Tag Archives: ian mcdonald

Reading Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

 

Another Interzone review, this time from late 2015. I’m still sad I didn’t like this novel more.

mcdonald_lunaThe publicity surrounding Luna would have us read it as a gritty species of space opera: The Godfather on the Moon. Ian McDonald is already known for taking others’ ideas and pushing them in new directions, as if to see just how far they can be made to go. In that case, why not take stories from other genres and do the same? The question is what, if anything, does this sidelong hommage bring to the main story? Do we accept it as a literary shorthand to get us beyond the corporate wars of something like Ben Bova’s Grand Tour novels and into a new, more intricately corrupt world. McDonald is quite clear that the battle for the Moon and its resources will be ugly, and a million miles from the utopian cooperation beloved of a certain kind of sf novel. Or should we simply regard it as an opportunity to experience gang wars in space? And if this latter, is there really any point?

McDonald’s Moon is run, inevitably, by five clans, the Five Dragons, under the impotently watchful eye of the Eagle of the Moon (a nod perhaps to the original explorers of the Moon). The peace between them is uneasy, maintained by an elaborate series of dynastic and, unsurprisingly, mostly loveless marriages. Business is all, and everything, including friends and family, is liable to be sacrificed to that. Of the five families, Corta Hélio, headed by the formidable eighty-year-old Adriana Corto, is the brash young kid on the block. Corta’s ambition lifted her out of poverty in Brazil, and brought her to the Moon, where she spotted a business chance and turned it to her advantage. AKA, Mackenzie Metals, VTO and Taiyang have only grudgingly admitted Corta Hélio to their ranks, and only because it is so powerful they can’t afford not to. Lunar high society, reluctantly tight-knit as it is, seems also to be riddled with secret groups, hoping to leverage things to their own advantage. And around them the beautiful people, for whom money is no object, meet and party, while out of sight the workers get on with making more money for them, while paying for the Four Elementals that keep them going: air, water, carbon and data.

McDonald employs the montage technique that has served him well in the past – one thinks inevitably of Desolation Road – but while we may jump from Adriana, contemplating her death and seeking solace in the religious beliefs of her past, to Lucasinho, youngest male scion of the clan, on the run from his repressive father, to Marina Calzaghe, saviour of Rafael Corta after an attempt on his life, to Ariel, the brittle lawyer, only daughter of the clan, none of this seems to move the novel forward significantly. The more interesting parts of the narrative dwell in the glimpses of those elements of family life that are avoided in polite conversation, and which are of course precisely those places the reader wants to go.

We are also directed to admire the staggering diversity of nationalities and beliefs which intermingle and form lunar society, not to mention the ever-so-slightly too casual presentation of same-sex relationships, as well as bisexual and gender-neutral characters, but the fact of their being so very front and centre in the novel suggests discomfort rather than casual acceptance of them as the norm. In truth, it’s difficult to find a reason to care about the Corta children and their business, perhaps because rich people being rich, and worrying about remaining rich, just aren’t that interesting. Adriana’s autobiography, her final confession to Irma Loa, a Sister of the Lords of Now, is the meatiest, and maybe most traditional part of the story, but it’s not enough on its own to sustain the novel. We might wonder about Lucasinho’s charming but incomprehensible interest in baking cakes, or be drawn, as Marina is, to the discovery of the perpetual run taking place in the tunnels of João de Deus, as much a spiritual as a physical exercise. We certainly crave to know more about Wagner, the moonwolf, the Corta outsider. All these are elements of the Ian McDonald whose work I love for its verve and daring, but they remain underexplored, somehow constrained by the form and setting that he’s chosen for this novel. Adam Roberts noted that Luna has much in common with the soap opera Dallas, and this is true, but I think also of The Great Gatsby, and of Tom and Daisy Buchanan: ‘careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness … and let other people clear up the mess they had made’. They have much in common with most of the Corta family.

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Archive – The Year’s Best Science Fiction: 26th Annual Collection – Gardner Dozois, ed.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection
Gardner Dozois St Martin’s Griffin, 639pp, pb

After twenty-six years, Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction is not so much an anthology as an institution. Solid, reliable, it arrives punctually every year, offering over quarter of a million words of short story as well as Dozois’s summary of the year’s activities in science fiction publishing. Its arrival used to be an major event for me and I doubt I was the only one who used Dozois’s selections as a pointer for further reading. If Dozois’s word was not law precisely, his undeniable good taste in stories surely prompted readers to take a few risks in what they tackled.

