Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Review - Destination Moon by Hergé

Short review:  Even a tiny country can have a space program if they just get hold of some uranium. Calculus builds a rocket and Tintin gets ready to go to the moon, but does no reporting.

A tiny country
With lots of uranium
Let's go to the moon!

Full review: The story that begins with Destination Moon and continues in Explorers on the Moon (read review) is my favorite in the Tintin series. When I started the Tintin series I was already a science fiction fan, and I was already fascinated by the Apollo moon landings. In fact when I was about five or six I had a board game about going to the moon. Sadly, I have no idea what happened to this game. In any event, by the time I got to reading Tintin, I was primed for a story about Professor Calculus spearheading an effort to build moon rocket and using it to take his friends Tintin and Captain Haddock on a voyage to outer space. Although the story was superseded by actual history nineteen years later when Apollo 11 actually did touch down on the lunar surface, at the time it was written, everything about the development and launching of a rocket to the moon was science fiction. It is something of a testament to the expansiveness of Hergé's vision that many elements of the story, such as a nuclear powered rocket, are still in the realm of science fiction.

As with most Tintin stories, this one wastes no time getting started. Tintin and Captain Haddock return to Marlinspike from a trip and are immediately informed by Nestor that Professor Calculus had left three weeks before after getting a mysterious visit from a foreign caller. A cryptic phone call leads to a brief bit of panicked searching before a they receive a telegram from Calculus telling Tintin and Haddock to join him in Syldavia, the fictional country that provided the setting for King Ottokar's Sceptre (read review). Of course, the two set out immediately, even though Syldavia appears to be something of a potential nightmare for Captain Haddock given their lack of alcohol coupled with their national affinity for mineral water.

On their arrival in Syldavia, Tintin and Haddock are whisked away in a chauffeured car through mysterious checkpoints until they finally find Calculus safe and sound at the secret Sprodj Atomic Research Center. It turns out that Syldavia has rich deposits of uranium, and decided to develop an industry around this discovery. because this is the world of Tintin and the governments he likes are altruistic, the Syldavians rejected out of hand the idea of using their radioactive riches to build weapons (despite their obvious and ongoing rivalry with the pugnacious Bordourians), but instead decided to focus on humanitarian applications, one of which is to be a mission to the moon. Calculus reveals his previously unmentioned expertise in astronautical matters which has led the Syldavians to invite him to head up their moon project. And because the best way to get asked to join a mission to the moon is not to have lots of relevant technical expertise, but rather to be friends with the eccentric scientist heading the project, Tintin and Haddock are tabbed to join him on his journey. When this book was written in 1953, humans had not even put a single satellite into earth orbit, which makes Captain Haddock's mirth at being asked to journey to the moon somewhat understandable.

Although this is the fourth book since Professor Calculus was introduced to the series, Destination Moon is the first in which the Professor is really fully developed as a character. When he was introduced in Red Rackham's Treasure (read review), Calculus was an eccentric inventor who was comically almost deaf. When he appeared in the two-part story The Seven Crystal Balls (read review) and Prisoner of the Sun (read review) he served mostly as a plot device to drive the action forward by getting kidnapped. Calculus isn't actually in Land of Black Gold (read review) except as a reference in a letter. However, having finally shed his baggage from World War II, Hergé pushed Calculus to the forefront of this story, and unleashed his pulp fiction story telling abilities. In the process, he took Calculus from a source of additional comic relief and developed him into a more fleshed out character, revealing (among other things) that despite his continuous assertions that he is "only slightly deaf in one ear" that he is actually aware that he is virtually deaf. Calculus also displays a sensitivity about his work that manifests as an explosive temper, humanizing him and making one consider that maybe it is better if Calculus can't hear anyone else and is able to simply let the various questions about the merits of his work slide by without noticing them.

