Kim Stanley Robinson has had a remarkable career, nor is it even close to over. For most authors, an accomplishment like the Mars trilogy (Red Mars ; Green Mars ; Blue Mars ) or the Science in the Capitol sequence (Forty Signs of Rain ; Fifty Degrees Below ; Sixty Days and Counting ) would be a career-defining high-point. For Robinson, they are merely landmarks on a path along which he is continuing with unflagging energy.
In his seventh decade, Robinson has turned his attentions to visions of humanity's near future as it expands into the solar system, tries to cope with the effects of climate change, and reckons with the destructive effects of runaway capitalism and increasingly unrepresentative systems of government. Three of his recent novels have each dealt with these issues in unique, thought-provoking ways. 2312 (2012) was a freewheeling tour of a terraformed solar system that imagined new forms for humanity as well as new habitats for it. Aurora (2015) was a bleak journey there and back again, a categorical rejection of the fantasy of generation ships colonizing far-flung planets, and a cry to concentrate our efforts on the habitat we evolved to thrive in. And New York 2140 (2017) was a vision of the titular city reinventing itself to survive and thrive in an era of extreme climate events, sparking a people's revolution against entrenched corporate interests.
In all three novels, Robinson emulated the style of John Dos Passos, interspersing narrative with document fragments or transcribed news reports, and addressing the reader directly as he attempted to explain the complex political, technological, and natural systems that were the root cause of the events we witnessed. The worlds that Robinson imagines in these books are imperfect, damaged—perhaps beyond any full measure of repair—and precariously teetering on the edge of disaster. But running through them is the belief that with hard work, new ideas, and good will, a better future is possible. More importantly, there is also a sense that it is possible to make something good out of the disaster caused by past mistakes. Together, they form a sequence that not only pushes against the boundaries of what science fiction can achieve (and challenges some of its most cherished tropes), but leaves readers feeling galvanized and invigorated to effect change in the real world.
Unfortunately, the novel that I am here to review is Red Moon, and in it Robinson's combination of detailed worldbuilding, Dos Passos-esque god's-eye-view of the systems of the world, and call to revolution has produced something muddled and even a little offputting. Red Moon lacks 2312's energy, Aurora's hard-headedness, and New York 2140's barely suppressed fury. What it offers instead is a hodgepodge of concepts, none of which are as well-developed as they need to be to carry the novel. More importantly, it lacks the sense of relevance that has made Robinson's other, recent visions of the future feel so essential to our present moment. By the time you finish Red Moon, you have to wonder whether Robinson understands what our problems actually are.
Set in 2047—the year in which China is to retake full control of Hong Kong, an event that is mentioned in the book but which doesn't seem to hold much significance to its story—Red Moon imagines that China has placed several strongholds on Earth's satellite. While other countries, including the US, have also placed installations on the moon, China is generally understood to be in charge—though the human population is quite small, highly dependent on supplies from Earth, and generally peaceful (a comparison is frequently made to the friendly political detente that exists in Antarctica).
The novel begins when Fred Fredricks, an American in the employ of a Swiss engineering company, travels to the moon to deliver to a high-ranking Chinese diplomat a quantum phone, a device entangled with a partner on Earth that promises secure and instantaneous communication. Instead, both Fred and his client collapse, the latter fatally, and Fred is accused of his murder. The local authorities immediately recognize political interference in the case, and suspect the involvement of Red Spear, a black-book arm of the militaristic, authoritarian faction within the Chinese leadership. The local magistrate tasks Ta Shu—an elderly poet, feng shui expert, and travel writer who has come to the moon to film a segment of his show—with escorting Fred back to Earth by presenting him as a member of Ta Shu’s crew, and with handing him to the nearest American consulate upon arrival. But he also includes among Ta Shu's charges another problematic lunar denizen, Chan Qi, who has become pregnant, which is illegal on the moon. When Fred and Qi arrive on Earth, she turns out to be a political hot potato, the daughter of a high-ranking party member at a moment when China's leadership is in flux. She convinces him to run off with her, and a concerned Ta Shu follows their progress, activating his own connections within the party in an effort to help them.
What this means is that a lot of Red Moon doesn't take place on the moon at all. There are, to be certain, sequences in which Robinson exercises his familiar gift for gonzo—and yet thoroughly researched—worldbuilding. The American intelligence officers on the moon visit an artificially enclosed crater whose inhabitants live on floating platforms, launching themselves in the low gravity from one to the other on ropes. An eccentric Chinese billionaire terraforms a lava tube and constructs a fantasy of classical China within it, complete with pagodas and willows drooping their branches into tranquil ponds. ("This isn't China," Chan Qi announces when she first sees it. "It's Chinoiserie" [p. 261].)
