172 Hours on the Moon -- exclusive excerpt

172 Hours on the Moon is a young adult novel about three teenagers who go to the moon as winners of a global lottery, only to discover a terrible secret about why they were sent. Below, the prologue to the novel.

Prologue: February 2010 “Gentlemen, it’s time,” Dr. ----- said, eyeing the seven some of the most powerful people in the country, together in the largest meeting room at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. It was nearing eleven o’clock at night.

They would have to make a decision soon.

“So, what’s it going to be, then?” Dr. ----- asked impatiently.

The cigarette smoke in the room was thick and impenetrable, making the atmosphere even gloomier. All rules forbidding smoking in government offices had fallen by the wayside as nerves came to a head.

“Well,” one of the seven began, chewing on his pencil, “it’s an incredibly risky proposition. You must know that. Is it really worth it?”

“People had already completely lost interest in the moon missions before the last launch in 1972,” another one said.

“Why do you think they’d be on board with us going back?”

“It could be done,” a third said. “We could tell them there’s a good chance of finding large amounts of tantalum seventy-three at the moon’s south pole.”

The room was suddenly buzzing, the tension starting to crescendo.

“You don’t want to go back to the South Pole, trust me.”

“Of course not.”

“It’ll kill you.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“If you ask me, I say leave the whole place alone.”

“Gentlemen,” Dr. ----- interrupted, “do you have any idea how important a discovery tantalum seventy-three would be? Most current technology is dependent on this material. People would be throwing money at us.”

“So we’re going up there to search for natural resources? I thought —” one of the other men said.

Dr. ----- interrupted him again.

“No, we’re not.”

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff cleared his throat.

“Let me put the cards on the table for you, gentlemen. We are not going to the South pole of the moon, and whether or not tantalum seventy-three is found on the moon is completely immaterial.”

Confusion spread through the room.

“I presume some of you are familiar with Project Horizon?” he continued.

The man who had spoken first asked, “You mean the research done in the late fifties? The plans to build a military base on the moon? I thought that was scrapped.”

Dr. ----- shook his head. “The base isn’t military.” He looked at the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “It’s just a research station. Isn’t that right?”

The chairman didn’t answer. He gave the man a friendly look. “It’s called DARLAH 2. It was constructed in the seventies under the name Operation DP7.”

“But why . . . in the world . . . why haven’t any of us heard of it before?”

“All information concerning DARLAH 2 was classified top secret until just recently. For security reasons.” He paused for a second, pondering whether or not he ought to say any more.

Dr. ----- beat him to it, explaining, “DARLAH 2 was built from 1974 to 1976. But the base is in the Sea of Tranquility, where, as you know,

Armstrong and Aldrin originally landed in sixty-nine. None of the other landings occurred there.”

“Why was it built?” one of the men who had been quiet up until that point asked.

“We found something,” Dr. ----- replied.

“Could you elaborate?”

“We don’t know what it is. The plan was to continue our studies and station personnel on the moon, but as you already know, after 1976 we lost most of our funding. And as I hinted, finances weren’t the only reason the moon program was terminated. The truth is that . . . what we found up there is not the type of discovery for which one receives money for further research. We would have been asked to leave it alone. So we pretended it never existed . . . and, anyway, the signal disappeared.”

“Until it showed up again last fall,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs added.

“The signal? It? What the hell is it?” one of the confused men exclaimed. Dr. ----- looked at the man who had spoken, then leaned over and pulled something out of his briefcase. He set a folder on the table and pulled out a four‑by‑six photo.

“This picture was taken on the moon by Apollo 15’s James Irwin. The astronaut in the photo is David R. Scott.”

“But . . . who’s the other person in the background?” one of the men asked.

“We don’t know.”

“You don’t know? What the hell is going on here?”

“There’s a proper time for everything, gentlemen. All the information you’re asking for will be made available once we’ve unanimously voted to proceed with the plan — which, may I remind you, the president himself is in full support of. Now, can we discuss how we’re going to explain the fact that we’ve had an unused base sitting up there for forty years without anyone finding out about it?”

“Unused? Are you trying to say that no one has ever stayed at this base before?” one of the astronauts in the room asked.

