I’ve mentioned before how I grew up reading a lot of SF — Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula Le Guin, Larry Niven, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith — and how certain authors like Philip K. Dick, Sheri S. Tepper, and Connie Willis still delight me in my dotage.
With probably every generation that ever understood the notion of Space as the black stuff with twinkly bits in it beyond Earth, I shared as a much younger man the faint hope that, hey, maybe in my lifetime I’d be able to go to the Moon (or even beyond…), and the likes of The Fountains of Paradise (1979) by Clarke and The Dispossessed (1974) by Le Guin — where people had actually been somewhere — were always more appealing to me than the philosophical rigours of Asimov’s Foundation (1951). The Moon, in particular, had its own Golden Age in classic SF, effectively the new Frontier updated from novels like The Call of the Wild (1903) by Jack London and the muscular adventurism of Ernest Hemingway. Mars was for fantasists, anything outside Jupiter was frank mendacity, but the Moon…man, the Moon was right there, and so had about it the possibilities to make any heart yearn.
The impressive thing about Stuart Gibbs’ YA Moon Base Alpha trilogy, set on the first human habitation on the Moon in the year 2041, is how neatly it walks the line between retaining this air of possibility and hope and…well, actually making living on the Moon sound a bit rubbish. From the practical horrors of the space toilet and dehydrated foodstuffs a-go-go to the matter of who you’re cooped up with for months on end and the sundry pressures both internal (relationships, bullying, etc) and external (the promise of wealth and fame), what Gibbs has done across these books is keep a firm lid on the practicalities while also never quite losing track of the fact that it’s people living on the Moon — c’mon, who doesn’t love that?! — all while, by no means the afterthought the structure of this sentence makes it appear, providing some very swift and entertaining mystery plots.
“Jeez, I’m just a typical working Joe.”
Waste of Space (2018) is, then, the final trip to MBA and largely takes place on our narrator Dashiell ‘Dash’ Gibson’s thirteenth birthday. Opening with a great example of what makes the prospect of the Moon so appealing, we are swiftly brought back to, er, earth with the poisoning of Lars Sjoberg, the obnoxious Swedish trillionaire whose family paid to be the first ever tourists on the Moon and have made life fairly miserable for everyone since their arrival. As Dash points out, it’s not so much a case of finding a motive:
[I]t wasn’t too hard to imagine that, faced with being cooped up with the king of all jerkwads for another few months, someone had decided to simply bump him off instead.
Hell, even the Sjobergs themselves, in true classic mystery fashion, each have a large helping of cui to go with their bono:
“They have more to gain from Lars’ death that anyone else here. Trillions of dollars, maybe.”
Additionally, for a little while at least, there’s the difficulty that Lars was poisoned with cyanide, a substance that there’s no need for at MBA…and since you can’t exactly order some on Amazon for next day delivery, and since it’s hugely unlikely that anyone had the foresight to bring it with them when they came to the Moon eight months before, howgetit? It’s a minor consideration in the scope of things, and not exactly dwelt upon in any depth (or, if we’re being honest, answered in anything like the detail you’d really need when the guilty party is unmasked — I get you don’t necessarily want to provide a “How To…” but the only real flaw I can find in this book is how easily the question is answered given the scrutiny everyone is under the whole time), and again there’s a nice element of harking back to the classics in terms of the “But why was that…?” which, y’know, is always going to please me.
A large part of the narrative is taken up with the investigation, with the ever-moving finger of suspicion pointing in various directions with good reasoning applied to the actions of some people who might be acting in such a way to give the appearance of innocence. Equally, while the vector for delivering the poison is never in doubt, and while that in turn guarantees that Lars was the intended victim, the small matter of timing is given due consideration: the poison could have been administered on the night in question, or several months ago, or at any point in between. Every time there appears to be an easy answer, Gibbs has the smarts to ensure it’s examined from various sides. There is, after all, a game of double bluff going on somewhere, and so when incriminating evidence is found and thus points at someone…well, how do you know they’re not being set up? It’s not exactly John Rhode in the complexity stakes, but it’s a great time in terms of the juvenile mystery. Too few books manage to keep the pendulum swinging this successfully.
“Well, sure, ‘cos you always know who the killer is right from the start…”
Gibbs also gives us another superb Moon’s-surface-set suspense sequence late on, as the anonymity offered by spacesuits — especially with their visors down to protect against the glare of the sun — offers a certain amount of protection for someone seeking to engage in further malfeasance. Given that so much of the book is spent talking about the hunt for a “killer” despite there being no actual death — and, yes, I sound like Sideshow Bob: “Is there a Nobel prize for Attempted Physics?!” — someone certainly seems keen to fit that description before they get off the Moon for good, and the ease with which the technological advances can still be used against our Moonies is very adroitly handled to raise the tensions even if, since it’s our narrator whose life is at risk, there’s a certain inevitability about the outcome.
Gibbs also writes extremely well, which helps this very entertaining story pass even more easily. Lovely dry moments like Lars, having recovered form the poisoning “rag[ing] so violently that I thought he might collapse from a heart attack, negating the whole point of investigating his attempted murder”, and especially this lovely early moment between Dash’s parents when he is woken by his father early on the morning of his birthday:
[Mum] gave me a bittersweet smile. “I can’t believe I have a teenager. I’m old.”
“You don’t look old,” Dad told her. “You look the same as the day I met you.”
“That’s just the low gravity. Wait until you see me back on earth.”
“You’ll look even better there, I promise.”
The fantastical elements of this series have always sat well against the more criminous and logical aspects that make up their core plots, and the same remains true here, even as we veer wildly into flights of fancy at the close. It would be a hard heart that couldn’t get a little bit invested in the closing lines, though we’ve ended up a long, long way from where we’ve started. And keeping that yearning sense of possibilities alive is a lovely way to round off this short series — giving us something to hope for again even after pointing out all the flaws, problems, difficulties, and unpleasantness that such success requires before it can be successful. All told, that’s not a bad little note to go out on.
The Moon Base Alpha trilogy by Stuart Gibbs:
1. Space Case (2014)
2. Spaced Out (2016)
3. Waste of Space (2018)