Most of all, there is a great deal of discussion about the challenges of making human life possible on a dead satellite. Visitors sleep in centrifuges that simulate 1g in order to stave off the effects of microgravity (though when Ta Shu returns to Earth, he is so debilitated by his brief stay on the moon that he needs to hire an exoskeleton to get around). Pregnancy, as noted, is outlawed because no one has any idea what the developmental effects of microgravity and increased radiation might be (though for some reason no one seems to demand proof of IUDs or vasectomies from anyone taking up a post). Perhaps most disturbingly, visitors often observe that the moon's human-habitable structures resemble nothing so much as a mall—except that here there is no daylight or fresh air to escape to, only lifeless, airless desolation.
It's perhaps for this reason that Robinson seems much more interested in getting his characters planetside. Qi turns out to be a revolutionary leader, particularly concerned with the plight of the Billion, China's internally displaced population who relinquish basic protections and welfare when they move away from the rural communities where they were born to cities, where there are better-paying jobs. She and Fred bounce between cells of this organization, finally fetching up in an apartment in Hong Kong where she spends a great deal of time educating him (and us) about China's history, its present problems, and Communist philosophy. Ta Shu, meanwhile, visits his home in Beijing, recording reflections for his show about its history and present, particularly the ecological remediation project that has transformed it from the polluted city of his youth (it can be amusing to recall that, given the novel's timeframe, Ta Shu is actually a millennial), and meeting with party officials among whom his efforts to help Fred and Qi are interspersed with conversations about the state of the party and its leadership struggle. In some of the novel's few moments of irony, Ta Shu often ends his chapters with a note to himself to erase or redact some recent observation that has veered too close to criticism of the party or its past leaders, lest he call down the wrath of the censors.
This leads us, of course, to the biggest problem with Red Moon: the fact that it is a novel by a white, Western author that purports to explain China's past, and predict its future. I don't know enough about either to offer any meaningful criticism or evaluation of Robinson's performance, but I can say that the project leaves me feeling uneasy. For example, characters in the novel express attitudes towards Mao Zedong that are significantly more positive than one tends to find in Western discussion of the man—Qi, while admitting that his writing has a lot of shit segments, also quotes parts of it to Fred to elucidate China's vision of the future; and Ta Shu's attitude towards the calamities caused by the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution is basically that, well, at least he tried. I don't know whether that's something that real Chinese people in their situation would say, or merely an attempt to break through a Western audience's reflexive antipathy towards Mao.
In fact, despite Qi's attempts to hang a lantern on it—she quotes from Said's Orientalism to Fred and introduces him to the concept of white Westerners treating Asians as a blank slate on which they can project their own ideas and anxieties—one can't help but feel that China in Red Moon is more of a construct for Robinson than a real country, a sandbox for him to experiment in rather than an enormous, multifaceted, complicated nation. The novel's Dos Passos-esque segments mostly come courtesy of a nameless government official in charge of the country's panopticon project, who has surreptitiously programmed an AI with which he hopes to help Qi's group of insurrectionists plan a mass protest. In one of his final segments, after being arrested for sedition, he offers this observation about his nation:
China had always had its own structure of feeling. Presumably every culture did. In China there had always been the feeling that China was a project they all created and owned together, often against the resistance of all the other people in the world, also against the resistance of the imperial overlords at home. China belonged to the people, and the Chinese Communist Party belonged to the people. And not so long ago there had been a time when farmers, workers, artists and intellectuals had banded together without any notion of fame or profit or power, simply out of a feeling of compassion and human solidarity, to work tirelessly their whole lives to make a socialist revolution in which no one exploited anyone else, and men and women lived together as equals. Now there was a structure of feeling! (p. 341)
Now, look, maybe this is true. But it feels reductive. It feels like Robinson reducing China, with all its complexities, to this simplistic version of its history and cultural identity so that he can use it as a component in his worldbuilding, in the novel's project to imagine a better future for all humanity, one in which Qi's revolutionaries, the parts of China's party leadership more congenial to human rights and the rule of law, and anti-capitalist elements in the US come together to create a new world order.
