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Conceptual Fiction: A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke

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Conceptual Fiction is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on major works of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism and alternate history. These books are celebrated in recognition that literary experimentation with ways of conceptualizing reality has been as important as experimentation with language in creating fiction of lasting value. Dismissing these books as genre or escapist works has created a blind-spot in literary studies that this feature aims, in some small part, to rectify.

Who cares about the plot? Obviously not many people in academia… I still recall a college professor making fun of me when I complained that our class’s assigned edition of Stendhal contained a plot spoiler on the back cover. “You shouldn’t be so concerned with the plot,” Professor Robinson admonished me.

Decades later, I still care about the plot. Literary critics, for their part, usually align themselves with my old professor. They rarely acknowledge how important plot construction is to the success of a novel, and focus on other “more important” matters. Writers who work in genre fiction, in contrast, have few illusions that they can save a weak plot through character development or symbolism or some other method of compensation. Henry James famously spoke of the “turn of the screw” — the added plot twist that can raise the level of a story — but on any short list of the masters in the art of turbo-charging a storyline, even the great James might need to move aside to make room for popular writers such as Agatha Christie, P. G. Wodehouse and Arthur C. Clarke.

The classic Clarke books — Childhood’s End, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rendezvous with Rama — draw readers into their orbit with plots that are constructed like multistage rockets (if I may be allowed to use simultaneously a sci-fi simile and a sci-fi metaphor). Complexities in the plot are often resolved in his books, only to replaced by a higher level of complication. The key moments that might seem to conclude matters typically prove to be fake-outs, revealing that the real threat is coming from a completely different direction than the one we first anticipated. Of course, Clarke developed his craft in a pulp fiction environment that demanded clever plotting; yet even by these standards, he stands out for his smart incorporation of second-order and third-order effects in his stories.

Although Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust was nominated for the Hugo Award in 1963 (losing out to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle), and was the first science fiction book to be featured by Reader’s Digest in their “condensed novels” series, it is not one of this author’s most widely ready books.  Yet Clarke’s lunar disaster story ranks among his tightest and most smartly constructed novels. Here he displays his knack for adding a new “turn of the screw” every few chapters, so that the crisis scenario he is unfolding gets deeper and deeper—bother literally and metaphorically.

For his main characters are caught in a sea of dust when their lunar tourist expedition gets caught up in “dry tsunami.” Their vehicle — a cross between a bus and a boat — is trapped below the surface, and rescue efforts can find no visible trace of where or how they disappeared. Imagine a story that combines the most distressful elements of a “lost at sea” tale, a “mining disaster” story, and a “astronaut running out of oxygen” adventure, and you will get some idea of the scenario Clarke has contrived.

Clarke is usually at his weakest when it comes to developing characters. He is better at creating scenarios than protagonists, and usually the plot drives the characters in his books, rather than the other way around. But in A Fall of Moondust, he needs to build dramatic scenes from the interactions of the trapped crew and passengers, and the result is a storyline that is far more personality-driven than one typically finds with this author. His eccentric and contentious characters create a tableau that is more like Murder on the Orient Express than 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The occupants of the Selene, his "lost at sea" tourist craft, include a retired space travel hero, an Australian aboriginal physicist, a crank who is obsessed with UFOs, a lawyer and his wife, a retired “dancer,” and other lively characters. They are not handled in a completely realistic manner — but, for that matter, neither are the figures in Dickens or Proust — but Clarke does show how he can create drama, tension and humor in set pieces that are not much different from the scenes other authors place in drawing rooms and hunting lodges.

As usual, Clarke weaves a lot of science around his account, even more here than is typically the case in his novels. I am still amazed by how many surprises and new scientific angles he can extract from dust. He works every possible trick you can imagine from this mundane starting-point—almost as if Iron Chef had baking soda as the main ingredient in one of their competitions. In a genre that typically reaches for larger than life effects, Clarke pulls off the old switcheroo and goes small for a change. Very small.

He also extracts some fine landscape writing from the dust. “The boat’s wake became longer and more disturbed as the spinning fans bit fiercely in the dust. Now the dust itself was being tossed up on either side in great ghostly plumes; from a distance, Selene would have looked like a snowplough driving its way across a winter landscape, beneath a frosty moon… When Harris swung Selene into a tight turn, so that she orbited in a circle, the boat almost overtook the falling veils of powder her fans had hurled into the sky. It seemed altogether wrong that this impalpable dust should rise and fall in such clean-cut curves, utterly unaffected by air resistance….”

And this passage (from page ten) is just the start of Clarke’s love-hate relationship with dust, demonstrated at length in this work. Give that man a Swiffer mop and a space suit! And where does it all end? I would love to fill you in on all the details, but I still hate plot spoilers. Sorry, Professor Robinson!

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