Ian McDonald Explores What It Takes To Develop A Society On The Moon

Illustration for article titled Ian McDonald Explores What It Takes To Develop A Society On The Moon

What will a future look like with an inhabited moon? That’s the focus of Ian McDonald’s latest novel, Luna: New Moon, and we recently had the chance to chat with him about how the story developed.

We loved Luna: New Moon when we recently reviewed it. It’s the story of five families who control the moon and their struggles to hold onto power. There’s infighting and outright war between various lunar factions, all alongside a vivid world that’s all too plausible.


McDonald has written some incredible science fiction novels: River of Gods and the Dervish House comes to mind, and we we had a chat with McDonald about this latest novel and what went into it:

While reading the Luna: New Moon, I couldn’t help but think about Robert Heinlein’s novel The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Was this book in your mind as you wrote this novel?

I’m in conversation with MIAHM, let’s say. It’s kind of hard for it not to be in the mind of anyone contemplating a moon novel. I still have a copy, but I deliberately didn’t read it: I wanted to be writing around my memories of the book —after all, the memories surely are the important, sticky parts of any novel. Like that boring old fart who never misses an opportunity to sermonise on any subject whatsover. I cheered when he died. Moralising prig. The French guy they almost put out the airlock. The ridiculous ease with which the lunar settlers overcame the terrestrial space marines. The interesting family relationships and politics: political, social and gender. The way that it’s the American Genesis story, in the same way that Star Wars is: The American Revolution in spaaaace. Lots to work with, but, as I said, I didn’t re-read the book.

Illustration for article titled Ian McDonald Explores What It Takes To Develop A Society On The Moon

The disparities between the ultra wealthy and the poor are a major focus in this book: what did you draw on to portray this?

It’s London basically. Or Dubai. or any globalised city that has undergone massive economics and demographic change in a short space of time —the main story takes place fifty years after Adriana Corta comes to the moon; that’s plenty of time for a technologically savvy society to build a complex civilisation. But the real seed of the story is Margaret Thatcher. I started writing, as did many SF authors of my cohort, in the Thatcher years. One of more notorious pronouncements was’there is no such thing as society; there are only individuals and families’. Okay, so let’s explore that. Which is what SF is about.


One of the characters —Lucas, I think— raises this very question. What is wealth for, if not to do something? 32 oligarchs own half out planet’s wealth. What do they need that money for?


My final note on inequality issues in the book, I read somewhere that Western SF tends to be either economically liberal and socially conservative, or socially liberal and economically conservative. My thought was, what would happen if my society was economically and socially liberal? What mechanism could bring that about? I came to a system where everything is individually negotiated, and so to the lunar law, where is there is no criminal or civil law (because no one has rights) but only contract law. Everything is negotiable. It’s a world that’s big on ‘me’ and doesn’t understand ‘we’ —unless it’s a family. Back to Thatcher again.

Luna: New Moon joins some of your other science fiction novels, such as The Dervish House and River of Gods by portraying a vibrant, multicultural society. What went into developing your inhabited lunar settlements?


I’ve written much about developing societies, but I was pretty certain by the end of Dervish House that I didn’t want to get stuck in that particular groove. Every ten years I feel a need to reinvent myself as a writer; try something new. But I was still interested in new economies, economic booms. Luna is about a developing society —it just happens to be on the moon. As ever, I didn’t the major players to be the usual suspects, so the Five Dragons are a diverse crew of the powerful and the emergent: the Brazilian Cortas, the Russian Vorontsovs, the Chinese Suns, the Asamoahs from Ghana, and the Australian Mackenzies. I like the idea of Australian bad guys. It’s no coincidence that the Big Bad’s initials are RM. Their culture of course impact and fracture and reassemble into new forms and hybridities. I’m interested in the edges of where it disintegrates, how it changes over long and short periods of time. The moon is a great equalizer: there is no sense, in the great cities of Meridian. Queen of the South (A Scottish soccer joke which only one person has got), Twe and Joao de Deus, of developed and less developed societies, majority and minority cultures. It’s a whole new world, and because, if you stay more than two years, you can’t go back to Earth again because your bone structure has deteriorated, you have to make it work. It’s your world, and it’s a small world, and a merciless one.

