Recent Reading: The Moonday Letters by Emmi Itäranta
[This is an expanded version of a capsule review of The Moonday Letters, which appeared last week in The Guardian]
Every now and then you have the pleasure of stumbling on a book that just blows your socks off. Finnish author Itäranta has had her share of plaudits—her first novel, The Memory of Water, was a Clarke nominee, an honor that I very much hope The Moonday Letters will share—but I'd managed to miss her previous work, and picked up her latest in the hopes of jumping on the bandwagon. What I found was excellent beyond any of my expectations. You can feel the influence of several recent works by Kim Stanley Robinson (an author who, for all that he's regularly acknowledged as a major figure in the field, doesn't have a lot of direct successors). But there is also a flavor and an emphasis that are entirely original, combining to create one of the most exciting works of science fiction I've read this year.
Lumi is a healer in the 22nd century, traveling across the inhabited solar system to visit clients. Returning from one of these visits, she discovers that her spouse, Sol, has gone missing, either kidnapped or absconded from the lab where they work as a botanist. Lumi sets out in pursuit of Sol, along the way unraveling their connection to the ecoterrorist organization the Stoneturners, who have been setting off nonlethal but destructive bioweapon attacks throughout the solar system, disabling mining equipment or exposing industrial groundwater pollution. Lumi narrates her journey through a series of letters she addresses to Sol, which are interspersed with other document fragments. Some of these documents are from decades in the story's future, and hint that Lumi's journey and Sol's disappearance are part of the prelude to a major realignment in humanity's way of life.
The journey through the inhabited solar system is, of course, highly reminiscent of Robinson's 2312, and like that novel, The Moonday Letters is thoughtful and imaginative as it pictures the varied artificial environments that have been established on planets, moons, and space stations (known as "cylinder cities"). On Europa, the inhabitants live under the constant threat of the planet's surface ice collapsing onto the underground cities, so loud noise is a taboo. On Mars, they drink tea, because coffee is an imported luxury. But unlike 2312, The Moonday Letters also considers how such environments can fail, often because the lives within them are considered too cheap to safeguard. On Enceladus, the environmental and labor conditions are so harsh that they've led to an epidemic of chronic illness and drug addiction. Lumi and Sol lost the first home they shared together, on the cylinder city Fuxi, when an invasive fungus destroyed its agricultural capabilities. Lumi is haunted by the image of the shut down, darkened station, its plants and animals abandoned to their deaths.
At the rotten center of it all is the environmentally ravaged Earth, where Lumi was born. One of the most intriguing worldbuilding choices Itäranta makes is to have Earth survive almost solely as a tourist attraction, with a few habitats preserved as kitschified versions of themselves for the pleasure of offworlders who want to experience "real" nature or history. A particularly clever touch is "the Londons", a series of parks where the original city once stood, including a Victorian London, a swinging 60s London, and a cultural London that includes a "Brexit Museum". There's a vast gulf of economic inequality between Earth's inhabitants and the offworlders, and nigh-insurmountable barriers to immigration. The few remaining Earthers work poorly paid hospitality jobs in the parks, or on environmental remediation projects that destroy their health. Even those who are lucky enough to win the immigration lottery usually end up doing dangerous, backbreaking work on the Moon or on Venus, and illegal immigrants are often left on their transports to die.
There's an unspoken air of superiority in how offworlders in this novel—even those who clearly consider themselves liberal and sympathetic—regard and speak of the Earthers. But as the settings Lumi moves through make clear, humanity's new homes are replicating the same mistakes—the same rapacious resource extraction and fundamentally unequal economic systems—that caused Earth's destruction. The Stoneturners are calling for a complete reevaluation of how humanity constructs its societies. Their argument isn't entirely convincing—they seem to be opposed to any and all resource extraction, which seems unsustainable in settings whose very survival relies on technology. But their point, that natural environments—even lifeless ones like the Moon or the surface of Mars—are valuable in their own right, is a needed corrective to the prevailing attitude (in the novel's world, but also our own), that such settings exist only to be ground through the engine of progress.
That emphasis on the natural world even where we've been trained not to see it is mirrored in Itäranta's most distinctive (and, at first glance, counterintuitive) choice in this novel, the fact that Lumi is a shaman, who heals her patients by traveling to the spirit world to address the wounds to their souls. There's a pointed, and presumably deliberate, lacuna when it comes to how the inhabitants of the novel's world square this practice with their heavily technologized lives, in much the same way that they never examine the underpinnings of their society, or wonder whether they are headed for the same destruction suffered by Earth. They are happy to benefit from Lumi's ministrations, without considering that their effectiveness might suggest the need to rethink the core assumptions of their worldview.
Itäranta never gives us the space to believe that Lumi's visions and sojourns are imagined or metaphorical. The spirit world is real, and Lumi's struggles through it parallel and inform her pursuit of Sol—as when she recalls her relationship with her mentor Vivian, who whisks Lumi off Earth and helps her develop her sensitivity to the spirit world while also introducing her to the solar system's underclass, and who turns out to have also been involved with the Stoneturners. Lumi's reminiscences also give us a glimpse into her and Sol's history as a couple, the growth of their relationship and the challenges it has faced. For all that Lumi's love and devotion to Sol run deep, it's also made clear that they are two separate people, with parts of their lives that they haven't shared—Lumi's spirituality, which Sol regards with respectful skepticism; Sol's work, including their connection to the Stoneturners, which they have kept hidden for years.
The Moonday of the title is the name given to an imaginary house that Lumi and Sol have been building together, a perfect home where the full faces of Mars's moons are always visible. It becomes a metaphor both for an idealized version of their marriage—a place where they are always present for one another, where there are no outside concerns to draw them away—and the search that nearly every person in the solar system, from the wage slaves on Earth to the privileged denizens of the cylinder cities, is engaged in, for a place where they can feel safe and comfortable. The two questions end up weaving together: can this marriage be saved? Can humanity find a new way to live, one that doesn't rest on exploitation and the existence of a permanent underclass? The novel ends with an upheaval that offers the hope of a new path going forward, but also, inevitably, on a note of ambiguity.