The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal

Solaris, 2020, 687 p; plus v p Acknowledgements, vii p About the History, and ii p Bibliography.

This is the third full-length novel in Kowal’s “Lady Astronaut” series, whose history differs from ours since a meteor plunged into the sea off the North American coast in the early 1950s. A runaway greenhouse effect caused by the water vapour the impact delivered into the atmosphere means Earth will become too hot for humans to survive and an accelerated space programme has been undertaken to colonise a new home in time to save at least some of humanity. The timeline of The Relentless Moon in the main parallels that of the second book in the series, The Fated Sky. I reviewed the first two instalments here and here. Unlike in those, here the focus (and our narrator) is not the Lady Astronaut Elma York, nor indeed her husband, Nathaniel. Instead, it is another of the first six female astronauts, Nicole Wargin, married to Governor Kenneth Wargin of Kansas, who as the book starts is about to announce his candidacy for President of the US. Nicole’s life is complicated by the fact she is married to a politician but that has meant she has developed coping strategies for social situations. However, she also suffers from anorexia, which dogs her throughout the book. Wargin is noticeably less coy about sexual matters than Elma York was but still indulges in some laboured allusions to them.

The space programme is opposed by a faction calling itself ‘Earth First’ whose adherents believe that the space programme money is being spent unwisely while there are people struggling or suffering on Earth in the here and now and many will never benefit from it. This opposition has become an active sabotage campaign in the hope that if the programme is seen to be failing it will be abandoned. What in turn this means is that some people involved in the project, on the Mars trip with the Lady Astronaut, but more germane here, in mission control, in the communications department and even on the base constructed on the Moon. The powers that be have dubbed this subversive activity Icarus and most of the novel is devoted to the various acts of minor sabotage Icarus carries out and the attempt to unmask the identity of the culprit(s.)

This involves plenty of incident and jeopardy plus various agonies of suspicion. A variant from our time is that, due to the meteor, vaccinations for polio have not been administered widely. The introduction of the disease to the Moon base (presumed to be by Icarus) gives ample scope for Kowal to remind us of its potentially devastating effects. She is also at pains to emphasise that the racism and sexism of the times would in no way have been ameliorated by a shared purpose or peril. In particular that the women astronauts have to show no weakness in order to be respected.

Grace notes are supplied with the dropping in of the names of astronauts from our timeline (Chaffee, Aldrin, Lovell,) astronauts who have only incidental roles in this story.

This is good, solid, undemanding Science Fiction of the old school, tinged with a modern sensibility. Whether it is good enough to merit the awards the series has gathered is another question. I enjoyed the ride though.

Pedant’s corner:- “a sixteen-year-old Abelour” [Scotch] (the whisky is called Aberlour. And Kowal had scotch in lower case,) cannister (canister,) “had learned English from a Brit so always said things like ‘Leftenant.’ It sounded like an affectation every time” (What, instead of sounding like a poor speaker of French? [It’s li-oo-, not loo-, and ‘tenong’ not tenant,]) “propellent to sublimate off the surface” (propellant to sublime off the surface,) “none of them were up here” (none of them was,) grill (grille,) “the chances …. was slim” (either, ‘the chance,’ or, ‘were slim’.) “None of them were trying to help me” (None of them was trying,) “the rachet handle” (ratchet, spelled correctly later,) “to let threm know the sound it was man-made” (the sound was man-made.) “‘Hey. I represent that remark’” (‘I resent that remark,’) “all the minutia” (‘all’ implies plural, hence ‘all the minutiae’.) “None of them were paying attention” (None of them was paying attention.)

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