A double review:
Moonfall by Jack McDevitt (HarperCollins Voyager, £6.99, 544 pages, paperback; published 17 May 1999.)
Moonseed by Stephen Baxter (HarperCollins Voyager, £6.99, 535 pages, paperback; published 2 August 1999.)
A menace from the Moon threatens Earth; can-do heroes battle to save humankind, racing against the clock; huge numbers die in the mass destruction that ensues. These phrases could be used to describe either of the Moon-something novels reviewed here.
With Moonfall, the self-proclaimed "ultimate disaster novel", no-one would accuse Jack McDevitt of committing literature.
Airport blockbuster meets sci-fi disaster movie meets millennial panic. The "movie" reference is valid here: Moonfall is a cinematic book that might easily have been written for the big screen. It could make a very good adventure film, but equally it would be very easy to make Moonfall into a trashy made-for-TV affair. It contains the ingredients of both.
Moonfall opens with Horace Brickmann on a Pacific cruise to view the solar eclipse of 2024, wondering why he's stuck with the company of a dull banker and not the woman he had invited. (Equally, the reader will later wonder why on Earth the book opened with this irrelevant vignette... Perhaps that was the joke.)
We cut to Rachel Quinn, on Space Station Lagrange One, preparing for the first human trip to Mars.
And we cut to Vice President Charles Haskell visiting the Moon, largely because the President himself doesn't want to appear too closely associated with the costly albatross that the lunar settlement has become.
And then we cut to Tomiko Harrington, amateur astronomer taking a sick day from work to study the eclipse, who ends up discovering a comet, bound super-fast for the Moon.
Moonfall reeks of formulaic fat-thriller plotting, jump-cutting from character to character, many of whom serve only as cannon-fodder later in the book. Characters are introduced with often-lengthy paragraphs of backfill which are at odds with the punchy scene-jumping pace of the novel. You can see the formula at work: introduce a succession of characters as fast as possible, introduce some personal detail to make the reader become involved, so that they care when the characters are later wiped out.
There's no getting away from the fact that it's a strong story, though: an enormous and very fast comet likely to shatter the Moon and shower Earth with moon-rock. Yet McDevitt's writing counteracts some of the inherent tension. Instead of trusting the situation's momentum, he resorts to obvious devices to crank things up: the cannon-fodder casting, plodding foreshadowing of technical problems with spacecraft, and so on.
And just to counter all his efforts to boost the tension, McDevitt can't resist the urge to explain, to lecture: "The jets were mounted on a bracket between ring-shaped fuel intake manifolds circling the ship. One rig carried fuel; the other, oxidizer. The pitch/yaw assembly consisted of four jets facing out, equally..." etc, etc, et bleeding cetera.
But, despite all of its weaknesses, Moonfall is not a bad book. Indeed, particularly in the second half, when the cannon-fodder have been introduced and the story takes over, Moonfall turns into a satisfyingly good page-turner of a novel.
I started Moonfall expecting to enjoy it with the guilty enjoyment you get from a slick commercial movie -- "guilty" in this case, partly because you know you're giving yourself up to formula entertainment and partly with the fact that the entertainment derives in large part from mass-destruction and slaughter. As I read, I was disappointed by the unremitting obviousness of Jack McDevitt's approach, the crudeness and clumsiness. And I ended up enjoying it, much as I had anticipated.
Jack McDevitt does, at least, press the right buttons.
Not as well as Stephen Baxter, though.
"This year's great disaster novel," is how the Daily Mirror -- that esteemed lit-crit organ -- describes Baxter's Moonseed.
Like Jack McDevitt, Stephen Baxter uses many of the standard disaster movie techniques: many viewpoints and characters and cuts from scene to scene, the potted biographies designed to introduce characters quickly and make them matter, the blatant and crude attempts to crank up the tension (dropping back from the viewpoint characters to tell the reader something significant is happening: "...a careful observer might have noticed..."), and so on. But Baxter handles these techniques -- for the most part, at least -- with far greater mastery.
Jays Malone, as part of the fictional Apollo 18 mission, is one of the last astronauts to set foot on the Moon in the 1970s. He collects samples of lunar bedrock from Schröter's Valley but the sample, unknown to him, harbours traces of something that dates back to the Moon's formation, something that might threaten the future of humankind.
