Authors: Arthur C. Clarke
Arthur C. Clarke
A Fall of Moondust
Copyright © 1961 by Arthur C. Clarke
Preface copyright © 1987 by Arthur C. Clarke
Cover art to the electronic edition copyright © 2012 by RosettaBooks, LLC.
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Electronic edition published 2012 by RosettaBooks, LLC, New York.
ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795325397
TO LIZ AND MIKE
A Fall of Moondust
was written between August and November 1960—just three years after Sputnik opened
the Space Age. Only six months later, President Kennedy launched the Apollo Project,
and before the decade was out Armstrong and Aldrin had stepped on to the Moon. As
is well known, they did not instantly vanish into a sea of dust.
Yet, in 1960, such an outcome was a very real fear. Through a powerful telescope,
vast areas of the lunar plains appear exceedingly flat and smooth, and a number of
astronomers (notably Dr Thomas Gold) had maintained that they were indeed composed
of extremely fine dust. Over billions of years, they argued persuasively, the ferocious
change of temperature between day and night would break up and eventually pulverise
the local rocks. Gold
then theorised ingenious transport mechanisms, involving electric charges
, which would allow the resulting dust to flow across the face of the Moon, and eventually
accumulate to form traps more treacherous than any quicksands on Earth.
This idea had obviously fascinated me for many years, as I had used it in an incident
(1955). But I can claim no originality for
’s basic concept; credit must go to the late James Blish, who in one of his stories
refers casually to ‘skiing in seas of lunar dust’.
When the Luniks and Surveyors landed on the Moon during the mid-60s, the designers
of the Apollo spacecraft were able to relax. All the robot probes remained just where
they had landed, their footpads barely denting what looked like perfectly ordinary
dirt. Far from sinking into the Moon, the Apollo astronauts found it difficult and
exhausting work to drive their core-sampler tubes into it for more than a few centimetres.
So where does that leave my “Sea of Thirst”? Well, I could move it to Mars (the region
named Hellas looks a very good candidate) or even remoter points. But before I take
that drastic step, I would like to quote from a post-Apollo (1978) edition:
The great achievements in astronautics of the past few years have not ruled out the
idea upon which this story is based. It will be a long, long time before we can be
sure that there is nothing like the “Sea of Thirst”
on the Moon’s 15,000,000 square miles of territory—an area as great as the continent
of Africa, still waiting to be explored, and still, we can be quite certain, full
of unexpected and perhaps dangerous surprises.
And the Moon is certainly
dust-free. If you watch the famous movies of the Apollo moon-buggy making a sharp
turn on the lunar surface, you will see exactly what I describe in the opening chapter
…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.
A Fall of Moondust
was probably my most successful novel up to that time, being promptly bought by Reader’s
Digest Condensed Books (Autumn 1961). I believe this was RD’s first essay into science-fiction,
but I have never been able to bring myself to sample the result—not because I fear
that the Pleasantville editors may have butchered my deathless prose, but because
I’m scared they may have improved it.
Though I can’t remember if I ever waved it in front of Stanley Kubrick, at least three
movie producers have optioned the novel—and one of them (Robert Temple) thought of
a perfectly brilliant way of creating the “Sea of Thirst”, even if it doesn’t exist
at the present moment. So though it’s getting a little late in the century, I’m still
hoping that the book will reach the screen—before we actually go back to the Moon.
|Colombo, Sri Lanka||A|
|24 August 1986|
To be the skipper of the only boat on the Moon was a distinction that Pat Harris enjoyed.
As the passengers filed aboard
, jockeying for window seats, he wondered what sort of trip it would be this time.
In the rear-view mirror he could see Miss Wilkins, very smart in her blue Lunar Tourist
Commission uniform, putting on her usual welcome act. He always tried to think of
her as ‘Miss Wilkins’, not Sue, when they were on duty together; it helped to keep
his mind on business. But what she thought of him, he had never really discovered.
There were no familiar faces; this was a new bunch, eager for their first cruise.
Most of the passengers were typical tourists—elderly people, visiting a world that
had been the very symbol of inaccessibility when they were young. There were only
four or five passengers on the low side of thirty, and they were probably technical
personnel on vacation from one of the lunar bases. It was a fairly good working rule,
Pat had discovered, that all the old people came from Earth, while the youngsters
were residents of the Moon.
But to all of them the Sea of Thirst was a novelty. Beyond
’s observation windows its grey, dusty surface marched onwards unbroken until it reached
the stars. Above it hung the waning crescent Earth, poised for ever in the sky from
which it had not moved in a billion years. The brilliant, blue-green light of the
mother world flooded this strange land with a cold radiance—and cold it was indeed,
perhaps three hundred below zero on the exposed surface.
No one could have told, merely by looking at it, whether the Sea was liquid or solid.
