At 12 years old, Dash Gibson is so famous that in a hundred years people will still be learning about him in school — no mere flash in the pan fame for him and his family, their names will go down in human history. Because they are among the first human beings ever to live on the moon.
As part of their participation in this first non-terrestrial habitation, all Lunarnauts, as NASA optimistically named them — though the public soon took up calling them Moonies instead — must record weekly vlogs for the millions and millions of people following them back on Earth, though there are understandable restrictions:
We can’t complain about the toilets or the food or the malfunctioning equipment. We can’t mention that anything has ever gone wrong. We have to constantly present a positive face to the public, even when there is nothing to be positive about.
So when one of the scientists at Moon Base Alpha dies, and Dash has good reason to believe it’s a murder, there are a number of understandable restrictions on him talking about it to anyone as well as investigating something that the adults are content to write off as an accident. But how much of this interference is people simply trying to protect the mission, and how much is someone trying to cover up a perfect crime…?
I really enjoyed this book — it has just about everything in exactly the right balance, and if you know someone between the ages of 8 and 12 who has an interest in space then you could do so, so much worse than getting a copy for them: Gibbs has clearly done his research, and grounds the action in mostly-excellent science that establishes the restrictions and complications of such an environment without going full Star Trek with its perfect technology and everything being effortlessly amazing. Indeed, pains are taken to underline just how much fiction there is in the representations of this sort of thing in Star Trek, BattlestarGalactica and “all 142 versions of Star Trek” — this is the period of transition, where space travel is possible but not easy, where forging a habitation on the first celestial body besides Earth is exciting but boringly practical, and where space tourism will largely result in rich people used to their comforts having to get along without.
Where to begin? From the opening floorplan to the description of his pre-lunar life in Hawaii, it’s pretty easy to understand Dash’s disillusionment with life at MBA. He’s keen to point out that he’s not “some whiny, ungrateful kid who just likes to complain and wouldn’t be happy anywhere”, and Gibbs walks a decent line between his isolation — very few other people his own age, none of whom he likes — and his desire to find something incredible about living in rather straitened circumstances. There’s a lovely bit where a scheduled rocket containing the next batch of scientists and temporary residents arrives, and Dash is tasked with being the ‘greeter’ for 12 year-old Kira who is arriving with her father. As she struggles to adapt to the low gravity and the restrictions of geography he reflects that:
In a few weeks she’d be as bitter about the whole place as I was. Only I didn’t want that to happen. Maybe I couldn’t make the moon base itself better, but I could certainly try to make life there more bearable for Kira.
There’s a kind of sadness at the heart of this, from the way “everyone suddenly started acting like we’d been friends out whole lives” when Dash was selected for the mission up to the constant reminders of the isolation that separate him from his best friends and traps him inside with the wealthy space tourists the Sjobergs and their bully-boy offspring (whose suffering on a result of the simplified milieu will, of course, become a source of great enjoyment for everyone else as the book wears on).
It’s not all po-faced weeping, however. In fact, there’s barely any of that, because Gibbs is able to work in a range of humour from the slapstick comeuppance endured by the Sjobergs down to sly digs from in excerpts from the sycophantically-upbeat Official Residents’ Guide to Moon Base Alpha that are sprinkled through the text:
Each individual family at Moon base Alpha has its own individual residence, which has been designed to provide extreme comfort and maximum living space. (In fact, if you have come to MBA from New York City or Beijing, you may even find your residence surprisingly large compared to what your used to!).
For your convenience, MBA has been designed with the latest state-of-the-art computer technology*.
* — As of the time of construction. Computer technology will most likely have advanced by the time you read this manual.
Indeed, the fallibility of the technology on hand will not only feed a key part of the plot, but also gets some laughs wrung out of a voice control system that never consistently correctly interprets what is said to it (my favourite of these being the “rumor that World War III almost started when the computer in charge of the North American nuclear missile system misinterpreted a commander saying “I hate syrup” as “annihilate Europe”.”).
But, of course, I picked this up because it promised a mystery with some detection, so we should really get to that. And, again, it’s very good. Once all is said and done it feels a little slight, but the restrictions placed on Dash and Kira’s investigation — such as the video footage clearly showing Dr. Holtz stepping into an airlock without anyone nearby, and then cycling it to step out onto the surface of the moon to his death — feel a little more real than do the impediments usually placed in front of the average juvenile sleuth. The steady shifting of suspicion is nicely handled, and if the motive feels a little ridiculous, well, remember the setup and setting and just relax a little (though if, like me, you have a tendency to read all the front matter of a book before even starting the first chapter — yeah, I read the copyright page, and I refuse to be made out a weirdo for doing that — perhaps hold off in this case, since the American publishing cataloguing of this title requires the essential motive to be included there for easy categorisation).
It also has two excellent piece of clewing — I’m not kidding, one of them is probably the best piece of fairly providing information to the reader in a book written this century, and is only spoiled by the fact that as soon as you have the necessaries Dash immediately tumbles to it and so spells it out to the reader. Equally, the use of an unlikely ally to motivate Dash to continue in spite of remonstrations from elsewhere is smartly deployed, and provides a ticking-clock element to limit the investigation to a short time window so that the guilty party may be identified and shipped back to Earth on the returning rocket. Sure, two key ideas rely on visual information that we obviously don’t have the ability to interpret fairly, but I’d argue there’s also ample opportunity to speculate around the information given — hell, I’ve hinted at one of them in the foregoing — and potentially see the links that you are then privy to Dash making come the final summation.
So, yeah it’s imperfect, but it’s huge fun, propulsive, inventive, uses not just the setting but also the way common knowledge becomes defunct as generations progress very well indeed, and does its damn best to be as fair as possible while establishing an uncommon environment and staying true to the scientific principles that would restrict many aspects of life on the moon. No mean feat, I think you’ll agree. I am very much looking forward to my next two visits to Moon Base Alpha.