Review: Crater

“Crater” by Homer Hickam. Published in 2012 by Thomas Nelson, Inc., it weighs in at 302 pages, plus a two-page Reading Group Guide. Reviewer is particularly pleased that no editing errors were noted.

Crater Trueblood is an orphan on the Moon, raised in a Lunar company town that mines Helium-3 in the Vallis Alpes north of Mare Imbrium. His only souvenir of his long-lost parents is a quasi(?)-sentient slime mold known as a ‘gillie’, a ‘biological machine’ that serves as a sort of personal organizer, and which was outlawed years ago, as folks keep reminding Crater.

It’s hard and dangerous work, people die, and the need for warm bodies to do the work means that those willing to brave the dangerous work and help make the Moon a part of the human story will usually have their previous lives ignored. Crater is a complexly simple character. His forthright honesty is something out of the Boy Scouts, or a Marshall Will Kane from High Noon, making him a bit of a stranger in a strange land. Some might even call him a bit of an Aspie. He has gifts, and those gifts help make his story adventurous.

Part one is set in Moontown, and sets up the background. Crater’s roommate at the Dust Palace Bachelor’s Hotel is Petro, a card sharp and ostensibly of royal descent, and son of the proprietress, Q-Bess. It’s a tough Lunar frontier town, hewn from the ground to house the workers and their families, and run by Colonel John High Eagle Medaris, descendant of the protagonist in the author’s earlier fiction work “Back to the Moon”.

Early on, Crater’s driving skills are put to the test in a race that evokes images from the game Lunar Racing Championship:

(Gotta love the physics of 1/6th gravity!) After the race he meets the love interest of the book, the Colonel’s grand-daughter Maria, named after the seas of the Moon, and experiences the sharp tangs of jealousy when Petro (who was supposed to be the driver) starts muscling in.

Having demonstrated his merit through a variety of challenges, Crater is chosen for a secret mission, one that will shape the future of the Moon if he succeeds, or perhaps plunge it into war with terrestrial interests if he fails. The stakes are high as he sets out on his first real challenge – accompanying the Helium-3 convoy all the way to Armstrong City down at the southern end of Mare Tranquilitatis. Nefarious forces conspire to deny Crater his objective, and his life is in significant peril for most of the trip as the convoy hopscotches from outpost to outpost.

Just when things seem at their worst, Crater finds an unusual ally, as well as his courage, and he is able to make it to Armstrong City with most of the convoy, a trail of bad-guy destruction in the convoy’s wake. From there the mission gets deadlier, as he ferries to the Earth-Moon Cycler to retrieve his objective. Can he succeed in his mission? Will he win the girl’s heart? Will the bad guys triumph in the climactic showdown?

You’ll just have to read it to find out.

The book definitely evokes the spirit of earlier juvenile works by Heinlein, and the rough-n-tumble Moontown has a certain “Moon is a Harsh Mistress” feel to it. The bad guys, wielded by as yet unrevealed dark forces, are conveniently transhuman genetic monsters, making them easy to dislike in their implacable malevolence. Crater’s natural engineering aptitude serves him well throughout the book, making him a good-role model for young readers to emulate. Crater is also a thoroughly honest, forthright and earnest individual, exhibiting the kinds of personal and civic virtues that we seem to have forgotten in our current troubled times, but which are absolutely essential on the Moon in order to not die. I love the help he finds in his desperate hours, so much so I won’t reveal the surprise. After initial incredulity, the idea is rather fun.

It’s a brisk 300 pages, engaging from the opening scene which thoroughly sets itself up for life-threatening danger, to the denouement which is really just an interlude/set-up for the next book in the series due out in 2013. Well edited with no errors noted (truly a joy these days when most publishers seem to have laid off all their proofreaders), although the explanation of the Lunar elevator is a bit cludgy. Geosynchronous orbit for the Moon can be calculated as being at Earth distance, with the overlap of the Earth’s and Moon’s gravitational spheres of influence making things messy. I think the author meant to reference the Earth-Moon L-1 Lagrange point, but that’s an even harder concept to grasp, so I understand sidestepping the issue. Also, the orbit that’s fixed over a single point is a geostationary orbit. Geosynchronous orbit is in time with the parent body, but in the case of the Earth (geo), unless aligned with the equatorial plane, will seem to bob up and down in the sky. Those in the equatorial plane will appear stationary, hence geostationary.

A good introduction to the Lunar elevator concept can be found in the archives of the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts: “The Lunar Space Elevator” by Jerome Pearson. (pdf)

A good overview of what would be involved with Helium-3 mining can be found in Dr. Harrison Schmitt’s book “Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space“.

Looking for more juvenile Moon fiction? Try these titles:

Moon Quest (Choose Your Own Adventure #26) – Anson Montgomery
Cosmic – Frank Cottrell Boyce
Earthlight Volume 1 (manga) – Stuart Moore
Growing Up Weightless – John M. Ford
Lunar Pioneers – Robert A. Black
Maurice on the Moon – Daniel Barth
MOONWAKE: The Lunar Frontier – Anne Spudis (Top notch, highly recommended)
Shanghaied to the Moon – Michael J. Daley
This Place Has No Atmosphere – Paula Danziger
Waters of the Moon series – Gregory Urbach (think Tarzan on the Moon)

Lunar Library Youth Moon Fiction section

In closing, a solid addition to the oeuvre of juveniles on the Moon. Another high-quality offering from Mr. Hickam, and well worth a Full Moon rating.

Bonus: The publisher put together a preview!

Double Bonus!: Mr. Hickam informs me that there’s also an interactive website from the publisher that gives more background and helps set the stage for the next book in the Helium-3 series:

www.helium3novels.com/

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