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Blood Moon by Sharman DiVorno

Cover art by Bob Warner

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The introduction of horrific elements into a work of science fiction are nothing new. The best-known example is probably the movie Alien, although one could argue that it goes back to the very beginnings of the genre in Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, which is in many ways a meditation on bioethics, but which in many of its movie adaptations has lost the philosophical elements to become a straight-up monster movie. H P Lovecraft also blurred the boundaries of horror and science fiction in such stories as "Cool Air" (cryogenics and life extension) and "At the Mountains of Madness" (deep time and human origins).

Blood Moon is of particular interest because it manages to combine strong hard-sf elements of near-term lunar exploration with elements of supernatural horror. When the novel was published in 1999 it was still believable that in thirty years we'd be building and staffing a base on the Moon, although its location on Far Side (often incorrectly called the dark side of the Moon, although it receives just as much sunlight as the Near Side that is most people's image of the Moon) may come as a surprise for readers brought up on classic science fiction, who would be apt to expect the first permanent moonbase to be located near one of the familiar Apollo landing sites. However, it works both literarily and scientifically. Far Side makes an obvious symbol of alienation, being forever cut off from sight and radio contact of Earth (as we can see in Pink Floyd's album Dark Side of the Moon), and the fictional base is actually located in the South Pole Aitken Basin, which is not far from the perpetually shaded polar craters that are believed to contain stores of cometary ice which could be mined for fuel and water to support operations both on the Moon and in cislunar space.

When the novel begins, the fifth Far Side crew, FS-5, has encountered major trouble, and as a result of communications problems, Mission Control on Earth has only fragmentary information on what went wrong. So they've decided to move up the launch of the FS-6 crew as a rescue mission, with some significant changes in the mission roster so they can include more appropriate specialists to deal with astronauts who may have sustained significant physical and mental injuries.

When they arrive, they find the base in appalling disarray. Equipment and personal belongings lay scattered everywhere, and obscene graffiti cover the walls and mirrors. The repeated theme "Food for the Moon" echoes the confused final transmissions from the FS-5 team, right before communications failed. Even more alarming, some of these scribblings were made in human blood and menstrual fluid (the latter particularly associated with the Moon because the female reproductive cycle roughly coincides with the cycle of lunar phases).

Both rescue team and Mission Control are appalled. These men and women were highly-trained professionals, carefully selected for excellent physical and mental health. What could have led to the complete breakdown of discipline that all evidence points to?

In the mission commander's sleep station they find the spacesuited corpse of the mission engineer, a large and powerfully-built man who clearly died of violence, his skull smashed in. Further investigation on lower levels finds a second corpse and a badly injured living astronaut in a junk pile. However, the latter literally dies of fright even as their flight surgeon tries to treat her.

Worse, the entire base is full of flies, some living, some dead. Although the scientific team hypothesizes that they probably came in on a improperly washed piece of fresh food, their presence recalls the scenes in The Amityville Horror in which flies swarm the haunted house in the winter. Furthermore, the entire base stinks of rotting flesh and the options for freshening its atmosphere are very limited, so the astronauts have a very miserable time of it after that initial spacesuited survey, once they're working in shirtsleeves.

Meanwhile, the senior mission controller has recruited a police detective, Lorenzo Guiterrez, to guide the astronauts in the process of gathering evidence in what has gone from an accident investigation to a crime scene investigation. As he explains procedures and at least some of the rationale behind them, he begins to bond with the astronauts at Mission Control and to a lesser degree those on the Moon.

This part was done very well in my opinion, particularly the awareness of mutually unintelligible technical jargons in the communication of these professionals on the part of both the characters and the author. As they translate the technical terminology of law enforcement and of astronautics into layperson's language for each other, not only do the characters come to respect one another, but we the readers get to see the author's careful attention to the details of the professional competencies of both groups.

The next big break comes when they EVA to the FS-5 lander. On the way they find the remains of the mission commander, and within the lander they find a surviving crewmember, Bob Faden, in a disordered state of mind. He'd been left without his spacesuit, which suggests someone deliberately marooned him there for unknown reasons.

The FS-6 crew get him back to base by sedating him enough to put him in a rescue bubble. However, once they bring him back around, questioning him proves decidedly unhelpful. He exhibits symptoms consistent with schizophrenia -- or with demonic possession. Worse, there's evidence that the FS-5 astronauts dabbled in the occult, and that it involved events that cannot be entirely explained away as the hallucinations of a diseased imagination.

When Faden comes around, he behaves in bizarre and disgusting ways which seem aimed at offending his rescuers. His worst actions are aimed at the regular CAPCOM, the deeply religious David Christiansen, who was in training to command the seventh Far Side mission.

Christiensen is a fascinating aversion of the All Christianity Is Catholicism trope, being a Latter Day Saint (Mormon) who is as comfortable referring to specifically LDS documents such as the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, the Word of Wisdom and the Doctrines and Covenants as he is to the Bible. Although my acquaintance with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is limited, the characterization of his faith appears to be accurate and feels done with respect. Furthermore, the particulars of that faith are integral to the interchanges in which Faden, or the spirits within him, taunt Christensen. I haven't been able to find any information about Ms. DiVono's religious background, but if she doesn't have personal ties with the Latter Day Saints, she's done some very good research work.

The climax of the novel is notably ambiguous, as the morning terminator passes over Far Side Base and the attendant electrostatic phenomena begin to disarray the base's electronic equipment -- and the electrochemical workings of the brains of the crew. This phenomenon is based on actual scientific observations that go back to the last few Apollo lunar missions, in which the command module pilots observed electrostatic phenomena in the dust disturbances associated with the passage of the morning terminator across the lunar surface. One could argue that the author's extrapolation of the effects of those phenomena on human equipment and nervous systems is exaggerated for effect, particularly in relation to the visions of the deceased members of the FS-5 crew, although at least some of this is ascribed to theories of quantum interconnectedness and its relationship to consciousness, not dissimilar from the theories that underlie Travis S. Taylor's novel The Quantum Connection.

As a result, we are never sure if these phenomena really were supernatural in origin, or if they have a natural explanation but were filtered through the astronauts' cultural expectations, particularly after they began dabbling in the occult and thus conditioning themselves to view things through that set of perceptual filters. The most fascinating part is the effect of these experiences on Christiansen. A lesser writer might have been tempted to use it as an opportunity to ridicule religion by having the self-righteous astronaut's belief destroyed, but Christiansen's faith is strengthened even as he is profoundly humbled. In breaking down his tendency to see his religious faith as making him better than his colleagues, he comes to see just what a wonderful thing it can be to experience the glory of God, and what it means for God to have to communicate His presence to His people only via the channel of prophets.

On the whole it's a well-written book and both the astronautics and the detective work feel solid to this non-expert. There were some slip-ups -- for instance the Fire was associated with Apollo 7 rather than Apollo 1, which initially made me wonder if this were a work of alternate history until the familiar names of Grissom, White and Chaffee were mentioned and I knew it was an error of detail, whether in the research or the editing I cannot determine. However, these little oopsies weren't enough to undo my suspension of disbelief.

Review posted July 24, 2012

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