Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson. Orbit Books, 2018. 446 pages, $27.00
I have a mental list of authors who have annoyed or bored me enough that I really do not care to read any more of their work. Despite being a more than competent writer who shares a good deal of my politics, Kim Stanley Robinson keeps coming close to being added to the list. For me, his latest work, Red Moon, was partly an adventure in seeing whether he would end on it or off it. But that’s just me.
Some of my problems with Robinson are more generally relevant, though. His novels, after his first few, have acquired a distinctly didactic quality to them. He’s not at all unique in this, even in science fiction and fantasy. From the other end of the political spectrum, Robert Heinlein comes to mind, and Heinlein even did one about the moon: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. But you do need to be a very good writer to make didacticism palatable to readers who do not share your perspective. There is also the temptation, for any artist, to play to the true believers, trusting in their instinct to give a hurrah for our side, whatever side that may be and however lame the execution. Whatever sells, after all. Robinson is good enough, usually, to keep it interesting while having enough integrity to not simply pander.
But that gets rather more difficult when one writes what should be a thriller, as Red Moon should be: Sometime around the middle of this century, Fred Fredericks travels to the moon, specifically to a Chinese research settlement at the south pole. His job is to deliver to his employer’s customer, the head administrator of the research settlement, an encrypted cell phone. This turns out to be the occasion for an assassination plot directed at the head administrator with Fredericks as the means of delivery. It very nearly kills Fredericks as well, but he ends up on the run with another person on the run, Chan Qi, a highly privileged (and pregnant) daughter of a top rank Chinese Communist Party and government official. Her dad is indeed one of the candidates for the top job at the pending Congress. She’s not having any of it and has slipped her leash, both from Daddy and the Party. Throw in a highly siloed government and Communist Party (rogue bureaucracy on the loose!), a chase across the Moon and across China, an emergent artificial intelligence, nonviolent citizen uprisings in both China and the United States (sort of a cross between Occupy and the various “color revolutions”), block chain alternative currency, diplomatic intrigue, and you should get a roller coaster thriller, a page turning experience where one does not notice the plot holes until they are long past, indeed probably after you close the covers of the book.
Instead, what is delivered to the reader is more akin to a 19th Century visit to utopia, where the protagonist (and thus the reader) is given a tour of a brave new world… Think of Aldous Huxley’s Island (granted, a 1930s novel) or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Most of those utopias, even the most classic, are pretty lame examples of story-telling. Robinson, at least, can use the conflicts built into his plot to keep things moving with some drama, but he doesn’t really enter the thriller mode of story-telling until the end of the novel. And the ending is either brilliant or a set-up for volume two. If it is the latter, it is not brilliant and I think I’ll take a pass.
A lot of science fiction really ought to be called science fantasy. Robinson does stick pretty close to the real world in his speculation. If there’s much speculative violence done to science, it may be in biology rather than the usual suspects of physics or information science. Robinson’s Moon has far more in common with modern Antarctica than it does with a nostalgic fantasy of the American (or the Siberian, for that matter) frontier: a dangerous, expensive place mostly only good for research or for novelty. And if Robinson’s Mars trilogy had mountain climbing as a visceral experience, Red Moon has the simple difficulty humans will have learning to maneuver in the Moon’s low gravity.
I think Robinson has gotten the Moon approximately correct, or at least he compliments my prejudices. China is this book’s other big obsession. If he’s gotten the Moon about right, what about China? I haven’t much basis for judging that except that anything written about China, even in the present never mind several decades from now, is likely to be wrong at least in part. And I suspect Robinson would agree. In a space.com interview, he noted: “China is really interesting and important and nobody understands it — and I mean not just Americans, who definitely don’t understand it, but even the Chinese people themselves. It’s a big, powerful society in rapid flux. It’s unstable and dynamic and it’s super interesting.” And more to the point, anything happening there will have consequences here, but if you need Red Moon to make that point, you haven’t been paying attention.
Caught between being a thriller and a visit to Erewhon, I don’t think this is one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s more successful efforts. But I liked it well enough that Robinson is not yet on my shit list and I liked Red Moon well enough to write this modest review of it. And he does have some interesting things to say about the future of humans on the Moon and about China. But I don’t like it well enough to hope for a sequel.