SPOILER ALLERT: I am going to discuss major plot points from this novel, if you haven’t read it yet, but plan to, do not read this!
I’m not sure what the point is of writing a book review. Given how big the internet is, how much noise you are competing with, you may as well not bother. Reviews of the I-liked-this-book-it-was-good school-report variety are readily available on Amazon or Goodreads, so adding one more is pointless. But, Ian McDonald’s Luna: New Moon (L:NM) hits on two topics I have been obsessing over recently, worldbuilding, and child sex abuse as a plot device.
I won’t summarise the plot, if you’ve read it, you don’t need a summary, if you haven’t, seriously, stop reading now!
I will start by saying that I really did enjoy L:NM, it was an exciting, suspenseful adventure story. It was highly derivative in places, Dune and Game of Thrones are the two I picked up on, and there are others I didn’t recognise (other reviews reference Heinlein’s the Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy). The borrowings from Dune, a grotesquely obese homosexual paedophile bad-guy, and an order of religious women manipulating bloodlines, are too blatant to describe as homage, while the nods towards Game of Thrones are more general; GRRM was borrowing from history, so the themes of personal/family honour and dynastic plotting are not his own unique inventions – as well as the ‘red wedding’ theme, McDonald also, admirably, shares GRRM’s willingness to kill off main characters.
The physics and the technology and the practicalities of commercially exploiting the moon, are all, as far as I can tell, spot on. The personal technology is real-world cutting edge, including vapers and 3D printers; but, Marge Piercy got there first in Woman on the Edge of Time, published 1976, with her ‘flimsy’ disposable printed clothing. Everyone has a personal AI to act as their interface with the internet, which have names and avatars, in what has to be a nod towards Philip Pullman’s Daemons. Piercy can be argued to have predicted the internet with her personal ‘kenners’, wristwatch computers that connected people to each other and to computer archives, and she was likely influenced by the original Star Trek series; Samuel Delaney’s 1984 novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand has everyone cybernetically liked up to ‘General Information’ – my point here is that there are no genuinely new tropes in SF.
There are a few technological quibbles; as one Amazon reviewer pointed out, would you really need to charge for every breath of air, as every breath in produces valuable CO2 out, which would surely balance out? Also, while all Luna residents have a chip on their eyeball that connects them to the internet and shows them their financial status, there is no mention of probes/diodes being inserted into the brain to control the autonomic function of breathing (one character is portrayed ‘dialling down’ her breathing when she is low on oxygen credit, and another suddenly suffocating – in an air-filled room – when her oxygen credits are cut off).
One annoying factor (and this was mentioned in at least one Amazon review as well), was the name dropping of real-world designer brands to describe the suits and dresses characters were wearing, as a shorthand it only works if your readers are knowledgeable in the subject, and it wasn’t interesting/important enough to stop reading to go look it up if you weren’t.
The demographics of the cast are good, the five major businesses/families are Brazilian, Russian, Chinese, Australian and Ghanaian, with the Brazilian Corta’s being the main protagonists; the Luna culture is not white Anglo-American.
What I really want to write about is the legal/social/economic set up of the moon. It is an anarcho-capitalist society, with no criminal law, only contract law, with contract law extending not just to marriage arrangements (which are sex-neutral and multiple), but even to casual sexual encounters. People don’t just choose their lawyers, they choose the legal system and the judge as well. This system acknowledges that judges are biased, so both sides negotiate a judge they are both happy with – this could potentially be fairer than pretending the system is unbiased, but of course there is the limiting factor of money involved. We also see how inherently unfair this system is when Ariel Corta challenges her legal opponent to a duel (one of the acceptable legal systems available, although not one approved of by the judiciary), and the plaintiff withdraws, in fear of inciting a blood feud if Ariel is harmed.
What the lack of criminal law means is that murder and rape are not illegal – this is not the same as saying that they have no consequences, but technically, someone could rape a baby to death, and unless someone else was willing to assassinate or sue them on behalf of that baby, they would get away with it. McDonald does not cover how easy or difficult it is to have a child on the moon, whether the companies that sponsor people’s travel to the moon require birth control as a condition, whether permission is needed from the Lunar Development Company to ‘import’ another person, whether the economic harshness of Luna life means that all babies are wanted babies – the only children who are major characters in the book are all planned and wanted children being raised in economic security.
I am not 100% sure if the economics of McDonald’s society work; we are told that immigrants need to be sponsored by a company, that they need to pay their own fare, that they need to train physically in order to survive the trip, and that they are screened for genetic abnormalities (to protect the gene pool long-term, stay too long on the moon and the physiological changes mean you can’t leave), but there is also an underclass on the moon, barely holding on, doing piecemeal, menial work. This is how we meet one of the protagonists, Marina, a new immigrant from Earth with a PhD, slowly dying on the margins of society because she was out-bid for the company job that she had travelled to the moon for. She gets a temp job as a waitress at a Corta party (which is how she is introduced into the main plot), and her advanced payment is enough to allow her to breath properly, wash, print a uniform, and pay for transport to the workplace. The moon also has hotel receptionists and nail technicians, there is a service economy (there are also musicians, the one musician we learn about was born on the moon), are these roles all filled by low-paid post-docs who originally emigrated for good jobs? What is the living wage (or rather, the survival wage) on the moon? Does demand for services from the mega-rich make travel to the moon worth it for service industry workers? Is it like it is now, when the middle class from poor parts of the world pay to get themselves smuggled to the global north to do working class jobs (the impenetrable ‘border controls’ of the moon make the analogy imperfect)?
