Saturday, 16 February 2019

Two Moon Mysteries

Recently, I've been on something of a science fiction kick in my reading. Over the last two months I have had the absolute pleasure to read, among other books, the excellent Gunpowder Moon, by David Pedreira, and Red Moon by the modern futurist himself, Kim Stanley Robinson. Both are (obviously) set on the moon, and have competing images of Lunar life in the mid to late 21st century, and interestingly, each was released in 2018. However, both are linked by one of the oldest crimes known to man, murder.

Both stories begin with such a premise, whether it is a murder at an American Helium-3 mining base, or murder on a Chinese owned Lunar community, we have to try and figure out who is behind it. In between are a cast of feckless characters sucked into a power struggle beyond their pay grade. The poor souls.

Each book tries for relatively 'hard sci-fi' playing as close to our understanding of the realities and problems in working and colonizing the moon. In each work we can see some of the big differences in how the author approaches the various problems of Lunar-politics, industry, and resolving murder. A general review of each book follows.

Gunpowder Moon is set in 2072, as we see the dueling claims of Helium-3 mining on the Lunar surface heating up. The Earth is facing an energy crisis in the aftermath of a massive ecological disaster called the Thermal Maximum which caused famine, dislocation, and rampant resource wars as Earth is plunged into a climate changed world rather violently. The world is saved by breakthroughs in nuclear fusion tech, which requires enormous amounts of Helium-3 to make work. The United States, Russia, China, and Brazil, are all staking their claims and keeping one another mostly in check.

The story is told through the eyes of station commander and former Marine Caden Dechert. Escaping from the bloody memories of fighting in the Beqaa Valley, Dechert has come to the Moon for a fresh start. When a hotshot member of his own team is killed in mysterious circumstances, he has to grapple with the fact that everything he fought to escape from on Earth, might just be catching up with him on Luna.

Part mystery novel and part sci-fi thriller, it follows rising tensions between the US and China and the paranoia and mystery of just how someone would set up a murder on such a contained and controlled environment as the moon.

Dechert is helped in his search by his own crew, the most colorful of whom is the genius engineer Jonathan Quarles. An engineering and computer genius, he is invaluable to the station, which is how he gets away with growing hash in the hydroponics garden. His somewhat harmless attentions are often flung upon Dechert's second in command and only female member of the crew Lane Briggs. A no nonsense woman who knows she has to work twice as hard and be twice as serious to be respected or taken seriously by her companions and teammates in the mostly male field of Lunar mining. Secondary characters, from the fellow diggers to the government wet nurse and Marine officer who are introduced supply secondary stories to the plot. Dechert's Chinese counterpart commanding the Chinese stations is an invaluable yet only partially seen character.

The tensions between the rising power of China and the fading power of the US are what drives the story. It is as much a story about nations as it is about the one lone outpost on Luna. From the first murder, to the rising and chillingly well illustrated power grabs by the rival nations it ratchets up to a fast moving conclusion which will leave readers satisfied.

Pedreira goes into the realism quite well. From explaining the intricacies of the hypothetical Helium-3 mining to the difficulties of keeping out the fine Lunar dust and regolith from the crew's living quarters, to justifying the military build up on the moon. It all flows naturally and creates a sense of wonder even in an ostensibly dead rock which we all see on a near daily basis.

In fact, the sheer harshness and sameness of this Lunar landscape plays a significant background in the plot and understanding how the mystery unfolds. It's quite satisfying to see how our knowledge of how the moon works is incorporated. How can the killer leave no tracks from walking on the Lunar surface? How does someone sabotage something in a station which depends on keeping things closely monitored so the miners can live? Pedreira goes to great lengths to keep this consistent, and it works.

I think the only thing that bothered me was that the characters all felt a little flat. I never got a genuine sense of Dechert's implied PTSD, or really understood early on why he had fled to the Moon. Some things are well spelled out over the course of the novel, but we have too much time in Dechert's head with a bevy of unsatisfying thoughts. The only standout character was the engineer Quarles, whose class clown attitude and unusual habits set him apart from the group. The runner up was the government wet nurse who was sent to keep an eye on the situation, since his fish out of water character made for both a natural form of exposition and kept things at least fresh and engaging while keeping us up to date on all the goings on in the wider world.

