The Brick Moon
originally appeared as —
collected under one title in —
|His Level Best and Other Stories||December 2009|
The first artificial satellite
In Explorers of the Infinite, Sam Moskowitz's history of pioneering science fiction, he devotes part of a fascinating chapter, "The Real Earth Satellite Story", to the creativity of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Hermann Oberth, Kurd Lasswitz and A. N. Goncharov. But before them all, he gives primacy to Edward Everett Hale for "The Brick Moon" of 1869.
In the spirit of the age, Hale's story follows Jules Verne's novel of the Baltimore Gun Club in A Trip from the Earth to the Moon (1865), in nicely developing how a practical expedition to space might be promoted, financed, and built. Hale's protagonists are initially motivated by the desire to establish a spatial meridian so seagoing ships may establish their longitude (degrees of eastering or westering) and avoid the all-too-common wrecks from navigational guesswork.
Sam Moskowitz includes "The Brick Moon" with a brief introduction in Masterpieces of Science Fiction, his companion anthology to Explorers of the Infinite. The University of Virginia maintains an etext of "The Brick Moon".
Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909) is known today mostly for "The Man Without a Country". He was the grand-nephew of the prominent politician Edward Everett (1794–1865), whose two-hour speech at Gettysburg is remembered almost solely in contrast to the brevity of Abraham Lincoln's two-minute "Gettysburg Address". Unfortunately, "The Brick Moon" partakes of a similar windiness.
I devote some space to Sam Moskowitz here, because, page for page, his historical chapter in Explorers of the Infinite is more enjoyable reading than Hale's story. Moskowitz states:
Then as now, astronomers were among the most faithful devotees of science fiction. In 1877 ... Asaph Hall ... was the first to observe the two moons of Mars. He remembered Hale's story and wrote to the author praising its imaginative brilliance ...
But Moskowitz is only partially right here:
"The Brick Moon" is a serious story and not an attempt at humor. Many of its scientific ideas are decidedly off base, but others are almost miraculously close to the mark. As fiction, "The Brick Moon" reads easily, but like most of Hale's work, it would have been destined for literary oblivion had it not been so imaginatively prophetic.
Actually "The Brick Moon" is full of humor: some to the point of the satellite itself, much to another point which we'll get to shortly. The concept is tackled seriously, as in Hale's keen awareness of the heat from atmospheric friction; but there are many humorous touches.
Next, Moskowitz makes an important claim, then lets his enthusiasm run away again:
The most amazing fact about Hale's story of a space satellite is that until Arthur C. Clarke's Island in the Sky in 1953 it was the longest story ever written dealing only with the earth satellite theme. For, unlike the authors and scientists who came after him, Hale did not bring in the space station idea as an interesting added thought. He devoted every single word of his story to the subject.
The space station idea is not part of Hale's satellite concept. The Brick Moon is manned, but is not a traffic port or way station.
Length is not an unalloyed virtue, as exemplified by the famous contrast between Lincoln and Everett at Gettysburg. Unfortunately "The Brick Moon" is full of blather, as though the author is unconscionably padding his word-rate, in the spirit of a two-hour oration to a captive audience. Facilitating this, Hale has made the often-unfortunate choice of employing as narrator the least interesting of his satellite principals, and lets him prattle and skip all around Diana's barn while repeatedly nudging him back onto the subject. As Moskowitz judges in the second quotation above, largely as prophecy does this story escape literary oblivion.
So what is right about "The Brick Moon", besides its prophetic quality? I enjoyed the presentation of the importance of longitude for navigation, the use of rhetoric to promote the project, the building of the brickwork spacecraft, and the creative and amusingly asymmetrical use of Morse code for two-way communication with the crew when in orbit.
Further, the utopian theme, which Moskowitz notices but discounts, is a major element of the story. The Brick Moon's inhabitants constitute a fresh community deliberately untrammeled by Terrestrial laws, a sort of Harmony Aloft. Here is the best use of Hale's humor, and even the rambling prattle of his narrator does eventually bring the little details of life back around into Diana's barn after all, in orbit five thousand miles above the Earth, and very glad of it, thank you.
As an unexpected sidelight, the Sandemanian Christian belief of Hale's satellite principals was that held by the philosophical anarchist William Godwin when young, and by the great physicist Michael Faraday, in which shining names we may fairly reunite the "The Brick Moon"'s themes of utopia and science.
© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson