The Moon is an Even Harsher CEO

The Moon is an Even Harsher CEO

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

IAN MCDONALD’S Luna: New Moon heralds the welcome return of one of western science fiction’s foremost globally oriented authors. Bristling with the energy and action gleaned from a recent stint writing young adult fiction, the series has already been scooped up for development by CBS Paramount and extended from a proposed duology into a trilogy (the second installment, Luna: Wolf Moon, is expected in February 2017). Yet Luna accomplishes much more than simply demonstrating the author’s newfound appreciation for snappy plotting and adventure. It is in many respects an updating of McDonald’s first interplanetary colonization novel, Desolation Road, for our globally precarious present. Nestled within a narrative of lunar colonization driven by STEM developments and a decimated, post-oil Earth economy, Luna burns with the desperate anxieties of the late-capitalist, financialized age: the universalization of debt, the demand for contingent and flexible labor, and the resulting polarized wealth gap.

McDonald’s own location in the colonial periphery of Northern Ireland affords him a unique sympathy for the outsider’s point of view, and this quality permeates Desolation Road. Among other subjects, the novel concerns the formation of a secluded settlement far from the main sites of Martian colonization and follows the strange small town antics of its eccentric inhabitants. Discussing a possible television adaptation, McDonald likened his novel to the show Northern Exposure, if populated by South Asians and Australians and set on Mars. This description accurately captures the novel’s idiosyncratic presentation of everyday life in an outpost of late capitalist society experienced at a cultural remove from the politically dominant center. While the novel and its brilliant sequel, Ares Express, contain all the features of a far future colonial post-singularity narrative (including quantum-computing AIs, fusion powered trains, and the manipulation of the space-time fabric through multiple worlds theory), they decenter the typical science fiction point of view by focusing on the cultural margins. One gets the feeling that if McDonald had written Neuromancer, the setting would’ve been a nowhere town in Montana or Kansas rather than the Sprawl and corporate orbitals. The same technological and sociopolitical determinations would feature in the novel’s world, but a far stranger amalgamation of residual and folk-level cultural practices within the dominant techno hegemony might instead comprise the superstructure.

This brand of world building leads to one of McDonald’s greatest strengths: an ability to think through the uneven development and cultural diffusion of global economic and technological change. In a striking fashion, McDonald’s worlds are heavily cultural. Instead of the usual palettes of techno ascetic, noir grime, or vulgar-commodified futures of so much second-tier cyberpunk, McDonald’s corpus is littered with songs, poetry, religious iconography, and cosmologies. These cultural facets position the latest technological developments in computing, quantum theory, and nanotechnological body enhancements within a larger sociocultural milieu that often illustrates the view from the colonial margins and their adaptation of the center’s techno-futures. McDonald’s worlds, whether grim, hopeful, or — as is often the case — both, feel lived in rather than culturally depleted or used up. At first glance, this appears to be the case in Luna, whose inhabitants are drawn from the peripheral and semi-peripheral sites of Earth’s global economy and whose vibrant global culture intermixes myriad elements including Catholicism and Yoruba orishas, bossa nova bands, 1950s haute couture, Korean corporate structures, and the Hawaiian calendar.

With Luna, however, McDonald seems to have reversed the outsider’s point of view that drove his earlier Mars colonization novels. Initially, Luna appears redolent of older models of imperialism, portraying the simple annexation of the Moon by earthly corporations fulfilling the 19th-century imperial dream par excellence. As Cecil Rhodes put it, “To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.” In the late 21st-century setting of Luna, the first commercial venture to fulfill Rhodes’s impossible dream is an Australian mining company seeking to dig up rare-earth metals for use in the production of Earth’s technological commodities. As such, the colonization of the Moon initially continues the trajectory of 19th-century imperialism by positing the Moon as a location for offsetting unproductive labor reserves, an object for financial speculation and technological development, and a source of primitive accumulation.

