Piece by piece and brick by brick. Spare, simple, elegant when he needs to be (an entire landscape taken in at a glance), deep and meaty when he wants to be (extended riffs and spooling digressions on jazz, lunar architecture, virtual sex, knives), he does his work like an artisan pulling a sculpture from stone. There are no wasted moves, nothing that isn't vital because, in the end, everything is vital. Everything matters.
In Luna: New Moon he gave us what the title promised twice: The moon. A future moon, colonized decades ago by five powerful corporate families — one each from Australia, China, Brazil, Russia and Ghana — and run like a delicate business partnership. Rare earth metals and helium were the prizes that the moon offered. That, and an extreme libertarian experiment in vested anarchy. The moon has no government. Its laws are negotiable (particularly among those with enough money, enough power or enough lawyers) but also unbreakable.
The five families kept an edgy détente for years. For the sake of stable markets and profits. And this held right up until the moment it didn't. War came to the moon. Blood (lots of blood) watered the regolith. And one of those families — the Brazilian Cortas — were wiped from the map. Removed from the game board completely.
Well, almost completely.
McDonald's new novel, Luna: Wolf Moon, picks up in the wrack and panic of the power vacuum left by New Moon's ending, and serves, mostly, as a 400-page explanation of just how nature feels about vacuums.
The background, as neatly summed up in a small history lesson given by Lady Sun, matriarch of the Chinese clan:
Learn history, boy: the Outer Space Treaty bars Earth's national governments from claiming and controlling the moon — this is why we are administered by a corporation, not a political party. The terrestrial states have always envied our freedom, our wealth, our achievements. What they fear is someone else taking the moon, so they watch each other. Jealousy has kept us safe for fifty years.
And that's the nut of things. There is Earth — messy, squabbling nation-states involved in a constant scarcity war, jealously eyeing the moon above them. And there is the moon — hard, unforgiving, free, but brutal and ruled by powerful family dynasties untouchable by the greedy fingers of terrestrial politics. Where a lesser writer would've used this frame and built it into some kind of Johnny Spaceman PewPewPew lasers-and-spaceships shoot-em-up, McDonald doesn't. Where a more self-involved writer would've made it into a treatise on whatever — a black and white conflict between the new humans bootstrapping it on the harsh face of a Robert Heinlein paradise and the fat, lazy, old-fashioned earthmen mustache-twirling in the shadows — McDonald doesn't. Instead, he writes about werewolves.
Okay, not werewolf werewolves, but a family unit of bipolar moon men (and women) who use the werewolf mythos and the phases of the earth to manage and utilize their alternative brain chemistry. He writes about future sex and doing parkour under lunar gravity. He uses the history of jazz as an armature on which to hang the science-heavy recovery narrative of one surviving Corta who needs to go down to earth (nearly impossible for anyone who has spent more than two years on the moon) to conduct some revenge business.
And it is fascinating, all of it. Because McDonald has made a world that is ruthless in its consistency and living, breathing reality, and then made characters who are not just living in it, but wholly and fully of it. He dumps the entire notion of a reader surrogate — a character just as bewildered by all the street names and family histories as you are — and simply presents the world as seen by those who exist in it every day.
And then, of course, lots of things blow up. There is a war on, after all. It isn't all space werewolves and discussions of gravitational medicine. McDonald's corporate war is a gorgeous thing, fought with every tool available. Malicious computer code is as deadly here as a fast knife in a dark alley or a pitched, silent bulldozer fight on the Sea of Tranquility. But with his myriad POV characters (Wolf Moon requires both a glossary and a list of dramatis personae) and seemingly effortless understanding of his world, McDonald is able to wrap the biggest events in constellations of the smallest so that a cocktail party here, a discussion of '80s retro fashion (all mall-hair and WHAM! T-shirts), a love story and a day at work for a guy who cleans solar panels all build and coalesce to form the background radiation of life in this unstable future. Every moment with his characters makes them precious, real and alive.
Which just makes it all the more gutting when you see the dwindling page count and know that not all of them (or even most of them) are going to make it through to the last page alive.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, videogames, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic atPhiladelphiamagazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.