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Review: The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal

By Matthew Kresal

The Moon, our nearest celestial neighbor, has long occupied a place in the human imagination. Before Apollo 11 landed in 1969, ushering in the first of six crewed landings over the next three and a half years, the first voyages there was a topic explored in numerous science fiction works. After Apollo, the fiction shifted to return missions, mining, and, most pertinent for this blog, how else we might have taken the voyage from the Earth to the Moon. One of those imagining alternatives has been Mary Robinette Kowal in her Lady Astronaut series, with the third novel in the series, 2020's The Relentless Moon, focusing on a lunar colony under threat from without and within as tensions rise back home on Earth.

Though Relentless Moon is a largely standalone work, an introduction to the Lady Astronaut universe may be in order for those unfamiliar with Kowal's series, which launched with her award-winning 2014 short story of the same name. On the 3rd of March 1952, an asteroid struck off Chesapeake Beach, Maryland (the reasons for this, unknown to the world at large, are detailed in Kowal's 2014 short story We Interrupt This Broadcast, free to read on her website). An impact that not only wipes out President Thomas Dewey and virtually the entire American government but also, despite being in the ocean, created a chain of events that will render the Earth uninhabitable in a matter of decades. Imagine a step further that, due to a bit more foresight by the American government, we were already placing satellites in orbit, with an accelerated space program following the impact to save as much of humanity as possible. The first novel, The Calculating Stars (reviewed here by my fellow SLP blog writer Max Johansson), saw Dr. Elma York, a human-computer and former World War II WASP pilot, going from surviving impact to becoming the titular Lady Astronaut. The second novel, The Fated Sky (reviewed by the current author back in September), brought events into the early 1960s and saw Elma becoming part of the first mission to Mars. During the Mars Expedition, contact with Earth ended for a long stretch, with York and her crewmates learning eventually that the Earth First opposition movement had turned to violence and sabotage in their efforts to force the US to withdraw from the IAC. What felt there like an underdeveloped plot point was, in fact, setting up this third novel, with its change of focus for the series.

A change in focus owed in no small part to Kowal making a change in the narrator. With York on her way to Mars, events come via fellow 'astronette' Nicole Wargin, who had played a supporting role in earlier novels. Wargin is, in some ways, a more complex character than York: she's older (in her fifties), the wife of a presidential hopeful, and with a host of secrets all her own, including a medical condition, one she does her best to keep hidden. There are similarities, to be sure, ones owed to York and Wargin being astronauts, after all. Yet Kowal, to her credit, manages to give Wargin her own voice and points of reference, stripped of York's southern upbringing, for example. Wargin being older and a politician's wife also opens up new windows into this alternate world, and not always pleasant ones given the way that the all-too-familiar specter of sexism mingles with ageism as IAC starts considering Wargin "old hat." It sets up something akin to a need for her to prove her place that lets the thrust of the novel's plot take off but also sets up another remarkable woman and her journey, with all of its highs and lows presented on the page.

Because Relentless Moon is, once you move beyond its genre trappings, a spy novel (or, to be more accurate, a spy-fi one). While opposition to the space program appeared in The Calculating Stars, it was mostly in passing (minus a single scene) before appearing more strongly in The Fated Sky as a recurring subplot. Here, the Earth First movement comes to the fore as protests and opportunistic actions turn into more concerted acts of sabotage. Ones that, alarmingly, eventually reach the Moon, leading to Wargin having to play the role of molehunter ala George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy throughout much of the novel. The search for Icarus, as the saboteur(s), as there may be more than one, is what most separates Relentless Moon from its predecessors, allowing Kowal to move the series from perhaps more straightforward science fiction and into crossed genres. Something which explores, in spy novel tradition, the psychology of radicalization and treason, what makes one turn against friends and colleagues, and how they rationalize it to themselves. It's also something that serves the extended page count of nearly 550 pages well, giving more than enough narrative to sustain tension and interest.

There's something else that serves to give Relentless Moon a sense of immediacy for readers, including this reviewer. A polio outbreak hits Artemis Base amid events, adding to the air of tension as people start falling ill and those running the base have to decide how best to quarantine in an already enclosed space. Remarkably, this was a subplot written before the ongoing Covid pandemic, rather than as a response to it, as Kowal notes in her afterword. For a series that's always been conscious of real-world issues, it's something that adds to the flavor of this novel and brings fictional events even more close to home.

Put together, all of these elements also make The Relentless Moon Kowal's third successful entry in a row for the series. Indeed, the author has gone not only from strength to strength but also shown the versatility of alternate history, showing it capable of melding old-fashioned science fiction with elements of the spy thriller with ease. And with a fourth book set to come out in 2022, there's more to the story yet to be told, and this reviewer eagerly awaits it.


Matthew Kresal is a fiction writer who has a (Sidewise Winning) story in the Alternate Australias Anthology by Sea Lion Press, and has also written a Sea Lion Press novel about Joe McCarthy.


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