The Moon is a Harsh Maestro- Luna: New Moon (2015) by Ian McDonald

Luna1It’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).

Luna2Where 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.)


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25 thoughts on “The Moon is a Harsh Maestro- Luna: New Moon (2015) by Ian McDonald

  1. I loved this book. I have not read Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress so I’m unable to draw the parallels or make the contrasts, but the story was certainly entertaining for what it is. If that’s what McDonald was going for, then he succeeded with me at least (and let’s face it, I’ll be all over the TV show).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remembered you liking it a lot and I was hoping you would comment. I have no doubt Luna’s popularity is based on all the things I’m complaining about, but I think I’ve just read too many things like it before. I don’t even like Dune, which this is very reminiscent of. (And I’m sure my dislike of Dune disqualifies me from a number of SF fandoms.)

      But as soon as I heard about Luna, I knew McDonald was going after Heinlein, which sold me. I think I even saw an interview recently (can’t remember where) where McDonald called Heinlein a “twit” or a “git” or something. Somebody needed to remodel that ridiculous society in Harsh Mistress from utopia to dystopia, and I’m glad he did.

      But McDonald has this beautiful, rich way of writing things that’s absent in this book, so that disappointed me a lot. But again, beautiful prose and TV deals aren’t exactly compatible, and I’m sure as soon as the GoT/Dallas comparisons got in his head, the prose got thinner. I do hope HBO finds a way to stay loyal to the cultural diversity, sexual diversity, and capitalist criticisms.


      • bormgans says:

        I haven’t read other McDonald books, so I couldn’t be disappointed. That probably makes for an entirely different reading experience. This is a really interesting review, that I’ll have to think about a bit more to fully adress, since I liked Luna a lot. (I liked Harsch mistress too btw, but less so, and indeed, it is flawed and I agree with all the points you raise about it. But that doesn’t make it without merit.)

        On a sidenote, I get your comparison with Dune, but I think they are very different books. I’m not sure if you read the entire series, but I don’t think Dune can be fully judged without reading them all, since the reach of it’s philosophical implications only become clear in book 5 & 6. By which I don’t want to say you are wrong to not like it though, I’m just trying to advocate for the entire series since lots of people seem to hate the latter part. At some point I’ll reread and write a full analysis of Leto & the Golden Path. I guess what I want to say is that McDonald doesn’t even come close in scope, and won’t come close with the second book either.

        I guess the reason I liked it so much is because of Luna’s ideological critique of capitalism, packed in a violent, entertaining, shiny raw wrap. The only thing I didn’t really like was that Ariana sex scene, that was a bit too overdone, but I get that McDonald felt he just had to do that to fully paint the character and the evolved mores & technology.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I have only read Dune. I will read other books in the series eventually though I hesitate to judge a novel’s scope based on the first novel. The series wouldn’t have existed without the first book’s success, so I measure first books on their own merit.

          That said, you’re right this isn’t Dune. It’s, as the blurbs to keep noting, Game of Thrones and Dallas. But it all feels similar to me in terms of character drama, which is what is drawing most (not typical McDonald fans) readers to this work.

          had I should note that I am fan of McDonald–haven’t even read most of his work yet– but he can really do some incredible, unique stuff. This is entirely without his signature, but I think that’s on purpose for a variety of reasons. This book is certainly not a failure based on those reasons.

          Liked by 1 person

          • bormgans says:

            yeah, sure, Dune can (and should be) judged as a stand-alone too. I meant just not the philosophical implications it aspires.

            Anyhow, what I thrills me in this review is that McDonalds other books are probably going to be an ever bigger pleasure to read!

            Liked by 1 person

        • Oh, and there’s a character named Duncan, which was probably the first thing that pinged Dune in my mind.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d be really interested in a comparison between this book and Steel Beach by Varley. I know you’ve read Millennium by Varley, but consider that if Luna: New Moon is an attack on Heinlein, how might it stack up against a book/author who, was for some, the successor to Heinlein.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps I’ll get to Steel Beach some day. Varley, along with Katherine MacLean and David Palmer, uses that Heinlein first-person voice to full effect, but I’d rather read him than Heinlein any day. His sexual politics seem to be better, but I suppose he glorified capitalism, too?


