The Moon is Hell! by John W. Campbell Jr.

I was trying to make space on my bookshelves by thinning out a few books. I noticed The Moon is Hell! by John W. Campbell Jr. This book collects two novellas, “The Moon is Hell!” and “The Elder Gods.” My immediate thought was to cull The Moon is Hell! because it wasn’t a major work and John W. Campbell has been designated a repugnant person. I checked Alec Nevala-Lee’s account of this book and “The Moon is Hell!” appears to be a trunk story written in the thirties and rewritten for this 1951 hardback publication. “The Elder Gods” was a story Arthur J. Burks submitted to Unknown that Campbell rejected but later rewrote himself. Not a very promising pedigree. Besides, I have a couple thousand more worthy books to read.

Just to be sure, I started reading “The Moon is Hell!” and damned if I didn’t get hooked. The story is about the second mission to the moon where fifteen scientists land on the far side to set up base in 1979. The first manned landing had been five years earlier. The new mission is to live on the moon for two years. A resupply ship would arrive to take the men home in 1981. However, that ship crashes. Because the base is on the far side of the moon, there is no radio contact with Earth. Campbell didn’t give this story a lunar communications satellite to relay messages.

Basically, Campbell’s setup is like the famous Shackleton antarctic expedition or the ill-fated Franklin arctic expedition. The men are cut off and must survive on their own. They figure it will be almost a year before a rescue mission could be sent and they only have supplies for a couple months. The majority of this story is the leader’s diary describing their efforts to survive. It’s very reminiscent of The Martian by Andy Weir. The stranded scientists all become inventors with the productivity of Thomas Edison. “The Moon is Hell!” has a lot of science and engineering in it, which I found fascinating but wondered about its accuracy. However, I love this kind of tale, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.

This brought up several questions:

  1. Why read a very dated science fiction story?
  2. Why not read nonfiction about actual historical moon missions instead?
  3. Why even consider reading a minor story?
  4. Why not read the best current science fiction?
  5. Why read a story by an author who’s been deemed bad person?
  6. With a TBR pile in the thousands, shouldn’t I triage my reading?

Once I started reading “The Moon is Hell!” I stopped thinking about those questions. I guess it’s like wanting to eat healthily, but once you take a bite of junk food all considerations are off.

I could nitpick “The Moon is Hell!” to pieces yet I kept reading with great enjoyment. We’re reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal this month at my online book club. Several members refused to join the group read because they claim the book too unscientific and illogical for their tastes. I think the novel is outstanding and argued they should read it because it’s a good story. I also argued that our group should try any science fiction book that’s swept the awards.

Reading “The Moon is Hell!” showed me I didn’t care about science. Nor did I care about Campbell’s growing bad reputation. The story is everything. That’s what it comes down to. I’m also in a Facebook group that’s discussing “In the Walls of Eryx” by H. P. Lovecraft, another outdated story about intelligent life on Venus by another shunned writer. Again, it’s the story stupid.

We don’t read for facts. We don’t care about literary standing or the author’s morality. Few readers compare the books in their collection to find the best one to read next. We select books on random whims. If the story grabs us we keep reading. Readers are simple creatures of habit. I could clear a shelf of my books without looking at the titles and it wouldn’t matter, because I’ve got plenty more to randomly grab.

Why aren’t readers more philosophical, scientific, mathematical, logical, and aesthetically aware when picking their next read? Why read any old book when we could always read a great book? I suppose some people are disciplined in what they read, but I’m not. I have over a thousand unread nonfiction books written by the most brilliant people writing today, but nine times out of ten I pick an old science fiction story that’s poorly written by literary standards, outdated by modern science, and far less popular than current science fiction.

I guess I know my drug of choice.

I also know if I studied all the books I own to select the very best book to read next it would take me a year to decide. Knowing this means I should never buy another book, worry about cataloging my books in Goodreads, or even worry about creating an order for shelving my books. Just grab a book at random. Keep reading if I like it, give it away if I don’t. It also tells me that buying books has no relation to reading books. I have an urge to read. I have an urge to buy. They are two unrelated urges.


James Wallace Harris, 9/9/19



9 thoughts on “Why Read Outdated Science Fiction?

  1. So I hear that the John W. Campbell award is no longer to be called the Campbell award because he was too “problematic”. Remember when erasing people from history was considered a barbaric, authoritarian, and anti-intellectual practice? Well I do, and the whole self-righteous lot of them can kiss my jaundiced…

    Liked by 1 person

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