2021 Hugo Award Review: The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal

Detail from the cover of the UK edition of Mary Robinette Kowal's novel The Relentless Moon. Illustration shows a woman in a space helmet gazing upwards at the moon.

“Clearly, the Space Age is over” declared J. G. Ballard in the ’70s. He had a point: the past few decades have done little to revive the old assumption, made by so many science fiction writers, that a smooth and steady line would stretch from Sputnik to the moon and then to Mars and beyond. While some authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson, Andy Weir and Neal Stephenson have continued to write works of hard SF set beyond Earth’s orbit, the truth is that interplanetary fiction is more widely used as a fantasyland for such magical protagonists as Luke Skywalker and Harrow the Ninth.

There is a tinge of melancholy, then, attached to Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Lady Astronaut” series, which imagines an alternate history in which the space age never died. In Kowal’s timeline a meteorite strike hit Earth during 1952 and prompted an international space programme to send teams of astronauts — amongst them central character Elma York — to explore potential habitats. York’s exploits were charted by the original 2012 novelette “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” along with the novels The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky.

Cover of the UK edition of Mary Robinette Kowal's novel The Relentless Moon. Illustration shows a woman in a space helmet gazing upwards at the moon.

The Relentless Moon is the third novel in the series, and this time it is not Elma but Nicole Wargin, introduced as a secondary character in The Calculating Stars, who serves as protagonist. She has lived in parallel to Elma, as both served in the air force together prior to becoming two of the first six female astronauts. Unlike Elma, Nicole went into space too late to become known as the Lady Astronaut, but she is no stranger to celebrity. Her husband Kenneth is a state governor and presidential hopeful, and as a result of this marriage Nicole has spent her life in the public eye: “I was hauled along the path to safety as if I were no more than a decorative bauble. And when I was on Earth, that was, in fact, my job.”

While the previous novels had plot elements straight out of a thriller (The Fated Sky began with Elma arriving back on Earth only to be taken hostage, for example) these were generally downplayed. The Relentless Moon is a different matter, wasting no time in throwing Nicole into a twisted tale of spies and sabotage. The skulduggery begins even before she arrives in space, when Nathaniel York — familiar to established readers as Elma’s husband — is taken sick and turns out to have fallen victim to a non-fatal poisoning attempt. It appears that someone is trying to damage the space program; suspicion naturally falls upon Earth First, the protest movement that believes humanity belongs on its homeworld.

The launch goes ahead, but is beset with calamities from a crash landing on the moon to an outbreak of polio. Nicole and her colleagues are faced with the chilling prospect that the saboteur did not stay behind on Earth: that at least one of their number is working to destroy the mission.

The joint themes of space-sabotage and alternate history give Kowal plenty to work with in terms of both nuts-and-bolts SF and social background. The series always did emphasise the unglamorous aspects of space travel — once again, the characters must deal with the expulsion of bodily contents in zero-g — but the presence of a contagious disease adds a new level to this. The hurdles faced by Nicole and crew, from using lockdowns to contain the illness to violent controversy over treatment (one act of sabotage destroys a rocket carrying vaccines) speak to the 2020s at least as much as 1963.

This is not to say, of course, that the novel fails to engage with its historical period: far from it. An actual newspaper clipping involving the temporary ban of a vaccine for polio is used at the start of one of the chapters, albeit with its date shifted from January 1954 to the story’s setting of 1963 (evidently, some areas of science were delayed rather than accelerated by the 1952 meteorite strike). Meanwhile, chunks of the social conflict of 1960s America play out in the novel’s background, with a particularly notorious real-life incident being mirrored in a major plot twist later on.

As with the previous books in the series, one topic that Kowal shows a specific commitment to exploring is prejudice. Like Elma, Nicole has the burden of being one of the few women in space — and, therefore, being perceived as a representative of her gender, whose every shortcoming will be interpreted by the media as a shortcoming of women in general. In one scene she is prevented by colleague Teresa from taking part in a simulation for this very reason: “fainting out here I can explain as a temporary concern. A day off, you’ll be it. But if you faint in there? Then it is that flying the Sirius is too hard for a woman.”

Despite this overlap with the series’ previous protagonist, Nicole has a distinct set of personal issues. She lacks Elma’s anxiety, for one, but she has problems of her own — namely anorexia, deriving from a series of miscarriages:

“Abdominal surgery.”
“What?” He was curious enough to look at me.
“I had an emergency hysterectomy after my fifth miscarriage.” I wound my fingers together and stared at the wedding ring with the big diamond that Kenneth had given me all those years ago. “I was far enough along with that one that we thought I might actually come to term, so technically, she was a stillbirth. Evelyn Marie Wargin. I… I stll looked pregnant. After. So I stopped eating.”
“I didn’t—”
“I hated my body and I hated feeling powerless and this gave me one thing—one tiny thing—that I had complete control over. Kenneth had to have me committed.” My fingers ached from clutching them. “After the Meteor, I did it again. There have been other times, but those two landed me in the hospital.”

When discussing this topic, Nicole takes a firm stance on terminology: “‘Difficulties’ sounds like something my grandmother would say. Just call it anorexia.”

But for all of her struggles, Nicole is also faced with the fact that in some areas she — like Elma — has the deck stacked in her favour. When she gets into a dispute with her African-American colleague Eugene, he has to explain to her that this time, he is the one in a position to be misrepresented in the press: “People won’t know that you were a spy in the war. What they’ll know is that a Black man ordered a white woman… into a dangerous situation. They’ll wonder what sort of ‘savage’ would do that. Do you copy?”

While humanity is exploring space, the civil rights movement is in full bloom on Earth: Martin Luther King Jr. himself is namechecked as a friend of Nicole’s politician husband. Meanwhile, some of the South African astronauts have been indoctrinated with the tenets of apartheid; although this element does not play as large a role in the novel as it did in the previous book, The Fated Sky, it nonetheless adds to the turbulent situation in which Nicole finds herself.

In addition to race, gender and mental health, The Relentless Moon delves into the topic of religion. Faith is not portrayed in particularly favourable terms, being framed largely as a tool of oppression and a cause of fanaticism. Nicole is a lapsed Baptist whose relationship with her former faith is complicated: “even when I was one of the faithful, I rarely paid attention to what I was actually saying. Ironically, after parting from God, I often found resonance in the words of the service.” After spending time with her diverse colleagues, she becomes disturbed by the racial homogeneity of her old church.

The antagonists in Earth First, meanwhile, are an explicitly Christian group, their literature citing Bible verses as justification for their actions. This detail turns out to play a role when the characters come to track down the saboteur, as the culprit’s religious denomination leaves a clue.

While this exploration of religious extremism is a fresh area for the series, The Relentless Moon ends up going over much of the same lines as its predecessors. Indeed, the story overlaps with events occurring in The Fated Sky, so that a major character death in that novel is replayed in the background of this story. Kowal does a good job of offering variations on established themes, even managing to eke an emotional punch from the aforementioned death despite the character being almost totally absent from this novel; but the fact remains that The Relentless Moon pushes the series sideways rather than forwards.

To those who propelled the previous Lady Astronaut stories to victory at the Hugos, Nebulas and Locus awards, this will matter little. Kowal’s alternate history is sufficiently fleshed-out to sustain repeat visits even within its more familiar areas; and with the thriller angle, The Relentless Moon finds workable a new twist on the subject matter.

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Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.

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