A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke (1961)

This is another gripping read from Arthur C. Clarke which, although entirely sci-fi in its setting, is one of the most genuinely gripping and exciting books I’ve read in years. It knocks the contrived plots and zero characterisations of Isaac Asimov into a cocked hat.

The disaster

The premise is simple: It’s the 21st century. Man has established several colonies on the moon, the main one being big Port Clavius, a cluster of heated domes with an earth atmosphere and a population of about 25,000.

Nearer to the dark side of the moon is the smaller Port Roris. This is a jumping off point for scientific expeditions to the dark side, but also for a popular tourist attraction – a ‘bus’ trip across the huge Sea of Thirst, an ancient volcanic crater which has slowly sifted up with moon dust over millions of years.

20 tourists have signed up for today’s trip in the cruise ship Selene, which has been designed to skim over the surface of the dust-filled sea. It is captained by Pat Harris who likes to put on a show by turning the cabin lights off to let earthlight flood in through the portholes, or by skirting close to the sheer cliffs which border the sea.

What nobody knows is a big bubble of gas has been building up beneath the thin crust of rock at the bottom of the sea for hundreds of thousands of years. Now, after millennia, it finally works loose and, for a few minutes, bubbles up through the thick moondust, bursts and dissipates into the moon’s thin to non-existent atmosphere. For those few moments it creates an inverted cone of dust whose loose sides run down to fill up the gap of its passage. Unfortunately, this all happens at just the moment that the Selene is passing above. The dinky little dust-cruiser tips head first down into the cone and the horrified captain and passengers watch through portholes as the moon dust rises to cover the bus as it disappears beneath the surface of the dust which slowly covers it over.

Soon all is perfectly quiet again, the surface of the dust sea is as flat as ever, there is no trace of any disturbance – and the Selene and its passengers are buried 15 metres beneath the surface!

The hunt

When Moon base fails to receive its hourly signal from Selene a sequence of alarms is raised, at first fairly routine, but soon escalating to a serious alert. And it’s here that the book becomes interesting. Because this serious but essentially small incident allows Clarke to give a fascinating and very believable overview of lunar society, science and organisation.

The book introduces a surprisingly large cast of characters who are presented in realistic human postures rather than Dan Dare heroism. Thus some are irritated about the incident, or worried about the bad publicity, or concerned about the cost of any rescue on an already over-stretched budget.

The way a small incident ramifies out to involve so many people, and expose so many professional and personal relationships, reminded me of the classic disaster movies from the 1970s.

There’s the head of the moon colony (Chief Administrator Olsen) worried about what to say to the relatives of the missing passengers, the Head of Lunar Tourism Davis, who is understandably worried about the adverse publicity, the heads of engineering Moonside and Earthside.

Things are complicated when the leading expert on lunar geology – who happens to also be a Jesuit priest, Father Vincent Ferraro S.J. – gives disastrously misleading information. Because his instruments detected tremors on the surface, and because searchers dispatched to the area discover there have been big rockslides from the mountains bordering the Sea of Thirst, he misleadingly decides that the Selene must have been buried under an avalanche – with no chance of survival, and the authorities set about informing the families of their sad loss, and worrying how to recuperate their losses for this tourist season.

BUT – there is a maverick young scientist, Dr Tom Lawson, based on Lagrange II, a satellite in permanent position halfway between earth and moon, who, at first word of the crisis, starts to take infra-red readings of the Sea to see if he can detect the heat trail of the Selene and so work out its final position. When Tom hears a later news broadcast confirming the Jesuit theory of a fatal avalanche, he abandons his work. But not before having taken an infrared photo of the surface of the Sea of Thirst, just out of habit. Then he goes to take his allotted sleep (he’s on a space station where everyone sleeps in fixed rotation).

But something is niggling at his subconscious and he wakes up after only a few hours and goes to recheck his photo. Looking very closely he now sees that his photo shows the hot tracks of the Selene passing through the avalanche zone and out the other side into a further patch of the Sea, before just ending in a bright red infrared hotspot. As if it exploded. Or blasted off into space. Or… sank!

