So here we are again. It is the Moon this time, not New York, but they are both the same kind of place in the hands of their very serious makers. So here we are, facing a novel both dead serious about the grounds it grinds into shape, and inescapably worthwhile: no sideways chillax grin conceding any room for the likes of Daniel Dennett, the philosopher for whom all deepity descriptions (of consciousness, or Artificial Intelligence, or the future) can only be sort of true: good maybe to tell stories with, but not perhaps to act on. But here we are, face to face with another doughty author who has cherry-picked out of the concussive Unintended Consequences of 2017 some tellable version of the future in order to teach us something extrapolated from the yesterday he calls now (as do we all). Like Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other is, in other words, a thought experiment, with the cavil that his long intensely meditated but ultimately rather simple novel, while being about utopian instantiations of abstract concepts, does not expose any sense that the tale itself is as abstracted from the real as the ideal societies it depicts, until the break-down.
For almost five hundred pages, The Moon and the Other does hold onto its brief to depict as inherently viable two intentional cultures chosen from a wide range of less intensely described utopian enterprises which have found homes under the surface of the Moon a century and a half hence. Only near the end of the novel, in scenes full of newly introduced redshirts who die picturesquely in the disaster, does The Moon and the Other more or less abandon its brief as a great act of sabotage destroys the matriarchal utopia which had been the main focus of Kessel’s attention, and which has taken up many more pages of his tale than its main rival, a male-dominated “Persian” autocracy. The sabotage is fun to read, and Kessel makes good meat of the falling of the dome that preserves the atmosphere of Society of Cousins; it is only afterwards we realize, after the saboteur’s identity has been revealed—he is an uplifted dog named “Carrollton’s Sirius Alpha-Ultra vom Adler” (a monicker which may be an homage to Iain M. Banks), who bears a woofy animus against humans—that the destruction of this world has not been enjoined by its faults as a utopia, but in order to tell good story and get out of the book, both of which goals Kessel accomplishes with skill and narrative cunning, without any undue speed. But he does abandon ship.
The problem is not hard to articulate. A utopia or dystopia will almost certainly be arbitrary, a strictly arbitrated reality presented in term of advocacy or disavowal; but it is something else to narrate one arbitrarily. Even when the fall of a dystopia is seen to result from internal flaws, the reader—or the viewer of The Hunger Games films, etc.—may justly feel that if it falls too readily the cards may have been stacked, and that instead of an analytic conspectus of some ideal good or bad world, the real point of the exercise is to witness its fall, however extrinsic the engineering of collapse may be. But nothing in the first few hundred pages of The Moon and the Other much prepares us for extrinsic collapse, nor for that matter are we really very well prepared for what in fact has no real reason to happen: the collapse of Kessel’s experiments for intrinsic reasons. His rendering of the ongoing (if argumentative) pulse of life in his two utopias makes us in fact anticipate their survival, for there an inherent liveability characterizes both of the two ideal societies he focuses on here: the Society of Cousins, whose disenfranchised males have a complex but by no means fully certified case when they argue for full citizenship rights (transgender men and women, who are identified according to their birth sex, are less well treated, though they are otherwise able to live according to their genuine nature); and Persepolis, where females are similarly subordinated (though not really on the page, as the native of this environment Kessel spends most time on is a sexually emancipated female musician and entrepreneur). Hints that Sirius is acting for the tycoon who secretly dominates Persepolis, which are never really confirmed, do not modify a sense that the climactic catastrophe interrupts the book: which is to say it ends in melodrama not tragedy. In the end the elaborately named dog’s deliberate self-immolation, and the havoc he has suicidally wreaked, work as spectacle not argument, Debacle not Recognition, Horror not Terror.
This abrupt termination of argument seems all the harsher through its savage effects on the human dramas that have been Kessel’s main interest in narrating from the get-go. Much of the utopian discourse in the tale is conveyed through detailed dovetailing narratives focused on various characters who fit with varying difficulty (as people do) into their respective worlds. Erno Pamelasson (a native of the Society of Cousins, where all surnames are created on the Icelandic model) has been adrift from his native polis for a decade, doing odd jobs. During a labour stint in Persepolis, he is taken up by Amestris Eskander, daughter of the tycoon Cyrus. In a world where female autonomy is theoretically deprecated, and virginity fetishized along patriarchal models, she is a sexual free agent, and eventually marries the foreigner Erno, whose biotech skills are unusual in Persepolis. The two found Eskander Environmental Design & Reconstruction, though after some initial success he finds himself not quite up to the increasingly sophisticated demands his clients make of him, and consequently seconds himself to a mission organized by a consort of statelets (including Persepolis) to examine conditions in the Society of Cousins, in order to extract data from his old mentor.
