by Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit, 446 pp., $27
The new novel from Kim Stanley Robinson—best known for his 1990s science fiction trilogy Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars—starts low-key. An American courier called Fred Fredericks is on his way to the moon to deliver a new model “quantum” phone. On the flight he befriends the noted Chinese poet and travel writer Ta Shu. But when Fred makes lunar touchdown and meets Governor Chang Yazu, head of the Chinese Lunar Special Administrative Region, something goes wrong.
“Nice to meet you,” Fred said.
Chang extended his hand and Fred took it, and they shook hands. Chang looked surprised; he peered over Fred’s shoulder with a puzzled expression. Then he crumpled to one side. Fred followed him down, wondering why his balance had chosen that moment to fail him. The scent of oranges.
Chang dies, and Fred—the unwitting vector for the poison that killed him—nearly dies too. He recovers to find himself under arrest, a suspect in Chang’s death, sharing his jail with the feisty young Chan Qi, whose family connections (she is the daughter of the Chinese minister of finance) make her a lunar VIP. By getting pregnant Qi has broken the law, pregnancy being forbidden on the moon because no one is sure how the low gravity might affect a developing fetus.
It’s a promising set-up, and Robinson’s laid-back opening, by suggesting that his story will ramp up its pace and immediacy into who-knows-what exciting developments, works pretty well. But laid-back is the whole novel. Red Moon never really sits forward, let alone gets to its feet. Mystery dissipates and narrative momentum stalls as, in a series of weirdly un-urgent set pieces, Fred and Qi get broken out of jail, are pursued across the moon, fly to China, are pursued around China, fly back to the moon, are pursued across the moon again, until the whole runaround suddenly stops mid-chase in what is either Robinson aiming for modish incompletion or just a writer running out of steam.
The fact is Red Moon is not vintage Robinson. The elderly travel writer Ta Shu has a series of inconsequential adventures that only occasionally intersect with Fred and Qi’s. There are intimations of political revolution in China but they’re all told rather than shown. A third plot strand follows a moon-based supercomputer slowly becoming self-aware, presumably an homage to Robert A. Heinlein’s 1966 classic The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. There are many descriptions of lunar infrastructure, some observations about the unique Chinese blend of aggressive capitalism and old school communism, and Robinson certainly makes the right call in not turning Fred and Qi’s enforced companionship into a romantic relationship. But though it has the flavor of a young adult novel, Red Moon is too long and infodumpy to work as YA; and taken as adult fiction it’s stretched all too thin. The Moon Is a Sparse Missed Opportunity.
All this would matter less if the book lived up to Robinson’s usual standard of thought-provoking ideation. But it doesn’t. There’s no sense here of the buzzing interplay of concepts and analysis that characterized Robinson’s last novel, the masterly New York 2140—amounting to a comprehensive blueprint for the renovation of humanity’s economic and social logic. Red Moon is a novel with basically three ideas in it: one (that China will likely dominate the coming century) over-obvious; one (that complex computers might become self-aware) second-hand—for Robinson told precisely this story much more effectively in his 2015 novel Aurora; and one borderline woo-woo (that the economic future belongs to cryptocurrency, the fiduciary mirage beloved of libertarians and drug dealers). “If money as it exists now,” says one of Robinson’s characters, “is just feudalism liquefied, maybe this carbon coin is a try at something better.” Maybe the moon is made of Red Leicester.
There are various blots and clumsinesses, unusual for a writer as meticulous as Robinson. “There were no big mare on the far side, Ah Q said; it was entirely rough highlands blasted by a zillion overlapping craters.” Ah Q might not know that the plural of mare is maria, but Robinson really ought to. Or take the following passage:
Eclipses were fairly common on the moon, Valerie and John were told. The red annular band surrounding Earth was sunlight bending through the atmosphere; this phenomenon explained why people on Earth looking up at a lunar eclipse saw the moon turn a dusky red. And indeed the land around them was now that same color. When they finally looked down from the mesmerizing sight of the red ring in the sky, they saw that the land around them had turned both dark and distinctly red. It was somewhat like the color of a red sunset on Earth, but darker and more intense, a subtly shifting array of dim blackish reds, all coated by a dusty copper sheen. The previously pastel patches of rare earths were now shifted to purples and forest greens and rusty browns. But these were highlights in what was for the most part a dark red land, strong in both color and mood. It reminded Valerie of the last scene in a Parsifal she had seen in New York the year before, in which the chorus had waded across a stage knee-deep in blood. The Harbinger Mountains now reared like a bloody dragon spine out of an ocean of blood. Harbingers indeed! War—chaos—bloodshed—
Seven repetitions of the word red over a few lines isn’t good prose (not to mention the other repetitions: dark, darker, dark; color, color, color; and blood, blood, bloodshed). And beyond that overinsistent crimsonness I’m not sure this passage creates any especially vivid mental pictures. Robinson usually writes better than this.
Red Moon is a sort-of sequel to Robinson’s Earth-set 1997 novel Antarctica. The imagined near-future is the same, and the poet character appears in both novels. But this new work doesn’t advance the earlier story or do very much on its own terms. That Robinson has done all these things in earlier novels (and done them better) makes this book less Red Moon than Retread Moon.