Times change: there are now various annual ‘best of’ anthologies available, with each editor having his or her own take on what constitutes ‘best’ and, for that matter, what constitutes ‘science fiction’. For all the endless rehashing of the genre wars, not to mention what should and shouldn’t be part of the ‘canon’, that the sf ‘church’ is now such a broad one is in no small part thanks to Dozois’s generous promotion of the likes of Gene Wolfe, Joanna Russ and many others. So where does that leave his own Year’s Best anthology? Does anything, apart from its size and publishing longevity, continue to set this anthology apart? Looking at this year’s volume, it is a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

Not least on the agenda is what makes these thirty stories ‘best’? Nancy Kress’s ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ won the 2009 Hugo for Best Novella, but Elizabeth Bear, winner of the Best Novelette Award, is represented by a story co-authored with Sarah Monette, while Ted Chiang, winner of the Best Short Story, is not represented at all. On the other hand, a number of the Hugo-shortlisted stories do appear in this collection. Pick another award: how about the Nebulas? There’s very little correspondence between those shortlists and this anthology’s contents. Then again, there is very little correspondence between the Hugo and Nebula shortlists, period. I could slice and dice award shortlists all day long, but the fact remains that these are the stories Dozois considers to be the best he saw during 2008.

What strikes me is that they are mostly as solid and reliable as the anthology’s reputation. There are no bad stories here, but by the same token, there are few if any that actually excite me. Take Kress’s ‘The Erdmann Nexus’: this is a well-constructed story, as one would expect, with a neat idea at its heart. I like the fact that she engages with what it means to grow old and that her elderly characters are passionate, mindful, valuable people. Yet this story is just a little too long, teetering on the brink of sentimentality, and that’s typical of a number of stories here, from Maureen McHugh’s ‘Special Economics’ to Daryl Gregory’s ‘The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm’. As one begins reading, there is the sense of being pleasantly enveloped by the promise of a feel-good ending without being truly nourished on the way. By contrast, Ian McDonald’s ‘An Eligible Boy’, set in his future India, while it initially promises something similar, cheerfully wreaks havoc with the reader’s expectations. His other story included here, ‘The Tear’, although very different, is similarly rich in invention.

Invention, novelty (as in new rather than gimcrack): these are qualities which do seem to be lacking in this selection. I am mystified, for example, as to why Charles Coleman Finlay’s ‘The Political Prisoner’ seems to have attracted so much attention in the last year. It’s a study of wrongful imprisonment and endurance of the system, but it feels old and tired as a narrative conceit. And truly, I did not expect to see yet another alternate history featuring a Kennedy brother, but Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s ‘G-Men’ delivers just that. The ‘alternate history’ is little more than a convenient hook on which to hang a thin story of the murder of J Edgar Hoover.

Gord Sellars’ ‘Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moons’ Blues’ is a cleverer and wittier alternate history, examining the fate of the jazzmen who travelled on the Frogships, and I enjoyed it for his knowing reworkings of familiar technology. However, it still feels a little too slick for its own good, and goes down a little too easily. Indeed, the same could be said of many stories in the collection, from Bear’s and Monette’s ‘Boojum’ to James L. Cambias’s ‘Balancing Accounts’ with its robot ship making its way, earning its living. Where is the story that makes one want to rush out and buttonhole one’s friends, saying ‘read this’.

In truth, apart from the two by McDonald (who is anyway one of my favourite writers), there isn’t a story that really excites me. Few that stick firmly in the memory, to re-emerge days later. The anthology feels autumnal, retrospective, conservative and cautious (it seems significant somehow that only one story is drawn from an online magazine, Jay Lake’s wonderfully-titled ‘The Sky That Wraps The World Round, Past The Blue And Into the Black’, which first appeared in Clarkesworld, and which itself reflects on the past). The autumnal chill invades Dozois’s summation of the year, which makes sobering reading as he charts the ups and downs, mostly downs, of the sf industry. And perhaps that’s what this anthology is all about: Dozois’s response to recession, fuelling a desire for stories in which good always triumphs in the best possible way. As usual, Dozois’s generous spirit is shown to best advantage at the end of the collection, with eleven pages of ‘Honorable Mentions’, the Carrollian moment when everyone gets a prize. I’ve seen him mocked in the past for doing it, but it remains a big deal for a writer to be noticed, and part of what Dozois’s Year’s Best has always been about is noticing. I may disagree profoundly with him about the story selection this year, but he remains our witness to the ebb and flow of the genre and of the industry.

Blogging the BSFA Award Shortlists – Novel

My grand plan was that I would read and write about all the nominations for the best novel category in the BSFA awards. So far I have read them all and blogged about two! However, blogging about the rest will have to wait until I’m a little less busy generally (and I still have the Clarke Award nominations to get through). But I can say how I will be voting.

1 – Ian McDonald for The Dervish House
2 – Lauren Beukes for Zoo City
3 – Paolo Bacigalupi for The Wind-Up Girl
4 – Tricia Sullivan for Lightborn
5 – Ken Macleod for The Restoration Game

And this will, I think, be the first time I have ever voted in the BSFA Awards having read or examined every single nomination. I’m beginning to feel as though I might be a grown-up!