One point struck me in the novel: the idea of setting up a society that was designed to endure the rigors of life away from Earth’s gravity well. Ignoring the engineering and scientific challenges of space travel, how do you think we can realign society to survive?


I don’t think my moon is a terribly good example for how society might develop under differing physical conditions. That’s the fun of the book —it’s very down and extremely dirty. I wanted as much corporate and personal backstabbing as possible in a plausible political and social set up. But it was Godfather first, It’s managed rather than governed. It’s like a big corporation. I estimate the population of the moon at 1.7 million —it’s not a very big place (the moon itself is smaller than you think: the total surface area is the same as Africa and Arabia combined) and there are corporate institutions on Earth with similar populations —Walmart has 2.1 million employees, McDonald’s 1.9 million.

I was interested in the physical effects of lunar gravity —about one sixth terrestrial— would have on visitors —the two year time limit, caused by bone density loss, before return to Earth gravity is fatal, is fun. Ticking clocks are always good. The way that gravity shapes subsequent, moon-born generations, for whom the moon is the only home they can ever know, is even more fun.


You mention ‘aligning society to survive’: I can certainly see how it might take a centralised authority to plan the biological and physiological engineering of future planetary settlements —my Moon isn’t like that. It’s much more chaotic.


Last year, news broke that the book had been optioned for television. We’ve got The Expanse out now, while Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars is being picked up for a season. Do you think space - based shows are the new trend?

I certainly hope so. The move of digital vendors into content opened up a huge new market —and a lot of money. Now Apple have joined the content-deliverygame, and if one ‘caster has a sci-fi series that’s doing well, everyone else will want one too. The Expanse has created a lot of interest and opportunity. When I first had the idea for Luna, I had television in my head. I worked in it for years and I have a good idea of how it works and what works for it —as opposed to how people think it works. My original pitch (because I am old) was ‘Dallas on the Moon’. The soap opera elements are essential. It’s a family saga, not a conventionally structured SF novel. The production companies who bid for the option all said the same thing: we want this to be a sci-fi series that breaks out of genre fandom to a wider audience —the same way that GoT broke out of a fantasy audience to popular appeal. We’ll see. There’s a really good team behind the pitch and script. I met them at Paramount and I have absolute confidence in them. But it’s a fickle business...

Illustration for article titled Ian McDonald Explores What It Takes To Develop A Society On The Moon

You end on a cliffhanger at the end of this book, and its followup is due out later this year. What can you tell us about Luna: Wolf Moon?


It’s bigger in every way. Maybe badder. It picks up 18 months after the events at the end of New Moon, and I can’t really say too much without spoiling Book One. Apart from that there’s a splendid Chekov’s Gun in New Moon; in Wolf Moon, it gets used in chapter one.

And there will be more. Yes, I’ve committed trilogy —I did very much want to keep it as a duology, because that’s a nice unusual number, but the sheer amount of story would have pushed it to eighty hundred words, and also because the conflict in Luna 3 is different from the conflict in Wolf Moon. It’s an inevitable conflict that will need an entire novel to explore and work out.


There are some new characters: Lady Sun, the Dowager of Taiyang, appears, and a new Corta: Alexia. In a sense it’s a book about the characters learning to love right —in the midst of a Mackenzie civil war that escalates into something much more dangerous. More luscious cocktails, and this time the fashion is real Dallas: it’s the Eighties!

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Yeah, no.

You aren’t going to run into a shooting war between lunar factions.

You don’t even have shooting wars between major nations anymore.

The backwater bloodthirsty religious nutcases aren’t going to be building a moon rocket from their shithole countries. And they won’t be up there colonizing.

You’re going to see lots of scientific staff up there building a more or less corporate environment.

But, there isn’t any point to going back down into a gravity well after you made it into space. Unless a great source of easy rocket fuel is found on the moon, we aren’t building vast colonies with the desire to start a war.