And it is probably the featured role that Calculus plays in this book that makes it top my list of Tintin adventures. Despite the fact that the book makes constructing a rocket that will carry a mission to the moon seem much too easy, and glosses over the enormous amount of infrastructure that would be required as well as the massive cost that such an endeavor would entail, it mostly plays fair with the science, and considering it was written in 1953 by a man with no technical background at all, it is a remarkably sophisticated depiction of the preparations for a lunar expedition. It was certainly enough to fire the imagination of my twelve year old self even though by the time I read these books the Apollo program was a decade in the past, and as a result I knew that this story wasn't anywhere close an accurate depiction of how men had actually gone to the moon. Even so, the over sized panels showing the nuclear pile, the test rocket and finally the full-sized moon rocket help give the story a verisimilitude that makes it convincing that even if people didn't go to the moon this way, they could have, at least sufficiently so to make the story believably enjoyable. The brief interlude during which Calculus loses his memory kind of ruins this to a certain extent however, as without his contributions all work on the moon expedition grinds to a halt. It just doesn't seem plausible that the entire gargantuan project would depend entirely on the contributions of a single man, no matter how brilliant he is supposed to be.

Another part of the story that doesn't make much sense is the espionage subplot that runs through the book. This being a Tintin adventure, it seems inevitable that there should have to be some sort of plot line that involves intrigue and investigation, if for nothing else to give Tintin something to do while he is waiting for the rocket to be ready to launch. And, of course, to give Thompson and Thomson a reason to make their usual fumbling and incompetent appearance in the story. This subplot is set up from the moment Tintin and Captain Haddock touch down in Syldavia as some sinister looking characters spy on the pair and talk cryptically about their arrival, although this is somewhat lost in the swirl of paranoia involving checkpoints and secret policemen that dominates this portion of the book. Later, Tintin demonstrates he is brighter than the entire Syldavian secret police organization and figures out where a parachuted enemy agent would gain access to the secret research facility where everyone in the book is working, but then shows that he is lousy at providing security by not telling anyone else so that he is easily overpowered when the villains show up to rendezvous with their contact inside the facility. This does arouse sufficient suspicion that Tintin thinks to install a self-destruct switch on the unmanned rocket that Calculus sends to the moon, which prevents the rocket from being hijacked by the mysterious enemy. But this whole plot just seems silly. Exactly what are the villains going to steal? Are they planning on reverse engineering the rocket? One would think that simply having their inside man steal the plans would be an easier way of accomplishing this. And of course, without the nuclear fuel that the rocket uses, which is apparently all within Syldavia, building their own rocket would be somewhat useless. Are they planning on trying to claim credit for the rocket flight? This seems implausible unless the Syldavians are trying to keep the flight itself secret, which doesn't seem to be the case. The only thing left would be appropriating the lunar data the probe acquired on its flight, but that seems like a pretty small prize for hijacking a rocket. In short, while one could imagine stealing the engineering secrets of the moon project, going to the trouble to divert the rocket (and as a result pretty much give away the identity of the nation that engaged in this theft), seems to be quite silly.

Fortunately, the espionage plot doesn't overshadow the remainder of the book, and what is left is a book that somehow makes planning to go to the moon interesting. Even though most of the book takes place in a mostly secret facility that seems to be mostly built underground as people shuffle blueprints and test spacesuit designs, somehow Hergé is still able to make the story fun and exciting to read. Even though taking a dog to the moon is a patently unbelievable plot point, as is having the rocket's acceleration when it leaves Earth be so intense that everyone blacks out to the point that those monitoring their transmissions fear the crew may have died, the story is still well-crafted enough to seem mostly plausible. Punctuating the dry technical aspects of the story with the humor of Thompson and Thomson's misadventures with an x-ray machine and Captain Haddock's attempts to get tobacco and whiskey on board the manned rocket prevents the book from bogging down in boring detail. Although this book doesn't deliver a self-contained story - it ends on a cliffhanger that sets up Explorers on the Moon - it is still one of the best Tintin books, and the first half of the best story in the series.

Previous book in the series: Land of Black Gold
Subsequent book in the series: Explorers on the Moon

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  1. Just to let you know you've won the giveaway for this month from my sci-fi challenge. I've emailled you with details. :)

  2. @Ellie Warren: Thank you! I got your e-mail and responded.