Monday, July 3, 2017

Review of The Moon and the Other by John Kessel

In the culture wars of the contemporary era, it’s fair to say gender is one of, if not the top subject inciting discussion, criticism, and (inevitably) argument.  From ultra-conservatives to ultra-liberals, the netwaves are awash with facts, opinions, and all manner of material between.  In these wars, it is the blessed privilege of science fiction to actually play out imagined gendered scenarios. From mature efforts like Margaret Atwood’s brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale to less mature (i.e. zeitgeist) works like Naomi Aldeman’s The Power, Suzee McKee Charnas’ challenging Walk to the End of the World to Theodore Sturgeon’s broad-minded Venus Plus X, James Tiptree Jr.’s paranoid yet intelligent ouevre to Aliya Whiteley’s childishly rebellious The Arrival of the Missives, experimenting with gender and gender interrelations has become a sub-genre unto itself—it still can’t compete with military sf or space opera, those bastions of traditionalism, but nevertheless…  Throwing his business card into the gendered sf hat is John Kessel and his matriarchal though male oriented thought experiment, The Moon and the Other (2017). 

Only adding to the idea that sf novels set on the moon currently are in vogue, The Moon and the Other takes advantage of its lunar setting to re-imagine society.  A scattering of colonies and settlements pockmarking the surface, all feature variations of patriarchal societies similar to those we have on Earth, particularly the biggest, richest colony of Perseopolis and Cyrus, it’s leader, who wants to recapture Persian glory of old.  But one colony is organized along different societal lines, the Society of Cousins.  A matriarchal society, men and women mix freely in the society, but men’s rights are limited in terms of child custody, voting, and the ability to organize into groups or political parties.  Men can be scientists, judges, even serve as members of political boards, but are kept in relative isolation as outright male authority and male-only groups are hindered.  Instead, sexual capability, leisurely pursuits, sports, and other non-politically invasive habits are heavily promoted within the male community by the cousins, and as a result, most men take the easy route of pampering and (relative) celebrity.

While a number of characters occupy significant position in the novel, the majority focuses on a pair of males, Erno and Carey.  Outcast from the Society of Cousins for political subversion and rebellious behavior, Erno has spent ten years finding odd jobs around the other lunar colonies, and is currently on a mining crew in Perseopolis.  Learning Persian through old poetry, he simmers in angst in bars at night all the while honing his ambitions in the day.  It’s a chance disaster in the mines that has major consequences for his career and future.  Carey is celebrated male among the Society of Cousins.  A lover of many women and an excellent sportsman, his image adorns many walls, and he has been claimed as a trophy lover by many women.  But what he is most well known for is going into hiding as a teenager and writing La Lune L’Autre—a romanticized book describing the life of men in the Society.  But with age and fatherhood have come new desires, particularly custody of his son.  Perseopolis catching wind of his goals, a media storm is started, and the moon focus shifts to see how the Society of Cousins will resolve the issue. 

From the beginning, it’s important to point out that The Moon and the Other is not a utopia.  Kessel has no interest in portraying the Cousins as a perfect society.  Rather, he appears to be trying to find a way of presenting a matriarchy that adheres strongly to human realities.  And it is mostly a success.  The reader can feel that the Society is somewhat contrived, but at the same time, it’s been designed in such gray fashion to make accepting its changes to patriarchal society easy to accept for the reader.  By contrast, the gender-reversal premises in novels like Naomi Aldeman’s The Power feel positively cheap and gimmicky.  Essentially treated like pop stars by the matriarchs, I can easily imagine Carey and many other males being willing to give up voting rights and parenthood if it means they have more time for sports, sex, hobbies and other personal pursuits.   Of course, not every male is satisfied by this, and it’s there that the main tension—the realistic anchor—to Kessel’s imagained scenario achieves its non-utopianism. 

