The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal
With a new protagonist and definite resistance to expanded space colonization coming from Earth, The Relentless Moon (2020) provides increasing tension, drama and action, giving us, in part, a spy thriller set on a lunar colony.
The third book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s THE LADY ASTRONAUT series follows Nicole Wargin, one of the original six women astronauts and wife of the politically ambitious Kansas governor. Nicole has been tapped for a trip to the nascent lunar colony with a group of civilian colonists, but even before the trip gets underway, accidents, technical failures and social unrest ramp up, leading to the poisoning of the Wargins’ friend, and linchpin of the space program, Nathaniel York.
Even with the looming threats of sabotage, the first quarter of the book moves pretty slowly. Once we get into space, however, the plot accelerates, and the mission’s run of bad luck is only starting. From a bad landing, to an outbreak of polio from an unexpected source, to cascading mechanical failures, the stakes mount and lives are threatened, on the moon and back on the Earth.
Nicole is highly competent at a great many things. She is a skilled pilot, a codebreaker, an above-average administrator and a highly proficient political wife. She also has a unique set of skills which she honed during World War II — she was a spy. All these skills serve her as she tries to track down the saboteur on the lunar colony, and keep morale level with the colonists themselves.
Kowal is an adept writer who well knows the danger of a Mary Sue protagonist, so Nicole is not perfect. She has an eating disorder. She’s worried that her age and her sex — she’s fifty — will get her sidelined, a worry that is valid considering that she got sent to the moon to be, not a pilot, even a backup one, but an administrative assistant. She has arthritis in her feet. These issues make her human and relatable when her otherwise superhuman skills would make her unbelievable.
In particular, Nicole faces consequences with the eating disorder, consequences she can’t undo or overcome, but must face. And the strategies she and her friends come up with seem genuine and helpful.
Kowal is also a master of the “chase your MC up the tree and then throw rocks at them” plot. As good as Nicole is and as brilliant as her friends, like Eugene and Myrtle Lindholm, are, they are nearly no match for the tsunami of technical, mechanical and interpersonal failures on the endangered colony. Eugene and Myrtle face the added obstacle of racism and sexism, and Nicole faces sexism, adding another layer of difficulty to their task to save lives and the program. In the second half of the book, a devastating event changes Nicole’s whole trajectory.
I wasn’t expecting a spy thriller on the moon, but the cat-and-mouse game as Nicole and Eugene search for the saboteur is exactly that. There are many tense action sequences, lots of codes and puzzles, and plenty of humor and sex or at least sexual fantasies.
We see a little more of the Earth in this book, since it’s been ten years since the meteor hit. Kowal’s focus has always been Women in Space, so as with the other books, this story cares very little about the people who will be left on a nearly-uninhabitable planet. Those who are fighting to save a way of life, however misguided, are terrorists. In The Relentless Moon, only one non-terrorist character briefly discusses possible solutions for those who won’t be given the option of leaving. Kowal ameliorates some of this by giving Nicole’s husband (a wealthy, powerful governor launching a presidential run) a heart condition, meaning he will have to stay on Earth. Somehow I think his stay on Earth would be as cushy as possible. It’s really not the same thing.
Apparently in the post-meteor world it isn’t possible for a person to think that more funds could be spent on creating some kind of habitation on Earth, and be both sincere and non-violent. At a political cocktail party, Nicole describes an elected official who approaches her with this concern this way: “His greedy little eyes gleamed.” We don’t see a sincere, honorable person whose goal is the maintenance of a humane life for those left behind.
I fully understand that these books are about space, not those left behind on a crippled planet. It bugs me, though.
Basically, I enjoyed The Relentless Moon very much, even if Nicole was not as engaging a character as Elma York. I fully embraced the political fantasy at the very end because Kowal did everything she could to make it plausible, and because Nicole is such an accomplished political operative. Like its predecessors, the book confronts racism and sexism head-on, both in the blunt, overt ways it manifests, and in the hundreds of tiny slights and dismissals, all the while giving us feats of derring-do on the surface of the moon.
Here’s hoping the series continues, and that the next book takes place on Mars.
