Luna: When the Moon Hits Your Eye

Ever since I read Luna: New Moon, by Ian MacDonald I knew I was in for a ride. You can read my review here. I’ve been wary to talk about the next books for fear of ruining its astounding ending, even though it’s hard to write about a second book in a series without discussing the events of the first. While I’ve never written about a third book before, I can only imagine finding ways to deal with the first and second books is an even harder task. Instead of trying to pick apart each book and rehash the things I found enjoyable about each one specifically, I am going to cheat and just talk about the series as a whole, with a focus on books two and three. McDonald’s Luna trilogy is a realistic and cynical, but ultimately very human, story about the peak and subsequent destabilization of a society built for a few, but not all. 

Wolf Moon and Moon Rising continue the saga of the Cortas, one of the five families belonging to the elite class known as the Five Dragons. The characterization for which I lauded McDonald in my review of New Moon continues in the later books, but with a more metaphorical tinge. McDonald goes to greater lengths to portray the Corta family, along with the other Dragons, as much a part of the system as they are its creators. Throughout the second and third books, I never felt as moved as I was by Adriana’s story. However, I found that each character was portrayed with similar levels of depth through the series. Each member of the Corta family is given moments where they seem to ooze out of the pages, the words barely able to contain their personalities. The other families are given a greater spotlight as the series continues, showing how their philosophies and family dynamics project their own goals onto the development and maintenance of the moon’s society. McDonald blends it all well in a way where only a very select few people feel like villains, regardless of their relation to the Cortas. 

The setting remains just as vibrant and intricate as it did in the series’ first installment, albeit more delicate. If New Moon was about the system when it’s stable, Wolf Moon destabilizes it. I was blown away by how human the collapse of the political dynamics felt. The chaotic and sudden breakdown in the feudal system did not feel like a plot point that needed to be checked off. Instead, it was deliberately rocked to its core by the very people that built it, regardless of their intent to do so. Lunar society was already a fairly violent system as shown in New Moon, one that required residents to have a heads-up display installed in their eye to remind them of how many breaths of air one has left, or how many sips of water they had remaining. The events of the first book destroyed some of the foundations of the moon’s politics, allowing key players to disrupt the “natural” harmony of the five Dragons. While there was a sense of intrigue to the people in power, McDonald did not shy away from letting the reader know that everyone pays the price for the elites’ decisions, especially those at the bottom of society. Just as things seem to hit rock bottom, the author shows how such a society would try to right itself, and it is not pretty. 

With the lunar infrastructure pushed to its limits with the destruction of major industrial centers, McDonald takes the opportunity to take a step back and philosophically dissect the society in Moon Rising. The book questions the system it is written about. Who is it for? Who is in control? Who should control it? I was a little worried that it would devolve into lengthy discussions about different ways forward, but McDonald keeps the pace moving. He relies on his characters to pull the story with them, giving them agency when everything feels out of control. A lot of the character moments are spent highlighting how broken they are as individuals, leaving the reader to wonder how the problems were going to be solved. It kept me guessing, especially since there were a lot of smaller stories that made up the larger narrative. McDonald avoided putting the plot on rails by opting for a zigzagging approach to a murky finish line, focusing on character development instead of the plot. It made for a strong finish in an already powerful trilogy. 

The Luna Trilogy is an intricate set of books that rarely sacrifices style or substance in its exploration of a future lunar society. McDonald is magnanimous in his details, portraying the cruelest aspects of modern society through a broken and all-too-recognizable system, one designed and operated by the few who stand to benefit from its existence. It is an unflinching look at a social order that lives by the maxim, “there are no laws, only negotiations.” Despite all of that, there is humanity within it. McDonald makes you root for his characters who are as much victims of their own design as they are the rulers of it. I would never say it is an optimistic trilogy, but it lends a bit of hope. So do yourself a favor, and get to know the Cortas. 

