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Review: Red Moon

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Red Moon
by Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit, 2018
hardcover, 464 pp.
ISBN 978-0-316-26237-8

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, Red Moon, is set in 2047. China has become the dominant player on the Moon with large-scale operations at the South Pole. The US and other players have facilities at the North Pole. China achieved this position using the experience of massive infrastructure projects to mount an operation possibly larger and more intensive in scope than the U.S. Apollo project. According to the novel, President Xi Jinping secured the commitment of the Chinese Communist Party at the 20th People’s Congress in 2022 to the goal “… that the moon should be a place for Chinese development, as one part of the Chinese Dream.” Insofar as 2022 is still more than three years into the future, Robinson may be advocating for such a future. Xi Jinping is highly praised in the book for his Moon declaration as well as for the environmental cleanup that takes place on Earth. The hills surrounding Beijing in 2047 are green and the air is fresh and breathable as a result of the environmental policies of Xi.

The China of 2047 is beset with major contradictions that shape the primary story line.

In the novel, the achievement of the US in reaching the Moon in 1969 is recognized, as is the long period of little active interest in the Moon that followed. By the early 2020s four “space cadets” (billionaires) fund private missions to the Moon. But the American public largely did not care, so US government efforts to reach the Moon were more modest than China’s. The private successes set the stage for China’s massive infrastructure driven approach that followed. To be sure, NASA is today asserting strong interest in a return to the Moon, but its plans have yet to be matched by budgets, and a massive lunar development strategy comparable to the Chinese one presented in Red Moon seems unlikely.

The China of 2047 is beset with major contradictions that shape the primary story line. While China succeeds technologically to develop the Chinese Dream on the Moon, the Hukou residency permit continues to separate urban and rural Chinese into two classes of citizens. The heroine of the story is Chen Qi, a “princessling”: a daughter of the finance minister who is a contender for Party leadership. Qi has emerged as a leader of a mass movement to restore rights to the rural migrant laborers following in the steps of Mao. The leadership of this future China is involved in a succession crisis, with factions competing to acquire the power of the presidency. One faction involves Qi’s father, the finance minister. Other factions are loyal to the present leader, who has chosen a successor, as well as other contenders.

Much of the story is from the perspective of Ta Shu, who has a travel show that has been to most countries as well as to Antarctica (where Robinson first introduced him to his audience) and continues some of the same themes from the novel Antarctica. In that novel, the Antarctic Treaty provides the framework for actions involving multiple countries, while the Outer Space Treaty shapes relations on the Moon. No international lunar authority has emerged, but the Chinese, Americans, and others permanently on the Moon are developing a lunar camaraderie. Ta Shu is a poet, geomancer, and feng shui expert. Feng shui is a traditional Chinese system of principles governing the balanced alignment of buildings and things to accommodate the flow of Qi, the life force. The heroine’s name is also Qi and she is pregnant, which provides a clue as to her larger role in this future created by Robinson.

The third protagonist is the American Fred Fredericks, a quantum engineer who is working for a Swiss company that produced a quantum-encrypted telephone that Fred must install for a Chinese company on the Moon. Fred is a nerdy guy who understands his physics. He meets Ta Shu on the spacecraft heading towards the Moon which lands using electromagnetics, the technology also used for launch from Earth and Moon. Upon arrival at the hub at the South Pole, Fred is introduced to Chang Yazu, governor of the Lunar Administrative Region. After shaking hands Chang and Fred crumple to the ground—poisoned. Fred recovers from poisoning in the South Pole hospital and is accused of murdering the governor, one of the factions at work.

In 2047 China is in turmoil with a dynastic power struggle while the US is in the midst of a major financial crisis similar to the 2008 crisis where financial manipulations sucked off the wealth of many. Tens of millions choose to withdraw their funds from regular banks and put it into crypto currencies. The banks collapse. In China tens of millions travel to Beijing towards Tiananmen Square to express their dissatisfaction with their exploitation and poor quality of life. Robinson presents China as a power that could mount the capacity to develop the Moon but was unable to address the hukou system in which a half a billion rural residents were exploited for the advantage of the urban population. Qi is revered as a leader of the masses of poor people.

