The Moon is Hell

Hannes Bok cover to the 1951 Fantasy Press edition/

The Moon is Hell by John W. Campbell
Gateway/Orion, 2011
Originally published by Fantasy Press, 1951
Price I paid: $2.99

John W. Campbell was the man who made modern science fiction what it is today. As editor of Astounding Stories (later Analog), Campbell brought into the field such all-time greats as Asimov, Heinlein, Sturgeon and many others, while his own writing blazed new trails in science fiction reading pleasure. The Moon is Hell is this great writer-editor’s vision of the first men on the moon – written 18 years before Neil Armstrong made history. This is the story of the American space programme – not as it happened, but as it might have been.

From Goodreads

Well, seeing as how this weekend marked the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11, I figured it was only appropriate that I commemorate that with a review of a book about the Moon, and, if possible, one about landing on it.

I didn’t come into this weekend with this book in mind. I started out trying to choose between two others: The First Men in the Moon by Wells and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Heinlein. My logic was something like “Well, everybody knows about the Moon Landing, so maybe it would be appropriate to read a book that everybody already knows about.” I didn’t like that justification so I kept looking, and that’s when I hit upon this book.

Campbell is a giant of the field in his own way, so that tiny bit of logic can still be satisfied, but I was more familiar with his work as an editor than a writer. Sure, I knew about Who Goes There?, but mainly by the fact that it was later filmed as The Thing. I’ve never read it. This is, in fact, my first exploration of Campbell as a writer.

I grabbed a Gateway eBook and then set about reading!

A note on the title: It seems to go back and forth, but some editions call this book The Moon is Hell! and others leave out the exclamation mark. Also, Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven!” was released in 1948, three years before this book, and it seems to me that the similarity in titles is less than coincidental. I can’t find any confirmation of that, though.

[Update: Apparently the exclamation mark is used when the title is used as the name of collections in which the story appears. So, for instance, the first edition included the story, no exclamation mark, and a story named “The Elder Gods,” so the entire edition is The Moon is Hell! Because the edition I read was just the titular story, it gets no exclamation point. I’m sure you all find that as interesting as I do.]

I’ve seen a fair number of online people call this book something akin to a Great of Hard Sci-Fi, but I found it neither great nor especially hard. Sure, it doesn’t have warp drives or psychics, but there was a fair amount of “science” here that seemed pretty magical, or at least completely unexplained. Magical in the Clarke’s Law sense, you might say.

And the story itself was just okay. If you want to get picky about genres, you could call it a blending of Robinsonade and Competency Fantasy, a pair of genres you might remember being blended more recently in The Martian. I’ve seen at least one person claiming that Andy Weir ripped off Campbell, but c’mon, Stranded in Space is one of the most well-worn paths the genre can take. And that’s fine!

The story is a pretty basic one. Thirteen astronauts land on the Moon for what is to be the first long-term mission on the Moon. They are to remain there for two years and learn everything they can so that perhaps one day the Moon can serve as a forward base for humanity’s further expansion into the cosmos.

[Correction: Fifteen astronauts landed on the Moon, and thirteen survived. For some reason, the cast list at the beginning of the book only lists the survivors? I don’t think it does, though. It claims to, but I’m 90% certain that more than two people died throughout the course of this book.]

It’s not surprising that the story is extremely dated, and that’s not something I can hold against it. Despite that, there are a lot of decisions that the characters make in this book that are completely bonkers no matter what the tech level is. Those decisions are made less by the astronauts themselves and more by whoever decided this mission would get the go-ahead.

This novel is the story of the second time anyone has set foot on the Moon. The previous mission, five years prior to this story, lasted two days. So now we’re jumping straight to a two-year mission, with nothing in between. That seems less than sensible?

And furthermore, the location of the landing site is the worst possible decision anybody could make. See, our astronauts are to set up their base on the far side of the moon. Campbell’s fiction is hard enough that this means that they are completely cut-off from communications with the Earth unless they pick up all their stuff and walk to an area where they have line-of-sight. The book establishes that this is a 1500 mile journey.

