A future that never came: Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust

I remembered this book as an exciting technical story about a rescue on the moon, and my goodness that’s what it still is. A Fall of Moondust (1961) has not been visited by the suck fairy in the decades it’s been sitting quietly on the shelf—it remains an edge-of-the-seat exciting technical story of a rescue on the moon. It’s the 2050s. The solar system is being colonised. On the moon, they want to make some money from tourism. They have a boat that skims over the dust in the “Sea of Thirst,” just a tour bus, really, out there to give the tourists a show—until the day when there’s a moonquake and the boat slips down into the dust. The rest of the book is the story of the passengers and crew trapped under the dust, and the attempts of the people on the surface to rescue them. It’s as unputdownable today as when I was twelve.

I never get tired of laughing at computers in old SF. The computers here are ballistic calculators! They don’t have screens and are huge and aren’t connected together! People dictate memos and then correct printouts! On the other hand, before I laugh too much, where is my moonbase? (You wait until you’re uploaded into cyberimmortality, the first thing you’ll hear there will be “This is what you call the future? Where’s my flying car already?”)

There’s one lovely bit which is entirely dictated by this weirdness of tech level. When they try to pool their entertainment options under the dust they have only two novels and no games. Imagine the options a group of twenty people would be able to offer today… at least until their batteries ran down. They make cards from 52 pieces of notepaper and play poker, and read aloud from their fiction. What they have is magnificent—the classic Western Shane, in a university press edition with footnotes, and a current bestseller, The Orange and the Apple, the romance between Isaac Newton and Nell Gwynne. (Neil Stephenson should write it.) The humour of this is done lightly but wonderfully. The thing that makes it even funnier now is that I wouldn’t be at all surprised by a university press Shane, even though Clarke’s joking.

The other very old fashioned thing is the gender politics, which can best be summed up as “awful.” Hello, sexism fairy! The main characters are all men—the pilot, the guy in charge of the rescue, the grumpy astronomer, the reporter. The women who do exist—the ones on the ship—don’t have jobs if they are married. (This is particularly notable because there’s a comment that Earth educates everyone because they have so many technical jobs they can’t afford to waste men… Quite.) There’s a stewardess who is the nominal love interest—and I thought this romance was perfunctory even when I was a kid. There’s a female journalist who’s a shrew and who is said to suffer from “impacted virginity.” This is well over the line into offensive. There’s a fat wife who used to be a dancer. (She is said to have lost “a couple of kilogrammes” in two days on short rations. I think this is Clarke trying to use scientific units while not being comfortable with them. One kilo, or a couple of pounds, sure.) She’s a caricature but generally as characterised as most of the passengers. Apart from that there are no women appearing in this novel—all the engineers, pilots, astronomers, etc are male. Women get to be support staff and naughty dancers and wives. It’s this sort of thing you have to measure “Delilah and the Space Rigger” against.

Before I put all of that firmly behind me in the box marked “it was 1961” I shall also mention that hotels on the moon all have stairs because you don’t need elevators at that gravity—with the unwritten corrolary that nobody would ever be in a wheelchair or have a baby in a stroller, or have trouble with stairs even in low gravity. Race politics does slightly better. There is a wholly admirable engineer called McKenzie who is 100% Australian Aborigine, and 100% culturally assimilated. This isn’t the level of multi-culturalism one would want today, but for 1961 it’s really good. (I wonder if Clarke once met a memorably cool black engineer called McKenzie, because that’s also the name of the family in Imperial Earth, with a slightly different spelling.)

The characters are all fairly lightly sketched, but it doesn’t matter because the dilemma and the lunar landscape are the real characters here, and they’re utterly three dimensional. The tension never lets up. The ship goes under the surface, and time is ticking and heat is rising and oxygen is running out and more things keep happening—it’s riveting. You can never forget you’re on the moon. In the worst shipwreck on Earth there was at least air to breathe! Earth here is a distant crescent hanging in the sky. The furthest away help comes is from L2. All Earth can do is watch. Some of the passengers are comic relief, but the vast majority of the characters in this book are competent men doing their jobs. Even the grumpy astronomer is a competent man doing his job with a bit of sarcasm.

This is the future that didn’t happen, the future where the boffins of the 1950s rose up and colonized the solar system with slide rules and general co-operative intellectual competence. This moon was first reached in 1967 by the Soviets—and this was published after Kennedy announced the space race, so Clarke was putting his money on the other side. The hotels have notices in English, Russian, and Chinese, but there’s no indication that the Cold War is still a problem.

A Fall of Moondust is a classic of science fiction—a man against nature story, at one sixth gravity and in a sea of dust that’s half-way to being a liquid. The characters are thin, but the prose is full of the poetry of science. We have come a long way since 1961, but this is readable, exciting, and chock full of sense of wonder.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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