This (semi) middle road allows Kessel to achieve another significant aspect: The Moon and the Other is not a preachy novel.  Unlike a lot of contemporary gendered novels which seem hell bent on pounding square pegs into circular holes just to go against the patriarchal grain, Kessel attempts to go beyond simple reaction and question why the circular hole is there to begin with.  When I read novel’s like Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire which features women in positions of power physically abusing their husbands just to stick a middle finger up at the world, I question how progressive such stories actually are.  In order to truly attempt to resolve the gender issues we face, it’s necessary to look beyond, and Kessel does precisely that through his thought experiment.

The inclusion of uplifted animals in The Moon and the Other is a very interesting decision.  Sirius the Doberman Pinscher, essentially the Geraldo Rivera of Perseopolis television, adds layers to the novel certainly unavailable to a human cast only.  On one hand Sirius’ role in the novel is a bit of a cop out on Kessel’s part (i.e. a way to assign blame that transcends gender), but on the other, the aggressive canine adds a layer of quiet menace that nicely contrasts with the Society of Cousins’ more detached facade.  And if nothing else, Kessel at least treats the inclusion of an intelligent dog with seriousness.

But while The Moon and the Other experiments with matriarchy, the center point, though fully capable of being appreciated by both genders, appears settled on men.  From the reversal of societal position in the Society to the majority of the narrative focusing on Erno and Carey, Kessel seems intent on examining aspects of masculinity which lead to some problems we face in society, and what, if anything might be done to curb those tendencies.  This is certainly not to say Kessel is a male feminist, rather than there is a rationality present that understands male nature even as it searches for acceptable ground that looks beyond those propensities.

In the end, The Moon and the Other, while perhaps a bit trifle in the inclusion of two of its traditional sf elements (animal uplifting and matter replication), remains a thought-provoking novel that makes a mature contribution to contemporary gender discussion.  A well-designed if not occasionally contrived thought-experiment (one can sometimes feel Kessel guiding the story the way he wants, rather than via characters or setting), but the depth and importance of the underlying subject matter easily trumps this, particularly the manner in which Kessel develops his idea.  Some readers might argue that Kessel does nothing to present the ill side of femininity (yes, it exists), but I think it’s fair to argue the novel’s focus is elsewhere.  All in all, a book to go on my shortlist for 2017’s sf novels of the year.


  1. This is a fair summation, I think.

    The two big SF tropes perform a load of 'story-work'. But they do feel like they wandered straight into the novel from out of the 'smart SF writer's canon' -- the matter replicator and its applications in the realm of human identity from Budrys's ROGUE MOON, and the uplifted dog and its questionable psychological state from Sterling's HOLY FIRE. That said, Kessel deploys them nicely while staying in his characters' heads in a way that one wishes more SF writers were capable of.

    1. I understand Sirius' inclusion in the novel. It wasn't absolutely necessary, but as I mentioned it adds a fine degree of quiet menace to the aggressive side. The matter replicator, however, I struggle to locate with any meaning in the narrative...

      Although I consider this the weakest of Kessel's novels, I still wish he would write more as a 'weak' novel from him is still miles more intelligent than the majority of fluff on the market...

    2. 'The matter replicator, however, I struggle to locate with any meaning in the narrative...'

      I'm more forgiving of it than you. It works adequately both as the necessary McGuffin -- the Maltese Falcon-like scientific secret that everybody wants and that will change everything -- and as a plot-hinge that deepens Carey's back-story.

      '...a 'weak' novel from (Kessel)is still miles more intelligent than the majority of fluff on the market....

      Oh, for sure.

  2. Thanks, Jesse, for the intelligent engagement with the gender issues of my novel. I appreciate your even-handedness.

    And along the lines of my writing more, I will have another novel out in February 2018. PRIDE AND PROMETHEUS from Simon & Schuster.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, John. I wrote a lot of words, but in short it really is a good novel, and one of the best for me so far in 2017.

      I've read the original novella rendering of "Pride and Prometheus", and based on that am really looking forward to an expanded version. There are not a lot of novellas extended these days, but if I remember correctly, that is one with the capacity. Looking forward to it. :)