwise be more closely associated.
Meanwhile, death hangs heavily over many of these first encounters with alien civilisations, most of which are either dead already or on the verge of extinction. Again, this is particularly notable in Moonrise, whose life-forms are either stunted or struck down by a thinning atmosphere and retreating water table. This gradual environmental crisis reconciles the fantasy of lunar life with the reality of the inhospitable environment. Equally, though, this notion of a dying Moon adds to the self-glorification described above, given the stark contrast between the near-extinct lunar life-forms and the humans, who are ostensibly on the verge of becoming a celestial life-form. In this way, the Moon and its life-forms become morbid doppelgangers of Earth and humanity, whose decline gives our human pioneers an unsettling glimpse of an Earth that couldn’t have given rise to human life. Equally, the ruins of lunar civilisations stand as a reminder for humanity that all distinctions between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ life-forms are ultimately meaningless to a nature, which is indifferent to the achievements of civilised life, and to whose whims all forms of life are vulnerable. As such, these journeys to the Moon aren’t just journeys to an alternative present but also to a possible future.
Lost Mars also features Martian civilisations, and there’s a fair amount of whimsical romance here as well. For the most part, though, the stories collected in Lost Mars are much less marked by this self-glorifying distinction between life-forms. Moreover, sentient life in Lost Mars isn’t always signalled by monumental architecture or technology, and the relationships that emerge between these life-forms and their human visitors aren’t based on mutual congratulation for belonging to a higher order of life, but rather on mutual curiosity and vulnerability, including from other human explorers. Indeed, humanity seems much less godlike in Lost Mars, and certainly much less noble, as human space exploration becomes driven not just by curiosity and a sense of human destiny, but also – and in some cases, even more so – by the pursuit of profit, the pressures of climate change or overpopulation. Most of Lost Mars is set sometime between the (undepicted) first manned landing on Mars, and a time when the atmosphere is thick enough for humans to walk under the planet’s open sky without breathing apparatus. This latter moment is anticipated as humanity’s next great achievement after landing on the Moon – that of terraforming an entire planet. But rather than a noble enterprise, the task of reaching this next ‘giant leap’ is portrayed as utterly unedifying. It involves centuries of drudgery and betrayal, tricking labourers into committing their entire lives to working through radioactive dust storms, having blood oxygenators installed in their chests to compensate for the thin atmosphere, and watching their lungs atrophy from lack of use as a result. Meanwhile, their lives are at the mercy of corporate and government functionaries – whose only concern is making sure that their employers get a return on their massive investments – and public opinion back on Earth.
The protagonists of Lost Mars seem infinitely more precarious than those of the early romances in Moonrise, at the mercy not just of the whims of nature, but also those of conflicting interests back home. In contrast, in the early lunar romances, the protagonists don’t have to worry too much about the shifting interests of politicians, corporate sponsors or the general public, given how many of them are aristocrats, billionaires, eccentric scientists, or amateur enthusiasts travelling to the Moon in homemade spaceships, financed – it seems, at least – entirely by themselves. They certainly risk their lives, but in most cases, the dangers they encounter are presented merely as exciting episodes in a whimsical adventure, overcome by quick thinking, if not anticipated by ingenious spaceship design. As such, their journeys to the Moon aren’t quite so hazardous, and their return home with no loss of life is hardly ever in doubt. By extension, neither is the inevitability of further human exploration of space, as if human extension into the wider Solar System and beyond were itself an immutable force of nature. Having said that, not all the stories in Moonrise fit this mould. Indeed, the volume’s opening story – Merril’s ‘Dead Centre’ (1954) – portrays the first manned mission to the lunar surface not as a triumph for humanity, but rather a tragedy that claims the lives not just of the first human to walk on the Moon, but also those of his wife and son, who struggle to balance the overwhelming demands of national interests with those of their personal grief. Similarly, in George R. Dickson’s ‘Whatever Gods There Be’ (1961), a group of American astronauts complete the first manned landing on the Moon, only to be stranded there after their ship falls into a sinkhole. After recovering the rocket, the astronauts discover that they don’t have enough fuel to leave the Moon with all four survivors. Meanwhile the team’s doctor discovers that their commander – the charismatic public face of the U.S. Space Program – has untreatable leukaemia. With the Space Program now in jeopardy, the doctor concludes that the future of human space exploration depends on the commander returning to Earth, regardless of how long he survives. As such, he refuses to let the commander sacrifice himself, insisting that he do so instead.
Not only are human space explorers more precarious in these stories, so is their mission, whose continuation depends on the goodwill of taxpayers, which might extend no further than the next failure. The cause of human space exploration doesn’t sell itself in these stories. Moreover, given the Cold War context in which they were first published, sending astronauts to the Moon is no longer a human achievement, but rather a national one, thus reducing that lofty goal to a mere strategic one in the much less edifying power games of geopolitics. Indeed, in Wyndham’s ‘Idiot’s Delight’ (1959), the Moon has become a strategic asset in the Cold War, with the British, Americans and Soviets having established nuclear missile silos there. As a third world war breaks out on Earth, though, the British station’s commander still holds out hope that this overtly military presence on the Moon will one day become a launch-pad for human exploration of the wider Solar System. There’s still a romantic vein, then, running through these otherwise more sedate stories, in the form of heroic champions of human space exploration who often sacrifice themselves to keep it going. Many sacrifices are made in Lost Mars as well, but most are neither self-sacrifices nor noble ones. Terraforming Mars is not an adventure, nor is it edifying.
Despite being between fifty and a hundred years old, the stories collected in Moonrise and Lost Mars resonate with the popular visions and political realities of contemporary human space exploration. These collections offer an illuminating glimpse back into the past of the future as envisioned by British and American sf writers, and the dreams and anxieties we find there aren’t too dissimilar from the ones that mark today’s visions of a celestial humanity. The stories provide a varied and exciting introduction to classic sf, including both big names and lesser-known writers. Demographically, the volumes are narrow: only two stories are written by women, and the world beyond Britain and the USA is represented solely by Canada’s Judith Merril. To make up for this, Ashley introduces both volumes with a hugely detailed overview of the histories of literary and mythical depictions of journeys to the Moon and to Mars, running from antiquity to the present day. Each story is prefaced with some brief information about the author, along with useful information to contextualise the story historically and literarily. Sadly, typographical errors abound throughout both volumes, to the point that they become distracting. Overall, though, Moonrise and Lost Mars are a timely look back on the visionary roots of contemporary space exploration.