The Earth Strikes Back! Post-Thatcherite Neoliberalism in Ian McDonald’s “Luna: Wolf Moon”
By Hugh Charles O’ConnellJune 9, 2018
Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald
In terms of the plot, Wolf Moon picks up where the last novel left off. Rather than a cliffhanger, the ending of New Moon can now be read as the natural culmination of this libertarian-neoliberal world and its scorched-earth tactics to promote growth and establish market share and monopolization. The spectacle of violence unleashed at the end of New Moon was merely a prologue, an opening of the floodgates to the waves of violence that wash over the entirety of Wolf Moon. As such, Wolf Moon focuses on the ensuing battles that create new alignments between the various Dragons, forge new alliances between lunar corporations and the Earth’s national governments, and splinter families into rival factions — all of which are pursued in the name of financial profit, monopoly, and energy market stability.
Unraveling the socio-historical structures that had governed the Moon up until the denouement of the first novel requires a more intricate narrative structure. To this end, Wolf Moon interweaves two timelines across three principal settings: the Moon, a VTO transfer ship, and the Earth. The writing is also more expressive and lyrical, these differences in style likely due to the immense amount of backstory and world-building required of the first novel. Freed from these constraints, the sequel is able to explore a more playful form and tone. Yet, more than anything else, readers should prepare to strap themselves in for what David Higgins described to me, following his own reading of Wolf Moon, as an “orgy of creative destruction.”
As the novel suggests through its remixing of 1980s cultural touchstones, this excess of creative destruction is directly tied to the legacy of Thatcherism. This is especially evident through the novel’s music and fashion cues. While jazz is the official soundtrack, the anarchistic violence of punk serves as the spiritual one. As the Sex Pistols fizzled, the Damned turned goth, and the Clash set their sights on the United States, it was left to The Jam, the least punk of the first wave, to capture in grim detail life under Thatcher. In October 1978, they released one of their most iconic singles, “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight.” The song describes the narrator’s descent into the Underground to catch the last train home, bringing a takeaway curry to his wife. However, before boarding the train, he’s severely beaten by a group of right-wing nationalists. Released roughly three years after Margaret Thatcher’s ascent to the head of the Conservative Party and seven months before the general election that made her prime minister, the song captures the dialectical interplay of neoliberal and nationalist violence that undergirded and was subsequently amplified by Thatcherism. The conjoined violence of neo-nationalism and neoliberal economics is a common theme for The Jam, but nowhere is this presented with such cold precision as in the aforementioned single:
I first felt a fist, and then a kick
I could now smell their breath
They smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs
And too many right wing meetings
The smell of brown leather
It blended in with the weather
It filled my eyes, ears, nose, and mouth
It blocked all my senses
Couldn’t see, hear, speak any longer
I’m down in the tube station at midnight
As the Italian theorist Christian Marazzi argues in The Violence of Financial Capitalism, the transition to full neoliberal finance economies is accompanied by an exacerbation of wealth inequality with falling wages and lower employment opportunities. It’s a form of fiscal violence that increasingly results in real-world social consequences. Reflecting this, the altercation in The Jam song is heralded by the question-cum-threat: “Hey boy, they shout, have you got any money?”
So what does this all have to do with Ian McDonald’s Wolf Moon? Having emerged as a writer during the 1980s, McDonald similarly draws on the structural turned personal violence of neoliberal Thatcherism for his Luna series. As he explains in an interview with io9, rather than a simple updating of Heinlein’s libertarian narrative, “the real seed of the story is Margaret Thatcher. […] One of [her] more notorious pronouncements was ‘there is no such thing as society; there are only individuals and families’. Okay, so let’s explore that. Which is what SF is about.” The Moon, then, becomes the social vacuum in which to explore this in its purest form. As McDonald, channeling Marazzi, makes clear, investigating this can only lead to one convincing outcome: the rippling waves of violence that proceed outward from neoliberal policy to permeate all aspects of society, from the one percent to the lumpen, from the center to the periphery, from corporate rivalry to intergenerational and intra-familial conflict. Moving beyond the elevator pitch of Dallas meets Game of Thrones, which the first novel carried out surprisingly well, the sequel reveals the irony of Thatcher’s claim that family has replaced society with its intra-family civil wars. What we get more than family, in the novel’s words, is the reduction to “[p]eople with contracts and debts.”
