The second volume of Ian McDonald’s Luna trilogy takes us back to the moon for more family drama, hard sci-fi worldbuilding (satellitebuilding?), sex, and political intrigue.
The series takes place in the early 22nd century, when mankind’s colonization of our nearest orbiting body has been swift, but extensive: an Earth hungry for its minerals, metals, and helium has bred insatiable markets. Five families, known as the Five Dragons, moved into the void over time: the Asamoahs from Ghana, the Russian Vorontsovs, and the Chinese Suns have been joined relatively recently by the Mackenzies, an Australian clan that has cornered the market in mineral extraction through the development of a spectacular series of orbiting mirrors that focus constant sunlight for power; and the Cortas, who built a fortune by mining helium-3. Each family runs what is, essentially, a nation state, having less to do with geography than with choice of industry. Unless you’re a member of one of the families, citizenship is largely based on choice of profession.
When last we left the Five Dragons, a swift and coordinated strike by the Mackenzies had devastated the Cortas, largely destroying their base of operations and all but wiping out the family itself. There aren’t more than a half-dozen Cortas of significance left alive, and they’re being hunted. The Mackenzies, however, are distracted by a tragedy of their own: a massive, mysterious blow to their all-important infrastructure creates a schism between two brothers. We follow the remaining Cortas as they plan to either rebuild the family empire from scratch or, barring that, take their revenge.
Robson Corta had been adopted by the Mackenzie family as part of an early (and failed) effort to keep the peace between the clans in lieu of the more traditional dynastic marriage. He’s forced to navigate increasingly perilous waters as one of the few surviving members of his family living among those who destroyed his legacy. Lucasinho Corta, perpetually horny and generally regarded as worthless, is forced to step up, both to ensure his own survival, and to protect what’s left of his line. Most compellingly, the other remaining scion, Lucas Corta, travels to Earth to marshal resources among the elite of the planet’s spacefaring nation states, a feat even more difficult than it sounds.
Alongside these Shakespearean power plays, McDonald mixes in neat hard science fiction. Lucas’ journey to Earth is complicated by the fact that he can’t really travel survive in the cradle of humanity for very long. No moon-dweller ever has. In this vision of the future, the cultural divide between the Earth and the moon has a great deal to do with the fact that those born to Luna’s low gravity and sterile (if dusty) conditions quite literally aren’t fit to set foot on for Earth, making Lucas’ journey an almost superhuman feat. Earth-born humans can visit our satellite a little more easily, but a loss of bone density and muscle mass makes a return trip increasingly dodgy the longer one stays. It’s the kind of smart worldbuilding that lends an added bit of believability to the narrative, and additional gravity (nopun intended) to Lucas’ mission.
The easy comparison to make is a sort of futuristic twist on the dynastic squabbling of Game of Thrones, and it’a a fair one. McDonald himselfcalled it “Dallas on the moon.” And while each of those stories is seminal in its own way, McDonald betters each of them in at least one way: he presents a multicultural world and a set of wildly diverse characters. All of his books favor visions of a future that’s not exclusively European (2004’s River of Gods takes place in an ascendant mid-21st century India; Desolation Road takes a similar approach with a multi-ethnic Mars).
Eschewing colorblindness in casting the characters that inhabit Mother Luna, McDonald presents a future in which the families that populate and control the moon have brought with them a wide variety of Earth-based cultural markers and customs, extrapolating the evolution that would occur if those traditions were carried into a more secular future—and then literally sent to the moon, and blended through necessities of both collaboration and brutal competition. The shared lunar language has elements of Portuguese, Spanish, English, Chinese, and others, with high-status architecture that includes grand pavilions in a Chinese style alongside Arabic and Western influences. It’s a compelling, plausible vision of the near-ish future, one that mirrors our past: even centuries from now, we humans seem likely to hold on to our dearest traditions, borrow others we happen to like, and jettison those that have just grown stale.
Like his imagined moon-based culture, Ian McDonald’s Luna novels recall bits and pieces of other books, but ultimately, he crafts something new out of those disparate elements. He doesn’t just transplant political intrigue and family drama to the moon, he thoroughly imagines what effect our future in space will have on those tropes—and then drenches the result in soapy family drama and sex. It’s a winning combination.