The Relentless Moon, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor 978-1-250-23695-1, $28.99, 544pp, hc) July 2020.
Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon is exactly the book I needed at the end of March 2020.
For the record, I’m writing this in April 2020. The state I live in has been essentially locked down since St. Patrick’s Day because of the novel coronavirus. This review will run in June, most likely, which means you currently know more about how effective our social distancing has been than I do. I suspect, however, that the situation looks slightly less dire but, as I write, we’re still trying to find our footing.
Late March was a great time to fall into an immersive story told by a writer who knows her stuff. The Relentless Moon checks both boxes. Kowal is a many-times-over Hugo and Nebula Award winner. She knows what she’s doing. The Lady Astronaut Series, which envisions an alternate mid-20th-century space race, is as immersive a story as any reader could want. The two novels in said series – The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky – tell a propulsive tale starring Elma York, whose quick math skills help launch humanity (and her) to the Moon and beyond.
While I heap praise upon those books, a small criticism I’ve had is that they sometimes feel performative, meaning that Kowal does a such a thoughtful job at building inclusive characters and illustrating power dynamics that it can feel rote. I applaud her commitment to inclusivity, mind, but moments felt less organic to the world and more rigidly rooted to an outline. That isn’t to insult outlines, but they aren’t a substitute for story.
That response never once popped to mind in The Relentless Moon. Perhaps that is because the plot is more straightforward than the first two books. Rather than tracing Elma’s path through the politics of a NASA-like workplace, The Relentless Moon is a straight-up spy thriller. Nicole Wargin, one of the astronautettes in Elma’s cohort, takes center stage here as she works to untangle who is sabotaging the space program. The Relentless Moon shows what was happening on Earth and in its near orbit during the same time period as The Fated Sky, which we learned about from Elma’s perspective. Now we’re deep in the conflict.
It isn’t only inherent tension of a mystery that makes The Relentless Moon such a compelling read. First, that mystery is set mostly in a place where the stakes could not be more high. If the saboteur succeeds in any number of very small ways, everyone could die. If the very smart people on the base can’t work the problem, everyone could die.
Second, where Elma York is a character to whom things just kind of happen, Nicole Wargin is her opposite. She’s a 50-ish-year-old woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. Mostly, she uses that skill for good. That doesn’t mean she is without weakness, just that she is old enough and smart enough to bend situations to her strengths when able. Nicole is a Heinleinian hero, if said hero was written by a progressive woman in the early 21st century.
What really kept me reading well past my bedtime, because I wanted to know what was going to happen, was that there is an epidemic on the moon. Reading about counteracting polio in a small fictional population while responding to a COVID-19 outbreak in my own small town was gripping – and a reminder that none of this is new. In The Relentless Moon, at least, Kowal offers assurance that it is a problem that can be solved, if her characters use their brains to work it. Hopefully the same will prove true in real life.
Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.
This review and more like it in the June 2020 issue of Locus.
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