I don’t care what happens to these characters

Luna: New Moon — Ian McDonald


I knew before opening this book that it was unlikely to please me (I will explain why later). I probably would have avoided reviewing 2015’s Luna: New Moon (unless paid) … except that Tor went to the trouble of sending me a copy. I am torn between

1) ignoring what Tor clearly hopes is going to be a popular novel, one they spent money to send me, and

2) giving a full and frank account of what I actually think about it.

It’s not clear which would be worse from Tor’s point of view. Still, as Roscoe Arbuckle might have said “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” And it’s not like me panning The Wind Up Girl had any negative effect on its sales.

Luna: New Moon reminds me of Robinson’s 2312 in a number of ways, none of them positive. I have the same sense that this is one of those books fated to be widely praised as a brilliant work of hard science fiction, whereas I will be once again reprising my role as Tolstoy in Nobody Cares Why You Hate Shakespeare, Leo.

In the dismal world of tomorrow, powerful automation has eliminated the middle class, leaving only the hyper-rich and legions of the desperate poor. On the Moon it is worse, because on the Moon even breathing can become too expensive for the lower orders. If someone has not had the foresight to be born into one of the Five Dragons (the MacKenzies, the Suns, the Cortas, the Asamoahs, and the Vorontsovs), the clans who dominate the Lunar economy, then the best bet is to somehow attach oneself to a patron well placed in one of the Five Dragons.

This is the route poverty-stricken Marina Calzaghe takes, earning herself a spot with the Cortas by being in the right place at the right time to save Raphael Corta from an assassination attempt. Go Marina! Except that what she cannot know is that the Moon’s libertarian-aristocratic system is about to transition from grudging alliances held together with arranged marriages to open warfare. And she’s joined the losing side.

The Cortas have a history with the MacKenzies that goes back to the days when their founder greatly offended the MacKenzies by successfully exploiting a waste product of the MacKenzies’ mining operations—helium three!—to become the lords of energy supply on Earth. Like all Scots, the MacKenzies love to nurse grudges. Now, it seems, they’ve finally decided the time is right to take revenge on the hot-blooded Brazilians for that inconsiderate success!

Or at least, that seems to be what’s going on. It could be that there are other factions on the Moon who take a longer view than the others, subtle Machiavellians who have figured out how to nobble rivals by instigating a seemingly unnecessary, destructive war.


I am not going to spoil this novel by telling you who the subtle masterminds of the Moon are. Well, a few hints. I don’t think I’ve read a novel in which the masters of long term planning were Russians, at least not since the Soviet Union caught fire and sank into the swamp. I don’t think I have ever read a book in which it was Ghanaians. And of course since the MacKenzies and the Cortas are the pawns in this scheme, it’s not likely to be either of them….

Another wee hint (or possibly misdirection): this book does have a hubristic sorority, the Sisterhood of the Lords of Now. Like the Bene Gesserit, they have grandiose plans (covering a period about as long as the history of agriculture). You go girls, for sustained ambition! While it does seem unlikely they can possibly stay on mission for ten thousand years (given that nobody ever has), maybe they will be the first!

This book irritates me because it seems as if McDonald set out to collect and rearrange all the tropes I loath in modern fantasy and science fiction. Well, and there’s also the horrible but also utterly conventional world-building—maybe we should start with that:

First of all, as previously established, I am very skeptical about the viability of lunar helium-three. I will grant that in this case, it seems to started off as a waste product of mining for other materials on the Moon (which, sadly, only prompts the query “does it make sense to mine the Moon for other stuff?”, a question whose answer is generally “no”1). Secondly, given the long track record of people nattering about lunar helium-three as a fusion fuel, how likely it is the MacKenzies would overlook the sales potential of that particular waste product?

Not to mention that there are lots of alternatives to helium-three that are easier to acquire and fuse, and some of which are more aneutronic than fusing D+3He. But the idea of sifting the Moon for helium-three has become one of the bits of furniture SF authors like use as set decoration without stopping to consider if they make a jot of sense. Why, it’s as central to SF as repudiating every Enlightenment value in favour of older, more exploitative social models.

Speaking of which…

The backstory, that the coming robopocalypse will come not as killer robots

but as handy machines who can do every possible job better than humans2, is a perfectly reasonable one. It does raise the question “if robots are so good, why the heck are there over a million people working on the Moon, a very harsh environment and one place where you’d think machines would enjoy a decisive advantage over humans.” I think there is a perfectly reasonable answer to that question: the poors are there so that the Dragons have someone to boss and humiliate3. Forcing the poors risk their lives in unpleasant, dangerous jobs just makes being rich that much sweeter.

There’s indirect evidence for this: one of the bulk waste products from mining on the Moon would be oxygen (because the stuff we’d want is chemically bound to oxygen, as hinted as in the chart in footnote one). There’s no reason air needs to be something poor people worry about not being able to afford. No reason except spite.

This gets me to the real issue I have with this novel, which is that I fundamentally don’t care what happens to any of the members of the oligarchic classes, unless by some chance it involves a workers’ uprising, public trials, nationalizing the means of production, and the former rich reduced to hand-weeding a Lunar raspberry garden. Sure, it’s kinda sad that they get roped into loveless marriages for dynastic reasons, but so what? This is something the rich did to themselves, as part of their effort to keep their collective boot on the throat of humanity forever. And much the same goes for the bloody dynastic squabble that begins in this novel: the only downside of drastically thinning out the aristocratic herd is that legions of their unfortunate peons will die with them.

Basically: fuck these guys, is what I say.

Luna: New Moon is available from Tor. Past experience suggests everyone will love it more than I did.

1: Lunar regolith and terrestrial crust are broadly similar in composition:

ElementRegolithEarth’s Crust
Sodium — 2.8%
Potassium — 2.6%

But the Earth has geological processes which concentrate useful materials, processes that the Moon appears to lack.

(I’m ignoring using lunar resources to make chemical rocket fuel that isn’t 10 km/s away from orbit.)

2. The one job that machines cannot do is be a cruel plutocrat. That’s why humans are still needed.

3. Sorry, there are two jobs machines cannot do: they also cannot be starving, desperate masses. Well, not until someone figures out how to automate desperation and fear.

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