Banking on the Future: Ian McDonald’s “Luna: Moon Rising”

By Hugh Charles O’ConnellSeptember 16, 2019

Banking on the Future: Ian McDonald’s “Luna: Moon Rising”

Luna: Moon Rising by Ian McDonald

WITH LUNA: MOON RISING, Ian McDonald brings his lunar colonization trilogy to a close. Completing a tightly plotted series like this is a surprisingly new accomplishment for an SF writer who has been working as long as McDonald. Previous series have either gone unfinished (Chaga and Everness) or weren’t really series at all, so much as narratives set in the same world (Desolation Road and Ares Express). So, to that end, before going any further, I should note that Moon Rising shouldn’t and really can’t be read as a stand-alone novel, and I’ll make no effort to avoid spoilers from the previous installments.

Moon colonization narratives seem to be in vogue again, with Kim Stanley Robinson (Red Moon), Andy Weir (Artemis), and John Kessel (The Moon and the Other) recently adding their spins to the subgenre. However, the Luna trilogy stands out as the most attuned to our precarious age by yoking the libertarian moonbase narrative of yesteryear to the issues that pervade our present and strangle our future: debt, finance, AI-assisted surveillance capitalism, anthropogenic climate change, and energy futures. In the shadow of its economically developing moon with an enviable socially liberal culture, the Earth appears like a relic, ravaged by climate change, pandemics, and energy insecurity. Reversing the usual colonial relations, terrestrial civilization is little more than a hollowed out pseudo-imperial core, desperately dependent on the vast migration of surplus workers to the libertarian-imperial satellite and the new post-oil energy that it produces.

Yet the Moon is now beginning to show troublingly familiar signs of its own industrial development. Throughout the narrative, there are a litany of casual asides noting the scars of unrestrained capitalism. Outside of the corporate settlements, the lunar surface resembles a “post-industrial wasteland,” littered with “abandoned rovers and sinterers, obsolete environment equipment […] [o]bsolete technology, fallen comms towers, capsized dishes, ruptured tanks, junked rovers, cannibalized trains” — in short, “the standard lunar scrapheap of abandoned machinery.” As is made clear, this is the cost of treating the Moon as little more than a resource to be strip-mined. Thus, it is not only a developmental junk pile that mars the lunar surface. Rather, the lunar environment itself is disfigured: “[T]he railcar runs through the destroyed lands of the southern Palus; rilles graded flat, craters scraped to wrinkles in the skin of the moon, regolith worked and reworked, sifted and sifted until every atom of value has been sucked from it.” With the ruined Earth lying in the developmental background, the question of political futurity for this purely economic moon begins to finally take center stage. Is the Moon a resource to be exploited or a world to be governed?

Although the larger war for control of the Moon is over — Lucas, backed by the Earth, has won — several intermittent skirmishes smolder in the background of Moon Rising. And while McDonald still loves a good set piece of destruction, the lingering violence in the aftermath of this coup is often more intimate and personal, revolving around political kidnappings, the jockeying for position among those left alive, and the settling of deeply personal scores. In other words, we are squarely in third-act territory, wrapping up and mopping up. Heroes will be revealed, villains will receive their punishments, while many others, if left alive, will simply be broken by this corporate-cum-imperial hostile takeover. As such, the tone of this final volume is notably different from the earlier books in the series, which is reflected by its comparably somber opening.

Each of the preceding novels began with a thrilling set piece, designed to accentuate the particular novelties and hazards of lunar living or, in perhaps more appropriately neoliberal parlance, the exhilaration of precarity. The first installment, New Moon, began with the moon run, where humans pit their bodies against the vacuum of space as a dare to the Moon that “knows a thousand ways to kill you.” Wolf Moon similarly channels youthful adventurism, beginning with the freefall of Robson Corta as he plummets three kilometers from the top of the city on his low-gravity parkour run. In each of these openings, the death-defying desire to square off against the cold rationality of the Moon is ultimately less about a confrontation with nature than a reminder of the ruthlessness of a libertarian governing system that elevates the market to the level of nature. Such tales of survival and rugged individualism function as allegories for life without a social safety net, where every breath is tallied and must be paid for.

The opening sentence of the new novel forgoes such faux-heroism and cuts to the chase: “Eight figures escort the casket across the Sea of Fecundity.” There’s no longer any pretense of thrill at pitting oneself against the remorseless laws of nature or the pseudo-nature of the market. Margaret Thatcher’s ideal world — a world without society, which McDonald has noted functions as the keystone of Luna’s world-building — could only ever lead to death, or what Moon Rising aptly summarizes as “[l]ate-capitalist asphyxiation.” Sooner or later your contracts run dry and your income disappears, and with them your access to the four fundamentals of life on the Moon: water, air, carbon, and bandwidth. This is the inevitable outcome when we mask a social vacuum as a natural one. In other words, Moon Rising, as exemplified by this opening, shifts the Luna narrative from a matter of risks to a matter of costs.

