The Relentless Moon is the third book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, and a Hugo nominee for 2021. This series began with a short story, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” which won a Hugo in 2012, and continued with two novels: The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky (both 2018).
The series takes place in an alternative universe. In this AU, a meteorite strike destroyed much of the United States’ Eastern Seaboard in 1952. This catastrophe touches off a change in climate which will make the Earth uninhabitable to humans within fifty years. Luckily, in this AU, Thomas Dewey defeated Truman in 1948, and was a pro-space president—so when the meteorite hit, the space program already had a solid foundation. In the first two books of the series, we follow Elma York and her husband as they work with the IAC (International Aerospace Coalition) to establish first a lunar and then a Martian colony.
In The Relentless Moon, we switch points of view. Nicole Wargin, a minor character in the first two novels, narrates this volume. Like Elma York, Nicole Wargin is one of the original six “Lady” astronauts. This book begins in 1963, just over a decade after the meteorite strike. Nicole, still an astronaut, is trying to balance her work at the IAC with her role as the wife of a politician who is planning a presidential run. Kenneth Wargin needs a potential First Lady at his side—a charming helpmeet and active aid to his political ambitions—but he nevertheless supports Nicole’s work as an astronaut. He also supports the mission to establish off-planet colonies and transport as many people as possible off Earth before climate change reaches its peak.
Meanwhile, an American activist group, Earth First, is moving beyond protest marches into acts of sabotage. Their argument is that the US is spending too many of its resources on the space program, while neglecting the needs of its citizens. (Only certain people qualify for either the IAC or as colonists—both want only physically fit and highly educated people, with specific skills.) At one point, an Earth-Firster notes that, more than a decade after the meteorite strike, many parts of the country still don’t have running water. From the opening pages of the book, we see these acts of sabotage from Nicole’s point of view: a launch explodes; Nathanial York is poisoned; Nicole’s plane is sabotaged. We’re also given Nicole’s take on Earth First, though we do hear another character, Eugene Lindholm—a black astronaut who also featured in the first two novels and has just been elected mayor of the lunar colony—admit that the Earth Firsters have a point (p. 21).
The campaign of sabotage increases in severity as the book progresses, until both the Mars mission and the lunar colony are at risk. Nicole, serving a rotation on the moon at this point, communicates with her husband by means of various codes, keeping him up-to-date on what she has learned about Earth First. Using what she has told him, Kenneth discovers that the current US president is affiliated with Earth First, and is assassinated—shot through the head, like John F. Kennedy. Despite their grief, Nicole and her allies on the moon continue the investigation, and uncover the full extent of the Earth First influence and sabotage. The book ends with a gala celebrating the return of the (successful) Mars mission, and a reveal that Nicole has run for president in her husband’s place and been elected: the first woman president of the US, in 1964.
There are some obvious problems with Kowal’s scenario. First, even if the oceans do boil, as is predicted by those running the climate change models in these books, Earth is still going to be more hospitable to human life than either Mars or the moon. Any efforts made to colonize either extraterrestrial locale will require infrastructure which could also be used to protect life on Earth—without requiring the transportation of colonists through space. Secondly, there is the eugenics problem: only certain people are considered “fit” to transport to the colonies, and the IAC, alongside local governments, set the standard for how “fit” is defined. Those with heart problems, for instance, are not fit. Neither are those who aren’t educated in a specific way. As the text itself notes, this is a handy way to exclude specific groups.
The United States still has on its books that you need a pilot’s license to qualify as an astronaut candidate. Mind you, the number of people who actually fly on the moon are a tiny proportion of those of us who go up. Why, might you ask, would a nation restrict who can apply by some archaic rule?
Well…if you want to limit the application pool to people with disposable income and a certain background, then a rule like this would be very useful. (p. 113)
In practice, this creates a eugenics program for those who will reach the colonies, and thus who will survive, since apparently very little is being done to ensure that those left behind on Earth will live through the coming climatic apocalypse. The books may also seem a bit optimistic about social justice. It’s 1963, and we have a Black mayor on the moon; Nicole becomes president, too, even if it is on the coattails of her murdered husband. And speaking of husbands, all the husbands in this book are supportive of their wife’s ambitions, even to the detriment of their own careers and ambitions.
But if we can get past these issues, The Relentless Moon—like the other books in Kowal’s series—is a ripping yarn. I’d say it’s a return to Golden Age science fiction, with its heavy reliance on technical details and hard science, except that Golden Age science fiction, for the most part, lacked any attempt at believable characters. The Relentless Moon, in a contrast that defines the whole series, is instead driven by both hard science and interesting, realistic characters. It is in this characterization that any objections to the novel’s apparently unrealistic approach to social justice can be—at least partially—allayed.
The fact that each novel is narrated by a woman who is also an astronaut—and highly capable in other ways, too—is the first of these nice bonuses. One touch I enjoyed greatly in this third book, for example, was how badly Nicole’s feet hurt when she is compelled, in order to be a politician’s wife, to wear high heels—and the long-term damage that has been done to her feet due to these heels. This is a nice commentary on the expectations imposed on women in certain cultures. It’s also a nice touch that Nicole doesn’t seem especially bothered by this cost of wearing heels. She just accepts it as part of life.
