Book Review: "Crater" By Homer Hickam


"Crater" by Homer Hickam, is aimed at younger readers and manages to deliver quite a well-paced adventure. The book focuses on the adventures of Crater Trueblood a 16 year old blue collar kid who lives on the Moon complete with a mysterious past and a penchant for invention. He also has a knack of stumbling into one mini-adventure after another as he makes his way across the lunar surface to catch a ride on a spaceship to obtain a secret object for his boss. In a nutshell, "Crater" is sort of like Harry Potter meets Indiana Jones on the Moon - with some Johnny Quest thrown in for good measure..

Without giving too much away the story is set in 2143. Earth has had a series of wars and political upheavals. This has allowed the civilization that has been developing to take on a unique nature of its own - one driven by resource extraction. The biggest commodity mined is Helium-3 which is used to fuel the nuclear reactors Earth can't do without.

Against the backdrop of a wild west sort of frontier almost anything can and does happen to Crater along the way. Some of the incidents along the way are a bit improbable but the way the story and characters are crafted you just find yourself along for the ride. This is where Hickam's skill as a writer is evident. At one point or another the unusual encounters Crater has are truly unusual - the sort of things that you'd otherwise expect in a good video game or a Harry Potter novel. But there is no magic here. Everything Hickam throws at you has a logical purpose and is based on the laws of physics.

Hickam goes to great lengths to explain the technology that underpins the book. Given that it takes place on a world where you have to be constantly thinking about your life support system the technology plays a key role in how the story unfolds. Of course, Crater Trueblood has a penchant for being quite the hacker and tinkerer - a skill that seems to get him into as much trouble as it gets him out of.

Everyone needs a good sidekick and Crater has a "gillie". A gillie is sort of synthetic semi-sentient lifeform, smartphone, and light saber rolled into a mysterious little package. It is also illegal to own a gillie and the gillie is aware of this - as is everyone else. How Crater and the gillie interact is one of the more interesting relationships in the book (other than the girl Crater has a crush on) and provides some insight as to how we change as technology continues to weave its way into how we experience and interact with the world.

Hickam has to do a lot of world building within which his story unfolds. Very early on I found myself thinking of a book I read in high school "Where the Winds Sleep" by Neil Ruzic. By coincidence the book has an introduction by Wernher von Braun who played a pivotal role in Hickam's best seller "Rocket Boys". In this book, Ruzic also did some world building and tried to imagine the evolution of human civilization on the Moon - in increments one decade at a time - as the Apollo program continued. Alas, a few years after the book came out, we walked away from our Apollo investment and Ruzic's premise of a continued human presence on the Moon evaporated. No one lives there anymore. No one even bothers to visit. That said, the notion of what the Moon would be like today if we stayed has never left me. Hickam has done a great job fleshing out that world from the perspective of a 16 year old boy. So to a certain extent he managed to synch with a much earlier version of myself.

This book is the first of a planned trilogy. While it is aimed at young people it is fun for adults (at least this one) to read. I was often reminded of similar adventure books I read in the 1960s while the Apollo program was transforming what my parents thought to be Buck Rogers into what I called reality. Unlike books aimed at an older market, this book is written in a way that drags the reader directly into the action such that they can see themselves in the various incidents. Before the advent of video games this is what good books actually did. Hickam manages to evoke a similar immersive narrative to stories where the reader experiences new things through the eyes of someone who is also experiencing them for the first time. Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein often used this approach with young people serving as the reader's avatar.

The books I read as a child at the dawn of the space age (fiction and non-fiction) and the notions they put into my head are still the core of my continued interest in space half a century later. Homer Hickam's adventures of Crater Trueblood on the Moon is of the caliber of those books devoured as a young boy and stands ready to inspire a new breed of young people to go back to the Moon and finish what we started.

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