by Francis Spufford
Welcome to the moon. The Luna of this book, though, is not the line-marrying penal colony, making revolution in the name of the free market, that Heinlein created in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. It is also not the flamboyantly vicious planet of warring oligarchies that you find in Ian Mcdonald’s Luna series. This moon, two generations on from its independence, is a polite, conscientious, rather conformist place, where the biggest arguments are overbalancing the water budget. An FTL drive was invented by scientists here, but its effect has been to move the adventure of exploration outward and elsewhere, leaving Luna not as a frontier, but more as a tidy provincial backwater—a sort of planetary Switzerland. Everyone knows everyone. Cameras monitor every public place. Near the top of the list of the most antisocial actions you can perform—only tourists from Earth are crass enough—is playing with your beverage in public.
To grow up here, in a society of pressurized domes where a light rain falls from the roof every hundred and fifty hours exactly, is to struggle to find the space for excitement, for discovery, for change, for solitude. It’s not a dystopia. The adults watch with sympathy, having been through the same process themselves. “Luna is so empty, there are so few of us, and when we’re young we all want to be so alone.” “Just a fantasy. We all want to find the secret ice lode, or the Native Lunars, or at least their lost city … we all want to hitch on a ship and see the New Worlds. We all start out … weightless, floating.”
The rebellious plan devised by fourteen-year-old Matt Ronay and his friends could be made to sound almost comically tame, if you described it wrong. Pretending to their parents that they are safely at a sleepover, they travel to the Far Side on a sleeper train, playing a Robin Hood–themed RPG as they go, and responsibly sorting themselves into one bedroom for the boys and one for the girls. They visit an observatory, they eat an excellent meal in a Russian restaurant. Then they come home again. Okay, I’ve missed out the part where they get caught in a riot and Matt does something that changes his life forever: but those aren’t the dramatic exceptions in an un-dramatic story. It’s all drama, as far as the kids are concerned: all equally part of the tremulous business of starting to break away into lives of their own.
Making a fundamentally quiet story like this exciting for the reader too is the kind of challenge that appealed to John M. Ford, who liked to do at least six impossible things before breakfast. And he does. Taken on Matt’s terms, this is a book of transformations, in which all the momentous changes of passing from childhood into adulthood happen. It carries him from simplicity into complexity; from dependence and its resentments to independence and its responsibilities; from the small worlds of Copernicus station and the Robin Hood game into progressively larger and larger ones. It carries him outside the security of his prejudices as well—from “Hating the Earth was easy,” on the first page, to “Nothing was, now” on the last. This is youth’s classic acceleration to escape velocity, the material for the whole genre of the growing-up novel, where someone discovers themselves by discovering the world for the first time. In SF specifically, it’s the territory pioneered back in the 1950s by Heinlein in his juveniles, where a boy (yeah, always a boy) discovered themselves by discovering the universe. There’s a lot of Citizen of the Galaxy and Starman Jones in this book’s DNA, deliberately. The readability of the prose, check. The interest in how things work, and in the competent people who make them work, check. The emphasis on challenges, initiations, mentorship. The self-reliance. The discovery that the adults you meet include both tricksters and people of their word, and that sometimes they’re the same people. In some ways, Growing Up Weightless is like a lovingly curated re-creation of a Heinlein juvenile, written by John M. Ford in the 1990s from pure joie de vivre. Because he could. Because he could see how to make the old story work with new attitudes, new technology, new perceptions.
But that’s not all it is. Why do only one impossible thing, when you can do several? As well as being one of the most convincing attempts to continue the tradition of the juveniles, it’s also, simultaneously, one of the subtlest SF novels ever written, a study in character that pays such minute attention to the shadings of human motive that it makes an asymptotic approach to complete mystery. “He hardly deigns to tell you what’s happening,” a character reading Growing Up Weightless observes in Pamela Dean’s 1998 YA Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary. Robert Heinlein, meet Henry James. Guys, you may not think you’re going to get along. But that’s because up till now you haven’t had your compatibility demonstrated by the virtuoso Mr. Ford.
The trick is in the way he handles point of view. When we are in Matt Ronay’s head, events are as transparent and as clear as they seem to be to Matt, to begin with. (They’re getting more complicated by the end.) Everything has a first-time freshness, and it’s easy for the reader to recognize the universal stuff of growing up, on any planet in any century. The impending choice of what you want to be; the disputes within a group of kids over who really counts as an insider; the way attraction stirs inside friendship; the way that a parent looms as an apparently omnipotent force until, suddenly, they don’t. Some of this is pivoted a little way away from the familiar by the different rules of Ford’s Luna, but it’s all decodable. But Matt’s is not the only head we find ourselves inside. Artfully and without warning, sometimes in the space of a single sentence, we slip sideways, and into the very different mental worlds of (occasionally) his mother the surgeon and (overwhelmingly) his father the composer and lunar politician. For Ronay senior, life is not fresh, or new, or transparent. It’s a melancholy compromise between duty and fulfillment, ancient enough to him that he would never need to explain it to himself, so doesn’t explain it to us, either. Maybe it’s that he’s sacrificed music to the thankless task of balancing the moon’s water supplies. Or there’s just a hint that, though he loves his family, he may have sacrificed in the name of it a sexuality that came more easily to him. And he’s right in the middle of an ongoing political intrigue in which the personalities and motives of the players in Luna’s small-world affairs are all-important, but which, again, Ronay doesn’t explain to us any more than he would to himself. We come in partway through a drama of hints and silences, and exit again with the scene not yet resolved. It’s like eavesdropping on a rich, puzzling, clearly urgent conversation between strangers. And whereas in, say, a Gene Wolfe novel, the puzzle implies a solution, though it may be a very tricky one, because all the parts of the puzzle are somewhere to be found in the text, here the impression is of being entrusted with something genuinely incomplete. Something not cryptic but genuinely unfathomable. A dip into the human depths, lightly touched on.
Meanwhile, one thing we can be sure of is that the outworkings of the half-comprehensible struggle his father is engaged in are popping up unrecognized in Matt’s innocent adventure to the Far Side. The man he meets on the train is the Earth agent the disgraced representative of the Vacuum Corporation has warned Ronay senior against. The message he receives from the very old physicist in the wheelchair is, thanks to a malfunctioning speech synthesizer, the reply the physicist tried to give the agent. The riot Matt and friends get tangled up in is, in some way, the agent’s doing. It’s as if the book is a piece of fabric with completely different pictures embroidered on its two sides, and the stitching sometimes shows through. The father’s weary, ironical middle-aged novel leaks through into the son’s Heinleinian juvenile. And vice versa. The effect is to lay together innocence and experience: the hopes of growing up with the costs of the place it may lead to. They don’t sum. Like the lives of son and father, they run near each other, but they angle off into mutually misunderstood solitudes. (Matt’s father, we can gradually work out, spends the book worrying about Matt feeling obliged to do something he has not yet even thought of.) Like the trompe-l’oeil windows Matt’s friend Ruby has painted on her bedroom wall, Growing Up Weightless plays an exquisite game with perspectives, “none matching, a maze of conflicting horizons.”
Copyright © 1993 by The Estate of John M. Ford
Introduction copyright © 2022 by Francis Spufford