Ambiguous, longed for and desolate

Friday, June 14th, 2019

Science fiction illuminates the dreams of the new moon-rushers:

Take the origins of Pence’s reference to the “lunar strategic high ground”. In one of the first moon novels written after the second world war, Robert Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), an atomic scientist and his teenage crew discover, on what they believe to be the first mission to the moon, a base from which the Third Reich’s rump intends to rain nuclear vengeance on to Earth. Heinlein, an aeronautical engineer who was one of the first American science fiction writers to gain a mainstream audience, had seen the V-2 and the Manhattan Project make real the rocket ships and superweaponry that had been his prewar stock in trade. Such authors were highly exercised by the strategic implications. In the same month that Heinlein’s book was published, John W Campbell, the preeminent American science fiction editor of the age, published an essay by his and Heinlein’s friend L Ron Hubbard on the strategic necessity of America being the first nation to build such a moonbase for its missiles. A year later Colliers, a mass market magazine, was warning of a “Rocket Blitz from the Moon”.

The idea rode high for a decade. “He who controls the moon, controls the Earth,” General Homer A Boushey told the American press in 1958. The US air force investigated the possibility of demonstrating that control, and adding to the moon’s craters, by conducting a nuclear test on its surface, one that would be ominously and spectacularly visible to most of the world below (Carl Sagan, later to be prominent in the fight for nuclear disarmament, was one of those who worked on the project).

It did not happen. Though the Apollo programme was a crucial piece of cold war strategy, its goal was not to occupy the moon or use it as a missile base. Rather, it was to show the world the remarkable resources the US was willing to invest in advancing its technological power; the means, not the end, were the message. But Hubbard’s megalomaniacal dreams of an Earth controlled from the moon still lurks in that idea of the “strategic high ground”.

Rocket Ship Galileo used the moon not only as a way of thinking about the prospect of nuclear war, it also made it a way of understanding the aftermath. (“The moon people … ruined themselves. They had one atomic war too many.”)

These visions of existential dread led Arthur C Clarke to argue in Prelude to Space (1947), a novel about the preparations for a moon mission, that “atomic power makes interplanetary travel not just possible but imperative. As long as it was confined to Earth, humanity had too many eggs in one rather fragile basket.” That feeling informs dreams of space travel today. Musk, in particular, talks of war, pandemics, rebel AIs and asteroid Armageddons all making it vital for humans to become a multiplanetary species. A more junior Silicon Valley space mogul told me he wants to help build a moonbase for the same reason that, before cloud computing, he would back up his files to a second hard disk: something might happen. (Of course, such plutocratic panic feels dangerously close to the idea of a bolthole for the select.)

As active proponents of the new space age, Clarke and Heinlein realised that linking the moon only with nuclear catastrophe would be a poor sales pitch. To get the public on board, a more fertile idea was the dream of building human settlements on the moon, which could somehow be portrayed as both wonderful and mundane. In Heinlein’s short story “Space Jockey”, the problem facing the astronaut protagonist is not Ming the Merciless or a swarm of comets but the amount of time he has to spend away from home; the resolution is his decision to take a desk job in comfortably domestic Luna City, built under the surface of the moon. A teenager whines that “nothing ever happens on the moon”. This dualism of the familiar and the fantastic is epitomised in the motif of Earth playing the same role in the moon’s sky as the moon does in Earth’s, lighting the landscape’s darkness.

It is not a new insight; Galileo realised that nights on the nearside of the moon would be earthlit, just as earthly nights are moonlit. All early lunar fiction draws the reader’s attention to Earth waxing and waning in the alien sky as the clearest possible indication of the revolutionary Copernican insight. Twentieth-century heirs made a similar use of the image of worlds reversed. Earthlight (1955), Clarke’s first moon-set novel, opens with the accountant Bertram Sadler, new to the moon, looking out of his train window at the “cold glory of this ancient, empty land” illuminated by “a light tinged with blues and greens; an arctic radiance that gave no atom of heat. And that, thought Sadler, was surely a paradox, for it came from a world of light and warmth.”

