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Rebel Moon by Bruce Bethke and Vox Day

Published by Pocket Books

At first glance it's tempting to see this book as little more than an effort to update the old Robert A. Heinlein classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in a more modern voice. After all, the original was written at the beginning of the Space Age, before the Apollo lunar landings, so it's not surprising that it's gathered a lot of Zeerust over the years. Some of it was simply stuff that wasn't known at the time -- when Heinlein was writing, long-duration spaceflight was measured in days, not the months some astronauts and cosmonauts have spent in orbit, and our knowledge of the Moon was still limited to telescopic observations and a few robot probes, not the wealth of information brought back by the Apollo moonwalkers. But a lot of it has been technological change -- space travel didn't advance nearly as quickly as he'd anticipated, but computer technology took off far faster than anybody imagined (largely as a result of the economies of scale resulting from the development of the integrated circuit and the photolithographic process), not to mention massive societal changes that have transformed gender relations and how we see ourselves as embodied sexual and gendered beings.

Of course the correspondence between the two novels is not nearly so one-to-one that anybody from the Heinlein estate could call copyright infringement on Rebel Moon, but both novels could be summarized with a single sentence: "Lunar colonies unite to revolt against the domination of Earth." There's even the element of the Moon being used as a place to grow cheap crops to feed the terrestrial masses, although in Rebel Moon it's being done by trained professional agronomists rather than the semiliterate and outright illiterate descendants of conscript laborers who form so much of the population of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, an element that seems so terribly Zeerusty now that we have a real appreciation for just how much technological savvy will have to go into maintaining a habitable environment on the Moon. One of the principal characters is a computer hacker (albeit a gamer more than a technician) and there's even a computer serving as their leading strategist, although General Consensus seems to be more of an expert system rather than a true AI like Mike.

The most immediately noticeable updating is in the naming conventions of lunar settlement. While Heinlein mostly used generic names such as Luna City or names derived from the physical geography of the Moon (the only obvious exception is Churchill Upper, which seems to be a play on Churchill Downs, a horse racetrack), the settlers of Rebel Moon have drawn upon the history of actual space exploration -- the principal lunar settlement and locus of most of the novel's action is Port Aldrin, clearly named for Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, while one of the cargo launchers is named for Roger B. Chaffee of the ill-fated Apollo 1, and another settlement that's never visited by a point-of-view character, only mentioned, is named for Wernher Von Braun.

However, as one reads more closely, one becomes increasingly aware of the structural differences, particularly in emphasis and focus. Although there were battles in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, very few of them were described in detail. This could hardly be ascribed to a lack of knowledge of things military on the part of the author -- Robert A. Heinlein was a graduate of the United States Naval Academy (an institution that has also produced numerous astronauts, including Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra, and Jim Lovell), and as such would have plenty of background in the history of warfare, even if he never personally went into battle. Part of it could be ascribed to the simple fact that The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is written in the first person and the narrator wasn't at most of the battles and thus can only describe them second hand, but a far greater reason is probably the simple fact that Heinlein does not seem to have wished to focus upon the action-adventure side of a lunar revolution, but rather on the social and political aspects of such a conflict. Even in Starship Troopers, his straight-up military science fiction novel, the emphasis was on the social and philosophical -- what is the meaning of citizenship? what is worth fighting for? -- rather than the details of combat.

By contrast, Rebel Moon is written in the third person, giving us the points of view of a wide variety of characters on both bodies of the Earth-Moon system and various military spacecraft, particularly the Schwarzkopf (clearly named for the American commander in Operation Desert Storm, which was still fresh in people's memories at the time this novel was written). And a lot of those point-of-view characters are members of the Lunar Defense Force or the UN Anti-Terrorism Task Force (so prescient, that focus on terrorism as the big bogeyman six years before the 9/11 attacks and the War on Terrorism), so of course we're going to see a lot of the fighting first-hand, with the result that we perceive it as the principal thrust of the book. Matters are decided on the battlefield, which on an airless world means urban warfare in very tight quarters rather than grand maneuvers on open fields.

