Moon Zero Two by John Burke
Signet Books, 1969
Price I paid: 50¢
Giant corporations control the colonies on the moon and Mars. Travel is limited to a few safe “milk runs.” Exploration is ended—perhaps forever.
But one maverick pilot, Bill Kemp, still dreams of reaching the outer planets beyond the asteroid belt. Even though his leaky space-ferry is condemned and the corporations are trying to have him grounded, Kemp has a plan—a bold plan that will change the very shape of the solar system and catapult him to Jupiter and beyond!
I know, I know. Reading a novelization of a movie is a cheap way of punching down and it’s beneath me. I get it. Especially if it’s a movie that nobody’s ever heard of. At least, I’ve never heard of it. That’s not really saying much. There’s a lot I’ve never heard of.
The whole truth of the matter is that I read Moon Zero Two this week because it was blessedly short. I had a busy weekend, okay? I’m not asking you to forgive me, but I am asking you to bear with me, because this book had a lot of surprises in store, and that’s cool.
Yes, the cover really is that color. No, that plume coming from Earth does not denote that a mighty volcano has erupted or something. It’s just where part of the cover came off.
The movie merits a Wikipedia page so I’ll not delve too deeply into that part of the stuff beyond to say that it was a Hammer movie from 1969. Now, most of what I know about Hammer movies is that Christopher Lee was the best Dracula. I didn’t know they made any science fiction movies, especially of this sort. I have to admit that none of the names of the actors and actresses ring any bells for me, but again, that’s hardly surprising. The only question worth asking was “Are any of them Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing?” and the answer was no.
You know what? I take that back. It turns out that Carol Cleveland had a bit role in this movie, and I recognize her from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, so that’s cool.
Judging from the plot of the movie given on the Wikipedia page, the novelization was pretty close to the source material. The most major difference I see is that the movie shoehorned in a mention of Apollo 11 into the script at the last minute because the moon landing happened either during filming or after filming but before the film saw release. The book never mentioned Apollo 11, which is reasonable considering that John Burke was probably working from an early draft of the script, as is often the case in these situations.
The ISFDB doesn’t mention much else that Burke wrote that I found interesting, with the possible exception of a novelization of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which is odd because that movie is based on the Ian Fleming novel. I’m very curious about that. What’s much more interesting is his entry on Wikipedia, which mentions that he wrote the novelization to A Hard Day’s Night, which I’m going to find and I’m going to read, because I just don’t even know what that could possibly be like.
Okay, so the book. The book was, honestly, decent! It wasn’t great. It suffered from a few things, but on the whole, it held itself together pretty well and had a few interesting things going for it. The characters weren’t much. They basically all had one trait each (astronaut, know-it-all, rich, woman, etc.) and didn’t grow or change or anything, but they fit the setting well enough.
The main guy is Bill Kemp. You know what’s kind of interesting? This book was written in the first person. Now, that’s probably not interesting unto itself, but remember that this is the novelization of a movie, which makes it weird. Our author decided to take a story that’s the very definition of a third person narration and shift it over to a character’s direct point of view. That’s bold, and I appreciate it.
Bill lives on the moon. Note that this story takes place in 2020 or 2021, so that’s kinda funny. I miss optimism. Apart from that little thing, this book isn’t particularly optimistic, though. The Solar System is controlled by a few mega-corporations, making this book a sort of cyberpunk precursor, and they’ve decided that space exploration is too dangerous (read: costly). They’ve put a stop to it. The moon, Mars, and Venus are explored and/or colonized with regular shuttles going back and forth, but nothing beyond that is accessible. This is vexing to our hero, who has a major itch to explore. That is to say, he likes exploring, not that he has a rash or something and is very curious about it. I know I could have just deleted that sentence, but I don’t wanna.
A sort of undercurrent in this book is the power that corporations have to sway public opinion, and that’s both relevant and interesting. The campaign against exploration has been so successful that most people have no interest in the Solar System beyond what has already been explored, and moreover, it means that Bill has been completely forgotten by most people and is now working as a junk hauler on the moon, despite the fact that he was the first person to walk on Mars.
So Bill’s futzing around, hauling in junk satellites for scrap, when he gets contacted by this guy. The guy in question is a very rich guy named J.J. Hubbard, who has a proposition for Bill. Bill figures he needs to take it, considering that he’s broke most of the time, but he’s cautious about it. It’s not until Hubbard promises Bill a new ship that he takes him up on the offer.
Meanwhile, Bill runs into a lady named Clementine, who has a problem. Clementine can’t find her brother. See, her brother had a claim on the far side of the moon. Due to a convoluted set of rules in place by the UN, he’s almost run out of time to find anything on this claim and make any money from it. Clementine says that she got a message from him recently saying that he’d struck something, but now she’s not heard anything else. She fears that something has gone wrong. She needs someone to take her to the claim so she can see for herself whether he brother is okay.
Now, for the longest time I thought these two plots were unconnected, and it bothered me. I spent a fair amount of time while reading this book thinking about how I’d express my disappointment, which meant that, ironically, I was disappointed when the two plots came together in a way that actually made sense.
Hubbard’s job for Bill is to find an asteroid. Said asteroid is about to make a close approach to the Earth/moon system, and this is a very special asteroid. It’s made out of pure “ceramic” sapphire, roughly 6000 tons of it. Hubbard wants Bill to crash it into the moon, which is illegal, but who cares when you’ve got money? Bill agrees to the deal. He finds some engines in a junkyard that actually turn out to be the very same engines he used to go to Mars however long ago that was. Even the ship he used to go there has been scrapped instead of memorialized. At first I thought that this was somewhat unrealistic. It’s like throwing away the Apollo return capsules or something. Unthinkable. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me. People in control, whether corporations or otherwise, have a powerful ability to make people think what they want people to think, and this is just an example of that.