It was completely flat and featureless, quite free from the myriad cracks and fissures
that scarred all the rest of this barren world. Not a single hillock, boulder or pebble
broke its monotonous uniformity. No sea on Earth—no mill-pond, even—was ever as calm
It was a sea of dust, not of water, and therefore it was alien to all the experience
of men—therefore, also, it fascinated and attracted them. Fine as talcum powder, drier
in this vacuum than the parched sands of the Sahara, it flowed as easily and effortlessly
as any liquid. A heavy object dropped into it would disappear instantly, without a
splash, leaving no scar to mark its passage. Nothing could move upon its treacherous
surface except the small, two-man dust-skis—and
herself, an improbable combination of sledge and bus, not unlike the Sno-cats that
had opened up the Antarctic a lifetime ago.
’s official designation was Dust-cruiser, Mark I, though to the best of Pat’s knowledge
a Mark 2 did not exist even on the drawing-board. She was called ‘ship’, ‘boat’ or
‘moon-bus’ according to taste; Pat preferred ‘boat’, for it prevented confusion. When
he used that word, no one would mistake him for the skipper of a space-ship—and space-ship
captains were, of course, two a penny.
,” said Miss Wilkins, when everyone had settled down. “Captain Harris and I are pleased
to have you with us. Our trip will last four hours, and our first objective will be
Crater Lake, a hundred kilometres east of here in the Mountains of Inaccessibility—.”
Pat scarcely heard the familiar introductions; he was busy with his countdown.
was virtually a grounded space-ship; she had to be, since she was travelling in a
vacuum, and must protect her frail cargo from the hostile world beyond her walls.
Though she never left the surface of the Moon, and was propelled by electric motors
instead of rockets, she carried all the basic equipment of a full-fledged ship of
space—and all of it had to be checked before departure.
Oxygen—O.K. Power—O.K. Radio—O.K. (“Hello, Rainbow Base,
testing. Are you receiving my beacon?”) Inertial navigator—zeroed. Airlock Safety—On.
Cabin Leak detector—O.K. Internal lights—O.K. Gangway—disconnected. And so on for
more than fifty items, everyone of which would automatically call attention to itself
in case of trouble. But Pat Harris, like all spacemen hankering after old age, never
relied on autowarnings if he could carry out the check himself.
At last he was ready. The almost silent motors started to spin, but the blades were
still feathered and
barely quivered at her moorings. Then he eased the port fan into fine pitch, and
she began to curve slowly to the right. When she was clear of the embarkation building,
he straightened her out and pushed the throttle forward.
She handled very well, when one considered the complete novelty of her design. There
were no millennia of trial and error here, stretching back to the first Neolithic
man who ever launched a log out into a stream.
was the very first of her line, created in the brains of a few engineers who had
sat down at a table and asked themselves: “How do we build a vehicle that will skim
over a sea of dust?”
Some of them, harking back to Ole Man River, had wanted to make her a stern-wheeler,
but the more efficient submerged fans had carried the day. As they drilled through
the dust, driving her before them, they produced a wake like that of a high-speed
mole, but it vanished within seconds, leaving the Sea unmarked by any sign of the
Now the squat pressure-domes of Port Roris were dropping swiftly below the skyline.
In less than ten minutes they had vanished from sight:
was utterly alone. She was at the centre of something for which the languages of
mankind have no name.
As Pat switched off the motors and the boat coasted to rest, he waited for the silence
to grow around him. It was always the same; it took a little while for the passengers
to realise the strangeness of what lay outside. They had crossed space and seen stars
all about them; they had looked up—or down—at the dazzling face of Earth, but this
was different. It was neither land nor sea, neither air nor space, but a little of
Before the silence grew oppressive—if he left it too long, someone would get scared—Pat
rose to his feet and faced his passengers.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he began. “I hope Miss Wilkins has been making
you comfortable. We’ve stopped here because this is a good place to introduce you
to the Sea—to give you the feel of it, as it were.”
He pointed to the windows, and the ghostly greyness that lay beyond.
“Just how far away,” he asked quietly, “do you imagine our horizon is? Or to put it
in another way, how big would a man appear to you, if he was standing out there where
the stars seem to meet the ground?”
It was a question that no one could possibly answer, from the evidence of sight alone.
Logic said “The Moon’s a small world—the horizon
be very close.” But the senses gave a wholly different verdict; this land, they reported,
is absolutely flat, and stretches to infinity. It divides the Universe in twain; for
ever and ever, it rolls onwards beneath the stars….
The illusion remained, even when one knew its cause. The eye has no way of judging
distances, when there is nothing for it to focus upon. Vision slipped and skidded
helplessly on this featureless ocean of dust. There was not even—as there must always
be on Earth—the softening haze of the atmosphere to give some hint of nearness or
farness. The stars were unwinking needle points of light, clear down to that indeterminate