Friday, January 20, 2017

Review of Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

Arthur C. Clarke’s 1955 Earthlight is a Silver Age classic. A light spy thriller plot draped over descriptions of what life on the moon might be like, for as subtle (save the fireworks of the conclusion) as the storytelling is, the novel builds most of its bulk in describing monorails, sports in light gravity, underground mining operations, and other potential aspects of life on the moon. Taking the lunar baton and running with it a half century later is Ian McDonald’s 2015 Luna: New Moon. Oh, and plot comes a lot more enhanced…

McDonald himself dubbing the novel “Game of Domes“, I must admit Luna: New Moon is the best space opera I’ve read since Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (30 years later!!), not to mention a perfect three-word elevator pitch. Starks, Greyjoys, and Lannisters set aside, McDonald populates his moon with Cortas, Mackenzies, Suns, Asamoahs, and Vrontsovs—five families which have industrialized Earth’s largest satellite and settled into their own pitch and heave of feuds and competition. Called the five dragons, the novel is told largely from the perspective of the Cortas family, as their main rivals, the Mackenzies, try to stay one step ahead in the game of resource control, technology, and naturally (this is space opera), power.

The heroic and tragic, lovable and hateable, high-born and low, drama, betrayal, duels, and dynasty, and a haunting sense of claustrophobia living in modules beneath the surface—these are (unsurprisingly) the dichotomies and cornerstones of Luna: New Moon. For the reader looking for high-octane, utterly entertaining science fiction in the post-modern era, read no further. This is it. As with any good opera, the novel is focused on the characters and their dynamics. Ensuring their lives are brimming with drama is the ultra-capitalist economy and the corporate cheap shots that come in tow, not to mention the inter-dragon marriages intended to strengthen and stabilize relationships but which seem to do anything but. When marriage is nothing but a contract, relationships get complicated—daytime tv style.

Extremely diverse, from sexual orientation to ethnicity, vernacular to religion, McDonald takes nothing for granted in Luna. Words taken from non-English languages scatter the text, relationships care not whether hetero or homo, not one of the five dragons is American or British, and the characters, while naturally focused on the aristocracy of the scene, nevertheless draw in people from all levels of lunar existence. Most importantly, perhaps, Luna is not a novel that calls out its own multi-culti persona. McDonald blends all of it seamlessly into the narrative. But I suppose his moon the next “America”, it’s only natural such diversity exists.

The novel’s style fresh and vivid, Luna: New Moon is full but not overloaded with details of lunar life. But where Clarke focused on details of what life on the moon might be like, McDonald uses it as a springboard for his characters and the social structure they are a part of. As a rite of passage, for example, the dragons’ children are required to run a gauntlet: naked from one airlock to another through bare lunar atmosphere. Wasting not a moment, the savagery of the sprint is relayed in relative detail. In another example, the tubes and tunnels where most of the humans live are dependent on air and water infrastructure like nowhere else on Earth, and given the lunar economy setup, are something the average citizen can see dwindling in their HUD. Along with laying bare the exigencies of life, it likewise gives McDonald a chance for some real dirty play (natch). At least for the harsh details of daily life, Luna might be compared to Robinson’s Mars trilogy (just make sure you strip away all of Robinson’s political, social, environmental, and personal agendas).

While I’m a bit disappointed the novel firmly establishes a trend in McDonald’s career as a more mainstream writer of science fiction (I prefer his earlier, more experimental, more humanist work, e.g. Necroville, King of Morning, Queen of Day, Desolation Road, etc.), I cannot begrudge the man a career, nor deny that Luna: New Moon is rock-n-roll science fiction - full volume, compulsive reading. There is some gender and sexuality diversity thrown in to appease the social justice crowd (how easily most are appeased by such scraps), but all in all this is full-on moon opera for the 21st century: gritty unlike Arthur C. Clarke and the other fathers of contemporary sf ever dreamed.


  1. About time you read this one too ;) I'm already looking forward to the second volume. I just loved the language he uses in this book. McDonald could probably invent a Luna pidgin on his own.

    1. I have to admit I also am looking ahead to the concluding volume. That being said, I hope McDonald goes back to writing material a bit less familiar for his next project. Maybe another Mars novel? Maybe something completely new?

    2. Probably something new. He went from near future Turkey to young adult sf to the moon in the past few years. I doubt he'll stick with epic fantasy in space.