Visions of Paradise

Friday, February 11, 2005

The Moon and the Sun

Vonda McIntyre is a very deliberate, seemingly unemotional writer, similar in many ways to Kim Stanley Robinson. However, I have not read much of her recent fiction because it's either been part of her long Starfarer series or media-related fiction (both Star Wars and Star Trek). So while I loved such early novels as Dreamsnake and The Exile Waiting, as well as her excellent short fiction of the 70s and 80s, I had kind of forgotten about Vonda as a serious writer of SF.

So I was shocked a half-dozen years ago when she won a Nebula Award for The Moon and the Sun, a novel I had never even heard of. Going back through the Locus recommended novels of 1997, I saw it had been nominated as one of the best fantasies of the year and finished #6 in the annual Locus poll. So the novel was not totally unknown to fandom in general. Apparently it was just I who missed it somehow.

The Moon and the Sun is the type of science fiction novel which would not have been written as recently as ten years ago. It's a historical novel about life in the court of Louis XIV, with nearly all the action taking place at his chateau at Versailles. It reminded me of the Chinese epic Story of the Stone in its detailed examination of life among the rich and powerful and their total ignorance of the realities of life outside their walls. I am not an expert on late 17th France, but I do know enough about that era to believe Vonda has done an excellent job in creating a believable milieu.

But this is not only a historical novel. It is also pure science fiction in that one of the characters is a Jesuit naturalist whose sea expedition recently captured a sea monster which he has brought back for King Louis' menagerie. Louis sought the sea monster because he believed the species was immortal and contained an organ which conferred immortality on humans. Hence, besides examining life in that era, the novel also examines the conflict between fading medieval alchemy and dawning scientific exploration.

In addition to that conflict, the emotional core of The Moon and the Sun is the struggle for freedom. Freedom for Marie-Josèphe de la Croix, the novel's viewpoint character who is the sister of the Jesuit. She spent much of her childhood as an orphan, trapped in a convent where she could not indulge her loves of music or mathematics or scientific study. Now she has been freed to live at the court of Louis XIV where she is equally trapped by her obligations to the nobles and to the king himself. Also freedom for the sea monster who is cared for by Marie-Josèphe and soon reveals herself to be an intelligent being rather than an animal, so that
Marie-Josèphe wonders how she can save the sea "woman" from the dissection which is her ultimate fate. And freedom for Odelette, a Turkish princess who has been captured by the French and become Marie-Josèphe's personal slave. Marie-Josèphe considers Odelette her sister rather than a slave, but even though she has been a prisoner of others her entire life, even Marie-Josèphe cannot understand that in spite of their personal closeness, it is much different being the owner rather than being the slave, no matter how close they are emotionally.

The Moon and the Sun features a wonderful cast of characters who display the perfect combination of believability as true people as well as representatives of the nobility of that era. They include Marie-Josèphe's Jesuit brother Yves, King Louis XIV himself; his second wife Madame de Maintenon; his brother Monsieur and his family: wife Madame, male lover Chevalier de Lorraine, and daughter Mademoiselle, whose relationship with Marie-Josèphe mirrors the latter’s relationship with Odelette in many ways.

Without doubt the finest character other than Marie-Josèphe herself is Lucien, Count de Chrétien, 29 year old confidante and advisor to Louis XIV, who in spite of being a dwarf is the most important member of the king’s entourage. Gradually he becomes Marie-Josèphe's supporter and confidante as well, and the only person who takes her seriously when she tries to convince King Louis that the sea woman is intelligent and deserves her freedom, neither deserving to be dissected by Yves as he dissected the male sea monster or served to the king as a meal fit for Charlemagne himself.

The climax of the novel is nearly-perfect, combining page-turning excitement with suitable action by the novel’s various characters, neither so predictable as to erase its excitement nor so contrived as to be unbelievable. And it reaches a suitable resolution for nearly all the novel’s major characters.

The Moon and the Sun is an epic tragedy in the Shakespearean sense, a struggle among members of the Kings court, a struggle for freedom, a deep emotional novel, and an incisive look at life among the French nobility. It is both thought-provoking and gripping, emotional yet objective, a success in every possible way, and a fine, fine science fiction novel. I recommend it most highly indeed.


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