Clarke’s paradox was made plain to see in the famous image Earthrise captured by Apollo 8: a world of warmth and light rising above the cold glory of ancient emptiness. The contrast was strong enough – the blasted basalts below unworldly and unappealing enough – that the colonised, normalised moon which Clarke and Heinlein had imagined fell back into the realm of fancy, if not that of the absurd.

So why does returning to the moon now seem plausible again? For one thing, China, or any other country, can put a man or woman on the moon with far less effort than it took the US in the 1960s: as a way to claim parity with a fading superpower, that relatively modest effort has obvious attractions. And as the effort involved has been reduced the resources in the hands of private individuals have increased: Bezos may choose, in the near-term, to yoke his dreams of expansion into space – unlocking untold wealth – to the more parochial ambitions of the US government. But that is convenience, not necessity. Being the richest person on the planet brings with it its own superempowerment.

Science fiction, too, has cast space travel in economic, rather than political, terms. Once again it is hard to avoid Heinlein, this time his novella The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950). Its main character is DD Harriman, a tycoon who, having made his fortune from other technologies, persuades and cons investors of all sorts to provide the further resources he needs to realise his true dream, the founding of a moon colony. After the sheer Soviet Union-surpassing, 2.5%-of-GDP scale of the Apollo effort became manifest in the 1960s, the story seemed quaint. Moon missions were the work of nations, not cigar-puffing wheeler dealers. Now it seems oddly prescient.

If strategic rivalry, existential fear and plutocratic caprice were the only narratives science fiction had lent the moon, one might feel justified in taking a dim view of the whole affair. But there is more. A lifeless world may again provide new insights into a living one, as it did with Earthrise. It is in such changed perspectives on worlds and their peoples that the true promise of science fiction surely lives. Heinlein’s most successful lunar novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1967), is driven by a thrilling plot. But the reason it continues to be loved by many, especially in Silicon Valley, is the strange, contradictory, savage but cosy, polyamorous, Malthusian, libertarian, utopian and carceral society it conjures as its cyborg setting. Similarly, the most striking recent novel about the moon, John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other (2017) sets itself in the “Society of Cousins”, a matriarchy inspiring and troubling, idealistic, indulgent and somewhat stifling. It is, to borrow the subtitle of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), an ambiguous utopia.

Which is as much as you can hope for. The moon, as it becomes a target for politicians, billionaires and enthusiasts inspired by science fictions past, should remain ambiguous, longed for and desolate, always the same and yet shockingly new, a strangeness sitting in the sky for all to see.


  1. Graham says:

    An inspiring passage full of comment worthy content. The Guardian always does produce good writing. I enjoy reading it when it does not enrage. I enjoy it less when it does.

    With so much content, I apologize for zeroing in for now just on this bit:

    “Similarly, the most striking recent novel about the moon, John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other (2017) sets itself in the “Society of Cousins”, a matriarchy inspiring and troubling, idealistic, indulgent and somewhat stifling. It is, to borrow the subtitle of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), an ambiguous utopia.”

    All SF matriarchies are stifling. It’s the inevitable nature of the thing, so this is a correct representation in the genre. I’m just grateful when those futures aren’t also represented as a bunch of people living in tiny villages of little huts meditating on the horrors of the old world and the wonders of their pre- or post-technological utopia. If they at least still use technology and have larger societies with some sort of political and cultural ambition, it’s less bad.

  2. Lu An Li says:

    Heinlein during WW2 worked with Sprague De Camp and Isaac Asimov on wartime secret projects at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. I would like to think there is some degree of credence to the Philadelphia Experiment and those three men were involved. But probably illusory.

  3. Kirk says:

    I look at the things the modern feminists have gotten up to, and I can only conclude that any actual ancient matriarchies would have been horrendous sh*tshows, full of depravity and dysfunction.

    There are reasons we don’t actually have many historical examples of matriarchies or other such structural absurdities: They don’t actually, y’know, work.

    Women are, as a group, fundamentally irrational–Even to other women. What was that comment some comic made, about women not liking other women because they knew them from the inside? It’s not entirely untrue–The hormonal swings and other attendant BS that comes with being the childbearing sex makes for a whole bunch of psychological issues that tend to militate against rational consistent behavior. You put the average woman in charge of anything, and you can track the dysfunction in the organization up against the ups and downs of her menstrual cycle. God help you if you’re forced to deal with that, and then there are the bitchy little cliques that form around her as she builds her coterie of emasculated “yes men” and attendant mean girls.

