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An enjoyable story though far from Clarke's finest
on 30 March 2015
I see from the now barely decipherable scrawl on the flyleaf of my copy of this book that I bought it in November 1979, now thirty six years ago, and it was already nearly twenty years since the novel's first publication. By way of context, I was then sixteen and had just entered the lower Sixth Form at Loughborough Grammar School. Pink Floyd were on the verge of releasing 'The Wall', and we were six months into Margaret Thatcher's first term as British Prime Minister.
Is it fair to criticise a novel that is now more than fifty years old for seeming dated? Probably not, though the mere fact that I offer the thought is a testament to how well Arthur C Clarke's other novels have survived the passage of time. I do recall thinking this novel was marvellous when I first read it as a teenager, yet a little of that glow was absent now.
The basic story is, as so often with Clarke, beguilingly simple. At an unspecified date in the 21st century man has colonised the Moon, and some of the wealthiest citizens now spend their holidays there. Several of them have gone for an excursion in the Selene, a specially designed craft which skims across the dust filled 'seas' of the moon offering fantastic view of earth dominating the lunar skyscape. By great misfortune, Selene's passage over the dust bowl coincidence with a 'moonquake' which causes an underground cavern to collapse. The disturbance causes Selene to be pitched down into the chasm where it is immediately covered by tones of fine silicon dust which, as well as smothering the ship and hiding it from vie, also render radio contact impossible.
The rest of the story revolves around the attempts firstly to locate and then rescue the Selene. Clarke always pitched his stories in the realms of the scientifically plausible and unlike many science fiction writers, he had a great understanding of human relations. His characters are always utterly believable, regardless of the outlandish circumstances in which they might find themselves. Here he gives us a varied list of passengers from different walks of life back on earth, including, fortuitously, ex-Commander Hansteen, one of the leading space navigators of his generation, who happened to be visiting the Moon in his retirement.
The sense of datedness arises partially from the attitudes of the characters. The all-pervasive male chauvinism is, no doubt, a reflection of attitudes prevalent at the time it was written, but that does not hold true for most of Clarke's other works. I also felt that he might have dashed this off rather quickly - it displayed an uncharacteristic ponderousness that left if feeling more like a latest draft than the finished article. Despite these doubts, I enjoyed rereading it, but this is clearly not a work in the forefront of what is generally an outstanding portfolio from one of the masters of the oeuvre.