Much like the earlier opening scenes, this funeral procession across the industrial, battle-scarred Moon sets Moon Rising’s thematic agenda. It’s a novel of the aftermath, an accounting for the deaths and destruction that took place in the earlier two installments. Perhaps its key ethical question centers on the conflict between political-financial calculation and mourning as the responsibility for such decisions. Fitting Luna’s neoliberal world-building, it’s a financial logic about deferred futures options: now that the settlement comes in, were the initial risk investments worth their cost? This is reflected most resolutely through Alexia’s narrative as Lucas’s new Mão de Ferro (iron hand), her need to help administer Lucas’s new ruling coalition, and her grief for enacting the mass death of Iron Fall that so spectacularly bookends Wolf Moon. And it’s not just Alexia; many of the key characters are psychologically and/or physically broken. Marina has returned to an Earth that sees her as a spy “from a hostile nation.” She is attacked multiple times and finds herself the source of danger for the family that she was trying to help by going to the Moon in the first place. Lucas is physically crippled from his return trip to Earth and must hold together a new coalition of Earth’s corporations and nations that care little for the world of the Moon. Lucasinho, the body in the coffin in the opening scene, is in an interstitial position between life and death after giving his final breath to Luna in his attempt to survive his father’s war. Ariel has been abandoned by her one true confidant, rendered a quadriplegic, and now she must square off against her brother’s new regime. Even the novel’s overt villains suffer; with the McKenzie patriarch dead, Bryce and Hadley McKenzie are engaged in a full-blown familial civil war. McDonald keeps up the pace, but this is a lot to resolve (and it’s not even close to everything).

While critical consensus has been deservedly kind to the first two entries in the series — praising their world-building acuity, the Dickensian cast, and corporate soap opera plotting — reaction to the third installment has been not only less effusive, but really just less, with fewer marquee reviews. The critical responses that have appeared have been decidedly mixed, juxtaposing praise for Moon Rising’s vision and scope with criticism for the narratives’ pace and bagginess. Something like this is to be expected for the concluding volume of a series that reveled in complex corporate intrigue carried out through epically destructive familial blood feuds. Indeed, there was nothing built up in the first two volumes that couldn’t be spectacularly destroyed. It often seemed as if McDonald took such care in his world-building precisely to call to mind the cost of the rampant destruction that was consistently leveled against every city, outpost, and bit of infrastructure. Even the large-scale cast of characters compelled by the structure of a “five families” drama was also necessary in part to have a healthy number of key figures to kill off while still leaving main players around to carry the plot.

But resolution is harder than destruction, and in this sense, the closing of the Luna trilogy faced a rather similar problem to the closing of that series to which it was so often compared: HBO’s Game of Thrones. How do you positively conclude such a narrative if what you have is a thoroughly anti-utopian dystopia? What constitutes a satisfying conclusion when the narrative is supposed to be about returning to order, but that order reifies the originary dystopian conditions? Whatever else we might want to say about Game of Thrones or its disastrous last season, the question of an ending that would set its world to right was impossible from within its own confines: no matter what, we end up with a capricious autocratic ruler by definition of their absolute monarchal sovereignty. Despite the utterly ridiculous and pointless “symbolic” melting of the Iron Throne, the series was always already going to end with an orgy of death resulting in another body on another throne — but this time the right one, the fated one — as any notion of revolutionary change is laughed off the screen with a knowingly cynical wink. Any resolution was always going to be flat and uninspiring, leaving the inimical structures ultimately in place, even validating them. In other words, the series’s lazily pseudo-transcendental notion of fate hides a far more prosaic and troubling materialist notion of anti-utopianism — the idea that society can’t be different, that any radical difference would be worse.

Although much of the comparison of the Luna series to Game of Thrones was of course a convenient dodge — “A Game of Domes!” was conceived of by his publishers as a way of reaching those under 40 unfamiliar with McDonald’s elevator pitch of Dallas on the Moon — one point of comparison rings true: the seeming impossibility of futurity from within the narrative’s own neoliberal limits. Luna, at first glance, seems to suffer from a similar problem: How are we supposed to care about which corporation ultimately ends up ruling the Moon? Which unelected autocratic CEO do you want to control your access to the fundamentals of life?

In the conclusion to my review of Luna: Wolf Moon, I questioned where the series could be heading, given its confrontation between two such anti-utopian choices: the neoimperial free-marketism of the Lunar Development Corporation, with the status of the Moon as something like an independent corporate outpost with no local government, versus the more nakedly imperial Lunar Mandate Authority and the recapturing of lunar society by a conglomeration of terrestrial national and corporate powers. In the face of such stultifying options, the third novel wisely follows Lucas’s tactical advice: “I believe it is always good to introduce a third force into a simple binary. It sows instability and chaos. I like chaos.”

