Space Outside, Sexism Inside: Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon

TorCon’s Books & Brunch panel discusses the space-centric and societal obstacles faced by Lady Astronauts in Mary Robinette Kowal’s punch-card-punk sci-fi series.

A picture of author Mary Robinette Kowal and the cover of her book The Relentless Moon
Photo: Tor Books

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In The Relentless Moon, space wants to kill you, but that’s par for the course for Mary Robinette Kowal’s punch card punk Lady Astronaut series: Ten years after a massive meteorite obliterated most of the Eastern Seaboard, the International Aerospace Coalition is trying its damnedest to cooperate long enough to get humanity to a new home, first on the Moon, then eventually on Mars. The nascent lunar colony is subjected not only to the typical dangers of trying to create a new civilization where one step outside without your suit and you’re dead—but combine sabotage from the terrorist group Earth First with a polio epidemic, and humanity’s chances look increasingly slim.

But what makes The Relentless Moon, the third installment in the series and one theoretically designed to work as a standalone, so particularly compelling is how on top of all of those challenges, it also unblinkingly confronts 1960s-era sexism—even in an alternate past—through one unforgettable “astronette”: Nicole Wargin, a fifty-something politician’s wife and celebrated Air Force pilot. Both on Earth before her mission and during her post in the lunar colony, Nicole endures sexism, ageism, and did we mention enough sabotage to qualify the novel as a spy thriller?

As the series is called Lady Astronaut, you would be forgiven for assuming that, because a bunch of women are among the first to guide post-Meteor survivors to the stars, this parallel universe must have solved sexism. And there could be an alternate-alternate past in which that is the case, but it is not this one. Instead, Kowal explores how these brilliant, brave, out-of-this-world women grapple both with their responsibility to save humanity and all of the petty bullshit that comes from society’s assumption of a woman’s “proper” place.

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To wit, Kowal put a lot of not only herself, but the other women in her life, into the Lady Astronauts. “One of the things that I had realized in writing The Calculating Stars,” she told me during Den of Geek and TorCon’s Books & Brunch panel (see panel highlights in video player), “was that part of what was making it work was that I was putting in my own experiences of sexism, but shifting the context.” She gifted The Calculating Stars protagonist Elma York with elements of her Southern upbringing and particular insecurities, but also saved some for Nicole.

“I am relentlessly, if you will, ambitious,” Kowal said of Nicole’s defining trait, yet also acknowledged the timeless challenge presented to cis women: “Having to constantly walk that line between being acceptably pretty but not too pretty; being forceful but not too forceful, because if you are, then you’re a bitch. If I am as direct as one of my male colleagues, it reads totally different.” She also drew inspiration from female role models in childhood: “My mom was an arts administrator until she retired, so watching her do that dance was really, really informative. She did all of these fundraising things, and I would see her doing those; so that was really informative for Nicole.”

It’s not unlike how Ilana C. Myer approached the fantasy world for her Harp and Ring Sequence: Sure, she had the option to eradicate sexism from this secondary world that was already so different from our own in terms of magic and underworld creatures. But instead, she gave her female poets and ladies-in-waiting obstacles instantly recognizable to contemporary readers: barred from the same education as their male peers, dismissed for their supposed delicacy or valued only for their sexuality, actively sabotaged and rarely given the opportunity to find mentors or even peers like them.

“Sometimes we may be trying to envision a better world,” Myer wrote on Den of Geek. “And sometimes we are searching for a way to bear the realities of this one.”

Despite existing in an alternate past, Nicole nonetheless bears the realities of a woman of her time, much of which parallels our 1960s: A product of Swiss finishing school and some other, less orthodox schools of training, she can flatter her way through a room of dignitaries and sweet-talk her way into an investigation. Yet all that people see is a pretty, middle-aged woman in an evening gown and red lipstick, to be trotted out at appropriate times on the arm of her governor husband—a bauble in his presidential campaign, rather than his equal in strategy and power. While she holds the honor of being among the first class of Lady Astronauts, she is also dismissed by her superiors as “old hat” and not up to the demands of the next phase of the IAC’s program.

Like both sides of the Moon, Nicole is a fascinating study in dualities. The same poise and control that helps her move among the rich and powerful also manifests as a lifelong struggle with anorexia, from which she suffers a relapse on the Moon. The Relentless Moon documents how even the Lady Astronauts’ world is made up of systems in which Nicole cannot win, ways in which she is often her own worst enemy—which only makes her more captivating to watch.

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Like the sexism, yet less intentional, the lunar colony’s polio outbreak feels recontextualized within the current covid-19 pandemic—even though Kowal obviously had no idea what world the book would be released into. Kowal’s approach to depicting this fictional epidemic doubtless would have been different, with shifts in focus and importance on various aspects, had she been writing The Relentless Moon now, mid-pandemic.

“I probably would have had much more awareness [of] the consciousness of your hands,” she said, noting that “every time you were interacting with someone else, is not something that I thought about.” Yet she has found, several months in, that her research on polio influenced how she has responded to the societal changes wrought by covid. She offered up examples for how polio reshaped American culture: “[T]here would be towns that didn’t have any polio cases that set up a quarantine barrier, so you were not allowed into the town—movie theaters shutting down, swimming pools shutting down. It’s also, weirdly, the rise of the sleepaway camp. Because they didn’t initially know what was causing it, and because there would be clusters in cities, they thought it was actually being in a city that was the problem. So they would send their kids out of the city to get them away from possible contagions.”

While sleepaway camps are decidedly not part of summer 2020, COVID-19 has brought about a unique opportunity for Lady Astronaut fans and new readers to the series: virtual space camp! Kowal will celebrate The Relentless Moon’s launch on July 14 with an immersive-theater experience, in which she’ll be dressed up as Nicole and be putting attendees through astronaut training. For more information, sign up for Kowal’s newsletter. For more of Kowal’s brilliance, check out the TorCon Books & Brunch panel in its entirety.

The Relentless Moon is available July 14. It is now available for pre-order.