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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.

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