Moonfall, Jack McDevitt

Harper Prism, 1998 (1999 reprint), 544 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105112-8

Science-Fiction is often considered, justifiably or not, an escapist literature. One could make a good case that the ultimate escapist stories are end-of-the-world tales, and SF has made a tradition out of such drama. Whether we’re due to be destroyed by aliens, asteroids, black holes, plagues or nuclear war, we can vicariously enjoy other people’s plight while our lives are comfortably uneventful. Jack McDevitt finely upholds this SF distinction with Moonfall.

The novel takes place in April 2024. While Americans are rushing to fill their tax papers and casting their ballots for the presidential primaries, scientists across the globe are preparing for a spectacular solar eclipse. During the eclipse, an amateur astronomer discovers a comet. Slight problem: the comet is going to impact the moon with such force that it’ll shatter it.

Unfortunately, humans now have a presence on the Moon, and only hours after the vice-president inaugurates Moonbase, all six hundred residents must escape. As if losing the Moon isn’t enough, some scientists then announce that the impact will send multiple fragments crashing down on Earth, some as big as the one which destroyed the dinosaurs…

You could do a checklist of expected elements in a disaster novel and Moonfall would have most of them. A large cast of characters. Disaster vignettes. Nick-of-time escapes. Media commentary. Politicians of all stripes. Stupid bystanders. If nothing else, McDevitt has done his homework in order to fulfill readers’ expectations.

So far so good, but McDevitt’s novel has two significant weaknesses that diminishes its overall effect. The first is almost inherent in disaster novels; the second one is more serious.

All disaster novels are based, of course, on the disaster. As such, a disaster happens only once, or -if it is averted- not at all. The rest is either apprehension or consequence. Catastrophe novel continually toe the line between impatient readers and let-down readers. Moonfall mitigates the problem with two crises, but spends far too much of its time in overdone suspense.

The second problem is that McDevitt, by and large, misses the opportunity to create a gallery of compelling characters. Disaster novel characters are usually divided in heroic and anecdotal groups. Moonfall‘s core is fine, with a likeable vice-president and his entourage, but the other recurring characters are not given the chance to shine and distinguish themselves, with the result that they’re often indistinguishable from the one-shot characters seen only in a vignette and then gone forever. Not only would Moonfall have been a substantially shorter novel without these diversions, but the focus of the work would have been strengthened on the vice-president plot, which is really the central axis of the novel.

Still, don’t get the impression that Moonfall isn’t a particularly enjoyable perfect piece of summer reading. “Not exciting enough” is a broad enough criticism that it can apply to some jaded readers and not to others simply in search of a good read. Richly detailed, carefully researched, Moonfall does so many things right than it’s ungrateful to be pickier than what it deserves.

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