Beyond mere historical overlap, however, McDonald purposefully draws on The Jam’s “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” to describe similar scenes of economically disenfranchised, dispassionate violence, remixing The Jam’s lyrics into his own descriptions. He first reintroduces the character of Marina, last seen rescuing Ariel Corta by carrying her away to the slums, with the following:
She first feels a fist, and then a kick. She’s up in a cross-tube, one of the forgotten access tunnels that run through the bare rock connecting one quadra to another. They’re old, dusty, scary with radiation. Behind her is midnight in Antares Quadra, before her is morning in Orion. She’s got a belt of old dirty printed money from clients, some curry noodle and Moon-cakes for the festival and she’s on her way home to Ariel. […] Two muggers up in a cross-tube at midnight, and she couldn’t touch them.
While many of the details of the scene are in near-perfect alignment with The Jam’s song, what’s most notable is the difference: the overt references to rising right-wing nationalism are glaringly absent in comparison. This is the strength of the British SF Boom’s self-reflexive take on remix and reboot culture. Rather than narcissistic or empty references that pile up with little regard for narrative or historical purpose, the remix of genres, tropes, and references registers meaningful differences. Given the new non-national, fully corporate Moon detailed in the first novel, any recourse to Thatcherite cultural-nationalist heritage would make little to no sense.
This is not to suggest, however, that questions of representation and culture are unimportant to McDonald’s world-building or to SF more generally. Indeed, questions of identity, representation, and heritage are at the center of many important SF conversations. The contemporaneous debates surrounding Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi are instructive. Disregarding fragile fanboy complaints, the critical conversation about representation in the film has produced two contrasting stances. Writing in the LARB, Dan Hassler-Forest argues that The Last Jedi continues the trend of “grow[ing] incrementally more radical in its representations of politics and ideology,” especially with its representation of women. He goes on to suggest that Rey’s character helps to undermine “capitalism’s violent and oppressive structures of patriarchal power[, which] have been deeply embedded in the Star Wars narrative.” Conversely, writing for IndieWire and Shadow and Act, Andre Seewood argues that any notion of a progressive racial representation in Star Wars is an illusion conjured by a “Ponzi scheme” of “hyper-tokenism.” Instead of progressive anti-capitalist values, the hyper-tokens of racial representation only serve the film’s global profits and bolster the actions of the franchise-defining white characters.
McDonald has long been interested in diversifying the sites as well as the characters of SF’s futures. And with Wolf Moon, he continues to give us a more complex distillation of this representational problematic. Straddling both sides of the divide, Wolf Moon explores the possibilities of progressive representation and their structural limits within a hyper-capitalist and commodifying culture. On the positive side, his principal characters — Brazilian, Chinese, Russian, Ghanaian, and Australian — share roughly equivalent status as far as their importance within the narrative’s development, if not page space (the majority goes to the Brazilian Cortas). Moreover, they represent a diverse array of gender and sexual identities (New Moon won the 2016 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for its positive exploration of LGBTQ issues). However, while we should absolutely celebrate these progressive aspects, we likewise need to take full account of the world-building experiment that McDonald is engaging with that allows for them to surface. As Hassler-Forest asks of The Last Jedi, we should examine their relationship to “capitalism’s violent and oppressive structures.”
McDonald’s Moon is a post-Thatcherite, fully libertarian, neoliberal operation: there is no state and thus no need for the marketing of cultural heritage to act as a salve for deteriorating social conditions. The right-wing nationalist recourse to racist, misogynist, sexist, or homophobic policies serves no ideological function here. The only government on the Moon is the Lunar Development Corporation Board, and the only “social” interest or imperative is profit. While one can distinguish between the Jo Moonbeam new arrivals and those born on the Moon, between the Brazilian Cortas and the Ghanaian Asmoahs, they are all are employees; there is no true citizen. Any social relation other than that governed by familial bond or contract is fully erased, and the equality of exploitation reigns.
