Book Review: ‘Red Moon’, Kim Stanley Robinson

Review by Duncan Lunan

Kim Stanley Robinson, “Red Moon”, £18.99 paperback, 447 pp., Rogue Star Press, 2018.

I found Red Moon a difficult book to get a handle on, but unexpectedly I found a way to approach it in a crime novel by Glasgow-based SF writer Angus McAllister, author of The Krugg Syndrome, The Canongate Strangler and more recently Cyber Puppets.  Remarkably enough, Close Quarters  (Matador, 2017, Fig. 1)  has a structure very similar to Red Moon‘s.

Both novels begin with a murder and end with the revelation of who did it, but both are only superficially concerned with the identity and motive of the killer.  In Robinson’s novel the victim is the Governor of the Chinese base at the south pole of the Moon  (Figs. 2-5);  McAllister’s is a deservedly unpopular owner-occupier of a flat in a tenement off Glasgow’s Byres Road.  Robinson’s characters shuttle between China and the Moon, McAllister’s between the tenement and an imaginary pub on Byres Road, not a million miles away in distance or in style from one many of us knew back in the day.  In both novels the investigations into the death swiftly sinks into the background, because the focus is on the individuals whose lives are, or will be, drastically changed by it.  There’s a general rule in detective stories that the murderer is the least likely suspect, but in Close Quarters the killer is such a nonentity that her identity is revealed in an epilogue.  In Red Moon the Moonbase Governor was killed because he knew too much about an old episode of corruption on Earth, nothing to do with the Moon, and the killers are arrested offstage.

Strong as it is, there the similarity ends.  McAllister follows the previous lives of the tenants and other occupiers, showing how each has a better reason than the last to have committed the murder, one of them is particularly likely to be fitted up by the police for it, and others may be motivated by that to confess to it – only none of them did it.  In Red Moon, on the other hand, the US courier Fredericks is in the frame from the outset, having unwittingly carried the biological agent which kills the Governor along with the encrypted mobile phone that Fredericks was employed to deliver.  He was expected to die with the victim, but when he survives he’s snatched by a Chinese military infiltration group.  Rescued by another faction, he’s shipped back to Earth along with a young woman called Chan Qi who turns out to be the runaway daughter of the Chinese finance minister, a candidate for the post of President which is soon to be up for election.  She’s pregnant, and as part of her cover for the return to Earth she names Fredericks as the father.

What follows is one of Hitchcock’s favourite plots:  a man and a woman with nothing in common, thrown together by chance and on the run from mysterious villains – straight out of North by Northwest or The 39 Steps, increasingly forced to rely on, trust and care for each other.  The plots and counterplots surrounding them are all aspects of the different contending factions in the upcoming Politburo election, some wanting Qi as a hostage or a bargaining counter, others simply to hurt her father by killing her.  One sequence of the chase involves a difficult descent on foot from the peak of Hong Kong’s mountain, described in the kind of detail which suggests Robinson has actually done it or at least researched it on site.  But after all that effort, when they get to the bottom they are captured again.  It’s a bit like that car chase in Goldfinger where Sean Connery uses all the gadgets in his Aston Martin and then is caught after crashing into a wall, which he could have done just as easily in a Mini, or a milk float from hisx earlier career.

Fig. 6. Mouth of a lava tube lunar city

Another part of the chase  (which goes on for so long that one can only give snapshots) is set in a subsurface lava tube on the Moon  (Fig. 6), sealed off and converted to habitability  (Fig. 7). 

Fig. 7. NASA astronauts at the mouth of a lunar lava tube (Johnson Space Center)

Lava tubes may well be the short-term answer to the problem of cosmic rays, when it comes to establishing lunar settlements, but I’m not so sure how effective full conversion would be, given the rigidity of the lunar crust and its ability to transmit moonquakes, ‘ringing like a bell’ at the mere impact of an Apollo Ascent Stage.  Nor is it obvious where you would get all the nitrogen to fill the airspace  (Fig. 8), although with the increasing evidence for plentiful water inside the Moon, perhaps the other volatiles are also less scarce than we think.

Fig. 8. Philadelphia in a possible giant lava tube, (Purdue University)

As the pursuit goes on, it becomes evident that Chan Qi is much more powerful than she appears, the architect of a plan to bring all the competing elements in Chinese society together, to overturn the system which concentrates power in the hands of the existing political and military factions.   With the communications resources she has, and the unseen help of a sentient and all-pervasive AI, her rôle is more than a little reminiscent of Valentine in Orson Scott Card’s Ender series.  Whether the disparate forces in the Chinese population can find enough in common to achieve a common purpose, and whether the US economy can recover from the hammer-blows it’s suffered meantime, are questions the novel doesn’t answer.  At the end of it Fredericks and Qi are still on the run, escaping from the Moon to an unknown destination, under attack by missiles which are still in the hands of their enemies.

I can understand the frustrations being expressed by some reviewers of this novel.  I couldn’t get a handle on it until I read Close Quarters;  once I’d highlighted the similarities the differences stood out and I saw the Hitchcock parallels, and then the Ender ones became apparent.  One of the major character is Ta Shu, now a travel writer, who first appeared as a poet in Robinson’s Antarctica – a novel which I enjoyed more than the Red Mars/Green Mars/Blue Mars trilogy which he was researching when he went there.  The way to approach this book is without expectations of a repeat – the Moon is ‘Red’ for different reasons, and not because of the murder, either.  

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