Sunday, May 7, 2017

Arthur C. Clarke's A Fall of Moondust

A Fall of Moondust was published in 1961 at a time when its author, Arthur C. Clarke, was at the peak of his powers as a science fiction writer. A Fall of Moondust is not quite typical of Clarke’s oeuvre, this being the closest he came to writing a science fiction thriller.

Back in 1961 there was a popular theory that much of the Moon’s surface comprised vast seas of dust and it’s this idea that provides the inspiration for the story. The idea turned out to be incorrect but it’s still a great setting and a great story.

It is somewhere around the late 21st century, on the Moon (which is now well and truly inhabited). The Selene is a dust cruiser, a kind of pleasure boat that takes tourists on jaunts across the the largest of the lunar dust seas, the Sea of Thirst.

The Sea of Thirst is more than just a dust bowl. This is incredibly fine dust that covers the lunar surface to a depth of anything up to a hundred metres. The combination of the fineness of the dust, the hard vacuum of space and the Moon’s weak gravity causes the dust to behave like a fluid, but not quite like any normal fluid. You can sail the sea of dust, if you have a lightweight dust ski, or even better a dust cruiser like the Selene

The Moon is not always as predictable as its reputation as a dead world would suggest. It is capable of springing surprises and one of these surprises brings disaster to the Selene. The dust cruiser and her twenty-two passengers and crew sinks. 

The Selene is perfectly intact and her passengers are unharmed but they are stuck fifteen metres beneath the surface of the Sea of Thirst, beneath thousands of tons of dust.

A very popular genre in movies at the time was the submarine disaster movie. The best of all these movies was the 1950 British film Morning Departure, in which a rescue operation is mounted to try to save the lives of sailors stuck in a submarine which sank during a training exercise. A Fall of Moondust is very very similar in general outline to Morning Departure and I would bet money that Clarke had seen the movie and had been inspired by it.

However a dust sea is not quite the same as an ordinary sea. In some ways the lunar dust behaves very much like water and in other ways it behaves very differently. The difficulties faced by the rescue operation are similar in some ways and very different in others to those faced by a submarine rescue operation. It’s the similarities to the submarine disaster genre that make this novel such a tense and gripping tale and it’s the intriguing differences that make A Fall of Moondust a genuine hard science fiction novel.

Finding the vanished dust cruiser is difficult enough. Rescuing her passengers and crew is  quite simply something that has never been attempted before. There is no established procedure. The entire operation will have to be improvised. Even if nothing before goes wrong the odds are not that good, and of course something further does go wrong.

Clarke always had a reputation for being a writer with zero interest in characterisation. In this book he makes a few token efforts to bring some of the characters to life. These efforts are notably unsuccessful. Fortunately Clarke does not allow these feeble attempts at characterisation to slow down his story. As it happens he has a terrific story to tell and it’s the scientific and technological challenges that drive the story. 

What is surprising is that Clarke seems to have an instinctive understanding of the demands of the thriller genre. He builds the tension rather nicely and every time it looks like everything is going to be OK he throws a new disaster at the hapless passengers. It’s a genuinely exciting tale and given the unusual and indeed unprecedented conditions in which it takes place we really don’t know just how the rescuers are going to go about the task, mainly because they don’t really know themselves. They’re going to have to invent an entirely novel method of rescue and nobody has any way of knowing if it will work.

A Fall of Moondust has the hard SF elements that Clarke’s fans always enjoy but with enough action and excitement to give it a potential appeal even to those who aren’t hardcore Arthur C. Clarke fans. Highly recommended.

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