As Patricia A. McKillip (1948-2022) recently passed away (obituary), I decided to pick up one of her few science fiction novels. And I’m glad I did! Channeling (and reworking) the conceptual breakthrough-style premise of Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night (serialized 1948) and countless generation ship novels, Moon-Flash (1984) is an achingly beautiful coming-of-age story of a young woman who sets out to map the geography of her restrictive world.
I suspect Moon-Flash would be described as YA in the contemporary market. That said, this feels like the perfect mid-80s update to the juveniles that filled the shelves in the 1950s.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
Kyreol, the daughter of her community’s dreamer, is possessed by a relentless curiosity about her world and the fate of her mother who abandoned the family. Mysterious Moon-Flashes provide a chronology to ritual and community. All the communities and geographic features of the World are organized around a single River. She asks her childhood friend relentless questions: “Terje, what shape is the world? […] Maybe my mother fell off the end of the world?” (5). When her inquiries cannot be answered, Kyreol invents stories to provide comfort and ascribe meaning.
At the next Moon-Flash, Kyreol is set to be betrothed to Korre, promised to her since childhood. While her childhood friend Terje engages with Kyreol’s speculations and participates in her adventures, Korre, while not cruel or mean, accepts his traditional horizons as set in stone and not to be questioned. After her betrothal, she attempts to see the world as he saw it: “a fish was to be eaten. A bird feather was to be used for rituals. People were to worship the River and the Moon-Flash” (20). But a deep desire to set off cannot be dissuaded. And one day she sees a mysterious stranger who talks into a communication device about another world. And she sets off with Terje down the River where strange adventures and great revelations about exterior and interior territories await.
McKillip’s consummate skill in crafting prose and image elevate Moon-Flash above other novels of its ilk. For example, her initial description of Kyreol suggests both her boundless curiosity but also the strange nature of her world: “Her skin was the color of a shadow [..] She knew all the secret places in the world–the bramble-cave in the forest, the pool beneath the falls where the great fish sunned, the hollow tree-for she had walked from the Beginning of the world halfway to its End” (3). The short novel is filled with poetic sentences and powerful images. Kyreol and Terje encounter odd stone faces along the bank–“stone giants, who had been buried in the earth, and then forgotten” (79).
Moon-Flash revolves around the notion that storytelling gives comfort and fosters a desire to learn about the world. The stories that Kyreol tells, while perhaps not the exact answer to the nature of things, provide a substrate of meaning to human action. She understands the world through the stories she tells. It’s hard not to read the tale as an homage to the act of storytelling.
While, I’m not sure I’ll pick up the sequel The Moon and the Face (1985) I still enjoyed this trip down a well-trod path. I have my eyes on her first “adult” SF novel Fool’s Run (1987) despite its late 80s publication date. Moon-Flash doesn’t have the sheer bizarre inventiveness as Harry Harrison’s similar Captive Universe (1969) but its craft, appealing characters, and powerful image made it an enjoyable few hours.
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