Book of the moment: The Moon Pool

The Moon Pool

The cover of The Moon Pool, A. Merritt

Early science fiction bears little resemblance to the stories we would now class in the genre.  Decades before Isaac Asimov’s Robot stories or the birth of the Star Trek franchise, the genre began to take shape in the writings of authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.  The Moon Pool by Abraham Merritt, an author I had never heard of before picking up the book, sits alongside their works, bearing some similarities to proto-s.f. like Journey to the Centre of the Earth, but more closely resembling stories like King Solomon’s Mines with some scientific theories thrown in.  I picked up the book some time ago as part of a “3 for 2” deal, attracted by the fact that the latest reprint was inspired by The Moon Pool‘s apparent similarities to the TV show Lost, which I rather enjoyed.  This, coupled with an interest in the beginnings of the genre, was enough to inspire me to buy it.

First things first.  Similarities to Lost are very vague indeed, and barely argued for in the book’s introduction.  The show had a great many influences, but I would be very surprised indeed to discover that The Moon Pool was a major one, if indeed the creators had even heard of it.  It features an island, some mysteries, and a monster that does terrible things to its victims, but so do many other works, including many of the “portal to a lost world” stories, which this is only one of.  An early one, it is true, but not the first and not a genre-shaker.

The plot focusses on a scientist, Goodwin, who is asked for help by an old friend, who has witnessed some strange things on a previously-uncharted island.  Something emerges on the nights of the full moon and takes people away, including this friend’s wife.  Goodwin decides to help, but before long, the thing (named The Dweller by those who have come into contact with it) claims his friend as well, and Goodwin must seek its lair on his own.  By the time he finds his way to the chamber which The Dweller emerged from, he has picked up a trio of companions.  Olaf, a stereotypical Scandinavian who has lost his wife and child to The Dweller.  Larry, an Irish-American with an intense passion for life and a belief in all the old Irish folklore.  And Marakinoff, a Russian who is not trusted by the others.  These men soon find themselves in a strange land below the surface of the earth, home to the Murians (an obvious reference to the “lost continent” of Lemuria).  Here they face baffling biology and technology and find themselves, as people who enter lost worlds often do, caught up in a conflict between different sections of this unusual society.  Romance, treachery and allegedly-deleted explanations of the Murians’ amazing technology follow swiftly.  Somewhat inevitably, the tale climaxes in a war, a deus ex machina and a bittersweet ending for Goodwin, our hero and narrator.

I found The Moon Pool more interesting than enjoyable.  It isn’t as readable as earlier lost world stories such as H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines or Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, nor does it match the visionary novels of H.G. Wells.  The style can be frustrating, frequently using an inverted word order which would be bearable if it wasn’t used quite so often (“inverted was the word order, irritated was the reader”), but Merritt’s descriptive powers are admirable.  The characterisation is paper-thin, but this is often the case with this sort of story, where the situation rather than the people is what is meant to hold our attention (Lost, for me, was the other way round – I watched it for the characters, with the ‘mythology’ being background for their dramas).  Only Larry really springs to life from the page, probably because narrator-Goodwin seems to have a man-crush on him, expressing his admiration for “the O’Keefe” at every opportunity.  Olaf has moments where he seems to have multiple dimensions to his personality, but the others (most notably Lakla, the chief romantic interest) are barely two-dimensional, if that.

The chief interest in the book is in seeing how the fantasy and science fiction genres were developing at the time, as The Moon Pool straddles the two comfortably.  Scientific explanations (sometimes present, sometimes deleted – to preserve national security!) pepper the story as though the author is determined to make his tale plausible.  This is a feature of what has become “hard” science fiction, where the emphasis is on the science, rather than “soft” science fiction, where the emphasis is more likely to be on the fiction – the science works because it does, and the reader is just supposed to accept it.  It is a fascinating glimpse into a particular stage in the development of genre fiction, and of the literary mindset in the aftermath of the Great War.

I’m glad I read the book, as it is very interesting, but it isn’t a book I will be reading again, so the local cancer research shop is likely to benefit from it.  It did keep me turning the pages for the most part, and it made some train journeys seem to go by faster, but it didn’t stick with me when I closed the book.  For devotees of the genre only, I think.

Incidentally, for those who want to read it without splashing out any cash (I can’t imagine that many libraries hold it), the book is out of copyright in the USA, and can thus be read at Project Gutenberg.

    • Trish
    • January 23rd, 2011

    Yes, I would agree that a book like this can be extremely interesting – not for the story itself (which sounds ridiculous!) but as a kind of historical source. It is so much a product of it’s own time.

    So in many ways it is very educational. It tells us about the attitudes of the author to women, foreigners and people of a different class, as well as teaching us about the technology of the time, (especially transport), customs and practices in different countries etc. It highlights the preoccupations and concerns of the age.

    Also these types of books are fun because they are so melodramatic. You sort of feel that the author is enjoying himself writing it!

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