Ratings:  Wolf Moon – 8.5/10
Moon Rising – 9.0/10
-Alex

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The Last Astronaut – One Small Step Into… Eh, You Should Figure It Out

I would not say that The Last Astronaut by David Wellington is a bad book. It just didn’t quite hit the marks that it set out to hit. The story itself was okay on its own; it did not feel entirely new to me, but it was not stale either. The possibility of extraterrestrial life visiting our solar system can be a fun way to uncover aspects of humanity left unexplored in other genres. The secrecy around the discovery in The Last Astronaut made the race to answer the question of ‘who are they and what are they doing here’ more personal than most first contact stories I have read. The general structure of the book’s beginning felt like I was going to dive into some characters who carried demons. I expected that this unknown entity was going to exploit this baggage, shining a light on the characters’ faults as they plunged deeper into the darkness of space. My eyes were open for whatever curveballs the author was ready to throw at me. Unfortunately, Wellington’s strange choice to frame the narrative as a documentary paired with his unremarkable writing softened the emotional punch foreshadowed for the characters. 

The Last Astronaut takes place fifty years in the future after a failed manned mission to Mars. The captain, Sally Jansen, had to make a life or death decision and sacrificed a crew member for the rest of the group. Afterwards, NASA was defunded to near non-existence. Fifteen years later, an object is spotted slowing down as it enters the solar system, and with very few people who know about it, and even fewer astronauts remaining, Jansen is called in to lead a crew of inexperienced people to a presumed alien ship. Their mission is to make contact and find out what they might be doing here, and whether or not they could be considered a threat. 

After the first chapter, Wellington tells the audience that the text that follows is a revised edition of the report he initially penned. This was not merely a statement of the facts, but an inspection of the characters’ mental and emotional states as they explored this alien artifact. The documentarian flair was unexpected and a little jarring, as it tells the reader exactly what to expect instead of letting the story tell itself. I did not pay too much attention to this stylistic choice at first because it felt like an afterthought. By the time the third documentary-style quote from a character appeared, I was already bored with it. It was not consistent enough to add any real tone to the story, and the weird pacing interrupted the natural flow. These little snippets offered little new information, and tended to just hang there, like the guy at the party who pushes his way into a discussion by repeating what someone just said. I was mostly able to ignore these asides, but as they continued to show up, it became a problem for me. 

The whole book suffered from this mismanagement of tone. It felt like it was written to be a sci-fi blockbuster movie. The text lacked a real sense of tension, almost as if Wellington was relying on the reader to feel the wonder or fear of entering an alien spacecraft without experiencing it through the characters. There were moments where the author would dive into a description and relish in it, but there were no subtle reminders of the atmosphere or the character’s disposition. I did not even realize this was supposed to be a horror story until about sixty percent of the way through the book. However, the horror elements of the narrative were more to do with the plot than the tone or general ambience. It wasn’t until the crew was deep inside the alien ship that I realized that most of the scenes inside the alien craft were supposed to be set in the dark. This took place long after the crew realized they might be trapped and resources were limited. It was so jarring I flipped backwards through the pages to find descriptions of the dark setting and found little. Instead, Wellington preferred to describe everything that was happening- regardless of a character’s ability to see it- and then wait for you to remind yourself that it’s actually quite dark and scary. It was frustrating to say the least.

The characters were fine. They were not nearly as cardboard as others I have read, but they did not quite hit the level of depth I think Wellington was aiming for. If this was meant to be a journey into the darkness of space and the madness that comes from encountering an alien entity, there was a lot left to be desired. The character’s actions and choices often felt in service to the plot as if their arcs were already predetermined. The ‘darker’ qualities to the characters were amplified immediately, leading them to feel necessary to the plot and artificial. It kicked the story into overdrive, but at the cost of growth or underlying tension. It felt like Wellington was racing to the finish, wanting to reveal the nature of the alien rather than investigate the people involved, which seemed at odds with his initial framing. Little effort was spent in trying to convince the reader of the struggle within the various characters and their conflicting goals as they became more aware of the aliens’ goals.

The overall mystery of the ship and the increasing madness of the crew are good foundations, but they just didn’t feel fully fleshed out. Throughout the book, the only thing that compelled me to keep going was to find out the truth of the alien ship, not how the characters were affected. The retrospective framing was also distracting in a way that removed any sort of horror. It foreshadowed a nice conclusion, dissipating any tension that could be built. All of the emotional impact had to be supplied by the reader, never by the writing itself. If it had been a movie, it would have been an enjoyable schlock sci-fi horror flick. Instead, the book feels lackluster and in service only to itself. 

