Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald
The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
This has been a week of podcasts with one recorded and published on the weekend (Coode Street Roundtable episode 2) and an episode of Shooting The Poo recorded Thursday night. On Saturday Kirstyn and I will be recording a new episode of The Writer and the Critic. I seriously do love to talk…
Anyway, this weeks review:
I’m always a little nervous when a novel begins with a “cast of characters” that runs to three pages. I know it’s there to help the reader keep track of who is who – and in the case of Luna: New Moon their political allegiances – but I also find it foreshadows a book flooded with names and people that I won’t end up giving a shit about. And this is putting aside the fact that in the day of the e-reader it’s difficult to keep flipping forward and back as a character we haven’t seen for 200 pages suddenly pops their head back into the narrative to do or say something important. The point is Luna: New Moon and I didn’t get off on the right foot. But after a bit of glaring and side-eye and a wrestle with the first twenty or so pages I discovered that not only was I enjoying the novel but that the cast of characters wasn’t really needed at all. If Luna has one clear strength – and I think it has more than one – it’s that the characters, even those who play a small role in the proceedings, are all well drawn and easy to distinguish.
McDonald achieves this by cleverly readapting some well-worn clichés. While there are five families (or Dragons) that run the moon – each one providing a particular service or commodity, whether it’s the mining of rare metals or building and administering all transport on Luna – McDonald’s focus is on the Corta family. The 80 year old matriarch, Adriana Corta, came to the moon 50 years previously where through moxy, stubbornness, and hard, hard work, discovered an untapped source of energy, Helium 3 which could be used to power the moon but also, and most importantly, sell to Earth as a cheap source of energy. It’s with the Corta family that McDonald relies on cliché to clearly distinguish between Adriana, her 5 children, their wives, lovers and grandchildren. In particular, with Adriana we have the aging matriarch desperate to uphold her legacy and with the children we have the passionate but fickle older brother who runs the business, the devious and manipulative second brother who is looking at ways of taking control, the good natured one that everybody likes, the black sheep… or wolf… in the family and a sister who never joined the business and is instead a famous high priced lawyer. In addition we have the patriarch of the MacKenzie family, Robert, a 100 year old man, kept alive by technology, who is pure evil in a mustache twirling, Baron Harkonnen sort of way (and is an Aussie to boot!) The point is while there’s a great deal of cultural diversity on the moon, you’ll find something very familiar about the cast of characters.
But McDonald takes these clichés and rather than subvert them he uses the familiar as a foundation. While Ariel Corta might be a bitchy, in your face lawyer to begin with – including all the problematic gender issues this implies – by the end of the novel we see her as a strong-willed and empowered individual. It’s not that Ariel goes through a transformation it’s that we see another, more layered side of her character. And what brings that aspect of her out, similarly with her siblings and her mother, is that each Corta has a confessor, whether it’s a religious leader they’ve known for decades or a woman they’ve met in a bar. The best example of this, and by far the strongest aspect of the book is Adriana’s literal confession to the head of a religious order. It’s essentially a novella embedded into the narrative; her story of how she made her fortune, how she became the Queen of Helium. And it is extraordinary stuff, filled with love and loss and struggles against a devious enemy and moments of genuine tension as everything seems lost – even though we know the outcome, even though we know she succeeds. This confession in particular puts the entire Corta family and the actions of the Five Dragons – their feuds and hatreds – into perspective.
The novel has other strengths. It explores issues of privilege – which you’d expect given that most of the characters are rich beyond the dreams of avarice – and sexuality. One of the nice aspects of McDonald’s moon is that gender and sex is taken for granted, meaning that no-one blinks an eye to someone who identifies as bisexual, asexual or intersex. Unfortunately it does lead to some awkwardly written sex scenes, especially one involving a dildo and anal beads that had me rolling my eyes. That scene alone should be a contender for the 24th annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award.
Overall though I really enjoyed Luna: New Moon. It’s a pot boiler with larger than life characters and a slew of betrayals, back-stabbing and comeuppances. And it’s abundantly clear that McDonald is having a great deal of fun turning up the melodrama dial to 12. I can see why the book and the duology has been bought by CBS. If they’re even remotely faithful to the novel they’ll have one cracker of a show.