– By J.W. Fox –
John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other is very much a work of social science fiction, with all the pros and cons that go with that label. At times it is reminiscent of Heinlein, with characters having influential roles in Lunar politics, giving speeches, and lecturing one another on political ideology. However, Kessel does not share much of Heinlein’s ideology and spends much more time developing his characters. The final product is a story with depth and a contemporary topic: gender inequality.
The novel centers around the Society of the Cousins, a matriarchal society that limits men’s rights. Their parental and voting rights are severely restricted or nonexistent. A growing reform movement within the Society desires to change these oppressive policies. Mira is a reformer and loner who uses video graffiti to express reformist views. Alongside her is Carey, a star athlete and heart throb that is held up as the ideal example of all that is male. He enjoys all the pleasures of celebrity while being a part-time subversive on the side. Then there is Erno, a former member of the matriarchal society, exiled and now living as an indigent. These three and a host of other characters play pivotal roles in the debate that has the Society in turmoil and neighboring Lunar cities contemplating intervention.
Great care was taken in crafting the Society down to the minute details of their cultural norms as well as the construction of their domed habitat. The world-building is very broad, including both hard technologies and softer sciences like sociology, anthropology, and political science. The setting is both impressive and persuasive in its design, exceeding many other novels in the breadth of knowledge needed to build it.
While strong world-building is usually a virtue, it requires a lot of exposition. It is a lot for the reader to absorb and unfortunately makes the first 80-100 pages very difficult. There are dozens of named people, places, and things thrown at the reader. It added to the page count as well. The more I understood the world, the easier it became to read and the novel flowed much better, but it takes some time.
The Society of Cousins is a reversal of the patriarchal western societies of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The political, religious, and cultural leadership are almost exclusively women. While unequal, the Society is not abusive towards its lesser sex, recognizing certain basic human rights as a minimum. Men are given plenty of freedom in their personal lives, and younger citizens are encouraged to explore their sexuality giving an outlet for their hormonal surges. This is done to mitigate the elements of masculinity that the Society sees as the cause of violence and social upheaval.
Given minimal responsibility and a permissive attitude towards sex, the majority of men accept their inferior role. Some thrive, finding ways to make contributions to the Society. Some join the reform movement hoping to gain equal rights, in particular men’s suffrage. The other Lunar cities welcome reform, since most give full or greater rights to men in their own societies. They see the political activism surrounding the issue as a pretext to intervene in Society affairs. Naturally, the Society responds by limiting interaction and trade to avoid foreign meddling.
It was a little surprising to see a plot that tends to support the respect of national sovereignty over human rights. It may be an indirect criticism of Bush’s interventionist foreign policy suggesting reform is more effective and virtuous when it comes from within. Unfortunately, the reform movement failed in their efforts to change the Society. At the same time, the conservative faction within the society is not depicted as villainous. There is almost an inherent credibility given to their position, despite the blatant injustice of their ways. It is suggested that the other Lunar cities are gender equal as a legal matter although perhaps not culturally. It is only the Society of Cousins that has explicit gender inequality as a matter of law and culture. As such, there is no comparison. The Society resembles a utopia in some chapters but is a dystopia.
Despite the obvious political differences, there were notable similarities between the Society and its Lunar neighbors like Persepolis. One simply chose one set of genitals over the other. There are hierarchies built on socioeconomic status in both, and notable income inequality. In addition, sexual promiscuity is common in both. Amestris, a citizen of Persepolis, has one meaningless sexual encounter after another and maintains her youthful beauty and health through enhancements. Her sex life and the sex lives of the other characters, like Mira and Carey, is carefully described and laid before the readers. It is as if the whole moon has adopted a hookup culture then tried to place some nominal values to try and give some structure.
Although the political controversy is at the center, the novel spends a great deal of time on the personal lives of each character. Mira is an anonymous activist known as Looker, a sort of Banksy of the Moon. She likes expressing herself but prefers being left out of the spotlight due to her introverted nature. Her mentor, Hypatia, encourages her to become more active and visible but she resists. Her relationship with Carey is casual, with both rejecting the idea it could be something more. She likes being alone and he can have any woman he wants. His life changes when he realizes he wants more, not from Mira but from the Society. He wants custody of his son Val. In the Society, children are always raised by mothers, aunts, etc. with the father possessing limited parental rights.
The other key relationship in the novel is not casual but is equally unromantic. Erno is poor and directionless in the beginning but Amestris sees something in him, a chance to piss off Daddy. She proposes they marry and start a business using his skills as a bioengineer and her extensive list of contacts in Persepolis. She has her specialist, he doesn’t have to live on the street. It is a marriage built on mutual interest not love, similar to Mira and Carey, they slowly realize they have genuine romantic feelings for one another.
With such casual attitudes towards sex, the characters seem to struggle recognize love. When they come to realize their feelings, they are reluctant to share them in fear of freaking out their partner. This premise has shown up in romantic comedies such as No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits. It is an interesting change from the previously popular “boy finds way to win over his dream girl” premise of older romantic comedies and coming-of-age movies.
A number of personal conflicts and family drama are depicted, as well as am espionage subplot that has nothing to do with sex. These other plots gradually displace the discourse on gender, eventually usurping it outright. For a novel that has a social justice cause at its center to deviate so dramatically was jarring and took away from the final two acts. It felt as if some of the events early in the novel were of no consequence in the end.
The characters of The Moon and the Other are crafted with the same care and detail as the world around them, something that isn’t that common in science fiction. Their struggles and insightful internal monologues were compelling, giving some very distinct and varying points of view. It is unfortunate that the personal dramas and gender inequality theme were sidelined in the end. Overall, there is a lot to like in this book and it was well-worth picking up. I would recommend it for those who love social science fiction and are prepared to soldier through some difficult parts.
J.W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientcifi.com and author of two novels: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls under the pen name Jacob Foxx. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works for a small biotech company in Raleigh, North Carolina.