Rating: The Last Astronaut – 5.0/10
-Alex

Broken Stars – Wholeheartedly Good

I recently decided to treat myself by purchasing Broken Stars, a collection of contemporary Chinese speculative fiction curated and translated by Ken Liu. The collection had been showing up a lot on my Amazon queue, and while I was out at the store I decided “why not?” I had never really read a collection of non-horror short stories that weren’t by the same author. I was not originally planning on writing about Broken Stars, but the more stories I read, the more magnetic the book became, and I would feel ashamed if I did not use my platform to evangelize about the magic of this collection. Featuring sixteen stories from fourteen authors, Broken Stars is an incredible feast of Chinese science fiction.

First off, the collection feels incredibly personal. Ken Liu does a fantastic job of introducing the authors, their perspectives, backgrounds, and interests prior to each story. Sometimes he would even provide a framing of how the story can be read and enjoyed, especially when some of the cultural context may be lost on Western readers. It was very helpful, especially since most of my education on Chinese history ended in high school. It felt like he held out his hand to the reader and took you on your very own personal journey into the stories he loves. His introductions  made the whole experience very welcoming, and dissipated a lot of the anxiety I had about “not getting it.” On top of all that I think Liu did an excellent job of ordering the stories as well. He slowly dug deeper and deeper into Chinese history with each successive story, occasionally breaking up the intensity with something lighter. I never felt confused by what was happening, as some of the more Chinese stories had annotations to clue the reader in.

The hardest part about this review is actually talking about the stories in the book. They all felt incredibly special in some way, making it tough to choose which to highlight here. Liu himself even mentions in the foreword that he did not try to make a “best-of” compilation, opting instead for more variety. He certainly succeeds, as each story had its own personality, exploring different modes of storytelling, covering a plethora of science fiction staples, and exploring ideas I had never really considered reading before. Particularly of interest to me were the stories that dealt with time and the individual’s place within society. I’ll talk about three of the stories here to jump-start interest.

First off is Moonlight by Liu Cixin, of The Three Body Problem fame. It’s one of the shorter stories, but Liu Cixin makes it work overtime. It follows a man who feels he can contribute nothing to the world, as he receives phone calls from himself in the future. Each version of himself calls him to warn of the future and sends the present version detailed plans on how to solve the crisis. However, each time he thinks about sending out the plans to get to work, the future changes, prompting another future version of himself to call to explain the new problem. It’s a fun and somewhat daunting story that shows the power of the individual to help change society, for better or worse. The ending is harrowing but conveys the message perfectly.

Possibly my favorite story is What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear by Baoshu. It follows Xie Baosheng, a boy born in 2012, or as the first paragraph ends “I was born on the day the world was supposed to end,” as he grows up and experiences our past as his future. Meaning when he turns one, it’s 2011, when he turns four, it’s 2008 and so on and so forth. On its own, watching events unfold in reverse order is powerful enough the idea is powerful enough, watching the events happen again in reverse order. Major events in world and modern Chinese history still occur with new context as they are played backwards. However, Baoshu is not content with just replaying the second half of the twentieth century. The story itself is incredibly human, showcasing how easy it is for one’s life to get swept up in the passage of time. Major life events are competing with the ever-changing state of the world on equal footing. As Baosheng gets older, his decisions are met with more and more inertia from his earlier life and the new expectations of society. It is one of the longer stories, but honestly, buying the book for just this story would have been worth it.

Lastly, on the funnier side is The First Emperor’s Games by Ma Bodong. Following the First Emperor’s unification of China, the emperor becomes an avid computer game player. Once you accept the absurd premise that an emperor from 221 BC is playing video games, the story flows in an entertaining fashion. Liu mentions that this particular story might require some extensive use of Wikipedia to understand the more Chinese aspects of the humor, I still found it quite entertaining on my first run without the extra knowledge. It follows the Emperor as his myriad of advisors suggests different popular computer games to pass his time such as Civilization or The Sims. It’s a fun read that gets deeper the more you understand about ancient Chinese history and philosophy, so definitely take a few passes at it as you learn more from the internet.

