Old science magazines can be an unexpected source of pathos. I own a copy of National Geographic from February 1958 that features, among other topics, a long piece titled “Exploring Our Neighbor World, the Moon.” It was that February when the U.S. Senate convened a committee with the aim of establishing a new government agency to explore outer space. Several months later, NASA would be born. The first moon probes would not follow until shortly thereafter. So, this article, which describes in detail a stroll on the lunar surface, is largely a work of speculative fiction.
This is my favorite kind of writing about the moon, untainted by too much direct knowledge. I like, especially, H.G. Wells’ heroic effort in 1901—The First Men in the Moon is breathtaking because it was so far off the mark. When Dr. Cavor’s homemade space sphere lands in the basin of a vast crater, the surface appears dead on arrival: “a huge undulating plain, cold and gray, a gray that deepened eastward into the absolute raven darkness of the cliff shadow.”
The sphere sits on a hummock of snow, but it’s not frozen water. The dust we now know to be pulverized rock is, in Wells’ imagination, a layer of frozen oxygen. But as the sun rises, the dead satellite undergoes a phantasmagorical change. The drifts of air boil and become gas, supplying an atmosphere. The warmth awakens a dense jungle of dormant plants—“miraculous little brown bodies burst and gaped apart, like seed-pods, like the husks of fruit; opened eager mouths that drank in the heat and light pouring in a cascade from the newly-risen sun.”
Every moment more of these seed coats ruptured, and even as they did so the swelling pioneers overflowed their rent-distended seed-cases, and passed into the second stage of growth. With a steady assurance, a swift deliberation, these amazing seeds thrust a rootlet downward to the earth and a queer little bundle-like bud into the air. In a little while the whole slope was dotted with minute plantlets standing at attention in the blaze of the sun.
Wells does something I’m constantly asking of my creative writing students: he interlaces setting with action. This is not a landscape but an action painting. As the snow melts and pods germinate, the sphere comes unmoored and tumbles off its perch, rolling deeper into the crater, as if life itself were drawing it in. In the process our two astronauts are bloodied and knocked unconscious.
This isn’t just a crafty deployment of setting; Wells captures the essence of astronomy. The science began as a means of measuring seasons so that humans could master life on earth—turn wild plants into dependable crops and predict the migration of game. It evolved into a pursuit of more remote game, life beyond our little globe.
Wells’ moon is not astronomy but the dream of astronomy. He persuades his readers that—given the presence of energy, liquid water, and carbon—life beyond earth is inevitable. Even in the briefest hours of a lunar summer, life insists. Without the hope of speculators like H.G. Wells, the Senate subcommittee might never have come to order in February of 1958.
“‘Life!’” he goes on. “And immediately it poured upon us that our vast journey had not been made in vain, that we had come to no arid waste of minerals, but to a world that lived and moved!”
My latest novel, The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering, tries to imagine a world that has turned its back on astronomy. Rumors of the last surviving observatory draw a group of damaged people on a road trip to the Atacama Desert of Chile. What they discover there is a facility based on the Very Large Telescope (VLT), a remote array built by the European Southern Observatory atop Morro Paranal. The location is significant. Humidity in the desert is among the lowest on earth. The weather almost never changes, so the skies are dependably clear. For scientists who live and work there, the desert poses challenges. The landscape is apparently lifeless, comparable, some say, to the surface of Mars. Residents complain that it’s difficult to sleep because of the oppressive silence. Likewise the dryness makes it difficult to breathe.
In my research I spoke to Dr. Franck Marchis, now at SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), who pulled a long stint at the VLT. He told me a remarkable story about the persistence of life even in this barren land. In the scant moisture that forms under rocks, he found tiny insects. There were unconfirmed sightings of a desert fox. Once, during his tenure there, a rare weather pattern brought rain from Bolivia. In hours, the hillside erupted with blossoms.
As he spoke, rapturously, about this event, I thought of Wells. Here was an astronomer, like the first men in the moon, rhapsodizing about organisms in a dead world.
While certain religions insist on the specialness of earth and its inhabitants, another ancient instinct pulls us in the other direction—an urge to discover life in the most desolate-seeming outer places. As much as we like to feel special, we do not want to be alone. H.G. Wells paints that urge on the blank canvas of the moon.
Within hours after the rains passed, Dr. Marchis said, the flowers had all died, and their stalks had shriveled beneath the red sand to wait.
Jeffrey Rotter is the author of The Unknown Knowns, which was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. His writing has appeared in The Oxford American, The New York Observer, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. He has assembled modular furnishings at NORAD, dressed up as Clifford the Big Red Dog for Texas school children, and written romance copy for flower-seed packets. He now resides in Brooklyn, New York, where he’s edging ever closer to Green-Wood Cemetery and the eternal verdict of the earthworm.