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.