Overall though, if you want a good sci-fi thriller with mystery and genuine suspense, the book is a good read. I heartily recommend it to anyone who likes either genre. You won't walk away

On the flip side we have Red Moon by the modern master of science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson. Set in the not-so-distant future of 2047, it plays out against another backdrop of international intrigue. Once again, China is the undisputed growing power in the world, and the US isn't far behind. In fact, people often only talk about the G2, meaning only the United States and China have economies that matter.

Interestingly, the novel is setting itself up to predict some future history on at least a slightly more plausible scale. In 2047 Hong Kong will see the end of the one country, two systems, agreement which has been in place since 1997 when Hong Kong was formally handed over from the UK. The outcome of that has yet to be specified by either party, and what could happen remains a mystery. Here, that sets the background the the election of the next President of China and a shake up in the Party Congress, as an unpopular leader is stepping down and many are jostling for power. Amid all this, the large migrant worker underclass in China is clamoring for change and representation.

Enter Fred Fredericks and Ta Shu, both travelers to China's expansive Lunar community on the South Pole. Ta Shu, a popular poet and host of a cloud travel show, meets the awkward American working for a quantum communications company from Switzerland. The two bond over breakfast before Fredericks is sent to meet the Lunar governor. While there, the governor is assassinated by a clever ploy involving poison, and Fredericks, the man who shook his hand, is implicated.

Secret Service agent Valerie Tong is sent to try and extradite him, helped by the poet. Finally freed, a new problem is thrown at them as daughter of one of China's 'big tiger's' Chan Qi is to be extracted from the Moon along with him. Unfortunately for both, they have become pawns in a much larger game of politics and revolution which is unfolding around them.

Thus begins a series of chases, hiding, and escapes which will culminate once again on the Lunar surface in a race against the clock, not only because of potential revolution in China, but from the fact Qi is pregnant and getting worryingly close to her due date.

The story is a fascinating exploration of a potential future. Interestingly, it chooses to make its focus on China, Chinese problems and politics. Shown as a rising power with the fate of the Solar System potentially resting in its palms, the Party still rules with an iron fist hidden by the velvet glove of the Social Credit System and the Great Firewall, backed up by the expansive security system of the (so far) fictional Great Eyeball, watching the whole nation. These 'soft' methods of authoritarian rule are explored, analyzed, and critiqued, all while trying to navigate the byzantine nature of Party politics.

But it is also an interesting examination of the Chinese system, and what it might birth in the future. I found these parts of the novel enjoyable, and Ta Shu's reflections on his society and its triumphs and flaws are all fascinating reading. Even the brief glimpses into the future of China offered by Fred and Qi's flight from various factions make for interesting reading.

Sadly, the story meanders much from the beginning. Though not a bad premise, the mystery is dropped for a distressingly long time as we spend perhaps too much time inside the head of the socially awkward Fred Fredericks, and are forced into long interactions of their escapes and time in hiding, which is just as boring as it sounds. Despite some interesting scenes, and attempts to explain quantum computing these moments tend to drag. Poor Valerie is largely cast out of the story until near the end! There are also interludes with an unnamed Analyst and his pet project AI, which makes for one of the few genuinely enjoyable reads about an AI I have had in a while, and these add to the story quite nicely too. Though all these plot points seem as though the author is taking too much on.

While the final act from the novel is action packed, and leads to a few fun conclusions, I have to say it still fell a little flat with me. There's little resolution, as such, and many of the tantalizing hints given by the novel are dropped by the wayside in our protagonists final escape. While we do learn whodunnit in the end, and it is neatly wrapped up, dropping that plot point was frustrating and I felt there could have been a more solid conclusion, including more explanation of the oft referenced idea of blockchain governance. While it all sort of comes together, it never really meshes well.

If you like Robinson's work, I would recommend it, but novices in sci-fi might want to steer clear until they've read more of him.

