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Moonstruck: Mike Ashley on the Pull of Lunar Fiction

Posted on 18th July 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Mike Ashley has long-reigned as Britain's premier fiction anthologist and his extraordinary knowledge of the science fiction genre now shapes the British Library's new series of Science Fiction Classics. As he presents a new anthology for the series, Moonrise, bringing together some of the finest writing from the Golden Age of lunar fiction, he explores why generations of writers have fallen under the moon's magnetic spell.

For as long as humans have lived we have looked up to the skies and seen the Moon - and wondered: what is it? Is it like the Earth? Does life exist there? Can we get there?

The Sun may have inspired similar thoughts, but you can’t stare at the Sun. You can look at the Moon. You see its phases which help measure the passing of time - the word “month” comes from the Nordic word for the Moon. On clear nights, you could see many features and make out images, such as the face of the Man in the Moon. Yet we only see the same face of the Moon all the time, never the far side - the Dark Side!

The Moon has inspired our imagination and the desire to explore it has gone hand in hand with writers and visionaries speculating about how to get there and what we might find. The Moon was a major factor in encouraging what we now call science fiction. Up until we finally fulfilled our desire to reach the Moon in July 1969 with the Apollo 11 mission, there had been over two thousand years of writing and speculation about the Moon.

And perhaps, to many, the triumph of reaching the Moon was also the start of the end of that love affair. In December 1972, just three years after Neil Armstrong stepped on to the Moon, Eugene Cernan was the last to leave. Only twelve astronauts actually walked on the Moon. Their footprints remain, unchanging, waiting for us to return.

But our love affair in fiction continues. People still write books and make films about the Moon, but the Golden Age of Lunar Fiction was before the first landing when the mystery let our imaginations run wild.

My new collection, Moonrise, brings together some of the most original and ingenious ideas from that Golden Age. This began in the late Victorian period when scientific advance was sufficient to make us believe a lunar voyage was possible, and the stories selected for the collection range from the 1880s to the 1960s. The intention is to show how writers have viewed the moon and its potential for life and colonization, the mysteries it might conceal or the hope it might hold for the future. It includes works by some of the giants of the field from H.G. Wells to Arthur C. Clarke, and Judith Merril to John Wyndham as well as much rare fiction which has been forgotten over the years.

Inevitably some of the ideas and concepts included have dated wildly, but that should come as no surprise. Indeed, one of the determining factors in assembling the volume was to show how our understanding of the Moon has changed. For example, no one envisaged how every minute of the lunar missions would be monitored by television, though it is not entirely true that writers did not forecast coverage by television. These stories, therefore, do not feature the cutting edge of technological advance or scientific knowledge. There is a quaintness in our vision in the past which emphasizes just how far we advanced during the twentieth century. No one could really have imagined that after landing on the Moon we would desert it three years later. One day we will return, but in the meantime these stories show the hopes and dreams that we once held and, maybe, still do.

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