How plausible is the China in Kim Stanley Robinson’s *Red Moon*?

The premise of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel Red Moon is that China has taken the lead in colonizing the moon, leaving America far behind. I am a Robinson fan, and since the theme of China overtaking the US is very much in the air these days, I was interested to pick up the book to get his take on it.

Here is how one character describes China’s decision to establish a lunar base:

At the Twentieth People’s Congress, in 2022, the Chinese Communist Party and its Great Leader President Xi Jinping decided that the moon should be a place for Chinese development, as one part of the Chinese Dream. In the twenty-five years since that resolution was made, much has been accomplished in China’s lunar development.

Later a character explains:

In China, if the Party chooses to do something, then the whole country can be rallied to that cause. One out of every six humans alive, in other words, devoted to the project of establishing a base on the moon. This was far more than needed to do the job! Not every Chinese person was involved, and only a small percentage of China’s capital reserves had to be directed up here, even though it was a pretty big project. But it wasn’t that big, and in the end it was just more infrastructure.

This is not bad! For China to treat a lunar base as an extension of the Belt and Road Initiative, and “just more infrastructure,” is a fairly straightforward extrapolation of recent trends in Chinese political economy. And it has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, given that in January, China became the first country to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. With India and Israel also planning lunar missions, lunar exploration is in fact a good reflection of the shift from bipolar or unipolar world to a multipolar one.

But sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that in the above Robinson says “People’s Congress” when he really means “Party Congress.” Annoying errors like this abound. Even more troubling are the names of the many Chinese characters, which often seem to be invented randomly without reference to the actual Chinese language. The president of China in 2047, for instance, is supposedly named Shanzhai Yifan. Not only is shanzhai not even a Chinese surname, it is (as anyone who uses the internet should know) a slang term meaning something like “cheap knockoff.” So did one of Robinson’s sources play an elaborate joke on him? Or is this just sloppiness?

Being fuzzy about the details of foreign languages and political systems is not a criminal offense for a writer of speculative fiction, who after all is supposed to be speculating rather reporting. But it seems that apparently neither Robinson nor his publisher could be bothered to run the manuscript by an actual Chinese-speaking person before publication. I’m not even a native speaker, and I could have fixed most of these minor issues in a couple hours of work. As a result, the book is something that no Chinese-speaking person could ever take seriously.

The more fundamental problem with the future China in this book is that it’s not really a future China: it’s just today’s China with some of the names changed. And sometimes not even that: in 2047 Chinese people are apparently still sending each other messages on WeChat on their mobile phones, and complaining about the Great Firewall. There’s a whole subplot about a social revolution unfolding in China, in which people’s grievances seem to have been lifted from dated magazine articles: the “breaking of the iron rice bowl” and the hukou system. That subplot is very thinly sketched and happens mostly offstage, and as a result is not even convincing as narrative, even aside from the details.

Red Moon has generally received mixed reviews, as it has other narrative weaknesses besides the poor portrayal of China. I think we’re still waiting for a work of fiction that gets to the heart of how America deals with a rising China — admittedly a pretty demanding task.

For better recent Robinson, I would recommend Aurora, and also Shaman, which I think is underrated, and features some of his best nature writing.

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4 Comments

  1. No one is going to colonize the moon…

    There are no suitable sources of nitrogen, hydrogen, or carbon on the moon. Manufacture of water would be very difficult and costly. There is no atmosphere, so cosmic radiation is a severe problem for humans. The low gravity is detrimental to the human body (loss of bone and muscle mass), and particularly to the developing fetus. The temperature ranges are extreme, well beyond anything seen here on earth (-180 degrees C to +127 degrees C). The night is two weeks long. Moon dust may be toxic and is known to be extremely dangerous to breathe. It is next to impossible to grow any crop on the moon.

    The nearest star is 3.5 light years away, or more than a million years away if traveling at 50,000 mph. 50,000 mph is more than 25 times the speed of a bullet, and could not be endured by a human. 1 million years is 4 times longer than anatomically modern humans have existed.

    Ah, but the fantasy of space colonization persists. Why the infatuation with the colonization of space?

    Reply

    1. Low information comment, JB. Humans can easily withstand travel at 1 million miles an hour. The constraint is on our capacity to withstand high rates of acceleration, not high velocities. The rest of your comment is speculative pessimism.

      Reply

      1. You’re quite correct, Craken, the issue is acceleration, not velocity. I don’t see us reaching those sorts of speeds anytime soon, but we could stand them if they could be reached.

        The other issues are not speculative. Moon dust is like tiny shards of glass. Not good to breathe. And there is the minor (non-speculative) issue of cosmic radiation on a planet with no atmosphere.

        But the larger issue is why we’re infatuated with the colonization of space. There’s really no other home for us that’s possible, given the need, even on the moon, for the sun, and the VAST distance to the nearest alternative star. My hypothesis is that we sense the devastation coming to earth from overpopulation and all that it brings with it… 241,000 new souls per day, NET of deaths. Our little planet is not going to last long under the pressure that that level of population growth brings. So we fantasize about other planets…

  2. I both like and dislike KSR, his Mars trilogy and 40-50-60 trilogy both cried out for an editor to trim the fluff. They are also filled with ethnic/national stereotypes that don’t reflect fact-checking. This sounds like it has those problems as well. Shanzhai as a name?! … I’ve had Michael Murphree into my classes as a speaker, and had my students read a paper on cell phones. The linguistics of names aside, it doesn’t otherwise fit as an appellation for a leader, I don’t see any cute pun in it. I clearly won’t read this book, but upon your recommendation maybe I will try Shaman. For the time being though I’m cycling through authors I don’t know for listening while I’m in the car or doing yardwork.

    And as to China, parts of the first volume of Liu Cixin’s sci-fi trilogy reference the Cultural Revolution, the fear factor you note. I listened to these on Audible. My spoken Chinese isn’t strong (drawing upon Japanese, and working through language texts for grammar, over the last 2 years I’ve learned to read prose / stuff on the auto industry). But my recollection is that the reader/performer did go to the trouble to learn how to pronounce names. I’ve listened to several books on Audible where that wasn’t the case, vastly annoying in one book (John Dower’s Embracing Defeat) about Japan, as learning to pronounce Japanese (which only has 5 vowels, all with values common to English) should not have been a challenge.

    Reply

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