The Red Turtle

Spoiler alert!

This film was such a disappointment! I had high hopes for it, the trailer was gorgeous, and it had Studio Ghibli attached – so what could go wrong?

I should say, first, that the art work is lovely throughout; the detail and realism of the island backgrounds and wildlife are worthy of Studio Ghibli, or other Japanese animation like the films of Mamoru Hosoda. The human characters bear no resemblance to saucer-eyed anime characters, and did seem more ‘French’ to me, reminding me of artists like Moebius (I may simply have been pre-biased by knowing it was a French co-production, or this may just be due to the fact that it does not look like anime or Disney). The sound effects of the natural world, as well as the soundtrack, are also superb.

The story is of a shipwrecked man stranded on a deserted island. After exploring the island, he builds a raft from bamboo and attempts an escape. Some invisible force destroys the raft a short distance from the island, and the same thing happens when he builds a second, bigger raft. A third, still bigger raft is also destroyed, but this time the giant red turtle of the title is there, and the man assumes it is her attacking him and his raft, although she leaves him alone when he is in the water.

After the third attempt, the man sees the red turtle coming up onto the beach. In a fit of rage, he smashes her over the head with a bamboo pole, turns her onto her back, jumps on her, then leaves her to die in the sun.

Later, feeling guilty, he tries to revive her by pouring seawater over her head, and also tries and fails to right her. It doesn’t work and she appears to die, her shell splitting open.

Then, she turns into a woman, unconscious, and still lying inside the split shell. The man feeds her fresh water, and builds a shelter over her. After a brief rain storm she becomes conscious, and runs into the shallow water near the beach.

The man leaves her his shirt and walks away into the bamboo forest, when he returns to the beach, he sees the woman in the water, walking away from the beach, pushing the floating turtle shell in front of her. When she reaches deeper water, she pushes the shell off out to sea and returns to the beach.

The man responds by doing the same with the forth raft he had started to build. Then they sit on a sand bank, and the woman starts breaking open mussel shells, feeding them both. The man has a flashback to smashing her over the head and shudders, the women now appears unafraid of the man.

Then they walk from the beach into a meadow on the island, and both float up into the air together – a PG metaphor for sex, as we then skip to years later, when they have a toddler son.

The rest of the story covers the boy’s growth into manhood; he swims out to sea with other giant turtles (they are all green, but he has red hair like his mother), and eventually swims off with them for good. There is also a tsunami that devastates the island before he leaves.

After the son leaves, the man and women stay on the island together until they are old and grey, then the man dies in his sleep, and the woman turns back into a turtle and heads back out to sea.

The problem I had with the film while watching it, is that it looks like the man is rewarded for his act of cruel violence by being given a compliant, silent, wife. I kept giving it the benefit of the doubt while watching, hoping there would be something later in the story to mitigate it, but I don’t think there was.

There is no talking in the film, and we never see the story from the woman’s perspective (we see the man’s dreams and hallucinations while he is alone on the island, as well as his flashback). There are lots of fairy tales where people are released from an enchantment trapping them in animal form, or stories like The Little Mermaid, where a magical/mythical creature chooses to be transformed into human form (and these transformations are often violent, or come at a cost), but it is never clear which is the case for The Red Turtle, and there is no way the man knew in advance that this is what would happen, it is obviously a complete surprise to him.

It is not clear what force is keeping the man on the island – is the red turtle supposed to represent the spirit of the island itself? But the island, when it is devastated by the tsunami, is shown to be a normal island, at the mercy of the elements. Was she in love with him from the start? But we only see them ‘meet’ right before he attacks her, they build no relationship with her as the turtle – the brief moment when they first see each other is actually quite moving, it feels like two sentient creatures making first contact, but that is then spoilt by the later violence.

I can see what the story is trying to do, it is aiming for mythic resonance, but I don’t think it achieves it. As a whole, the story itself is best at the beginning, when the man is first washed up on the island, as he explores his new environment (and as an aside, ‘mild peril’ my arse! The moment when he is trapped in a deep-sided pool and forced to swim underwater through a very narrow tunnel to escape terrified me!). The details of this first half build the character of the man, he dreams of a bamboo bridge out to sea that he flies along, and hallucinates a chamber orchestra. There is humour to his Sisyphean raft building, and there are cute crabs for comic relief.

