Friday, February 3, 2012

Review - Explorers on the Moon by Hergé

Short review: Tintin and all his friends go to the moon, but evil doers want the secrets of the moon for themselves. Tintin does no reporting.

A flight to the moon
Drunks, meteors, growing hair
And a traitor too

Full review: Explorers on the Moon is the second half of the story begun in Destination Moon (read review) in which Tintin and his friends take a little jaunt to the moon and back. Just to make this entirely clear, in my opinion this is the best book of the entire Tintin series. It is also my favorite, which probably goes a long way towards explaining why I think it is the best book. A story of pure exploration and discovery leavened with just enough action and intrigue, this book represents the pinnacle of the Tintin series and a book that is sure to make any child who reads it look up at the moon and wonder why we aren't exploring it any more.

The story begins with Tintin, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, and Calculus' assistant Frank Wolff unconscious on a nuclear rocket hurtling into outer space. And of course, because it makes sense to have a dog along for a lunar trip, Snowy is riding along with them too. Having a dog along for the moon journey seems a bit strange, especially when one considers that there appear to be no Syldavians on the mission. Given the nature of the books, it is inevitable (even if it is implausible) that the crew would include a nearly deaf scientist, an alcoholic sea captain, and a reporter who never reports on anything, but it just seems odd that they would also tote along a dog as opposed to a Syldavian scientist or pilot or some other technically inclined person with skills that would be useful on a voyage to the moon. I suppose it is a nod to plausibility that Calculus' engineer assistant Frank Wolff is given a berth on the rocket ship. However, it remains a fairly glaring oddity that despite the fact that Syldavian uranium is used to power the rocket, and this presumably exceedingly expensive foray into outer space was funded with Syldavian money, no Syldavians are part of the ship's roster.

And the ship's roster has a couple of unexpected additions - Thompson and Thomson, thinking to inspect the ship to ensure there was no sabotage attempts and mistaking an A.M. launch time for a P.M. launch time, were unwittingly on board when the rocket lifted off. Once again, given that this is a Tintin story, it seems natural that the two detectives would be part of the story. However, one has to wonder how sloppy launch preparations were if two men standing in the hold could be overlooked. Given the obsession the actual Apollo missions had with weight (it being one of the most critical elements to manage), the idea that two grown men would be a slight enough matter such that the launch was not disturbed at all by their presence feels quite strange. One also has to wonder exactly how Thompson and Thomson, with no technical expertise at all, would notice attempted sabotage on a machine as large and sophisticated as a nuclear powered rocket. Plausibility aside, this turn of events does put the bumbling detectives on board the ship to join in the fun.

Although most Tintin adventures place the characters in danger, few do so as starkly as Explorers on the Moon. And few characters place themselves in danger as self-destructively as Captain Haddock, who smuggles a bottle of whiskey on board and then proceeds to polish the whole thing off. While Haddock is busy getting soused, Thomson clumsily shuts off the nuclear thruster by mistake, halting the constant one gee acceleration the craft had been under. This results in a weightless, annoyed Haddock floating about, which prompts him to apply some drunken logic and decide to get off the ship and head home. This results in a dramatic rescue as Tintin has to go outside with nothing but a length of rope to save a belligerently drunk Haddock. In another strange twist that ramps up the tension of the scene, the rocket comes across Adonis, an asteroid that orbits between Mars and Jupiter. This seems like a rather curious object to encounter on a trip between Earth and its moon, especially since the closest Adonis comes to Earth is roughly five million kilometers, while the moon is between 362,000 kilometers and 405,000 kilometers (depending on its orbital position). I am left wondering exactly what kind of circuitous route Hergé thought a lunar mission would take on its way to its destination.

Because a drunk imperiling the lives of every person on board might not be taken as comic relief, Hergé has Thompson and Thomson have their one and only relapse of the affliction they acquired in Land of Black Gold (read review) and growing vast amounts of multicolored hair. Because space is cluttered with rocks flying about, the rocket has another improbable close brush with a meteor providing a brief bit of suspense. After a bit more weightlessness as the rocket turns around to prepare to land on the moon, everyone lays down on their couches to prepare for landing. Conveniently, the ship's stores have two extra mattresses and despite having no intent to join the voyage Thompson and Thomson remembered to pack matching sets of purple pajamas. Oddly, when landing on the moon the crew suffers the same kind of crushing acceleration that they experienced when they were leaving the Earth, causing them to blackout. But the moon's gravity is only one-sixth that of Earth's, and they are slowing down from one gee of acceleration. Exactly how crushing could this deceleration be? This is even more perplexing when one realizes that the lessened gravity on the moon is explicitly pointed out not only in this book, but also in Destination Moon as well, so it is clear that Hergé was well aware of this fact. Furthermore, when the rocket left Earth, they used a chemical fueled engine to lift off, so as not to contaminate the launch site with radioactivity, but when landing on the moon they don't seem to make this change. While this would probably not disturb any of the locals on the lifeless moon, its does seem like it would make the lunar landing site a dangerously irradiated location for our intrepid explorers. It is probably too much to ask that all of the details be thought of in the telling of the story, but it seems reasonable to expect that when a plot point is plausibly dealt with in one part of the story it would be plausibly dealt with elsewhere in that same story.