It eventually becomes clear, in fact, that the moon was never the point. One character after another finally comes to the conclusion that Earth's satellite can't be the answer. "The moon isn't good for anything" (p. 241) is the verdict of one of its long-term denizens, and Ta Shu repeatedly observes that the moon is an "anti-Earth" (p. 81) where the necessities of human society can't exist, and where meaningful change and progress towards a better world can't occur. The novel even makes sure to ding the common SFnal fantasy about Helium-3 being the panacea that solves all of humanity's energy shortages, with a scene in which a pair of prospectors are mocked for failing to grasp the inefficiency of their proposed solution for mining it.
This is a device similar to the one Robinson deployed to such great effect in Aurora. In that novel, the idea of the generation ship, so central to much SFnal worldbuilding, was depicted as a dangerous fantasy, barely survivable for its inhabitants and the future generations forced to live in it. The idea of finding alien worlds where humans could live safely and prosperously turned out to be not just misguided in its own right, but a dangerous distraction from the vital work of preserving the one habitat humans are actually suited to. Red Moon seems to be aiming at the same conclusion when it treats the moon as, at best, a means to an end, and at worst, a dangerous trap to be escaped—as in its final sequence, in which Fred and Qi desperately try to stay ahead of Red Spear's assassination attempts, frantically fleeing from one lunar shelter to another as they try to reach an automated shuttle that will carry them back to Earth and safety.
The problem is that unlike Aurora, which took its entire, languorous length to make its point, Red Moon has so many other things to do that its conclusion about the moon ends up getting lost in the shuffle. Even worse, so much of what the novel wants to be about turns up in its last hundred pages, so that by the time we turn the last page it feels as if the story we finished was completely different to the one we started. Suddenly it becomes important that throughout the novel's events, there has been a "householders' protest" in the US in which citizens have manufactured a run on the banks, forcing the government to nationalize them. Suddenly we are introduced to the concept of "carboncoin," a cryptocurrency "created by a confirmable history of carbon drawdown or equivalent environmental actions, valid for subsistence spending only" (pp. 374-5) into which many Americans are allegedly converting their life savings. Or "blockchain governance," a system in which "everyone [participates] in some kind of global governance, in which every action legal and financial would be completely documented, and recorded and secured publicly step by step and law by law" (p. 375). Suddenly, near the close of a novel concerned with things like whether China should be governed by the party or by the rule of law, we're led to believe that the real revolution is the "takeback of [the US] federal government from global finance" (p. 363)—a force whose impact in China is apparently negligible or nonexistent, for all that it has featured in the novel until this point.
Another novel, one that laid the foundation for these concepts more methodically, that built its world from the first page to accommodate them and argue for their effectiveness (a novel like New York 2140, in other words), might have made this argument successfully. In Red Moon, however, one is constantly brought up short by the insufficiency of Robinson's analysis. China is currently interning as many as a million Uighur Muslims, relegating them to reeducation camps where they are pushed towards abandoning their religious lifestyle. The US is currently ruled by a man who made his name by propagating racist conspiracy theories against his nation’s first black president, and who kicked off his campaign by proclaiming that all Mexicans are rapists. To be blunt, these don't feel like problems that can be solved with blockchain. The idea that all that's missing from our current systems of government to make them equitable and accountable is full visibility—as if people were somehow unaware of things like immigrant detainment camps or family separation—is risible.
It's at this point that one realizes that Red Moon is probably the first novel Robinson has written since Donald Trump was made president. Perhaps it's not surprising that he has struggled to adjust his approach to science fiction to a world in which we are repeatedly shown that so many of our fellow citizens are fine with authoritarianism, with the vilification and pointless, cruel persecution of those who are different and vulnerable, with short-sighted, destructive policies whose real purpose is to make the powerful feel even more so.
There's no room in Robinson's novels for people like this. In Red Moon, the Red Spear faction is given much less space in the narrative than Qi's conflict with the current frontrunner for China's party leadership, a reformer whose policies don't do enough for the Billion, and who isn't sufficiently committed to the idea of the rule of law. I happen to agree that the latter conflict is a great deal more interesting (not to mention that I agreed with most of Qi's desired policies and wanted her to find a way to bring them about), but in the face of our current political moment, it's hard not to feel that Red Moon's approach to politics is a bit like burying your head in the sand. Robinson's particular blend of rage at the condition of the world, optimistic belief in our ability to make things better, and insistence on the role of smart, dedicated, industrious people in achieving that goal, is absolutely necessary as a form of science fiction for our present moment. But unless he can acknowledge the true contours of the problems we're facing, all it will lead to is irrelevant fantasies.