Remember that lady who burned herself with McDonald’s coffee and sued over it and everybody laughed about frivolous lawsuits? The reason everybody laughed about it was because of a huge smear campaign from Mickey-Dees. The woman was very seriously burned because the coffee heater was faulty, and she sued for medical bills. There’s a good documentary about it.
So yeah, forgetting about the first person to land on Mars actually makes a lot of sense when you put it into that perspective.
The rest of the book isn’t really that deep, and maybe I’m reading too much into it anyway, but that’s the kind of thing that’s been on my mind lately. It’s not gonna be too long before Comcast and Verizon successfully convince us all that Net Neutrality was a mistake all along…
Unless we’re careful.
Anyway, yeah, this book. So Bill straps some rockets to the asteroid and the burn goes off like it should. Another thing I liked about this book: It understood that space travel is a matter of relative speeds and orbits and transits and transfers and stuff like that, not just “point that way and go.” It turns out that another burn will be necessary in a few days, so Bill goes back to the moon to kill some time.
Clementine is there waiting for him, hoping beyond hope that he’ll help her find her brother. One of Hubbard’s goons tries to convince him not to help, which just makes Bill even more set on helping her out. The claim is too rocky for Bill to fly over there and make a safe landing, so they’ll have to go overland using a Moonbug. The trip is dangerous, with scorching hot days and freezing cold nights, but they make it. It turns out that Clementine’s brother is dead. He’s been murdered. Some more of Hubbard’s goons show up and try to kill our heroes, but they’re not successful.
In the end, it turns out that Clementine’s brother wasn’t killed because he found anything (although it does turn out that there’s a rich vein of nickel on his claim). It just happens to be that this is where Hubbard wants to crash the asteroid. It all has to do with the fact that the claim was almost set to expire so Hubbard would be able to move in on it and take the asteroid for himself all nice and legal.
Clementine finally brings up something else that had been bothering me up to this point. All that sapphire isn’t going to make him rich. It’ll just bottom out the market on sapphire and it’ll be worthless. It turns out that there’s even more to this plan that anybody thought! See, Hubbard doesn’t want the sapphire to sell as jewelry, he wants to use it to line engines with. He can use it to make great big engines that’ll send people out beyond Jupiter!
Of course, he’ll make a ton of money off of the whole thing, which is his whole motivation. Still, it makes Bill consider all this for all of about three seconds. After all, exploration is his whole deal, right? He wants to go to Mercury. Mercury and the moons of Jupiter. He talks about them every five pages or so.
Hubbard holds Clementine hostage to make Bill follow through on the whole deal. For some reason I don’t quite understand, Hubbard goes up to the asteroid with Bill, and even gets out and walks around on it. Pretty convenient, considering what’s about to happen. There are some scuffles and fights and stuff, but the end result is that Bill and Clementine are able to strand Hubbard on the asteroid as it comes crashing down to the moon, which is a pretty cool way to die, if you ask me. I wouldn’t mind going that way.
The book ends by establishing that Clementine will get the claim and the sapphire on it so maybe some good will come of all this anyway.
And that’s the book.
All told, the most I can say is that the book had some interesting points that I’m not 100% sure were intentional, and that it was otherwise inoffensive. The sexual dynamics got a little gross here and there, what with Bill only helping Clementine because she had a pretty pouty face and a rockin’ bod. They eventually do the Horizontal Moonwalk. Also, there was this whole subplot featuring a cop named Liz that Bill has a thing goin’ on with. For a while it’s an open question as to how he’s going to break it to her that Clementine’s his new squeeze now (orange juice pun), but it turns out not to be a big deal after all when Liz gets killed.
The science part of the book was reasonably well done, and I appreciated that. There weren’t any points where I shook my head and said “space does not work that way.” It treated how to deal with 1/6 gravity pretty well, as well as orbital stuff like I mentioned, and even the guns were rocket propelled so they wouldn’t recoil and send the shooter into lunar orbit. All told, good job.
There were plenty of times when I just had to wonder how the movie pulled off this story. I just can’t imagine what this would have looked like with a 1969 Hammer budget. I mean, I know that 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in ’68 and worked pretty damn well, but it had Kubrick brains and MGM money, you know?
Also, was this movie a 2001 hanger-on? That just occurred to me.
I think I’d like to see it.
***UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE***
It turns out that the movie was covered by Mystery Science Theatre 3000! Apparently it’s godawful! I should do more research!
That is all.
4 thoughts on “Moon Zero Two”
You said, Bill lives on the moon. Note that this story takes place in 2020 or 2021, so that’s kinda funny. I miss optimism. — Yeah, me too.
You also said, Another thing I liked about this book: It understood that space travel is a matter of relative speeds and orbits and transits and transfers and stuff like that, not just “point that way and go.” — Amen.
Have I got a book for you.
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The animated intro to this movie is the most late 60s/early 70s thing ever.
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Re Hammer doing sf movies: Moon Zero Two is meh at best, but Five Million Years to Earth (UK title Quatermass and the Pit) from 1968 is a gas and a half. Well worth your time when you’re next in the mood for some vintage sf movie.
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Excellent, thank you!