Selling the Moon, Scaling the Gravity Well: Two Annapolis Grads & Near Future Science Fiction
Before I get started, I do have to say, BEAT NAVY.
Okay, that established, what do y’all say to some more Heinlein? Cool? Cool. And I'd like to introduce you to my friend, Joelle Presby while we're at it.
In an alternate universe, the year is 1978 and the space race between the Soviets and the USA didn’t accelerate to a manned moon landing as it did in our reality. A successful entrepreneur, Delos D. (D.D.) Harriman, announces to his partner, George Strong, that he is going to Moon, obstacles be damned. What ensues is a campaign of savvy business, political maneuvering, and occasionally outright huckster trickery writ-large as Harriman persuades private interests, and governments alike to support his company’s efforts to reach and exploit the moon. As a major ploy, he plants rumors that the moon has large deposits of diamond, all outside the grasp of the De Beers monopoly. Damaging his marriage, and using every legal, semi-legal, or simply deniable method possible to raise funds, Harriman places his company in control of Lunar exploitation, propelling private industry out into the solar system, and ultimately to the stars.
“The Man Who Sold the Moon,” is one of Robert A. Heinlein’s more popular and enduring works of short fiction, first published in 1950, it’s a staple of his best anthologies for reasons that should be apparent to any space exploration enthusiast. The story represents this period of Heinlein’s writing very well; it’s full of colorful Missouri wit, hyper competent heroes, contempt for bureaucracy, and hope for the future. Mankind will not only survive; we will expand beyond the confines of our terrestrial cradle and conquer first our solar system and then, by hook or by crook, the galaxy. We will never have the Utopia of Gene Rodenberry’s United Federation of Planets—but we will survive to experience the majesty and terror of the whole universe.
As an interesting side note, there’s a passage in this short story where Heinlein predicts both passive infrared occupancy sensors, and their application in lighting control—which happens to be a key component of my day job as a Lighting Controls specification expert.
Oh, and there’s no weird sex stuff. We’re not to that phase of Heinlein, yet.
Comparisons of the main character, D.D. Harriman, to the space-happy billionaires of today abound, especially to Elon Musk. Musk has even cited Heinlein as a personal inspiration in multiple interviews. Regardless of your stance on the man, and I have mixed feelings, personally, SpaceX is, to date, the closest thing to Heinlein’s vision of privatized space exploration we’ve yet to see. For that, alone, I would put up with a billion trolling tweets.
I love The Man Who Sold the Moon, and appreciate its impact on our real world.
Thus it was to my delight to find an author who updated this kind of near-future sci-fi to something even richer and deeper than Heinlein’s classic short story, Joelle Presby’s The Dabare Snake Launcher.
In another alternate reality, an international corporate executive, Ethan Schmidt-Li, is on his way to the C-Suite of a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate when his career is sidetracked into an impossible project: the construction of an orbital elevator on Mount Kilimanjaro. Unlike Harriman, Schmidt-Li is going to propel private interest (and therefore mankind) into space not because he is a visionary, but because he is a cold-blooded corporate creature motivated by money, but more than anything, by status. Working sometimes in conjunction, sometimes in contention with a West African family dynasty and… perhaps… their gods?
Joelle Presby, like Robert A. Heinlein is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. She is also experienced in the world of modern corporate politics and it shows. Rather than denying the fundamental flaws of a high achieving 1%er like Ethan Schmidt-Li in favor of an unabashedly admirable figure, she uses realistic virtues and flaws for that personality type to propel the story in a realistic and compelling matter, but still instills enough humanity in Ethan that you can root for him—sometimes.
And that’s not even getting into the richness and depth of Presby’s West African setting and characters, fed by the fact that Presby herself spent the balance of her childhood and adolescence in war-torn Cameroon where her parents were serving as missionaries. Like Heinlein, Presby doesn’t shy away from questions of spirituality in her writing but stops short of answering them explicitly. The character of Mami-Wata is one of the most entertaining and intriguing in the book but she’s either a fevered hallucination, or an ancestral guardian spirit. Presby, and the text, allow you to decide.
I admire Presby’s decision to lead with this project as her first solo novel. She has collaborated with David Weber a few times now and it would’ve been very easy and justifiable for her to stay in that vein with a military/adventure fantasy, or a more Space Operatic take with swarms of missiles and blaster fire raging across a solar system. And to be clear, I’m sure she will at some point, and I will read the hell out of it, because I love me some ‘splodey starship battles. Ain’t NOTHING wrong with that.
But stories like The Dabare Snake Launcher are something special.
In my own writing, I have always told Soldier’s stories, be they on the modern battlefield, a far-flung planet, an alternate reality, or a fantastical realm. I always have the mechanics of direct and violent conflict to rely on to supplement the drama provided by my characters’ contradictory hopes, fears, and dreams. In The Dabare Snake Launcher, Joelle eschews the gun battle, the fencing duel, or the starfighter dogfight in favor of a purely human story, a story that, like many of Heinlein’s best works, encourages us to look to the exploration and exploitation of space with hope, even as it acknowledges cold and brutal realities involved in the process.
It kindles in me the same enthusiasm I used to feel reading Heinlein’s near-future stories or simply looking at the timeline of his, “Future History,” in The Past Through Tomorrow. If you’d like to feel that kind of hopefulness and enthusiasm again, packaged in a story with fully fleshed out characters and a fascinating setting, you should really check out The Dabare Snake Launcher.
It’s the kind of story I hope to have the skill, and the balls, to write someday.
And in that spirit, I’ll leave you with another Heinlein quote, this one not from one of his novels but from the man himself on the occasion of the moon landing—
“"We are going to all the planets and out to the stars . . . it doesn't matter whether it's yellow, black, brown, green, Chinese, Russian or American, it's the human race, they're going there and nothing can stop it."
We’ve lagged, and stutter-stepped, and wasted time on trivialities in the intervening decades, Mr. Heinlein, but you have heirs who still believe, and Joelle Presby, especially, is a worthy inheritor of your legacy.