Also, the book doesn’t entirely ignore racial tension. Throughout the book, we see characters of color having their expertise ignored or downplayed. Because the colony on the moon is international, some of the characters are from South Africa—which in 1963, even in this AU, practices apartheid—and the South African characters have trouble accepting the authority or status as equal members of the colony of the Black and Latinx astronauts sent to the moon by the US and Brazil. I’ll admit I had a little trouble believing white characters from the US would not also have trouble with this; but in Kowal’s AU most people from the US, or at least most astronauts, have accepted the equality of people of color.
We also see women characters having their abilities discounted. Nicole is very nearly a hyper-competent Heinleinian character: a brilliant pilot, highly gifted in mathematics, a code-breaker, an ex-spy, a determined sleuth; and also beautiful, sex-positive, and able to wield charm like a ninja. But as with Elma York, whose hyper-competence was tempered by her crippling anxiety, Nicole pays a price for excelling. Just as her feet have been damaged by years of walking, dancing, and running in high heels, her years of excelling in the face of endless misogyny have damaged her psyche. Chronic anorexia nervosa has left her bones so brittle that they break under pressure, a metaphor for her own mental condition. When under pressure, Nicole tends to stop eating, which leads to her “breaking” at crucial moments—passing out, losing the ability to think clearly, losing control of her temper. Ironically, these failures are used as proof of the incompetence of women. As one character notes:
“[F]ainting out here I can explain as a temporary concern … But if you faint in there? Then it is that flying the Sirius is too hard for a woman.” Ana Teresa looked back at me and I could see every lick she’d had to take to get through medical school. “Tell me I’m wrong.” (pp.80-81)
This misogyny has effects beyond hampering Nicole’s ambition. Over and over, we see women’s expertise discounted, and their competency underestimated. Nicole’s very justified concerns about Earth First’s sabotage, for example, are dismissed because she’s “hysterical”; her knowledge of how to react in the face of sabotage is ignored because she’s a woman, and thus just getting carried away. As with the high heels, Nicole accepts this patriarchal contempt as an expected part of life, and does her best to work around it—a tactic every woman who is part of the professional world will recognize.
Ameliorating these grim details about life as a member of the “Second Sex,” we have the marriages of our main characters: Nicole to Kenneth, and Myrtle to Eugene Lindholm. Not only are these sex-positive relationships, in which the attitude toward sex and marriage is realistic and adult (adult as in grown-up, not as in XXX), they are supportive relationships, in which each partner treats the other as equally important. No one’s ambitions are quashed; no one’s life is given priority. No one is treated as fragile or helpless. This is a refreshing take on how marriage can/should work.
Beyond its characters, the book is positively rife with details about what life in a lunar colony might be like: from the food (and Kowal can get a lot of this in through Nicole’s fraught relationship with eating) to how one places a long-distance call from the moon to Kansas; to what it’s like to move around the surface in a space suit; to what happens to human waste; to how people exercise and sleep, socialize and dress. The details about the lunar library and the art museum are especially nice. I also enjoyed Nicole’s enjoyment of the many pockets in her lunar clothing (p. 186).
Another rewarding detail is the polio epidemic which strikes the moon colony. It is sometimes forgotten how recently we escaped the threat of diseases like polio, and how destructive those diseases were. Though less than ten per cent of those people who were infected died from polio, and only five per cent of those surviving suffered long-term effects—and though most people only had short term, minor symptoms—nevertheless people at the time took the disease seriously, shutting down swimming pools and schools during outbreaks, and working hard to develop a vaccine, one that wiped out polio in most countries. Vaccines were developed in the 1950s, at least in our timeline; the most effective one, developed by Albert Sabin, became common in 1962.
In Kowal’s AU, the vaccine has been slower to develop, no doubt because of the disruption caused by the meteorite. A vaccine of sorts is available in 1963, and astronauts are vaccinated before they are sent to the moon. But, because of Earth First sabotage, one of the launches is moved up. When Eugene Lindholm is poisoned just before his launch, his subsequent illness (including diarrhea) means the live vaccine in his system infects those in the colony who have not been vaccinated. This includes the Earth First saboteur, thus hampering his ability to complete his mission—an interesting plot move, and Kowal also takes the opportunity to illustrate the effects of polio on some of its victims.
Kowal also gives us excerpts from AU news sources at the start of each chapter. Among other things, this allows her to reveal the damage already being done by the changing climate, as well as lampooning the way in which reporters (even today) treat women. Each time a woman is interviewed or mentioned in these news excerpts, the reporters are careful to explain how attractive she is, and also to describe, in detail, how she is dressed. In another example of how entwined plot and character are in this novel, the news excerpts also give tiny plot hints, more than once.
All of this makes for a textured novel. While it is far from a perfect book—the antagonism aimed at protesters seems especially harsh, in today’s climate—it is nevertheless both readable and filled with fascinating details. My Googlefu tells me that a fourth book in the series (The Martian Contingency) is coming soon. I’ll definitely read more.