7 Books that Explore the Dark Side of the Moon

lunaThe moon fascinates us because it one of the few constants throughout human experience, unaffected by cultural or geographic differences, always there, so tantalizingly close, yet still so far away. Humans have stood on the moon only six times in all of history. No matter how much data we gather, it remains a mystery, and science fiction writers continue to be obsessed with the Luna’s inscrutability, its quite literal dark side, and its potential destructive power. These six novels will make you see the moon again for what it is: an ever-present reminder of the Unknown.

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
You can’t discuss the dark side of moon without mentioning Neal Stephenson’s latest beefy SF thriller, in which it explodes on page one and ushers in the apocalypse. It’s a shocking moment: in a different novel, a little thing like the moon blowing up for mysterious reasons would be built to over the course of hundreds of pages and would serve as a major set piece; Stephenson gets it out of the way in the first sentence, and concentrates on the consequences. So, yes, technically, the moon doesn’t even exist for most of the book, true, but it haunts the narrative for thousands of years.

Luna: New Moon, by Ian McDonald
Combining the lawless adventure of the Old West with a cynical view of human nature and our likely future, McDonald offers up a bleak, thrilling vision of moon colonization. The five families that pioneered the moon’s exploitation all specialize in an extracted resource (e.g., metals or Helium-3) and rule the sattelite via contracts, the occasional duel, and a societal structure that’s nearly feudal, charging their employees through the nose for little luxuries like air, food, and water. The Corta family, led by the fierce, aged, and fading Adriana, are considered thuggish, low-class newcomers by their enemies, and as their matriarch weakens, the in-fighting and plotting threatens to destabilize everything.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
Probably still the classic moon story, Heinlein’s Hugo-winning masterwork tells a story of a lunar colony that rebels against the distant Earthbound government, detailing the political, military, and economic consequences the revolt sparks. Still brimming with ideas that seem perfectly modern after nearly five decades—a sentient computer whose self-awareness is kept a closely-guarded secret, the subtly evolved English that the Loonies speak, and in which the novel is narrated. And under all the ideas and the complex plotting lies a beating heart—this may be one of the few books that makes you choked up over a computer’s fate.

Inherit the Stars, by James P. Hogan
Inspired by the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hogan reportedly wrote this book and its sequels because he found Kubrick and Clarke’s ending ludicrous and thought he might do better. The result is a story that kicks off when near-future astronauts exploring the moon discover a 50,000-year-old human corpse in a red spacesuit, and expands into an exploration of the secret history of our solar system and the unknown origins of mankind. What makes these novels truly special is the way Hogan adheres to the scientific method, with his characters offering theories that are tested and then rejected or embraced, making this a science fiction detective story in many ways—a detective story whose final solutions are satisfying and not a little mind-blowing. Never huge hits, the series remains a buzzing cult item among hardcore SF readers.

That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis is generally remembered for Narnia, but he also wrote a trilogy of science fiction novels known, accurately enough, as the Space Trilogy. In the third novel, That Hideous Strength, the moon is revealed to be populated—on the bright side, visible from Earth, we can see evidence of genetic engineers who have eradicated almost all other biological lifeforms and reproduce in “cold marriages” involving artificial surrogates. On the far side, a small and shrinking resistance remains, embracing living things and natural functions, but they’re losing, and if they are completely conquered, it’s implied the moon will shatter, heralding the end of time itself. Dated, yes, but Lewis’ gift for language and lively imagination makes this well worth reading.

Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer
The moon exists in perfect balance with our planet; although it is drifting away in microscopic increments, if it were much closer, its gravitational effects here on Earth would be catastrophic. In Pfeffer’s Last Survivors series, an asteroid hits the moon and pushes it into closer orbit. The resulting tsunamis, volcanic activity, and lowered temperatures send us into a death spiral, as food shortages, disease, and mass casualties unravel civilization itself. The narrator is 16-year old Miranda, who describes the tribulations of her family’s quest for survival in a quiet town in Northeastern Pennsylvania. The story reminds us that our existence is an incredibly lucky one—and incredibly fragile.

Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente
The moon doesn’t have to be all gloom and doom. In Valente’s evocative, beguiling slice of sci-fi Victoriana (out in October), it is transformed into a sort of space age Tinseltown, albeit a space age existing in an alternative 1920s in which we’ve gone on a Grand Tour of the solar system in ornate rockets but still haven’t quite mastered synching sound and image or colorizing film. Though the larger story is of revered filmmaker who goes missing on Venus, its scenes on the moon—ruled by warring film studios, its high mineral levels turn its inhabitants’ skin a dusky blue (which happens to photograph quite fetchingly in black and white)—are evocative and deeply memorable…much like the rest of the book.

What moon story do you love best?

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