Science fiction is a genre that’s uniquely suited for making the internal into the external. Authors can take an intangible issue, whether it’s a relationship problem, a philosophical belief, or a scientific quandary, and make it material. John Kessel’s new novel The Moon and the Other does just that, playing out a complex, but relevant story about politics, gender identity, and social conflict through a series of characters living on Earth’s inhabited Moon. A wonderful, complicated, and beautiful novel, it asks what responsibilities people have to the societies they inhabit.
Set in 2149, The Moon and the Other takes a look at a lunar society full of social experiments. Some 3.2 million people inhabit a network of 27 distinct colonies, each with its own system of government and society. One such colony is The Society of Cousins, a matriarchal settlement in which men are encouraged to pursue a range of personal pursuits and sexual freedom, but are barred from voting or holding political office, unless they’re part of the work force.
The Society is a manifestation of political theory and philosophy. While its inhabitants enjoy a better standard of living than their lunar counterparts, resentment bubbles under the surface. Not everyone agrees with the aims of the Society, and agents, internal and external, are pushing for changes to how things run. The Organization of Lunar States sends out an investigative team to ostensibly examine human rights violations within the Society. But the team is actually a cover to see if the Society has developed weapons that specifically target men. While there, the investigators discover something much bigger: the IQSA, a device that can replicate any scanned object, even a person.
The story follows four characters caught in this complicated web of intrigue. There’s Erno, a former Society citizen — exiled after accidentally causing the death of his mother — who returns as a member of the investigative team; Amestris, an ambitious businesswoman and daughter of a wealthy industrialist from another colony called Persepolis, who marries Erno; Mira, a protest artist grappling with the death of her brother; and Casey, an athlete in the Society who is trying to gain parental rights for his son and push against the communities’ social norms.
Kessel weaves a believable world, blending hard science fiction and social commentary without losing the human element. The characters benefit from their added depth, giving weight to the questions they embody: what is the relationship between a person and the society that they’re a part of? And what obligation does an individual have to their political ideals?
But what has stuck with me is how the book turns philosophical ideas into livable space. The Moon and the Other uses the various colonies as manifestations of various political theories. The Society of Cousins is one such example, exploring how a matriarchal society would practically operate. Men in this colony are afforded the freedom to live out their desired occupations, but it’s women who are granted political authority and leadership roles. If men want to vote, they’re required to take on menial work. Persepolis is a polar opposite: everyone is completely equal in this libertarian-style society, but succeeding is difficult, with debtors frozen when they can’t get by. Kessel’s elegant writing and world building makes each of these colonies completely believable as worlds and societies — from the physical architecture of the settlements to the fine details of their systems of governance.
The novel suggest that the people who make up these systems undermine how effectively they’re realized. Throughout the novel, we see characters working to uphold or push their own agendas, only to have their own weaknesses undermine the entire system. Mira aspires to enact change as a Banksy-style protest artist, but she’s held back with guilt that her brother died on her watch. Carey’s mother invented the IQSA, but did so to resurrect her son when he died in an accident.
And so The Moon and the Other is a story about change — personal and societal — and the invisible forces that prevent and empower it. What’s special, though, is how it makes those forces feel so immediate — like you could reach out and grab them.
Photography by Andrew Liptak / The Verge