Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
May 2017

Title: The Moon and the Other
Author: John Kessel
Publisher: Saga Press

In John Kessel’s new novel, the Moon of 2149 hosts twenty-seven different colonies that support 3.2 million people. Each colony is principled on different political and social values, but bound to the whole through complex economic trade and scientific interdependencies. AIs are commonplace, as is genetic engineering, potent anti-aging tech, nano-solutions to a variety of problems, and even, though frowned upon in some quarters, uplifted animals, such as dogs and monkeys. And of course, all of the engineering and sustainability innovations that make long-term existence within Moon domes possible.

In this tale of two colonies, Persepolis and the Society of Cousins, we follow the complex and subtly interwoven stories of four main characters: Erno, Mira, Carey and Amestris. For long stretches of the book, these four threads resolve into two, with the four characters above entangled in romantic relationships, but we remain privy to four distinct points of view throughout, which makes for fascinating reading. The plots are propelled forward by the protagonists’ various ambitions: seeking economic improvement, assuming parental responsibility for a teenaged boy, rebelling against a wealthy patriarch, atoning for past sins, and so on and so forth. Persepolis, the Moon’s largest, most populous colony, where status rises with depth, is also its richest; founded by utopians harkening back to a pre-Islam Iran, it is organized around a secular government and boasts immense luxury as well as painful socio-economic stratification. Meanwhile, Fowler’s Society of Cousins is a more radical experiment in matriarchal empowerment, adhering to a completely different set of mores wherein status and comfort flow from assumed gender roles rather than purchasing power. But within each of these colonies various sub-factions work to interrogate and test the stability of their adopted models. The Society of Cousins, in particular, is subjected to great stress at the hands of Persepolis and a greater coalition, and the possibilities of terrorism and revolution loom ever-near. Kessel has discussed how the Society of Cousins is modeled after the social protocols of bonobos, where sex is common coin and females band together to prevent male domination, while Persepolis is modeled after the more familiar society of chimps. The clash between these two systems is inherently compelling, but Kessel skillfully delves beyond the obvious and explores nuances of all sorts. By concretely illustrating the challenges and deviations from their ideals, Kessel makes his colonies fully believable.

The book is rich with incident, but even richer in sophisticated characterization, sumptuous literary allusion, political discourse, and an almost invisible but consistent grounding in scientific plausibility (with one significant leap towards the story’s explosive denouement). Kessel’s scientific extrapolations permeate the novel’s backdrop with exquisitely sustained thoughtfulness and rigor. Yet in many ways, this is a novel of manners, and part of its beauty is the way it artfully balances both sides of any given equation. One of the novel’s main themes is that of finding one’s place and attempting to understand the Other. Gender questions contribute significantly. What are masculinity and manliness in a post-feminist world? “The idea that gender is entirely a construction was demolished a century ago,” says one character. “No matter how it expresses, it’s in our genes. To deny the reality of the billions who devoted their lives to being ‘male’ or ‘female’ is inhumane. Are men and women myths?” Another asks: “What is a man? Is a man just a woman who can’t bear children? I think our answers to these questions have been impoverished.” No matter what side you fall on, gender relations will always be tricky, because, as we’re told early on, “Difference means persecution. Always true, anywhere you go.” The Other also manifests in the truly non-human intelligences of those uplifted animals I mentioned before. One of them, a canine reporter named Sirius, plays a central role. Time and again caution is heeded regarding assumptions: “The more Erno had gotten to know the dog, the less he understood him.”

Another major theme, closely connected to the first, is communication. When the novel kicks off with Erno in exile, he reflects on the importance of language: “Each shift enlarged his hoard of workplace idioms, of terms necessary to carry on a political conversation, of pickup lines—even of ways to express his feelings.” Later, he muses that, “Poetry was all he had.” Balancing this, the limitations of conventional narrative are addressed in at least two ways: by using non-traditional narrative means (such as poetry fragments, song lyrics, report extracts, forum board messages, and video interviews) to convey information to the reader, and by explicitly addressing the distortions of fiction in the novel’s wistful closing chapter. Connected to all this is the way the media generally exploits its audience: “The news lives on feeding viewers’ paranoia.” We also get compelling debate around the importance of transparency pertaining to scientific research, another fundamental way of communicating. And of course the novel’s erotic interludes and sexual escapades are fundamentally about attempting to connect (or manipulate) someone else, and are never simplified for our benefit (e.g. “It took a topologist to keep track of the ever-changing romantic geometry of her inner circle”).

