Science fiction often shows us ways society could be different in the future. One recent example is John Kessel’s novel The Moon and the Other, which presents a fresh take on the idea of a matriarchal society.
“I imagine this society called the Society of Cousins on the moon that is dominated by women, and it’s organized along certain principles that are intended to defuse male violence,” Kessel says in Episode 269 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
The basic idea behind the Society is to ban men from voting but otherwise try to keep them as happy and fulfilled as possible. In the book this results in a female-led society with much less violence than other human communities, an idea Kessel finds very plausible.
“I do think that most violence in human culture goes back to male behavior, and I think that there’s got to be a huge biological element to this,” he says.
The intersection of gender and biology is a fraught topic, and at times the potential backlash almost caused Kessel to abandon the project. In the end he persevered, but he was careful to get feedback on the manuscript from writers of various backgrounds.
“I’m a 66-year-old white male,” he says. “I knew all along when I was writing this that I could get myself into very hot water, so I wanted to know what sorts of things people would say about it.”
One thing that’s struck him is that different readers will view the Society of Cousins in completely different ways. “It’s very interesting to me how many people feel the Society of Cousins is a tyranny of women over men,” Kessel says. “And then others say that it’s sort of an imperfect utopia, and that’s more what I felt it was. It’s an imperfect society like our own. It has its good points and its bad.”
Listen to the complete interview with John Kessel in Episode 269 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
John Kessel on social deviance credits:
“I was thinking about how certain economic thinkers have thought that one way to control pollution is by setting a certain maximum amount of pollution you allow in society, and then different corporations that pollute have certain credits, and they can trade these credits, so that if someone’s running a coal-fired power plant, they might buy pollution credits from someone who doesn’t pollute as much in order to have more leeway to pollute. And so what I have are ‘social deviance credits.’ So if someone else obeys the law, they’re not using their social deviance credit, so you can sell that social deviance credit to someone who’s a criminal so they can break a certain number of laws with impunity, as long as they’ve accumulated enough social deviance credit to make up for that.”
John Kessel on imagining an Iranian lunar colony:
“I figured that the richest colony on the moon would be at the lunar south pole, where they have deposits of ice, and water being a very rare and necessary commodity for human beings, that would offer any colony there the opportunity to prosper. And then I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to have it be just a bunch of Americans.’ I wanted to go for some other kind of culture there that would be very advanced and cosmopolitan but would not be middle-class American. So I hit upon the idea of Iranian immigrants founding this colony. There are numerous Iranian exiles around the world right now—there’s an area of Los Angeles, I think it’s called “Tehrangeles,” because of the number of Iranians who have immigrated there—and so I imagined some of them founding this colony.”
John Kessel on surviving on the moon:
“Any long-term lunar colonies would have to be underground, unless you somehow create an atmosphere for the moon—which some people think can be done. But unless that happens, you really have to protect people from radiation or they’ll suffer serious life effects. Also, the low gravity is a problem on the moon. I didn’t really talk about this much in the book, but in my mind anyway, the genes of the people who are born and raised on the moon are altered so that their bone structure is suited to the moon, and they don’t end up with calcium leeching out of their bones, and they don’t end up with the terrible effects of people from Earth who are left in low gravity or microgravity for long periods of time.”
John Kessel on Robert Heinlein:
“He wrote a bunch of stories about the colonization of the moon, and some of them are really pretty intelligent. One of the things I have in my book are people in a large, domed crater being able to fly. Of course that’s not original to me. Heinlein came up with that idea for his story ‘The Menace from Earth’ back in the 1950s, and he makes it quite plausible. I’m really just building off of that, so I have to give the man credit in retrospect. Although his big book that’s set on the moon, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I really don’t like that book. I feel like it oversimplifies the politics immensely, and also there’s a kind of mechanicalness to the plot of the book. It’s not my favorite Heinlein book. A lot of people think it’s one of his best, and I do not.”
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