“What about the people who built it?”

“They were never inside. The modules were assembled on the surface by machines, not by people.” One of the men already on board with the plan stood up, smiling confidently: “We’ll say we’ve spent forty years testing it, “And does it?” someone else asked.

“In principal, yes,” replied the man, whose smile wasn’t quite so confident anymore.

“In principle isn’t good enough, is it?”

“It’ll have to do. We have to go back within a decade, before someone else gets there first.”

Several of the men present still seemed skeptical, if not stunned.

“But who are you going to send up there? What are they going to do?”

“The first expedition will accomplish three simple things. One: They’ll test the base and make sure it’s working the way it’s supposed to. Two: They’ll research the possibility of mining rare Earth metals that will give the United States a huge advantage in the technology manufacturing market. And three — this is the most important of all, gentlemen — they will attract media attention, which will consequently secure sufficient financial support to continue our research and . . . get rid of any potential . . . problems.”

“Problems like what?” someone asked.

Dr. ----- held his hand up in front of him as if to stop the words. “As I said, we’ll get to that. The idea is to turn the whole thing into a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the first manned mission to land on the moon. We’ll build new, improved versions of the classic Apollo program rockets from the sixties and seventies. That’s guaranteed to make people feel nostalgic.”

“But no one under the age of forty-five even remembers those Apollo missions.”

Dr. ----- waited a long time before speaking. He was a very intelligent man, and having to explain every detail to these ludicrous excuses for public figures was grating on his nerves. Fortunately, he had played this conversation out in his head many times, and he had an answer for anything they might ask, including the perfect idea for getting the entire world interested in a new mission. “Gentlemen, what if we send some teenagers up there?”

No one responded. They all just sat there, waiting, assuming he was joking.

But he wasn’t.

“You want to send kids? Why in the world would you want to put kids on the moon?” someone asked.

Dr. ----- smiled patronizingly and replied, “If we select three young people, teenagers, who get to accompany the astronauts, we’ll get a whole new generation excited about space exploration. It will be nothing less than a global sensation.”

“But . . . just a minute ago you were telling us there’s something. . .unknown up there. And none of you seem able to say what it really is or what potential consequences we’re facing. And you want to send untrained, innocent teenagers up there as, what, guinea pigs?”

“The benefits outweigh the risks,” Dr. ----- replied.

“The probability of anything happening is small in the specific area of operation, and the astronauts will have the opportunity to set up important equipment and perform the necessary studies. For the sake of simplicity, I think it’s best to look at this as two missions in one. The first — our part — is to research potential mining of tantalum seventy-three—”

“I thought you said we would not actually look for tantalum at all?”

“We won’t.” Then he went on. “The second part will be the teenagers’ mission, which will be little effort for them. The media attention will be automatic. They’ll portray this as a glamorous space version of a trip to Disneyland. And, best of all, my preliminary inquiries indicate that some major corporate sponsorship is almost guaranteed, which will likely provide the money we need for a second mission.”

“There’ll be a second mission as well?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“You want kids to go on the second one as well?” “No.”

Dr. ----- held up two thick envelopes marked top secret. “Teenagers on the moon, gentlemen, is the solution we’ve been looking for. The door opener.”

“But how will you decide who gets to go?”

Dr. ----- smiled again, even more slyly, and replied, “We’ll hold a lottery.”

From the book 172 Hours on the Moon by Johan Harstad. Copyright © 2012 by Johan Harstad. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.


  1. Let me guess … they find a stash of weapons and hear instructions that they have to kill each other until only one is left ??? 

    1. Not exactly, it’s the other way round. MacGuffinite ore contains Tantalum 37 and even traces Onobtainium.

    1. That first sentence is really Bulwer-Lytton-worthy, isn’t it? Even the archaic use of the last name “——“, which I thought had been outlawed since the Armistice. Let’s have that again:

      “Gentlemen, it’s time,” Dr. —– said, eyeing the seven some of the most powerful people in the country, together in the largest meeting room at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

      That’s some tasty cardboard, there.

      1. “poke it with a pointed stick?”

        Oooohhhhhhhhhh… Fresh fruit isn’t good enough for you eh?