We jump to Geena Bourne and Henry Meacher at the US Geological Survey's Cascades Observatory. Both work for NASA: Henry as a geologist, whose proposed mission to send an unmanned probe to seek water on the Moon has been cancelled; his wife Geena a NASA astronaut who has spoken out against unmanned exploration in favour of near-Earth manned spaceflight. Needless to say, their relationship is in its last throes, but their bickering is interrupted by a strange light in the sky: Venus is burning brighter than it should... Venus has exploded.
Jays' bedrock sample has lain undisturbed in NASA's moonrock collection for decades, but finally it is despatched with Henry to Edinburgh University, where he is to restart his career. Unknown to Henry, if even the tiniest sample of the rock should be released to contaminate the environment, an unstoppable chain reaction might be triggered...
In Moonfall, Jack McDevitt has a simple threat: comet hits Moon, Moon shatters and threatens Earth. Moonseed presents a more complex threat, a cosmic mystery involving speculative high energy physics, many of whose puzzles remain unsolved even at the end: no novel can explain the Universe, after all, not even a Stephen Baxter novel. Moonseed is more complex, too, in its plotting and characterisation: no simple exponential curve of threat versus time here, but a satisfying jigsaw puzzle build-up of rising tension, character growth, politicking and speculation.
Where Moonfall is a disaster movie taking the form of a novel, Moonseed is a full-blown hard science fiction novel borrowing from the disaster genre. There is a significant difference there, and it makes Baxter's novel the superior product despite its flaws.
Moonseed is a powerful, gripping novel which sets the brain as well as the heart racing, but it is significantly flawed all the same.
Since his early big-ideas-and-not-much-else fiction, Baxter has matured considerably as a writer, so that he has become one of the very best, but he still occasionally falls back on some of the clumsy techniques that tend to be a feature of poor hard sf. One of these is the "so tell me, professor" data dump -- characters telling each other what they already know, purely for the benefit of the reader.
"...The containers are under positive pressure. I mean, the interiors contain air at a higher pressure than outside, so if there is any breach of containment the lunar material would be blown outwards, rather than have earthly contamination blow inwards. By comparison, if we were looking at radioactive material the pressure would be negative..."
...This is a technician explaining basic lab technique to a senior researcher... This kind of thing crops up throughout Moonseed.
Another Baxterism that, at its extreme, tends to lend a sameness to the characterisation is the fact that everyone tends to have a rational, scientific view of the world: they understand -- or at least they try to understand -- the processes that shape their lives. We all try to do this, of course, but in real life a depressingly large portion of the population uses very irrational methods to "understand".
Perhaps more serious criticisms can be levelled at the plotting and dramatisation of Moonseed. Baxter misses some of the more obvious drama: when Venus blows up you'd expect at least some panic -- what if it happens here? -- but that's barely mentioned; there are some references to the dangers of fallout from the event, then we jump forward a week to beyond the initial fallout when higher environmental radiation levels have been accepted as the norm. The human drama has been skipped as the author plunges on with his own concerns.
Later, gaps in plot logic open up for similar reasons: it's accepted far too readily that the problems encountered on Earth are caused by contamination from the moonrock -- the author knows this, and he's told the reader this, but for the protagonists that leap of understanding seems far too easy and self-evident. And if the problem has been caused by moonrock, then isn't the Moon likely to blow up just as Venus has done? This issue isn't even raised until halfway through the book, and then only fleetingly, yet surely the possibility of an exploding Moon would be a significant concern?
And probably the largest hole in plot logic comes in the Big Solution (hard sf always has a Big Solution): it is, simply, very hard to believe that one man could persuade NASA to pull out all the stops for him, including arming him with a nuke, without him ever actually telling them what he's going to do!
But still, as I believe I've already said, Moonseed is a powerful, gripping novel which sets the brain as well as the heart racing... In Moonseed, Stephen Baxter pushes all the same standard buttons as McDevitt, but he does so with far greater assurance. And he's found a lot of extra buttons to push, as well.
Review by Keith Brooke.
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© Keith Brooke 15 September 1999