However, having set his last four adult novels in Kenya, India, Brazil, and Turkey, respectively, McDonald has developed a knack for decentering the locations and cultures of the core capitalist nations as the sole progenitors of futurity. Luna builds on this tradition by positioning the lunar colonial periphery as the new center of capitalist production. On Earth, a confluence of energy scarcity, joblessness, global economic disaster, refugee crises, and drug-resistant tuberculosis outbreaks creates the conditions for this shift in sociopolitical relations. The Moon, then — Rhodes’s ultimate colonial periphery and the primordial blank spot on the cosmic map of science fiction’s imperial imaginary — rebounds as the hellish fulfillment of the neoliberal capitalism that has turned moribund on Earth. In a fitting analogy of the combined and uneven development that drives capitalist modernity, Earth becomes the dependent client state for the Moon’s energy and mineral production, while plots are being hatched to potentially sever the Moon from Earth’s political grips entirely.

McDonald’s economically dominant Moon is home to about 1.7 million people, most of whom work for one of five major corporate enterprises known as the Five Dragons. Each of the Dragons is connected to one controlling family and one particular monopoly: The Australian McKenzies control rare-earth metal mining; The Chinese Suns control computer and AI development; the Russian Vorontsovs control space flight operations; the Ghanaian Asamoahs control food production; and finally, the Brazilian Cortas control Helium extraction (the main energy source for the post-oil Earth). Much of the present-time plot focuses on these families’ rivalries and the intermarriages designed to quell rashes of violence between them. The cast of characters feels Dickensian in scope, and the book begins with a long corporate family tree, detailing three generations of family lineage and intermarriages. Many reviewers have noted an initial difficulty getting into the story due to the constant barrage of names and shifting narrative points of view. Capturing this sentiment, Adam Roberts in his Guardian review critiques Luna’s “rather clogged opening” which “hurriedly introduces us to a dozen main characters and several dozen minor ones.” Indeed, it may be better to treat the novel as if it were the television show it was always intended to be, letting the host of characters wash over you and trusting the narrative to bring them together, which it eventually does, and magnificently to boot.

At the subgenre level, like much of McDonald’s fiction, the novel partakes in what critic Andrew M. Butler refers to as the remix aesthetic, rebooting and melding aspects of previous genre sources for the contemporary moment. The most obvious narrative precursor is Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and at the risk of displeasing Heinlein’s fan base, Luna is the better book. Luna takes more risks and revels in its own narrative and historical necessities that produce complexity and ambivalence rather than moralizing or proselytizing. Much like the cocktails that permeate Luna’s social stratosphere, this Moon colonization narrative is gently mixed with and bolstered by a host of other narrative ingredients. With its focus on corporate dynasties, McDonald originally pitched the novel as Dallas in space. However, given the explicit violence that permeates this familial soap opera, The Godfather comes strongly to mind, as does Game of Thrones with its cod-feudal plots concerning succession. So the recipe might be two parts The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as the base, with one part Dallas and a generous dash of The Godfather strained through Game of Thrones; as with all good cocktails, the sum is greater than its parts, with each teasing out hidden layers of complexity from the others.

While the novel combines many generic traits and moves across many points of view, the story of the Corta family, the youngest of the Five Dragons, takes center stage. Their narrative comes out in a roughly tripartite structure that plays on the insider versus outsider, core versus periphery dynamic that characterizes McDonald’s fiction. In a series of “confessions” by the Corta matriarch punctuated throughout the narrative, we learn about the collapse of Earth’s economy and the early days of Moon colonization. Here, the collapse of the global economy is told from a Brazilian national focus, the strongest economy in South America, but traditionally on the periphery of the most powerful national economies of the United States, EU, and China. Moreover, as the last of the Five Dragons to take root on the Moon, this confessional narrative allows for a recounting of the first generation of colonists. However, by avoiding the story of the originator, this tale eschews the tired, right-libertarian strains of strong founding fathers and plucky heroic exceptionalism that usually mark such narratives as tedious retreads of Earthly foundation myths.