The barren, lifeless magnificence of the Moon becomes a player in the drama much as Mars and Antarctica asserted their presence in Robinson’s novels bearing those titles. His recounting of how the Moon originated discusses its entanglement with the Earth in a cosmic scale quantum balance and manifestation of feng shui, intermingling planetary science with Chinese mythology and the story of Chang’e, the Moon Goddess who drank the elixir of eternal life and escaped to the Moon. While water and rare earth minerals are mined in Red Moon and quixotic helium-3 miners traverse the barren landscape, Robinson does not demonstrate a justification for the large infrastructure developed by China on the Moon. A barren wasteland that would be home to a scattering of scientific outposts has bullet trains between various nodes in the Chinese part of the Moon. There is a kind of Chinese “Disneyworld,” a manifestation of the Chinese Dream on the Moon created by billionaire Fang Fei, a Chinese space entrepreneur and friend of Ta Shu.

Robinson dismisses the capacity of the “four Space Cadets” to industrially develop the Moon. He also sees that the American system is unlikely to develop the political will to achieve this goal.

Total surveillance and the social credit score are among the challenges facing China forming the backdrop of Red Moon. In the novel, the Great Firewall developed by Chinese authorities to control Internet use has multiple backdoors and levels that enable diversity to persist. They also enable the designer of the Firewall to gather information in a manner that cannot be tracked by the authorities. Robinson points to multiple authorities at multiple levels in China that rank people on various scales with no single authority controlling all surveillance and ranking of citizens. This in fact is the conclusion of a recent Brookings study of the social credit score at present. In the novel the various authorities are in conflict among themselves.

Ta Shu is a quiet figure with connections to top leadership. His student Peng Ling, with whom he maintains close but informal contact, emerges as president of China towards the end of the novel. Ta Shu helps Qi and Fred to evade forces from different contending factions. At the end of novel Qi and Fred are in a solar storm shelter on the Moon hiding from a faction seeking Qi’s death she gives birth to a girl and with assistance from the American Fred. Among his duties are to cut and tie the umbilical cord with duct tape, the universal solution to mechanical problems. They are warned that the shelter will be hit by a missile from Earth and flee to a mining site about 70 kilometers away that has an emergency launch vehicle. They manage the journey and manage to get into the spacecraft and to launch into space from the Moon towards an unknowable future.

The structural imbalances that set into motion the massive people-powered changes in China and the US in 2047 in the novel are fundamental to the present structure of the societies. They are unlikely to persist for 30 more years. In Red Moon, the Chinese leadership that follows Xi achieves the goal of developing the Moon but fails to address structural problems in China itself. Success is achieved with the greening of the country and other programs started by Xi. Robinson appears to be pointing towards the emerging technical capacity of China to industrially develop the Moon, but that socioeconomic problems pose dangers to the survival of both Chinese and American societies in the nearer term.

Robinson dismisses the capacity of the “four Space Cadets” to industrially develop the Moon. He also sees that the American system is unlikely to develop the political will to achieve this goal. In the words of Ta Shu:

Their billionaires returned to the moon before their state agencies, because the American government and people didn’t care. Their space cadets cared, and they made the return in the 2020s, but it was a private return, involving only a few people.

People from India, Africa, Latin America, and certainly Europe may envision themselves in space, but Red Moon does not offer a vision of the future that that includes the rest of humanity.

Whether Xi will secure the decision of the People’s Congress in 2022 for China to realize China’s dream by industrially developing the Moon cannot be known. But the future to which Robinson launches Qi and her baby girl together with the American Fred Fredericks does not appear to include the development of settlements in free-space as advanced by Gerard K. O’Neill 40 years ago. While Robinson has centrifuges on the Moon to maintain skeletal strength of lunarians, he does not appear to want to entertain the idea of space cities in free space housing millions of people, which is the vision of Jeff Bezos. Inspired by O’Neill, Bezos sees industry and a large share of the human population migrating into outer space, reducing the stress on the biosphere with industries on the Moon and in space, which could fulfill Robinson’s environmental vision, but Robinson does not consider it here.

Robinson offers no hints regarding the unknown future to which he launched Qi and her child and male companion. Perhaps she is intended to symbolize the life force of humanity itself in turmoil of giving birth to a new age as both China and the US enter a time of chaos. But this future does not seem to include the development of space governance including powers other than the G2: the US and China. People from India, Africa, Latin America, and certainly Europe may envision themselves in space, but Red Moon does not offer a vision of the future that that includes the rest of humanity. Robinson suggests a planetary scale birthing process to a spacefaring, multi-planetary species. Perhaps a sequel will emerge where the shape of the future that is being born will become clearer.

Red Moon may translate well into Chinese. It may leave readers that are not devotees of Kim Stanley Robinson’s writing disappointed who looked for a fast-paced adventure story rather than a tapestry that includes philosophy, quantum physics, environmental advocacy and advocacy for social justice.

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