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When China dominates the moon: Red Moon reviewed

Kim Stanley Robinson. Photo/Getty Images

Kim Stanley Robinson explores what might happen if the influence of superpower China on Earth extended to the moon in a new work of fiction.

Thirty years from now, humanity hasn’t just returned to the moon, but settled it, and the People’s Republic of China has a firm lead over other space-faring nations in the race for lunar prestige. Officially, the moon as a whole is still neutral territory, a kind of airless Antarctica where representatives of various countries rub along politely. Unofficially, it’s a morass of spycraft and intrigue, apt to shift on its political axis at any moment and potentially draw the fates of billions of people along with it.

Red Moon sees sci-fi institution Kim Stanley Robinson working closer to home than in previous interplanetary voyages, but it shares at least some of his earlier novels’ breadth and ambition. The principal characters are a neat cross-section of human society in the 2040s – an American engineer on a routine delivery mission, a fiercely independent daughter-of-privilege, and a celebrity travel-show host, among other major and minor players. And in the background (at least initially) is an artificial intelligence embedded in China’s digital surveillance frameworks, being carefully trained by its creator for some higher purpose.

As you might guess, there’s a lot to keep track of in Red Moon – in truth, slightly more than a single novel seems to be able to carry off. Robinson’s technical imagination remains something to behold, from a range of exotic and tantalisingly believable lunar settings to clever future extensions of modern cryptocurrency and quantum technology. But the extrapolations of contemporary politics aren’t quite as convincingly handled, and the story begins to blur as it passes through multiple narrators and rapid transitions from the Earth to the moon and back.

Robinson’s writing shines in the moments when that breakneck plot development shifts down a gear or three: offhand conversations about politics and science between fugitives marooned in an apartment, assorted errands in a clear-skied but otherwise familiar Beijing, diplomats exchanging pleasantries and gossip at a social mixer in lunar gravity.

So, on top of the world-building wizardry, there’s still more than enough to enjoy in Red Moon to be worth the price of admittance – while looking forward to a sequel that gives character and setting a bit more room to breathe.

RED MOON, Kim Stanley Robinson (Hachette, $34.99)

This article was first published in the December 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.