Robin Sloan’s “Moonbound”

A solarpunk road-trip novel set 11,000 years in the future.

Cory Doctorow
5 min read2 days ago
The Farrar, Strauss and Giroux cover for Robin Sloan’s novel ‘Moonbound.’ It depicts a stylized, spherical Earth under a red sky that has been torn open to reveal the black universe, the moon, and the twinkling stars beyond.

On June 20, I’m keynoting the Locus Awards in Oakland, CA. On July 14, I’m giving the closing keynote for the fifteenth Hackers On Planet Earth, in Queens, NY.

Robin Sloan has a well-deserved reputation as a sparkly, fizzy writer, the kind of person who can tell a smart/smartass story infused with fantasy-genre whimsy but grounded in high-tech, contemporary settings (think here of Charlie Jane Anders’ gorgeous All the Birds In the Sky):

https://memex.craphound.com/2016/01/26/charlie-jane-anderss-all-the-birds-in-the-sky-smartass-soulful-novel/

In Moonbound, a new, wildly ambitious solarpunk novel published today by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, Sloan moves out of his usual, daffy, high-tech/high-weird Bay Area milieu and catapults us 11,000 years into the future, to a world utterly transformed and utterly fascinating:

https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374610609/moonbound

Moonbound’s protagonist is a “chronicler,” a symbiotic fungus engineered to nestle in a human’s nervous system, where it serves as a kind of recording angel, storing up the memories, experiences and personalities of its host. When we meet the chronicler, it has just made a successful leap from its old host — a 10,000-years-dead warrior who had been preserved in an anaerobic crashpod ever since her ship was shot out of the sky — into the body of Ariel, a 12-year-old boy who had just invaded the long-lost tomb.

This is quite a move. This long-dormant, intelligent fungus originates a thousand years into our own future, long after the climate emergency had been (miraculously, joyously) averted and has arrived in a world ten millennia years even further down the line. It must orient itself from its position inside the nervous system of a 12-year-old, and we have to orient ourselves to having an 11,000-year-distant future explained by an intelligent fungus from 1,000 years into our own future.

This is doing fiction in hard mode, and Sloan nails it. The unraveling strangeness of Ariel’s world is counterpointed with the amazing tale of the world the chronicler hails from, even as the chonicler consults with the preserved personalities of the heroes and warriors it had previous resided in and recorded.

And in this curious way, we learn of the history of the chronicler’s world, and of the strange world so far into the future that Ariel lives in — and becomes incredible consequential to.

Start with the chronicler’s world: on the way to solving the climate emergency, the human race figured out how to cooperate on unimaginably massive projects (for example, addressing the world’s runaway carbon problem). This pays huge dividends, ushering in a period of thrilling innovation, as humans and the nonhuman intelligences they have constructed collaborate to explore out planet, our solar system, and — thanks to a faster-than-light breakthrough — our galaxy.

A crew of seven are dispatched to the ends of space with great fanfare — but when they return, they are terrified and full of grim purpose. Something they met out there in the galaxy has convinced them that humanity must never look to the stars again. They blanket the planet in a cloak of dust and establish a garrison on the moon from which they destroy any attempts to leave the Earth.

This triggers a savage war against these seven “dragons” and their moonbase. The chronicler’s warrior — the one who was entombed for 10,000 years before being discovered by Ariel — was shot down on a last-ditch attempt to destroy the dragons and their base on the moon.

Flash forward 10,000 years. Ariel lives in a weird, medieval-type village, albeit one in which the peasant-types all wear high-tech performance all-weather gear…and the animals all talk. It’s a very strange place — there’s a sword in a stone, a wizard in a tower…and an airstrip.

Even as the chronicler is trying to make sense of this anachronistic muddle, Ariel is marching towards his destiny. In short order, he finds himself in fear for his life, and then — for the first time in his life or the life of any other villager — Ariel leaves the village.

This kicks off the road-trip part of the novel, a real bildungsroman that sees Ariel, the chronicler, and a whole Wizard-of-Oz’s worth of road pals (including a rusty tin-man type robot who is part of a hive mind of thousands of other robots all over the world; oh and a talking beaver) (oh, and a dead guy) (and there’s an elk with a symbiotic beehive in its antlers that dribbles a stead stream of honey down its muzzle).

My editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden once articulated a theory of how science fiction works: you have the world, which is a kind of grand thought experiment, and you have a protagonist, who is a kind of microcosm of that world. Think of the world as this big, heavy gear, and the character as a much-faster-spinning gear that meshes with the world, spinning and spinning, pushing the world inchingly around a full revolution:

https://pluralistic.net/2022/07/26/aislands/#dead-ringers

The chronicler is a perfect microcosm of this strange world, where dozens of great civilizations have arisen and fallen — the ruins of a great society of hyperintelligent rats turns out to be very useful on one part of Ariel’s quest — and where the dragons brood overall, a menace in the sky that the Earth’s inhabitants have all but forgotten, but whom the chronicler can’t ignore.

Sloan is really having a lot of fun with his talking animals; his transdimensional gods; his space-maddened, murderous lunar AIs. On the way, he’s doing all kinds of really cool tricks — like asking us to really sit with the idea of giving moral consideration to the nonhuman world, including “beings” we currently think of as inanimate objects. This is a great riff:

https://pluralistic.net/2022/06/07/more-than-human/#umwelt

Sloan’s debut novel, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, mixed the tropes and sensibilities of tech culture with a beautiful, escapist fantasy, a “curious little magic shop” tale that was absolutely delightful:

https://memex.craphound.com/2012/11/16/mr-penumbras-24-hour-bookstore-the-perfect-nerdish-fantasy/

And with Sourdough, Sloan’s second book, he took that same fascination with the numinous (and with nerdy, obsessive hobbies) to the microscopic plane, with a tale of microorganisms and mystery:

https://memex.craphound.com/2017/09/05/sourdough-a-delicious-story-about-nerdism-and-the-flesh-by-robin-mr-penumbra-sloan/

Moonbound delivers Sloan’s third — and best! — fusion of fantasy and science fiction, delving deep into the meaning of personhood, language and moral agency with a road-trip story that visits a dazzling collection of wildly imaginative settings and societies in an epic quest to slay the dragons on the moon.

If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog:

https://pluralistic.net/2024/06/11/penumbraverse/#middle-anth

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