Luna: New Moon (reviewed for Strange Horizons by Matt Hilliard and in The Guardian by Adam Roberts) came out in 2015 to no small amount of fanfare, with Deadline reporting that the television rights had been sold even before the publication day. Game of Thrones meets The Godfather in the unforgiving and lethal lunar environment: a libertarian paradise where possession really is nine-tenths of the law and even the air you breathe has a price crossed with the feudal politics of five intermarried corporate families—the Dragons of the moon. This is a setting filled with dramatic potential, and it's easy to see why it would have generated interest from television production companies. Unfortunately, it doesn't work quite as well for me.
The Corta family provided the greater part of New Moon's viewpoint characters. By New Moon's end, though, the family's power had been broken and most of its members killed. At the start of Wolf Moon, teenager Lucasinho Corta and his little cousin Luna survive under the protection of the Asamoah family, while Robson Corta has been adopted by the Mackenzies who murdered the rest of his family—and who're prepared to give him over to sexual abuse at the hands of Bryce Mackenzie, one of the sons of the ancient Mackenzie patriarch.
Of the adult Cortas, lawyer Ariel survives in poverty, attended by Marina Calzaghe (an Earther who is fast approaching the day when she has to decide whether or not to go back), while Wagner Corta, the family's black sheep, runs a salvage crew on the lunar surface. Lucas Corta is universally believed to be dead. He's not. He's doing something no one born on the moon has ever done before. He's going to Earth, to cut the deals and do the kind of political manoeuvring he's good at; the kind of political manoeuvring that will let him overthrow the toothless Lunar Development Corporation and avenge his family—setting himself up as essentially the ruler of the moon.
In some ways, Wolf Moon feels more like a sprawling family saga than the tightly intricate political/corporate/criminal thriller that was New Moon. Here there is no instigating event, like the assassination attempt in New Moon, that unfolds into an escalating series of crises. Rather, Wolf Moon deals with disintegration and with consequences: the disintegration first of the Corta family and the consequences of their fall from power, the disintegration of the Mackenzie family into warring factions, after an act of malice destroys their main family holding just like they destroyed the Cortas' family seat, and the disintegration of all the old norms and certainties on the moon, as Lucas's plan unfolds. The moon has seen feuds and assassinations and ambushes on the surface and in tunnels, but what it's never seen, before now, is war.
This is a book with numerous viewpoint characters. Young Robson, freerunning in the cities of the moon, is dealing with trauma and powerlessness in his own way, while Lucasinho deals with it through sex and baking, clinging to his lover and protector Abena Asamoah in so many of the wrong ways. Ariel Corta takes on family court cases, watched over by Marina—who has put all her own needs aside to keep Ariel safe and comfortable—at least until Ariel is retained as personal counsel by the chair of the LDC. Wagner Corta, with his dark and light halves—bipolar syndrome, which some people on the moon have developed into a werewolf subculture—is trying to keep Robson safe and also fulfil his other responsibilities. Lucas is determined to survive entry into Earth's gravity, despite the chance that it will kill him. Alexia Corta, one of Lucas's Brazilian cousins, is ruthless, determined to gain wealth, and willing to do anything because Lucas has promised her … it's a pun to say “the moon,” but it's essentially true. In addition there are what seems like a dozen others among the Suns and the MacKenzies and the Asamoahs, the movers and shakers of the moon.
McDonald is extremely good at depicting a vivid world, filled with vivid and believable characters. This is a future inhabited by many different sorts of people, with many different attitudes—there is, for example, an interesting argument between Ariel Corta and youthful political science student Abena Asamoah about the applicability of democratic systems of government to the lunar environment—and most of the major players on the moon are descendants of people from Russia, China, or the global south. The world feels weird enough and lived-in enough to be plausibly real (even if the economics don't really seem to make sense). McDonald writes about killer robots racing over the lunar surface and interpersonal tension with equal aplomb.