There are a few stories that stand out to me in particular, but ultimately the whole collection is enjoyable. It’s refreshing to have read such a wide variety of stories from an incredible spectrum of voices. I’m glad I decided to step outside of my literary comfort zone to enjoy this collection, and it certainly has spurred me to look for more translated fiction. I do not feel comfortable giving a score to collection as a whole, or even to the individual stories. What I will say is that the work Ken Liu put into creating this collection, and translating it to English clearly shows. And if you’re looking for something different, but with a tang of familiarity, I highly recommend Broken Stars.

Rating: Broken Stars – Enjoyable, Deep, and Worth Your Time/10
-Alex

Luna: New Moon – It’s No Twilight

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Hot off the heels of Gunpowder Moon, I just couldn’t help myself when it came to reading another book about the moon.  There is something so fascinating about that big, grey, dusty rock as it hangs in the sky. It captures me whenever I see it, so I will always look for a book to fill me with that same sense of foreboding wonder. I needed something that captures the majesty and terror of a place that is so desolate and barren. A story that highlights the moon’s complete hostility to human life, regardless of whatever technology is developed to colonize it. Luckily, I did not need to look very far– a book I have had on my  shelf looked all the brighter. Ian McDonald intricately weaves a tale of intrigue and consequences in Luna: New Moon, focusing on human characters living within a detailed and cruel society of their own making.

Luna: New Moon follows the Cortas, a family that counts itself amongst the five Dragons, the elite corporate families, of the moon. It does not center on a specific character so much as the family itself as they navigate the politics of life on the moon. The Cortas own most of the helium-3 refining business on the moon, controlling the ebb and flow of energy across habitats. Adriana Corta, the ambitious matriarch of the family, fought tooth and nail for the business, taking it away from another of the Dragons, the Mackenzie Metals corporation. As her influence begins to wane, the other Dragons smell an opportunity. All her family has to do is keep their enemies at bay while making sure they don’t destroy themselves from the inside.

McDonald’s characters are vibrant and interesting, if not entirely likable in the beginning. There are also so many that it was hard to keep track of them. I kept having to go back and forth to make sure I was not just continuously adding new characters of my own creation. After a few chapters of learning the intricacies of the family dynamics, though, they began to feel familiar. The Corta family’s choices and actions began to flesh out their personalities and general outlook. Lucas, Adriana’s second son, is manipulative and practical. He always feels the burden of maintaining the family and tries to protect it from what he sees as the messes that his hot-headed older brother Rafa creates. Adriana, the matriarch, is cold, calculating and singularly driven. Lucasinho, Lucas’ son, grew up in a life of luxury and is more carefree than the others. There are plenty more, each with a depth that I have rarely encountered in such a short span of pages. While McDonald wrote characters that were excellent examples of people thriving in a brutally competitive system, he made me care for their existence.

McDonald’s uncanny ability to advance the plot through his impressive characterization gripped me. Flashbacks– all to different times in Adriana’s life– were cleverly placed and brought so much depth to the story that they might be some of my favorites ever. The first one felt unfortunately jarring, as the reader must adjust from a third person narrative to a heavily informed third person retrospective following Adriana’s ascent to the moon. I normally do not like to point out specific parts of a book’s plot, but McDonald kind of broke me with Adriana’s flashbacks. Each one is presented as a story to remind the next generation of where the family came from. Rarely have I felt a character’s thoughts about their own past as distinctly as I did with her. The sheer indifference to her own emotions as she relentlessly follows her ambition was as commendable as it was painful. The ease with which she adapted to the harsh life of the moon was astounding, accepting struggle as the defining feature of her life. The second flashback sequence is where I felt for her most prominently, as McDonald details the choices Adriana made to build a monopoly and join the ranks of the elite. She cuts people out of her life to find the success she craves, and it is devastating. Even though she is often cold and calculating, you get the feeling that some of the decisions she makes early are tough, slowly becoming easier with each successive one. I honestly lost my breath at the end of her final recounting, astonished by her comfort with who she was.