This is where Moon Rising shifts the ground most notably from the previous installments. What had looked like the instantiation of a new order is revealed as an interregnum, a moment of chaos where the traditional order is suspended. As Ariel states, “The old moon is dead. It died at his first meeting with the financiers, the government representatives, the military advisers, down on the hell of Earth. The new moon is not yet born. The piece is not played through.” For the first time in the series, then, futurity as a break with the known limits is a possibility. However, destruction is not only easier to write than resolution, it’s also easier than possibility, as is captured by the now seemingly mandatory reference to Fredric Jameson’s well-known provocation that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Part of the unevenness noted by critics, then, is related to a more narratively tricky investment in openness and possibility. If the earlier novels gave us spectacular images of destruction, the last entry attempts to salvage something new from within these ruins beyond simple calculable resolution or fated end.

Yet, Luna’s overarching narrative has always dallied with notions of fate and the predicted importance of Ariel Corta’s destiny for the Moon. In a rather original twist, however, it replaces such fantastical notions of fate and necromancy with financial fiscalmancy and AI quantum computing prediction analytics. In one sense, finance likes to mask itself as fate, producing the future as the inevitable outcome of its risk-leveraging calculations. Indeed, the language of capitalist development often presents the cycles of production and finance in natural terms with finance as the autumnal stage that takes over as production values lag, before ultimately giving way to a new center and new production cycle. With this in mind, Moon Rising follows up on one of the most interesting minor threads briefly teased in the first installment that had largely gone undeveloped; it reprises the role of Vidhya Rao, the quantum AI computing construct known as the Three August Ones, and the tensions between commodity production and financial economic development.

One of the more provocative ideas developed in the novel is the idea of a permanent financial regime and the end of such “natural” boom and bust cycles. As Rao describes it, this would mean a version of a fully automated financial market and system of energy production, run by managerial AI, that results in a sort of financial communism:

The Lunar Bourse will make this world the first truly post-scarcity society. With a guaranteed income for every citizen and limitless solar energy, work as we understand it will evaporate. We will be a post-labour society with the resources and opportunity for everyone to achieve personal self-actualization. From the Bourse, according to its profitability, to each according to their desire. […] This is the future of our world.

However, for the production-oriented Dragons, such an audacious proposal spells the end of their world:

You want to turn us into a moon-sized stock market, Alexia realizes. […] A black moon […]. Every mountain laid low, every crater filled, every sea flooded with black glass. From Barra, you would look up on a summer night and see nothing. A hole in the sky. Inside that hole, money making money. […] This is the end of your world, Alexia thinks. This is everything you have built and fought for and struggled to keep alive, all drowned in black glass.

Automation and value redistribution are at the heart of utopian accelerationist communism, as captured by the recent popularity of the slogan “fully automated luxury gay communism.” But, as Alexia reminds us, it is also the dream of capital, which has long sought ways to remove workers and their remuneration and upkeep from the surplus value equation. This vision seeks to literally turn the world into a ceaseless generator of expropriated profit, foreclosing unknowable futurity as possibility in the name of the calculable future as profit.

Can Moon Rising break out of cyclical financial fate in the name of futurity and possibility? I won’t ruin the ending here. Suffice to say, after the fights between the Dragons have been quelled, this is the central question, which was always lying in the background of the series, that must now finally be answered: Is the Moon just another site to be developed and leveraged on a futures market? Or, can we imagine a future outside of our financialized present that isn’t simply a return to the supposedly good old days of productive capitalist economies (which as the degradation of the lunar landscape reminds us, caused the problems in the first place)? Can we imagine value outside of increasing stockholder profit through futures markets? Can we envision development that isn’t destruction? In short, how do we salvage a sense of the future from a present based on the immiserating of the many at the hands of the few? How Luna Rising resolves these questions is ultimately less important than the fact that it is asking them.


Hugh Charles O’Connell is an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His current research examines the relationship between speculative fiction and speculative finance. He is the co-editor with David M. Higgins of Speculative Finance/Speculative Fiction, a special issue of CR: The New Centennial Review 19.1. Recent essays on British and postcolonial science fiction have appeared in Utopian Studies, The Cambridge History of Science Fiction, Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, Modern Fiction Studies, and Paradoxa.

LARB Contributor

Hugh Charles O’Connell [he/him] is an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His current research examines the relationship between speculative fiction and speculative finance. He is the co-editor with David M. Higgins of Speculative Finance/Speculative Fiction, a special issue of CR: The New Centennial Review. Recent essays on contemporary and postcolonial science fiction have appeared in Extrapolation, Utopian Studies, The Cambridge History of Science Fiction, The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, Modern Fiction Studies, Paradoxa, Science Fiction Film and Television, The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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