A Fall of Moondust, Arthur C. Clarke

Signet, 1961, 215 pages, C$1.50 mmpb, ISBN Unavailable

The nice thing about having read a lot as a teenager is that I may keep fond memories of a particular book while forgetting all the details. In the case of A Fall of Moondust (the only Arthur C. Clarke novel in my high school’s library. No, it wasn’t a particularly good library.), I could only remember a fairly good book that ended in mid-story. So, almost ten years later, I couldn’t pass up the chance to pick a good Signet paperback edition of the novel.

I half-expected to be disappointed. A decade -and probably a thousand SF books- older and more jaded, would it be possible for me to have as much fun as the first time around? Clarke is known for books that appeal enormously to teens, but would I be able to enjoy his particularly mechanistic approach to characterization another time?

Well, either I haven’t matured all that much, or Clarke has truly written a really good book. I ended up compulsively reading A Fall of Moondust with, I think, even more enjoyment now than ten years ago.

Written at a time where humans had barely entered the space age, and fully eight years before we went to the Moon, A Fall of Moondust posits the existence of a vast lunar “sea” of very fine dust with liquid-like properties. Humans being notoriously unable to avoid opportunities of the sort, one tourist business starts offering guided tours of the sea using a specialized dust-surfing craft. Obviously, something must go wrong, and that’s why the Selene crashes and sinks under the dust sea with a full load of passengers on board. Search-and-Rescue efforts are mounted, as every passenger has a secret or two to hide.

Simple plot, but as always with Clarke, it’s the simplicity, the technical details, the oddball throwaway lines and the understated good humor of the book that make it all worthwhile. A Fall of Moondust isn’t fancy, but you don’t need to be complex in order to build a novel of humans against desperate odds. The crystal-clear writing style is a joy to read. No useless character traits murky up the narrative. As the average length of the SF novel has risen to a point where shorter novels are a tough sell (see my review of Robert Charles Wilson’s Bios), A Fall of Moondust is just the right length for a good read.

Which brings us to my second surprise: After realizing that the book was as good as I remembered, I found out that there was even more goodness that I remembered! Turns out that my high school’s French paperback edition ended right after the ship is located, but before the rescue efforts got underway. French cheapness or incompetent editing? You decide.

But the net effect was akin to a friend of mine’s fantasy that good books should self-expand to include even more goodness. Suddenly, there was even more fun and entertainment from Clarke! A thrilling rescue sequence! And a complete ending! Can you ask anything more of an updated teenhood memory?

More maturely, it’s interesting to note how gracefully A Fall of Moondust has aged. The technical details are surprisingly good (once you assume the ocean-of-moondust bit) and the pacing is as snappy as ever. Clarke even throws in ultra-modern disparaging references to the nature of visual media news. Yes, the characters and the plotting are a bit plodding, but don’t interpret that as “substandard”; the relevant members of the Selene catastrophe are adequately presented and somewhat sympathetic despite their rough edges. Funny how hard-SF’s weaknesses can become advantages; you can read SF from the seventies and even if it’s twenty years closer, the no-less-caricatural “new wave” approach to characterization seems more ridiculous than Clarke’s no-nonsense approach.

The result, at least, is clear: A Fall of Moondust is well-worth a re-visit for those who read it at least a decade ago, and pretty much a must-read for the others. Classic Hard-SF doesn’t really get any better than this.

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