Wednesday 21 May 2014

The Brick Moon

(May 2014)

Something of a curiosity, this. Better yet, let’s call it a curio, because that’s shorter and ends with an ‘O’ so if I type it in italics it’ll look all foreign and sophisticated.

Jurassic London continue to disappoint regarding their choice of tie-in partners; despite having a good half-a-year to sort things out since their collaboration with the Egypt Exploration Society, they still resolutely fail to deliver the long hoped for* hook-up with the Icelandic Penis Museum. This little volume instead appears courtesy of the Royal Observatory and National Maritime Museum as part of their celebrations of the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act, which is OK if you’re into that kind of thing, I guess.

Dava Sorbel’s genuinely excellent Longitude tends to hog all the limelight when it comes to the early days of geolocational precision, but the changes are ringed in this slim volume as we get Hale’s titular 19th Century novella partnered by Roberts’ more up to date sequel, Another Brick in the Moon. This sequel is an enjoyable little affair – Enemy of the State meets Lucky Jim – and acts in part to contextualize The Brick Moon within the development of SF as a genre. It thus performs for the literary aspects of the story what the forward (by Richard Dunn and Marek Kukula, boffiney types from the collaborating institutions) achieves in a more traditional manner for the science bits.

This is undoubtedly A Good Thing, because as with other slightly obscure early SF it’s perhaps easier to treat The Brick Moon as an artifact to be considered and appreciated, rather than expecting a rollocking story of plot twists and character development. I’ll refer you back to my theory that SF is really about social change, and as such it’s those aspects which date the work much more than the obviously outmoded science. In fact, in some respects at least, the way the science is blatantly abused in service of what passes for ‘the story’ is quite modern; if gravity and atmosphere are necessary to allow a little society to thrive on this tiny satellite, then gravity and atmosphere it shall have, physics be damned. As is noted in Another Brick in the Moon, even at the time this was authorial handwavium of the highest degree.

If the hard science is no more abused by then-contemporary standards than stuff produced nowadays, then the social aspects are similarly both of their time and still (perhaps depressingly) relevant. The novella was originally serialized in 1869-70, and the first half concerns itself with the construction of an artificial satellite to orbit the earth and act as a manmade equivalent of the pole star, but for the purposes of calculating longitude, not latitude. And it really is all about the construction; once the scientific rationale has been very superficially established it’s all about raising and spending money. And occasionally clay. Social aspects, see? (Not the clay.) The second half details the search for the moon once it gets accidentally launched, and then various musings on the lives of the (un)fortunate families who got stuck on it when it took flight.

There are any number of instances of, from a 21st century perspective, incredibly jarring assumptions throughout, most notably regarding gender and religion. But, putting my ‘Environmental Politics’ hat on for a moment, The Brick Moon really seems to exemplify the tension between modernity and primitivism so prevalent during the early industrial revolution. On the one hand, we can use science to solve a centuries old problem for the benefit of mankind, but on the other, it all goes quite spectacularly wrong. The modern world of finance and industry can achieve remarkable feats of engineering, but if those fail then a return to simpler times is eminently desirable. I wouldn’t want to speculate on what kind of cognitive dissonance Hale experienced when writing this story. He spends a large part of the latter half bemoaning the increasing interconnectedness of his planet and yearning for a simpler existence on a (literally) smaller world that is both more manageable and more in touch with nature, but also includes lines like this when, upon encountering a pristine wilderness for the first time, the narrator comments:

Here we were surrounded by forests, only waiting to be burned…

It’s not just me who finds that line quite shocking, is it?

Maybe it’s just my background which means I find this so eye-raising. The narrator thinks nothing of trashing an entire forest and leveraging capitalism to the hilt in order to create an artificial world, and then spends pages and pages bemoaning the end of the simple life. I think there’s a certain timelessness to that hypocrisy, unfortunately.

Anyway. The Brick Moon is about a moon made of bricks. It’s also retroactively about a whole load of other stuff as well, and while the additional material necessarily picks and chooses which aspects it emphasizes (Roberts goes fairly strong on the ‘interconnectedness is not an absolute good’ theme) their real strength is in giving you just enough momentum to set your own mental flywheels spinning. If not especially riveting, this book is certainly thought-provoking if you’re of a mind for it. A curio should provoke the curious, and this is and, clearly, does.

*by me, if no one else.


  1. Someone else who read Longitude! Why cannot I meet literate people in the meat-world?

    1. Ant - It was pretty big in the UK a few years back, iirc. Think the Beeb did a miniseries based on it. Might have been Channel 4. As to your questions, well, this is why we have the internet isn't it? Or one of the reasons, at least.

      Anon - Lovely line that, though I'll have to admit to googling it to find the source. I should probably read some Stein at some point, but so many books...

    2. kamo, wtf do you live in Japan? Keep your privacy, but since not Kanto, Kansai? Chubu? Chugoku... ?

    3. I always remember Gibson quoting it in Neuromancer.

    4. Neuromancer, there's something else I should probably read again sometime soon.

      Ant, I'm out west. Like yourself the anonymity thing is just to maintain the slightest pretence of plausible deniability should anyone who knows me (or, more to the point, who knows my wife) stumble across this blog. Sarcasm never translates well. More than happy to divulge further details via email or some slightly less public medium.

  2. Mr. Razor, Kamo, you certainly seem to be the most interesting people in the Japan ex-pat blogosphere, and I'm sure that it would be quite something to know you in real life.

    1. Thanks, I think. The downside to spending so much (well, really any) time online is that I'm now wholly unable to distinguish sarcastic from sincere without the requisite emoticons