The Moon Gun

Science inspires science fiction, and science fiction inspires science. Jules Verne came up with a highly impractical method of travelling to the moon by loading a space module in a giant gun and shooting it at the moon in his book De la terre à la lune (From Earth to the Moon). This and The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells inspired Georges Méliès to create Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), possibly one of the earliest special effects movies. These early creations made the moon trip synonymous with the fantasy world of future space travel. American engineer Robert H. Goddard predicted early in his career that rockets will one day take men to the moon. Although he was widely ridiculed for his prediction, the idea remained in the public psyche. It was a long buildup to the actual moon landing in 1969, a little over a century after the publication of the Jules Verne novel.

But what happened to Jules Verne’s gun idea? Some scientists say that a gun is actually a more economical way to project objects into space than a rocket. The large g-force that will inevitably accompany the firing will make it an unsuitable instrument for human space travel, but it could be a good supplementary method for launching supplies and small satellites. At least one person, a Canadian inventor named Gerald Bull, thought such a device was feasible. He designed and sold military guns in hopes of earning enough funds to realize his dream. He made and broke alliances trotting the globe in pursuit of his obsession. While most people in the world were not interested in such a far fetched idea, he found an unconventional sponsor in Saddam Hussein, at the time, the president of Iraq.

The proposed gun would have been 156 meters long with a barrel 1 meter in diameter on the inside. It was to be called Big Babylon. If it worked, it would have sent small projectiles into low earth orbit at a tenth of the cost of conventional rockets. Saddam Hussein’s condition for the sponsorship of this project, however, was that Bull also work on his military artillery project. This was before Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and he was considered a major threat in the Middle East, particularly to Israel. Before Big Babylon was completed, Bull was killed by unknown assassins. Some speculated that it was the work of the Mossad, but no evidence could be found. Iraq invaded Kuwait five months later. Parts of the proposed space gun, which never made it to Iraq, are now on display in museums.

There is a spy thriller in there somewhere. Stories inspire stories. Just like the biography of R. H. Goddard, who never lived to see his dream of a moon rocket come true, the biography of Gerald Bull is full of twists and turns, obstacles and leaps of faith; a tortuous tale of a man circumnavigating the twisted paths of fate, seeking validation of his vision, until finally he is martyred for his own indulgence: A tale of a dream gone wrong.

The word “lunacy” has its origin in the word for moon. The full moon is supposed to make us quirky, romantic, inspirational, and prone to far-fetched thoughts. The science of the mid 19th century was full of lunatic thoughts, like travelling to the moon. A lot of stories started in that lunatic period. Hard science may be as dull as bricks and mortar, but it is the lunatic visions that power its progress.

One day I arrived home late from school. I explained that I was in the library engrossed in George Orwell’s 1984. My father, who apparently knew nothing about the book other than that it was a book written about the near future (at the time) by someone who lived shortly before our time, went off on his usual tirade about science fiction and what a waste of time it was to read such rubbish. He had repeatedly told me that science was the antithesis of fiction and only in deceit shall ever the twine meet. In his view, science fiction was worthless, since science was progressing so rapidly in the modern era that fiction writers were no longer able to predict the future that had not yet been predicted by scientists. I believe he was wrong on both counts. Fiction writers continue to conjure wild visions of the future that not even the most imaginative scientists can project, and if writers lost their ability to do so science fiction would still not be worthless, since forecast was never its intended function.

Science fiction, like naturalism, was the indirect product of the Age of Reason. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the era when people still believed in ghosts, but more importantly, God. Audiences after the Age of Reason no longer believed in ghosts and had a substantially subdued fear of God. Stories that depended on the society under the all seeing Big Brother that was God, and his very real henchmen, along with the belief in angels, ghosts, curses, and monsters of all kinds, no longer carried the same punch as they used to. Reason somehow narrowed the range of human experience by taking away magical elements from the realm of fiction. In response, some authors turned to the wonders of the natural world, while others turned to the strange world of science.

Some people have suggested that Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are about the use of psychedelic substances. Actually, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was an Euclidean mathematician who was mocking the then new mathematical theories involving irrational numbers and imaginary numbers. He demonstrated better than anyone else that structured thought could inspire the opposite.

Although people had stopped believing in ghosts in the graveyard, people could still suspend their disbelief and wonder if perhaps there might be life on Mars, and even that they might be more intelligent than the people on Earth. People who had long stopped believing in sea monsters could still be persuaded to be briefly frightened at the possibility that there might be an undiscovered species of giant squid in the ocean’s greatest depths. Long after real lions were transplanted to the zoo in London, and were no longer mythical creatures, people who understood that there were no lions to be found in the Forests of Arden could still be stirred at the thought that some dinosaurs, that had escaped extinction, might still be prowling the depths of the Amazon jungle. The role of science fiction was to re-expand the realm of the imagination that had been downsized by Reason.

Why is it so important to believe in something that does not exist? My father would have called it a waste of time on a pipe dream. And yet we instinctively understand that we would be losing something precious, and have, when we stopped believing in unreality; when we stopped believing in ghosts and fell distant from the torments of Hamlet. Something deeply human is intrinsically linked to our ability to believe in things we do not see.

Why do actors become actors, musicians become musicians, and scientist chase after the Nobel Prize they will probably never win? Nobody is ever born a success or a failure. Nobody can ever see their own future selves. Yet we aspire to be something we can only see in our imaginations. All human endeavor is founded on an imagined vision. Our ability to be emotionally moved by an imagined picture is the very foundation of our lives, indeed of all civilization. Even as we pumped our brains full of reason, it was our hearts that needed to be filled with new and more outlandish dreams. And this dead heat race between the reason in our brains and the dreams in our hearts is what powered literature. We read it to exercise our hearts as much as to inform our brains.

Science fiction, like everything else, is the inevitable consequence of this struggle between reason and dreams. And that is why humanity can never escape the moon gun.


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