Luna Review: One Jo Moonbeam on a Whole New Moon

By Karie Luidens on

About Karie Luidens

I’m a writer of social commentary, art criticism, literary fiction, and philosophical musings. I’m currently finishing my first novel.


I may never look at the moon the same way again. Ian McDonald has taken that barren ball of white-gray rock and textured it with genius near-future technology, startlingly sensuous settings, and as much tightly-packed drama and cultural diversity as an over-crowded city of immigrants.

It is, after all, populated entirely by immigrants. This is the moon a century from now, and a century of development has grown the population to a mere 1.7 million humans. Everyone is layered into a few artiMcDonald, Luna New Moonficial cities, from fresh-off-the-boat “Jo(e) Moonbeams” with clumsy terrestrial bulk to second- and third-generation inhabitants, whose light, elongated skeletons render them elegant but fragile.

Low-gravity life leads to low-density bones: Luna is sprinkled with clever details like this. What other lunar nuances does McDonald take into account? Organic matter is precious, so bots sweep the streets for stray skin-flakes and the impoverished sell their piss to scrape by. Without a protective atmosphere, the landscape is expose
d to a steady sleet of solar radiation that drives the wealthy into the deepest abodes while the poor working classes are forced to live in apartments near the surface.

Note the classism, which is at the heart of McDonald’s story. This is a book about the moon, yes, but only insofar as it casts light on human nature. The fun questions—how does a dirt-bike race play out in a vacuum? How are cocktails poured in low gravity?—are secondary to the crucial central question: when humans start from scratch in a stark new land, lawless and lethal, how will they structure their society?

If you were hoping that humanity’s migration to an empty orb would offer a fresh chance at utopia, think again. People bring their problems with them, and human hierarchies are as unforgiving as the moon’s airless regolith. Five families have risen to power as the moon’s main capitalist producers, and they rule like mafia dynasties complete with backroom deals, hired knives, and political marriages. There is no pretense of democracy in this new order, nor is there civil law or criminal law. Only contract law applies, and it’s settled in courts that are blatantly for hire. This may leave laid-off laborers to gasp their last breath in back allies, but money and therefore favorable rulings are no issue for the five families or, as they’ve come to be known, the Five Dragons.

At least this lunar dystopia is progressive in terms of ethnic equality. Like corrupt descendants of the Planeteers, the Five Dragons hail from five Earth continents, though they’re far more interested in exploiting lunar resources than protecting them. The Brazilian Corta Hélio mines helium-3 while the Australian McKenzie Metals refines rare earth minerals for export. The Asamoah family of Ghana manages sweltering underground greenhouses, the Suns of China design sophisticated AI and robotics, and the Russian Vorontsovs run lunar transportation systems. Each family depends on the others, both for the resources they sell and for the critical genetic diversity they offer via intermarriage in such a limited environment. And yet most are hell-bent on conquering the others. Assassination attempts, sabotage, and family feuds drive the story forward at the breakneck speed of a six-gee moonloop capsule.

Ah, the story. It sprawls, subplot upon subplot with a cast so extensive that the book is obliged to open with a five-page character list. And yet it never loses, confuses, or drops the pace. Marina is perhaps the most relatable as a Jo Moonbeam who brings an earthy outsider’s perspective to the warring families and their lunar lifestyle. But each scion of the Corta family is fully developed as the narration leaps from one to the next and ties their dramas together. Several lunar subcultures are given their due as well, from musicians to sports clubs to newly-melded religious cults to a mysterious pack of “wolves.”

If that wasn’t enough to pique your interest, there’s plenty of sex up there. This is another realm where the lunar dystopia is progressive. The concept of a neat spectrum from heterosexual to homosexual is so old-fashioned, so terrestrial, you see. Marriages are same-sex as often as not. And in a world where marriage contracts are strategic and temporary, everyone has as many amors as he, she, e, or né cares to take on (unless she prefers to remain autosexual). One or two of McDonald’s sex scenes seems gratuitous, but most provide further insight on the nature of this future society, and in their varying degrees of intimacy and discomfort they feel terribly human.

That is the wonder of sci-fi at its best, isn’t it? It is so otherworldly and yet so familiar. Luna pulls it off with panache. Capitalist competition and dynastic rivalries on that lump of dead rock a quarter of a billion miles above the only planet known to support life? It could happen. And the vivid descriptiveness found in these chapters could convince you that it’s destined to happen in the next hundred years—I know I’ll be contemplating that possibility with a shiver the next time I look at that pale globe in the night sky.

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