It’s a science fiction tradition so reliable, you can all but set your watch by it: another year, another Kim Stanley Robinson novel that uses a theoretical future as a mirror to examine the nature of humanity today. Just as New York 2140 made it clear we ignore climate change at our peril, and Aurora posited that we’re better off not looking to the stars to find humanity’s salvation (better to start fixing the problems we’ve made for ourselves on Earth), his latest, Red Moon, shifts the current cultural conversations about globalization and the declining influence of the western world some decades into the future, and 238,900 miles into orbit.
At the novel’s heart is a triad of unlikely companions whose paths converge after a Chinese diplomat is murdered on the colonized moon. American scientist Fred Fredericks is forced into hiding after being framed for the murder, which is how he meets Chan Qi, the daughter of a powerful politician vying for power in China during a period of economic and cultural uncertainty. Their unlikely ally is Ta Shu, a retired poet and television travel personality who is caught up in the tide of events, and may be the only one who can keep Qi and Fredericks alive.
The title is deliberately evocative of Robinson’s best known work, Red Mars—another colonization story—but that turns out to be something of a red herring. Rather than offering a meticulous account of humanity’s first efforts to colonize and terraform the moon, Red Moon is instead a fast-paced near-future thriller, flitting back and forth between Chinese and US bases on the moon and Earth. If you go in with expectations of what a Kim Stanley Robinson novel should be, it might feels somewhat like a bait and switch. So forget your expectations: this is an excellent novel, and it even manages to cover most all of Robinson’s trademarks.
The author is known for his heady worldbuilding, labyrinthine politics, and carefully reasoned social commentary (all here), but he also writes darn good characters, and he shows off that talent especially well in Red Moon. Qi and Fred are about as different as two people can be—the latter, passive and naive; the former, experienced, hardened, and determined. Robinson constantly plays one of them against the other, and the results are believable, and a lot of fun. Qi is pregnant, which offers a nice twist to an otherwise conventional political thriller plot; it affects her in ways that specifically limit her strengths and require Fred to step up physically, which is not exactly his forte. Over the course of the novel, they form an uneasy partnership, changing, evolving, and learning from one another. As with any odd couple, there is a lot of opportunity for humor as they attempt to reconcile their differences during quiet and explosive moments alike. Ta Shu flits in and out of their storyline, leaving little time for true relationships to develop between him and them, but his personal journey, brought to emotional life by his poetry, bits of which are scattered through the novel, is satisfying in its own way. Many of the book’s most profound political and social thoughts come from Ta Shu as he considers the changing political and social landscape on Earth and the Moon.
One of Robinson’s great gifts as a writer is his ability to project stories of personal conflict and growth across a canvas of wildly big speculative ideas: colonizing and terraforming Mars; traveling on a generation ship to a far off star system; following a soul reincarnated through the ages; weighing the competing influences of science and belief on the arc of human history. The experience of reading one of his novels is akin to pondering what it will mean to be a human in the future (or the past), and today—how things change, and how they stay the same, no matter where we are in the galaxy, or which period of human history we exist in.
Robinson shows us life in worlds very different from the one we occupy, and then invites us to notice that humans tend to be just as flawed, and imperfect, and admirable, and brave in all of them. Red Moon had me contemplating modern life in a most unexpected way. Of course, Qi, Fred, and Ta Shu live in a near future where humans have settled on the moon—though it is still something of a wild west—but the socio-political and personal crises they navigate there are achingly relevant to our own times: cultural and financial revolution. The emergence of blockchain currencies as a disruptive force to the world economy. High-tech warfare. Disinformation campaigns. Chan Qi wields tremendous political clout, and becomes the figurehead for a revolution, but remains trapped by the machinations of a culture that seeks to oppress women.
Red Moon is another wonderful Kim Stanley Robinson novel, and all that implies. If it lacks the scope of some of his earlier works, it more than makes up for it with the ambitiousness of its themes, its breakneck pace, and its thoughtful examination of the way societies evolve organically during times of upheaval.
If Andy Weir’s Artemis showed us the perils of surviving on the moon. Red Moon takes it one step beyond, showing us the uncertainly that comes from powerful competing interests vying for control of a new resource—even one that’s been staring us in the face for at least as long as we’ve been around to look up at the sky, and wonder.
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