Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘A Fall of Moondust’

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

Nothing dates faster than the future, which is why I think Arthur C. Clarke does indeed deserve to be called one of the greatest science-fiction writers. Despite his cardboard characters and his adolescent psychology, his futures are still plausible, still capable of suspending disbelief, decades after he created them. At his best and boldest, he was a kind of optimistic, neurosis-free Lovecraft: Rendezvous with Rama (1973) has gigantic themes and images, but with irony and understatement too.

Man’s first encounter with an alien civilization doesn’t work the way it should, but that adds to the interest and the fun. Clarke wrote with gusto and seems to have lived that way too. He might have moved to Sri Lanka partly to indulge his paederasty, but he also liked the sunshine and sea he found there. The sea is a frontier, something that challenges and sometimes punishes the men who want to explore and exploit it, and Clarke’s writing is always about frontiers. His characters are always explorers in some way, part of an effort to expand into the unknown. Where J.G. Ballard dove into the head and explored the endless possibilities of mind, Clarke dove out of it, away into the universe, and explored the endless possibilities of matter. A Fall of Moondust is about a very simple form of matter in a very strange setting:

No one could have told, merely by looking at it, whether the Sea [of Thirst] was liquid or solid. It was completely flat and featureless, quite free from the myriad cracks and fissures that scarred all the rest of this barren world. Not a single hillock, boulder, or pebble broke its monotonous uniformity. No sea on Earth – no millpond, even – was ever as calm as this.

It was a sea of dust, not of water, and therefore it was alien to all the experience of men; therefore, also, it fascinated and attracted them. Fine as talcum powder, drier in this vacuum than the parched sands of the Sahara, it flowed as easily and effortlessly as any liquid. A heavy object dropped into it would disappear instantly, without a splash, leaving no scar to mark its passage. Nothing could move upon its treacherous surface except the small, two-man dust-skis – and Selene herself, an improbable combination of sledge and bus, not unlike the Sno-cats that had opened up the Antarctic a lifetime ago. (ch. 1)

There you can see Clarke’s greatness as a science-fiction writer. He took his scientific knowledge and created something new but entirely plausible from it: a sea of dust where a ship called the Selene sails for the entertainment and edification of tourists. It’s a frontier, a new place for man to test his engineering and his ingenuity. And the test gets very big when Clarke arranges for the Selene to sink. I won’t describe how he does it, but again he’s creating something new but entirely plausible from his scientific knowledge. His stories often creak psychologically and sociologically, but they’re always technically solid.

And he can mix macrocosm and microcosm. When the Sea of Thirst gapes and gulps down the Selene, her captain Pat Harris is overwhelmed by a childhood memory:

He was a boy again, playing in the hot sand of a forgotten summer [back on Earth]. He had found a tiny pit, perfectly smooth and symmetrical, and there was something lurking in its depths – something completely buried except for its waiting jaws. The boy had watched, wondering, already conscious of the fact that this was the stage for some microscopic drama. He had seen an ant, mindlessly intent upon its mission, stumble at the edge of the crater and topple down the slope.

It would have escaped easily enough – but when the first grain of sand had rolled to the bottom of the pit, the waiting ogre had reared out of its lair. With its forelegs, it had hurled a fusillade of sand at the struggling insect, until the avalanche had overwhelmed it and brought it sliding down into the throat of the crater.

As Selene was sliding now. No ant lion had dug this pit on the surface of the Moon, but Pat felt as helpless now as that doomed insect he had watched so many years ago. Like it, he was struggling to reach the safety of the rim, while the moving ground swept him back into the depths where death was waiting. A swift death for the ant, a protracted one for him and his companions. (ch. 2)

Death will be protracted for the crew and passengers of the Selene because they survive submersion, but have no way of making contact with the outside world: the dust, “with its high metallic content, was an almost perfect shield” for radio waves. So nobody knows what has happened to them or where they are, and for a time it seems as though nobody ever will. Then a clever but socially clumsy scientist discovers a way to detect the Selene. Rescue gets under way above the dust while the social dynamics of living entombment work out below it. Clarke is much better with technology than he is with psychology and the social side of A Fall of Moondust isn’t what makes it worth reading. There’s some disturbing and even disgusting sexism: one of the passengers is a trouble-making “neurotic spinster”, for example – and yes, Clarke actually uses that phrase.

