In Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel, "Red Moon" (Orbit, 2018), readers launch 30 years into the future and follow the lives of humans living and working on the moon. In the book, China has become the first political and technological entity to inhabit Earth's natural satellite in a serious, long-term way.
The novel opens on the last leg of the journey to the lunar surface of a small crew, including quantum engineer Fred Fredericks and poet, feng shui expert and celebrity travel reporter Ta Shu, who become fast friends as they careen toward the bright moon ahead of them. Readers step inside Fredericks' shoes as he struggles to maintain balance in the lunar gravity and complete the task he was sent to the moon to perform. But a quick and shocking turn of events unravels the positive image of humanity's heroic return to the moon, revealing the intimate, dangerous and politically sticky reality of inhabiting the moon.
Government and private space agencies all over the world are working to get humans back to the moon. And with "Red Moon," famed science fiction novelist Robinson provides a captivating look at what our next lunar steps could be like. [China's Moon Missions Explained (Infographic)]
Space.com: What inspired "Red Moon"?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, a couple of things. First, I'm interested in China and what it's doing now, what it is now. And I wanted to write about it, not realizing before I started how hard that was going to be. And then ,secondly, I have my whole career been writing about humanity inhabiting the solar system, and I also wrote a book, "Aurora,"making the claim that we never can get out of the solar system to go anywhere else.
I never paid any attention at all to the moon. I thought I could kind of fill in the portrait by essentially finishing the tour of the solar system
I also know that China is really very likely to be the political entity or technological entity that will first inhabit the moon in a substantial way. So, it all came together and seemed to make sense.
Space.com: What type of research went into creating that picture in the novel itself?
Robinson: I went to China myself, because I'd never been there before. It was a very limited visit, or two visits actually. I saw only three cities. I saw Hong Kong, Beijing and a coastal city called Xicao. That at least gave me some personal information and some visual and sensory impressions of what I was writing about.
Those visits were very important. I had many friends I made while I was there, and I asked them questions and got the widest possible variety of answers, just like you would if you were to come to the United States and ask questions of a variety of people.
Also, the Chinese space agency is willing to promote themselves like any other government bureaucracy, and they had their Chang'e program [China’s lunar exploration program]. They have a moon project going right now, so I was able to do some research on what China is up to already in their moon efforts.
And then, also, I went back to look at the Apollo program. The American Apollo program is pretty well-documented with some extraordinary film taken on the moon. That helped me to imagine it better what it's going to be like when we go back to the moon. It was the usual kind of research and pondering.
Space.com: What do you personally think of the possibility and likelihood of moon colonization and how it will shape humanity?
Robinson: Truthfully, I don't think it will change or shape humanity very much at all. I think it will end up being a whole lot like Antarctica. The similarities to our exploration of Antarctica kept coming back time after time, to the point where I think it's a very good analogy, even though it's not quite right.
If you're thinking of the moon and you use the analogy of the New World, of Europeans going to America, you've got it completely wrong. The moon is going to be more like Antarctica. Right now, there are scientific stations all over Antarctica. Well, how has that changed humanity? It hasn't at all. And the moon's going to be the same way.
What I found is that the moon is almost useless. You can't make money there, and this is, of course, in our global capitalist society, a huge stopper. There is no money to be made there, not in any way, shape or form. You have to spend money. You set up a station there, and then you get no return on your investment.
So, once you grasp that it goes back to science, and we do like setting scientific stations up all over this planet now to learn more about Earth, and the moon will be good for that. So there will be scientific stations on the moon — mostly at the poles, because that's where there's permanent sunlight. So, you got solar power, and there's also water. There's ice in some of the craters at the north pole
We'll set up scientific stations in the north pole, and then maybe we'll have geology, a little bit of astronomy and a little bit of radio communications, and much later it's possible that we'll use the moon as a bus station to go elsewhere in the solar system. If you're intending to go to Jupiter or whatnot, launching from the moon makes perfect sense if you have a launch pad. But that comes later.
Space.com: Thinking about the future of humanity on the moon, what realistic dangers could present themselves?
Robinson: Well, they come down to cosmic radiation — effectively, living on the moon for a long time is going to be like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day in terms of its cancer risk. To minimize that, you'd be spending a lot of your time about 30 feet [9 meters] underground. About 30 feet of rock will protect you against that cosmic radiation in a way that Earth's atmosphere protects us here on Earth's surface. So, it'd be an underground life, a lot of tunnels. Geologists are pretty sure that there would be lava tunnels… tunnels underground on the moon that were created by flowing lava. We see collapsed tunnels that make us think that.
The other danger would be, of course, the vacuum, and a third danger would be that [lunar] dust is really way finer than dust on Earth. That could be really hard to keep out of your habitats and out of your spacesuits and out of your lungs. And it's such a fine material that it'll go right through the blood-brain barrier. So, life on the moon might be really bad for your health. And then, also, lastly, the low gravity — it's 16 percent [of] Earth's gravity, so perhaps living in 16 percent Earth gravity would be bad for you in the long haul. I wouldn't be surprised.
You will have people going up there — they'll do a few years, or maybe just a few weeks, a few months, and then they'll come back to Earth. It won't be a long trip. It won't be a hard trip.
So colonization is the wrong word. That word has all kinds of bad connotations, anyway, like conquering an already-local populous and killing them and subjecting them to a horrible life … human inhabitation of the moon is likely to be a scientific-station business.
Space.com: Do you think that traveling to the moon will feel as standard as air travel — as it seems in the book, when Fred and Ta Shu first arrive in the book?
Robinson: I think that could happen. We're pretty casual about air travel, despite the fact that you're 30,000 feet [9 kilometers] above the planet and if anything went wrong with the machine you're inside then you would die.
There're a half million people in the air right now, and at any given moment these days, 500,000 people are up there at 30,000 feet inside of a machine that has to work for them to stay alive. Nobody thinks twice about it.
The technological abilities we have now to get to the moon, to land on the moon and then to get back are really much stronger than they were when we actually did this in the early 1970s. And I think it could quickly get normalized.
Rational people, for fun, would go to the moon and not think twice about the dangers involved.
Space.com: What do you hope readers take away from "Red Moon"?
I think the main thing I want them to take away from my book "Red Moon" is that China is really interesting and important and nobody understands it — and I mean not just Americans, who definitely don't understand it, but even the Chinese people themselves.
It's a big, powerful society in rapid flux. It's unstable and dynamic and it's super interesting.
That's the first thing. … The moon itself — I think people will come away with the same sort of feeling I did, that it's small, dangerous, interesting but not important in human affairs.
This interview has been edited for length. You can buy "Red Moon" on Amazon.com.