Sunday, November 22, 2015

Luna: New Moon - Ian McDonald

In the past few years Ian McDonald has produced three young adult novels that make up the Everness series. They're the kind of book that I wish had been around when I was in my early teens. It was quite a drastic change in direction for McDonald. His most recent adult novels are all densely plotted, beautifully written works set in near future developing economies. In his new adult novel he once again takes us in a different direction: the Moon. Luna: New Moon is the first in a duology on the colonization and industrialization of the Moon. It's a book fans of McDonald will love but also one that might frustrate readers because of the abrupt ending.

The Moon has a thousand ways to kill you but that hasn't stopped humanity from colonizing the place. Early in the 22nd century, our satellite is covered with cities, infrastructure and industrial complexes. The Moon is in effect run by five families know as the five dragons. The youngest of these, the Costas, make their money mining the helium-3 on which the earth depends to run its fusion power plants. The head of the family and founder of the company Adriana Costa is nearing her eightieth birthday and feels her time is almost up. It will be up to her children to protect family interests and keep the other four dragons at bay. The Mckenzies in particular, seem be a threat.

Luna: New Moon is a book of sharp contrasts. Society as described by McDonald is a libertarian's wet dream. There is no such thing as criminal or civil law for instance. There are only contracts and terms. Anything can be agreed upon and any breach of contract can be compensated. It creates a society with an unprecedented freedom. Sexually, pretty much everything is acceptable. Marriages are contracts like any other and can be negotiated in just about any imaginable composition. Designer drugs are freely available and just about anything else can be had for a price. It is the ultimate free market, a society with a thorough aversion to laws and limitations. It is almost as if McDoanld wanted to take a step beyond Robert A. Heinlein's classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Limited the people are though. The Moon is a harsh environment, hostile to terrestrial life in the extreme. Everybody has to purchase the four basics of life on the Moon: air, water, space and data. No money inevitably means death and with the constant consumption of these four things, the counter relentlessly moves to zero. Escape to Earth is only an option for the recently arrived. Muscles atrophy in the minimal gravity and bone mass decreases. Soon there is no way back. There is money to be made on the Moon but the personal price one pays for it is high. McDonald is constantly showing the readers the contrast between the anything goes society and the environment that demands constant attention to safety and rigorous discipline in maintaining the infrastructure to support life. Anything goes but mistakes are fatal. The most liberated society in human history is in effect a prison.

McDonald takes his interest in non-western cultures with him to this book. Of the five dragons only the Australian Mackenzies are from an English-speaking nation. Their rivals originate in Brazil, Russia, China and Ghana, making the Moon a very multicultural place. One of the ways in which the author expresses this is the use of language. His writing has always had a poetic feel to it and in this novel he enriches his English with words and phrases from Arab, Portuguese, Spanish, Yoruba, Akan and Chinese. He uses a Hawaiian system for a calendar and corporate titles are borrowed from Korean. It helps define the Moon as a place rooted in cultures from all over the world. Not everybody will appreciate the frequency with which McDonald reaches for words from other languages than English but for me it did add to the experience. At times the novel feels like McDonald is already on the path of creating a Lunar creole language.

Although McDonald is mainly interested in the struggle between the five dragons, there is a fair bit of hard science in this novel. McDonald has clearly done his research on the consequences of being exposed to vacuum or sunlight unfiltered by an ozone layer or magnetic field. Throughout the novel details on the technology that keeps people alive are worked in and the author doesn't fail to point out the consequences should this machinery break down. Transport systems and mining operations are also shown in the novel and to a lesser extent, food production and recycling systems. The Moon cannot afford to waste useful raw materials when importing them from Earth is prohibitively expensive. There's enough technical detail to make Lunar society well fleshed out but without overwhelming the story.

It is clear that Luna: New Moon is only half a story and that is probably the book's greatest weakness. McDonald needs some time to introduce his large cast and make the reader familiar with his creation. Once he has done that, the story picks up speed dramatically and moves towards a violent climax that at the same time resolves the story arc in this novel but also leaves the reader hanging to an extent. It is probably unfair to comment on it without having read the second volume but the way the first book unfolded made me wonder if it wouldn't have been better to have made it one (admittedly rather long) novel instead.

I have pretty much enjoyed everything I have read by McDonald and this novel is no exception. His exuberant writing style from his earlier novels has been tempered a bit, making his more recent books a bit more accessible. Luna: New Moon is a book that walks the fine line between exuberance and discipline both in the plot and linguistically. It is a book of sharp contrasts. Life and death are so close together that there is almost nothing between them. The moon can kill you in seconds and this razor sharp division between perishing and surviving creates a huge amount of tension in the novel. Once you are past the introductions the novel will have hooked you. McDonald shaped my vision of the moon in the way reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy did for the red planet. I don't think I can look up at it and see it quite the same way ever again.

Book Details
Title: Luna: New Moon
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 398
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7551-3
First published: 2015


  1. This sounds like a fascinating new take on the colonization of the Moon. We've come a long way from Heinlein's day, but the Moon is still a "harsh mistress".

    1. Would you believe I still haven't read the Heinlein. Maybe I should get a copy one of these days.

  2. Amazing that McDonald makes the moon real. Desolation Road, as you know, shows no interest in making Mars real. Wouldn't have thought.

    1. Yea, he has lost some of the magic along the way and moved a bit more towards realism I guess. Still gorgeous prose though.