Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Review: A Fall of Moondust

Author: Arthur Clarke
Genre: Hard science fiction, thriller
My Rating: ★★★★(4 of 5 stars)

Image courtesy of Google Images

Like its reel counterparts, popcorn literature set in outer space are usually replete with alien invasions, intergalactic skirmishes, and heroes trying to defeat extraterrestrial elements. But there is no written rule saying all works under the genre should have all these checklist items ticked—relying on hard facts, research, and a little bit of forecast will sometimes do just dandy. If done properly, they could even be better than most of those soft sci-fi treats. This dawned on me as I corrected 1/3 of my blasphemous mistake of Not Having Read Anything by the Sci-Fi’s Great Triumvirate (also known as Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, and Robert Heinlein) by picking up one of Clarke’s classic works, A Fall of Moondust.

Known as the first science fiction novel to be included in the Reader’s Digest’s Condensed Book, A Fall of Moondust is a futuristic (or pseudo-futuristic?) lunar disaster story involving the tourist “dust-cruiser” Selene, which sunk into the “Sea of Thirst” after a moonquake. Its twenty-two occupants must struggle to survive while the crew above them tries to trace and rescue them before it’s too late.

Readers need not become selenologists or even space buffs to notice that the world-building is superbly executed, although by now the delicate details of its science-based foundation are largely outdated. Clarke was not also able to foresee the influx of high technology that this generation could as well be having; the existence of cellular/smart phones or tablets and similar gadgets could have propelled the plot points into very different directions, from contacting people (they are not in too deep into the moon-pit anyway) to extracting some form of entertainment. This did not deter me from enjoying its multi-dimensionality, though. I loved the feel of the whole thing, from how space tourism worked in the author’s chosen setting—with of course a bit of involvement of politics, like how there are actually some officials who voted against turning the moon into a tourist destination, etc.—to how Clarke wrote the moon to appear both mystifyingly beautiful and stealthily dangerous. It was as if the moon was a character in itself, and that is always good in my book.

The characters are not as fleshed out as I wanted them to be, but I think they were decent for the most part. My favorite turned out to be the one person the other characters could not find themselves to like, the young grumpy astroscientist Tom Lawson. His antisocial, high-and-mighty attitude makes almost all people he meets peel away from him as if he is caustic, and that’s exactly how he wants it. He does not put up pretenses about caring for the people he is supposed to be saving; he is a cold problem-solver, bent on proving he is right when all of nature is trying to tell him otherwise. I liked him the most because he is ‘differently flavored’ from the rest of the characters. He stands out and does not make excuses for his actions, and though he sets out to make everyone thinks he is made of marble, there are moments in the book that poked at his soft core, handful of scenes that showed he could be an ordinary, scared human too. Through subtle episodes, it is hinted that his personality has been a by-product of a bad childhood. However, Clarke did not allot space for a dramatic back story as it could veer away the focus from the main meat of the novel, a choice that is unusual with overly dramatic books nowadays.

The thing that concerned me the most is the lack of strong women in the book. Sure, we have the flight attendant Sue Wilkins, but what purpose does her presence serve other than being a romance catalyst for one of the main male characters? She is described as formidable, but nothing in the novel ever backed that up—even that single sentence saying the skipper Pat Harris is simultaneously afraid of and smitten by her proved to be a tad too unconvincing . The rest of the women are passengers who are either bitter old maids with a bad case of “impacted virginity” (I mean, seriously?!) or obese wives who automatically turn themselves into butts of ridicule with zero effort.

But in terms of plot and pacing, this story simply shines. I was constantly at the edge of my seat, turning pages in awe as I await one plot twist after another (Clarke never runs out of rabbit to pull out of his author’s hat, I tell you). This is a prime example of a true-blue space thriller. They say this is not even Clarke’s best work, making me more excited about reading A Space Odyssey or Rendezvous with Rama.

Four stars for a satisfying treat!