This is a novel written before the invention of the communications satellite. Dang, it predates Sputnik by six years.

(On the other hand, Arthur C. Clarke was circulating papers demonstrating the feasibility of comsats in 1945.)

But it’s unfair to say that Campbell should have also invented the idea so that his astronauts could communicate with Earth. What he gets the blame for is setting up a plot where the astronauts were completely cut off in the first place.

Why couldn’t they have landed on the near side of the Moon? Well, there’s an explanation for that, but it’s also ridiculous. I mentioned that this is the second mission to Luna? Well, the first mission was some guy who laid claim to that half of the moon. They can’t land there because it would be trespassing.

Why would someone be allowed to do that in the first place? If the governments of Earth are going to allow someone to claim half the moon for themselves, why not the whole damn thing? Where does it stop?

And even then, if you have to land on the far side, why do it so that you have to trek 1500 miles to do anything? Land right on the stupid border, for heaven’s sake!

Check my math, but I think they landed on the exact opposite side of the Moon from Earth? Or close to it? The Moon has an equatorial circumference of about 6700 miles.

It’s a series of details that only serve to raise the stakes, but they do it in such a contrived and obvious way that it makes me frustrated.

It would be one thing if this were a story of governmental bureaucratic idiocy, but there’s no indication of that, and I feel like if it were supposed to be, we would know.

See, the tale is told as a series of journal entries by one of the astronauts, Dr. Thomas Ridgely Duncan, the second-in-command. I give you his name like it matters. All of the astronauts had the same general personality and voice and I generally couldn’t tell them apart.I imagined every single one of them looking like Johnny Unitas.


The storytelling method worked fine. I rather enjoyed it. Each entry in the journal was a few paragraphs long, so the book was broken up into bite-sized chunks that made it easy to pick up for a few minutes of reading. It was presented as a journal published after the mission, and Campbell did a solid job of keeping it a mystery whether the journal was published after a rescue or if it was found on Duncan’s frozen corpse.

Anyway, my point here is that if this were a tale of a mission planned by incompetents in a hurry or some such, I would have expected him to mention that.

Even Duncan lacks much of a personality, and we’re in his head for the whole book. I think I might have been more invested in the story if the characters had been more than stock scientists, but your mileage may vary. Their names and jobs are all listed at the beginning of the book, but after a short while it was clear that consulting that list would just be a waste of time.

The mission parameters called for a resupply at some point, and that’s where everything starts to go wrong. The resupply fails and the rocket crashes. Because everything is taking place on the far side of the moon, Earth won’t even realize that anything is wrong for months, after which it will take them even more months before they can outfit a new rocket, get supplies together, and send off a new resupply.

Why were there no contingencies in place? Hell, once it becomes clear that a new mission needs to be launched, it ends up crashing too because there are no trained rocket pilots on Earth. Did they send every single one of them to the Moon? That seems like a bad idea! Maybe we should make sure we have a surplus of rocket pilots before sending them to the Moon?

Our astronauts are able to survive by their own genius and training. It seems incongruent that they are so perfectly trained and prepared while every other aspect of this mission is so poorly conceived. Why didn’t any of these geniuses stop and go “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this in the first place?”

Nevertheless, they’re able to find all sorts of resources on the moon and put them to good use. They’re able to break down moon rock into oxygen, and then use electrolysis to convert oxygen and hydrogen to water and back as needed. They use silver and gypsum to create solar cells for power. They find ways to keep warm during the lunar night and cool during the lunar day. A lot of it is rooted in real—or at least theoretical—science, and for that I give Campbell some credit.

But other aspects turn out to be just short of magic. As food supplies dwindle, the mission chemist develops some artificial food. It’s never described how he does it, he just sort of makes it happen from chemicals. He’s able to synthesize proteins and carbohydrates and vitamins. It’s all very well and good, until it’s not.