What I specifically want to look at is a pivotal plot point, where an 11-year-old boy is ‘married’ to an adult man (I am putting ‘married’ in inverted commas because the boy is 11, not because it is same-sex). Robson is the son of Rafa Corta and Rachel Mackenzie, who are divorced; Robert Mackenzie, the head of the Mackenzie family, coerces Rachel into signing a contract ‘marrying’ Robson to another member of the Mackenzie clan, effectively making him a hostage, in order to harass and provoke the Cortas.
We are told that there is no lower age limit of consent to sex or marriage on the moon, but, it is not Robson who signs the contract, it is his mother, so there is a lower limit on signing contracts (it is also mentioned elsewhere that another character, Lucasinho, at 17-years old, is of majority and can make his own decisions). These two things do not add up, if a child’s parents are acting as proxies, the child them self is not giving consent (in real life, we accept that parents need to act on behalf of their children, for example when it comes to medical decisions, but we don’t pretend that this is the same as the child making a decision).
We are also told there is a sexual activity clause to the ‘marriage’ contract, but not what that clause is; presumably it is not that Robson has to be left alone until he is sixteen, because Rachel is horrified enough to abduct him to get him out of that situation, and dies in the process of getting him to the safety of his father.
The ‘marriage’ is eventually legally annulled, because Robson’s sexual rights were not respected, not because he is 11, but only because nobody asked him his sexual orientation first (and in this respect, Rachel did not fulfil her contractual obligations as a parent, confirming that parents act as legal proxies for their children) – this implies that if Robson were gay or bisexual, everything would have been fine, and that a parent signing their 11-year-old over to compulsory sexual activity with an adult is legal!
The Luna society is a young one, the press release here sets it in 2110, but I don’t know if that’s canon, there is nothing specific in the book, and I got the impression, from a mention of the Rio Olympics, that Adriana is a child now, and she is 80 years old when the book begins. I do find it difficult to believe that that society would find such contracts acceptable – it is clear from both Rachel’s and Adriana’s reactions to it that they do not find it acceptable.
Human behaviour hasn’t actually changed that much, the emphasis on family and honour is old fashioned. The Mackenzie family inbreeds, and Robert Mackenzie uses biotechnology to ensure he only has sons. People may be more ‘promiscuous’, or they may simply be more open about it; marriages can have monogamy clauses; Lucas divorces because he wants to marry for love; Abena Asamoah tells Lucasinho he is disrespecting himself and his friends when he casually exchanges sex for a place to sleep. McDonald is also realistic about the levels of violence and misogyny in the early stages of the moon’s settlement, when Adriana was a young woman.
Clauses in a marriage (or ‘amor’) contract saying when/how sex outside the marriage is allowed or not make sense, but compulsory sex does not, as it reduces one member to the chattel of the other. It does hark back to the arranged marriages of feudal times (it is pointed out within the story that the current set up on the moon is feudal), but it serves no purpose when sex has been separated from reproduction, not just with the equalising of same-sex relationships, but also with advances in reproductive technology (the Corta’s exclusively use surrogate mothers to carry their babies).
Is compulsory sex within marriage contracts the norm? If Lucasinho’s arranged marriage was purely political, he would have had no reason to run out on it – except that that is another pivotal plot point, leading to the destruction of the Corta family, and the cliff-hanger of the book.
I suspect it is a fudge, McDonald needed to move the plot along, and that’s how he did it. Or else (in the case of Robson) it was there to show how ruthless and cutthroat the society generally, and the Mackenzies, particularly, are.
So why am I not particularly bothered, when I made such a fuss previously? Mostly because while child rape is a plot-point, it is not the purpose of the book; also, it is not treated cavalierly, Rachel is prepared to die to protect her son. Also, McDonald is not making any grandiose claims about his book, he calls it ‘Game of Domes‘ and ‘Dallas in space’, he is not taking himself too seriously.
There was a BBC Radio 4 program on recently, Caravan to the Stars, and according to one of the scientists interviewed, there are 3000 near-Earth asteroids that would be more accessible than the moon, and the desirable materials for mining (iron, nickel, cobalt etc) are 100x more concentrated in asteroids than on the most accessible parts of the moon. Also, there is plenty of water in comets and asteroids, and asteroid (and Luna) material can be used as soil.
I also recently read an article about capturing solar energy using reflective glass and molten salt (called concentrated solar power), which is potentially more efficient than photovoltaic, enough so to rival fossil fuels, which sounds much more efficient than importing energy from the moon.
There is undoubtedly a certain romance to the idea of colonising the moon (or Mars for that matter), that can’t be captured in a serial-numbered near-Earth asteroid. L:NM was a fun read, and I’ll be reading the sequel at some point as well.