Wednesday, June 13, 2012

172 Hours On The Moon by Johan Harstad

172 Hours is set in the year, 2019. In 2010, eight men including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met to plan a return mission to the moon. They want to return to a secret base, DARLAH 2 built in the Sea of Tranquility from 1974 to 1976. It was built there to investigate some unusual phenomena which the Apollo astronauts encountered during the moon missions. We are never told what much about the first DARLAH base until well into the novel. 

The purpose of this new mission is threefold; to make sure the base is in working condition, to investigate the potential for mining rare Earth metals and to attract media attention so as to secure funding for future missions. To attract the necessary media attention, they decide to send three teenagers on the mission to attract a new generation of supporters for space exploration. The teens will be chosen by lottery, an unrealistic aspect of the plot because it assumes that everyone is suitable for space exploration. This information which is provided in the prologue provides the backstory.

The first section of the novel, entitled Earth focuses for the most part on the three teens chosen for the mission ; Mia Nomeland from Stavanger, Norway, Midori Yoshida from Yokohama, Japan, and sixteen year old Antoine Devereux from Paris, France. Each has their reason for going. For Mia it's the dream of fame even though her parents signed her up for the lottery , for Midori this is her chance to escape her restrictive life in Japan, while for Antoine it's an escape from a broken relationship. Once they learn they are to participate, things move quickly and the teens undergo a rigorous but short three month training program. 

We also learn about Oleg Himmelfarb, an elderly man who once had been "a custodian with the highest security clearance at NASA's Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in the middle of the Mojave Desert." Now suffering from dementia, he lives in a nursing home. When Oleg hears about the mission he is terrified to the depths of his very being, but he can't remember why.  Eventually Oleg remembers the source of his fear, but near death and unable to speak, he can only provide a clue which may or may not be recognized by the nursing home staff.

The second part, Sky relates the unfolding horror once the mission arrives on the moon. On the moon, things begin going wrong almost immediately and people begin to die. What seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime, becomes a desperate struggle for survival against something they don't understand but they know is evil. One by one, crew and teens disappear and die. The crew then makes the unnerving discovery of the doppelganger. Harstad introduces the doppelganger into the novel to create both confusion among characters and suspense. Soon we don't know who is real and who is not, who survives and who doesn't.

This novels suffers from a somewhat unbalanced structure with 145 pages devoted to the time before the moon expedition in which background is prevented but not much character development occurs. The lack of character development makes it difficult to relate to the teens and especially the crew who are mostly one dimensional characters. But in a novel driven by plot this doesn't matter quite so much. The effect thous is to want to skip these pages for the most part to get to the more interesting parts of the novel.

Harstad's ending is reminiscent of renowned science fiction writer, John Wyndham, whose novels often left readers to figure out what happened on their own. But unlike Wyndham's endings, there is nothing to suggest the twist the story takes and the ending is largely inexplicable.

Also similar to Wyndham, Harstad's science fiction novel is a combination of horror and psychological thriller.The author uses a great number of devices from modern sci-fi/horror movies including Alien and also Japanese horror movies. The Japanese myth of the Kuchisake-onna, the Slit-Mouth Woman, which is a malicious spirit, is introduced into the novel creating an element of impending horror. There is foreshadowing of this spirit in the first part of the book, when Midori is warned by "Hanako-chan" not to go to the moon.

Harstad also works the mystery of the alphanumeric code 6EQUJ5, which was an unknown signal picked up by the Big Ear Radio Observatory in Ohio in August, 1977, into the novel. The origins of this signal have never been determined and it remains unexplained to date. For Harstad this is a warning not to return to the moon.

If you like horror with your science fiction, and don't mind the loose ends, this book will appeal. Many readers will be drawn in by the innovative cover and the nifty premise. Many will leave unsatisfied.

Book Details:
172 Hours on the Moon by Johan Harstad
New York: Little, Brown and Company
355 pp.

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