Monday, June 24, 2024

Hal Clement's The Lunar Lichen

The Lunar Lichen is a science fiction novella (or possibly novelette) by Hal Clement. It was originally published in Future Science Fiction in February 1960.

Hal Clement (1922-2003) was an American science fiction writer. He had a real science background and tended towards the hard science fiction end of the spectrum.

A geologist named Ingersoll has made a curious discovery on the Moon. He’s one of ten members of a lunar expedition. The Moon has not yet been colonised. When their research projects are completed the expedition members will return to Earth in their spaceship.

Ingersoll has discovered lichens on the Moon. They couldn’t possible exist there, but they do. Or at least Ingersoll claims to have discovered them. Dr Imbriano is sceptical. He suspects that Ingersoll is perpetrating a scientific fraud and that the lichens are terrestrial, brought to the Moon by Ingersoll. The expedition leader, Kinchen, isn’t so sure. Fraud is a possibility but he’s not about to leap to conclusions.

The expedition soon has other problems to worry about, such as getting back to Earth. That may not be easy, and it may not be easy staying alive on the lunar surface.

There’s a chase, of a sort, across a gigantic lunar crater.

There’s also a possibility that Ingersoll discovered something much more startling and unlikely than lunar lichen.

This is not a shoot ’em up space opera. There’s no real action as such. There is however some suspense, with survival hanging in the balance for the spaceship crew. There’s a touch of paranoia as well.

This novella was published very early in 1960, only a few months after the first unmanned space probe (the Soviet Luna 2) had reached the Moon. The Moon was still somewhat mysterious. The possibility of any form of life existing on the Moon seemed very remote but nothing could be entirely ruled out.

There’s plenty of technobabble here but given Clement’s preference for hard SF it’s possible that much of it really is scientifically at least vaguely plausible. Clement does go to great lengths to demonstrate just how harsh an environment the lunar surface really is, and to point out just how alien a world without an atmosphere is. With low gravity, a hard vacuum and incredibly extreme transitions in temperature you just can’t assume that anything will work the way it works on Earth. When your lunar tractor runs short on fuel the refuelling process isn’t straightforward. Storing anything from water to food to fuel requires considerable care.

There’s also the problem that when you get to the Moon you have only so much fuel for expeditions in those lunar tractors. Use up too much fuel and you’re never going to be going back to Earth.

It’s also nice to encounter a lunar adventure that makes use of the very limited horizon on the Moon. Something can be quite close and yet quite invisible.

The Lunar Lichen is an intriguing attempt to treat lunar exploration fairly seriously whilst still telling a tense and exciting story. It’s an attempt that succeeds quite well. My preference is for outrageous fun science fiction that doesn’t worry too much about realism so this is a bit outside my comfort zone but I enjoyed it. Highly recommended.

Armchair Fiction have paired this novella with Henry Kuttner’s novel The Time Trap in a two-novel paperback edition.

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