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Gary K. Wolfe reviews John Kessel


The Moon and the Other, John Kessel (Saga 978-1-4814-8144-1, $27.99, 600pp, hc) April 2017.

After what seems like decades of being sidelined as a bench player, with Mars and the outer solar system getting much of the action in novels by Paul McCauley, Alastair Reynolds, and others, and with Kim Stanley Robinson striving to convince us that generation starships are a Really Bad Idea, the moon is back! Perhaps it’s just the next logical extension of SF’s trend of drawing back from galaxy-hopping space operas to more achievable futures, but with John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other and the second volume of Ian McDonald’s Luna series, the novelistic possibilities of lunar colonies seem to be having a small renaissance. The two novels don’t really warrant comparison, since they set out to do very different things, although from a hard-SF point of view it’s mildly interesting that Kessel favors sealed craters protected by regolith while McDonald tends to opt for lava tubes and deep boreholes like underground high-rises.

In much earlier SF – at least going back to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and probably long before – the default narrative of moon colonies (and later of Mars and the outer Solar System) seemed to be based on the American Revolution, with Earth standing in for crotchety old Europe and the moon a haven for all sorts of social ex­periments. There’s a taste of the latter in Kessel’s fiercely intelligent novel – most of the tension is between the secular Iranian utopian experiment Persepolis and the rigidly matriarchal Society of Cousins – but there’s not much discussion of Earth at all (although Earth culture shows up ev­erywhere – people quote Yeats, Hafez, and Blake, and a media celebrity has a named borrowed from a Chuck Palahniuk novel). Instead, Kessel fo­cuses on a cast of fascinating and often conflicted characters, and on on the political, moral, and personal challenges they face – challenges that sometimes derive from his imaginary societies (such as what a custody battle might look like in a heavily politicized matriarchy), and sometimes from the lunar setting (I’m pretty sure no other lunar novel has ever tackled the problem of how you’d go about building a piano on the moon).

Kessel has produced far fewer novels than most of us would like to see – it has been 20 years since the delightfully Preston Sturges-flavored Corrupting Dr. Nice – but has largely made up for it with a brilliant succession of stories, four of which share the same general future and a few characters with The Moon and the Other. One of those stories, the almost-instant-classic ‘‘Stories for Men’’ (classics by definition aren’t instant, but this story holds up well more than a decade later) earned him a Tiptree Award in 2003. But as Kessel points out in an afterword, The Moon and the Other isn’t entirely consistent with those stories, and they are in no sense prerequisites for the novel, which is almost certainly his finest yet. Though not lacking in his characteristic wit, it moves well beyond the satirical dark humor of Good News from Outer Space and Corrupting Dr. Nice and invites us – actually compels us – to consider just how vexing issues of gender, author­ity, responsibility, and even celebrity can get in the real world.

The story begins with Erno Pamelasson, whom we met as a teenager in the earlier stories. Though a trained biotech, Erno has bummed around several moon colonies as an itinerant worker since his exile from the Society of Cousins; he’s even shortened his name to Pamson, partly to disguise the Nordic-style matrilineal surname that would give away his origins. By now, in the mid-22nd century, the moon has a population of over three million scattered over more than two dozen colonies and various research stations. After a stupid lapse of judgment while ice-mining causes the loss of a Remote Operating Device, his hand, and almost his life, Erno comes to the attention of Amestris Eskander, daughter of one of the most powerful industrialists in Persepolis. Rather than simply fire him, though, the rebellious Amestris offers to marry him and brings him into her father’s company as an executive, where he promptly gets in way over his head, partly over that issue of how to grow piano-quality wood in the sealed lunar environments.

Meanwhile, over in the Society of Cousins, another rebellious figure, Mira, has gained a reputation as a subversive gadfly through a series of guerilla video installations – appearing almost randomly, like graffiti – while she juggles a rather steamy affair with a media celebrity and former Lunar Olympic champion Carey Evasson – who in turn becomes entangled in that custody battle over his son Val at the very time that a contro­versial referendum has been proposed to grant suffrage to men in the Society. (Carey is also the author of a popular memoir titled Lune et l’autre, echoing Kessel’s own title.) These various con­troversies are inflamed by one of the novel’s most interesting and enigmatic characters, a Geraldo Rivera-like celebrity investigative reporter who is an ‘‘uplifted’’ dog (various genetically altered animals, from dogs to apes to capuchin monkeys, are a problematical part of lunar society). This one, named Sirius in an apparent homage to Olaf Stapledon’s canine genius, also turns out to hold a few surprises. We’ve seen genetically uplifted animals before, of course, but Kessel reminds us that human-like behavior doesn’t fully disguise what is essentially an alien intel­ligence. The other secondary characters, from Amestris’s manipulative father to Carey’s son Val, his estranged partner Roz, and the influential public intellectual Hypatia Camillesdaughter, also emerge as substantial, complex characters with issues of their own.

As in the earlier stories, Kessel does not pres­ent either society in purely utopian or dystopian terms. Persepolis indeed seems to be the sort of patriarchal society that the Friends tried to escape, with its rigid class system and even ‘‘debtor’s freezers,’’ but there’s no avoiding the repression and unfairness in the Cousins’ own society – based on the premise that violence emerges from male privilege, and that constraining that privilege can lead to stability. Transgendered women, however, also feel oppressed by the Society, es­sentially treated as men. As in the earlier stories, Kessel is aware that gender is more than simply binary, and the interrelationships of gender and power are convoluted in both societies. Neverthe­less, the central crisis of the novel emerges when a delegation from the Organization of Lunar States – including Erno – is sent to the Society of Cousins to investigate human rights violations. As tensions escalate, Kessel also reveals a satis­fying degree of science fictional invention to go with his political and psychological insights; we learn of a top-secret matter duplicator that might have come out of Budrys’s Rogue Moon, and a spectacular disaster reminds us of the old cliché that, no matter how elaborate and protected your habitats, the moon fundamentally wants to kill you if you go there. The Moon and the Other brilliantly balances character, social commentary, and hard SF in a novel of surprising density and depth of feeling.

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