The Birth of a New Republic by Jack Williamson & Miles J. Breuer
In his 1966 novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, author Robert A. Heinlein gave his readers a tale of a penal colony on the Moon that rebels and declares its independence from Earth. The book went on to win the coveted Hugo Award and probably didn’t hurt Heinlein’s chances of being named sci-fi’s very first Grand Master, in 1974. But, as it turns out, this was not the first time that a writer had presented his fans with such a literally revolutionary scenario. A full 35 years earlier, sci-fi’s second-named Grand Master, Jack Williamson, in collaboration with Dr. Miles J. Breuer, had come out with a novel entitled The Birth of a New Republic that dealt with a similar subject … a novel that Heinlein was supposedly not only fond of, but influenced by, as well. And a recent perusal has revealed to this reader what a wonderful piece of Radium Age science fiction this earlier book is.
The Birth of a New Republic was initially released in the Winter 1931 issue of Amazing Stories Quarterly (cover price: 50 cents), with wonderful cover artwork by Leo Morey and interior illustrations by H. W. Wesso. It would then go OOPs (out of prints) for a full 50 years, until P.D.A. Enterprises resurrected it in 1981. In 1999, the novel appeared as just part of one of those big beautiful hardcovers released by Haffner Press, and in 2021, the fine folks at Armchair Fiction came out with the edition that I was fortunate enough to acquire. The novel was Williamson’s second, following The Green Girl (in the March and April 1930 issues of Amazing Stories) and shortly before The Stone From the Green Star (which would appear in the October and November 1931 issues of Amazing Stories). I’m sure most of you are familiar with Williamson by now; the man responsible for the LEGION OF SPACE and HUMANOIDS series, as well as one of the greatest lycanthropy novels ever written, 1948’s Darker Than You Think … not to mention around 40 other novels. But his collaborator here, Miles J. Breuer, might be more of an unknown quantity to you all; he certainly was to me. But back in the 1920s and ‘30s, the Chicago-born author, who was 19 years Williamson’s senior, was extremely popular with the readers of Amazing. When not practicing his trade as a physician, Breuer stayed busy at the typewriter, ultimately coming out with some three dozen sci-fi short stories, as well as two novels, from 1927 – ’42. The young Williamson, who’d been writing professionally since his first sale to Amazing (1928’s “The Metal Man”), was a huge fan of Breuer, apparently, even going so far as to strike up a correspondence with him. The two would collaborate on a short story, 1929’s “The Girl From Mars,” and would then get even more ambitious with the novel in question. Williamson would go on to credit Breuer with improving his own craft as a writer, and the melding of their two talents here is an impressive one.
Their book is narrated by a very old man named John Adams, Jr., who tells us, some 70 years after the fact, of the role he had played in the fight for Luna’s independence, which had begun in 2325. We learn that even a century before that date, however, the political situation prevailing on Earth had been very different from the one we know today. National boundaries and governments no longer held the place they do in our 21st century; rather, various corporations held all the real power. By the early 24th century, the Metals Corp. was by far the most powerful of all the several conglomerates on Earth, controlling not only the world’s manufacturing, but also, by extension, its relatively new space cruisers and, by further extension, all trade with the three major cities on the Moon. Tranco (the Transportation Corp.) had hotly contested Metals’ monopoly over the lunar trade for decades as our story begins, and the two had even fought a war over it, back in 2307. But when Metals began to engage in unfair trade practices with the miners and farmers on the Moon, lowering its prices paid for goods and even destroying one of the few illegal spaceships the lunar folk had acquired for themselves, the folks of those three cities — Colon, New Boston, and Theophilus — had begun to grumble and mutter with talk of throwing off Metals’ tyrannical yoke.
Adams’ story first takes us to the Moon when he himself was only 5 years old, after Adams, Sr. decided to emigrate there with his family. By the start of the revolution, Adams, Sr. had become one of the most important mine owners on the small world, while our narrator had just started out as a budding physicist. Through his family connections, our narrator would soon become, not only the assistant to the Moon’s leading scientific mind, but also secretary to the Moon’s commanding general. Like some kind of 24th century Forrest Gump, he would soon be witness to some of the most important events in Luna’s history, including all the momentous battles, both airborne and on the ground, and would even engage in several clandestine missions back on Earth. Adams, Jr., despite his advanced age when he relates his tale (a little reading between the lines reveals that our narrator is currently going on 98, the same age that Williamson himself would ultimately live to be), maintains a remarkably sharp memory, and his recounting of all the events of this lunar revolution really does make for compelling reading.
Now, if at this point you are wondering whether or not any of the facets in The Birth of a New Republic parallel those of the American Revolutionary War, the answer would have to be a very big YES. Just take a look, for example, at some of the other characters’ names, putting John Adams aside for the moment. The general whom Adams becomes secretary to is George Warrington, who later becomes the Moon’s first president. That previously mentioned foremost Lunarian scientist is named Benjamin F. (Franklin?) Gardiner; the foremost Lunarian orator and rabble-rouser is named Henry Patrick; and the rebels’ foremost ally in Tranco is named Lafollette. Thus, when a character named Benedict is later introduced, the reader is primed for him to be real trouble … which unfortunately turns out to be the case! And for those readers who still haven’t picked up on the parallels, the foremost Metals’ general, Humbolt, is ultimately revealed to be wearing a “red coat.” Even the names of the various battles depicted — the Battle of Smith’s Crater, the Battle of Meteor Hill at New Boston, the Battle of Eldorado — somehow manage to convey a distinctly historic feel.
