The third Lady Astronaut novel doesn’t live up to the promise of the first two

The Relentless Moon is the third book in the Lady Astronaut series.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Relentless Moon is a successful science fiction novel. Its depiction of the alternate universe of 1960s America is flawless. The world might have gone that way, and the technology is realistic. The characters act in entirely human ways, and they fully reflect the complexity that readers came to expect in the first two books of the Lady Astronaut series. It’s a great story about a fully believable threat of sabotage to the colonization of the Moon.

The problem is, this book is too darn long. In her Acknowledgments, Mary Robinette Kowal writes that the draft of this novel ran to 180,000 words compared to the 99,000 in the previous book. Presumably, someone cut the draft. (I had no way to run a word count.) But it doesn’t read that way. The Relentless Moon gets bogged down in technical jargon and mystifying acronyms far too often, and there were too many twists and turns in the story when fewer would have done the job. The book could have benefited from a much more aggressive editor.


The Relentless Moon (Lady Astronaut #3) by Mary Robinette Kowal (2020) 538 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)


How the pieces of the Lady Astronaut series fit together

In the Lady Astronaut debut, The Calculating Stars, a brilliant and neurotic young mathematician named Elma York makes a startling discovery. A meteor that crashes into Chesapeake Bay near Washington, DC, in 1952 not only reduces the East Coast to ruins but represents an extinction event for the human race. Elma’s discovery accelerates the space program already underway, and she at length becomes the first of several “lady astronauts.”

Later, in The Fated Sky, Elma has “made the trip between Earth and the moon about a dozen times.” While, back home, an aggressive movement called Earth First campaigns to end the space program, Elma joins the first mission to Mars, the opening chapter in the international effort to secure the future of the human race by evacuating as many people as possible into space. The Fated Sky relates Elma’s fraught and ultimately crushing experience on the Mars expedition.

Now, thirteen years after the Meteor ended the promise of human life on Earth, the perspective shifts in the Lady Astronaut series from the Mars expedition, which is on its way to the Red Planet. Elma’s good friend and fellow Lady Astronaut, Nicole Wargin, takes center stage. Raised in comfort and privilege, Nicole had gained admission to the astronaut program because her husband was then an influential United States Senator. He is now Governor of Kansas, the state where the US Capitol has moved following the destruction of Washington, DC. Meanwhile, Earth First is becoming increasingly violent as the space program continues to unfold while millions face pressing needs at home. And Nicole sets out for another mission to the steadily growing Moon base.

Nicole Wargin is one of the most intriguing and complicated characters to make her way into the annals of science fiction. She is exceptionally bright but, like her best friend, Elma York, demonstrably neurotic. She suffers from recurrent anorexia, which returns when she is under great stress. Raised in a wealthy family, she attended a “Swiss finishing school” as a young woman. There, she learned the social graces that have equipped her well for life as the wife of a politicianā€”and her husband is on the cusp of declaring his candidacy for President of the United States.

The Lady Astronaut series turns to politics and espionage

However, as we later learn, Nicole also attended a “Swiss finishing school” operated by the OSS and learned the tradecraft of espionage. In fact, she went on missions as a spy behind German lines in World War II. So, it’s natural for the managers of the space program to send her with the crew of a new mission to the Moon. It has become clear that Earth First has turned to terrorism and sabotageā€”and the movement has infiltrated the moonbase. Nicole will be stretched to the limit under the most harrowing conditions as Earth First’s campaign of sabotage comes to threaten the very existence of the colony on the Moon.

For further reading

Previously I reviewed the first two books in the Lady Astronaut series, both of which I found to be outstanding. (The first won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel in 2019.)

I’ve included Mary Robinette Kowal on my list of Six new science fiction authors worth reading now.

This is one of the 10 best alternate history novels reviewed here and Good books about space travel, including both nonfiction and fiction,

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