Between Earth and Heaven: Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson

I don’t know about you, but I’d go to the moon in a minute. Not necessarily right now, but if, in a few years, the trip was relatively inexpensive, and I could be assured of a safe launch and landing, then that’s a rocket I’d ride! Just to put a booted foot on that “bone-white ball” between Earth and Heaven—so near, yet so far; so familiar, yet so alien—would be the experience of a lifetime, I imagine, for me and for many.

For Fred Fredericks, the point of entry perspective of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon, that invigorating voyage—into the black and back at seven times the speed of sound—is no more than a necessary evil. His American employer has sent him skyward simply to deliver a device to one of the moon’s Chinese masters: a secure, quantum-entangled phone that can only communicate with its equivalent on Earth. Fred plans to “make sure it’s connected with its twin and working well. After that [he’ll] head home.” Unfortunately for him, in Robinson’s torturous new novel even the best-laid plans have a habit of collapsing on Luna, so when Fred’s meeting with Governor Chang Yazu ends with the head of the special section dead, no one other than the newcomer is entirely surprised.

Alas, being confused doesn’t stop him from being accused, but before he can be completely disappeared, a seemingly sympathetic third party arranges for Fred to be flown back to Beijing alongside the subject of another diplomatic incident waiting to happen: a pregnant “princessling” by the name of Chan Qi. Qi is, as the figurehead of a revolutionary rights movements, the black sheep of the family of a particularly powerful Party leader. Her status has in turn made her a target of Red Spear, a secret wing of the Chinese military that may also be responsible for the fix Fred is in.

He tried to see the pattern, but there was too little he knew about the middle ground. That vast space between the thread of events he had witnessed and the great tapestry of the overarching landscape was like the clouds of mist that floated between the tiny travellers at the bottom of a painting and the distant peaks at the top.

What follows is a game of cat and mouse that takes our odd couple and their increasingly brutal pursuers to and from the moon by way of a series of cells, shops, cities and shuttles that do little to distract from the monotonous nature of their narrative. Again and again and again they hole up in one hideout only to find out that they’ve been found just in time to make their escape to another hideout where they’re safe for several days until they realise that they’re in danger and the whole routine repeats.

In between their ineffective escape attempts, Fred and Qi do at least develop a friendship. Thrown together as they are by chance and circumstance, they’re strangers to one another—and to us—at the outset of Red Moon, but before long they’ve nothing to do but get to know one another, and in the process, we get a sense of them as well. Fred, in the first, is fascinating, as it’s suggested, if not outright stated, that he’s somewhere on the spectrum. His struggles, especially in social situations, are subtly and sensitively shown, and his growth as a character through his interactions with Qi is ultimately rather satisfying. Sadly, this is mostly notable because he’s absent a personality, like “a book that had no pages,” for large portions of Robinson’s novel.

Qi is similarly interesting in the abstract, and similarly disappointing in practice. Robinson regularly asserts that she’s a strong woman with power to wield in the world, but only occasionally are we witness to her leading anyone but Fred. The rest of the time she’s relegated to a role which actively undercuts her characterisation: as Irritable Pregnant Princessling—or so the call sheet would read—Qi has little opportunity to do much of anything in Red Moon but birth a babe and badger other characters.

Despite these difficulties, Qi and Fred’s friendship is the closest thing Red Moon has to a heart. But for their relatively small role in the whole, it’s a stone-cold story far less interested in humour and humanity than in depicting a familiar future history Robinson has explored more potently before. Indeed, a great many of Red Moon’s moments are reminiscent of the author’s other efforts: there are moonwalks that recall the exhilarating opening of 2312; an AI acquiring something close to consciousness that Aurora’s readers will remember; and a title that demands comparison to the first volume of Robinson’s monumental Mars trilogy—a comparison that does nothing for this relatively feeble work of fiction.

Red Mars at least tackled its titular topic, whereas the moon of Red Moon isn’t much more than a backdrop for an exploration of infighting in China. Even then, what all this “wolidou” comes down to is a commingling of convolutions and contrivances, and a whole mess of complexities:

We think in pairs and quadrants, and in threes and nines, and every concept has its opposite embedded in it as part of its definition. So we can say, in just that way: China is simple, China is complicated. China is rich, China is poor. China is proud, China is forever traumatised by its century of humiliation. On it goes, each truth balanced by its opposite, until all the combinations come to this, which actually I think has no valid opposite: China is confusing. To say China is easy to understand—no. I don’t know anyone who would say that. It would be a little crazy to say that.

Red Moon could conceivably have been the beginning of something brilliant, but like China according to cloud star Ta Shu—another potentially appealing perspective hobbled in this instance by the author’s insistence on infodumping—it is also its own opposite: at the same time as it is robust and original, as it can be at its best, it is, at its worst, weak and dreadfully derivative. And coming as it does from Kim Stanley Robinson, a visionary voice in the genre if ever there was one, that—that and not its well-intentioned but wasted characters; that and not its ambitious but byzantine narrative—that dearth of delight and insight is Red Moon’s most frustrating facet.

Red Moon is available from Orbit.

Still image of the moon’s Tycho Crater, credit: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange 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.

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