Fiction Reviews


Luna

(2015) Ian McDonald, Gollancz, £16.99, trdpbk, 382pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20223-8

 

Near Earth, near future. We have colonised the Moon, over a million people living in permanent exile in sub-surface habitats mining metals, helium and anything else valuable to Earth and the growing Luna economy. Quasi-independent, the Moon is run by five extended families, the Five Dragons, on semi-feudal lines. The law is a negotiation, and everything and anything goes so long as it has the sanction of one of the families. And the families are at each other’s throats.

The story swaps multiple points of view with bewildering pace. There are enough characters to warrant a glossary; enough storylines to fill an epic. Matriarch Adriana Costa, Portugese founder of Corta Helio, the upstart Fifth Dragon of self made helium miners, is 80 years old and dying. Her sons Rafa and Lucas fight the arrogance of Mackenzie metals for dominance of the nascent lunar economy. Rafa is hotheaded and irrational; Lucas is distracted by love. Adriana’s other children Ariel, Carlinhos and Wagner (the inevitable disowned Jon Snow-like bastard) also all feature prominently: hard, soft and mysterious respectably. Then there are the wives, the offspring, the lovers and the other families: the Suns, the Vorontsovs and the Asamoahs. The Lunar Development Corporation with its Eagle of the Moon, the Sisterhood of the Lords of Now, to whom Adriana makes her confession, and the shadowy secret societies that Ariel becomes increasingly embroiled with. It’s a jostle for power mixed with family feuds on a new frontier where only the strong, the callous and the ruthless survive, where life is precious but death is cheap and where everything goes but nothing endures.

This is Dallas in space. But it is an intelligent Dallas, a clever take on our first colony. Earth is barely mentioned, useful only as a place to provide grateful sales and a steady supply of Jo Moonbeams, new settlers who have two years to work and leave or else they must stay forever. From the moment of arrival, or birth, however, The Lunar Development Corporation demands payment for the four elementals: air, water, space and data. Status bars for each appear in the retina and count down. No payment, no breath. Computer interface is via ‘familiars’: holographic personal assistants. And death is by knife or poison; guns in the sealed lunar environment would be collective suicide.

That mix is both fresh and feral, a convincing nod to the new and a return to intimate and personal forms of killing giving the book a retro flavour in a new skin.

The plot whirls slowly found the imminent death of Adriana and her succession, spiced up by an assassination attempt on Rafa and the murder of his first wife, a Mackenzie. Both families blame the other, though the smart money is always on a hidden power broker, and a turf war erupts gloriously. Right in the mix is the new arrival Marina Calzaghe, presumably our touchstone character, who saves Rafa, falls in love with his brother Carlinhos, acts as protector of Ariel and who therefore pivots the storyline. She’s an engaging character – most of them are – and along with Adriana she holds this book together.

This book is astonishingly well written. To have so many characters in 382 pages and be able to give each space and differentiation should not be possible, and yet McDonald pulls it off. It is soap-opera plot, with hints at something big but actually comprising a series of interlinked smaller stories, all with enough mayhem and tension, both sexual and political, to make every page swift, powerful and eminently readable.

Ian McDonald’s got form in this sort of thing, of course. He has won a Hugo, multiple BSFA awards, the John W Campbell memorial award and more. Desolation Road, The Dervish House, River of Gods: all great books. Luna is just as good.  Highly recommended.

Mark Bilsborough


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