The Relentless Moon, the third book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronauts series, changes locales and first-person narrator from the first two books, The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky. Nicole Wargin is also one of the original astronauts, and in early 1963 as The Relentless Moon opens, she is both an old Moon hand and the wife of the governor of Kansas, the new center of America’s space industry.
Though the lunar settlement is firmly established with flights to and from nearly routine, and the first Mars expedition nearly halfway to its destination, opposition to devoting so much of humanity’s resources to spaceflight — and eventual evacuation of as many people as possible as Earth becomes increasingly uninhabitable — is growing. The book’s first scene is a political reception in Kansas City, the new capital of America, interrupted by gunfire through the windows of the room where the reception is taking place. The militantly anti-space group Earth First soon claims responsibility. Unsettlingly, evidence mounts that Earth First has sympathizers in both the American government and the International Aerospace Coalition (IAC), the global body governing spaceflight.
The overarching structure of the book is a search for the person or persons who could be behind most of the mechanical problems plaguing IAC launches and the American spaceport in Kansas. Kowal does not set up The Relentless Moon as a tightly-crafted whodunit; instead, she tells it as people going through their daily lives, working, striving, hanging on. It’s just that their daily work is in space or on the moon, an environment dangerous enough without someone trying to make it deadlier still while remaining undetected so as to keep doing damage.
In her afterword, Kowal says “When I wrote this book, COVID-19 didn’t exist.” (p. 541) It’s a little uncanny, then, that one of the major complications of The Relentless Moon is that polio gets transmitted to the Moon. In the Lady Astronauts timeline, Jonas Salk and his whole institute were wiped out by the Meteor. A polio vaccine is just coming into use, and people are resisting its use. Polio is contagious and deadly. The measures that the characters have to take on the Moon are familiar: isolation, quarantine, treatment with limited resources and an incomplete understanding of the disease.
The shadow of Trump crosses the book as well in the behavior of the FBI. Called to investigate potential saboteurs within NACA (the alternate history’s NASA analog), they take a partisan approach and believe they are the arbiters of all that is true and right. This is not too far from the FBI’s historical record under J. Edgar Hoover, but seeing it in The Relentless Moon was a reminder that the US has only recently and all-too-narrowly dislodged a chief executive who saw the entire purpose of the federal government as serving his private interests. Rioters also briefly seized the US Capitol. In the novel, Governor Wargin defuses the situation by meeting and praying with the insurrectionists. The incident is minor enough that it is relegated to a news item flash-back as a prelude to a chapter in the main story. For the most part, Kowal’s alternate history is immersive enough that thoughts of recent parallels were far from my mind.
In no small part that was because the pace is as relentless as the book’s title suggests. A launch accident that might be sabotage causes the IAC to rejigger its schedule and move the next launch from Kansas to Brazil. Nicole Wargin goes to the Moon with a crew and set of passengers who are not quite the people the lunar settlement had been expecting. Their landing fails not quite catastrophically — there are no casualties — but badly enough to put their rocket and the main launching area out of commission for a significant period. Then accidents and anomalies begin to accumulate on the Moon, too. Did a saboteur arrive on the new ship? Or have they been on the Moon much longer? Maybe there are several?
Nicole has to figure out who to trust, even as the powers that be have to decide whether and how far to trust her. After all, she is the wife of a governor, a man who might aim to be elected president barely a year and a half from the start of the book. She hasn’t told all of her story, either; she was a spy for the Allies behind Axis lines during the war, and she has personal worries that she has kept from nearly everyone around her. The IAC demands near perfection from the men who would be astronauts; the era and the organization are sexist enough that the demands on the women are even higher. Backwards and in heels, as it were.
Reading the book, though, the heaviness of its themes often fall away in the tautness of its action and the enjoyment I found in seeing how the collection of people around Nicole get together and work the problems that they face. Five hundred pages flew by in about a day and a half. Sometimes they get into trouble by being who they are, but more often than not they get out the same way. There are also terrific lines like when Nicole tries to warn Helen (the best chess player out of the Moon astronauts, among other abilities) that she may be snappish. Helen replies, “Pff… I’m a Taiwanese woman in the astronaut corps. Your drama does not frighten me.” (p. 371) Nicole, who thinks herself very worldly and experience, also gets a bit of comeuppance from a Black character that Kowal telegraphed well enough that I thought “Oh yes, white girl’s about to get some real talk.”
[Myrtle] planted her hands on her hips, glaring at me. “Everyone out.”
Eugene [Myrtle’s husband, a fighter pilot and astronaut, also Black] lifted his hands as if he were warding off a bomb blast and backed away from her. Helen, that traitor, turned and walked to the door. Only Halim [male and Algerian] hesitated. “Is there any—”
“Out. I know you’re the chief astronaut, but—out.” Myrtle pointed to the door. (pp. 354–55)
Real talk does in fact ensue. Myrtle brooks no nonsense. Nicole has sense enough to take direction, and they all get on with trying to prevent the sabotage from cascading into a collapse of the Moon settlement.
The ending, when it comes, is satisfying, a damn close run thing that’s resolved with the traits of the characters that have been established throughout the book. The epilogue, set nearly two years after the main action, provides even more resolution and perspective.
The Relentless Moon is a finalist for this year’s Hugo Awards. It’s the first that I have read in the Best Novel category, though it’s the second of this year’s overall finalists that I have read. The first was Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation of Beowulf which, interestingly, is a finalist in Best Related Work.