Rating: 5.4 (out of 10)
The Moon has been a hot topic in science fiction lately. Ian McDonald has his elegantly overstuffed Luna trilogy; Andy Weir gave us an intricately detailed, but overly mechanical procedural, Artemis; John Kessel snuck under the radar with his magnificent utopian epic The Moon and the Other. The cover and description of David Pedreira’s debut novel, Gunpowder Moon, seems to promise a good old-fashioned murder mystery.
It’s a no-brainer, really. Humans have no earthly business living on the moon – any reason for being there (namely, profit) would have to come with a set of standards and protocols geared toward the safety of its inhabitants. Murder would be easy from a technical standpoint – as Weir pointed out in The Martian, space wants to kill you, so killing someone would hardly call for exceptional effort of the part of the killer. However, it is expensive to put someone on the moon. The people who get there would hardly be considered expendable, and even if motive could be established, you’d better have a damn good reason to kill someone and an even better plan, because there’s really nowhere to go afterward. You’re stuck on the moon, after all.
That Pedreira conjures up a believable motive and opportunity makes it all the more disappointing that the murder mystery angle is Gunpowder Moon’s weakest element. The story follows Dechert, commander of an American helium-3 mining operation on the moon in the year 2072. He runs a tight ship, with no accidents or deaths under his watch – a welcome departure from his time as a marine fighting in (predictably) the middle east. But a bomb goes off on one of his diggers, killing the youngest member of his team, and evidence points to a conspiracy that could spark an international incident as China and Russia also have mining interests on the moon, and control of the energy supply is the best leverage a super power has over the world and possibly the solar system.
As a mystery, the novel never really gets off the ground. The protracted setup labors over establishing character and setting, but we never really get to know anyone, except for Dechert, particularly well, and while the mining operation itself is detailed enough to be believable, I find it very hard to believe that any government could convince anyone (In this case, four men and one woman) to live in such a cramped space for several years with no down time or recreational options or that they would all manage to keep their sanity under such conditions with no alcohol or sexual activity of any kind – but that appears to be the case. Once the young miner Cole is murdered, and Dechert is compelled with some urgency to uncover the truth, the search for the killer is postponed as the American government immediately militarizes its operations on the moon in order to respond to their perception of the bombing as a Chinese threat.
This development turns out to be a blessing for the reader: as a military thriller with tense and believable depictions of what combat might be like in space, the novel almost takes off. I say almost because this doesn’t happen until about halfway through, before shifting back to murder mystery mode just in time to reveal the culprit – a reveal that happens through no real effort on the part of the hero. It is, and always shall be, a terrible mistake to set up a mystery and then solve it with literally no intervention on the part of the story’s protagonist. After which, the denouement is nearly as drawn out as the beginning and is only there to set up a prospective sequel/series.
Gunpowder Moon is executed at a fairly steady pace and has its entertaining moments, but the uneven story development and humdrum worldbuilding keep it from standing out among its peers.