Discover more from Declan’s Newsletter
#BookReview: The Moon and the Desert, by Robert Hampson
The Six Million Dollar Man as character-driven technothriller
So, what would happen if the Martin Cardin novel Cyborg (perhaps better known by it's TV show adaptation, The Six Million Dollar Man) were written by someone with more degrees than a life long grad student? You would get Baen’s latest novel, The Desert and the Moon.
Doctor Robert E Hampson was inspired by fiction to go into the field of bionics—having discovered it did not exist at the time, he’s spent his entire life helping to invent the field. With degrees in physiology, pharmacology, and neuroscience, he’s smarter than you, me, and a dozen other people put together. But having met him, he’s far, far too modest about it.
If you don’t recognize the title, it is taken from the pilot episode of the Lee Majors TV show.
Glenn Armstrong Shepard was always going to go into space. After a ten-year career as the chief medical officer on the moon, a training accident nearly kills him. What doesn’t kill him doesn’t make him stronger, but costs him an eye, an arm, both legs, and other medical issues. In most cases, Space Force members have a Do Not Resuscitate order, because “anything in space that didn’t kill you instantly might as well have done so anyway.”
But instead of a DNR, he has a different medical directive on file. Because the Space Force can rebuild him. They have the technology. They can make him better than he was. Better, stronger, faster. But the price tag is going to be a lot more than a lousy six million dollars.
Despite the events of the books covering four or five years, this story moves. We open with the inciting incident in media res, and Hampson wastes no time getting Shepard fitted with biotechnology. From there, half the book follows Shepard along the path to recovery, through physical therapy and through post traumatic stress. He may never get back to space, and many are trying to keep him out of action.
But then there’s an emergency with a Mars mission. The crew is slowly going mad, ending in death. There’s only one man who can survive the G-forces needed to make it in time. From here, we have a medical mystery that requires every upgrade, skill and medical knowledge he has in order to save the crew, and to survive as well.
But dang did I enjoy this one. It even has a sense of humor with lines like “Ohm wasn’t built in a day” or a nurse labeled “L. Charon.” And we won’t even go into what he does to the sensitivity speaker. And Hampson has a series of one-sided telephone conversations reminiscent of Bob Newhart.
You would think that for a man with as many science degrees as Hampson, this would a very different book. The Desert and the Moon is a techno-thriller that puts Tom Clancy to shame, but it is also largely character driven. We follow Shepard through the accident, into surgery, then rehab, PTSD, and coming back to being a functional human being again—in some ways, more functional than he was before. He’s a fully fleshed out character with a complete character arc and a well-sketched out biography.
Another member of the cast is Jennifer Butler, a reporter who has fallen into a profile of Shepard’s life, and falls into his life as well.
And then there is the character of General Boatwright. Somehow, Hampson has created a science fiction version of John Le Carre’s George Smiley. Boatwright is a hidden force behind the scenes of the entire novel, impacting every level of the story, and we barely see him until the last 10% of the novel.
Everyone gets a character arc in this novel. Everyone. And it is impressive how much Hampson achieves with the secondary characters, using relatively little space.
Most of this world is ours, less than 20 years old. Much of that is built around the technology, or through little excerpts pf “ChirpChats”. For example, one such chat explained, “A portmanteau is a combination of two words, with a meaning that combines both. Example: Biologic + electronic = bionic.”
Despite being tech-heavy, this novel never lost me, and I don’t have a fraction of Hampson’s science background (I’m a historian with a philosophy degree).
The only politics is a page about the defense of why we should go into space.
None, really. There’s no nudity or language that left an impression.
Who is it for?
For anyone who wants to see a Tom Clancy recreation of The Six Million Dollar Man, this is your book. If you’ve ever wanted to see a medical mystery in space, you definitely have to read it.
Why buy it
You buy The Moon and the Desert to watch a character study of someone who needs prosthetic limbs, and rebuild both his body, and himself from the ground up, and then launch into a medical mystery in space that I haven’t seen since James White. It’s just a fun, well-crafted novel.