The rest of the story, covering decades, feels sparse by comparison, and the woman never really has a character at all. We only see her swimming once as a human, she doesn’t even go into the sea when her toddler son falls into the same pool that his father fell into before. There is one moment, when the man draws pictures in the sand to show the son that there is a whole world beyond the island, and she adds a drawing of a turtle, but it is not clear if this means she misses her people, or if she is just telling her son that there is that option for him as well.

So, I was disappointed, because the need for the violence of the transformation is never explained, and there is not enough character development to see why the woman wants to stay with him anyway. I worry about the message it portrays, that (male) violence (against a woman) is an acceptable prelude to romantic love and devotion.

Steve Rasnic Tem Interview in Interzone 269

Writer Steve Rasnic Tem is interviewed in issue 269 of the SF magazine Interzone, the below is an extract:

UBO is an exploration of the roots of violence. Why does this theme intrigue you? What are the benefits, to both you as a writer and to your readers, of exploring violence?

I hate violence, the way it warps and diminishes us. Violence against ourselves, against each other, and against the environment. It’s what disturbs me most about humanity. And we are all affected by it in one way or another. And yet it’s not something I’ve written that much about. In my short story work I generally focus on subtle, more ghostly effects (the major exception being my collection Ugly Behavior), and my novel Deadfall Hotel certainly reflects that. Violence occurs in my southern gothic/horror novel Blood Kin, as you might expect, but except for a rather horrible scene witnessed through a crack in the door it’s mostly off stage violence. With UBO I wanted to write a meditation on violence – my biggest fear – in all its forms. I wasn’t proposing to “solve” anything exactly – I’m a writer of fiction, not a social scientific genius – I just wanted to take the reader through an interesting journey where we could contemplate some of the dynamics involved.

As for the benefits of such an exploration, well, that’s always hard to say isn’t it, when we’re talking about a work of fiction? On one level you’re trying to entertain with an intriguing story. And certainly that’s enough. But especially as I get older with fewer books I’m going to be able to read, and fewer books I’m going to be able to write, I want a little more out of my fiction. Most of us would rather avoid violence. Most of us – myself included – live our lives in ways to keep violence away from ourselves and our loved ones. For myself I keep violent people out of my life – I want nothing to do with them.

The reason to confront violence – as with all unpleasant subjects – is that you can’t really successfully avoid it. Violence will touch you – in small ways for most of us, in profound ways for those of us who are unlucky. At some point you have to find a way to deal with it. Violence touched me when I was a child, and it touched the lives of my adopted children before I knew them – and we still have to deal with the shockwaves of those experiences. And it touches all of us when our governments are involved in violent activities.

Our society isn’t great at empowering people. We’re generally not that great at raising our children to feel empowered. People who feel they are helpless against change, who feel they are denied the positive drama of love and accomplishment, tend to turn toward the ready drama of violence – whether they commit it themselves or they commit it via a surrogate (games and entertainment are one such surrogate, but politics and government are also surrogates, as are our tendencies to destroy and exploit the environment). The first step toward preventing horrifying things in ourselves is learning to acknowledge them in ourselves and others.

Actors often speak of the stress they experience when taking on “difficult” roles. Is there a similar toll on you as a writer when you try to get inside the head of people like Himmler, Jack the Ripper, Stalin etc? How do you cope with that sort of pressure?

The writing of fiction is often very close to the art of acting. So there is a similar toll when you climb inside the heads of some of these characters. And when I really started working on this novel every day we had two small children at home. So I’d spend hours inside the heads of these awful people, and then I’d go play and read stories with my four and five year old. It was too much. After a while I couldn’t do it anymore and put the book aside. After I picked it up again within a few months our son Anthony died, and I put it aside again, this time for decades (although I was always thinking about it, working it out in my head). I think it’s no accident that I didn’t finish UBO until both kids and grandkids were out of the house.

