Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Moon

Cover of Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson“People say all kinds of stupid stuff!”
“Yes, but after people say stupid stuff, they do stupid stuff. That’s how history happens. […]

I’ve written about Kim Stanley Robinson before, in reviewing his New York 2140 and Green Earth. Like Green Earth before it, the title of Red Moon seems to be a nod towards the Mars trilogy for which Robinson is most famous—Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. The story is set largely upon a near-future moon (in the year 2047, to be exact), which has been colonized primarily by the Chinese, who occupy a sprawling complex of bases at the moon’s south pole. There, they exploit both the continuous daylight available on mountain tops in that region, and the ice deposits present on permanently shadowed crater floors. Other nations have concentrated their bases around the north pole, where they exploit similar resources.

So what’s red about the moon in Robinson’s new novel? A couple of things. There’s a leftist Chinese revolt instigated from the lunar surface, and a shadowy Chinese military organization called Red Spear, who are interfering in the politics of the lunar colonies. And at one point a literal red moon, as observers on the moon watch the Earth move in front of the sun:

Eclipses were fairly common on the moon, Valerie and John were told. The red annular band surrounding the Earth was sunlight bending through the atmosphere; this phenomenon explained why people looking up at a lunar eclipse saw the moon turn a dusky red.
And indeed the land around them was now that same colour. When they finally looked down from the mesmerizing sight of the red ring in the sky, they saw that the land around them had turned both dark and distinctly red. It was somewhat like the color of a red sunset on Earth, but darker and more intense, a subtly shifting array of dim blackish reds, all coated by a dusty copper sheen.

Like all Robinson’s novels, this one is intensely political. Factions within the Chinese government jockey for power with each other, and China also exploits the economic weakness of the United States, which is undergoing the financial consequences of a mass debt default similar to the one that formed a plot element in his novel New York 2140.

Two characters are caught up in the middle of this geopolitical storm—Fred Fredericks, an American technician tasked with delivering a secure quantum communication device to the Chinese Lunar Authority, who ends up being accused of murder; and Chan Qi, a would-be revolutionary who is also the privileged daughter of a senior Chinese politician, and who has become illegally pregnant while on the moon. Both become political pawns, hunted by multiple factions within the Chinese government.

Also involved is Ta Shu, a Chinese poet, broadcaster and feng shui expert, whom we previously encountered in Robinson’s 1997 novel, Antarctica, and whose gentle enthusiasm here pervades Robinson’s loving descriptions of the moon. And on Earth, an unnamed systems analyst tracks the movements and allegiances of both the plotters and the pawns, with the aid of an Artificial Intelligence he is gently cajoling towards more human behaviour patterns.

So it’s complicated and many-layered, like all Robinson’s novels. And, again like all Robinson’s novels, the plot is diffuse—meandering off into translated poetry, dissertations on the history of China, the nature of power and the nature of money. Fredericks and Chan flee to the Earth and then back to the moon, and are handed off among various factions. Between tense chase sequences, they have meditative political discussions. So, as usual, if you like Robinson, you’ll like this. If you don’t like Robinson, he will as usual drive you daft with frustration.

Fredericks and Chan make an interesting pair, in a way that is almost a Robinson signature—polar opposites in many ways, forced together by circumstances, they learn from each other, grow to respect each other, and finally have to rely on each other. By the end of the novel, when they struggle to survive on the lunar surface, we have a deep sympathy for them and for their mutual bond.

Robinson’s near-future China is a believable extrapolation from the present day, its citizens surveilled by a “balkanized panopticon”—constantly monitored and rated for their social credit score, but by so many disparate organizations that no big picture of an individual can easily emerge. In order to circumvent the key-phrase trackers of the Great Firewall, Chinese netizens are forced towards ever more elaborate circumlocutions, prefigured today by the Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon. For instance, the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989, known in China as the June 4th Incident, is referred to as “July 339th”. (Robinson here seems to be implying an escalating series of blocked key-phrases and subversive counter-phrases, beginning with “May 35th”.)

Unlike most writers, Robinson never lets his characters or his readers forget that they are on the moon. The one-sixth gravity of the moon is ever-present in the narrative, influencing how his characters walk around, how they flee down a flight of stairs, and how they dance. (One of Robinson’s hypnotic set pieces in this novel is a description of an impromptu low-gravity dance to the music of Philip Glass’s opera, Satyagraha.)

As usual, he coins some words without explaining them (another thing that drives his critics wild):

“A big solar storm is coming,” Xuanzang replied, looking unhappy. “[…] The plasma’s coming at us fast. It’ll hit in about a half hour. We’re going to have to do a swanwick.”
“What’s that?”
“We have to suit up and get under the rover. Storm that big, we need all the protection we can get. […]

Do a swanwick? It’s a fairly obscure reference to Michael Swanwick’s 1991 novella, “Griffin’s Egg”, in which the protagonist does something similar.

I always enjoy reading Robinson, but felt this one was even less focussed than most—certainly not a good gateway novel if you want to try him out. And there are a couple of infelicities that make this one feel like a slightly rushed job. Some events fundamental to the story’s progression (an election, an incarceration) happen “off screen” in a way that feels jarring. Robinson treats the Latin word mare (the technical term for a lunar lava plain) as if it’s a plural noun—the plural is maria. And Pete Conrad’s first words on stepping off the Apollo 12 Lunar Module on to the lunar surface (“Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”) are wrongly attributed to Buzz Aldrin.

But then again … it’s typical of Robinson that I’m not sure whether he made a mistake, or his character made a mistake when telling the anecdote—the same character tells a spurious tall story about the origin of Aldrin’s nickname.

And I’m also not sure about the intention of the ending—the novel’s final scene and last words could either be a fitting ending to a stand-alone story, or herald a sequel. Either way, I’m cool with it.

6 thoughts on “Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Moon”

  1. Thanks for the interesting review. While Robinson is not my favourite writer I have enjoyed a number, but not all, of his works. I suppose I am not alone in liking the Mars trilogy best.

    It will be a fair while before this novel will appear in our local library system as unfortunately, from my point of view at least, Fantasy works seem to take precedence over SF in their acquisition programme.

    1. Yes, the F & SF section of my local bookshop is gradually filling up with novels featuring some combination of dragons, swords and magic on their covers. Add to that the burgeoning space-adventure franchises (Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who), and there doesn’t seem to be much room left for hard and literary SF.

  2. Copied Swanwick on your “do a Swanwick” bit….

    Nice review, thanks. Though KSR is hit or miss for me. Or, as Chairman Bruce once opined:
    “I think every young SF writer today should study [Kim Stanley Robinson’s] accomplishments closely, and decide for themselves what they can’t stand about him.” — Bruce Sterling,
    http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/intbs.htm

    1. It must be so tiring being Bruce Sterling. Who has the energy for so much disapproval?
      But that’s an interesting interview – thanks for the link!

      1. > It must be so tiring being Bruce Sterling.

        Well, I think he has mellowed over the many years since that interview. Nick Gevers (another friend) does a good job. I couldn’t find a date, but a cursory glance puts it at circa “Distraction” — whenever that was. Ah, “Interviewing Sterling by e-mail in January 2000….”

        I did enjoy the “Cheap Truth” fanzine that he put out in the late Mesozoic. As “Vincent Omniveritas”, a nice touch. Oh, plus “Sue Denim” for Lewis Shiner. “R.U. Sirius was someone else. Ah, youth!

        “I live in a country which had a failed coup d’etat over a guy getting a blow-job. It’s really hard to stop laughing at this.” — Bruce Sterling

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