Meanwhile, in the Society, a matrilineal family structure encourages (as has sometimes been the case on our own planet) a blissfully relaxed attitude toward sexual behaviour, with men (if they so desire) tending to specialize in giving (and taking) pleasure with multiple partners. Carey, whose life parallels and intersects with Erno’s, is a sex champion, and it is to the credit of The Moon and the Other that he does not seem the worse for it. But one of his partners, the contrarian Mira, finds herself tortured by sexual jealousies; the closest Kessel gets to locating the final catastrophe not in the stars but in the arms of humans is his depiction of the disruptive consequences of her damaging perjury in a court case involving Carey, who wishes to gain custody of his son Val, and who is briefly influenced by an ongoing protest movement in favour of male franchise (Kessel nicely presents their case in language he could have almost taken literally from Robert Bly’s once-famous Iron John: A Book About Men ). But the protest movement is in fact pretty well-mannered, and hardly justifies the statelets’ commission of inquiry, which was in truth primarily convened in order to force the Society of Cousins to reveal the nature of a scientific discovery they hold the secret of, and which may serve as a weapon.
That discovery is in fact an Integrated Quantum Scanner Array, a two-part device consisting of a scanner which records and digitally stores humans, in a tradition extending from John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977), plus “some sort of instantiator, like an object printer”: which is to say that the essence of a stored human is not downloaded into a clone receptable, but printed. This is as close as Kessel gets to the toxic, story-solvent issue of the 3D Printer, whose actual presence in a tale set over a century of development hence would have had a toxic effect on much of the scarcity-based arguments subtending various of the lunar utopias here deposed.
It may seem that the IQSA is a rather pushmipullyu talk-around for technologies already hoveringly close, in 2017, to being describable as instantiators, without the buggy-whip. But it is pretty clear that Kessel meant to do this, just as Robinson (see above) meant to give his tale room to mean something, through (I think signaled) exclusions. But “object printers” are not the only dodge here. Just as I was finishing my read of The Moon and the Other, I clocked a piece in The Guardian (3 August 2017) describing a product now on sale from Three Square Market in Wisconsin: a chip implant whose use is now limited to the triggering of certain purchasing opportunities, but which the company founders predict will soon be widely used as a kind of smartphone. “We’ve had interest from parents of young kids who want to be able to implant their children with a GPS chip,” says one of these founders. Putting aside a mildly alarmed response to the prospect of mandatory implants that tell our owners more about us than we ourselves know, Three Square Market’s product and mission statement seem entirely in line with a growing, inchoately post-human sense a lot of us share that, for good and for ill, we are becoming increasingly readable. The point here is that in The Moon and the Other, a really rather large number of pages of which are spent tracing various characters’ attempts to locate other characters, Kessel has deliberately eschewed any attempt to describe that media gramarye which letters us to the last measurable detail and which bells us unerringly in the Singularity of Things. There is little sense in Kessel of that distributed we-are-not-quite-thereness typical of an author of exile like Kazuo Ishiguro, who never mentions our species fate as such, but whose novels increasingly seem intimate with tomorrow. The loss in verisimilitude is considerable in The Moon and the Other; the gain in clarity is also considerable.
What we most gain is a deposable world, a group portrait of intentional societies that one might imagine inhabiting. Persepolis may not seem very attractive, but is not described with sufficient verisimilitude to judge, though its post-catastrophe hegemonic role as a bastion of neoliberal monetizing of the rest of the Moon is cunningly pointed (empty condos built to the shape of money occupy parks in the partially-reconstructed Society of Cousins where multiply-parented children once played). But the Society of Cousins remains quite extraordinarily attractive, seductive to us in the Western world who have benefited from pretending to be echt male so long the knots have fused; and its blemishes—as mentioned, the legal pretzel-dance imposed upon transgender people—solvable through reform. Which is what The Moon and the Other looked as though it was about to describe, before it catastrophed.
There is no element of the fantastic in Paul La Farge’s cunningly literate The Night Ocean, an adroitly told dance of identities, few of which are certain except that of the frame narrator, a woman (oddly she too, like Mira above, is diminished by sexual jealousies), and the figure, variously limned, of H. P. Lovecraft, who one must guess is irredeemably too fused into his personhood to tamper with much. The heart of the tale is not in fact Lovecraft, though the novel revolves around the past he died in, but an orphan who grows up vacant, except for the identities he purloins, and the faked works of Lovecraft he purveys. The Lovecraft he fabricates is homosexual—I have no idea what this is based on, and The Night Ocean, whose title aptly describes the inner being of almost anyone, does not really make the claim—and is not portrayed in a manner inconsistent with the image presented of the man by those who find him attractive. A number of real SF writers and figures appear intermittently; La Farge is pretty cruel about some of them, and none of them shines through the page. Which is to say that, despite its complex interwoven delving into the night of the ocean of the past, there is little of the uncanny in this telling of obsessional recreation, little whiff of buried selfs clamouring to be heard and tolled. Except for the one or two occasions another real writer, William S. Burroughs, burns balefully into the world of the tale. He is so real the hair lifts on the back of the neck. He makes poor H. P. look like the nightmare of a child.