As far as coping, I’m generally a positive, optimistic guy. That may sound like a contradiction for a horror writer, but that kind of balancing act is what keeps me sane. I tend to see the world through a filter of humour, and I devour comedy – movies, stand-up routines, humorous writing etc – it’s a rare day that I don’t laugh out loud at least once.

I really didn’t want to write/think about A Little Life any more, but reading this interview, it was so striking; Rasnic Tem is a genre writer, a horror writer, and his take on violence is so much more intelligent and insightful than Yanagihara, a supposedly ‘literary’ author, who tells us how fun it is to write evil characters, that she ‘inhabits darkness joyfully,’ and makes grandiose claims about her ‘duty’ to write about child rape and self-harm in explicit, titillating detail.

I had never heard of Rasnic Tem before reading this issue of Interzone, the review of UBO does sound interesting (it calls it ‘required reading’), but I am not sure if I want to read it – if I do, it may turn out that I don’t like it, or don’t feel its violence to be justified. Rasnic Tem’s short story in the same issue of Interzone ‘The Common Sea,’ which I did like, is a gentle tail of environmental collapse, which doesn’t give any real clues about what UBO will be like to read.

It is also interesting to note that, in his guest editorial, Rasnic Tem uses the opportunity to talk about the environment and climate change. Yanagihara, on the other hand, uses her much wider platform to disseminate her dubious ideology about mental health and suicide.

I have serious doubts about the value of art, about its ability to affect the world. This is not something I have just started thinking about, but global political events over the last few years have made these doubts stronger. Reading A Little Life, ‘award winning literature’, that was garbage on every level, makes me doubt art has any real value at all, if it can ever be anything other than entertainment, escapism.

The famous Kurt Vonnegut quote about the Vietnam War illustrates my thinking perfectly:

During the Vietnam War, which lasted longer than any war we’ve ever been in – and which we lost – every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.

Manchester by the Sea and Was


Last month I went to see Manchester by the Sea, and re-read Geoff Ryman’s Was.

Manchester by the Sea was funnier, and not as unrelentingly grim, as I had been expecting (and fearing) from the reviews I read beforehand. It tells the story of Lee, a man to whom something terrible happens (I won’t spoil what exactly), something that changes his life, and his family’s lives completely, that affects his entire community. Years later, he has to go back home after his brother dies, and his now teenaged nephew needs a guardian.

The thing that makes this such a good film is that there is no clear-cut redemption, there is no feel-good happy ending; Lee’s life changes, but he isn’t ‘fixed’, he’s never going to be ok, ever, but his life still goes on, still damaged. It’s a good film because it handle’s this with respect, it never feels voyeuristic (even though we have to wait to see exactly what happened that caused Lee to leave town), it never feels like the character is being tortured to death by the story for the sake of it (or for the sake of ‘proving’ some bizarre ideological point); it shows that life doesn’t have any larger purpose, or higher meaning, terrible things happen, but people still carry on, scraping something together for themselves.

Was, published in 1992, combines the stories of Judy Garland, the filming of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, an actor dying of AIDS in the 1980’s, Frank Baum, and the ‘real’ Dorothy Gael who inspired him.

Geoff Ryman is one of the most compassionate and humanist writers I have read (ages ago, I found a description of literary humanism I really like, in this review of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker: “authentic humanism, meaning a consideration (both celebratory and cautionary) of human doings and undoings”); he is an author whose works I return to again and again – I have lost count of how many times I have read Was, and I would also particularly recommend his books Lust and Air, and his short-story collection Paradise Tales (if the story in that collection about the Angel of the North doesn’t move you, nothing will).

Was also covers difficult subjects, death and loneliness and the abuse (emotional and physical and sexual) of children, and describes people continually striving to live meaningful lives; but, as with Manchester by the Sea, it is never there to shock or titillate. Ryman shows compassion for all his characters, even the bad ones, without ever making excuses for them.

Ryman also does his research! He travelled and read and researched what Kansas was like in the late 19th Century, and the real-life accounts he discovered expanded and enriched his own story telling.

