Sunday, 8 December 2013

172 Hours on the Moon by Johan Harstad (Science Fiction Sunday no 2)

Translator: Tara F. Chace
Publication date: 5th April 2012
Published by: ATOM
Genre: Science Fiction / Thriller (YA)

My Synopsis
The year is 2018 and NASA has sent out an invitation around the world for teenagers to take part in a trip of a life time.  Those who take part are to be entered into a lottery and 3 of them will be picked to join astronauts on an expedition to the Moon.

In Stavinger, Norway, sixteen year old Mia hears about the lottery but she is not interest in signing up.  She just wants to keep rehearsing with Rogue Squadron, her all girl rock band, work towards getting a record deal and become an international success.  Unfortunately, her parents have other ideas and enter her without her knowledge.

In Tokyo, Japan, sixteen year old Midori is out shopping with her friends.  Midori is a misfit who is bullied at school but has found sanctuary among a spot known as Harajuku, where being a misfit is normal.  Standing outside the shopping center with her Harajuku girlfriends she sees the advert about the lottery on a giant billboard and becomes transfixed.  Midori wants to escape a life that she sees a being condemned to banality.  She sees the lottery as her opportunity to do just that (i.e., escape).

In Paris, France, seventeen year old Antoine is having difficulty getting over his first love. Since Simone dumped him for another boy, he has become sad and somewhat  obsessed with standing on the first level of the Eiffel Tower so he can peep at her through her bedroom window, using one of the pay telescopes.  When he finds out about the lottery, he sees the trip to the moon as an opportunity to impress Simone.  How could she not want him back after he returns an international celebrity?

The lottery is held and Mia, Midori and Antoine are the winners.  With their parents in tow, they travel to the US to start their training before the launch.  Each of them has a strange experience before they leave.  It is almost as if something or someone is trying to tell them something.  But what could that be?

There is a reason why no one has been sent to the moon for over 40 years.  So why now?

There is a media frenzy over all of this and the launch is televised everywhere.  Mr Himmelfarb is an elderly man living in an old people's home and suffering from Alzheimer's.  In his prime he worked for NASA and had the highest security clearance.  On the day of the launch he is placed in front of the TV and while the rocket takes off, he starts to remember things that cause him to feel extreme terror and he starts to scream...

My Review:
172 Hours of the Moon is divided into 3 sections.

The first 'The Earth' covers what happens before the launch.  As outlined above we learn about the characters and their reasons for wanting to go.  None of them are interested in space or space travel and their reasons for going seem trivial - especially when there is so much at stake.  But these are teenagers absorbed in their own little worlds and so they are unable to see the bigger picture.  Their innocenc and naivety is understandable.  They are placing their lives in the hands of the adults they trust to make responsible decisions and believe they will be taken care of.

There are some really nice scenes in the first section.  The chapters showing Mr Himmelfarb were interesting.  He is existing in an environment that is strange to him and does not remember much.  He is basically waiting to die.  His relevance to the story is that he has insider knowledge of what is really going on.  After the launch he experiences a moment of clarity and becomes lucid.  He realises it is up to him to warn NASA of the danger ahead. 

The second section, 'The Sky' is all about what happens on the trip to the moon and what happens when they arrive. They take up residence on Darlah 2, a compound made up of 4 units that was built by robots and designed to allow astronauts to exist inside for short periods of time.

It soon became clear to me that this novel was to be a thriller.  Something scary is on the moon and it is after them.  It doesn't take a genius to guess that the characters are going to be picked off one-by-one, starting with the expendables*.  It then became a case of working out who would survive and make it back to Earth.

The third and final section, 'Afterward', is self-explanatory.  I won't say any more about this for obvious reasons.

Be warned this novel is very dark and perhaps parental guidance/discretion should be applied for under 15s. If I was to pick a single word to say what it is about it would be mortality.  It is about the fact that death is coming to all of us eventually, and for some it will happen sooner than it should. I would say the book has the reader face up to this reality; to stare it in the face and not look away. There is a disturbing scene where Coleman, one of the astronauts, remembers an experience he had when he was 9 years old. The scene later ties in with his story on the moon.  It addresses the uncomfortable emotions associated with death: fear, anxiety, loss, pain, suffering etc.

I thought this was a grown-up novel that does not patronize the teenage readers it is aimed at.   I liked the idea of what it sets out to do (see above) but I had issues with the feasibility of the premise.  If NASA is allowed to send teenagers on the moon it better have a bloody good reason for doing so.   The reason given is not justified, and somebody somewhere would think to do a risk assessment, surely?  Also, unfortunately, it has gaping plot holes, which kind of ruins it.  Too many things just don't add up.  I can't go into detail and avoid spoilers, but the holes are so big it would be hard to miss them.

I wonder if Johan Harstad is a fan of the film Alien (Ridley Scott) and the novel Solaris (Stanislaw Lem, also adapted for film 3 times). It feels as though this novel has been influenced by both; the thriller aspect of the former and the strange unexplained phenomena of the latter.  This is not a criticism since I too have been known to pay homage to some of my favorite films/novels (sometimes unconsciously) in my own work.

 I liked the first section a lot but it falters once they land on the moon for me.

*expendables are what I call characters who have a minor role and aren't important enough for the reader to care about; they tend to be the ones to get killed off.

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