Ian McDonald is a Hugo Award-winning author of books about Martian colonization, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. He has written about these topics in his books. When he wrote his new Luna series, it was set in a near future where the moon is run by five families who live on the moon. IEEE Spectrum asked him to share a few moon-themed books that have moved and inspired him. I can remember when the moon came out. I remember being outside in the sun and being called in to see Neil Armstrong land on the surface. My family sat around the black-and-white TV, with the curtains closed as if for a funeral, and watched the show. Light came in through the gap between the curtains and sped up the room. I remember when Neil Armstrong came out of the lunar module and stepped on the ground. I was 9. I was always excited about rockets, astronauts, cosmonauts, and the Great Out There when I was a child.
The memory is strong and vivid, but it’s also completely wrong. At 8:17 p.m., the Eagle came down in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where I lived. It was almost 3:00 a.m. when Armstrong walked on the surface for the very first time. In the afternoon, I don’t know what I watched, but I know what I saw: humans on the moon. Here are five books, both fiction and nonfiction, that bring back the wonder of that memory.
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
I have to talk about something.
This is a classic book. It was written by Robert A. Heinlein and came out in 1966, three years before the Apollo moon landing. It feels like a brother or sister of the project, because it was written at the same time. Over every moon story since then, it stands out like a big rock. There had been moon bases in fiction before, but they were weak and sterile. They were bubbles of white Westerners doing research on the moon. A harsh mistress gave us a noisy, crowded, smelly, colorful, diverse and chaotic world to live in. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress It was moving. To be fair, the idea of the moon as a prison colony like Botany Bay doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. The economics of feeding Earth with moon-grown grain also doesn’t make sense. The politics are only interesting to a 14-year-old, and they’re full of American exceptionalism. The women aren’t very important, and the professor character should be thrown out of the airlock in chapter three. It isn’t bad, but I love it. When he lives on the moon, there will be a revolution and a new society. That’s not what I want to read about in this book, though. Life and energy are what I want to get from this place. Heinlein’s moon is a dark place, but I can picture looking up on a clear night and seeing the lights up there in the dark.
The Moon and the Other
People have very few reasons to go to the moon, and very few to stay. The Moon and the Other, by John Kessel, is one of the best books about how to settle the moon. It gives one of the smartest ideas. It’s a giant social science laboratory. 3 million people live on the moon in 27 different cultures in the year 2149. It’s one thing for men to give up their political rights in exchange for social status so that there is less chance of men getting into fights. That society bumps up against the more traditional patriarchal Persepolis, which came about as an Iranian experiment in secularism and has grown into what it is today. Four people have relationships, love, and other problems in a rich social comedy. Think of it as a fencer’s foil, and think of Heinlein’s novel as a brass cannon. The book is witty and charming, and it hits its targets with elegant precision. Kessel is very smart when he looks at the flaws in human institutions, but he also says that there is a lot of hope in our flaws.
Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth
The premise of this nonfiction story is too good to pass up. It was in 2004 when Andrew Smith found out that only nine of the 12 men who had walked on the moon were still alive. So he set out to meet them before Apollo faded away into the past. The people he talks about in Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth are very unusual. He found alcoholics, depressed people, New Age gurus, devout evangelicals, artists, and grumpy old men. As they looked up, they all saw a small Earth that Neil Armstrong could block out with the tip of his thumb. The Earth’s light changed them all; no one was unaffected, and they all tried to show it. The experience seemed to be out of the reach of human language. Smith has a lot of great information in his book: For each day that they spent on the moon, they were paid US $8, minus deductions for Apollo berths. On a stick of high-explosive, these men were fired into space. They were praised as heroes, paid a pittance, and then left by NASA. That’s true. This is a book that makes you sad, because it makes you think that we didn’t live up to our promise to go to the moon and explore space. It’s been 50 years since Apollo 11, but only four of the people who went to the moon are still alive.
The Astronaut Wives Club
Those who went to the moon had a good time, but what about those who stayed on the ground? Lily Koppel’s book, The Astronaut Wives Club, answers that question in a very clear way. There was a lot of wonder, but also a lot of stress, anxiety, and fear, as well. The group was set up as a support group for the families of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts. It brought together the women who had lives that were just as planned and controlled as their husbands’. Every part of their family life, even their clothes, was carefully planned to make the right impression. In the same way as their husbands, these women had to show that they had the “right stuff.” Many of these people had addictions and mental illnesses that were hidden behind their shiny homes and swimming pools. Annie Glenn, for example, had a passion for fast cars. Many people in the Astronaut Wives Club lost their husbands in the Apollo 1 fire, but it was a very sad thing that happened to 7 of the 30 people in the club. Cracks started to show up in the public facade. When the men came back to Earth after the human space flight program, the whole thing fell apart. In this book, it shows how the right things can go wrong. Adultery, divorce, suicide: This is where this book shines the most.
When Alison Wilgus made a short comic book called “Visiting NASA,” she wanted to show people what it was like to be at the space station. It’s a story about the author’s trip to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which was written with a clear, strong line and a lot of personal attention. The people at NASA do a lot of hard work, and we agree with her that the space program is huge and has a lot of ideas. Wonder comes out of this small book like spring water, and it’s the very thing that makes science fiction so exciting to read. While it’s not a book about the moon itself, it’s still very much about the moon, Apollo, and the Great Out There. Until you get to the last page, when the author sees a launch, it’s hard not to cheer. As a 9-year-old during that rocket summer when humans first walked on the moon, I felt like I was in awe.