While the characters were a strong part of the story, the setting was incredibly compelling. The moon is a neo-feudal state, nearly independent from the Earth. McDonald’s vision in this novel is terrifying, to say the least, but it is not unrealistic. The moon is essentially controlled by the aforementioned Dragons, five families who hold a specific monopoly on a different resource of the moon. This builds an intricate system of familial alliances for purely political ends. On top of that, everything is for sale on the moon. Things we consider necessary, like air and water, are commodities measured in breaths and sips. Everyone who travels there and hopes to stay has an implant on their eye to remind them how close they are to running out. Clothes are shredded and recycled, not washed. Only the richest are able to replace theirs and keep up with the latest trends. People with multiple PhDs can be homeless, out of work, and near death as labor competition is so fierce. Children of high-ranking families perform naked moon runs to showcase their strength and transition to adulthood. In a stunning portrayal of unimpeded capitalism, competition is everything, and there is no room for error.

McDonald’s writing only propels these ideas even further. He gets down to the details with nearly every piece of technology, showing how deeply interwoven it is within the culture. Technology is not just convenience on the moon, it is the one thing keeping everyone alive. Those who control it are considered gods, and if you displease them, they will swat you like a fly. The culture that develops on the moon is a very precisely-tuned machine, and disruptions are not tolerated. People are treated like parts to keep everything running. If someone is not as good as they need to be, they are scrapped for someone better. The Corta family plays a role of duality in this system. They are considered to be an upstart nuisance, even though they played by the same rules as everyone else. While they control the production and distribution of the fuel helium-3, they are an underdog in this starkly brutal system. They do not mean to upset the balance, only to profit from the system themselves. If others are hurt by their rise, it is only the natural ebb and flow of the society they exist in. Thankfully for the reader, the adage “it’s not personal, it’s just business” is never uttered, but it lingers in the air as if it is embedded in every breath.

Luna: New Moon is a stunning first entry in a series I will gobble up. McDonald has created an insanely intricate and monstrous system, filled to the brim with human characters, pushed to the limits by an unrelenting pace. It is a concentrated four hundred pages, but in my opinion worth it if you are at all a fan of space opera. The characters are vibrant, cruel and willing to do whatever it takes for their family. The drama is natural and relies solely on the characters’ ability to make decisions that affect the world around them. The novel is cold, unforgiving, stark, and beautiful, much like the full moon in a clear winter sky.

Rating: Luna: New Moon 9.0/10
-Alex

The Electric State – The Lonesome Empty West

71afwuzikplI have never really felt comfortable talking about visual art. While I took art classes in high school, I was never particularly adept at being creative in a visual sense. Up until recently, I could not tell you how I felt about a piece beyond “I like it” or “what is happening here.” With that in mind, it’s weird to me to find myself needing to talk about this art book and the way it made me feel. While I still feel ill-equipped to interpret the art and the story, I can not help but think about it, and because I have this platform, you will have to hear about it. In The Electric State, Simon Stalenhag writes and illustrates an alternative 1990s America that feels all too similar to roughly the first decade of my life, highlighting the desolation and isolation of suburban America through the eyes of a child.

The Electric State follows a young girl as she travels across the western United States with her robot pal. Illustrations of the various landscapes she encounters are interlaced with the narrative of her travels to her unknown destination. During her journey, the reader is subjected to an empty America, one where virtual reality has become so ubiquitous and so addictive that people are dying on their sofas attached to their machines. Readers learn that the Sentre Mode 6 was a breakthrough technological marvel, first developed by the military and eventually marketed to the ordinary American, allowing everyone to live out their individual fantasies in virtual reality.

First off, the art is haunting. Everything is desolate, deserted, and devoid of life. Stalenhag captures this alternate America with the eye of a cynical Rockwell. Idyllic homesteads are juxtaposed with empty landscapes filled with derelict military equipment. Human beings are practically non-existent, leaving the roads and neighborhoods to be populated by cars. The few people left are either not interested in the main cast or are wasting away under the seduction of the Mode 6. The story lends an ominous context to everything, not by way of explaining what the reader sees, but setting a mood. Every page turn often took me longer than a normal page because I felt a need to take in every picture to its fullest. Each picture was captivating, the sheer emptiness in each piece acting as a drain and sucking me deeper and deeper into Stalenhag’s America.

