Who would have thought that a contender for the best science fiction book of the year would be a novel originally published in 2006? That is nonetheless the case for Thomas A Day’s amazing, lyrical, suspenseful and poetic A Grey Moon Over China, a darkly noir-ish dystopic novel about a future that is a very believable extension of what is happening now. The world is undergoing an energy crisis that has led to major wars over the limited oil still left, and the high tech that was is decaying into a low-tech type of existence. Teens are rounded up from the streets to serve in the military, to fight and die, to act as pawns upon the chessboard of the countries that contain the dwindling petroleum resources needed by the wealthiest countries.
Army engineer Eduardo Torres was one such teen, and he is the first-person narrator of the novel. While on a mission with other soldiers to locate an Oriental scientist on a remote island, he discovers that the secret the scientist has been working on has the potential to solve the world’s energy crisis: batteries capable of storing several years’ worth of energy. They are also the answer to making Torres’s dream of leaving the dying, polluted confines of Earth’s gravity behind, of venturing out to other planets and making a new beginning for himself and thousands of humans from countries who have cut deals with him for the batteries and the secret to making them for themselves, so they can continue to exist even when Torres and the other spaceships leave.
He can’t totally succeed on his own, of course, so he enlists the help of some of his fellow soldiers. Two in particular - Sergeant Polaski and Pham - help Torres form his own private army, because possessing such an important secret makes Torres and his group a target. They work for years preparing and constructing spaceships for their journey as they rake in the funds they need from sales of the batteries.
Polaski becomes power hungry, and tries to take over the reins as much as possible from Torres. Only males and females in their band who are considered to have superior DNA are allowed to have babies, which are kept in an extensive nursery on their island headquarters. They have plans to make a quick getaway, if necessary, via their spaceships. When their island eventually is attacked, these plans have to be put into action. The soldiers attacking the island are all killed when the ships take off, as is another key character, the Moses-like paraplegic Madhu Patel, who gives the novel its title in this memory of his mother carrying him when he was a child:
“Across the great mountains lay the steppes of China. Once in a long while,
in the evening when my mother carried me in her garden and out on the bench
and held me, a cold mist would settle along the Himalayas, and a full moon
would rise up behind it. It looked then as it does now, like ashes on the snow.
My mother would shiver and hold me tighter, then, and she would say, ‘There
is a grey moon over China, Madhu, and it will bring us no good.’”
Though I like just about all genres of literature, it’s relatively rare that a book written in any genre is so well-written that it rises to the level of some of the classics of literature. Thomas A. Day’s A Grey Moon Over China does just that, and its depiction of the emigration of colonists from the Earth through a manmade passage called a “torus” to reach potentially Earth-like planets is an epic tale of great breadth and scope.
Before venturing into the torus, Torres has robotic drones built by Anne Miller travel before them, establish a foothold on likely habitable planets, and terraform them if necessary. One of their other tasks is to build a second torus, so a drone can return to let Torres know when one or more planets are ready. It would also be used to let people return to Earth, if they wanted, or to do trade with the people there.
A drone does make it to the colonists as they orbit the sun, prior to entering the torus and traveling to the Holstein galaxy. But the others seem to have disappeared mysteriously, leaving some to the conclusion that aliens might be responsible. Their lives on the habitable planets they colonize, and how they cope with the aliens they encounter, make up approximately half of the book.
A Grey Moon Over China is a book of dreams, wonderment, and the obsession of a handful of people to make a paradise for themselves out among the stars. They find that merely leaving Earth behind doesn’t mean they’ll be able to leave human nature and sin behind. Day’s book will stay with you for a long time, and it’s a novel I heartily recommend - not the cheeriest or lightest read, but full of deep meaning and a tale that will make you identify and sympathize with its three-dimensional characters.