In his afterword, Ryman says: “I am a fantasy writer who fell in love with realism. Because I am a fantasy writer, I am particularly aware that every work of fiction, however realistic, is a fantasy. It happens in a world that is an alternative to this one.” He later adds:

I fell in love with realism because it deflated the myths, the unexamined ideas of fantasy. It confronts them with forgotten facts. It uses past truth – history.

I love fantasy because it reminds us how far short our lives fall from their full potential. Fantasy reminds us how wonderful the world is. In fantasy, we can imagine a better life, a better future. In fantasy, we can free ourselves from history and outworn realism.

Oz is, after all, only a place with flowers and birds and rivers and hills. Everything is alive there, as it is here if we care to see it. Tomorrow, we could all decide to live in a place not much different from Oz. We don’t. We continue to make the world an ugly, even murderous place, for reasons we do not understand.

Those reasons lie in both fantasy and history. Where we are gripped by history – our own personal history, our country’s history. Where we are deluded by fantasy – our own fantasy, our country’s fantasy. It is necessary to distinguish between history and fantasy wherever possible.

And use them against each other.

Yuri on Ice

I really did want to shoehorn Yuri on Ice into my review of Barracuda, but I just couldn’t work out how to do it. There is a connection, in how they portray the intensity of the moment of competition, Barracuda the TV program with its slow-motion close-ups of bodies in the water, Barracuda the book with its descriptions of the interaction between swimmer and water, and Yuri on Ice with its internal monologues of the skaters’ hopes and fears.

But otherwise, there is nothing in common (I can’t, with any seriousness, suggest that their respective portrayals of homosexuality have anything significant in common).

Yuri on Ice is pure escapism, sweet, silly, gentle, harmless fun. I spent the break over Christmas and the New Year binge watching it, and, given what 2016 has been like, and what 2017 is turning out to be, I can’t be blamed for wanting a bit of harmless escapism. Without wishing to belittle the hard work and dedication of any professional athlete, how nice it would be to live in a world where the worse thing that can happen to you is messing up the landing on a jump! (By which I mean, it’s not brokering peace in the Middle East, is it?)

I’m not a fan of J pop, so I wasn’t impressed with any of the original songs used for the skaters, but I do love the show-tune-esque opening number, and I think the classical piece ‘Yuri on Ice’ is rather beautiful.

Barracuda (TV series and book)


For my previous review, I started with the original short story, and then watched the adaptation; with Barracuda, I first watched the adaptation, then decided to read the book it was based on.

Barracuda is available as a box set on the BBC iPlayer, and it seems odd to me that a program with such high production values has been ghettoised to an online audience only, under the banner of the BBC’s ‘youth’ channel. The book is certainly not ‘young adult’, and I can’t work out how much the series would actually appeal to that demographic.

I’ve seen the film Head On, and read Christos Tsiolkas’ short story collection Merciless Gods, I kept waiting for something terrible to happen in the TV series, and it does, but not the level of violence I was expecting.

As with the adaptation of ‘Story of Your Life’, it is interesting to see what is included, what is left out, what is simplified, what is added, what is changed, and how much or how little these alterations change the spirit of the story.

The TV series only covers Danny’s teenaged years and a few years after he leaves school, the book covers a lot longer; elements of the book are changed to simplify and compress; the disabled cousin becomes the disabled patient, the Glaswegian boyfriend Danny leaves Australia to follow becomes a physiotherapist he works with as part of his community service, Danny’s relationship with Luke is not fleshed out. The most obvious change is probably downgrading the prison sentence to community service (but try filming that for a general audience!).

The two most significant changes, to me, are in the portrayal of Danny’s relationship with his family, and in the portrayal of Danny’s sexuality. Danny’s family life is sanitised and idealised in the series, he loves his parents and siblings, and only argues with his father once, in the book he despises his father the whole time (except for one short section that goes back to his very early childhood), and his mother a lot of the time. In the series his parents are unequivocally supportive, in the book, only his mother is.

