The Moon Isn't a Balloon... More's the Pity

by Kerrie Mills

1 February 2011

If his own narrative voice is not wildly enthralling, Bernd Brunner at least has a knack for the anecdote juste, homing in unerringly on the important and/or entertaining in his research and telling his stories well.
cover art

Moon: A Brief History

Bernd Brunner

(Yale University Press)
US: Oct 2010

It’s difficult to settle down to a brief history of the moon. There can be few more universal concepts in the human experience. Warmly reassuring friend yet coolly remote observer, familiar yet fanciful, a boundless bare slate both literally for scientists and imaginatively for artists.

Why, just sitting here thinking about it produces the desire to…

…er, rhyme it with June, also spoon. Interspersed with reminiscences of my childhood fantasies of how the moon-trails on the lake were actually a celestial language, so beautiful yet so fascinating that trying to understand it would drive one mad.

Which is to say that I am possibly not the most qualified person to be complaining about the academic approach to this subject. If I was conscious of a restless frustration upon being solemnly assured—in the prologue, yet—that the moon “has been known to inspire admiration, even longing, and, under certain conditions fear,” that does not mean that a person who hasn’t already been driven mad by the moon-trail won’t find much of interest.

That being the case, though—why would they then care to pick up Moon: A Brief History, in the first place? Is it even possible to extrapolate Luna’s fascination from just the facts?

Brunner gives it his best shot. He may be no poet – may not even have much apparent concern for the magnitude of his task—but he is a skilled and dedicated ‘freelance writer’, as the book jacket dubs him. When you begin Moon, this seems an oddly over-specific designation; once you’ve finished, you understand. He has already taken on Bears and The Ocean at Home, and will undoubtedly be proceeding next to Rainbows, or perhaps The Origins of Mankind. The impression is given of a sort of adult version of the ‘Wonderful World of Knowledge’ set I had as a kid.

Leaving aside the necessity of this concept for the moment, the execution is nearly flawless—barring a few awkward hitches (like the one quoted above) in the German-to-English journey. If his own narrative voice is not wildly enthralling, Brunner at least has a knack for the anecdote juste, homing in unerringly on the important and/or entertaining in his research and telling his stories well.

Chapters are organised roughly between humanity’s attempts to explain the moon culturally and scientifically; in a triumph of elegant readability, the two then gradually merge until the lunar saturation of the human consciousness reaches a peak with the Apollo missions. Which is, perhaps not coincidentally, the moment at which humanity’s awe starts petering out and concerns over budget kicks in. (Also: conspiracy theorists.)

Along the way we get soundbites from primitive tribespeople on the origins of the moon, from artists on its dramatic potential, from scientists on its composition, and all of the above on what they thought they might find up there. The scientific POV is clearly closest to the author’s own heart, and in consequence these passages are by far the most relaxed and readable.

We catch up on the latest theories of the moon’s origin, which turn out to be highly Discovery Channel miniseries-friendly sagas involving meteors ripping entire continents off proto-Terra. Also, we get a consideration of what it would feel like to actually stand on the moon (uncomfortably bright and profoundly silent), what would happen were it to fall out of our sky (bad things) and if the tide-causing moon has any like effect on the water in the human body (really now, people). And of course, no book on heavenly phenomena is complete without a glimpse of how the ancients reacted to an eclipse (not well, generally).

Lunar science has been throughout history intertwined with science-fiction; right up until the 20th-century – despite the patient efforts of their science colleagues, including the one who was reduced to dropping pebbles into mud to convince the world of how meteor strikes could cause craters—otherwise purely rational thinkers were still projecting their sociological fever dreams onto our hapless heavenly neighbor.

After all, nobody could say for sure that the moon wasn’t inhabited by ethereal advanced vegetarian pacifist midgets with spikes on their backs. (Characteristically, H.G. Wells and Robert Heinlen were among the very few literary types not to succumb to the Boy’s Own Paper rhetoric.)

There is in fact a lot to spark the imagination here, as the extensive ‘Bibliographic Essay’, with its recommendations for further reading, seems to confirm was the purpose. Towards the end, Brunner even gets some traction on the cultural implications, gravely recounting a Wiccan moonlight ritual and allowing that there just might be more to the moon-trail than can be be accounted for through a telescope. As it turns out, even a few of the silly superstitions have some basis in reality.

But his earnest Epilogue on the subject never rises above the feeling that he’s still simply collating what his sources have told him. Ultimately, Moon remains trapped in its own paradox – a book that can never quite explain its own raison d’etre, why it’s preferable to the reader’s own moon-struck daydreams, or even just a trip to the library.

Moon: A Brief History


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