      • I can’t remember. But Steel Beach is the metaphor for humanity taking some kind of next stage of evolution from the moon. It’s interesting that in Varley’s novel characters could get a sex change whenever they felt like it, much like going to a hairdresser and getting a hair colour change.

        Much of my reading was done through the teenage and twenties part of my life. The last ten years has mostly been looking backwards on books I read and imagining the characters like it was some (abstract) impression of myself – so much of the sexual politics through any of these authors generally went over my head. I was wondering if I’d even pick up on any of it today, since I generally just insert people I know into the characters I’m reading, which can sometimes give more humanism to a character than the author themselves has written in.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Widdershins says:

    This was my first time indulging in McDonaldalia, so having nothing to compare it to I found it at times hideously underwhelming, cringe-worthy, hysterically entertaining, but ultimately lightweight and two-dimensional. To paraphrase your erudite self, nuthin’ that ain’t bin done before.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, there’s one agreement, haha. I think I’d have more agreement from actual McDonald fans but I suspect a lot of them bailed after Dervish House (which I loved) and his YA stuff. It seems Luna attracted a lot of new readers to his work, which is another indication of success, I suppose. Glad to see you agree 🙂


  4. S. C. Flynn says:

    The Moon is a Harsh Magnifico would be appropriate given the Renaissance parallels!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I actually really enjoyed this book. True the ending was fairly easy to guess since the whole theme of rivalry between two clans usually tend to turn pretty messy but oh well, it was exactly what I wanted to read at the time I read it and I really liked it. I am looking forward to the second book in this duology.
    Are you reading this because it was shortlisted for the BSFA award?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read this back in December, but my December new reading list was mostly driven but what I thought I might see on the BSFA list. (I got two out of five right; last year I got five out of eight.) I’ve just been sitting on this review for a couple of months, posting it now because of the BSFA list.

      To be honest, I didn’t guess the ending, other than to guess that the precarious stability between families would unravel into a big mess. I wanted the moon base to blow up. Thought thay would be the perfect ending, a nice statement about unrestrained capitalism, but then, no sequel.

      A lot of people liked this book. My opinion is in the minority… which is why I haven’t been eager to post it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I guess the destruction of the moon would have been a a good ending.
        I personally like reading negative reviews of books I enjoyed, it allows me to have more perspective on the book.
        You managed to guess five last year? Wow, I’m impressed! I’m very bad at that.
        I’ve just finished Europe at Midnight and so that makes my grand total of books read in the shortlist to…. two.
        I am pretty sure that I am not going to be able to read everything on it before the winner is announced. So far, out of the two things I read, I would like Hutchinson’s novel to win (even if I loved Europe in Autumn more than its sequel). Luna is a solid book but in my opinion, it’s not in the same class as Europe at Midnight.


        • I enjoy negative reviews too. A lot of times the reviewers notices things I should be more cognizant of. Any review opposite of my opinion is instructive.

          Fully agree with your assessments of Luna and Europe at Midnight. I’ll probably read the other BSFA works, but I’m most intrigued by Robson’s Glorious Angels.

          Liked by 1 person

      • bormgans says:

        All the more reason to post it, I think!! You raised some valid points. Everybody saying the same thing isn’t all that interesting for understanding the field.


      • I’m in the middle of this book at the moment. I like one aspect, but there are at least two others which are making me dread finishing. So, I’m not a fan, but some of my reasons are different. I’ll probably post about it once I’ve finished (and cleared a few other posts from my queue).

        Liked by 1 person

  6. […] 2015: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, which somehow straddles the line between generic and innovative. Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald, which anti-Heinleins its way through a bad-people-doing-things tale of […]


  7. […] Much like de Bodard’s novel, I enjoyed picking apart the themes of McDonald’s critical platform more than than the actual story. In this case, Luna is an answer to the awful The Moon is a Harsh […]


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