But the biggest reason for the difference in tone and emphasis may well be the fact that Rebel Moon did not begin as a novel. Rather, the storyline had its origin as a computer game -- which would also help to explain why one of the most important characters should be a computer gamer as much as he is a hacker. By making Dalton Starkiller a gamer, the authors have a ready point of identification for a reader who may well have come to the novel from the game. That "here's someone like me" moment of recognition can go a long way in getting a reader to like a protagonist and become invested in his or her successes as the storyline continues.

Unfortunately, the origins of Rebel Moon in a game may also help to explain some of the major structural problems with the storyline. It is heavily episodic, and often characters suddenly appear in later chapters who were only lightly foreshadowed, if at all (for instance, the Japanese fighter Yuji Nakagawa, who appears in two brief chapters to fight and die in the disastrous battle at Lacus Mortis, the very appropriately named Lake of Death). Worst of all is the sudden appearance of the aliens, the Estrons, at the very end of the novel. There's a vague mention near the beginning of something afoot on Farside, but it can be counted as a foreshadowing only by someone who's absolutely determined to rules-lawyer.

Some of this is simply the difference in the expected structure of a novel vs. a computer game. In a novel, it is generally expected that the author will introduce all significant characters and plot elements by the first quarter of the book, even if only by some form of foreshadowing, and at that point "close the door" to all new developments. By contrast, one of the important draws of a video game is the process of "powering up," gaining new powers, weapons and even playable characters as one goes up in levels. Many of these will be presented as complete surprises to the first-time player, and ideally the further one progresses in gameplay, the bigger and more powerful these new goodies should be compared to what one already has access to. A gamer needs tangible rewards to keep pushing onward.

But the issue of when the author should properly be expected to "close the door," and introduce no new material is actually a relatively minor part of the problem with the appearance of the Estrons. Instead, the most critical problem in my mind is the way in which it intrudes on what had previously been an entirely human social, political and military problem. Yes, it does explain how the lunar rebels gained access to MANTA, their teleport technology (although given that the domed colonies seem to have some form of artificial gravity that's not a secret from the UN, it would've been equally plausible in my mind at least if the MANTA system had been a secret spinoff from that, especially since both gravity control and teleportation would probably have to involve advanced applications of quantum mechanics), but other than that, the Estrons are really an adventitous intrusion on a human story.

By contrast, Heinlein never once mentioned the existence of intelligent Martians in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, in spite of the novel clearly taking place in the same universe as his previously published juvenile novel The Rolling Stones. And the latter is a novel in which we glimpse the Martians that were such important characters in Red Planet, another of the early Heinlein juveniles. In fact, one could even make a good argument that those Martians are the same species who taught Michael Valentine Smith to grok in Stranger in a Strange Land. So why is the only acknowledgment of the existence of indigenous Martians the comment at the very end that people who find the Moon too settled are heading out to the Asteroid Belt -- which the alert will recognize as saying that Mars belongs to its own people, and they are strong enough to prevent humanity from treating them as the native peoples of the Americas and Australia got treated in our own history? Very simply, the Martians and their relations with humanity are not relevant to the story Heinlein wants to tell in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, so he keeps a laser-focus on human matters.

So while Rebel Moon may cover much of the same territory as The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, it really shouldn't be considered that much of an attempt to retell that novel in an updated form, even if the name of one family (von Hayek) is a nod to a major Libertarian economic theorist. Rather it's an action-adventure game novelization that happens to share the same basic plot premise. And unfortunately in the decade and a half since it was written, it's accumulated some Zeerust of its own, as the American space program has continued to stagnate. In 1995 it was possible for an optimistic thinker to actually believe that we'd get our act together and return to the Moon to establish a permanent base, and by the centennial of Apollo 11 we could actually have a substantial population there. Now, with the Space Shuttles retired and replacements for them deadlocked due to endless squabbling over financing, and the Ares launcher which was supposed to enable the triumphant return to the Moon by 2020 canceled, it really doesn't look too good for the future of space technology. Unfortunately, it seems far more believable that by 2069 space travel will be a distant memory as resource exhaustion sends an irrevokably earthbound humanity into a devolutionary spiral that will end with the survivors squabbling over crumbs in the ruins, and then an endless succession of civilizations in which a tiny skin of elite lords it over a mass of brutally poor peasants.

Not a future I want for myself or my family.

Review posted December 10, 2011.

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