While the art is haunting, the story makes it unforgettable. Though it’s not the most intricate of tales, it binds all the pictures together. Without the writing the art would be “cool” or “interesting” and still worthy of hanging on the wall. But the writing feels purposefully sparse, detailing the road trip and the history of the Mode 6, highlighting all the ways in which the Mode 6 has infected everyone’s lives. Stalenhag avoids flowery language, opting to mirror the desolation exhibited in the pictures. Life in his America feels meaningless and empty, even to those not wearing the headset. The only people who seem to have a will and a purpose are a girl and her robot as they travel across California.

There is no flashy way to do this, so I will just dive into my interpretation. I feel that this book is an incredibly honest look at America, through the eyes of a child living in the peak of the nineties. Looking through this art, it reminds me a lot of how I feel looking back at that time growing up. I may have been a child (being born in 1989), but it was a time filled with new technology and an endless assortment of toys for both children and adults. The ads on television constantly detailed a better, brighter, more colorful life that could be yours if only you owned this or that product. Access to new wealth was made possible by advances in military technology, which allowed the projection of power on the global stage, which in turn increased America’s ability to control trade in lopsided agreements. It feels weird to admit it, but I do not remember a lot of the people I encountered at that time. Sure, I remember their names, maybe even what they looked like- but not who they were. As children, probably around the time I turned eight, my younger brother and I were often left to our own devices, often in the form of a video game console or a VCR. My parents were not and are not neglectful, but it is still hard to remember any time where adults felt present in our daily affairs besides at the dinner table, especially when compared with nostalgic family-oriented television. It is just far easier to remember the things I was sold than the experiences I lived, and Stalenhag’s art distilled that feeling from my emotional core. It is a weird revelation, but I will honestly cherish this book for a long time because it is something that speaks to me personally, not just to my ideals.

The whole work exudes an emptiness that never leaves. There is no triumph to be had in this version of America. It is an astonishingly endless wasteland punctuated by stark reminders of where the technology came from, ultimately benefiting no one. Stalenhag paints a picture of a society that is so perfectly atomized, it is easier to die dreaming of your perfect world, than connect with those around you. It is a small hope that we follow two characters who have a goal that they share, and find comfort in each other’s company. But if there is more hope than that in The Electric State, I have yet to find it.

Rating: The Electric State – 9.0/10
-Alex

Perihelion Summer – Maybe Some Will Like It Hot

819ginw4kvlClimate change is an issue that has plagued me ever since I walked out of the theater after seeing An Inconvenient Truth. I was always a bit of an environmentalist, having been exposed to Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest as a small child, but this felt bigger than my seventeen-year-old brain could comprehend. The documentary was the catalyst for the veritable avalanche of books and films that would eventually lead me to working in renewable energy. It has only been in the past couple of years, however, that I really began to feel the need for art to speak about climate change. Science can only predict and describe the effects, but stories can help us figure out how we feel about it. In an effort to find stories that echo my own anxieties I happened upon this novella. Greg Egan, in his new book Perihelion Summer, captures a snapshot of anxiety and need for cooperation in a rapidly changing environment, but falls short on the emotional impact I was hoping to find.

Perihelion Summer follows Matt and some of his friends as they wait out a cosmic event aboard the Mandjet, a self-sustaining aquaculture rig. A black hole called Taraxippus is on its way through our solar system and is predicted to affect the earth in numerous ways. However, as it approaches, scientists notice it is, in fact, two small black holes, completely negating any predictions they had made. As Taraxippus passes, it changes Earth’s orbit around the sun, causing summers to be hotter and winters to be colder. In effect, climate change has been immediate and exacerbated, forcing the world to adapt on a schedule not its own.

The plot is interesting enough and centers more around the people and their reactions than it does the state of the world. Egan rightly focuses on the trials of a small group of characters, some of whom planned to be together during the event, and others who just happened to be there. It adds a personal and human touch to the events knowing that when an apocalypse does come, you will not be with who you want, but who you are around. I think this happens fairly often in stories of this nature, but Egan avoids the easy pitfalls. There are not characters that stand out as “the problem character” or “the one who will get everyone killed.” Instead, the story’s tension develops naturally through the stress of catastrophic environmental change, instead of some racist shouting that he or she will not share boat space with “the others.” And while I groaned at a specific choice that led into the third act, it became more bearable as the book came to a close. It felt like Egan was specifically using it to point something out about developed nations more so than an irrational character choice.

