Tongues of the Moon (1964) Book Review and Analysis
by Philip Jose Farmer
The novel is about the way the world ends. Humanity has nuked itself, leaving the world a wasteland. There are colonies on the moon, Mars, and Ganymede. When the earth is nuked, leaders on the Moon vie for control, spiralling into an “attack first” defence against the other colony worlds.
We follow Broward, an American doctor and physical anthropologist who is also somehow militarily proficient (if it’s explained why he’s able to shoot dudes' heads off with a .45, I missed it, though I’m guessing it was due to being in some sort of war). He’s sent on various missions by Scone, the leader of the moon. Broward is a good guy that feels guilty about being sent on missions to destroy the rest of the human race (but, I mean, if you don’t feel guilty about that, what are you?). By the end, he actively works to prevent this destruction.
It’s a rather short novel, and while the concepts were likely interesting for 1964, the story is bogged down by a very passive narrative voice, boring characters, and too much explanation of (now out-dated and rather laughable) tech. And while there is the most basic of attempts to include women in STEM, women are treated as side characters for the most part. Aside from one woman who does one thing, women are considered in the novel for their reproductive potential more than anything else and characterized as “overly emotional”. This annoyed but didn't surprise me. More about that later.
In truth, there isn't a lot to say about this novel that wouldn't be a spoiler. We don't get to know much about any of the characters and as such it's hard to care about the death of the world on such a massive scale. Broward hardly expresses any emotion about the loss of his planet, so why are we expected to? The geo-politics is the most interesting thing about the novel really, and by that I mean Farmer's concept of how the world turned out post-1970. Still, it's a short little read that has some interesting aspects but overall quite forgettable.
The tech in the novel is the best part because it’s so very 1960s: laser beams and nuclear devastation. The nuclear weapons in this case are called “cobalt bombs”.
The “tongues” in the title refer to “a flexible beam of straightened-out photons” which is apparently the “ultimate development of the laser” (it’s not a 1960s novel without lasers). There are other less interesting weapons using pseudo-scientific terms like “gravitomagnetic drives” and some kind of stun gun that is casually explained away as it being “new”.
Apparently it takes 1.5 hours to get from the moon to earth using little ships but when Broward receives a technical readout, the computer prints it out on a piece of paper. I’m assuming dot matrix, which is so incredibly quaint.
As usual, my favourite old technology has a little cameo. Microfilms (aka microfiche!): the technology everyone in the 50-70s seemed to think would pervade into the new Millenium. I love it.
Overall, it’s a rather mundane, uninteresting novel with the weirdest title ever.
2 / 5 Tongues. Tongues of the Moon.
Analysis - Here be Spoilers
Race and Geo-Politics
This book makes an attempt to create a future earth that moved at a logical progression from the 1960's political climate. In this future, we have different factions in control than we have in actuality today. Argentina is a major political power (though housed on Mars). Given Eva Peron’s popularity, Argentina was a well-known entity during the 1960s, as well as being in the midst of political upheaval.
The other factions are the "Soviet North America" and "South Atlantic Axis". In this future, America has been taken over by Russia which was likely a possibility back then.
It’s clear Farmer is trying to show how hyper-nationalism is the reason for our demise, which makes sense in the aftermath of WWII. In fact, there are a lot of mixed-race people, who, aside from Broward, are shown to be the most logical of people.
There’s also a blatant condemnation of antisemitism. There’s a man of Jewish descent whom the villain clearly wishes to remove from the gene pool (as there are like 1000 people on the moon who could continue the human race) but Scone's antisemitism is shown to be reprehensible (as it should be).
The novel, while not without its flaws regarding race (Broward, of course, is a white dude hero), is a helluva lot better for it than most of its time period.
Despite Farmer being known for ground-breaking sexual themes (his short story "The Lovers" has the first sexual relationship between human and alien. I’m sure it’s a long way from Mass Effect, but I’d love to get a hold of it sometime). Yet, this one is very dated in terms of how women are represented. Granted, there are some attempts to be progressive but overall it’s not the best in terms of female representation.
There are three women of note (AKA have dialogue and names). Of the three, one has bearing on the plot. Given they get almost no book time, I'm giving them some space here.
I’m not sure what her purpose is. She’s described as a “tall, many-curved, dark-haired, thick-lipped, disgustingly sultry biochemist” and she has indirect dialogue. Her purpose in the novel seems to be as a comparison to the chaste Ingrid. Abarbanal’s sexual proclivities are her only focus in the text, where it’s suggested she wants the forced polygamy to occur because of her libido. This seems to suggest that any woman with a sexual appetite would have sex with anyone. She seems to exist as the antithesis of loyal Ingrid who only wishes to sleep with the hero, Broward.
The only woman who actually does something to further the plot is Katashkina. She’s only in the story for a few pages, but she does rescue the two men from jail and orchestrates a plan to escape from Earth. She does end up dating one of the dudes, but at least she contributes to the plot in a meaningful way. The novel is so short, only 150 pages, but if it were longer she and Moshe could have a bigger part (which would have been nice).
Ingrid is a person of colour as well as not conventionally attractive. For a love interest in the 60s, this was surprising and refreshing. Unfortunately, while she is a scientist, nothing Ingrid does has value to the plot. She serves as Broward’s love interest and the object of Scone’s desires, a love triangle that is created simply to provide Broward with motivation (as he doesn’t want Scone sleeping with his woman). As the hero’s wife, she has all the traits in an “ideal” woman - loyalty and dependence on the hero’s strength. At one point she is bemoaning the forced polygamy that is on the horizon, and when Broward dismisses it as “oh well, what can you do” she, understandably, cries. He says, “getting emotional isn’t going to help”. Like, give me a break buddy. You're not the one being treated like a breeding animal.
All this is unfortunate because as early as page 13 there’s a female soldier who has dialogue, so I was hoping for more of that. Like her, there are a few women referenced “in the background” as soldiers and scientists, but for the most part (90%, I'd say) everyone is male. Most soldiers, most personnel, all military leaders, and all political leaders. Women are relegated to the reproduction question, which waffles on its principles by avoiding the question in any depth. It’s approached in a clinical way that refuses to address how women might feel about their bodies being appropriated by the state. It’s dehumanizing and frustrating. The movie "Virus" (1980) does the job a bit better.
There’s also a ridiculous part where Broward and Ingrid have sex and an hour later go to a lab to see if she’s pregnant. This, even in the future, makes no sense. It takes 24 hours for conception to concur (that there’s a “moment of conception” is a major misconception, haha) so taking a test that soon would be useless anyway,
Overall, the novel isn’t egregious to women and it makes a fair attempt at being racially diverse, but it’s still a remnant of its time.