To their credit, Williamson & Breuer take pains here to make their narrative as realistic as possible. The Adams family’s trip to the Moon is revealed as being a completely unglamorous affair, with most of the passengers coming down with either space sickness or vitamin J deficiency; unfortunately, our narrator’s 2-year-old sister dies of the latter while en route. And that transit from Earth to the Moon takes their spaceship a full three weeks to accomplish; that’s a speed of roughly 500 miles per hour! Heck, even Apollo 11 made the journey there in four days! The complicated political dynamics between the corporations are convincingly set forth, and the life of the Lunarian farmers and miners clearly defined. As might be expected, Adams, Jr. finds that it takes many weeks for him to acclimate to the Moon’s lesser gravity when he is a child; conversely, on returning to Earth as an adult, he has trouble with the Earth’s heavier gravitic pull, as well as the sounds that are so much easier to hear. The book’s descriptions of the lunar surface are exceptionally well done, as are the depictions of being stuck outside of the city domes in the baking, 260 degrees Fahrenheit of the day and the -280-degree Fahrenheit temperature at night.
And I am happy to report that the authors, besides depicting these scientific wonders with a respectable degree of verisimilitude, also supply their readers with any number of exciting action set pieces. As mentioned, the initial trip to the Moon is wonderfully done, and later we have two marvelous sequences in which Adams, Jr. is forced to make a quick march through both the killing heat of the lunar day and the freezing cold of night, in both instances coming very close to a fatal end. The spy missions that Adams, Jr. and others conduct in NYC, Chicago and Tobago – the first to enlist Tranco’s aid and the second to formulate battle plans with Lafollette — are suspenseful and serve as literal breathers from the airless action on the lunar surface; it is on this first mission that Adams encounters his future wife, Leroda Vardon, who herself proves so instrumental in the later war efforts. And then there is the sequence in which the rebels’ secretly constructed starship fleet is attacked in its underground factory, forcing the flagship, the Comet, to flee over a subterranean (sublunarian?) jungle, all the while being attacked by enormous bat creatures!
And, of course, there are the remarkably well-depicted and entirely lucid battle sequences, both in space and on the lunar surface: the Battle of Meteor Hill, an early victory for the rebels; the Battle of Smith’s Crater, featuring a clever circumnavigation strategy by Warrington; the devastating destruction and fall of Kurrukwarruk, the lunar capital city; the Battle of Eldorado, a small mining settlement, in which Metals’ forces are allied with the Selenites, the indigenous life-form (red, scaly, elephantine man-eaters), against the Lunarians; and finally, the two epic battles that bring the war to a close at New Boston. These battles, I might add, featuring as they do D-rays (that is, disintegrator rays), atomic vortexes, and good old-fashioned nuclear bombs, are pyrotechnic displays guaranteed to wow even the modern-day reader. (I might add here that a good map of the lunar surface, such as the one I have from an old National Geographic, might prove helpful in following some of the book’s action … but is certainly not essential.) So yes, The Birth of a New Republic is a very pleasing blend of realistic sci-fi, wartime action, espionage and even romance; it is actually a pretty impressive affair, overall.
Of course, the occasional problems do crop up here and there. The book’s entire second chapter serves as an “info dump” of sorts, giving as it does all the background we need to know in the form of an educational tape for the kiddies. Still, these info dumps don’t generally bother me, as long as they’re interesting enough, which this one surely is. The authors’ prediction that mankind would first reach the Moon in 2130 is off the mark by some 160 years, but no matter. More bothersome for me was the statement that the Tycho crater is 150 miles in diameter, whereas it is more like 53; still, the description of the Theophilus crater, in which the Adams family settles down, is highly accurate, down to its three mountains in the center. An unfortunate reference to the League of Nations tends to date the book a bit, and an occasional instance of faulty grammar does pop up here and there (such as “…one tribe … were developing an elementary civilization…”). Still, these are quibbles, and the book remains an entertaining and intelligent delight.
Now, as for this Armchair edition, it is a nice one at first glance, sporting as it does those beautiful Morey and Wesso illustrations from the original 1931 presentation. Sadly, The Birth of a New Republic, similar to so many other Armchair releases, also sports many more typos than I would deem permissible. Just look at the blurb on the very front cover: “They Fought A Bloody War Of For Independence — From Earth!” In a word, oy. Still, the bottom line is that this Williamson novel, my 15th from this author, has managed to please me greatly, and has left me wanting to experience some of the solo work by Miles J. Breuer. Fortunately, Bison Press has released a 400+-page collection of Breuer’s short stories entitled The Man With the Strange Head, and I hope to be ordering that one very shortly…