As the biggest and brightest object in Earth’s night sky, the Moon always exerted a magnetic pull on our imagination, even when we were mere primitives unable to articulate that feeling and simply awed by its sight. I’ve often wondered what the speed of evolution for our exploration of space would have been without the presence of that big, mysterious orb in our skies…
As the Moon was the target for the first steps moved by mankind on another planetary object, so it was for many works of speculative fiction, and even now that we have touched down on it, explored portions of it and brought back samples of its rocky soil, the magic has not worn out, so that the appearance of a novel based on the Moon still fuels that inexplicable thrill that we must have inherited from our ancestors.
Gunpowder Moon is the latest work of fiction I’ve come across whose story is based on the Moon, and of course I’ve wanted to read it since first I heard of it, its main attraction the feeling of still-unexplored frontier that came across from the synopsis: toward the end of the 21st Century, mankind has established several bases on our satellite, most of them dedicated to the mining of Helium-3, employed in fusion reactors to obtain clean power. A few decades before, an event called the Thermal Max caused massive environmental upheavals all over Earth, bringing humankind close to extinction, so that the effort of rebuilding a better planet united the survivors in a previously unknown way – hence the colonization of the Moon by all the major Earth powers, allied in the goal of moving back from the brink of annihilation and toward a better future. Unfortunately, humans cannot listen too long to their better angels, and once the emergency is past and forgotten, they revert back to their old ways…
Caden Dechert, the main character, is a former soldier who chose to move to the Moon to find a new start, away from the conflicts and turmoils of Earth: he’s now in charge of one of the American Helium-3 mining stations, set in the Sea of Serenity. The outposts’ routine is overturned when what looks like a tragic accident ends the life of one of the miners, and shortly after it becomes clear it was no accident but an act of deliberate sabotage. The first evidence seems to point to the Chinese, their first competitors in the He-3 mining, and the situation quickly escalates toward a prelude to war. Not convinced about the clues he was presented, and placing his trust more on the attitude of people living on an inhospitable world than on political posturing, Dechert tries to be the voice of reason, but with little avail, so that it becomes imperative for him to get at the bottom of things and defuse the lethal deflagration that threatens to bring Earth’s old madness to his new home.
Gunpowder Moon successfully blends science fiction with politics and a murder mystery, creating a story that is quick-paced and immersive, while at the same time keeping the social and political background fairly close to our present, so that we can still recognize much of ourselves in the people depicted there. It’s also an interesting psychological study about people living in close quarters and in a sealed environment, giving us a quick glimpse of what might be the conditions of a Lunar or Martian outpost not so many years from now, and about the kind of adaptations we humans must accept if we want to leave our home planet to colonize other worlds.
Yet, all the above, as interesting as it is, did not draw my attention as much as the… mechanics (for want of a better word) involved in living in an airless, hostile environment: I found this kind of information quite fascinating, and in the end it even took over the story itself, as if the characters’ journey were a mere background for the true protagonist, the Moon itself, which in the end overshadows the humans dwelling on it.
One of the first details we become aware of trough this story is the pervasiveness of the dust, whose gunpowder-like smell (hence the title) permeates everything, despite the accurate filtration systems. Dust is indeed the enemy: it can clog filters, worm its way into equipment and impair its functions, sometimes with deadly results. Dust can kill you. And where dust does not reach, there are always other dangers, like radiation, solar flares, or just plain human distraction: because, as the author reminds us, the Moon is not a place that offers second chances.
The part where this novel really shines is in the descriptions of the stark lunar landscape, a colorless world of black and white and gray that still possesses a kind of beauty almost impossible to put into words, but that can still capture one’s soul with its siren song. And if the characters are not delved into too deeply, if they sometimes appear like well-known templates – the disillusioned former soldier, the tech wizard, the short-sighted bureaucrat, and so on – this does not detract from the enjoyment of the novel, because the real character, the Moon, is depicted in all its magnificent, deadly mystery. And it’s enough.