Genre: Hard science fiction, thriller
My Rating: ★★★★(4 of 5 stars)
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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world-building is superbly executed, although by now the delicate details of its science-based foundation are largely outdated.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!