Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Fall of Moondust - Arthur C. Clarke

I've been reading Clarke for a couple of years now and I must admit I am beginning to develop a real appreciation for his work. Not all of them are equally strong of course, but he as written works that clearly are masterpieces of the genre. Apparently the publishers of the SF Masterworks series agree with me. He has no less than five titles in the list, of which A Fall of Moondust (1961) is the fourth I have read. It is one of the novels he wrote before the publication of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a novel that is something of a watershed in his career. It is a hard science fiction novel, and more than fifty years after it's publication, it a bit dated. Still, the basic story holds up very well. What sets this novel apart from other works by this author is the building of tension. I haven't come across Clarke managing quite this level of suspense yet in the novels I've read.

Sometime in the twenty-first century humanity has colonized the Moon and is rapidly on its was to building a life off planet. The Moon even has become something of a tourist attraction. One sight that is quite popular is a cruise across the Sea of Thirst, a basin filled with very fine dust grains, weathered away from the Moon's rocky surface by the merciless temperature changes on the surface. In the absence of air, it haves like a powder in some ways and a liquid in others. When the Selene, the vehicle travelling this unique sea, disappears beneath the surface during a Moon quake, a race against the clock starts to get the passengers and crew out in time. A formidable technical challenge, given the hostile environment and the peculiar medium that swallowed the Selene.

In a way, this novel is not much different than a number of others Clarke has written. Finding a technical solution for the challenges posed by space is far more interesting than the characters to him. And it must be said, Clarke has set himself a serious challenge. As he explains in the 1987 foreword to the novel, it was written before mankind has set foot on the Moon, and one of the worries back then, was that seas of fine powder might indeed exist and even be capable of swallowing spacecraft. I must admit the explanation on the forces that make this stuff flow and collect in low places is a bit beyond me but apparently it was considered plausible back then and it is not ruled out that the static electricity described in the novel might indeed work elsewhere in the solar system. If these seas really exist, they haven't been found on the surface of the Moon but they certainly make good material for a science fiction novel.

In the early stages of the novel, the sense of wonder dominates the story. Clarke describes the Moon in detail, in a style that reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson's descriptions of Mars, although it must be said that Clarke is much more concise. Once the Selene goes down we switch to technical mode though. The author has clearly thought about all the things that can go wrong in a pressurized ship buried under a thick layer of dust. One system after another is put to uses they were never designed for and Clarke clearly gave a lot of thought about what could go wrong under such circumstances. He is clearly not unfamiliar with Murphy's law.

Another big part of the novel, and one that is much more interesting given the rest of Clarke's oeuvre, is the way he goes about describing the attempts to maintain morale. It is vitally important not to have anyone crack if you are buried under tonnes of dust, in a pressurized cabin that is not meant to house people indefinitely of course. I thought the way Clarke went about it was more fitting for a 1940 air raid shelter somewhere in London than a spacecraft though. A somewhat old fashioned British mentality seems to have taken over the company despite its members being from all corners of the world. Nevertheless, the cracks that begin to appear are dangerous enough and the psychological pressure on the people caught on board the Selene is real enough. It induces the kind of claustrophobia that space shares with submarines.

Clarke doesn't ramp up the psychological pressure all the way in the end. The climax of the novel is again technological. The stresses on the poor Selene cannot be held at bay indefinitely after all. It is a shame really, Clarke could probably have done a bit more with the company inside the Selene. That would have required a finer characterization than I have seen Clarke employ though. I guess the omniscient narration would have clashed with an attempt to increase the psychological pressure as well. I think this narrative mode isn't doing the story any favours as it is, especially early on in the novel. Clarke uses it at the end of chapters to end with a cliffhanger. It is unnecessary to the point of being annoying really. Even the least observant reader will understand things are not going according to plan without being told repeatedly.

Those minor quibbles don't take anything away from the fact that A Fall of Moondust is a very entertaining read. I guess you need a bit of a taste for hard science fiction to really enjoy this novel, but it is not a technical or on such a grand scale as some of Clarke's other works. Some readers may even feel it lacks the scope of some his other novels, Rendezvous with Rama (1973) comes to mind, or the sheer scale of some of the other engineering projects he describes, for instance in The Fountains of Paradise (1979). A Fall of Moondust is not as ambitious, nor perhaps as original, as some of his other books, but is a well written story that will keep the reader turning pages. Clarke manages to create a feeling of urgency that is hard to ignore. It is not among the very best of what Clarke has written but certainly not far behind. If you liked his other novels, this one won't disappoint.

Book Details
Title: A Fall of Moondust
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 224
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07317-3
First published: 1961

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