Luna | Ian McDonald | 2015, Pb 2016 | Gollancz | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book
On the Moon nothing is free, even the four elements of life have a price – water, space, air, data. A counter imprinted on the eye shows the cost of every breath, exhalation, sip and thought. Marina Calzaghe, like almost everyone else on the Moon, was once a valued colonist with a skillset needed to advance the transformation of this most hostile and alien environment. Once her contract finished, Marina made the choice to stay behind and from that moment on nothing was guaranteed, her life becoming a scramble to earn enough to breathe, living deep within the habitats, selling the contents of her bladder for enough credits to be able to access Luna’s online network, without which, it could be argued, life on the Moon really isn’t worth living.
Luna is held within the power of five families – the Dragons. Extremely competitive, with rivalries dating from the very beginning of Luna’s colonisation, each of the Dragons control every aspect of the Moon’s business, each focusing on one particular element. Adriana Corta is the founder and matriarch of Corta Hélio, a corporation that controls Luna’s Helium-3 industry, a control that came at a great expense, the fruits of which are now about to be reaped. Adriana’s five children, several now with children of their own, must pull together to help the Corta Hélio survive in the face of enormous, violent odds. The relationship between the five children is frosty and suspicious at best, perhaps it is much worse than that.
When Marina saves the live of one of her sons, Adriana recognises a kindred spirit and gives her the job of protecting her daughter, the fiercely independent lawyer Ariel Corta. This is not an easy role but through it Marina is given an entrance into the truly astonishing world of the Dragons, a world so different from her own experience of life on Luna, and yet a world that now threatens to pull the Moon apart.
Luna is an extraordinary novel, its drama almost entirely dictated by the quality of its characterisation. We are presented with a cast of many, most drawn from the five Dragon families, and every one of them, however brief their time on the page, is given a distinct and important place in the story. The families are connected through the most complicated relationships – it is common to have more than one spouse or several lovers, of either sex, these unions pulling together families with deep-rooted suspicion, even hatred, of the other. Children become bargaining tools, beauty is a weapon, power is everything. Ian McDonald uses new language to describe relationships – all explained in the useful glossary. Luna is a society that has evolved in ways unfamiliar to us. While technology might be more sophisticated in many aspects, its relationships (personal and business) are complicated but also becoming increasingly primitive and raw. In law cases, a verdict can be decided by battling champions slicing each other apart, children of rival houses compete by racing naked and unprotected across the Moon’s deadly surface. The cost of survival is so high on Luna, it has changed society.
Luna‘s world is beautifully evoked – the worldbuilding never forced, always apart of the story and vividly visual. Among the inhabitants of Luna new religions and mythologies have arisen. We have people who, when the Earth is full in the sky, live in packs, their behaviour unfettered, howling at the Earth like wolves. There are others who spend their lives running around the Moon in a joyous energetic race, almost as if they believe they are the force that fuel its movement. There are new religious orders – their influence increasing – and even industry chiefs have taken on mystical titles, such as Eagle of the Moon. Throughout, we have the imagery of feathers, wings, flying.
The story of the novel is beautifully elaborate, with time spent on each of the main characters, immersing us in their strange lives that still, at their heart, are as human as our own. The family relationships are wonderfully drawn, often touching, loving and tragic. Even the most powerful of people are shown to have another more private side. Characters here are not black and white, they are also complicated and enlivened by their ‘familiars’, their internet embodiment which fulfils all manner of tasks and roles. Throughout the novel we have sections in which Adriana Corta reflects on her long, long life and this is the perfect medium for showing us the history of the colonisation of Luna and the background of the great rivalry between these five families which has shaped the past – and destiny – of Luna.
Luna is complicated in places (a handy list of characters with their relationships introduces the novel). It never stands still, moving between families and places, past and present, and is thoroughly exciting in places – there is a strong thriller element to this novel. However, Luna is accessible throughout and comes to life through the brilliantly visual prose as well as its intense action and the most memorable episodes. There are characters here that will stay with me for a long time, moments that I won’t forget. It is self-contained and thoroughly satisfying but there is clearly so much more that could be said and I was so pleased to learn that there will be a second volume. I can’t say this enough – Luna is a remarkable novel! It is enormously clever and spectacularly visual and yet nothing overshadows the strength of its characterisation. A standout novel in a year that has been fantastic for science fiction.