The Relentless Moon is the third book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s series of prequels to her immensely successful novelette The Lady Astronaut of Mars, following on the heels of The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky. Kowal has described it as a parallel story in the Lady Astronaut alternate universe, taking place during the events that happen to Elma York on the Moon and on her way to Mars in the first two books (and on Mars in the novelette that started it all). The Relentless Moon was a finalist for the 2021 Hugo and Locus novel awards, and the series was also a finalist in the Hugo series category.
In this one we follow the adventures of another member of the Lady Astronaut corps, Nicole Wargin. She’s the spouse of the governor of Kansas, and she’s itching to get back to space. This book when it came over the transom was my entrée to Kowal’s series, which made for an interesting reading experience.
Picking up a story with the third book in a series reminds me of my early days of reading science fiction as a pre-teen and adolescent. In those pre-internet days you saw a book whose cover or title you liked or one by an author you’d read before, or maybe your dad brought home a sackful of stripcovers from the drugstore where he worked (which I can neither confirm nor deny), and you picked the book up and read it cold.
Let’s say I was confused for a while to be tossed into the first-person narrative in the voice of Nicole Wargin, who claimed to be a former military pilot and an astronaut, but she was parading around in heels and diamonds, and fielding a lot of archaic sexist banter at a dinner party hosted by her husband the governor of Missouri, who’s thinking about running for president. Then there was some talk about The Meteor, and the party gets interrupted by a riot …
So, in case you’re as in the dark as I was about the backstory of this backstory … it turns out in this alternate universe that Dewey did defeat Truman in 1948, and set about beefing up the space program much earlier than happens in our timeline. Which was fortunate, because a chunk of an asteroid came along in 1952 and wiped out much of the east coast of the United States, including most of the government and I presume the military as well. The U.S. Capital is now Kansas City.
One thing that’s the same in this alt universe is that they didn’t have mechanical computers in 1952, at least not portable ones. Now, if you’ve seen the movie Hidden Figures (and if you haven’t, you should) you’ll know that much of the advanced mathematics done in the early years of the space program was done by human “computers,” most of them women, including many Black women. In this tale, one of those women calculates that all the water vapor and debris kicked up by the Meteor is going to drastically and quickly make Earth’s climate unliveable, and the decision is made to move as much of humanity as possible to the Moon and Mars. Computers like Elma and those like Nicole who were in something called the WASPS during WWII are called on to be part of the astronaut corps that’s going to help get them there.
As Kowal says in a wonderful interview by Meghan Bartels at Space.com, “I just really wanted to … explore what would have happened if we had been trying to send people to space when we didn’t have mechanical computers, when the only way to send a computer into space was to send a woman.”
The action in The Relentless Moon starts with bad news and keeps getting worse. The background to much of it is a growing political opposition to the whole Moon and Mars settlement program. It’s led by an activist group calling itself Earth First, whose members are upset that so many resources are being expended on colonizing other planets, and less is being done to help those who will be left behind. Many people aren’t physically capable of space travel, and in any case there’s no way to take a few billion in the time that’s left before Earth becomes uninhabitable.
Nicole’s space career seems more or less done as the book opens. She’s 51 years old, getting arthritis in her feet, and her husband needs her if he’s going to run for president. Then a moon launch fails and she gets on the replacement crew. Things continue going wrong on her trip to the moon and after she arrives at Artemis base: more equipment failures, communication and electricity blackouts, and eventually an outbreak of polio. The book follows Nicole’s adventures as she and her companions try to figure out what’s an accident, what is sabotage, and how to keep the station running under those circumstances and with multiple personnel down with polio symptoms. Along the way we learn a few things we didn’t know about her own background and training … there’s more to Nicole Wargin than meets the eye.
I enjoyed reading The Relentless Moon, although I felt it was too long; it’s over 900 pages in the ebook version, 544 in print. However, once I got to the end, I discovered one of the best and most informative Acknowledgements I’ve ever read, and an additional fascinating section “On the History.” I recommend this book, particularly while there’s some summer weather left that you can spend on a beach or just under a shady tree somewhere with a cool drink.