The April Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is A Fall of Moondust, published in 1961 and now available from Gollancz.
‘A brilliantly imagined story of human ingenuity and survival from one of the undisputed masters of science fiction. Time is running out for the passengers and crew of the tourist cruiser Selene, incarcerated in a sea of choking lunar dust. On the surface, her rescuers find their resources stretched to the limit by the mercilessly unpredictable conditions of a totally alien environment. A brilliantly imagined story of human ingenuity and survival, A FALL OF MOONDUST is a tour-de-force of psychological suspense and sustained dramatic tension by the field’s foremost author.’
Written before the Moon landings but set at a time when tourists explore the surface in space boats, this utterly gripping disaster story has travelled the years very well indeed. Has a sea ever been better named than the Sea of Thirst? When its lethal dust shifts in an earthquake (moonquake?), it swallows the vessel Selene whole. At a depth of 15 metres, the crew and passengers can do nothing but wait for discovery, hoping that their air can last long enough, that they won’t be cooked alive, that they won’t die of thirst. As the clock ticks relentlessly, we follow the efforts of engineers and scientists to discover and rescue the craft as well as the struggle of those within the ship to survive, with their bodies and sanity intact.
Although written over half a century ago, the 21st century vision that Clarke presents in A Fall of Moondust is beguiling and believable. The solar system is being explored while the wealthy can now visit and explore the surface of the Moon. A new generation, including the Selene’s pilot Pat Harris has never even set foot on Earth. Instead, they know the home planet only as a jagged crescent in the Moon sky. The passengers are an interesting bunch. They include Commodore Hansteen (travelling incognito until the situation demands he reveal his identity), an astronaut celebrity who led the first expedition to Pluto. There is also a lawyer, a professor of zoology, a journalist, a doctor, as well as others who might not necessarily be quite what they seem. In a confined stage such as this, there is great potential for drama, secrets and revelations, even romance, and as the passengers and crew seek to entertain each other, they can’t help but entertain us at the same time.
Despite the potential for great tragedy, intensified by the drama unfolding on the surface as the rescuers race to save those buried in full view of Earth’s television audiences, there is a humour to the story’s telling that contributed enormously to my enjoyment. While some of the passengers take refuge in a game of poker, others seek amusement in the two novels brought aboard – the Western Shane and a book called The Orange and the Apple, a historical romantic romp which pairs Nell Gwynne with Isaac Newton. The tact, chivalry and humour with which Commodore Hansteen in particular maintains calm made me chuckle a fair bit.
The most telling sign of the passing of the years since 1961 is in Clarke’s female characters and in the way they are handled by both Clarke and their fellow passengers. Both Earth and the Moon are Men’s Worlds. There are numerous references to ‘men’ – the passengers are ‘like some ancient tribe gathered round the camp fire, in a wilderness that held no other men’ – and the professions aboard (with the exception of the journalist whom they all treat as a troublemaker) are held by men. There are certainly no women among the rescuing engineers and politicians. Poor Mrs Schuster has a dreadful time – her weight and age regularly under review, her previous dancing job a source of mirth. Women are asked (by the men) to help the space hostess Sue Wilkins because it would be unfair for one woman alone to have to wait on everyone during the confinement. This did irritate me but it made me laugh just as much – times have changed in more ways than some science fiction writers of the past could predict.
A Fall of Moondust is a thoroughly entertaining disaster adventure from start to finish, the intense drama (and it is indeed most intense) set off enjoyably by the human drama played out within the Selene. I could not put it down.