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Clarke at 100: A Fall of Moondust

By / February 22, 2017 / no comments

In our celebration of the work of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who would have turned 100 this year, we follow Earthlight by turning to another of his novels set on the Moon, A Fall of Moondust.

Earthlight - 97Not far short of a decade separates the two books, so it is not surprising that it is a somewhat different Moon that we encounter here. Now there are tourists, wealthy tourists to be sure but tourists none the less, so it is not exclusively a place of work. Therefore where, in Earthlight, the Moon had an austere feel, the sort of place you put up with while you do your job before heading home again, in A Fall of Moondust it is a place where people live, several of the central characters were born there; this is the Moon as home. Consequently, this is not so claustrophobically masculine a society as in the earlier novel, and indeed there are a couple of strongish female characters in secondary roles, though one is the love interest, one is the fat ex-burlesque dancer who keeps everyone amused and one is the waspish old bat who turns out not to be so bad after all. In other words, these are pretty cliched characters; but then, so are the men who are the main focus of the novel. Basically, as in the earlier novel, this is a novel of technology and technologists, roles that are exclusively the province of men, and in general the more scientifically literate you are the better a human being you are.

(And while we’re on the subject of representations, it is perhaps worth pointing out that one of the leading secondary characters turns out two-thirds of the way through the book to be an Australian aborigine, and Clarke includes quite a long discussion about how badly the aborigines have been treated, and how this character, a doctor and scientist, should not be considered any more intelligent than his illiterate father who was knowledgeable in aboriginal traditions and skilled at raising a family in harsh and unfavourable circumstances. Coming so soon after Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers which famously featured a non-white character but was somewhat less conscious of traditions and circumstances, this is quite an extraordinary passage, though it seems not to have provoked anything like the attention that Heinlein did.)

Apollo 13 - Collector's EditionThe story is about a disaster, or rather a series of disasters each of which requires technologists to respond in different ways, but in each case technology saves the day so that in the end nobody is killed. In many ways it prefigures the story of Apollo 13, both the real events and the movie. A vessel in the most unforgiving of circumstances suffers an unexpected and potentially catastrophic failure, and technicians have to work against the clock to cobble together a solution that will save the lives of those aboard. But there is one key difference: the Apollo 13 disaster emphasised to the whole world the danger of flights to the Moon and was probably instrumental in NASA ending its lunar programme and concentrating its resources on (supposedly) safer options such as the shuttle programme and the International Space Station. In A Fall of Moondust the catastrophe is, paradoxically, about domesticating the Moon.

A Fall of Moondust (S.F. Masterworks)What happens is the the cruiser Selene, the only boat on the Moon, sets sail for a sightseeing tour of the Sea of Thirst, a vast dust sea. Okay, in 1961 this was pretty much the height of our knowledge about the Moon, but most of what you read in this novel has since been superceded. You don’t want to read this as an accurate account of the Moon, but that would be a remarkably petty way to approach the book anyway. So, for the sake of enjoying what is, after all, a good read, let us simply accept that there is such a lunar sea composed of just such superfine dust that behaves exactly like water and upon which a boat like the Selene might sail. There are two crew, the captain and the stewardess, and 20 passengers.

At this point, the Moon is believed to be seismically dead, but it isn’t. With the boat in mid-ocean, a seismic shock occurs in the rocks that form the bed of the Sea of Thirst, and the Selene sinks, the dust closing smoothly above them without leaving a trace. Now the thing to remember is that though the novel is set in the early years of the 21st century, the technology on display, and the way that technology is used, is pretty much 1950s. Beefed up in some instances, but in its essence no different from what people at the time would have known in their day-to-day lives. There’s television but no internet, there are no domestic or personal computers, there’s none of the digital technology we know so intimately today, there’s no GPS or tracker systems or anything else that would render the search for Selene unproblematic. In fact, for a time nobody even knows that Selene is missing, they don’t realise this until Selene misses the next scheduled radio contact. Then they have no idea where the boat might be; there is no method of tracing it, no record of where it went off the radar, they don’t even have radar (which is perhaps the biggest technological surprise in the book). When they discover that the seismic shock caused a rockfall on a mountainous island in the middle of the sea, they assume that the boat must have been caught in that, in which case there is no further point in searching.

A bolshie young astronomer on a space station at the Lagrange Point is told that the search has been called off, but decides to turn his jury-rigged infra-red equipment on the area in question anyway, and spots an anomalous heat source. From this point on, the novel is essentially a series of technological challenges and solutions. They have to locate the boat on the ground, as it were; then they have to open communication with those trapped aboard it. Then it turns out that though there is still plenty of oxygen on the boat, the filters to scrub carbon dioxide out of the air have been fouled by the dust, so there is a race to get clean air down to the boat. Next we learn that removed waste water from the boat has been injecting that water into the enveloping dust, further destabilising it, eventually causing the boat to sink again and come to rest at an awkward angle. So now they need to relocate the boat and come up with a new plan to rescue the crew and passengers. Finally, the boat’s power source catches fire, so the final evacuation becomes a race against time.

The overall message of the book is that for every technological challenge, there is a technological solution. The Moon is a dangerous place, but no more dangerous than many places on Earth, and for every danger there is a way of minimising it, of coping with it, a way for ordinary everyday life to go on regardless. This is the Moon not as a frontier, not as a challenge, but as a domestic environment. We meet people who come to the Moon for their health, we learn of how hotels adapt their beds for people unfamiliar with sleeping in low gravity, we learn of the little inconveniences of life, of “spacesuit itch” and of how tea tastes different because the pressure is wrong. Although it has a plot full of threats and dangers, this is a book that tells us the Moon will be tamed and familiar and usual and safe. And where Apollo 13 prompted a re-evaluation of the space programme and a redirection towards something that is assumed to be less risky, in A Fall of Moondust the long-term effect of the catastrophe and rescue is that tourist numbers actually rise. There is, in other words, a confidence about the future, an unquestioned assumption that the Moon will be just another place that we will make home. This is something you always find in Clarke’s work, and if this isn’t exactly one of his best books (despite the fact that the Evening Standard called it: “The best and most exciting science-fiction novel for years”), it is probably, in that respect, his most typical book.

Buy A Fall of Moondust on Amazon.

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