The aspect of The Relentless Moon that I enjoyed the most was its methodical, careful plotting, and the myriad ways in which Mary Robinette Kowal kept me guessing about who was trying to sabotage the lunar colony, whether the attempts would succeed, and if/how the sabotage attempts were linked to terrorist acts on Earth. There were plenty of clues scattered carefully throughout, but I wasn’t sure how it would all come together until the white-knuckle climax, when all the nefarious plans break open and it’s up to Nicole Wargin, Eugene and Myrtle Lindholm, Helen Carmouche, et al. to try to save the day. And, as an added bonus, there’s quite a lot that happens here which makes me question my assumptions about certain key events within The Fated Sky, just as “We Interrupt This Broadcast” sheds entirely new light on the inaugural event of The Calculating Stars.
(Hrm, yes, but also…)
The aspect of The Relentless Moon that I enjoyed the most was Kowal’s focus on character development. If you’ve read The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, you know what Dr. Elma York thinks of her friends and co-workers and you’ve seen how she interacts with them, but those novels (by necessity) focus so much on her experiences with regard to the IAC thrusting her into the spotlight so as to capitalize on her popularity within the public eye, often at the expense of equally-qualified people like Myrtle and Helen. But in this novel, the mental and physical capabilities of her trusted friends are allowed to shine, showing readers just how unfair it is that pointless notions like so-called racial superiority get in the way of simply letting human beings excel.
(And that’s true, but…)
The aspect of The Relentless Moon that I enjoyed the most was the masterful attention to detail. When a debilitating pandemic sweeps through the lunar colony, the steps taken to shelter colonists in place while quarantining healthy people from those who are contagious were more than a little reminiscent of the steps taken to contain the coronavirus pandemic currently ravaging our planet. Publishing is a strange beast, indeed. In less-stressful ways, Kowal’s inclusion of astrophysics, orbital trajectories, the delight of code-making and -breaking, the limited options for food on the Moon, and the very dangerous ways humans react to stressful situations all rang very true to me. I especially appreciated the ways in which she name-dropped significant figures from history, like Katherine Johnson and Mary Marguerite Harding (and a few others, to boot). It’s always a treat to spy the ways in which Kowal dovetails real-life history with her punchcard punk universe.
(Also, I don’t want to forget…)
The aspect of The Relentless Moon that I enjoyed the most was how thoroughly Kowal got into Nicole Wargin’s head. Folks, she’s awesome. She’s brilliant and tough and loyal and flawed, she understands the tactical advantage of lipstick, she’s occasionally ungenerous (as evidenced by her apparent lack of sympathy for people who won’t get to leave Earth, and her definite lack of sympathy for people who want to profit off of those who’ll stay behind), she’s got a lethally complicated backstory and personal history, and she’s a Grade-A pilot through and through. She believes so fully in the need to colonize the Moon, Mars, and anywhere else that will take humanity — because the environmental changes spurring this heroic effort are affecting Earth in terrifying, unstoppable ways — that her tunnel vision can occasionally overtake common sense, but her heart is always firmly in the right place. And I say that, knowing full well that in this fictional universe, I would be unequivocally planet-bound while humanity leaps into the stars.
(Wait, I’ve got it.)
The aspect of The Relentless Moon that I enjoyed the most was how hopeful it made me feel. Things are grim on Earth (and the Moon, and the trio of ships sailing through vacuum to Mars) but Kowal’s heroes never lose sight of the common good they’re all working toward, nor of the individual good they see in each other. I can’t think of times when that feeling wouldn’t be welcome, honestly, but right now it is especially appreciated. I would love to see Kowal examine the perspective of a person permanently grounded on Earth just as much as I would love to see her explore habitation attempts on Mars (as the upcoming fourth LADY ASTRONAUT book, The Derivative Base, is currently rumored to do), and I hope she gets as many opportunities as she needs to continue telling these stories. Highly recommended.
Jana, I really love the format of your review! Isn’t it nice when you find a book you like so much that you can’t decide what the best part is?
Great reviews, both of you. I really get a sense of what the book is like and what aspects might be YMMV. I need to get back to this series soon!
Sometimes the rough draft of a review ends up working just as well for the final product, haha. And I honestly couldn’t decide what I liked the most!
I can’t wait to nitpick over these books with you when you’ve had a chance to read them!
I’m in awe of the amount of research Kowal did, and how realistic the details are, in big ways and little.
Honestly, though? I think my favorite thing might be (ahem) “Swiss finishing school.”
Kowal’s a good enough storyteller that she could make everything up out of whole cloth and I would still be entertained, but her dedication to research floors me every time.
Ah, yes! “Swiss finishing school,” in all of its various permutations, ahem-ahem.