    Having seen the hellworlds that women create for themselves, I’m of the opinion that the only sane way to let them out into the real world would be to carefully select them against a standard of hormonal balance–”You have to be this stably sane to ride this ride…”. Either that, or we chemically castrate them so that they aren’t riding that hormonal roller-coaster. I’ve seen way too much damage done by the deranged women who’ve managed to wend their way into positions of power to ever say “Sure, let ‘em all in… They’ll do better than the boys…”.

    Reality is, if women were to be in charge of running the world, we’d still be sitting around the caves, bitching about so-and-so’s nails and child-rearing practices. Most of human progress probably stems from men’s need to get away from that shit, and to shut whatever “her” there is in their lives up.

    Matriarchies. Not even once.

    Although, there is that one in China that seems to work, for a given value of “work”. You look at the features of it, though, and you start to wonder if it wasn’t the result of the males pulling a typically female move, and “letting it happen” to their benefit, because they seem to have nice lives outside the fact they don’t know who their kids are…

  4. Graham says:

    The Mosuo! Read about them in the past. So I went looking again:

    Funny how the division of labour actually looks the same as any traditional society, in terms of what work men and women typically perform. Curious, that.

    The sexual and non-marital arrangements seem the only major variation.

    On the whole, sounds sweet.

    I had this very conversation the other day. While I am trad enough that I would like to have had and raised sons and daughters, albeit conscious it would have been an uphill battle, as I get older I can’t entirely condemn those men who just make their way through life in pursuit of pleasure at others’ financial expense and without accepting responsibility for any offspring. Genetically, pretty successful. Call it first tier masculine success. Actual fatherhood is better, but even so.

    My colleague was rather taken aback at this sentiment from me.

    At any rate, with the Mosuo, it seems to be the best of all worlds for those men.

  5. Graham says:

    Also, while I’m sure my female associates would have comparable sentiments about men, with different specific content, all that you said rings pretty true for me. I’m amazed by men who claim not to recognize these truths from personal experience.

  6. CVLR says:

    I’ve always wondered if Von Braun was the man behind America’s original active-landing rocket tech.

  7. Kirk says:

    It’s mostly denial and willful blindness, to be honest. Most of them are so enslaved to their biologies that they will put up with anything to get laid or gain favor with the women.

    It’s one reason I feel that men are inherently the weaker sex, in every regard besides physical strength and size. No willpower–You’ll never, ever hear of a reverse Lysistrata movement, although you’re seeing a bit of a beginning of one as more and more men tune out of a society that’s been warped to exploit them.

    I laugh every time I hear about “the patriarchy”, because, frankly, no such thing could ever exist in the reality of any stable civilized society–Because the features that make for stable civilization militate against any such thing ever happening. What you see happening all through the West is the end state, where most men are transformed into sitzpinkler, all because they’re enslaved to their sexual gratification.

    Friend of mine was in a particularly ‘effed up marriage, and his comment to me once was that if it wasn’t for the sex, his wife would have been dead and buried in the woods somewhere thirty years earlier.

    Her comment on another occasion was on the same lines, but to the effect that if he wasn’t a good provider and “threw good kids…”, he’d have been in a hole of her digging around the same time.

    Overall, toxic couple–With each other.

    I think we’re really doing the relationships between the sexes entirely wrong, in ohsomanyways. We’ve gotten off on a wrong track, and its going to be the death of our civilization, if something else doesn’t get us before we get it fixed.

  8. Graham says:

    Sounds like one of those marriages of people that are ideally-matched, for the benefit of the two other people thus spared them.

    I think it was Mark Twain who wrote that “nature has given women so much power, the law has wisely given them little.”

  9. Graham says:


    Interesting. No idea. But I do remember that, “Our Germans [were] better than their Germans”. So you never know.

  10. Wang Wei Lin says:


    I read part of your comment to my wife. Her observation agrees with your point. She looks at the Black culture and notes families are heavily led by women and it’s not working.

  11. Kirk says:

    Now that I’ve stuck my head up and alerted the Sisterhood, I’m doomed. Which specific point was that, again…?

Leave a Reply