A confession: Arthur C. Clarke was the first sf-nal love of my life, a heady introduction to a genre that I continue to read to this day. I've therefore always had a soft spot for his writing (Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein somehow never having held the same attraction for me), so it was with some trepidation that I approached this book, which I must have first read with great enjoyment over twenty years ago. In those two decades my taste in sf, and literature in general, has changed quite considerably. Would Clarke's work stand the test of time, or would it appear hopelessly naïve to my (allegedly) more sophisticated literary sensibilities?
In his introduction to the 1987 reprint of the novel, reproduced here, Clarke admits that the scientific idea upon which the novel is predicated has dated badly. The unmanned Surveyor missions and the manned Apollo landings proved that the lunar surface is not covered with layers of fine dust, ready to engulf the unwary explorer. Even so, the conceit of a lunar ocean, filled with a fine powder drier than a terrestrial desert, but which flows like water, yet alone the idea of a tourist ship designed to cruise the surface of such a sea, retains an imaginative power that ensures that the reader is prepared to suspend their disbelief.
The cruiser Selene sets out on a routine jaunt across the dust-choked Sea of Thirst with a complement of rich tourists aboard. With practised skill Clarke introduces us to the wonders of a newly settled moon - a vision that, although it belongs to a future that has passed us by, still retains a nostalgic power to inspire. We are also introduced to the passengers and crew of Selene. Competent, but unambitious, Captain Pat Harris and his stewardess Sue Wilkins, for whom he feels an unrequited attraction, and the passengers, among them Irving Schuster, the lawyer, and his wife Myra, the aboriginal physicist Duncan McKenzie, feisty journalist Phyllis Morley and space hero Commodore Hansteen, travelling incognito.
Of course, disaster is not far away. A freak moonquake sucks Selene into a maelstrom of dust and buries her fifteen metres beneath the surface of the Sea of Thirst. The crew and passengers are thrown upon their own resources, while those in the world above face a desperate race against time to first find, and then rescue, them before their air supply runs out. The theme of disaster and survival against insurmountable odds is a well-worn one in any genre, but Clarke handles it with professional ease, as both those aboard Selene and their potential rescuers alternately meet with success and reversals of fortune. It's a tribute to his skill that, even though they occur with predictable regularity, these setbacks never seem contrived. It will come as no surprise that a happy conclusion is never really in doubt, but nonetheless the novel is carefully paced to ensure that the reader keeps turning the pages.
One doesn't normally associate Golden Age authors with great powers of characterisation, but Clarke makes the most of the material available to him and, although economically drawn, the victims aboard Selene in particular, do take on a life of their own. As ever, his writing in this respect is at its best when portraying competent men of action and rationality - Captain Harris, the astronomer, Tom Lawson, who locates the spot where Selene went down and Chief Engineer Lawrence, who leads the rescue effort. Women are generally there to look pretty, become hysterical, or, ultimately, get pregnant - perhaps less an indictment of Clarke than of the era in which he wrote.
Initially I had my doubts as to whether A Fall of Moondust would justify its inclusion as a one of the Gollancz Masterworks of modern sf. Perhaps it would be more suited as a reprint in their resurrected line of C-format 'yellow backs'. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The science might have become dated, the characterisation may occasionally be a little cardboard, but the book is ultimately something more than just a pleasing entertainment. It bears its forty years remarkably well.
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© Andrew Seaman 29 June 2002