  2. > “In principal, yes,” replied the man,

    I am really trying to be charitable here, but is there not even an editor?

  3. I’m afraid I have to concur with oldtaku, Erk, Jens et al. 

    The gods know that I *know* how hard it is to write good SF: I fail at it frequently.  But I’m very much afraid that this isn’t anywhere near it, or even near competent writing. 

    There are multiple cliche. There are multiple basic science and history blunders (and if anyone even *thinks* that this can be excused because it’s a YA, I’ll scream).  There is a very annoying and probably pointless withholding of information.   There is lack of proofreading.   And most of all, there is over 1500 words of exposition which completely fails to justify the initial premise.

    My apologies to Mr Harstaad.  As I said, I know how hard it is to get this stuff right.  I don’t have space here to do a gentle, supportive point-by-point (which he certainly deserves). But someone should have told him before he published.

    (If anyone considers me too harsh: I apologise; probably due to my short time as a “reader” for a publisher, when I saw a number of really good novels rejected.)

  4. Why BB forgot to mention that this is an english translation of a norwegian novel (the languages don’t cross over very well, so the book is better than it might sound quoted out of context here), is beyond me. Why not quote the (a bit more exciting) backside blurb instead? It gives more of an impression of what the book is actually about:

    “It’s been decades since anyone set foot on the moon. Now three ordinary teenagers, the winners of NASA’s unprecedented, worldwide lottery, are about to become the first young people in space–and change their lives forever.

    Mia, from Norway, hopes this will be her punk band’s ticket to fame and fortune.

    Midori believes it’s her way out of her restrained life in Japan.

    Antoine, from France, just wants to get as far away from his ex-girlfriend as possible.

    It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, but little do the teenagers know that something sinister is waiting for them on the desolate surface of the moon. And in the black vacuum of space… no one is coming to save them.

    In this chilling adventure set in the most brutal landscape known to man, highly acclaimed Norwegian novelist Johan Harstad creates a vivid and frightening world of possibilities we can only hope never come true.”(…)

    I have read this novel in norwegian and while I have to admit I’m probably older than its target group, this novel really engaged me: Not particularly because of its writing style (SF isn’t popular for its writing, but for its concepts and the ‘what if…’s it dreams up), but because it reads like a thriller and a horror story at the same time: It’s actually quite chilling, them being stranded on a deserted moonbase with strange goings-on, and a nameless evil creeping stadily closer… I read the entire book in one sitting, not because it’s a masterpiece or anything, but because it to me was a cleverly constructed psychological thriller, with a SF/horror bent. And very enjoyable, aside from the occasional ‘trying to be hip moments’ (the character Mia quoting Talking Heads). I enjoyed it a lot, and once it got me hooked, it just kept getting better…. I hope BB’s inability to show the promises of this book haven’t completely put off readers, because i think it deserves an audience, and if you can get past the bad english translation, it’s well worth reading, I think…

    (Oh, and I don’t know why the english version have changed the original title from “DARLAH: 172 hours on the moon”- Darlah being the name of the sinister moonbase in the book- to just the subtitle “172 hours on the moon”, maybe they thought it sounded better or something, but it’s a ‘lost in translation’ moment which doesn’t really make sense, or add anything else than making the book sound more childish than it really is, I wish they’d kept it…)

    1. I’m willing to grant that the original Norwegian is of course going to be better, but the synopsis you quote doesn’t make it sound that much better than what Mark provided. It sounds like the synopsis from any one of hundreds of disposable YA sci-fi novels from the 90’s – the ones so inane they did me a favor by pushing me to start reading “adult” books at a very young age. The part describing the characters reminded me of the Goosebumps series for some reason.

      To be clear: I fully believe that there’s something to the book and that it’s worth reading (to the right audience) but both the excerpt and the synopsis you quote aren’t doing it any favors. It needs better marketing material, and probably a better translation as well.

      1. It was pretty badly written in the original aswell: Lots of clunky, stilted writing… I’m not a ‘fan’ in any way, but since I honestly believes that BB’s original post (and the translators) didn’t exactly do the author any favours, I decided to raise my voice and try to give him some support, if that could help him get one more reader among the few lost souls which hadn’t already fled with the 99% of the readers already scared off by BB’s OP… (Ah, look- now *my* writing gets bad and clunky- it’s contagious! AAAAARRGGHHHH…!)

