I am currently listening to Arthur Clarke’s A Fall Of Moondust, expertly read by Oliver Wyman.
A bus full of tourists on the moon are caught in a moonquake and the bus is buried under the lunar dust. The authorities have to find some way to rescue the passengers before their air runs out. Clarke tells the story well, switching back and forth between the passengers inside the bus and the rescue operations, building dramatic tension as time grows short and unforeseen obstacles arise.
As I’ve said in other posts, I think that there’s nothing wrong with using a formula to tell a story, and this one follows a very familiar pattern which draws the reader into the race against time both above and below the dust. There are people who are not what they seem, moments of bad luck at the worst possible time, moments of unexpected heroism, and even a few romantic moments. I always thought it would make a great movie–it’s a very cinematic tale.
It’s very interesting from a cultural perspective as well. It was originally published in 1961, two years before I was born. I don’t remember hearing the exact date that Clarke set this story, but it’s the early 21st Century–there are references to events in the 1990’s as recent history. It could be 2015, it’s certainly around then.
So here I am, listening to what a man fifty years ago envisioned that today would be like. The short answer? Boy, was he wrong! As a predictive work, it is an epic failure. The details, though, are illuminating.
The gender relationships are very 1961. The pilots and engineers are men, the stewardesses and secretaries are women. The idea that women could hold technical or managerial positions simply isn’t part of this world. That alone is enough to make some modern readers give up in disgust, and I couldn’t really blame them.
However, I don’t think Clarke was actively misogynist (and I believe that his later work shows this) just that he was writing within the context of his times. Things have changed a lot in the past 50 years.
Another issue (one that I am more qualified to address) is smoking. Yes, people are smoking cigarettes on a bus on the moon. In fact, the emergency supplies contain cigarettes. As someone who is forbidden from smoking even outside of the buildings at my workplace, this tickles me greatly.
Paper books and magazines. Much is made of trying to fill time while waiting for rescue, and the passengers pool their possessions and come up with two novels (one is a best seller that they have multiple copies of) and a handful of magazines. In the real 2015 I suspect that a group of 20 passengers on a sightseeing tour would have enough books on their electronic devices (not to mention games and other time wasting apps) to keep them all occupied for months.
Computers in general are strangely absent from the book. There are occasional references, but Clarke completely missed just how ubiquitous they would become in a relatively short time, historically speaking. His engineers use slide rules (which I suspect that most people alive today have never even seen in person, much less used) and figure on paper.
I can remember reading this book as a boy–say, 1975 or thereabouts–and being impressed by the hard technical details. The details are still there, and the cold logic of the rescue just as compelling–but it doesn’t feel like science fiction any more. It’s a kind of historical fantasy, 1961 In Space.
I am willing to accept it and enjoy it on those terms. There is Steampunk and Dieselpunk–I’m not sure what you’d call alternate future from the 1960s. Plasticpunk? Radiumpunk?
Whatever it is, I’m enjoying it.