Clarke, Sir Arthur C.: A Fall of Moondust

Revisiting the Future

If this wasn’t the first SF novel I ever read, it must have been in the first half dozen. I can see it now; a Gollancz yellow jacket, borrowed from the local library where the nice lady would let me take SF out of the adult section, even though I was still at primary school, because that didn’t really count, did it? I remember it as gripping, convincing, vivid in my imagination thanks to the footage of the Apollo missions still fresh in my mind, back then in the early seventies. But will it make a satisfying adult read? Might it prove as dated as flares and glam rock? I open the SF Masterworks re-issue with some trepidation and join the moon-boat Selene on her usual trip across the Sea of Thirst when suddenly, it all goes horribly wrong.

One of the curses of the professional writer is a growing inability to read anything without mentally analysing its technical merits. A few chapters in, I’m starting to wonder. Don’t we have rather too many stock characters from the all-purpose disaster movie here? The leading man who proves himself the hero under stress, a socially inadequate boffin who helps save the day, the wise elder, the love interest, the fraught old spinster and the nutter on the bus? But hang on, and a quick check of Halliwell confirms this, the heyday of the disaster movie was the seventies. A Fall of Moondust was written in 1960, so it’s hardly fair to condemn Arthur C Clarke on that basis. Besides, all of these characters are woven into the plot with consummate plausibility. Tourism on the moon is as yet limited to the young and technically-skilled working out there and the rich and elderly from Earth, so it makes perfect sense for the passengers to include a retired space ship captain, a journalist and a few academics. The romance begins as “a brief gust of desire triggered by proximity, solitude, scanty clothing and sheer emotional strain” which prompts those concerned to face up to their true feelings. If that doesn’t ring true to you, congratulations on an uneventful life so far; the rest of us can vouch for such occurrences. As so often in writing, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it and Clarke does it so very well.

Inevitably a few things are dated. The wife of the respectable lawyer used to dance in a burlesque house. Some readers might appreciate a footnote telling them to read lapdancing club instead, but that will doubtless be dated in ten years time. I can’t imagine anyone these days buying a product called ElectroSecretary, but voice recognition word-processing software is well and truly with us, as are the “hilarious disasters” overtaking people who don’t double-check the spell-checker’s contribution to their work. Time and again, Clarke’s prescience strikes you far more than the occasional line like “the collapse of censorship in the 1980’s”. His aside on the Role of the Western in the Age of Space (2037 Kingsley Amis Seminars, University of Chicago) is fascinating; I would dearly love to know if a certain Mr Roddenberry read this before pitching his wagon train to the stars. Issues like legal liabilities or the theories of the UFO devotees are as relevant today as the pressures on the TV reporter who’ll be congratulated for spending a fortune to show the waiting world a rescue or whose career will be dead and buried if all he ends up with is footage of an exhumation.

The plot is masterfully constructed, with an ebb and flow of suspense, relief and suspense again, the scene shifts from the claustrophobia of the trapped ship to the empty vacuum of space, every forward step and setback is integral to the narrative, arising naturally from what has gone before. Hooks catch the reader at the end of every chapter. Dialogue drives the action, with incidental detail rounding out the world, never overburdening the story. Comedy and drama play off each other, each heightened by the contrast. Characters are established with brief sketches, all the more vivid for sparing use of highlights like the trials of the cameraman working from one fixed viewpoint. The reader is repeatedly drawn into the world through such character points of view; few of us will ever know what it’s really like to be in a space suit but by focusing on the peculiar isolation of the experience, Clarke gives us all something we can relate to. In particular, scientific information is dealt out with a light touch, most important for people like me, still operating on roughly the technical sophistication of a ten year old. I could go on and on but just go and read the book instead. Gollancz label A Fall of Moondust an SF Masterwork. I’d certainly recommend it to all budding writers as a master-class in writing technique but more importantly, I’ll recommend it to anyone, fan or non-fan, old or young as a simply splendid read.

This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.

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