However, once the characters land on the moon, the story turns from interesting space adventure to sublime beauty. Years before the first Apollo landings, before anyone had even been able to send an unmanned probe to get close up images of the lunar surface, Hergé gave us page after page of beautiful illustrations depicting a moon that almost presciently anticipated the actual pictures of the moon. While most of the Tintin books include a handful of oversize panels depicting a key scene or two, Explorers on the Moon is packed with them, including several large views of the desolate and barren moon. And this is another storytelling decision that Hergé made that sets this book apart: while he could have propped up his story by having his protagonists discover living inhabitants or alien artifacts on the moon, he instead chose to go with a more realistic depiction of a lifeless and empty place, and still made the story interesting. Tintin himself, of course, is the first human to set foot on the moon, as everyone else defers to him getting the honor on the basis of his being the youngest member of the crew. The most exotic discovery the expedition makes is Tintin's accidental discovery of ice in an underground cavern on the moon (a discovery made, incidentally, when he has to rescue Snowy who had wandered off in his dog-sized space suit while they were exploring a cave).

But a Tintin story isn't complete without some conflict. Because contending with the difficulties of making it to the moon and exploring an alien world isn't sufficiently exciting enough, the espionage subplot that began in Destination Moon continues here, with yet another stowaway (a character last seen in King Ottokar's Sceptre) popping up once everyone but Tintin and Wolff are crew out for an extended foray in the modified tank they had hauled all the way from Earth. The villains' plan, apparently, is to knock out Tintin, hijack the rocket, abandon all the remaining crew members on the moon, and fly back to his waiting co-conspirators who have been seen monitoring the activities of the lunar expedition in sinister interludes throughout the book. But this plan doesn't really make much sense: As Tintin and company are broadcasting all of their progress to the world on the radio, whatever country or organization was responsible for funding Colonel "Boris" Jorgen's attempt to steal the moon rocket would not get credit for their accomplishment in reaching the moon or any of the discoveries they made. Further, one would expect that they would receive international condemnation for leaving Professor Calculus, Captain Haddock, Thompson and Thomson behind to slowly suffocate to death. They'd end up with the rocket, but the plan seems more or less like stealing the Mona Lisa - it is both risky and difficult to pull off, and even if you are successful, you can't sell it or let anyone know you have it. It should surprise no one to find out that Tintin foils the plot and none of the series regulars are left behind to suffer slow agonizing deaths on the moon, but Hergé does make the sequence riveting anyway. But Tintin's little bit of counterespionage raises yet another question: where does Tintin get the pistol he uses to threaten Colonel Jorgen? Given that Jorgen snuck onto the ship with the intent of hijacking it, it makes sense that he would have a weapon, but why would there be an automatic pistol in the ship's stores? I suppose they brought it along for the same reason they packed two extra mattresses and extra sets of pajamas, but it still doesn't seem to make much sense to stock weapons when planning a voyage to an uninhabited world.

With all of the extra bodies showing up on board, coupled with the need to make repairs to the ship following the abortive hijacking attempt, the original mission plan has to be revised. Although they had originally planned to stay of the moon for an entire lunar day (which is about 27 days long, and is an incredibly ambitious duration: Apollo 17 was the longest Apollo mission and was only on the lunar surface for just over three days), the explorers have to cut their trip short and rush home before they all asphyxiate. Once again, the crew black out during the acceleration of launch, and once again this seems odd given that the moon has one-sixth the gravity of Earth. I suppose Tintin blacks out from the harsh acceleration of taking a Sunday drive as well. The journey home has some twists and turns, and as usual Thompson and Thomson's well-meaning efforts go awry due to their hopeless incompetence, but everything ends well as the dire oxygen situation is somewhat ameliorated as a result. Even so, in order for the expedition to successfully return to Earth, a supreme sacrifice has to be made. Given that the crew consists of Tintin, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Thompson, Thomson, Snowy, and Frank Wolff, it is fairly predictable who decides to take a walk in the vacuum. For the final time the crew blacks out when undergoing deceleration, and once again one has to wonder if they black out when flying in small aircraft (which makes one further wonder how Tintin manages to pilot airplanes in other books). There is a bit of false tension as everyone wonders if the crew suffocated on their return journey, and then a closing comedy shot as Captain Haddock stumbles about.

Despite all of the oddities in the book, the strong points more than make up for them, resulting in Hergé's best Tintin story. The only real disappointment is that despite Calculus' vow on the final page, the expedition to the moon is never followed up upon in the Tintin universe. Given that there is water on the moon in the form of ice, and they clearly have the ability to transport nuclear powered devices to the moon to provide energy, it seems almost natural that a follow-up mission would be sent, especially when one realizes that the first expedition was unable to complete their exploration due to Colonel Jorgen's actions and Wolff's treachery. If, as Calculus suggests at one point, there might be uranium or radium on the moon, it seems there would be that much more impetus to go. I can understand not wanting to turn the Tintin series into a strip about space exploration, but it seems like a glaring omission that other than a nod in Flight 714 (read review), this element of the series is essentially ignored. In my imagination, there is a spin-off series featuring a Syldavian colony on the moon. Sadly, it seems that the people in Tintin's reality took the same path that we did in our reality and abandoned the moon after making the voyage there and back, and perhaps there are children there who also look up into the night sky and wonder when we became so very timid. However, criticizing the rest of the series for failing to follow-up on the brilliantly executed themes of this story is not a criticism of this book. Explorers on the Moon is, quite simply, the best single volume in the entire Tintin series, and a great example of classic science fiction.

Previous book in the series: Destination Moon
Subsequent book in the series: The Calculus Affair

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