Kim Stanley Robinson is in the middle of what will likely turn out to be the most productive period of his career. Since 2012, Robinson has pumped out one big novel per year. Running an extensive gamut of ideas and settings, 2312 took a wide angle lens to human inhabitation of the solar system; Shaman went to prehistory, took the knowledge we have of it now, and crafted what is likely Robinson’s most plot-oriented novel; Aurora juxtaposed and paralleled the problems with human existence in a generation starship with life on a polluted Earth; and New York 2140 took a drowned Earth motif and married it to macro-economics in a multi-character presentation of a flooded Big Apple. Quantity seeming to slowly catch up with quality, in 2018 Robinson released his sixth novel in six years, the lunar spy ‘thriller’, Red Moon.
Fred Fredericks has been sent by his company to the moon to deliver the other half of a quantum entangled phone. The recipient a high level Chinese official, Fredericks sees for himself first-hand the initiative with which the Chinese have developed infrastructure on Earth’s largest satellite. But quickly things get turned upside down. Fredericks in the wrong place at the wrong time, an assassination occurs that implicates him as the perpetrator. Hidden away by an underground Chinese political group in the aftermath, it isn’t long before he is discovered, and goes on the run. As unrest develops on the Earth below—cryptocurrency threatening to upset the American economic machine even as Chinese migrant workers band together against their government—Fredericks discovers he may play a larger role in humanity’s fate than he ever thought.
‘Thriller’ in quotes earlier, Red Moon is not a grab-the-edge-of-your-seat-and-hang-on type of novel. It is only taxonomically a spy thriller—a Kim Stanley Robinson version. This means tension and suspense take a backseat to the development and presentation of knowledge and ideas in the fields KSR has shown interest over the years—politics, economics, biology, sociology, and other -ologies. In the case of Red Moon, it is Chinese communist history, AI, human inhabitation of the moon, socialist political theory vs practice, proletariat uprisings, and quantum entanglement. Plot a thin glue holding these pieces together, again, Red Moon is to be read more for ideas than thrills.
Robinson not shying away from primary colors in his book titles, Red Moon is similar to yet distinct from Red Mars. Both books visions of humanity’s initial steps at building permanent habitation on Earth’s neighbors, not to mention the Earth-side politicking that would accompany any such human diaspora, Moon distinguishes itself from Mars in that it feels less like building a vision of life on another planet and more like a critique of how things currently stand on Earth, or at least appear to be headed. Robinson running with the assumption that China continues to develop and becomes the world superpower even as America drowns itself in debt and poor leadership, it remains an interesting vision for a worldview that is not America-centric. China in the crosshairs, Robinson looks at what years of oppressive political decisions might do to a populace of increasing disparities through the power of the web and AI. The titular Red thus used in terms of communism rather than soil color, Red Moon is very much a look at Chinese culture, the directions it is currently headed technologically and politically, and how these aspects could influence Earth and the moon in the future.
I am often, perhaps too often, forgiving of Robinson for info-dumping. The ideas he relates, the clear, informed intelligence guiding his stories, and the ultimate intent of envisioning a better life for humanity has always been enough to forgive a style and structure that are not the most sophisticated. Many times I have read sections of his books that appear like: “Ok, and here I’ll paraphrase the bit I researched on subject X for a couple of pages, then chase it with a bit of plot.” These info-dumps are usually wedded to narrative in reasonable enough fashion. Unfortunately in Red Moon, for whatever reason, they stuck out a bit more—not like sore thumbs as Robinson is relating interesting information, but off-putting nevertheless in terms of crossing the line between literature and edutainment.
All this being said, I’m aware that edutainment—intelligent and well-researched but edutainment nonetheless—is one of the main reasons Robinson has a legion of readers. Thus, if you’re looking for a shotgun blast of Chinese history, culture, poetry, socialism, political developments, and technological advancements, and how all those things might translate to the near future based on their current state, Red Moon will likely be material up your alley. Given how thinly stretched plot is over the thought-experimenting and theoretical bits, readers who enjoyed 2312 will likely enjoy Red Moon as well. Just don’t come looking for a tightly packaged thriller that keeps your hands over your mouth and eyes wide…