I did not feel any particular attachment to the characters, no matter whether they were the primary voices or just folks in the background. I do not know if the distance was my fault or Egan’s, but I did not relate to Matt as much as I would have assumed. He is a smart guy with a plan who did his damnedest to convince his family to be as well-prepared as he is. While Matt acted logically, he was driven by an innate sense of keeping those closest to him out of harm’s way, even risking himself to do so. They are all qualities that I admire, but for the life of me, I could not get involved with Matt as much as I was involved with the story. The characters surrounding Matt felt more interesting and had a human spark that was easy to care about. I cannot remember most of their names, but I remember their roles on the boat, their backstories, their anxieties and who they wished to protect. I do not know what it was about Matt, but he just did not make much of an impression on me as a reader. I found that kind of sad because it made some of the weightier emotional punches that centered on him fall flat for me.

Where Egan really nailed everything was society’s response to the crisis, particularly the adaptations offered as solutions by different cultures from around the globe, such as the domes China proposes to install over their cities. The pure anxiety and immediacy of the problem filled every page. Watching the chaotic climate take shape was like pouring milk into a fresh mug of coffee, knowing that as it swirled it was impossible to separate the two again. Egan delivered it sparingly and from a distance, with reports and rumors from the news and other seafarers their oceanic fleet encountered. It all seemed plausible, with national borders simultaneously losing their shape and being touted as more important than ever before. Every aspect of life had to change, and plans shifted constantly to meet new problems. I liked most that Egan avoided falling on empty platitudes of sustainability through technology or sitting it out. Everyone was affected, and everyone had to work to survive.

I like aspects of Perihelion Summer but it did not hit me as hard as I expected. Part of it may be that I felt it was too short, and some of Egan’s ideas about adaptation only scratched the surface of my mind. Maybe I follow some of the climate stuff too closely, and this was just another warning shot. It might be more effective to those who are not so tuned into it. I hope that is the case, because there is a hell of lot of work to do, regardless of what the business world or the talking heads say. I believe Egan did not write this to be a blueprint, but to add his voice to the conversation that needs to be had now, instead of in ten years. We need more stories like this, from different voices, different backgrounds, and with different fears. And maybe that is why I did not connect with Matt- because his anxieties were mine, I already knew them inside and out. However, the concerns of my neighbors, my family, my coworkers, and of people across the world are not something I sit with every day. Maybe that is the next step- to reach out and talk about this before it gets worse because we are all in this together. We all bring different perspectives, skills, and strengths. It’s time that we used them.

Rating: Perihelion Summer – 7.0/10
– Alex

The Luminous Dead – Dark, Bleak And Lively

I have not engaged with a lot of horror on the written page. I enjoy watching horror movies, good or bad, and sometimes play survival-horror games, but I rarely read it. I have Edgar Allan Poe’s collected works and got turned onto Laird Barron by our resident horror reader Will, but beyond that, I am lost. I think my fear is that the kind of horror novel that would pull me in is harder to find on my own, and the effort I would have to expend feels like it would not have enough of a guaranteed payoff. I want to engage with someone’s psyche and see how they deteriorate under pressures of their own making. I want to feel them spin out of control with no options besides pushing forward, edging closer to their own insanity. So when I heard this book was reminiscent of The Descent, a horror movie I adore, I had to read it. Caitlin Starling, in her debut novel The Luminous Dead, explores the depths of a character’s mind through a haunting and unnerving sci-fi trip that focuses on personal relationships to increase the horror.

Gyre Price is willing to go to any length to escape the life she’s been given. Her mother abandoned her while she was young, and now all Gyre can think about is getting off the backwater mining planet she’s on and maybe find her mother. An opportunity opens up in the form of a cave diving position. Gyre leaps at the chance, sure of her ability to overcome the risks to receive the big paycheck at the end. As she is not a caver, she fakes her resume, surgically alters her digestive tract to conform with the diving suit’s needs and hopes that those hiring will not find out. With the amount of money on the line, Gyre is sure she will have a skilled support team, guiding her every step of the way. Instead, she is stuck with Em, a woman who is unwilling to compromise and will use whatever is at her disposal to make sure Gyre gets the job done, even if it means drugging her at a moment’s notice to make her sleep or force an adrenaline rush. But Gyre signed the contract, and the only way out is down.

