The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The History of a Voyage to the Moon, with an Account of the Adventurers’ Subsequent Discoveries. An Exhumed Narrative, Supposed to Have Been Ejected from a Lunar Volcano (1864)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The History of a Voyage to the Moon, with an Account of the Adventurers' Subsequent Discoveries. An Exhumed Narrative, Supposed to Have Been Ejected from a Lunar Volcano was written by “Chrysostom Trueman,” the pseudonym of “H. Cowen,” a British author about whom nothing is known. The History of a Voyage to the Moon is, as the title indicates, an early work of science fiction.

The narrator of The History of a Voyage to the Moon is Stephen Howard, a British student who meets the German Carl Geister at the University of Gottingen in the 1850s. The pair hit it off immediately; Howard thinks highly of Geister and is attracted to him, and Geister finds Howard amenable as a friend. After they graduate from Gottingen they travel to Spain, where Geister, doing research in old Church archives, reads the account of a Spanish priest who, in the sixteenth century, saw the “earth rising” in the Colorado Rockies. This inspires Geister, who has always had a dream of traveling into space, and he goes to the Rockies to find the source of the “rising.” He sends a letter back to Howard, telling him of his success. Geister is scornful of the crudeness and lack of culture of the Coloradan natives, but he takes some natives with him as guides and miners, and with their help, and by following the directions of the priest’s narrative, he locates the natural elements which when mixed together create what he calls “Repellante,” an anti-gravity element. Iron is impervious to Repellante, which is good, because that will allow Geister to manipulate Repellante and pilot a ship into space. Geister meets up with Howard and the pair go to Arkansas, where they meet Butler, an eccentric Quaker inventor who takes Geister’s designs for an airtight building sized ship, The Terrinsula, and makes it a reality. Howard and Geister spend a month inside The Terrinsula, testing its airtightness and its flight capabilities, and then the pair return to the Rockies to gather more of the elements needed to create Repellante. They fight off an attack by the Apache, make more Repellante, and then have Howard create a smaller ship, the Lunaviot.

Geister and Howard pilot the Lunaviot to the moon, but are forced into a crash landing. They find that the moon has a breathable atmosphere, and even more luckily that the moon has enough water for them. (They brought months’ worth of food but little water). They find fruit-bearing trees and then watch some natives gather around the trees and hold what seems to be a religious ceremony. The natives are similar to humans in most respects but are only four feet tall. Both Geister and Howard are struck by the innocent goodness of the natives. Their first contact goes peacefully; although, they have to communicate by pantomime. Geister and Howard go to the natives’ village, Notol (also the name of the natives) and stay there for a whole year. They learn the language and get to the know the natives, and they become convinced that what they have found is a true utopia. The Notol explain that they believe that they are reincarnated Earthlings, but lacking in memories of Earth. There is no evidence to support this, but Geister and Howard meet Zilgah, the Notol Administrator of the Records, and Zilgah shows them the written history of Notol, which was founded and formed from barbarity “several epochs ago.” Geister and Howard fly around the moon on a roc-like creature and meet various Notol poets and philosophers. Geister and Howard are perfectly happy and decide that they must get word to Earth about the utopia on the moon, and they inscribe their story on some metal tablets which they enclose in a meteor, which is then sent to Earth via a lunar volcanic explosion.

As an early work of science fiction, The History of a Voyage to the Moon is of some small interest. Whether or not works like The History of a Voyage to the Moon are science fiction has been debated critics of science fiction for several decades. There are critics who feel that pre-Vernean works of scientific imagination cannot be called “science fiction” simply because there was no coherent genre in which to write these stories. This is true, as far as it goes, but there was certainly a consciousness on the part of the writers of what they were writing. The writers may not have had a word or phrase for it, but they knew they were writing stories within the same general vein as previous, similar stories. This can be seen in the dime novels, where Edward S. Ellis’ story about Johnny Brainerd (see: The Huge Hunter, or, The Steam Man of the Prairies”) and his man-shaped steam engine spawned imitators and eventually an entire genre of Edisonade stories. A similar phenomenon can also be seen in Trip To The Moon stories like The History of a Voyage to the Moon.

Cowen wasn’t doing anything particularly original in The History of a Voyage to the Moon. The novel is an updated version of the French voyages imaginaire of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, many of which dealt with travel to other worlds, and some, like Charles Sorel’s Tales of Brisevent’s Journey (original: Recit du Voyage de Brisevent, 1642) and Cyrano de Bergerac’s Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (original: Histoire Comique des Etats et Empires de la Lune, 1657), describing utopian societies on the moon. There were several stories of flight into space and to the moon written in the nineteenth century before Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865), including J. L. Riddell’s Orrin Lindsay’s Plan of Aerial Navigation (1847), which featured a scientist creating an anti-gravity field through subjecting an amalgam of mercury and steel to a strong magnetic field, and taking a spherical craft, propelled by this field, to the moon. Cowen was working in this vein. These writers may not have been able to articulate what they were writing, but they were surely aware of the nameless genre they were working in.

The difference between Verne and pre-Verneans like Cowen—and The History of a Voyage to the Moon predated Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon by only a year—is that the pre-Verneans wrote techno-fantasies in which the science of the story is not described at all, or is done through authorial hand-waving. Verne wrote the equivalent of hard science fiction; his science was as accurate and realistic as he could make it. That was more than writers like Cowen managed.

As prose The History of a Voyage to the Moon is only serviceable. Cowen takes a long time to progress beyond establishing the premise of the novel. Eighty pages pass before the Lunaviot takes off. The novel has little real action, and its characterization is one-dimensional. Most of the novel is filled with long, speechifying monologues, usually Geister’s, science lectures in the form of dialogue, and endless, rambling discursions on philosophy, life after death, Nature’s meaning, and the soul. Cowen no doubt thought his words insightful and deep; the modern reader is likely to find them less so. In addition, there is also a scene of racist ugliness involving several black grooms speaking in stereotypical dialogue.

Readers fixated on the history of pre-Verne science fiction should consider reading The History of a Voyage to the Moon. All others should give it a pass.

Recommended Edition

Print: Chrysostom Trueman, The History of a Voyage to the Moon, with an Account of the Adventurers' Subsequent Discoveries. An Exhumed Narrative, Supposed to Have Been Ejected from a Lunar VolcanoLondon: Lockwood and Co, 1864.