  5. I bet this book was originally just called “172 Hours” but then the publisher freaked out at the 11th hour and insisted they add “ON THE MOON!”

    1. My author buddy recommended this on facebook, and I probably would have skipped over it if it hadn’t said “ON THE MOON” in the title. I’m currently about a quarter of the way through it right now.

  6. That was some seriously terrible writing.

    (EDIT: Or some seriously terrible translation)

  7. So… this is the first time Boing Boing has failed me when it comes to SF.

    I bought this book last night and read it.   Besides the terribly wooden writing, which I guess is excusable due to being translated and all, there are literally dozens of basic factual errors.  For a start, the author was apparently unaware of the fact that a lunar day is a month long.  Then there’s the fact that it devolves into a stupid horror cliche, the nasty stereotypes plastered everywhere, the basically inexplicable ending, the fact that it spends ages building sympathy with the characters and then kills them off (in a woefully unsatisfying way, at that)…

    This book is crap and I want my ten bucks back.

  8. Why do they keep calling it tantalum 73. Is this just redundancy for the sake of sounding fancy, a misunderstanding of how isotopes are referenced, or are they really looking for an isotope with no neutrons?

  9. On the topic of translation:

    My wife is Norwegian.  For two languages that are really only separated by ~1000 years (Norman conquest of England+viking raids), the gulf between Norwegian and English is absurdly vast.

    I’ve achieved fluency in Spanish, took 16 hours of Japanese courses, and another 16 of general linguistics.

    I am having a MUCH harder time learning Norsk than I ever did with the previous two.  The subtext and subtle meanings of words eludes me far more than it ever did in Japanese.

    The sing song tones, and the changing of meaning based upon them, I doubt I will ever grasp.

    I REALLY do not envy whomever translated this work, and I suspect that much was lost in translation, resulting in this rather stale prologue.

    1. It’s not a problem with the translation, because the plot is stale and poorly implemented, the characters are laughable, and the twist at the end is horribly implemented.  I only made it to the end because I couldn’t believe BB would recommend such a terrible book, and I thought there must be something really good coming up to redeem it.  There wasn’t.

  10. This IS a novel I will buy my daughter, when she gets a little older, in both Norsk and English.

    I mean, she’ll get to compare the two and engage in critical thinking, AND I get to introduce her to Space as an interest.

  11. “Gentlemen,” Dr —– interrupted hesitatingly, “what is the Moon anyway?”  He smiled smilingly.

    The man held up a hand with five fingers.  “Several mechanisms have been proposed for the Moon’s formation 4.527 ± 0.010 billion years ago, some 30–50 million years after the origin of the Solar System.  I mean, we all knew that, but I just thought we needed some more exposition here.  Young adults are total morons, you know.”


    “Yes, it is.”

    “I agree.”

    “I do like it when we alternate between long back-and-forths and the jaw-grindingly tedious overuse of flowery adverbs.”

    Dr —- grimaced slyly, then added “I also concur with that earlier, shorter statement, and I would like to make a slightly longer statement making it clear that I’m a somewhat menacing, callous character.  Not here, where I’m speaking.  Back there, at the start, when I grimaced.  I mean, grimaced slyly.”

  12. I just finished this book, and the criticisms are accurate. I think my biggest complaint is that the foreshadowing used in many places so blatant that it’s like walking up to an old house and seeing a huge sign saying, “Don’t go in here because it’s haunted and someone will kill you if you do and you won’t survive and, just really, don’t open the door at all.  Okay?”

    And this may be due to the translation, but I was really irked at the repeated references to Talking Heads, one of the main character’s favorite bands, as “The Talking Heads.”  Ugh.  Why not The Death Cab for Cutie instead? 

    Finally, there was little acknowledgement that in 2019, things aren’t going to be quite the same, such as needing 3 700-page manuals for space training (OK, I haven’t been to space training, but maybe a little creative futurism could have made the book not seem outdated in 2012). That and the frequent use of pay phones.  Are there any left? If so, probably not in the hallway of a nursing home.

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