True to its title, Ian McDonald's latest novel, Luna: New Moon, takes place almost entirely in a sprawling Moon colony. Technically, everything on the Moon is operated by a company called the Lunar Development Corporation, but in practice the colony is controlled by five powerful family-run businesses nicknamed the Five Dragons. The narrative focuses on the Corta family, who are both the youngest of the Five Dragons and the most precarious. Their founder, Adriana Corta, worked for another great family, the Mackenzies, before she secretly secured outside investment to start her helium business, thus earning her the lasting enmity of the Mackenzies as well as their ferocious competition. Under Adriana's leadership the Cortas have achieved incredible success, but she's near the end of her life and is transferring power and responsibility to her sons.
Rafa is the eldest and therefore next in line, but her second son Lucas is thought by many, not least himself, to be the shrewder and more ruthless businessman. The already delicate situation is inflamed when someone tries to assassinate Rafa. Is it the Mackenzies trying to sabotage the succession? Is it Lucas, trying to take the place of his brother? As accusations fly and tensions rise, the rest of Adriana's children are drawn into the growing crisis. Ariel Corta, Adriana's only daughter and an influential lawyer, finds herself being courted by several different factions hoping to gain from the crisis. Carlinhos Corta manages the family’s day-to-day mining operations, so he is on the front lines as dirty tricks escalate into outright violence. The youngest son and family black sheep, Wagner, meanwhile makes it his mission to find out who is attacking the family who mostly shun him.
The powerful, feuding families have led many, not least the author himself, to compare the plot with Game of Thrones. McDonald has also compared it to the television show Dallas. These comparisons are useful for marketing because they promise readers who liked a certain work that the same thing they liked will be in the new book, but they aren't wholly positive, particularly in science fiction. In a genre that prides itself on new ideas, "X but in Space" might be fun—but it's not the most exciting of premises. Luna's plot indeed feels very familiar and, worse, quite predictable as it proceeds through the usual moves and countermoves toward a not-at-all shocking revelation about the forces behind the assassination attempts.
One better reason for transposing a familiar narrative to a science fictional setting is to use it as a framework to explore a new environment. Compared to its overfamiliar plot, Luna does far more to distinguish its moon colony from its many science fictional predecessors. First, as one would expect given the focus of previous McDonald novels on non-Western countries, his Moon is a multicultural place. It's not just that there are some token characters from other cultures; Americans and western Europeans are almost entirely absent, making room for characters from Brazil and the rest of the southern hemisphere along with some Russians and Chinese. And whereas traditional science fiction often forgets poor people exist, Luna's corporate-run colony is a place of massive economic inequality. The wealthy Five Dragons live amid opulent gardens and citadels, throwing lavish parties and hosting sporting events. But many more live day to day doing menial labor, struggling to pay for the very air they're breathing. Unlike the rich who live far underground, the poor live near the radiation-drenched surface, and although there are medicines that can cure the resulting cancers, that treatment must also be paid for.
This setting seems like a springboard for a critique of crony capitalism or libertarianism, but after the opening scenes that introduce the divide between the rich and the poor, there's not very much in this vein. The Five Dragons are companies, yes, but their family ownership, dynastic succession, marriage alliances, private armies, and prioritization of loyalty and honor over profit all conspire to make them feel a lot more like the noble families of a weak monarchy than weakly regulated companies. It's also never made clear how this situation came to be. Adriana mentions investors when describing the founding of her company and there is a board of directors, but in practice she seems answerable to no one. The government of China is said to have been an early investor in another of the Five Dragons but since forced out. Otherwise Earth governments don't seem interested in controlling the Moon (apparently their militaries haven't read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress).
The one perspective we have from outside the rich and powerful comes in the form of Marina Calzaghe, an immigrant woman doing menial jobs and living in dire poverty. Her story provides an intriguing answer to the question: "How does one become a poor, menial laborer on the Moon?" She has a "postgrad degree" in "computational evolutionary biology in process control architecture" but the contract that brought her to the Moon fell through after she arrived, leaving her unemployed and almost immediately impoverished. As a reminder that, in the Moon's heartless and exploitative economy, even someone with an elite education is just one paycheck away from homelessness, she should be the most interesting character. Instead, she's almost immediately swept up into the Cortas' orbit and becomes a starstruck bystander to great events, her perspective compromised by access to money and incipient romantic feelings. Little is made of the glaring fact she is likely far more educationally accomplished than the Cortas she works for.
This decision to focus on the scheming, incredibly rich, and often ruthless Corta family could easily have been a disaster. Other stories of this sort, such as Game of Thrones and Dune, ease the reader into their worlds by letting them follow sympathetic children who are young enough that they are (initially, at least) innocent victims of family infighting rather than perpetrators of it. McDonald has what could have been similar characters at hand in Adriana's three grandchildren, but instead most of the narrative is devoted to Adriana's children and augmented with her own first person reminiscences.
Yet the characters are easily the strongest part of the novel and elevate it from a potboiler with nice scenery into something memorable. Each of the Cortas has a distinct personality and voice, something that is impressive by itself in a novel with a large cast. There is conflict among the family members but, at least within the family, there aren't any actual villains. One could easily imagine a version of this story in which Rafa is the rightful heir and Lucas is a scheming upstart, or one where Rafa is the dissolute incompetent who will waste his inheritance while Lucas is hardworking and unappreciated. Instead, both of these dichotomies are present but neither is definitive. All of the Cortas are flawed, but none of them are evil. Rather than root for one against the others, the reader is encouraged to hope—as Adriana does—that they find a way to put aside their differences and work together to avoid a disastrous conflict with the Mackenzies.
As the situation escalates, all the adult characters get a chance to be active and make choices that feel grounded in their personality and circumstances. There's never a sense that a character is doing something (or worse, behaving stupidly) merely because the plot requires it. The third person narrative provides just enough access to their thoughts and feelings for their decisions to be understandable, but although some characters are beset by anxiety or self-pity, McDonald trusts the reader enough to let this show through their actions instead of wallowing in it.
The reason the characters work so well is that the narrative pays attention to their lives and slows down to depict a few illuminating moments that have no direct relationship to the setting or plot. We find out, for example, that Lucas Corta has a secret passion for music that develops into a secret passion for a particular musician. This small subplot does nothing to advance the overall story and sheds no further light on the setting, but it makes Lucas into a real character instead of a simple stereotype. Taken together with a dozen similar moments with other characters, it enables the novel to finally mount an unexpected criticism of the Moon's rampantly capitalist society. There have been many stories about futures that involve a few rich people living among an impoverished many, but Luna's focus on character allows it to ask whether these rich people are happy and, if not, what would make them happy. This is a crucial question in a story where the great families' struggle for money and power is destabilizing both their own positions and the entire society.
So far the novel lets the reader draw their own conclusions about this question, but then conclusions are one thing the novel does not attempt to provide. This is a self-contained novel only in the most literal of senses. In the last few pages, various characters are hung off their respective cliffs in preparation for the second novel and the story simply stops. For readers who are most interested in plot, the story here probably isn't interesting enough on its own to justify its lack of closure. But those interested in spacefaring settings and, in particular, those who enjoy reading about compelling characters in those settings, Luna: New Moon is well worth the price of admission.