Tintin, modernist science fiction and the moon

The Moon is a powerful symbol in science fiction. It constantly looks down on us, reminding us that the universe is larger than this world. It is the only other body in the solar system that people have visited, and it represents the first step in getting off this world and exploring space. Lots of sci-fi works set in the near future have the moon as the first place colonised by humans, and in many visions of the future the moon is a stopping off point for the rest of the system. Alastair Reynold's Blue Remembered Earth is the most recent example of a book I have read which uses the moon in this way.

There was a time, within living memory, when it looked like our world and science fiction were converging and the limits of human exploration were being pushed back. These were the hay days of the US/USSR space race, which led to the first humans landing on the moon in 1969. This race to the moon has inspired many sci-fi stories set on the moon or around the moon – the Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A Heinlein or Eon by Greg Bear, for example – but there is one sci-fi story which instantly jumps to my mind when thinking about the moon landing and that is the Tintin adventures Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon. Belgian comic writer Herge first published these comics in Tintin Magazine in 1950, 11 years before Kennedy announced that America would go to the moon in 1961 and 19 before the first landing in 1969.

The Tintin stories are rooted in the modernist age and highlight some of the social and technological changes that modernism was exploring. New technological breakthroughs from colour TV to nuclear power are the focus of Tintin stories, and it is Professor Calculus's nuclear powered rocket which takes Tintin and his friends to the moon. The Tintin comics also focus on political changes, such as the Cold War, which shows concern about direction of events in the modern age. The space race was an important part of the modernist age and by looking at the way we viewed the moon, we can tell a lot about that time. This is especially well summed by looking at Tintin.

One feature of modernism was a sense of optimism about the future and a belief that we could build a better world – this was especially present in modernist architecture. For many people, the space race represented this hope for a future where new frontiers would be opened, and we would live in space or on the moon. The moon landing is the most striking image of an expanding future, as it pushed back the boundaries of where humans had been. Many people thought that within a few years from 1969 we would be living on the moon. Today this sense of optimism has faded, and we are frightened by the future. We have also stopped visiting the moon.

This sense of optimism about the future was fueled by a belief that technology would continue to develop at the rapid pace which it had during the 40s, 50s and 60s. In Tintin, this is represented by Calculus’s nuclear rocket, which makes space travel much easier than it was in real life. In Tintin, a single nuclear-powered ship could make the journey to the moon, return to Earth and be reused. If this had been how technology developed, then space travel would be much easier and we would now have colonies in space.

The nuclear rocket in Tintin is as much a science fiction concept as the Enterprise or a Culture GSV. Nuclear power has not become compact enough or efficient enough safely to power a mission to the moon, certainly not with the ease that is shown in Tintin. In reality, to visit the moon we needed several vehicles, connected together, most of which were destroyed in the process of being used. It is nearly 50 years since the moon landing and we still travel to space the same way, i.e. the majority of our crafts are thrown away. This makes space travel very costly and not something that can be undertaken easily.

Technology has advanced since the moon landings (most mobile phones are more powerful than the computers which the moon missions used), but the huge technological advancements of the modernist age – mass manufacturing, electronics, flight, space travel, nuclear power – did not make space travel as easy as it is shown in Tintin. Today there is a feeling amongst many people that we are going backwards and we have lost hope in the future. We got rid of Concorde, we do not go to the moon anymore, and we are worried about the effects of humans on this planet rather than getting off it. The future is a scary place and we do not want to live there. Tintin is modernist as it shows that the future can be a better than the present, in the future we will be able to go to the moon.

The Moon represents some of the goals of modernism because it is about being optimistic about the future and reaching for more than we have now. However, Modernism was also about questioning the narrative of endless progress. The rockets that took us to the moon were not just symbols of hope but also of terror, as they carried the bombs that could destroy the world. New technological breakthroughs during the Second World War made international travel and space travel easier and possible respectively, but it also made devastation on a huge scale possible. During the war, many people had seen the destruction that new technology could create and were frightened that the prospect of a war between the two global superpowers, the USA and the USSR, would be even worse.

The expansion of conflict into new theatres, especially space-based ones, is a key theme of science fiction. In Tintin, the new conflict of the Cold War is represented by the Bordurian attempt to sabotage the rocket and later by Colonel Jorgen, a Bordurian agent, who stows away on the rocket and attempts to maroon Tintin on the moon. Borduria is an Eastern European Communist state that stands in for the entire Eastern block in many Tintin adventures. The conflict with Colonel Jorgen in Explorers on the Moon shows that for Tintin space is as dangerous as much as it is an opportunity. It also shows how the conflicts of the modern world are expanding to new theatres as the boundaries of humanity are pushed back.

The Tintin adventures, Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, are a glorious piece of modernist science fiction, filled with optimism and fear about the future. In the world of Tintin, new adventures such as travelling to the moon are possible, but also new conflicts are expanding in dangerous ways. The Moon remains as far away to us as it was in 1950; the brief age of space exploration is over, and for now humanity is very much stuck on Earth. At the same time, we have lost the modernist desire to build a better world. Maybe hope that the future will be better than the present will return some day and humanity will turn its head upwards and be excited once again about walking on the moon.