It is typical of Clarke that even now Lawson hesitates about informing Moon Control. He has his reputation to think of. If he’s right, he’ll be a hero, but he’s aware that he is unpopular and if his theory leads to some kind of search which is excitedly broadcast by the media and he turns out to be wrong, then he’ll be the laughing stock of the solar system.

It’s not exactly Tolstoy, but it’s the pains he takes to think through the very human concerns of his characters which makes Clarke’s books so believable, and therefore imaginatively effective.

Finally he just about decides he ought to take the risk and contacts the lunar base. the authorities there themselves calculate whether it’s worth mounting a rescue mission on the basis of one fuzzy photograph, but give it the go-ahead.

Next thing Lawson knows he’s been squeezed onto an earth-to-moon shuttle which is redirected to collect him, much to the irritation of its captain and passengers. He is landed at Port Roris, packed into a spacesuit (during which he has a very powerfully described and realistic attack of claustrophobia) and taken out on the sort of dust-skis (Duster One and Duster Two) which are used to whizz around the moon’s surface.

At every step of the journey Clarke gives realistic attention to the practical problems and how they’re overcome, and to the emotions and conflicts in his characters. As to problems, Lawson’s infra-red detectors have to be carefully strapped to the side of one of the dust-skis, he’s worried on the whole journey that it will work free and disappear – plop – into the treacherous moon dust. And, I haven’t mentioned this so far, but it is a big factor in ratcheting up the tension – the sun is rising over the moon’s surface, slowly climbing over the nearby mountains and beginning to shed its light on the Sea of Thirst. As soon as its rays get anywhere near the Selene’s by-now quite old trail, it will obliterate all trace of its routes. The clock is ticking…

In the Selene

And, of course, all this time the clock is ticking inside the trapped tourbus. The narrative maintains tremendous momentum by hopping from one (the rescue in the wider world) to the other (the tiny claustrophobic inside of the buried bus). Here Clarke gives us a thorough run through all the available disaster movie tropes.

Captain Pat Harris has to take charge. He reassures the scared passengers that they have enough food and drink for a week and that the Selene is designed to withstand extremes of heat or pressure.

But the captain quickly discovers one of the passengers is none other than the legendary Commodore Hansteen, who led the expedition to Pluto and has set foot on more planets than any other man.

Hansteen offers his services to Harris, who gratefully accepts, but for the rest of the narrative Harris has a nagging doubt that he handed over authority, and relinquished power too easily: that he ought to have been more of a man; a conviction which resurfaces later in the story to effect the outcome of the plot.

Hansteen is used top managing crews in dangerous circumstances and he quickly organises the other passengers into a series of games and activities. A pack of cards is made which takes care of the hard core poker players. Then he gets them to pool their books and reading matter, and gets one of the passengers (the diminutive Nihal Jayawardene, Professor of Zoology from Ceylon) to set off on a public reading of the classic Western Shane.

As a break from that, he sets up a parody law court in which each of the passengers is called up and cross-questioned about their motives for wanting to come to the moon, often with humorous results, as we find out more about the cross-section of stereotypical characters on board (the retired lawyer, the ex-vaudeville dancer who is now loud and fat, the plummy Englishman who fusses about his tea, the tiny Sri Lankan who reads Shane in a precise accent, and so on).

In between this fun and games, there are the scenes, familiar to us from so many disaster movies, where the captain and the commodore huddle sweatily in the control room and tell each other what is really going on. ‘What are our chances, captain?’

Here Clarke plays expertly with our hopes and expectations by having one of the passengers be an Australian physicist, Dr Duncan MacKenzie. He gives the captain and commodore a nasty shock by telling them that, way before the food and water give out, the mounting heat will kill them. Immersed in insulating moondust the ship has no way to get rid of the heat being generated by the passengers and all its life support systems. He has been measuring the slowly rising temperature and estimates that they will only be able to survive for one more day!

The suspense

So will young Tom Lawson’s infrared equipment, hurriedly transported to the moon and strapped on to a dust-ski, be able to locate the buried ship? Even if it does, how will the authorities be able to lift an immensely heavy object from as much as forty metres down buried in dense moondust, using just two flimsy easy-to-tip-over dust-skis?

Meanwhile, inside the Selene, which of the passengers will be first to crack, which one will notice that the interior is heating up and it’s getting harder to breathe, and there is no sign of rescue? Which one will put two and two together and reach MacKenzie’s conclusion that time is much shorter than they thought? And how will the commodore and the captain manage the resulting panic?