And the private technology of the novel, as opposed to the public, is no good. In fact, the private technology is non-existent. The trapped passengers ward off boredom by pooling their reading matter: “the total haul consisted of assorted lunar guides, including six copies of the official handbook; a current best seller, The Orange and the Apple, whose unlikely theme was a romance between Nell Gwyn and Sir Isaac Newton; a Harvard Press edition of Shane, with scholarly annotations by a professor of English; an introduction to the logical positivism of Auguste Comte; and a week-old copy of the New York Times, Earth edition.”

The story is set in about 2040, but Clarke didn’t anticipate iPads and Kindles, so A Fall of Moondust is a curious mixture of visionary and vapid. You could see it as a thought-experiment: what happens scientifically and psychologically when a ship is submerged in a sea of dust? His science works well, whether the Selene is overheating or suddenly and almost fatally settling deeper in the sea. And there’s a characteristically clever and concise Clarkean touch right at the end, when the Selene has been successfully evacuated:

“Is everyone out?” Lawrence asked anxiously.

“Yes,” said Pat. “I’m the last man.” Then he added, “I hope,” for he realized that in the darkness and confusion someone might have been left behind. Suppose Radley had decided not to face the music back in New Zealand…

No – he was here with the rest of them. Pat was just starting to do a count of heads when the plastic floor gave a sudden jump – and out of the open well shot a perfect smoke ring of dust. It hit the ceiling, rebounded, and disintegrated before anyone could move.

“What the devil was that?” said Lawrence. (ch. 30)

If you want to know what it was, you’ll have to read this book. And I can recommend it. Clarke was not a great psychologist or a subtle wordsmith, but he was a great science-fictioneer. This book published in 1961 still retains its scientific and technical interest more than half-a-century later. A Fall of Moondust isn’t his best work, but it’s impressive all the same.

Read Full Post »

Moon Observer's Guide by Peter GregoPhilip’s Moon Observer’s Guide, Peter Grego (Philip’s 2015)

If you ask someone to name the most important inventions in history, two will often be overlooked: the microscope and the telescope. You could say that one lowered the floor of the universe and the other raised the ceiling: we suddenly became aware of wonders that had previously been too small or too far away for us to see.

Practically speaking, the microscope might seem by far the more important, because it’s taught us so much about life on earth, not least our own. But the continued existence of humanity may actually depend on the telescope. Geologists have discovered that the earth has repeatedly been struck by asteroids; astronomers may be able to spot the next one before it hits. Otherwise we may follow the dinosaurs, trilobites, eurypterids and countless other once-flourishing groups into extinction.

If you want to see what asteroids and other large rocks can do to a celestial body, Mother Nature has kindly provided us with a giant memento mori: the Moon. The biggest scars there are visible with the naked eye, but it took the telescope to reveal quite what they looked like and quite how pock-marked the lunar surface is. As Peter Grego writes:

All the Moon’s ringed basins, ‘walled plains’ and the overwhelming majority of craters visible through the telescope were formed by asteroidal impact. […] Copernicus was blasted out of the lunar crust about 800 million years ago by an asteroid measuring up to 10 km across. The 29 km diameter crater Kepler, 500 km to the west of Copernicus, was formed at around the same time. (“Lunar geology and the Moon’s features”, pp. 13-4)

Grego knows a lot about the Moon and this book is the fruit of more than thirty years of selenoscopy, dating back to his first “systematic observations” in 1982:

Since that time, through patient observing and recording, the lunar landscape has become to me a broadly familiar place, yet always full of wonder. Today only a sliver of moon is visible, and the eastern lunar seas and their surrounding craters provide a visual delight until the Moon sinks into the haze above the city and its image dims, shimmers and degrades. (pg. 5)

The city was Birmingham back in 2002. Cities aren’t just noisy, dirty and harmful to wildlife. They also deprive us of one of the greatest sights in nature: the night sky. Light pollution is silent, tasteless and physically harmless, but it deserves much more attention from conservationists. The Moon can be big enough and bright enough not to be wholly drowned by it, but it’s lèse-majesté against the Queen of the Night all the same.

It also makes life much harder for amateur astronomers. Then again, perhaps that increases the rewards. And the Moon isn’t confined to the night sky, of course: you can observe it in full daylight using nothing more than binoculars. Serious observation demands a telescope, however, and Grego devotes a full section to what’s available. Inter alia, he himself has a “150mm f/8 achromatic refractor with digital camcorder setup with a zoom eyepiece for afocal video photography” (ch. 5, “Recording Your Observations”, pg. 144). Digital imaging and enhancement are now routine: modern technology can get “startling results from a seemingly mediocre video sequence” (pg. 146), sharpening and focusing blurred images.

