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Earth’s economic woes haunt the first lunar colony in a fictional near future

Red Moon

Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit
2018
464 pp.
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On Kim Stanley Robinson’s Moon, gibbons soar like flying squirrels. A billionaire transforms an immense lava tube into a fantasy of classical China. Old friends view a majestic Earthrise.

It’s the year 2047, and the Moon has been colonized by the world’s sole superpower: China. American Fred Fredericks makes his first lunar voyage to deliver a secure communications device to Chang Yazu, chief administrator of the Chinese Lunar Authority. But when they shake hands, Chang drops dead. He’s been poisoned, and Fred is accused of murder.

Fred’s fate quickly becomes intertwined with that of Chan Qi, the pregnant daughter of a top Chinese official. Qi is herself on the run, her destiny tied in with a nascent global revolution. Together, Fred and Qi travel back and forth between the Moon and China to evade the mysterious forces seeking to capture them.

Robinson’s novels are known for detailed visions of the future and deep supporting research. This pattern holds for Red Moon, but although the lunar colony is interesting, it’s China that steals the show. Still under the rule of the Communist Party, China in 2047 is a nation of contrasts: cleaner and greener than today’s China, while also more urbanized. It is a surveillance state, but one balkanized and weakened by infighting agencies. This future China is an economic powerhouse, and also a land of great inequality: One-third of its population suffers discrimination under the hukou system, which keeps people tied to the place they were born. Those from poor rural areas face a choice: an impoverished life, or existence as a migrant laborer, without health care or protection from abuse.

As Fred flees with Qi, he comes to understand her importance as a leader of these rootless workers. Mass demonstrations in Beijing, ordered by Qi while she and Fred hide on the Moon, quickly spread to the United States and other nations—lesser powers inextricably linked to China through the global financial system—and snowball into a worldwide people’s revolt.

If this sounds less like science fiction than political thriller, consider that The New Yorker labeled Robinson “one of the most important political writers working in America today” (1). His previous work has tackled climate change, artificial intelligence, and economic and governance systems, topics woven into this novel, too. That the market dominates life regardless of whether the system of government is Chinese communism or American democracy is a central underlying theme.

Red Moon is political on multiple levels: from the characters’ motivations, to interagency rivalries and international sparring, to—ultimately—global rebellion. But such a focus comes with a downside: The novel lavishes attention on concepts and ideas, while characters and relationships are neglected.

MARK RALSTON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In Robinson’s imagined future, China has colonized the moon, but is mired in earthly drama.

Fred, for instance, is passive and asocial. More than once, I wondered whether he might be on the autism spectrum. But this element of his persona, like so much else about him, remains unexplained and largely unexplored. Qi is unremittingly grouchy. It’s unclear how she went from daughter of the elite to leader of the dispossessed, and her pregnancy serves more as a plot device than as a clue to her nature. (Robinson’s description of a baby in a space suit, however, forms another haunting image in the book.)

Despite spending much of the story in close quarters, Qi and Fred fail to develop any chemistry. Along with most of the book’s other characters, they engage in a great deal of expositional dialogue for seemingly no other purpose than to explore the themes of true interest to the author.

Robinson can draw three-dimensional characters when he chooses to. In Red Moon, the most personable by far is Ta Shu, a feng shui–obsessed travel show host whose humor and vulnerability shine through in his love of poetry and his grief over the death of his mother. I wish that Fred and Qi had been given similar depth.

Despite its largely forgettable characters, Red Moon portrays striking scenes amid a compelling vision of the future. Then again, perhaps that juxtaposition is part of the novel’s lesson: In a churning world of unhappy billions, with growing inequality along with ever more technology and surveillance, it’s important not to forget that our individuality is also the source of our shared humanity.

References

  1. T. Kreider, The New Yorker, 12 December 2013; www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/our-greatest-political-novelist.

About the author

The reviewer is an analyst and writer based in Washington, DC, USA.