Several months after finishing Ian McDonald’s Luna trilogy — Luna: New Moon, Luna: Wolf Moon, and Luna: Moon Rising — the two things that have stuck with me the most are the scale of the achievement and the vividness of so many scenes throughout the books. McDonald has brought a great deal of life to a dead world, given it firm ground to take root in, and set loose epic conflicts among larger-than-life personalities.
The moon has been colonized for decades, long enough for a substantial society to have been set up, with cultures and fashion and divergence from the mother world, but recent enough that the moderately extended lives of the founding generation are just nearing their ends as McDonald’s story begins. Or rather, some of those lives are nearing their ends; many more ended earlier in accidents or conflicts among the families who have come to dominate lunar society. The moon remains a harsh mistress, with missteps, mayhem, or radiation bringing many lives to premature ends. Nevertheless, people emigrate willingly to the moon. Wages there are fantastic, and opportunities in many earthside societies are even more limited in the future than they are in the present.
Luna’s main export to Terra is helium-3. In McDonald’s setting, fusion is no longer fifteen years in the future, as it has been on earth for the last forty years, but has become humanity’s main power source. Helium from the lunar regolith keeps the lights lit on humanity’s home planet. Much of the moon is a mining operation, and the rivalries among mining clans drive much of the conflict in the extended story.
McDonald opens his tale with a new rite of passage: a moon-run. Naked, exposed in the vacuum on the lunar surface. Twenty meters, ten strides for the six young people first crammed into a capsule and then dashing across the dust and rock to the safety of the next airlock. They are golden youth of Luna’s leading families: a Corta from the helium masters; two Asamoahs, Luna’s life-givers; a Mackenzie, the metal miners; a Sun of trade; and a Vorontsov from the controllers of the routes between earth and moon. These families are the Five Dragons of the moon, clans in constant intrigue, competition, enmity and alliance. They also draw on five earthside cultures reflecting their origins. The Cortas are from Brazil, Mackenzies from Australia, Asamoahs from Ghana, Suns from China and Vorontsovs from Russia. During the moon-run, one of the Asamoahs stumbles, a potentially fatal error. Lucasinho Corta risks his own life by helping his fellow runner to make it to the second gate safely. The obligations thus incurred will ripple throughout the story.
For his second scene, McDonald moves to the opposite end of the lunar hierarchy. Marina Calzaghe is new to the moon, and her life is precarious. The Four Elementals — water, space, data, and air — are closely monitored, and nothing is free. Marina has quarters near the surface, where radiation can more readily penetrate than to the deeper homes of the wealthy, and work has been scarce so she has had to dial back her breathing to an uncomfortable level.
Contrasts established, McDonald brings the opposites together, begins to introduce his sprawling cast, and lets the clans pick up their conflicts that had been held in abeyance. Marina gets hired by the Cortas as part of the catering staff for a party, and her combination of previous training, good reflexes, and earthside strength undimmed by long tenure on the moon prevent the assassination of the Corta heir. From that moment, the action seldom slows, though sometimes various characters try to channel the conflict into less overtly deadly forms. On the other hand, with the moon set up as something of a libertarian utopia — there is no criminal law, and everything is negotiable under contract law, with trial by combat as a final resort — that is a purely relative matter. And even with a significant settled population on the moon and decades of experience maintaining habitats and vehicles, death by misadventure and vacuum is never far away.
Each family wants to strengthen its relative position, possibly even to assert overall dominance, but their numbers and their specializations, along with the harsh environment in which all of them operate, mean that they have to cooperate to some extent and cannot go all in on destroying a rival without risking their own collapse. Poised above and behind this setup is the Lunar Development Corporation, backed by the powers of earth, which does not care too terribly much about what the colonials are doing to each other so long as the key resources are delivered to the mother planet. Naturally enough, there are societies working toward true lunar independence. How they interact with the Five Dragons and factions within the leading families offers another layer of complication.
McDonald never neglects to show that these family and corporate interests are enacted by individuals, by complicated people with their own desires, abilities and flaws. There is ultimately no such thing as the will of the Cortas, there are only things desired by each of them from the founding matriarch Adriana to her complementary and rivalrous sons Rafael and Lucas, outward into the spouses and surrogates, and onward into the youngest generation, the peers of Lucasinho who have only ever known the moon, raised by parents who were themselves born on the moon. Though the Cortas are the focus of McDonald’s narrative, he explores the other leading families in detail, too, particularly the Mackenzies, deadly rivals to the Cortas.
Most of the characters are admirably rounded, and lunar society is sufficiently strange to be a thing in itself, not just an off-shoot of any particular earth society. There are particularly lunar sports, and niches have sprung up in ways that take advantage of the peculiar shortages or surpluses on the moon. Sexual mores are different, and different among the generations of lunar inhabitants.
McDonald is also unafraid to shake up his characters and his setting. Though the Five Dragons have endured for decades, it’s entirely possible that one or more might not survive the conflicts unleashed in Luna. Their infighting could also upset the balance between earth and moon, and that could cause either a tightening of the Lunar Development Corporation’s relatively loose leash, or a revolutionary outbreak, or indeed both.
Luna is obviously in dialogue with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The mashup of earth cultures, the extreme libertarian setup of lunar society, earth’s dependence on a key lunar resource, and the possibility of revolution are all present in both stories. McDonald, working with a lot more space than Heinlein, develops both his characters and society in greater depth. McDonald shows far more clearly the dystopian aspects of negotiating everything, and how people will set up structures anyway, and how those can set up hierarchies that are a matter of life and death. There is also no deus ex computer in Luna; the hints of computer intelligence are harder to interpret and much less certain than Mycroft’s helpful advice.
McDonald tells a rich and riveting saga of power, ambition, revenge, and just trying to live a better life. He depicts a moon transformed by human presence, and humans not much less transformed by their presence on the moon.