This review contains spoilers.
If I had to sum up Mary Robinette Kowal’s work in one word, it would be: competent. With eleven novels, five novellas/novelettes and countless short stories under her belt, she’s clearly an experienced professional with some idea of how to put a compelling narrative together; and, indeed, those novels of hers that I’ve read tend to be tightly plotted, thematically coherent, solidly characterised and attentive to issues of structural oppression. In other words, they’re novels that are easy to read and easy to like.
The Relentless Moon is a case in point. The third novel in Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, it was nominated for the Hugo awards last year – perhaps unsurprisingly, given Kowal’s substantial presence in fandom as well as the professional field (she was president of the SFWA for two years ending mid-2021, as well as Chair of DisCon III, the 2021 Worldcon, from July 2021). Set in an alternate timeline in which an asteroid hit the US in 1952, destroying much of the continent, triggering catastrophic climate change which threatens to render the Earth uninhabitable in half a century, and thereby sparking an intensive space programme aimed at getting as many people off the planet in time, it follows Nicole Wargin, wife of an important politician on Earth and one of the first female astronauts in space. Eleven years after the asteroid strike, and some time after Nicole’s first rise to fame as a “Lady Astronaut”, she’s asked to travel to the colony that Kowal’s fictional International Aerospace Coalition has established on the Moon to help investigate possible sabotage by “Earth Firsters” – a group of people who want to see the resources the US government is putting into the space programme diverted to disaster relief efforts on Earth.
With Nicole on the Moon, Kowal ratchets up the tension, as various of the colony’s systems are tampered with by the saboteur, putting everyone in danger. Meanwhile, Nicole’s dealing with the pressures of managing her image as a senator’s wife and, not unrelatedly, with her chronic anorexia.
As well as looking at these very gendered pressures on Nicole – always against a backdrop of structural misogyny which leaves female characters knowing they need to perform to exceptional standards to have a hope of being treated equally with their male counterparts – Kowal pays attention to racialised dynamics within the lunar colony. For instance: the colony’s mayor Eugene is Black, and the white South Africans there, coming from a context of apartheid, find it difficult to accept his authority.
These careful sociological details combine with Kowal’s impressive (to a layperson) grasp of the hard science of living in space to give the novel a satisfying verisimilitude. This is fun, eminently readable SF that has competent people solving crunchy science problems and acknowledges realities of structural oppression that are erased in SF novels of the period that The Relentless Moon is set in. That’s valuable, that’s validating: a kind of correction of the genre’s record of this period.
There’s a but here, as I’m sure you’ve realised. The Relentless Moon is enjoyable, but it also feels a little schematic. The plot structure is consolatory, conservative: problems are set up, then solved; crises happen, but everything turns out all right in the end. (Nicole ends up as the first female president of the USA in an epilogue that’s hard not to read as a feminist, democratic happily-ever-after.) The novel’s ideological conflicts are frustratingly binary: people hold views that are obviously repugnant (the sexists and the racists) or obviously commendable; and there’s very little sympathetic exploration of the Earth Firsters’ viewpoints (which seem from the evidence we’re given not to be entirely without merit), despite the fact that their hostility to the space programme is what drives the novel’s key conflict. It’s all a little too neat, too controlled – too competent.
Of course too competent is better than not competent enough – better a Relentless Moon than a Jack Four! But – let’s put it this way. I can’t see myself rushing out to buy the fourth novel in the series.