Shoot at the Moon  by William F. Temple. Book review

Shoot at the Moon  by William F. Temple, The British Library, pb/eb, 238pp

Review by Stephen Theaker

Part of the British Library Science Fiction Classics range, this enjoyable novel about an ill-fated trip to the moon dates from 1966. Mike Ashley provides an introduction, and it is fascinating – we learn that this novel was very nearly adapted into a Hollywood film – but read it after the novel to save the book’s surprises.

The protagonist and narrator is Captain Franz Brunel, a Londoner and a space pilot. Like all the men in this book, he doesn’t like women very much. He doesn’t like anyone else for that matter, being a self-identified misanthrope, but the way he talks about women in particular will be enough to put some readers off the book entirely. It’s tempting to describe him as hard-boiled, and there is a strong element of that genre to the book as the mysteries develop, but inside his shell Franz is rather runny: he’s filled with doubts about his future, decisions, skills, age, relationships and this job: if the automated piloting system on the ship is a success, they won’t need space pilots any more.

His femme fatale is Lou, daughter of Colonel Marley, the bumptious and aggressive gentleman organising the lunar jaunt. She’s along for the trip too, in her own right as a distinguished scientist. A friend of Franz describes her as “a fine male mind functioning in a fine female body”, which gives a taste of the sexism to expect from these chaps. Franz’s feelings for her become as complicated as her personality. Also on board are Pettigue, a cowardly scientist whose past breeds distrust, and Doctor Thomson, a bully with a mean sense of humour – described by Franz with typical misogyny as having “an almost feminine pleasure in stabbing people in the back”.

Franz quotes a maxim attributed to Lord Mountbatten – “a happy ship is an efficient trip” – and the novel explores the flip side of this idea. Imagine Journey into Space if the crew hated each other all the time, not just when under the influence of aliens. It is, as Franz puts it himself, “like the cast list of one of Sartre’s more cannibalistic plays”. He probably had something like Huis Clos in mind, but one pleasant surprise was that this didn’t end up being a locked-room mystery in an unusual location. The characters do get out and about on the moon, and they make some intriguing science fictional discoveries there.

Though we know now a bit more about the moon than we did in 1966, the book has lost surprisingly little of its relevance, starting as it does on a world where automation leaves increasingly fewer ways to make a living, and some people spend all day playing games. And when the obnoxious, wealth-obsessed Colonel Marley makes a speech on the theme of “You’re as right or wrong as you believe yourself to be” he sounds ever so much like the modern demagogues and social media tub-thumpers who don’t care whether what they say is true or not.

The frequent sexism is undoubtedly off-putting, and I completely understand the negative reactions that has provoked from some readers. But I don’t think the reader is at all being asked to admire these awful characters. Even in our protagonist the sexism is shown as a serious character flaw which stands between him and happiness. If you can get past that, as he tries to do, the book is full of revelations and twists and character, and has many good lines. “I can tolerate my own bad manners but not other people’s,” declares Franz. And upon first meeting Colonel Marley, he says, “I’m sure we’ll get along fine. Sure as today’s Tuesday.” To which Marley replies, after a pause, “It’s Wednesday.”

I thought it was very good. Four stars.