It’s no secret that Ian McDonald’s latest novel, Luna (2015), is an interrogation of a certain specimen of canon clogger, the kind I complain about all the time, and I suspect, though I have neither read nor heard this, that it’s also a kind of submission to criticism that his work too often represents White literary appropriation of non-White cultures. Fine, fine, I’ll go elsewhere, McDonald seems to be saying, backing away from the third world, placating the critics with a book about the moon. In space, no one can hear your appetite for third world exoticism.
But McDonald can’t turn off his culture obsession—it is one of the things he does best, after all—so he informs this new novel with a history that no one is particularly protective of: the power-hungry merchant bosses of the late Italian Renaissance. Though comparisons to Game of Thrones, Dallas, and The Godfather dominate conversations about Luna— and, granted, it does include the respective party-crashing assassination attempt, childhood contracted marriage, and conniving capitalism— McDonald’s story centers primarily on two families: the McKenzie family, which sounds like Medici, and the Corta family, which sounds like Borgia. That can’t be an accident. And so you begin to see the parallels between the mercantile elite of both worlds, and with that, the inequalities that barely sustain and hardly protect the lower classes. (Though I wish there had been more about those lower classes.)
But, moon aside, third world culture isn’t entirely absent from the novel, though it plays a lesser role than in his other works. Populating the sterile scenery of this bustling moonbase are immigrants from all over its Terran neighbor, with Brazil in the spotlight (even though it actually feels like Italy in its Godfather/Borgia clan ways). Adriana Corta, the self-made Brazilian matriarch of the Corta clan, gives McDonald fans a taste of the culture porn they miss, though it doesn’t last long. More important is the way McDonald does and doesn’t address poverty, adding a couple of characters to (somewhat) illustrate the hard knock side of lunar life: it’s a grind, not a desolation, but on Luna, the slope is slippery, and it helps if you have connections.
Poverty stretches time. And poverty is an avalanche. One tiny slippage knocks on another, knocks loose yet others and everything is sliding, rushing away. (6)
Like poor people. Except he has friends up there, among the lights in the walls of the world. So, not like the poor people, really. (57)
But with Luna, we’ve got a different problem pulling McDonald into his own perpetually locked orbit: it feels like any other mid-rated drama of courtly intrigue. Unlike his other dazzling amalgamations of hi-tech global economics and third-world character drama, Luna feels as stale as a package of astronaut ice cream. But that’s kind of the point. So, success?
It’s these amoral-people-doing-things type books that’s the problem: if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. Intrigue for intrigue’s sake is so unintriguing; unpredictability is so predictable. What’s going to happen? Deceit is going to happen. Not even Ian McDonald can inject the trope with the effervescence of ingredients so noteworthy in his other books (and that makes me wonder if I’m just as wrongly attracted to the westernized culture porn under heat right now). Not even the undercurrent of Heinlein criticism adds much dimension to the tale.
But it’s that Heinlein criticism that allows Luna to overcome those issues of being just-another-political-saga because McDonald is anti-Heinleining all the way home. (And I realize here that “Heinleining” has about five different definitions, one of which acts as creative writing “advice,”– *shudder*– another of which I prefer to call “penising”- when the author expends paragraphs reminding readers that those characters without penises are very different from those characters with penises- but I’m talking about just all around general Heinleining, as in, all the things Robert Heinlein does that annoy self-respecting, rational readers.)
Luna is the mirror image of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), just another version of Heinlein’s hypercapitalist, contract-based Lunar society, but the consequences here are different. Amid the absence of Heinlein’s gruff, throat-clearing, “I have things to say” first-person voice, the didactic infodumps, and, well, all that penising, McDonald shows us the dangers of unchecked anarcho-capitalism and impersonal contract law on a society reliant on migrant labor and limited resources, i.e. the Four Elementals (water, space, data, air).
Where Heinlein gives us Binary-on-Steroids masked as sexual liberalism, McDonald gives us an array of sexual relationships, though, whether these relationships are healthy or happy, and whether they should be, would make for a good discussion elsewhere. And, let me backtrack and mention the very didactic nature of some of the sexual content of Luna which reads, not like a typical symbolically-loaded Ian McDonald sex scene, but like a Heinlein expository yawn with technical words like “vulva” being used. The scene of Ariana’s autosexual stimulation reads like an engineering manual. This has to be on purpose. Right?
Certain eyebrow-raising scenes from Mistress— the irrelevant discussion of Wyo’s reproductive history, Manny’s inexplicable presiding over a sexual harassment argument, the absence of homosexuality despite the overwhelming numbers of men, Manny’s confident assurance of the elimination of rape on Luna— are addressed by McDonald on more realistic, reflective, and nuanced terms, with Adriana being an ideal first-person meta-foil to Heinlein’s arrogant motherfucker Manny.
What it stank of most was men. Testosterone. You breathed constant sexual tension. Every woman had been assaulted. (209)
So now we have two sides of the sexist, hypercapitalist mirror, but in Luna, McDonald shows us that Mistress is actually the warped, irrational fantasy from beyond the looking glass. Conversely, McDonald give us the Hard reality of such a society.
But, sadly, a mirror image is just the reverse of the same image. Hence, we still get stale goods: a multi-character Game of Feuds, with god-awful dialogue like, ‘I’m a Corta. We don’t do democracy’ (57). (And make sure you put your hand on your hip and toss your hair back as you say that out loud). You can only go so far justifying this as a clever retort at Heinlein’s joke of a society (though, Heinlein’s women do say the dumbest things) before you have to admit that the staleness probably comes more from McDonald’s unnecessary allegiance to the Dead-on-Arrival-and-Across-the-Banquet-Table amoral-intrigue narrative than from his efforts at dismantling the Heinlein throne. A willingness to depart from those overdone cliches might have freshened the tale, but, you know, rich-people-fucking-and-killing-and-making-cutting-statements-fit-for-a-movie-trailer makes for better television, and I suppose all those Game of Thrones/Dallas/Godfather comparisons should have been warning enough that we shouldn’t expect more.
For Mistress detractors, it’s a tale that’s intellectually engaging for that reason alone, despite the urge to count pages from the back of the book like a Heinlein or Game of Thrones novel would inspire. We know McDonald can do better, but he has likely achieved what he set out to do, and for that, I suppose we should say, success. (And, congrats on the TV deal.)