A Fall of Moondust is one of those mildly embarrassing cases where science caught up with science fiction and brands a book forever out of date. Written in 1960, six months before the Apollo program launched and 9 years before humans stood on the Moon, A Fall of Moondust envisions large lakes of dust on the surface of the Moon, like dangerous quicksand. Arthur C. Clarke added a slightly nonchalant preface to the book in ‘87 in which he explains that in the 60s, it was a well-respected theory that the Moon could be covered by seas of dust that had accumulated over the eons. When Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the moon, though, they found hard rock, and made Clarke’s book look silly.
So what’s with the moondust? The book is about a cruise ship full of tourists that sails over a sea of dust on the Moon. There is no wind, so the surface is completely flat and featureless grey, and the horizon is sharp. Something goes wrong and the ship gets buried in the quicksand.
Fast-paced but heavy on description, that is usually Arthur C. Clarke’s style. He writes short, hard-sf books that focus on the science and on a sense of discovery, with characters that are no more than adequate for the tale. What sets Clarke apart from other SF authors of his time is a sort of heavy handedness in his storytelling. He never wastes an opportunity to describe how events in his stories have huge historical significance for humanity. He utilizes a grand sense of history and drama, even though he is so often focused on micro-technological fixes in the plot. So, when his cruise ship gets stuck in quicksand in A Fall of Moondust, he dramatically says: “In darkness and in silence, they were sinking into the Moon.” Such is Clarke’s style.
It’s a cracking good tale of humans fighting against the elements, and what’s brilliant about this particular story is that the conditions on the Moon are just a bit alien to us. The astronauts talk about working in the Earthlight, instead of moonlight, for example. Just little reminders of the otherworldly conditions. Part of Clarke’s vision of the future is also a bit comically dated. There is no internet, nor cell-phones of course, but there are lots of dials and switches. Ah well, the story is good enough to suspend disbelief for that. Clarke is a good teller and has a good feeling for tension and cliffhangers.
A Fall of Moondust reads as a spiritual ancestor of the recent book and movie The Martian (2014) by Andy Weir. In both cases, there is a fight going of life against the inhospitable elements of space, and the stories deal with all sorts of technical and scientific solutions. Where The Martian is about one man travelling across the surface of Mars, A Fall of Moondust is more about a group of people being stuck with each other in one location. It’s short, wraps up nicely, and I’d recommend it.