How Science Fiction Imagined the First Moon Landing

Has it really only been just five short decades since humans landed on the Moon? From one viewpoint, it’s a marvelous achievement. From another viewpoint, a downer—hard-working SF writers can no longer write thrilling tales about being the first man to step onto the Moon.

Of course, we now know going to the Moon is a trivial matter of harnessing a respectable fraction of the wealthiest nation on the planet’s economy for a decade or so. Old-timey SF authors thought it might be difficult, which is why they often wrote tales in which the first human landed on the Moon long after 1969.

Many such tales were published in the days of yore. Here are several that amused me.

Take the first line of Forbidden Planet’s opening monologue, for example:

In the final decade of the 21st century, men and women in rocket ships landed on the moon.

That “and women” gives the venerable film an out, of course.

Even the 2090s is much sooner than Olaf Stapledon guessed: his Fifth Men conquer space about 400 million years from now.

Still, here and there are moments of optimism. Alfred Bester’s “Adam and No Eve,” for example, depicts an attempt to reach the Moon by a visionary inventor; the mission is greatly complicated by an underappreciated side effect of the propulsion system. Bester does not give an exact date, but internal evidence suggests that his imagined launch date long predated any other fictional mission’s launch date. I’m being mysterious, but that’s because spoiler.

Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon is set in an era when Sputniks are still news and the Russians still have a lead in the space race…or so it seems. Continental Electronic’s top secret blue-sky project hands the U.S. the key to creating a secret base on the dark side of the Moon: a long-range teleporter. In fact, it is something even better than an interplanetary teleporter. It’s a matter duplicator, which means no matter how many brave Americans die up on the Moon, the U.S. can just make more copies. And they need this ability, because the other unexpected lunar development is the existence of an alien artifact that kills every explorer to venture into it…

Richard Lester’s The Mouse on the Moon (adapted from the Leonard Wibberley novel of the same title) is a sequel to the pocket duchy of Grand Fenwick’s success in conquering the U.S. Next step: the conquest of space! As in the film The Mouse that Roared, the expedition begins as Prime Minister Mountjoy’s latest attempt to separate the U.S. from a small share of its vast wealth. The key to the exercise is a faked space program. Mountjoy fails to reckon with the genius of Fenwick’s Professor Kokinz, who delivers a functioning moon rocket, powered by wine. Well, what did you expect? A rocket powered by beer?

(Usually I prefer books over adaptations but in this case the adaptation stars Margaret Rutherford, one of my favourite comic actors.)

Speaking of non-prose SF, Will Eisner’s Denny “The Spirit” Colt spent most of his career on the funny pages fighting lurid but mundane criminals. In the 1952 Outer Space Spirit, Colt and a collection of expendable prisoners are tapped to accompany Professor Skol on a foray to the Moon. Aided by Wally Wood, Eisner produced a work that, while not entirely successful, did manage to convey what a von Braunian Moon expedition armed with technology that’s really not up to the demands being placed on it might be like. Don’t get too attached to the prisoners.

Hugh Walter’s Chris Godfrey of U.N.E.X.A.  had been getting fired into space with fair regularity but like astronaut Michael Collins, Chris had yet to land on the Moon. Operation Columbus addressed that: Chris and Russian cosmonaut Serge Smyslov head for the Moon’s surface to examine the remains of an alien base that an international team had nuked in Book Two, Domes of Pico. Unfortunately, with the alien threat seemingly negated, the Soviets see no particular reason to permit a Westerner to reach the Moon first or, indeed, to return from it at all….


What are your favorite first-human-on-the-moon stories, novels, films?

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.



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