A Fall Of Moondust – review

John Moore took a listen to the 1981 BBC production of Arthur C. Clarke's sci-fi short story, available in January on CD...

It’s probably sacrilege to say it, but my favourite section of 2001: A Space Odyssey – or rather the part that affects me the most – is Floyd’s trip to the space station towards the start of the movie. The idea that Pan Am will one day be running chartered flights in space, the awkwardness of providing customer service in zero gravity, the endless instructions for the toilet, the inanity and ‘plastic fantastic’-ness of it all is… well, horrific. Kubrick’s wonderfully understated images have a bleakness that a thousand of Clarke’s words couldn’t hope to convey, but which his ideas render beautifully.

In these moments we know that, whilst humans may reach for the stars, they’ll never change. We commodify, sanitise, bureaucractise, politicise and package experience – even an experience as profound as travelling to the moon – like it is a genetic imperative. We can learn to feel contempt and boredom even for the most beautiful of sights and we value our own comfort and pleasure above all other considerations. Humans are Not Very Nice, basically… We just can’t help ourselves; like Floyd we are duplicitous, smarmy and secretive.

Though 2001 owes most to Clarke’s work The Sentinal, the same bleakness permeates A Fall Of Moondust too. Essentially a stripped-down Poseidon Adventure-in-space, dealing with the ‘sinking’ of a ‘pleasure boat’ it too deals with the practicalities of living in space. It just so happens that the ship is carrying tourists on the moon – specifically to see the ‘Mountains of Inaccessibility’ from the ‘Sea of Thirst’, a large area like a sea but consisting only of unstable dust that ebbs, flows and can be traversed like water.

With such a set-up, Clarke can play with human archetypes and the sci-fi becomes strictly a backdrop to the larger messages and themes. Thus we have the middle-age American tourists, the ship’s captain and stewardess, the Australian traveller, the ‘Commodore’ – a wise old well-travelled head, the opportunist privateer, the journalist, the scientist, the engineer/hero and most importantly the politicians and marketing men all playing their parts in a drama which unwinds in a desolately predictable-yet-tense way.

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Self-serving undercurrents come to the fore, brushed-over heroism is co-opted by less altruistic interests and the events are delivered to the wider public in heavily-mediated TV bulletins. It’s satire, dressed up as drama, dressed up as sci-fi. Everything that good fantasy storytelling is about, then.

As for this specific 1981 BBC Radio 4 production, it is well done radio drama – not particularly exceptional in any way, just well done – and, maybe, a little dated now. There are the usual ham-fisted expository sections that the lack of visual cues or narration demands (though a clever device of dust-induced blindness is used later on, as the drama heightens, to allow the actors to paint a picture of events unfolding) whilst the journalist character serves as a device to fill in the political sub-text to events and show the flip-side of the disaster and how it is exploited.

For fans of Arthur C. Clarke, A Fall Of Moondust will be an interesting diversion – though, probably a frustrating experience for those with knowledge of the original text. For sci-fi fans in general, it offers some strong thematic content and good ideas.

Unfortunately the medium, and this specific adaptation, never really allow these to be played in ways as effective as they deserve. Nevertheless, A Fall Of Moondust is an enjoyable one-and-a-half hour journey in its own right, and an interesting twist on some of the over-arching concepts that have infused many of Clarke’s more famous works.

A Fall of Moondust will be available on 7th January as a 2-Disc set for £12.99, or for download from most major digital distributors for £6.60.

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3 out of 5