The class analysis is played down a lot in the TV series as well, the scene at Martin’s grandmother’s birthday meal is still there, but it is much much uglier in the book.

In the book, Danny’s homosexuality is almost incidental, there are no big ‘coming out’ scenes, it’s just a given fact of his adult life. Danny’s desire for Martin is a major plot thread of the series, but in the book, he doesn’t make a pass at him (or have sex with his sister), and his attraction is only acknowledged with hindsight – and then only subtly, Danny can remember exactly what Martin’s face looks like.

There is no explicit homophobia in the book; ‘f*ggot’ is thrown around as an insult as much as ‘w*g’, but there is never any sense of Danny hiding his sexuality from other people, instead his sexuality is sublimated entirely into his swimming, to the point where he avoids masturbation as a waste of energy. He only ‘comes out’ to himself when he starts having sex with another man in prison (given that, the complete lack of mention of HIV, or any other STIs in the book seems odd).

The changes make the TV series as much a story about (homo)sexuality as about sport, but in the book it is the sport, the macho competitiveness, and Danny’s shame at his failure, that is the main theme.

This is interesting, as the author of a certain garbage book (a garbage book that I hope very soon to have forgotten that I read at all), has claimed that men are incapable of expressing emotions such as fear, vulnerability and shame.

Barracuda the book is saturated with shame and fear and self-loathing; shame is the main emotion Danny feels after his swimming career is over, it is the driving force of the rest of his life (during one scene, in a restaurant, he is so afraid to leave his table and risk running into an old classmate that he pisses himself). It is being called a looser that causes him to smash a glass into Martin’s face, not thwarted desire. Toxic masculinity, the ideology of winners and losers, is examined in the TV series, but it is much more explicit in the book.

Arrival / Story of Your Life


SPOILER ALERT: I am writing about the film Arrival specifically as an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Story of Your Life’, so it will be spoiler heavy for both.

I loved this film so much, I think it is a great film in its own right, and I think it is probably the best adaptation possible, even if it doesn’t manage to do the central concept of Chiang’s short story justice.

I re-read ‘Story of Your Life’ before going to see Arrival (and I read it again to write this post); I wanted to make sure I really understood the original ideas before seeing the adaptation. The only downside to this is that I will never get to see the film fresh, unaware, I will never really know if it works on its own. I want to see it again already, so I can just enjoy it, instead of constantly anticipating how well it does/does not match the short story.

Ted Chiang’s short stories contain more craft, more in the way of ideas, than most full-length novels. His stories are what I think of when I say ‘hard SF’, where the ideas are central to the story; most science fiction is merely adventure stories with an SF setting, and you could tell the same story in a fantasy or historical setting. But, unusually for hard SF, ‘Story of Your Life’ is also fully engaged with human emotions, there is no ‘action’ in the short story at all.

Films have to be visual, hence the ‘looking glasses’ of the original are replaced with giant spaceships (and the visuals of these are stunning). I love the way the aliens and their writing were actualised on screen; making the heptapods vaguely squid-like creatures who appear to ‘swim’ through their heavily gaseous atmosphere, and their written language rendered in squirted ink, is brilliant, and builds on and augments the original descriptions in the short story.

There has been a lot added to the story, there is military control of the alien contact in the original story, but nothing about how the rest of the world reacts, except one brief line near the beginning of the short story: “The government said next to nothing about them, while the tabloids said every possible thing.”

But it all makes sense; of course there would be mass panic, of course there would be military and political machinations, of course there would be military grunts influenced by internet based right-wing shock-jocks. And of course, for the film, there needs to be a plot, something big at stake.

There is something very prescient and necessary about the ideas of co-operation and communication in Arrival, and about the importance of getting communication right; the Chinese use Mahjong to communicate with the heptapods, pre-biasing their interpretation of the alien conversation to one of conflict.

Some things have to be glossed over, like the long hard work of deciphering the heptapod languages, which is there in the short story, but handled in a voice-over and montage in the film – it was wonderful, though, to see the acting out of verbs kept in, as Ian (renamed from Gary in the short story for no reason I can think of) walks along and a heptapod ‘walks’ along beside him.

