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Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson


I have a review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s most recent novel, Red Moon, at Strange Horizons today. I think Robinson is one of the most important writers working in SF right now. His emphasis how systems, both natural and manmade, impact societies are some of the most complete and thought-out in the genre (it was a major inspiration for A Political History of the Future). And his visions of a future in which ordinary people manage to wrest control of those systems from corporate interests and unrepresentative government is deeply galvanizing, precisely because he’s so clear-eyed about the mess we’re currently in.

So it was a profound disappointment when Red Moon turned out to be such a dud, bouncing between too many ideas and failing to make a persuasive argument for any of them. Plus, as it turns out, it’s not even really about the moon.

One character after another finally comes to the conclusion that Earth’s satellite can’t be the answer. “The moon isn’t good for anything” (p. 241) is the verdict of one of its long-term denizens, and Ta Shu repeatedly observes that the moon is an “anti-Earth” (p. 81) where the necessities of human society can’t exist, and where meaningful change and progress towards a better world can’t occur. The novel even makes sure to ding the common SFnal fantasy about Helium-3 being the panacea that solves all of humanity’s energy shortages, with a scene in which a pair of prospectors are mocked for failing to grasp the inefficiency of their proposed solution for mining it.

This is a device similar to the one Robinson deployed to such great effect in Aurora. In that novel, the idea of the generation ship, so central to much SFnal worldbuilding, was depicted as a dangerous fantasy, barely survivable for its inhabitants and the future generations forced to live in it. The idea of finding alien worlds where humans could live safely and prosperously turned out to be not just misguided in its own right, but a dangerous distraction from the vital work of preserving the one habitat humans are actually suited to. Red Moon seems to be aiming at the same conclusion when it treats the moon as, at best, a means to an end, and at worst, a dangerous trap to be escaped—as in its final sequence, in which Fred and Qi desperately try to stay ahead of Red Spear’s assassination attempts, frantically fleeing from one lunar shelter to another as they try to reach an automated shuttle that will carry them back to Earth and safety.

The problem is that unlike Aurora, which took its entire, languorous length to make its point, Red Moon has so many other things to do that its conclusion about the moon ends up getting lost in the shuffle. Even worse, so much of what the novel wants to be about turns up in its last hundred pages, so that by the time we turn the last page it feels as if the story we finished was completely different to the one we started. Suddenly it becomes important that throughout the novel’s events, there has been a “householders’ protest” in the US in which citizens have manufactured a run on the banks, forcing the government to nationalize them. Suddenly we are introduced to the concept of “carboncoin,” a cryptocurrency “created by a confirmable history of carbon drawdown or equivalent environmental actions, valid for subsistence spending only” (pp. 374-5) into which many Americans are allegedly converting their life savings. Or “blockchain governance,” a system in which “everyone [participates] in some kind of global governance, in which every action legal and financial would be completely documented, and recorded and secured publicly step by step and law by law” (p. 375). Suddenly, near the close of a novel concerned with things like whether China should be governed by the party or by the rule of law, we’re led to believe that the real revolution is the “takeback of [the US] federal government from global finance” (p. 363)—a force whose impact in China is apparently negligible or nonexistent, for all that it has featured in the novel until this point.

There are deeper issues running through the novel, like the way it purports to offer Western readers a potted history of the development of Chinese political philosophy in the 20th and 21st centuries that feels, even to a complete neophyte like myself, extremely reductive and slanted towards the requirements of Robinson’s plot. As I write towards the end of the review, Red Moon is probably the first novel Robinson wrote during the Trump administration (New York 2140 was published in the spring of 2017 but was presumably mostly in the can before Trump took office) and you can feel it strain against the problems that Trumpism has exacerbated and brought to light. The idea that we can solve the problems of our society with greater transparency and by sticking it to Wall Street doesn’t hold much water in a world in which a large chunk of the voting population seems fine with putting children in cages. I’ve said many times that Robinson is a vital writer for our present moment, but he has blind spots that make his analysis and visions of the future insufficient, and Red Moon is a prime example of those flaws.

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