The weight of the past, and the appeal and dangers of reinventing oneself, comprise a third significant thematic strand. For example, when Erno discovers that Amestris had once been a pianist, he reflects: “It made him sad. She had never said one word to him about this hidden career. There was no piano in their apartment, hardly any music at all.” Later, a different character chastises himself for not realizing that part of his history “would not remain hidden in his past, yet its resurfacing infuriated him.” Perhaps the most succinct statement of this idea may be: “Every present moment was colored by the years that had come before.” The outer surface of the Moon, with its “dust pitted by a billion years of micrometeorite impacts,” is a perfect environment to explore the notion of an uncannily preserved past, and its almost asphyxiating effect on the future.

“You know that we can never avoid the status games,” observes Hypatia Camillesdaughter. Indeed, and John Kessel’s phenomenal novelistic achievement, informed by years of lunar, anthropological, and historical research, contains as much of the “wit, ingenuity in concealing motives, and complex status games” as Erno attributes to Persian poetry in the novel’s opening chapter. The Moon and the Other is at times slow paced, but even then it glides gracefully through a “ta’arof dance of question and answer, compliment and self-deprecation,” irresistibly appealing to our intelligence and visionary capacity as readers to delve into perennial questions of self and existential meaning. I think it’s one of the best science fiction novels of the last twenty years.

Title: Avengers of the Moon
Author: Allen Steele
Publisher: Tor

In “Captain Future and the Space Emperor” (Captain Future #1, Winter 1939/1940) Edmond Hamilton created an instantly loved character who, along with his three indefatigable companions, the robot Grag, the android Otho, and the brain of Professor Simon Wright, would go on to star in twenty-six additional installments of rip-roaring fun and galaxy-spanning adventure between 1940 and 1951. Fast forward to 2017. Allen Steele, whose affection towards and extensive knowledge of the history of science fiction were demonstrated most recently in his novel Arkwright, has gained permission from the Hamilton estate to resurrect Captain Future. As a reader who proudly displays the three deluxe hardcovers of Captain Future yarns recently re-issued by Haffner Press on his shelves, the publication of Avengers of the Moon fills me with joy.

And along with that joy, trepidation. Would Steele do justice to Curtis Newton, i.e. Captain Future? Would he get the voice right? How much familiarity with Newton’s backstory would be asked of modern readers, most of whom have probably never heard of the character? Within a few pages of Steele’s novel, my doubts evaporated and all concerns were allayed. This is not a continuation of the Captain Future saga, but rather a fresh retelling of the classic origin story, informed by current science and technology (with a few minor concessions where necessary). I’m also happy that Steele has decided to tell his tale in smooth, modern-day prose, as opposed to attempting a deliberately retrograde pulp style. His writing is crisp and clear.

Structurally, the novel benefits from a technique that Steele also used to great effect in Arkwright, which is to tell about a third of his present-timeline story, then go back for an extended flashback that fleshes out the characters and their motivations, and finally return to the present for a swift and sweeping third act. As with so many classic space opera stories rooted in a 40s sensibility, the main plot engine is the conflict between the protagonist and the villain of the piece. In this instance Curtis Newton, an orphan, seeks vengeance against criminal entrepreneur and scheming genius Victor Corvo. Much of the novel’s action consists of Newton tracking down his prey and overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles along the way, which results in some ingenious action sequences and a jaunt from the Moon to Mars. At the same time, Curtis himself is being tracked by Joan Randall, an officer of the Interplanetary Police Force. As is telegraphed early on, she will be the novel’s main romantic interest. The climactic confrontation with Corvo is well-handled, and a sense of pathos lingers after turning the last page.

I applaud Steele’s sincere but restrained approach to his source material, and I relished his evident enjoyment in this particular reworking, as well as the references he sprinkles in for knowing readers (e.g. the ship Leigh Brackett). The novel’s Prologue sets the stage for the story, imbuing it with a “golden age” flavor from the get-go. We’re told that “there were no heroes. Naturally, one had to be born.” This novel tells of this hero’s birth and upbringing and sets us up for his future adventures. The ending of “The Triumph of Captain Future” (Captain Future #4, Fall 1940) contains the following lines:

“It’s been a long road that we’ve roamed together, we four.”

“Aye, lad,” said the Brain. “And that road still stretches ahead, perilous as ever. The System will need us again, you may be sure.”

It was the truth, Curt knew. Evil ambition was hydra-headed, never completely crushed. Sooner or later its threat would cause the signal to flash again from Earth’s pole to summon him and the Futuremen.”

I, for one, eagerly anticipate Steele responding to the flash and penning another entry in this good-natured, sense-of-wonder series.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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