Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thinking "Once in a Blue Moon"

The moon has always been up there in the night sky, and for thousands of years people have speculated about traveling to it. As early as the 2nd century, Lucian of Samosata was writing about a ship being sucked into a waterspout and left on the moon. Later writers such as Johannes Kepler, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Daniel Defoe wrote about travels to the moon, and 19th century precursors of science fiction such as Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells did so as well. When Hugo Gernsback established science fiction as a literary genre, stories of the first trip to the moon were commonplace.

But once you’ve reached the moon, then what? What comes next? That’s the logical question to ask, and Harl Vincent asked and answered it in “Once in a Blue Moon”, written in 1931 and published in January 1932 in the Winter issue of Amazing Stories Quarterly. The story is set two years after the first trip to the moon in 2017 by Philip Meta. Meta brought back an unknown metal alloy called lunium that proved to be the key to cheap interplanetary travel. Now, two years later, lunium-hulled ships carrying scores of men travel to the moon to mine the alloy. As yet, the moon has no permanent settlements; only the mining ships arriving and departing.

Three years as a published writer have improved Harl Vincent’s writing skills. The author avatars of his earliest stories are gone, replaced by Clark Peters, the laconic, practical pilot; Mort Saunders, the phlegmatic, aging electrician; and Slim Downey, the young, nervous spy. While not on the level of Nick Carraway and Daisy Buchanan, they are still a marked improvement over such early characters as Professor Nilsson and Roy Hamilton.

The narrative structure of "Once in a Blue Moon" is also more complex than the linear narratives of the earlier stories. The story is told from the point of view of someone looking back from three decades later, relying on the newly-discovered diary of Clark Peters to explain the fantastic events of June 6, 2019. The reader is told at the outset that the story would end with the moon spinning halfway around on its axis, and only in the final paragraphs of the story is the phenomenon explained.

Finally, a word about the story's villain, Aleck Carter. Making the villain a wealthy, unscrupulous businessman determined to increase his weath at the expense of the rest of humanity strikes a chord with the reader in 2009. We've suffered, and are still suffering, and will doubtless continue to suffer at the hands of people just like Aleck Carter. This is less surprising when you remember that this story was written in 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression. Then, as now, ordinary people suffered the consequences of greed in high places, and popular anger against irresponsible greedheads was part of the fabric of everyday life. So, it's only fitting that Vincent's story be revived now, when we in the early 21st century find ourselves reliving the dark days of the 1930s.

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