This book is insane, even by Jules Verne standards.
The year is 1865. The civil war has been fought and won, and the Union’s crack team of artillery scientists is 1at a loose end. They’ve spent the last several years developing new and exciting ways to kill each other, and now they’ve got a miserable stretch of peace on their hands. Fortunately, their intrepid president, Impey Barbicane, has a solution: build a giant cannon and shoot a bullet at the moon.
The United States jumps on Barbicane’s proposal with gusto, and soon the whole country has shoot-the-moon fever. Not to be outdone, a charismatic Parisian named Michel Ardan joins the venture by volunteering to ride inside the bullet. His thoughts on the whole thing are wonderfully cavalier—when asked how he’ll return to Earth once his bullet—a decidedly one-way mode of transport—collides with the moon, his response is simple: he won’t.
The story is punctuated by Vernian digressions explaining in copious (an uncharitable writer might say tortuous) detail: the origins of the solar system, the basic physics of firearms, the composition of explosive powder. These asides emerge sometimes through dialogue between the characters, sometimes form the narrator himself. While their insertion is somewhat artless, I have to say that I find these asides charming, in part because the intervening years have rendered some points startlingly inaccurate. At one point Ardan argues with a naysayer over whether or not there is any air on the moon. Ardan insists there is, and the flow of the narrative leaves little doubt that we are to assume he is correct. The following passage gives a good sense of the tone, which straddles a thin line between staying true to its premise and celebrating its absurdity:
The crowd returned its attention to their hero, whose adversary remained silent. Ardan continued his assertion, speaking without aggression or vanity. “You see, my good sir, one cannot deny with any real certainty the existence of an atmosphere on the moon. Such an atmosphere is likely somewhat thin, but the scientific consensus is that it exists.”
“Not on the mountains,” barked his opponent, not wanting to cede the point.
“No, but in the valleys, and there should be no problem for heights of a few hundred feet.”
“In that case, you’d better take care! The air’s going to be very thin!”
“Good sir, surely there’s enough for one man! What’s more, should I need to ascend, I’ll do my best to conserve it and only breathe on special occasions!”*
Mostly, though, the book’s charm shines through simply because Jules Verne loves science so. much. His outbursts feel like the literary equivalent of that dorky kid in math class with his hand thrust halfway to the ceiling, straining to be picked by the teacher to answer a question about quadratic functions. It’s that earnestness that carries the book.
The narrative itself is slight, with only the most rudimentary plot: some eccentrics decide to shoot a bullet at the moon, they build a cannon,they fire it, the end. Books from that era in general show less interest in “raising stakes” to hold the reader’s interest, allowing for digressions and a detached narrative tone that can often seem almost heartless, as if the plight of the characters was not a story to be viscerally felt, but an experiment to calmly observe and record. Verne, with his perennial interest in science, leans into this trait more than most.
The language itself I find hard to judge. As French isn’t my native tongue, I’m less attuned to changes in style and more or less accept the prose however it’s served to me. However, Verne’s earnest humor shines through even for a non-Francophone, and I found it genuinely fun to read. It may feel like a minor work compared to Voyage au Centre de la Terre, but it’s worth picking up.
*Passage translated from the French