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Is a weblog by Emma Humphries

The Meteor, the Lady Astronaut, and Scarcity

29 Jul 2020

A retro moon base
Credit: James Vaughan, Flickr

Contains spoilers for Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut books.

I finished the most recent book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, The Relentless Moon, the same day that the Democratic Party decided to do nothing for the millions of people in the US who face eviction or foreclosure because of the mishandled response to COVID-19.

And the book’s world and the failure of the congressional Democrats reflected the same problem. And to be clear, this is not a complaint about the writer or the books, I love the stories, and the characters, and was a fan ever since I read The Lady Astronaut of Mars. It’s the scarcity mindset of the milieu that I’m questioning.

The Lady Astronaut books are set in an alternate Space Age where a large meteor hits Maryland in 1952, obliterating that state, the District of Columbia, and Virginia. The North East, including NYC, are no longer inhabitable, and because of the volume of aerosols, dust, and debris launched into the atmosphere by the impact, the whole world will soon be uninhabitable too.

The Western countries band together and create an International Aerospace Coalition (remember that NASA wouldn’t be created until 1958) to get people off planet and setting up new homes on the Moon and Mars.

And, because of the stakes women, in particular women who had served as pilots during WWII in the WASPs and other adjunct services, are competing for Astronaut Wings alongside men.

The antagonist of The Relentless Moon is a group opposed to the massive investments in space that leave much of the US out of the jobs and income flowing into Kansas (the new US capitol, and home of the IAC.)

The group was introduced in the previous book The Fated Sky, but has now gone all-in on direct action, and is trying to sabotage the international base on the Moon to get the US to leave the IAC and focus on relief to the millions in America facing starvation and climate change.

The group, Earth First, is motivated by what one member calls the ‘eugenics of the IAC.’ People with disabilities, the poor, the uneducated are left out of space and won’t be allowed off planet (presumably to try to survive in redoubts built deep in the Crust.) The protagonist is not unaware of this, though she is an astronaut, both her and her husband would be disqualified from settling off-world under the IAC’s determination of what is a disability.

And that’s where the politics of the book’s world feels like those of today’s Democratic-held House.

The IAC are trying to do what they believe is right. But there’s limits to their imagination.

They want communities on the Moon and Mars, but have given up on getting everyone off-planet and have decided that leaving people to a boiling Earth is part of the cost of leaving the planet. It is less horrible than Elon Musk’s vision of space, where he has hundreds of thousands in debt peonage on Mars, and (presumably) his hand on the oxygen valve in case of labor organizing.

Passing a test, or demonstrating value to some gate keeper is a SF trope: people study hard to pass Star Fleet entrance exams, or qualify as space colonists. The Netflix remake of Lost in Space’s main conflicts come from two people who cheat their way into being colonists.

Getting away from a dying Earth because you’re a human being and have intrinsic value beyond being a pilot, engineer, botanist, or possessing a uterus that can be appropriated for “the common good,” is out of the question.

But the Earth Firsters are asking the question and Kowal does not make them cardboard villains. It’s on the IAC’s engineers, colonists, astronauts and their political sponsors, that they fail to consider the possibility that maybe they can get everyone off Earth, or at least try.

And that’s what I want, if Kowal continues with this series, to explore.

It’s also the question we must ask House Democrats. They refuse to consider mortgage and rent moratoriums because of the deficit, and the preference not to scare voters who might balk at helping people without means-testing out of fear of helping those who conservatives deem unworthy.

Back in the 1980s, Bruce Sterling and William Gibson wrote a novella, Red Star, Winter Orbit, in which the protagonist’s salvation from going down with an abandoned Soviet space station in a decaying orbit is a group of anarchists who launched themselves from a high-altitude balloon into orbit to claim the station as salvage and move it to a higher orbit.

The world of the Lady Astronaut could use a million space programs with anarchists launching themselves into space to build habs out of upper stages and abandoned space stations, because a world where only the Kennedy-esque liberals escape a dying Earth, in order to appease conservatives’ fear of helping the ‘wrong’ people, isn’t a just one.

Note: An earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to Mary Robinette Kowal’s last name as Robinette Kowal, not Kowal. Mary Robinette is her first name. I apologize for the misnaming. (ECH: July 30, 2020)

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