This is the situation half-way through the story and, believe me, there is a whole moonfall of further unexpected hazards and dangers to be confronted and surmounted.

Although the whole thing is, on the face of it, a simple setup, Clarke handles it with real confidence and pacing, keeping the scenes short and punchy, and switching between locations (inside the bus, with Lawson on the dust-ski, at panicky lunar control, and so on) to create a really gripping narrative.

Unlike the preposterous plots and ruinous prose of Isaac Asimov, or the blizzard of hard science emitted by James Blish, Clarke’s grasp of technology feels rock solid. He doesn’t have to keep inventing new gizmos, quantum drives or atomic blasters to get his characters in and out of trouble.

When science and technology do give twists to the story – like MacKenzie’s revelation of the heating inside the bus, or Lawson’s rush to get clear infrared pictures of the Selene’s trail before the sun rises and obliterates all traces in its overpowering heat – they feel entirely accurate and true accounts of actually existing physics.

And it hugely helps that the characters are given adult characterisations, unlike the puppets in Asimov and the improbably perfect John Amalfi of Blish’s Okies series.

OK, Clarke’s people are still recognisably types from sci-fi and disaster movies, but they have real, approachable concerns, worries, interests and pressures which the reader can relate to. You are told enough to be able to distinguish between them, and care for them, in a way that was barely possible in the works I’ve recently read by Asimov, Blish and Bradbury.

For example, I particularly liked the head of lunar tourism fretting about the impact of the disaster on his visitor figures. I’ve worked with people like him. And there’s also an earth newspaperman who happens to be on the shuttle diverted to pick up Lawson, who gets wind of what’s going on and sees a great opportunity to get a scoop by arranging the live televising of the rescue efforts.

It’s not Tolstoy but the human-ness of Clarke’s characters, and the care he takes to depict their foibles and worries, makes the stories real and compelling.

Fresh from reading Asimov and Blish’s vast galactic space operas, reading Clarke is a huge relief. This story is the opposite of galaxy-wide conspiracies conducted by cardboard characters wielding impossible technologies. The story focuses on a very homely, small-scale accident, which Clarke magically turns into a humorous, informative and thought-provoking cross-section of his sci-fi future society, and, as the rescuers face one technical challenge after another and, as the Selene slips deeper into the moondust and faces a whole series of unexpected dangers and hazards – into a genuinely gripping and thrilling read.

A note on race

The key protagonist of the later stages of Childhood’s End, the only human ever to visit the Overlords’ planet and who ends up being the last man on earth – is a person of colour, the black man, Jan Rodricks.

And in this novel, it’s only three-quarters of the way through that we learn that the tough Australian Dr MacKenzie who Captain Harris comes to rely on in moments of crisis, is in fact not a white Australian but an Aborigine.

Not only that but, as the situation inside the moonbus becomes more critical, the captain has the bright idea of putting almost all the passengers to sleep using the painkilling drugs the ship carries in its first aid pack, in order to slow their respiration right down and preserve oxygen. The one person he chooses to stay conscious with him is MacKenzie. The pair then have to keep each other awake by talking in order to be ready when the rescuers arrive, and to periodically administer blasts of oxygen from the reserve supplies, to the other passengers.

It is telling that, during this long lonely vigil, Clarke chooses to have MacKenzie talk about his aborigine roots, telling Captain Harris some of the more appalling behaviour of the white settlers of Australia to the native population, such as deliberately poisoning them and hunting them down (pp.144-147) and then gives him a speech about how lacking literacy or technology didn’t mean his ancestors stupid, they had developed a lifestyle in perfect harmony with their environment,which is more than modern ‘civilisation’ can say.

This racial awareness of Clarke’s feels very advanced for 1961. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in both books Clarke is making a polemical point about the need for racial tolerance, and is also confidently predicting how the future will inevitably be multicultural.

And hard not to be very impressed at his prescience, holding these views, as he did, some 60 years ago, in very different times. Admirable.

Related links

Arthur C. Clarke reviews

  • Childhood’s End (1953) a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
  • A Fall of Moondust (1961) a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

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