The characters and the atmosphere are the shining stars in The Luminous Dead. Starling’s writing allows the reader to slip into Gyre’s head with ease. She also makes sure you stay there, unable to see the world outside of Gyre’s senses. While Gyre is rough around the edges, she is relatable in her need to escape her dreary circumstances. She has a nearly indomitable will that permeates through her every action. Her thoughts center very much on the task at hand, and she is not written to impress the reader. In a refreshing twist, Em is not the opposite of Gyre. She possesses a similar will but has issues with control. As Gyre learns more of Em’s history, the more she questions her intentions, feeding into her own instability which undermines Em’s need for control. Their tensions are only exacerbated by the fact that their communications are through radio, and to the reader’s knowledge, they have never met in person. This strained relationship weighs heavy on Gyre’s frail but stubborn psyche throughout the book, taking the reader to some dark places.

The horror is subtle and creeping. Starling paces the moments of dread well throughout the book, never quite showing her hand. She relays everything to the reader through Gyre, and it becomes impossible to really know what is happening. As Gyre starts to lose sleep, small nagging thoughts become larger, and what may have been slightly weird before now feels like a conspiracy. I kept waiting for Starling to pull back and show me what was really happening, but she never did. Gyre’s journey deeper into the planet is paralleled by the reader’s dive into her psyche. I never once felt that Gyre was overreacting to the environment or Em’s decisions. It was unnerving to consistently feel the need for Gyre to look over her shoulder, but frustratingly I couldn’t make her. Her suit is designed to completely encase her body, shielding her from the elements and hiding her from local fauna. But it also means she is completely reliant on supply capsules left by divers before her. This leads to another question for Gyre’s mind to play out: who was down here first? Where are they now? And so the vicious cycle of thoughts and lack of information continues.

To add to the tension, Starling made the interplay between resources and physical needs symbiotic in a way I had not seen written before. Missing or broken equipment reduced Gyre’s food and power supply, forcing her to move faster and take bigger risks. But by doing that she depleted her body’s and suit’s energy faster. She slept less, letting her mind wander in the darkness of the cave. As this cycle perpetuates itself, her drive becomes stronger while her mental acuity loses focus, and she becomes less mindful of her surroundings. As I have mentioned in other reviews, I love watching systems play themselves out. But to watch something like that happen on such a personal level was a treat and a terror. It made me root for Gyre, but also fear the reality that she might not make it.

I have barely mentioned Em, even though she is arguably close to half of the story. And as much as I want to talk about her, I think it’s better for the reader to discover her for themselves. But in lieu of that, Starling did write one of the more dynamic relationships I have read recently. The way Gyre questions Em, oscillates between liking her, hating her, finding herself attracted to her, and bounces to dozens of other emotions that made their way into Gyre’s head about Em. The sheer volume of thoughts and feelings was astonishing. How do you deal with someone who your life depends on, but they have gone out of their way to feel unattached to you? Can you forgive someone after they have manipulated your body against your will? Can a personal relationship blossom from a clearly contractual agreement of who is in charge? Watching these two women wade through these questions was probably the reason I read all the way through the book. After years of hardening oneself against the world, the horror of beginning to know someone else, and having them know you in turn, felt stronger than the psychological dread of being trapped underground.

The Luminous Dead is a welcome respite from the galaxy-ending science fiction I am used to. It is a deeply personal story that digs deep. It had its share of slow moments, and I felt I had to push myself through at some points, but Starling stayed true to her characters. They never felt off-base to me, which in this case became more important to my experience than how often I felt fear. There are plenty of metaphors littered throughout, as if Starling left several trails of breadcrumbs, asking the audience to dive deeper on their own. It is a purposefully disorienting read, forcing the reader to explore the darkness with Gyre, but it is worth the journey.

Rating: The Luminous Dead – 8.5/10

-Alex