  1. Now what is there to say about this book? Should I write a comment longer than the article? LOL

    This is one of my fave sci-fi books from grade school. I read it before the Moon landing. Looking back it is now shocking that men who set foot on the Moon are in their 80s and we have not even been back much less started colonies. So this story is still futuristic in portraying a colony on the Moon but also ironic in not having smartphones for the passengers to entertain themselves with. ROFL Get on public transportation today and half the passengers have electronics going.

    Lawson was my fave character also. Lots of normal humans do not like really smart people. Normals are so annoying. More than any other single book this one inclined me to go for engineering in college. Clarke used Plato's Allegory of the Cave to explain infra-red sensors. Reality is not how you see it but how you look at it.

    Different books are better in different ways. It depends on what the reader likes at the time. I find it really curious that Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle beat Moondust for the Hugo in 1961 and it is appearing as a series on Syfy now. I didn't think much of it way back when and was not impressed by the 1st episode. But I am old and tired of NAZIs. LOL

    But they are doing Childhood's End.

  2. You got the wrong cover though:


  3. As a word nut how do you deal with word counts?

    There are science words like "pressure, radio and oxygen" and fantasy words like "magic, wand and spirit".

    So if you count all of the science words and fantasy words and divide each total by the length of the work you get a science density and a fantasy density for that work of literature.

    A Fall of Moondust gets a science density of 1.056 for using 82 different science words 464 times. 1.000 would mean one science word per 1000 characters including spaces and punctuation.

    The fantasy density is only 0.032 for 8 different fantasy words used 14 times.

    The Harry Potter series uses the word "wand" 1546 times.

    It has a science density of 0.065 and a fantasy density of 0.632

    A simple minded computer program that just counts words is not going to tell us anything about the literary quality of the work. It could not tell us anything about the Lawson character, but it can distinguish science fiction from fantasy fiction

    Dune SD= 0.324 FD= 0.083
    Ender's Game SD= 0.382 FD= 0.088

    Moondust ranks among the highest in Science Density for novels though short stories can score higher due to their short length. Dune and Ender's Game have been topping lists for fave SF stories years but neither is really hard SF like Moondust.

  4. REPLY TO Unknown
    November 22, 2015 at 1:08 AM

    Thanks a lot for the inputs! I did say in the review that most of the science-based details in the book are outdated, though I did not specify things for clarification. I'm going to fix that up, thank you. :)

    You've known this story even before the Moon landing! Reading this must have been a truly great experience for you. Well, I guess works of futuristic fiction that have been produced in the past are bound to commit a few mistakes even if its writers are very well-versed in their choice of subject. Like recently, Andy Weir's The Martian (which was first published in 2011 and he has the 'Net at his fingertips to research about Mars) has a handful of details that were practically 'myth-busted' when recent news about the existence of water on the Red Planet got the whole nerdworld rejoicing. Those were important details that propel most actions in the book, though. We're gonna have to let him wave his literary license card, haha. (AND HEY, you gotta read that book! It's not as serious as Moondust tone-wise, but it's largely scientific. I'll write a review for it soon.)

    I think Lawson was very likable as a character in the book, though not as a person you'd want to interact with on a daily basis. Yes he is incredibly smart, but he does have some kind of antisocial thing going on with him. I'm amazed how the author wrote him, really. And I'm a bit biased because I like characters that are generally disliked by many other characters in the book, haha.

    Wow, Clarke is really a very big influence on you! Made you take up engineering and, well, have you commenting here on my blog about this book. ;)

    I do hope they adapt this into a miniseries or something, with a few updates on the details that Clarke did not manage to forecast correctly. Would be more amazing if they tape it on location! Haha!

    Thank you for the comment again.

  5. REPLY TO Unknown (2)
    November 22, 2015 at 1:10 AM

    I think I have the correct cover...? Just a different edition/version, but definitely one of the various covers of A Fall of Moondust :)