But Grego and his fellow selenographers are still doing what Galileo, Thomas Harriot and other early astronomers did centuries ago: drawing and sketching the Moon. There’s a good practical reason to do this, as recent science-news has confirmed: “drawing pictures of information that needs to be remembered is a strong and reliable strategy to enhance memory”. There is a lot of detail to learn on the Moon. It’s a fractal place: there are craters at every scale, from the microscopic to hundreds-of-kilometres wide and “it is estimated that the Moon’s surface is studded with more than 3 trillion (3,000,000,000,000) craters larger than a metre in diameter” (pg. 9).

So learning your way around the Moon is a fractal process: first you learn to recognize the giant features, like Copernicus, Kepler and the maria (seas), montes (mountains) and valles (valleys), then you begin to fill in the gaps, then the gaps between the gaps, then the gaps between those. Grego supplies maps and commentary to help you on your way:

The polygonal crater Timaeus (33 km) perches on W. Bond’s south-western wall and surveys across the plains of Mare Frigoris across to the Montes Alpes, 175 km to the south. Archytas (32 km) and Protagoras (21) are two sharp-rimmed but somewhat misshapen craters whose dark shadow-filled eyes keep watch over the northern approaches of Mare Frigoris. (ch. 4, “Moonwatching”, Day seven, pg. 87)

He’s never finished learning about the Moon, however, and neither will anyone else. It’s a life-long adventure and although the Moon might seem cold and unchanging, at least over a human life-span, there are rare events called TLP, or “Transient Lunar Phenomena”, to look out for. These are “apparent obscurations, glows or flashes on the Moon’s surface” that don’t have definitive explanations. Are rocks collapsing? Is sublunar gas leaking out? Might there even be life there after all?

Life is highly doubtful, but Grego notes that “lunar topography is virtually neglected by professional astronomers” (pg. 6), so amateurs still have the chance to make important discoveries. This book might help someone to do that, but the rewards of selenoscopy don’t depend on advancing science or using clever technology. Grego opens the book by asking “Why Observe the Moon?”, then quotes an excellent answer to that question from the French astronomer Camille Flammarion and his book Astronomy for Amateurs (1903). What Flammarion said more than a century ago is still true today:

From all time the Moon has had the privilege of charming the gaze, and attracting the particular attention of mortals. What thoughts have not risen to her pale, yet luminous disk? Orb of mystery and of solitude, brooding over our silent nights, this celestial luminary is at once sad and splendid in her glacial purity, and her limpid rays provoke a reverie full of charm and melancholy. (“Why Observe the Moon?”, pg. 4)

In fact, you could say that the Moon is a touchstone of human nature. Chimpanzees and gorillas may be almost identical to us in their genes, but they don’t talk, make art or gaze at the Moon in wonder. We still do and although we don’t usually worship the Moon any more, we may owe it our very existence. How important have the tides been in the evolution of life on earth? They provided a zone of transition for the emergence of plants and animals from the sea, and perhaps a Moon-less Earth would also be a Man-less Earth.

But the Earth could have Moon without Man if it’s struck by an asteroid of sufficient size. The scars on the Moon’s surface should be constant reminders of the vigilance that’s necessary and the technology that we still need to develop. But the Moon is memento mori in more ways than one. Asteroid strikes are pinpricks by comparison with what may have happened to the Earth in the remote past:

Now widely accepted to be the most likely origin of the Moon is the giant impact or ‘big splash’ theory. This theory suggests that a Mars-sized planet (around half the size of the Earth) smashed into the young Earth, disintegrating the impactor and the Earth’s mantle at the site of impact. A cloud of debris was splashed into near-Earth orbit, and the outer rings of this temporary ring of material coalesced to form the Moon. (ch. 1, pg. 21)

As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great character Professor Challenger pointed out in 1913: there are “many reasons why we should watch with a very close and interested attention every indication of change in those cosmic surroundings upon which our own ultimate fate may depend”. The Moon should frighten as well as awe and enchant us, or we might not survive to be awed and enchanted. This book will help you understand all these aspects of the Queen of the Night.

I also hope that Grego will write a sequel to it one day: Moon Tourist’s Guide. We’re still on schedule for at least some of the future envisaged by Arthur C. Clarke in his novel A Fall of Moondust (1961), which was set in the mid-twenty-first century. A moon-cruiser called Selene may not be sailing in a basin of dust as “fine as talcum-powder” by then, but there may still be lunar tourism. If so, selenographers like Peter Grego will be able to see close-up what they’ve long surveyed from afar.

Read Full Post »