Alien is a classic sci-fi movie, but really, it’s just a horror movies that’s set in outer space. The same could be said of 172 Hours on the Moon; it’s about NASA sending three teenagers to the Moon to ostensibly revitalize interest in space travel, though the real reasons are a bit darker. It’s not that the organization is being deliberately sinister, but they’re being intentionally vague, and it’s clear from the beginning of the story that something just isn’t right with the plan. And this isn’t a spoiler at all; it’s all described in the first chapter.
Now, one of the biggest problems with this book is the main premise, which is the sending of teenagers to the Moon. For one, it’s hardly believeable, following the organization’s stance on sending civilians into space after theChallengerdisaster; for another, how does risking the lives of children revitalize interest in the space program? NASA holds a worldwide lottery to select the teenagers who will make the trip, and Harstad does a good job of creating the teenagers as individuals, but once they’re established, they effectively become background scenery to the rest of the story. There’s a touch of character depth at the end of the book, but otherwise their development only goes so far as to explain why they wanted to go to the Moon at all.
Beyond that, the details of the story start to break down, too. NASA knows what’s waiting on the moon for the visitors, and seem to think that it’s going to be just fine despite it being such horrible discovery in the 1970s that it ended all future expeditions to the moon. And there’s a huge buildup to what it might be, and once it’s finally revealed, it just doesn’t make any sense. I had a moment where I thought That’s it?, and then wondered what created it in the first place. And once I had finished the book and thought back on the entire thing, I found a lot of plot holes and other incongruities in the story that just didn’t make sense. I was especially let down by the ending, where too much was left unanswered and unexplained. I don’t mind an ambiguous ending, but the author chose to add an afterword of sorts that both added some closure and raised a slew of additional questions.
There are some oddly graphic scenes in the book, too, which felt out of place. I think violence has a place in a story if the plot demands it, and as the story progresses into the heart of the conflict, it is, but there were a few asides in a couple of different scenes at the start of the novel that were oddly descriptive. In one scene, a character imagines that a woman in a public restroom stall is dead, and then pictures her, describing a millipede crawling out of her nose and into a gaping hole in her chest. I mean, it was spooky enough as it was (the author also used a variation of the Bloody Mary tale to make it pretty eerie), and it seemed unnecessary. And they popped up in a couple of different places. I guess the author was trying to be edgy, but it just didn’t work for me, and it seemed like a juvenile way to be edgy.
But you know what? None of that matters. Harstad creates an effectively creepy story that’s worth reading despite all the ridiculous plotholes, incongruities, and throwaway characters that never do anything but reveal more information. It helps that he’s borrowing some of the major themes from John Carpenter’s The Thing, by putting the characters in an environment of isolation and then creating a situation where it’s difficult for the characters to trust one another, but he also includes a couple of real events to support the story. The first is fascinating and helps ground the narrative into true history; the other is a little less verifiable, but still historical, and is very effective at raising the creep factor of the story. In fact, I was home alone, with dusk creeping in as I was reading part of the book, and I had a moment after reading that part where I glanced up, noticed how dark it was getting, and considered waiting until daylight to finish the book. No kidding.
The bottom line is that this is a novel with some serious flaws, but what it does right it does so well that it’s worth ignoring the rest of it just to experience it. It also moves along pretty quickly, and I don’t think you’ll notice the incongruities of the plot and characters until after you finish it. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes a good, creepy story.