RogerBW's Blog

The Brick Moon and Other Stories, Edward Everett Hale 02 February 2022

1899 collection of variously SF, polemic, and whimsical stories.

Hale, quite an odd chap in many respects, is probably best known for the patriotic piece The Man Without a Country, but I read this collection because it contains the first account of the launching of an artificial satellite.

"The Brick Moon", published in 1869-1870, is that account. The North Star serves as an easy way to determine latitude (in the northern hemisphere, though that's never mentioned); how to determine longitude? Clearly, an artificial satellite that orbits at a fixed longitude, so that anyone can point a sextant at it and measure its elevation. But this is no mere geosynchronous object (he hasn't spotted that quirk of orbital mathematics); instead, this thing is to be in a polar orbit four thousand miles up, passing over the same points on Earth each time round. (This is not a thing that orbits do, but the rotation of the Earth seems to be generally ignored here.)

It is to be made of brick, because he has worked out that at orbital speed it will be heated in its brief passage through the atmosphere, and iron would simply melt. (How will he get it going that fast? Why, he'll run it down a track until it hits a pair of extremely fast-spinning flywheels, and is thus precipitated into the air at a precise speed and trajectory, and not for example smashed into tiny pieces. Yes, well, Hale was a Unitarian minister, not an engineer; he casually invents spurious engineering detail to bamboozle the self-satisfied.)

Of course, first money has to be raised to build the brick structure, flywheels, etc., and one of the conspirators has conveniently become a railroad baron since they first thought of all this thirty years ago, starting by reviving the fortunes of a single company:

He advertised boldly the first day: "Infant children at treble price."

The novelty attracted instant remark. And it showed many things. First, it showed he was a humane man, who wished to save human life. He would leave these innocents in their cradles, where they belonged.

Second, and chiefly, the world of travellers saw that the Crichton, the Amadis, the perfect chevalier of the future, had arisen,—a railroad manager caring for the comfort of his passengers!

Some of the conspirators get accidentally launched in the Moon with their families (so smoothly that they don't even notice), but as it turns out that's fine; Darwin is right, so "we began with lichens and have come as far as palms and hemlocks", and they get livestock with the same rapidity. Indeed, there's a theme here which recurs in several of these stories, that the ideal society is a small group of people living entirely disconnected from everyone else.

It's most interesting, I think, for its solutions to problems in an era before radio, or most powered flight – Henri Giffard's steam-powered dirigible flew in 1852.

"Crusoe in New York" has a master carpenter realising that a patch of land in New York, fenced off for the benefit of millionaires' heirs who won't have any interest in it for a decade, could provide himself and his mother with a hidden dwelling, and indeed a small farm.

"Bread on the Waters" is a sentimental Christmas story in which Doing Good is Rewarded.

"The Lost Palace" prefigures Starman Jones and its ballistic maglev trains: here, someone comes up with the idea of leaping a steam train across a gorge rather than slogging up to a bridgeable point and back, and tries it with a fully-laden train. It lands perfectly, and the passengers don't even notice, but one of the luxury cars is lost en route. Nobody seems to grieve much, though they don't try it again.

"99 Linwood Street" has a new immigrant looking for her brother in Boston.

"Ideals" has four couples making a new home in Mexico so as not to be bothered by the trials of Life.

"Thanksgiving at the Polls" tells of polling-stations that our hero realises are untenanted but habitable, so he starts to live in one, and attracts a crowd of fellow immigrants and unfortunates.

"The Survivor's Story" is a tall tale that seems to have no point at all.

The thematic repetition gets wearing, and really I could only recommend the titular story out of these – and that primarily for historical interest. Still, it has its moments.

I was pointed at this by BigJackBrass ("recommended" would not be fair to him). Freely available from Project Gutenberg

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