The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the third book in the Lady Astronaut series, which proposes an alternate history of the 20th century: a meteor strikes the East Coast of the US in 1952, wiping out Washington DC and many other cities and setting the planet down a path to an extinction level event. In response, the world comes together to send humans to the Moon and Mars decades before it happens in our reality, in preparation for getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable. Echoing the "Mercury Thirteen," women who met the same qualifications as male astronauts in our timeline but weren't allowed into space, Kowal's series focuses on the Lady Astronauts. Elma York was the protagonist of the first two books in the series, The Calculating Stars (which won the 2019 Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel) and The Fated Sky, the story of this universe's First Mars Expedition. In this third volume, running concurrently with the events of Sky, Nicole Wargin, her friend and fellow astronette, steps front and center.
One of the highlights of this book is the protagonist: Nicole is over fifty, with a mature, stable marriage (the latter being a running theme throughout this series). She is a pilot and an astronaut, and as we learn from this narrative, she served as a spy during World War II, getting her training at a "Swiss finishing school." This comes in very handy to solve the central mystery of this book, namely who is trying to sabotage the Moon colony. In the series, Earth First terrorists resent the money being thrown into the space program (never mind that the IAC, this series' equivalent of NASA, is trying to get as many people as possible off Earth before the planet heats up and the oceans boil away), and their attempts to slow it down or throw it off track altogether become more and more violent. This comes to a head in a shocking plot twist in this book.
This story is over 500 pages, and a lot of that is due to the level of technical detail needed to depict a 60's-era space program. I cannot imagine the amount of research that went into this. Even at that, this alt-universe's technology is based on but still comparatively more advanced than the technology in our timeline, which makes me wonder how in the hell our astronauts made it to the Moon at all. Mary Robinette Kowal's Moon is eerie and beautiful, but it can still kill you in a heartbeat (see chapters 14 and 15, the nail-biting narrative of a Moon landing rocket crash, for a prime example).
This would seem to result in a book that is all specs and no heart, but the author's characterizations are on a par with her technical prowess. The protagonist is a prime example of this: Nicole is a complex character struggling with her role as a politician's wife--during the course of this book, her husband announces a run for President--and a history of anorexia nervosa. This is depicted straightforwardly and manner-of-factly, as something she will have to cope with for the rest of her life.
This book, due to the events of the plot, is the darkest of the three, so far. I didn't get such an immediate surge of sensawunda from this one--it's a story that takes its time for its twists and turns to unfold, and one you have to think about longer than the first two--but it's a story, and characters, that will stick with you for just as long.
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