Baen, 1986, 471 pages, C$5.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-65381-4
The Cold War has been over for more than a decade, but the books of that era will continue to dog us for a while yet. When readers and critic discuss Donald Kingsbury, they usually talk about Courtship Rite, or even Psychohistorical Crisis, but most tend to forget that the capable Canadian SF author has written a novel in-between, The Moon Goddess and the Son. With good reason, mind you: While I can still imagine the previous two titles being read, discussed and enjoyed decades from now, it’s going to take some effort to even try pretending that his second novel was anything more than an overlong mess.
No, I’m not going to try to pretend deep love and affection for the novel, despite all the personal respect I’ve got for the author and my usual bias for all things Canadians (or, in Kingsbury’s case, from the Montreal area) I’m feeling cranky, and that’s because dull books that take forever to establish a novella’s worth of story always make me cranky.
Heralding from the Cold War’s last dying moments (hey, 1986 is already, what, more than fifteen years old), The Moon Goddess and the Son is a hodge-podge of Soviet philosophy, space boosterism, March-September romance (ew), clashing generations and attempts at a political thriller. It’s long, it’s rambling and if there are quite a few things to like about it, it takes forever to get to them.
You may think, at first, that this is a story about a space-struck young girl who, when she’s abused by her father, escapes into fantasies about a famous astronaut. But don’t, because that’ll come into play only late in the novel (in pretty much the fashion you apprehend). Then again, The Moon Goddess and the Son may be about the famous astronaut and his difficult family relationships. But that’s not it either, at least not at first. Then again, this may be about a role-playing game designer at the end of his rope and the sadistic treatment he’s got in mind for his abusive boss.
Now that may be a thread. Because the designer’s elaborate pain-and-punishment recreation of Russian history ends up being exactly what his boss is asking for in order to understand the Russian mind. Meanwhile, in another plot thread, our young star-struck teenager will sleep with the spaceman of her dreams as well as his son, helping out the family by doing so. Yes, it’s that kind of novel.
But it’ll take forever to get to those plot points. Most of the novel is a pointless collection of scenes that does little to advance the story. Character do stuff; we don’t care. Saudi Arabia undergoes a revolution; we care even less. The Russians threaten to take over the world; maybe that would be best for all involved.
Oh, it’s not as if it’s a total loss: The Russian national character is described with noblesse and respect, setting this novel apart from some of its contemporary ultra-paranoid fiction. Some of the technical details are interesting. It all amounts to a novella’s worth of story.
But it will take special skills today to slog through this brick. Cold War-era politics are about as useful as Tzarist policies these days, and a lot of the cheering for space exploration seems identical from what we’re hearing these days. Coupled to the lack of sustained dramatic hard, it makes it hard to imagine that anyone but Kingsbury completists (and I’ll raise my hand at this moment) being willing to undergo this particular mild punishment.
Maybe there’s a historical worth to this book, if only for a feel of 1986-era thinking. But then again you could just grab Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and “get” the cold war. As far as Kingsbury is concerned, grab Courtship Rite, read it, treasure it, cherish it and skip directly to Psychohistorical Crisis. Anything else would just be a waste of time.