Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Fall of Moondust (1961) by Arthur C. Clarke

(Image from Wikipedia)

A Fall of Moondust (1961) by Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke, one of the grand masters of science fiction, passed away recently but he left behind a legacy that comprises a significant number of works. I've read a fair number of them but it's been a while, so I intend to revisit his most significant efforts sometime soon. 'A Fall of Moondust' is actually one that I'd never read before. It's basically a disaster story set on the moon involving a tourist 'boat' that travels on a 'sea' of sand; a lunar quake causes the boat to be buried under the sand with only days of life support left. The plot revolves around the rescue efforts by the engineers on the moon and the efforts of the trapped passengers to try and stay alive and keep their hopes up.

Clarke was never one for writing great characters, and this book is particularly weak when it comes to the human side of things, with sketchy and cliched characterization and mechanical behaviour. But reading Clarke for the characters is like reading Mills & Boon for the technology - it's misguided in the extreme. What he was a master of was creating interesting and believable future scenarios grounded in (extrapolated) science, scenarios full of keenly observed details regarding both technology and its impact on society. He also typically managed to create a narrative within the scenario that featured science (mainly physics) in a big way.

This book is no different - at every turn Clarke throws out little nuggets of physics and technology and brief asides on what this future world and society is like and why it is that way. Sometimes though it can all sound a little too didactic, almost like he wrote the book more to convey his ideas and conjured up a loose narrative out of necessity, but more often than not the two aspects complement each other nicely. As the search and rescue operation gets underway, we are treated to discourse on space travel, communication, the moon and lunar life, the problems of reduced gravity, the media, and so on. For me and other geeks like me the subject matter is utterly intriguing.

While I complained about the characters, their behaviour from a story point of view is actually quite convincing - it's the way they're written, the dialogue and the clunkiness of their personality that is weak - which makes for an interesting human aspect as the passengers, a quite motley crew, try to while away the time without losing control of the situation. There's a terrific sense of pacing in the book, it really is well structured and very cinematic with bouts of excitement and despair being introduced at regular intervals, and the whole story culminating in a thrilling race against time.

In the end there's nothing particularly brilliant about the book, but as a 'what if' scenario it is fascinating. Clarke's style is basic but the strength of the ideas and his descriptiveness are enough to make this a real page turner, and the flaws fall by the wayside as you are hurtled towards the conclusion. Perhaps not the best of his works, but a good read nonetheless.


CyberKitten said...

I enjoyed reading this *many* years ago and still remember the drama of the people on the trapped 'bus' trying to stay alive in a hostile environment.

I've read most of Clarke's works and enjoyed most of them very much.

Antimatter said...

Yeah, it was a real thriller of a story! This book in particular highlights what I found to be one of the defining characteristics of most of Clarke's books - they are accessible without being dumbed down.

CyberKitten said...

AM said: This book in particular highlights what I found to be one of the defining characteristics of most of Clarke's books - they are accessible without being dumbed down.

Clarke was a very good communicator & educator. I'm sure that I learnt lots from reading his books.