I wrote this review sometime last year, but so far as I am able to tell it was never published. So I’ve decided to put it here:
We begin with the title. John Kessel has already written several stories featuring the matriarchal Society of Cousins on the moon, one of which, “Stories for Men”, went on to win the James Tiptree Award. That story took its title from a book that played a significant part within the story. It is perhaps no coincidence, therefore, that this novel-length work in the same setting (though some years later) also takes its title from a book featured within the story.
In this instance, the book within a book is something that was written after a mysterious youthful episode by one of the novel’s central characters. That book was called Lune et l’autre, and Kessel’s title here is a literal translation. But in the original French, Lune et l’autre is a pun, L’une et l’autre, which we might colloquially render as “one or the other”. In English, the pun is lost, but the spirit of the pun, the issue of choice that it represents, informs the whole book.
(Parenthetically, it is also worth noting that Lune et l’autre was the title given to a French collection of Kessel’s four previous stories of the Society of Cousins, so the repurposing of that title here has yet more layers to it: homage, wordplay, not to mention a nightmare for future bibliographers.)
But let us consider more carefully what the title tells us about this book. The moon, yes, has been a familiar setting for science fiction since the days of Johannes Kepler and Francis Godwin, but for practically all of that time the moon we have seen has been a single place, a unified polity; if there is a moonbase, a lunar society, then it is all under one central government. But of late, where we see the moon presented declaratively in a title, in Ian McDonald’s Luna, for example, the moon is far from unified. And that is also the case here. Aside from the Society of Cousins, at least half a dozen other independent, self-governing communities on the moon are mentioned. And though there is an over-arching Organization of Lunar States, these polities are far from unified in their background, beliefs or governance. The moon here in the title, as in McDonald’s diptych, signifies a place of division rather than unity.
If the moon provides the setting, however, it is the second element in the title that provides the plot. Because throughout the novel we are confronted with different understandings of what the other might be. In the quietus of the novel’s coda, the one and the other are seen to come together in a marriage, but that is a rare show of understanding and commonality in a novel in which the one and the other are perpetually at odds with each other. Indeed, one of the issues that confronts the reader is deciding what, in this context, the other might be. The other is, of course, the outsider, the rival, the threat, the one who is not like us, and the novel is crowded with contenders for that role. Indeed, one of the things that the novel insists upon is that everyone is the other to someone.
Thus, on one level, the Society of Cousins is the other. The Society started in California as a utopian movement, but has now been established on the moon for many decades. It is a society in which women, specifically a Council of Matrons, rule, while men are denied the vote. Sex is liberally available and men are valued members of society, they just have no say in its governance. But this social structure is anathema to the other lunar states, where men are in the ascendant, and which are dismissed by the Cousins as the patriarchy. So, to the other communities on the moon the Society of Cousins is looked on as the other, a curiosity, a disturbance in the status quo, perhaps a threat. The other states are not exactly uniform; the one we see most of, for instance, Persepolis, is a liberal Islamic democracy modelled on pre-Revolutionary Iran, but that religious strain is not found elsewhere. Nevertheless, these states are united in their dis-ease in the face of institutionalized female rule, and so one of the novel’s plot strands involves the establishment of a commission by the Organization of Lunar States ostensibly to examine the position of men in the Society of Cousins, really to provide an excuse for the OLS to take over the Society, and secretively to act as a cover under which enemies of the Cousins might smuggle in the means to launch an attack.
All of which might provide the most dramatic moments in the novel, but it is hardly the most important plot element. The Society of Cousins is, inevitably, far less utopian than it might have set out to be. It may be more peaceful than other states, but not by much, and at a cost of resentments and dissension that are now coming to the surface, and incidentally playing into the hands of the OLS. For instance, the distrust that the Cousins feel for everyone outside their literal bubble (the Society of Cousins is established within a dome, unlike some of the other lunar communities which are established underground) leads at one point to them removing every scientific paper published within the Society from all public channels, which in turn fuels the OLS suspicion that the Cousins have developed a secret weapon. There are reform movements that are becoming ever more radical in their rhetoric, causing the Matrons to become more determinedly conservative, while an extremist Spartacist movement is turning towards sabotage. The cross-currents of these political tensions produce a variety of others. The reformers demanding votes for men are largely women, who thus put themselves at odds with their own society. Men are automatically others within this society, but en masse they are divided between those who demand equality and those who are happy with the way things are.
These political tensions are personified on the individual level by the novel’s three central characters. Carey, the author of Lune et l’autre, is a one-time sports hero and a member of the leading families in the Society of Cousins (despite its self-image, this is still a society of hierarchies). In most respects he is happy with his place in society, except when it comes to his son. Social practice among the Cousins is for girls to leave the family home early to learn independence and authority, while boys are retained within the family and in a sense infantilised by continued mothering. Any child of a liaison is automatically the responsibility of the mother, fatherhood has no legal status. But Carey wants to be a father to his son, wants to take on the rights and responsibilities of that role, and his legal challenge over the issue becomes a catalyst for the reform movement, even though he resists all attempts to recruit him into the campaign.
Mira is another at odds with her own society, in her case her rather formless resentments have their origin in her sense of guilt over the death of her younger brother some years before. She makes angry, polemical videos, issued under the nom de guerre of Looker, which are appropriated by the reform movement even though she herself resists any active engagement with the movement. She is an on-again, off-again lover of Carey, but testifies against him in his fatherhood hearing. None of the characters in the novel are one-dimensional mouthpieces for a singly position or perception, but even in these terms Mira is a mass of contradictions. She is other to those closest to her, and other to herself, but this does make her far and away the most interesting character in the book.
The final member of the triumvirate is Erno. Once a member of a radical movement in the Society of Cousins, he was involved in a terrorist act that unwittingly killed his own mother, and as a consequence he was exiled. Since then he has drifted from state to state, taking on a variety of menial roles, living hand to mouth, and moving on usually just one step ahead of the law. Then, in Persephone, an accident that severs his hand also gives him an opportunity to marry into the richest family on the moon, and to establish his own successful biotechnology business. As an outcast he is perpetually the other, and his experience of the patriarchy from the bottom has made him increasingly sympathetic to the Cousins. When he unexpectedly finds himself on the OLS commission to investigate the Society of Cousins, he is in an awkward position somewhere between his fellow commissioners who have made their minds up even before they arrive at the Society, and the Cousins who still regard him with hostility because of his earlier crimes.
This is an extraordinarily subtle novel. Characters act wrong-headedly for the best of reasons, or act sensibly for the worst of reasons. Our sympathies are directed towards the Society of Cousins only because its innumerable faults and flaws are clearly displayed. No individual or group acts according to a simple, straightforward motivation. Those whose desires and actions place them most firmly on one side or another, actually want nothing to do with either side. Violence does not work, except that violence may be the only way to end an impasse. It is a novel filled with contradictions, because it is a novel about the other, and everyone is the other.