Thursday, August 22, 2013

"He loved the Moon, but it had tried to kill him."

When I wrote about one of Robert Heinlein's early novels a few months back, I mentioned that one of his strengths was that Heinlein never forgot just how wondrous outer space is.

Arthur C. Clarke kept that in mind as well in many of his hard science fiction novels. A good example is one of A Fall of Moondust, first published in 1961. This takes place almost entirely on the moon (though there are a few scenes set in a space station at one of the Earth-Moon Lagrange points). The moon's been colonized and one of the tourist attractions is the Sea of Thirst, a shallow "ocean" of extremely fine and dry dust that flows almost like water. 

There's a "boat" called the Selene that skims across the lake carrying a score of tourists each trip. But when a freak accident cripples the boat, it sinks down into the dust to a depth of about 10 meters.

The Selene still has power and enough food and water to last awhile. They should also have about a week's worth of air, but several problems soon arise. The temperature begins to rise because the dust acts as in insulator and prevents excess heat from radiating away. The rising heat then causes the air purifiers to malfunction, so carbon dioxide begins to slowly build up to lethal levels.

While those trapped on the boat deal with that, the rescue crew has several challenges to overcome. First, they have to find the Selene. Then they have to figure out how to retrieve those aboard while working in an airless and otherwise completely hostile environment. There's no standard rescue equipment in existence for this bizarre situation, so everyone involved has to improvise constantly.

Basically, the novel is presented as a series of problems in engineering. But phrasing it that way makes the
story sound dry. Clarke brings a very high level of excitement to the tale, as he first explains the problems encountered in clear language so all us lay-people can grasp it, then progress the action in such a way as to keep the suspense high. Problems are solved, but new problems arise, causing potentially fatal delays in the rescue operations. And there's one particular danger that no one realizes even exists until it suddenly rears its head and bites everyone in the proverbial butt.

Adding to the story's verisimilitude is Clarke (like Heinlein) periodically reminding us just how hostile and alien to human life the rest of the universe can be. Once we leave Earth, we take our life in our hands no matter how good our technology may be. But (also like Heinlein), Clarke remembers that outer space is also a wonderfully awesome place, full of majestic beauty and an infinity of new things to learn. It may be dangerous, but it's worth going there.

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