A while back I said that I had read Robin Sloan’s new novel Moonbound and hoped to read it again. Wrong! I had not genuinely read it. Now I have, and I love this book

Several decades ago, the semiotician A. J. Greimas claimed that all stories are comprised of six actants, in three pairs: 

  • Subject/Object 
  • Sender/Receiver 
  • Helper/Opponent 

Moonbound is a book that readily lends itself to this analysis. 

We (you and I and the other humans on this planet) are the Anth — the Middle Anth, as it happens. Our descendants will do some amazing things but tragedy will eventually befall them. But, anticipating their downfall, they prepare a message, in the form of a girl in cryogenic sleep, for those who will occupy the Earth after them. (Sender/Receiver.)

The girl eventually joins forces with a boy, Ariel, the protagonist of our story, who wants to know how to combat the dragons who live on the moon and have cut earth off from the rest of the cosmos. (These dragons are made of information. It’s complicated.) The dragons have made Earth the Silent Planet, as it were, and Ariel wants to end that silence, that isolation. In this quest he is forever pursued by an angry wizard, but also regularly finds help from unexpected friends. (Helper/Opponent.) 

It is through the mediation of some of those friends, a college of scholars, that Ariel encounters the most important Helper of all, who makes for him the one thing he needs to deal with the dragons. (Subject/Object.) 

See? It’s brilliant. And the pattern is reinforced by constant references to another story, the one on which this one seems to be modeled: the matter of Arthur. But then, it’s a lot like many other stories as well. For instance, at one point our small hero is led through the wilderness by a rough customer he meets in a tavern, one who is called by a nickname beginning with S, and who provides him with a means of swift escape from his pursuers. It’s true that this fellow is a trash-picker rather than the descendent of kings, and that he’s called Scrounger rather than Strider, but the commonalities are strong and that’s what matters, isn’t it? 

Or is it? 

What makes a story matter to us? Does interest lie in the ways it resembles other stories, as Greimas’s scheme seems to suggest, or in the ways it differs from them? 

At one point, early in Moonbound, when Ariel is still living in the village of Sauvage, at a desperate moment he runs towards a prominent feature of the village: a sword plunged into a stone. His companion, the narrator of this book (again: it’s complicated), thinks, “I knew this story! The words inscribed on the sword read — The boy hurried past. Ignored it completely.” He retrieves a very different sword that, as it turns out, is much more helpful to him — though this greatly angers the wizard who has plotted Ariel’s life. (One man’s Helper is another man’s Opponent.) 

Having gone off-script, Ariel is confronted by the enraged wizard: 

“The stone is my design. As is the village. As are you.” The directness of his speech made the boy’s blood sizzle. “Yet you did not pull the sword. Why?”

“I found another,” Ariel said simply.

The wizard frowned. “Another sword ought not to have sufficed. The pattern is burned into your cells. Don’t you feel it? Or is my design so poor?” 

“Of course I feel it,” Ariel said quietly. First, triumph and terror; now, dread and calm. “But there are other designs, too.” 

And maybe not just designs. If you were to ask me why Ariel found the other sword, the sword that wrecked the plans of the manipulative, controlling wizard, I’d say that he just got lucky

Luck, this tale suggests, is a big factor in human affairs. From a conversation that happens later in the book, between Scrounger and Durga, the girl awakened from sleep, “the last daughter of the Anth”: 

“The way I’ve heard it, the Anth destroyed themselves,” said Scrounger. “Maybe you’re right, and maybe your future yanked you straight into disaster. Maybe there’s a lesson there.”

”The end of the Anth wasn’t hubris,” Durga said. “I know that’s an easy story to tell, but it’s not true. We were beyond that.”

”A lot of hubris, saying you’re beyond hubris.”

”Yet I am saying it.”

”All right, I’ll allow it wasn’t hubris. What was it, then? What doomed your cause?”

”Bad luck,” Durga said simply. “There is such a thing, in history, as miserable bad luck.” 

So, to sum up, what makes a story go off-piste? Luck, bad or good. Luck makes for stories rather than Story. Luck is the presiding spirit of the Garden of Forking Paths. Where Luck is present, you can’t map the scene with Greimas’s three pair of actants — that only gets you the X, Y, and Z axes. And as one of the characters — well, kind of a character: it’s complicated — explains to us, only a massive multidimensionality is genuinely adequate to the world.  

Perhaps most important: Luck defeats the would-be Controllers, the ones who would dictate every step in everyone’s story — or maybe even bring stories to an end. 

Well, probably. This too could be complicated.

  • Let us grant, per argumentum, that Ariel wasn’t destined to find the sword he needed, or to meet the Helpers he needed to find. There’s no wise elder to tell Ariel, “You were meant to find that sword, and not by the wizard. And that may be an encouraging thought.”
  • But Ariel, when we first meet him, says, “I know I am meant for something important. I can feel it. I have always felt it.” 
  • But the wizard programmed him to think this way: “The pattern is burned into your cells.” 
  • But the feeling persists in Ariel even after he liberates himself from the wizard’s tyranny. And if he is lucky, then his luck is extraordinary. 

I am not sure that there is an answer to this conundrum, but we may find a way of negotiating it by reflecting on what Robin calls “Gibson-Faulkner Theory.” (The name is explained in this interview.) In the novel we merely learn that the “central premise of Gibson-Faulkner Theory” is: “The present is a function of the future, not the past.” As Durga explains, 

“What I mean is — we have minds! We dream, and we plan, and then we take action. For that reason, our present is a function of the future we imagine. It is forged in response to vision. If we lack vision — well, then the ghosts will play, and that is our own fault. You can believe it or not. I know it is true, because I was born in San Francisco, the city the future reached back and made, because it was going to be needed.” 

Now, I could (and probably will, in another post) argue with this — and as one of the progenitors of Gibson-Faulkner theory, I think I have a right to say that Durga’s articulation contains too much Gibson and not enough Faulkner. But the point is a powerful one. We act towards the future we have envisioned. And “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).  

We love the old stories — we love stories that do what we expect them to do, what we know in advance they will do. But we also love it when they surprise us. Repeatedly in Moonbound we are told that “the great question of the Anth” is: “What happens next?” And we only ask that question when a story is surprising us, or when we hope it will. 

We need themes, and we need variations on themes. And Moonbound provides both, and provides them delightfully. What a cool book. Hey Robin: More, please. I want to know what happens next.