The Moon Is Hell
by John W. Campbell

Review by
Ron Grube

a short novel, first published in the collection —
The Moon Is Hell
(with "The Elder Gods")

Fantasy Press: Reading, Pennsylvania; 1951 November 2001


Dear Diary: Here I am, after two arduous years on the Moon with the Garner lunar expedition. We dismantled our rocket to build the living quarters and labs, and the relief ship has just crashed. Since we're on the Dark Side, it will be at least a month before Earth would know, and at least eight months before another ship could be built. We have only enough oxygen and water for two months, and food for little more. What now?
Well, since you are in a John W. Campbell science fiction novel, you settle down, grit your teeth, and use all the ingenuity and talent you have to survive. Fifteen men started the expedition, with a wide variety of talents, and Dr. Thomas Ridgely Duncan, physicist, chronicles their heroic efforts. Campbell, always strong on self-reliance and individual effort bringing out the best in men, has a field day in "The Moon Is Hell". Circumstances push his people to feats of scientific discovery and recognition of the multitude of hidden talents people may have beyond their narrow specialties. The harsh realities of Lunar existence are shown again and again as the characters struggle for survival.

I live in an area dependent on mining. Bumper stickers here in northeastern Nevada say: If it can't be grown, it has to be mined! Campbell's characters should appeal to my friends and neighbors, because that is their solution. People have guessed for years about the untapped mineral resources of the Moon, and in "The Moon Is Hell" Campbell shows how some of those resources might be used.

Oxygen and water come from mining and roasting gypsum. Over the course of several months, this ingenious crew builds solar cells, because power is needed for extraction processes, and eventually hydrogen-powered generating equipment. Some of the mines become caves, living quarters, easier to heat or cool than the metal dome they started with. Of course, this doesn't solve the food problem. Dr. Robert Moore, chemist for the expedition, starts synthesizing foods once the other basic problems were solved:

The odor was awful, the taste nothing to boast of. But within ten minutes of eating we seemed to feel new strength coming back. Moore explained that the stuff was a synthetic protein and fat mixture, exceedingly nutritious, mixed with some of the stimulant stuff he compounded before by accident.

Somewhat later:

The very last scrap of natural food, save spices, and a can of tomato catsup, has been used now. They have been put in with the artificial foods occasionally, and now the last is gone. But barren, alternately baked and frozen Luna is supplying us bountifully from her rocks themselves.

A small group, with such limited facilities, accomplishes feats that vast government sponsored laboratories would fail to do, especially given the time pressure and living conditions. Could they solve all the problems in time?

"The Moon Is Hell" is a rather short novel and it really moves along. Campbell, a great editor and one who pushed hard science in life as well as science fiction, is doing some of his best writing here. I found the book in a bunch of oldies in my garage when I sold my house, and just couldn't stop until I finished it (for the Nth time). In a world where we are flailed daily by the media about the worst in man, this kind of reading helps renew the conviction that science, ingenuity, hard work, and good intentions can solve anything, bringing out the best in man. Maybe this isn't always so, but John W. Campbell could make you believe it. It's a welcome break from gloom, doom, catastrophe, and the glorification of the lowest common denominator.


© 2001 Ron Grube

Robert A. Heinlein shares with Campbell this concern with survival on Luna or other airless environments as a theme both future-practical and inspirational, developed in Heinlein's Future History series and a number of novels, including:

Rocket Ship Galileo
Farmer in the Sky
The Rolling Stones
Have Space Suit — Will Travel
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

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