This points toward the real difference between the older libertarian lunar narratives and McDonald’s post-Thatcherite, neoliberal reboot. This Moon was never intended as a space of freedom, but merely as a resource. Its laissez-faire utopian freedom of identity and choice is always enjoined to its neoliberal dystopia of the equality of exploitation. In other words, the same Moon that allows for the rightly celebrated sexual fluidity and non-binary gender diversity also allows for the purchasing of children as sex slaves by the wealthy. While the former is more prevalent in the first volume, the latter plays a stronger role in Wolf Moon. Importantly, this is not to suggest that we can’t have one without the other, but to instead highlight how the radicality of queer politics has been undercut and coopted by neoliberalism. Whatever utopian aspects arise from this fully libertarian Moon have to be thought from within their neoliberal dystopian grounding. Due to the eclipsing of the state by corporations and the replacement of citizens by employees, contract law serves as the sole arbiter of legality on the Moon. Under these conditions, Bryce McKenzie has more of a legal right to the ownership of his sex slaves than these people do to their own autonomy.
What makes McDonald’s dystopia timely, then, is its basis in free-market fundamentalism and the right to what Jason Moore calls “cheap nature” in the form of exploitable energy resources — ideals that so many take as the hallmarks of true freedom today. This is no simplistic, one-dimensional dystopia drawn from tired Western stereotypes of life behind the Iron Curtain, where individuals lack personal freedom and access to commercial commodities. It is a fully lived-in world, culturally rich and vibrant. On the Moon, we consume dystopia. We dance, drink, and dress as only appropriate for a neoliberal dystopia. Thus, along with rebooting The Jam as a harbinger of Thatcher’s 1980s, McDonald also leaves behind the high couture of the 1950s New Moon in favor of a 1980s fashion revival.
The novel is littered with references to the dominant trends of ’80s style. We read of one character dressed in a “Marco Carlotta suit in powder blue, a black v-neck T-shirt. Loafers. No socks,” and “young women in their party dresses: short and tight, rah-rah and puffball; glossy hosiery, deadly heels, hair back-combed to halos. Fuchsia lips, eyes winged with liner, cheekbones highlighted with straight strokes of blusher.” But throughout the novel, we are reminded that the cheerful garishness and playfulness of such ’80s fashion staples is little more than a commodified veneer. It stands in marked contrast to the austerity of neoliberalism and the graying, dilapidated slums that it produces outside of the metropolitan centers’ gated communities and grand cathedrals to finance. Moreover, it’s a reminder that appearance is everything. After Marina’s violent midnight cross-tube attack, we’re told that “Dr Macaraeg had strapped, patched, bound, anaesthetised the grosser wounds; Ariel covered the rest with fabric and make-up […] a final blend of the eye-liners, a last back-comb to big up the hair. Cocktail ready.” Here, the bright neons and pastels serve as a band-aid for the seething, predatory violence propelling the dismantling of society for the sake of reinjecting profits.
But where is all of this going? The rebooting of the lunar colonization narrative and the reintroduction of the Earth and its interests prompt new questions for McDonald’s series, particularly in relation to the Moon’s status as an “industrial colony.” Much of McDonald’s narrative seems to be structured around odd returns of the neoliberal repressed, especially the nation-state and production. Doubling down on the Star Wars trilogy format, Wolf Moon might suitably be subtitled “The Earth Strikes Back!” The Earth and its terrestrial governments were only presented in narrative flashback in the first novel, a maneuver that rendered the Earth merely a past to be escaped. However, it returns to the forefront in Wolf Moon, flexing its only seemingly waning imperial muscles and calling in its debts.
This sets up a number of overlapping ideological confrontations that the series will either have to resolve or reveal to be the interminable contradictions of our fully neoliberal present. These include the tension between a postcolonial, global-capital set of relations with the relative autonomy of the Moon from Earth versus the Earth’s desire for older imperial models of governance. Similarly at odds are the tensions between the economic power of monopolistic, familial, and productive capitalist forms, indicative of the “real economy,” versus the power of information and finance of the immaterial economy. How McDonald will wrap this all up is still somewhat unclear (Luna: Moon Rising is expected in 2019). If the Lunar Development Corporation of the first novel spoke to postcolonial notions of neoimperialism, and its replacement, the Lunar Mandate Authority, speaks of a more naked imperial relationship, neither seems particularly appealing. But it’s a stark reminder that any space-utopianism that is predicated on imperial or neoliberal ideals will likely never be able to escape the gravity well of such dystopian foundations.
Hugh Charles O’Connell is an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
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