Monday, April 16, 2012

Review of "A Fall of Moondust" by Arthur C. Clarke

Standing at night, looking up at the glowing white face of the moon, we might ask: what is it comprised of?  We’ve all seen the lunar landing videos, the dusty, desiccated soil that holds the impression of boots and tires so well, but what does it feel like?  How does the stuff behave?  Like sand?  Talcum powder?  Is it powdery like sugar, or fluid like in an hourglass?  In 1961 when mankind had yet to set foot on the moon, those impressions were left in a substance that existed in the imagination, only.  Writing A Fall of Moondust that year, Arthur C. Clarke speculated just what that surface might be like, and in the process wrote a sci-fi thriller rooted in scientific ideology.  Not earthshaking, the novel is nonetheless a solid read for fans of the genre.

In keeping with Clarke’s preference for stories that highlight humanity’s diminutive size compared to the exigencies of the universe, A Fall of Moondust is novel about a group needing rescue after becoming trapped in a sea of moon dust.  Using the tropes of science-fiction – with strong emphasis on “science” – the book tells of the hovercraft Selene and one of its moon cruises that doesn’t go according to plan.  Not exceptionally technical in its discourse, Clarke’s everyday-Joe heroes nevertheless uphold scientific virtue in extricating the trapped people, simultaneously rationalizing and promulgating the suspense.

No space monsters or barrage of mutant asteroids, A Fall of Moondust is simply man vs. the elements.  The team of protagonists set about overcoming the unique limitations imposed by the lunar environment in systematic fashion.  Theoretical knowledge of utmost value if the trapped group is to be rescued, most methods and tools that work on earth are unthinkable on the moon, its gravity and atmosphere posing unnatural obstacles for the engineering mind to circumvent.  And so while Clarke is able to keep plot lines taught, it is the methodology to the rescue which proves the book’s main draw. 

Average build, clean shaven, plaid shirts, and an unfailing belief in the scientific method characterize Clarke’s “heroes” in A Fall of Moondust.  Lawrence is an engineer with an unfailing eye for weeding out solutions relying too heavily on impracticalities.  Lawson, a young astronomer fueled by his belief in scientific observations, challenges the status quo when presenting his objective evidence to the world.  And lastly Pat, the captain of the Selene, is a phlegmatic but resourceful man, not given to losing his cool in moments of fear because of his trust in the material workings of his craft.  Though these characters are obviously conjured to suit the plot, Clarke blunts the edge enough to pass them off as real humans.  Dialogue not so wooden as to make the story unreadable, there is even time for a touch of romance and detective work.

In the end, A Fall of Moondust is a competently written, consistently plotted thriller rooted in physical reality despite having the moon as its setting.  Like other 'mission impossible' type stories, Clarke sets an interesting challenge for himself and his protagonists with the trapped ship, proving it’s the journey not the destination that’s worthwhile.  A paean to science, readers can also expect the glories of objective inquiry and theoretical knowledge regarding chemistry, physics, and astronomy to appear and reappear.  Written at a time when scientific ideology was not yet taken for granted by society, none of the darker, grittier sides of humanity surface.  Unlike the works of later writers, such as Gibson, McDonald, or Banks, Clarke presents the cleaner, more traditional side of sci-fi (read: idyllic), science shining golden to solve all society’s problems.  And so, while the premise of A Fall of Moondust may seem dated due to the knowledge we later acquired of the moon, the story itself remains a compact and easy read.  Not Clarke’s best, it’s at least short, sweet, and interesting to those curious to see physics at work on the moon.

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