Harper Prism, 1998, 534 pages, C$20.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-105044-X
Sometime, I wonder how Hollywood producers deal with it.
No, I’m not talking about the sleeping-with-supermodels-and-rolling-in-cash part. That I can reasonably understand. But I really wonder how they have to deal with the trade-offs between story and budget. Consider disaster movie, which are all about showing expensive catastrophes on screen. If you’re on a limited budget (and even $150M is a limited budget), how can you deliver a really good disaster film when it’s literally too expensive to put it all on screen?
This isn’t a problem in novels, because when you get down to it, prose writers have essentially an unlimited budget for visual effects. They can blow up the earth for exactly the same amount of money that have two minor character talk to each other. No publishing house is ever going to bankrupt themselves by investing in a spectacular historical war novel over a simple romantic comedy. Movie studios, on the other hand, pretty much tattooed HEAVEN’S GATE in the forehead of every script acquisition manager…
Stephen Baxter’s Moonseed proves how much more satisfying a disaster story can be in written format. Not only is it more spectacular, but it’s also better-constructed and far more clever than its Hollywood counterparts.
It all begins on the night when astronaut Geena Bourne and geologist Henry Meacher decide to divorce. Venus blows up and Henry is transferred to Edinburgh, where a mysterious silvery dust soon begins ravaging the countryside. Before long, the Edinburgh dust pool is growing at exponential rate, and it becomes clear that they’ve got to stop it. Evidence points at contamination from one of the Moon rocks, so NASA puts together a mission using present-day technology to go back there…
Stephen Baxter is known for being a hard-SF writer, and Moonseed will do nothing to diminish this reputation. He plays the SF game and follows the rules, which does give a delicious particularity to the part where NASA puts together a baling-wire mission to go back to the moon. Otherwise, spectacular scenes abound, whether it’s Edinburgh being consummated by the “Moonseed” or Seattle being erased by a tidal wave. Big bucks special effects, backed by I-guess-accurate physics.
Moonseed is less capable when it comes to human characters. Some are barely introduced and then forever forgotten (Marge Case, Jenny Calder, Cecilia Stanley, etc…), others are superfluous (Blue Ishiguro, Hamish “Bran” McCrae and the remainder of the clichéd cult subplot), while the protagonists are involved in quasi-soap-opera plot complications to keep them together. (No, but seriously, wasn’t it possible to select a worse three-person moon team?)
But it doesn’t really matter, disaster stories and hard-SF novels being what they are. Even the lengths of the novel can be a good thing when they add such richness. Who cares about individual humans when the whole race is at risk? Moonseed is far more original than the usual catastrophe scenarios, ironically by going back to the source disaster story, the classic When Worlds Collide. The ending accelerates the pace of the novel, leading to a wide-open conclusion that truly rewards the reader.
So, next time you’re contemplating paying almost 10$ for a disaster movie, consider Moonseed as an alternative. Easy reading, original threat, imaginative plotting, neat gadgets and cool scenes not constrained by a fixed SFX budget. What more could you ask of an end-of-the-world story?