The biggest change is adding a purpose to the alien’s visit, they know humans will help them in 3000 years time, so they are making first contact now. In the short story, there is no discernable purpose to their visit.

In the short story it isn’t that the aliens can see the future and change their actions accordingly, their subjective experience of time is entirely different to our own. We only experience time, past and present, cause and effect, because that’s the way our brains are wired.

At this point it’s easier to quote from ‘Story of Your Life’ than to try to explain it in my own words:

“The heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand these concepts; they don’t act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons. What distinguishes the heptapods’ mode of awareness is not just that their actions coincide with history’s events; it is also that their motives coincide with history’s purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology.”

“For the hepatapods, all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they use language to actualize. Sure, heptapods already know what would be said in any conversation; but in order for that knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.”

“Even though I’m proficient with Heptapod B, I know I don’t experience reality the way a heptapod does. My mind was cast in the mould of human, sequential languages, and no amount of immersion in an alien language can completely reshape it. My worldview is an amalgam of human and heptapod.

“Before I learned how to think in Heptapod B, my memories grew like a column of cigarette ash, laid down by the infinitesimal sliver of combustion that was my consciousness, marking the sequential present. After I learned Heptapod B, new memories fell into place like gigantic blocks, each one measuring years in duration, and though they didn’t arrive in order or land contiguously, they soon composed a period of five decades. It is the period during which I know Heptapod B well enough to think in it, starting during my interviews with [the heptapods] and ending with my death.

“Usually, Heptapod B affects just my memory: my consciousness crawls along as it did before, a glowing sliver crawling forward in time, the difference being that the ash of memory lies ahead as well as behind: there is no real combustion. But occasionally I have glimpses when Heptapod B truly reigns, and I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half-century-long ember burning outside time. I perceive – during those glimpses – that entire epoch as a simultaneity. It’s a period encompassing the rest of my life, and the entirety of yours.”

Arrival shows the cognitive changes brought about by immersion in the heptapod language as a literal time travel, as a super-power, with Louise ‘jumping’ into a future event, where the Chinese general feels compelled to give her vital information she needs in the present to influence events. This is a crude rendering of the central idea of ‘Story of Your Life’, but a necessary one, I don’t think there is any better way it could have been shown on screen, not in a commercially viable SF film anyway.

‘Story of Your Life’ is as much about human emotions, particularly of motherhood, as it is about first contact, the micro and the macro. It’s there in the film too when Ian says that meeting Louise was just as important to him as making first contact.

This centrality of motherhood/emotion/relationships is as interesting for an SF film as it is for a hard SF short story. The scenes with Louise and her daughter at the beginning of the film reminded me of Malick’s Tree of Life. It is in jarring contrast with Nocturnal Animals, another Amy Adams film, which I saw about a week before Arrival. I found Nocturnal Animals to be entirely hollow, a millimetre thin shell of style with absolutely nothing underneath (I know that’s supposed to be the ‘point’, but I still found it pointless). There are some things, films and TV programmes particularly, which simply come across as ‘men men men men men’, and I switch off completely, this was one of them. Women being raped and murdered to further a man’s storyline is a tired old trope (but credit where it’s due, at least the husband/father says at one point that he wanted to know how his wife and daughter felt while it was happening).

It’s good to see SF showing something different, to see an SF film showing the full potential range of the genre, to have an SF film outdoing a more mainstream, ‘artistic’ film; it is not entirely unprecedented either, Interstellar placed a high value on the emotional bonds between characters (albeit to the point of silliness at times).

Cerebral SF films are few and far between compared to action SF films. As well as Arrival and Interstellar, I would count Gravity as cerebral, but maybe not Inception (dreams don’t actually work like video games); The Prestige counts, but is more fantasy than science fiction. Otherwise you need to go back a few decades to films like Blade Runner and Silent Running. I hope Arrival‘s success will encourage more filmmakers to take a risk on this type of film.

Luna: New Moon

Luna New Moon

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 Corta’s.

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.