These intermittent confessions serve the important task of providing the reader with a prologue that fleshes out the present Moon society and its current antagonisms. The present-time, then, is comprised of two narrative strands that focus primarily on the inner workings of the Fifth Dragon and the second and third generations of Cortas. The first is filtered through shifting perspectives of the extended Corta family themselves, offering an insider look at the workings of the outsider Dragon. The second is presented through Marina Calzaghe, a newly arrived “Jo Moonbeam” and the only specifically identified “norte” [North American], an outsider who works her way up from a hustler contracting short-term jobs to a lofty position within the Corta family hierarchy.

As if this wasn’t enough to keep track of, a larger political narrative lies within the Dragon-rivalry plot, pitting the rising “New Moon” financial elites against the “Old Moon” production-extraction based Dragons. Ultimately, McDonald is banking on Luna doing for the post–Reagan/Thatcher development of neoliberal financialization what Dallas did for the development of 20th-century corporate capitalism. With Dallas, the volatility of production and trade in commodities like oil and the instantiation of complex corporate structures and stock indexes could be mediated by the older form of family rivalries, land deals, and swindling that corporatization actually displaced. Luna similarly deploys such familiar devices to illustrate the breakdown of a seemingly stable industrial capitalism by the demands of contemporary neoliberalism. Surprisingly, McDonald’s gambit pays off. Building on the familial narrative and its breakdown while filtering in overtly violent aspects of films like The Godfather reveals the naked violence of capitalism as a necessarily predatory gangsterism. In a world that replaces citizens and governance with clients and management — and thus supplants civil law with contract law where “everything is negotiable” — there is little to separate a CEO from a gang boss.

If in McDonald’s larger corpus Luna acts as a recentering of Desolation Road’s previously marginal, colonial narrative, then one way this difference manifests itself is stylistically. Typically, McDonald’s futures are noisier and more human than those of his contemporaries. They emphasize the lived, cultural aspects of global exchange and interconnection, including the new religions and myths that spring up among the non-elite to explain and domesticate the radical technological changes brought to their worlds. This is often expressed through verbose narration, a bewildering collision of images and styles that forges a cacophonic conversation across cultures, tropes, and references. When working at its best, to use McDonald’s own words in Out on Blue Six, this sort of narration results in “a moment of clairaudience (some alchemic combination of time and place and atmosphere) when the ear [abolishes] all distance between sources and all sound arrived at equal weight of clarity.” In other words, it is less a pastiche than a reminder of the nonsynchronous, coinciding layers of history and culture in our contemporary global present.

In the Mars novels, this tendency is borne through the employment of magical realism, in which the myths and vistas of the imperial American Western cross paths with a decidedly non-American Martian populace and radical, near-magical technological developments. This poetic use of magical realism within a science fiction framework mystifies and decenters the usually dominant SF narrative about high-tech nano-culture and AIs that further corporate colonization. Instead, it favors the daily experiences of a remote set of colonists laboring away on prosaic tasks, who, barely comprehending the advanced technology that makes their lives possible, invent complex new mythologies through intercultural combinations to make sense of their world. In the Mars novels, for example, little green men are repurposed as spirit guides and quantum AI satellites are recast angels, while the first generation of terraforming programmers are venerated as saints that can intercede in the present moment. This stylistic play is largely absent in Luna, where instead we move from a magical, mythical Mars of runaways and loners to a hyper-rationalist, STEM- and finance-centered Moon of employers and clients.