But ultimately Luna: Wolf Moon presents me with the same problem that its predecessor did. It's filled with interesting people. But they're all either adolescents, with adolescent ways of dealing with the world (Robson, Lucasinho), or in many ways they're really just terrible people. Ariel Corta appears to possess a very well-developed personal selfishness (her codependent and verbally abusive relationship with her personal assistant and bodyguard Marina was so unpleasant that I cheered when Marina finally decided to go back to Earth) that's matched by her political ambition, but she's unusual for a Corta in that she seems to see the moon as a society rather than an atomised collection of individuals or the playground of feuding families. Lucas Corta's selfishness is of a different order: in his quest for revenge and to restore the status of his family, he's willing to kill hundreds and destroy the existing modus operandi of lunar society. His choices put his remaining relatives in danger of death as a side effect, but he's still willing to quote, “Family first, family always,” to his sister Ariel.
Wagner is perhaps the best of them, struggling to take care of his responsibilities to his nephew and generally not being an asshole. In a novel filled with power-hungry bastards, screwed-up teenagers, and people making terrible life choices, he stands out.
Don't get me wrong. These are deeply compelling characters, despite—or more likely because of—their human flaws. But I find books whose main concerns are human selfishness and ambition—whose main concerns are the ingredients of tragedy, without the catharsis of a tragic consummation—to be very tiring to read. And that's the feeling Wolf Moon left me with: weariness and the anticipation of disaster.
It's a good book. I wouldn't say I liked it. I'll probably read the sequel.
This evening, at a special ceremony held at Foyles’ flagship bookshop on Charing Cross Road in lovely London, the winner of the 31st annual Arthur C. Clarke Award was announced. A suitably celebratory spread of genre readers, writers and industry figures were in attendance as the UK’s most prestigious prize for science fiction literature was awarded to Colson Whitehead for his “intensely moving” novel The Underground Railroad.
Andrew M. Butler, chair of a panel of judges that included representatives of the British Science Fiction Association, the Science Fiction Foundation and the SCI-FI LONDON Film Festival, expressed delight at the decision, describing Whitehead’s sixth novel—which concerns a pair of slaves fighting for their freedom along the length of a subterranean railway—as “a gripping account both of humanity’s inhumanity and the potential for resistance, underpinned by science fiction’s ability to make metaphor literal.”
Whitehead himself was unfortunately unable to attend the ceremony, but plenty of peeps from his UK publisher Fleet were on hand to read out this short but sweet speech:
“This is wonderful news! Way back when I was ten years old, it was science fiction and fantasy that made me want to be a writer. If you were a writer, you could work from home, you didn’t have to talk to anybody, and you could just make up stuff all day. Stuff about robots and maybe zombies and maybe even miraculous railway lines. Fantasy, like realism, is a tool for describing the world, and I’m grateful that a book like The Underground Railroad, which could not exist without the toolkit of fantastic literature, is being recognised with the Arthur C. Clarke Award.”
Whitehead’s triumph entitles him to the traditional trophy—a commemorative, engraved bookend—and a prize pot of £2017.
As “a tribute to Sir Arthur’s original intent that the award be as inclusive as possible in defining its genre,” Award Director Tom Hunter added, “and a book that demonstrates science fiction’s uncanny ability to be both of the moment and an enduringly powerful message for futures to come […] The Underground Railroad is a much-deserved winner.” Not least, he noted, because “2017 marks Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s centenary year.”
Given which, the aforementioned ceremony also acted as the staging ground for several exciting announcements, with Hunter revealing “commemorative plans for a new science fiction anthology featuring stories from both past winning and shortlisted authors where every story will be precisely 2001 words long.”
Add to that a mooted “music project releasing a science fiction score inspired by Sir Arthur’s famous ‘Three Laws’ quotes,” the second of which—which states that “the only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible”—feels like a fitting encapsulation of the Arthur C. Clarke Award administration’s exceedingly interesting ambitions.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.