By Nicholas Gould
Part III: in which the author encounters Astronauts.
he Sages of Automobilia long ago conceived that the Race of Mankind, being by the Will of God and by their own surpassing Virtues chosen to be supreme among all created Things, were destined at length to subdue to their own Purposes not the Earth alone, but the entire celestial Universe. But until a few Years since, their Powers in no Wise matching their Ambitions, the Art of voyaging through the firmament of Heaven, though a frequent Topic for idle Speculation and the pleasing Fancies of the Authors of Popular Tales, was not held to be in immediate Prospect of Realisation. That it came to be so, was the unforeseen Consequence of an Improvement in the Science of War.
Every General wishes if he can to slay the Enemy without Risk to his own Men: and it is to this humane End that the Nations of Christendom have devised Cannons, Mortars, Bombards, Grenades and such other Devices as kill at a distance. The ingenious Strategists of Automobilia have perfected this Skill by the use of Rockets, such as I have seen in England innocently employed at Shows and Illuminations, but of immeasurably greater Bulk and Velocity. These curious Engines at once suggested to the Imaginations of the Wise a Possibility of the Fulfilment of their ancient Dream: a Man, borne upon fiery Wings, and encased in a Shell of Iron, might ascend to the Regions of Aether and discover all the Secrets of the Planets and the Stars.
To think, with this People, is to act: and it was at once proclaimed that whatever the Difficulties, the Dangers, or the Cost, the Passage of a few Years should find the flag of Automobilia planted in the soil of our planetary Neighbour, the Moon. Some few Dissenters protested that the Advantages of Lunar Discovery were at best dubious and not a Whit commensurate with the Expense such a Project must needs incur: for the Moon is revealed by the Astronomer's glass to be devoid of all Life, animal or vegetable, and he who desires a Desert may find it with greater Expediency upon Earth. But these Doubters were speedily laughed to Scorn: no great Enterprise, they were assured, could be carried to Fruition without Trouble to any Man, nor could a Cake be made, as the Saying goes, without breaking of Eggs.
Thereafter, for many Years, a large part of the Revenues of the State were directed to the Fashioning of Rockets impulsive enough to escape the Attraction of the Earth and ascend to the Lunar Sphere. Nor could the Needs of the Passengers be neglected: the perfect Vehicle must bear in its forward Parts a Cabin stout enough to withstand the cold and vacuous Wastes of that super-mundane Zone. At last all was complete: and the
prodigal and enthusiastic Temper of the Automobilians may be judged by this, that the total Cost of the Operation exceeded all the Churches and Cathedrals in Christendom. I t is even alleged by some carping and pusillanimous critics (I use my Informants' Description of them), that a less Sum would have sufficed to house, clothe and feed all the paupers in the Kingdom, and do much else besides: but the Majority of the People held the glory of their Nation of more account than the Welfare of a few Millions of poor Folk, and judged no Sacrifice too great that should speed Man's Exodus into the limitless Region of the Stars.
The Voyage, then, was undertaken: and the Astronauts (for thus were they designated)rose in their fiery Chariot like so many Phaethons, alighted at length upon the lunar Surface, and returned safe to relate their Adventures. The total Tribute of this new Dominion amounted, it is true, to some few Handfulls of Dust, like the Gold the Fairies use to cheat poor Mortals withal; but the Sages and Philosophers esteemed this Dust so highly and spoke so eloquently of the weighty Secrets it would impart to them upon a fuller Inspection, that the common People too were fain to acclaim this Vessel with its insignificant Cargo as much as any Argosy that ever returned from the Indies freighted with Gold and Silks and spices. I f any objected, that no Quantity of Dust, whatever its unusual Virtues, could fairly recompense so many Years' Labour, and the expenditure of such an unconscionable Deal of Money, he was scorned as a vile Worldling incapable of subordinating his gross material Passions to the high Purposes of speculative Science. I cannot forbear to add that in another Breath the Advocates of lunar Exploration might be heard dilating upon the mineral Riches this new-found Land must in time supply: though how such ponderous Commodities may be cheaply conveyed over the eighty thousand leagues of intervening Void, they cannot yet describe.
Such, then, is the Project upon which, more than any other, the Automobilians have bestowed their intellectual Powers. It is their fixed Belief that whatsoever can be done, should be done: i f only an Invention be possible. They do not trouble their Heads to consider whether it be useful or no, but carry it into Effect without more ado. This Impetuosity is the Origin of many of the Ills which beset them: and he would do them great Service who could persuade them at all Times to look before they Leap. In their lunar Adventure they have succeeded, where the Builders of Babel were frustrated: but the Sum of their Endeavours is this, that they have with immense Pains scaled a Ladder into the Loft or Attic of the world, only to find it full of naught but Dust. •
The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 6, October 1999 The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 6, October 1999