Unlike the Mars novels, then, there is no outside, no cultural periphery on the Moon, only vertiginous economic ghettos. This fierce emphasis on production, even as production is losing ground to the invention of new financial instruments designed to exploit computerized transactions between the Moon and Earth, leaves little room for autonomous cultural enclaves to form outside of the already hyper-commodified trends of the elite. Indeed, as we’re told on multiple occasions, one is not a citizen of the Moon, only ever a client who is quite literally paying back every breath to the controlling Lunar Development Company after their first 10 free breaths have been exhausted. The entire Moon is one company town, where the “four elementals” of water, air, carbon (for 3D printing), and bandwidth (necessary for bidding on and negotiating all labor contracts) are constantly tallied by a “chit” permanently implanted in one’s eye. Characters literally watch the minute transactions of their indebted lives in real time. The drier, sparser tone of Luna thus necessarily reflects the decidedly less playful environment and sense of futurity proffered by the Moon. It is the neoliberal-turned-fully-libertarian Moon of pure market rationality, the Moon of Thatcher’s “There Is No Alternative” monetarist policies. As such, it stifles the cultural imagination as much as its political peonage, masked as market freedom, stifles any meaningful individualism. Instead, it continuously ramps up the immiseration of the masses for the benefit of the one percent.

To put a fine point on it, Luna is the contemporary novel of permanently indebted humanity. On one hand, its narrative channels the experience of newly independent, formerly colonial nations in the web of the capitalist world-system. Having fought back one set of predators, the newly independent nations found themselves prey to the logics of development and loans from the World Bank and IMF, setting off a system of Structural Readjustment Policies and a permanent debt cycle, an ontology of indebtedness that continues unabated. In the core nations, both the political left and right propagate this ontology through their unfettered commitment to financialization and monetarist policies. These policies create a generation of citizens forever sutured to the global banking system through school loans, mortgages, and increasing credit card debt alongside bank-friendly bankruptcy legislation, stagnant wages for short-term contract work, and the infinitely rising costs of healthcare. All of this is poised against the backdrop of looming environmental disaster and economic collapse that will end up sending us to the Moon. Much like Luna’s clients, many of Earth’s citizens today are breaths away from a state of financial ruin that can result in homelessness, imprisonment, or death. It is this, rather than the capitalist tragic flaws and resulting vendettas of the ruling Dragons, which makes Luna a harrowing read. One couldn’t find a better analogy for the precariousness of contemporary life under global capital than a systemic environment that is always working against you; as the novel constantly reminds the reader, the Moon knows a thousand ways to kill you.

In this light, Luna proffers not a perverse inversion but a stark and much needed realist supplement to Neal Stephenson’s recent “Innovation Starvation” and its desire to once again imagine the “big things.” In line with this manifesto and Stephenson’s accompanying short story “Atmosphaera Incognita,” Luna provides a mixture of realistic and technocratically ballyhooed engineering innovations that, when coupled with the managerial expertise and vision of the CEOs of energy and other commercial interests, are capable of reviving the “big things” of space exploration and colonization. However, while Stephenson optimistically harkens back to the supposedly halcyon days of the golden age of science fiction and techno-innovation, McDonald reminds us, with a healthy dose of outsider skepticism, that this golden-age utopia was predicated on an imperialistic global capitalism that is inimical to actual human society and development. It is here that Stephenson’s individualist, managerial, technocratic, anti-governmental thinking sits uncomfortably easily alongside Thatcher’s claims that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families. By making the terrifying decision to take Thatcher’s claim seriously, McDonald reveals that while those billionaire managers and technocrats may yet send us to the Moon, it will be as indentured servants to repair the financial and ecological damage that they’ve already unleashed upon the Earth. Here, necessity is recast as the mother of innovation, and the “big things” of space travel are repositioned as the impending logic of a new post-crash There Is No Alternative.

With an action narrative driving this political commentary, Luna is actually a fantastically fun read as well as an important one. However, I look forward to seeing if the next installment, Luna: Wolf Moon, makes good on the leader of the Magdalena Wolfpack’s assertion that “There’s got to be some better way than everyone for themselves, all the time.” That is, despite its stark, stylistic capitalist-realism, the Luna series might bear the prospect for cultural and social possibility in the form of its Wolf Packs: those second- and third-generation Moon dwellers that invert the cosmic narrative of the werewolf and come alive in the presence of the full Earth. Just maybe, this sociocultural inversion will give way to others.


Hugh C. O’Connell is an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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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