Put together, these two novels represent a microcosm of the slow returning interest humanity has in going back to the moon, and a fun side by side comparison of its possible futures.

This adds to the interesting trend in the last year I've noticed in mankind returning to the Moon. Colonizing the Solar System, and finding a good reason for Lunar economics, has been a source of interest to laymen, NASA and other space agency scientists and billionaires from Jeff Bezos to Elon Musk, which is understandably filtering into our fiction.

These disparate views of the Lunar future, tied together by death, are each interesting in their own ways. Futurism and sci-fi have always interested me, and I think it is fun exploring what the stars have to offer in fiction form. I can only hope that we can see even some of the details read here realized among the stars.

For now though, let us hope that we don't have to worry about space murder or space pregnancies for a good long while!

Monday, 11 February 2019

Kingdom (2019 Netflix)

If you think that media has run out of ways to give us fun zombie stories, whoo boy are you wrong! If Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead had a baby, well it would look surprisingly less Caucasian than you think. I give you the period drama/zombie series Kingdom from Netflix!

This isn't actually the first zombie piece to make its way from Korea. That distinction in popular culture belongs to 2016's Train to Busan which premiered the South Korean zombie genre to Western audiences. Notable for lacking much of the intense gore that zombie films in the West would know, it focuses more on terror and the stress of always being on the run. Kingdom is a similar fair, but with a twist.

Set in the Joseon period, shortly after the the Japanese invasions of the 1590s, setting the story sometime in early 1600. We find the realm is in chaos. The king is deathly ill with smallpox, and his realm is run by his Chief Minister, Cho Hak-jo whose daughter is the young queen of the realm and is expecting a child. The chief ministers clan is unpopular, and events are kicked off by a series of notices proclaiming the king is really dead and Crown Prince Yi Chang should be elevated to the throne. Meanwhile, at a medical clinic at Jiyulheon, nurse Seo-bi is attempting to care for the multitude of sick and hurt while her master is away, and the political fall out of the capital effects her and the struggling populace.

The machinations of the Prince and Chief Minister culminate in the Prince fleeing the capital seeking out Seo-bi's master who was treating his father. Sadly, the master has intimate knowledge of the disease and the unsettling fact it brings people back from the dead. It also gives them a craving for human flesh, which Seo-bi finds out to her horror as the infection arrives at Jiyulheon.

From there the story takes a number of dramatic twists and turns, which will leave you both stressed and excited. The tension between the political drama and the encroaching zombie outbreak is well played, and compliments each story arc well. It also sends a brutal message about the ruling dynasty and elites compared to the poor peasants who begin to take the brunt of the zombie attacks. The aloof elites and haughty disbelievers think they can use the outbreak to their advantage, while the normal people are struggling to survive even day to day after a decade of war and high taxes. The zombies only make it worse.

Taking us away from the modern zombie outbreaks, you get a real sense of terror as you see people armed with only hand tools, swords, spears and bows and arrows struggling to cope with the zombie infestation. Every dead person adds to the ranks of the undead, and with only rudimentary firearms, its an uphill battle to contain the dead. Ratcheting up the tension as its always going to be hard to go for the brain perfectly when all you have is a pointy stick.

Aptly advertised by Joe Abercrombie on Twitter

It sums up the appeal of the show quite well.

The producers have gone all out to create an authentic feeling medieval Korean set and showpiece, with loving detail put into the costumes, sets, and characters. This, I think, adds to the power of the story by pulling us out of the usual modern setting and plunging us back centuries to when the world was less interconnected and familiar, but no less susceptible to the shuffling hordes of the undead.

That the characters are compelling and three dimensional also adds to it. The human element is more engaging, and feels less forced than anything you see on The Walking Dead, while giving deeper scope than regular zombie movies like Dawn of the Dead. The machinations of the politicians and lords add an extra layer of danger to the series. Ruthless politicians use the outbreak to try and contain their rivals while the Prince himself isn't above politicking and using people, and even those close to him might be giving him away in exchange for a price. You'll just fall in love with these characters and the stories they tell.

As historical fiction, with a zombie twist, it is superb. Definitely put this one on your to watch list!