See, these artificial foods are, at first, used to supplement the supply of real food. Once the real food runs out and the artificial stuff is the only thing left, it’s discovered that it is not, in fact, a perfect substitute. Again, there’s some scientomagic going on here, but it turns out that there’s something in real food that they’re not able to synthesize. They never discover what it is, despite looking. It’s just some…thing. Whatever it is, it’s necessary to survival, so while our heroes are able to fill their bellies with carbs and proteins and vitamins and minerals, they’re still starving to death.

The results of that are a bit gruesome. Their muscles start to break down, and in one case someone’s flesh tears open after a small wound and they bleed to death. Whatever the thing that’s missing is, it seems to have something to do with the body’s ability to repair itself.

It’s another case of Campbell having to stop and ask himself what he can do to raise the stakes again. After all, if his scientists are so brilliant that they can successfully create food and water and power and air on the moon and survive indefinitely, there’s no conflict, right? So he has to pull “there’s some kind of something that makes it not work, I dunno, I’m not even gonna try to name it” to keep the story going.

But then, right as the astronauts are on the verge of death, the rescue mission shows up and, as if by magic, has figured out what this mysterious element of food is, and is able to feed it to our survivors so that they can make the trip home.

Why didn’t they just bring real food?

Why did any of this have to happen?

The only reason anything in this tale was able to happen was because every single decision was the wrong one. Of course, the alternative to that would be that there’s no story, right? I dunno, I think there were alternatives. It could have been a story of the astronauts going stir-crazy, or suffering from interpersonal problems during their stay. I mean, there was even a tiny subplot where one of the astronauts was stealing food throughout the story. His reason was, apparently, to kill all the others so that he could lay a claim on the far side of the moon all by himself. He ends up being executed.

Again with the ridiculous land-ownership element.

As a story, most of this book didn’t need to happen. As science, it has some fine bits and some really hokey ones. As prediction it got every single thing about future moon exploration wrong, down to the fact that the book takes place in 1981. Campbell set the book nine years after we stopped going to the Moon! I love it. I can’t hold that against him. It’s not his fault, really. He was writing from a time when even basic satellites were unheard of. Predicting a Moon landing thirty years in the future is the least of this book’s sins.

The book is a relic of its time, and it’s useful to us on that front. It’s fun to read about what someone in 1951 seriously thought the Moon would be like, what it would have to offer for us, what challenges it would present, and how we would rise to meet those challenges. It’s a fine companion piece to something like Destination Moon, which came out a year before and has its own issues, but is still entertaining in its own right. I hope. It’s been a while since I last watched it.

In the end, I’m glad that the real-life Moon missions were a bit better planned-out. That’s the main takeaway.

(We can also take with us the fact that, along with his racism, defense of obvious quacks and cranks, belief that the US Government had no right to regulate such things as thalidomide and tobacco, and attempted justifications of slavery, Campbell was wrong about a lot of things.)

3 thoughts on “The Moon is Hell

  1. Campbell’s name has been ringing in my ears since I first started reading science fiction, but I take a contrarian view of his excellence. Several things converged in the late thirties and on through the forties that made the Golden Age of Science Fiction: Campbell, a crop of really good writers, an economy that would support science fiction magazines (before television was a competition), and the maturing of actual aero-space science. A man made vehicle (a V-2) reached space in October 1942; most people don’t realize it was that early.
    Remove Campbell from the mix, and the Golden Age would probably still have happened.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know about that. John Campbell might have been an unlikeable kook with a penchant for pushing pseudo-science later in his career. But the writers that were there at the time don’t seem to agree with your assessment that the golden age was inevitable. And science fiction was around before the Campbell became an editor.

    The writers that were popular in Gernsback’s time didn’t just decide to call it quits. Their stories were no longer accepted for publication because they didn’t live up to Campbell’s standards. And Astounding wasn’t the only science fiction magazine. But it was most popular, because of Campbell’s editorship.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll admit, there is probably a bit of author’s bias against anyone in the chain of gate keepers who takes credit for an actual author’s work. Still, it reminds me of a governor who says “I created a hundred thousand jobs” when he doesn’t own a company.

      Liked by 1 person

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