It’s not often you come across a novel for which the descriptive tags “gonzo” and “hard sci-fi” equally apply. Travis J. I. Corcoran’s Powers of the Earth somehow manages the feat in his tale of a rebel moon’s bid for independence. The results are a hot, glorious mess that never stops throwing new wrenches into the machinery of the plot, and yet somehow never manages to lose its focus on the main thrust of the action. Most readers liken Powers of the Earth to Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and that’s certainly appropriate, but for audacity and scope and breadth of subjects hammered between the covers, I found myself reminded of David Brin’s Earth: A Novel.
With that admittedly clickbait-ish introductory paragraph out of the way, we need to walk back both descriptive terms just a bit. While it’s true that Powers of the Earth can be described as hard science-fiction, it violates the rule of thumb that dictates a limit of one unexplained bit of magic-tech. In addition to the vague anti-gravity device that allows travel between the earth and her rebel moon, the book also includes fully sentient AI (or AIs, depending on how you count it), uplifted dogs, and a fully functioning and generally healthy anarcho-capitalistic economy. That much handwavium strains the definition of hard sci-fi, but Corcoran juggles it all without losing the feel of a hard sci-fi story by clearly stating the rules and limitations of each piece of magic-tech up front and sticking to it. With that much going on in the tech front, one could still object to the term gonzo – except that Corcoran also doesn’t shy away from the kitchen-sink attitude when it comes to point-of-view characters or political viewpoints.
The main drivers of the action are the smart-man-with-a-screwdriver who leads the cat herd of lunarians and the charismatic American president who sees a military takeover of the colony as a sure fire solution to the problems that beset her dystopic earth. Throw in political rivals for both characters, a team of investigative propogandists embedded in the lunar colony, a love interest for the lead, a hermit wandering the lunarian deserts with his pack of uplifted dogs, multiple military commanders and soldiers on the earth side of things, and it might all get to be too much. Nevertheless, each chapter is short, and the transitions between points of view are smooth enough to present the work as a unified whole. The result is an epic narrative that slowly builds the tension throughout the novel until everyone’s plans start crashing into each other in the late stages of the story.
As Book One of a duology, the book ends with the expected cliffhanger in which the real meat of the war for lunar independence kicks off with a bang. The easy victory everyone wanted gets dashed against the rocks of their rival’s plans, and enough mysteries linger in the background to entice the reader to continue the story in the second novel. With skirmishes sprinkled throughout the book – including naval combat and low-g ground combat – Corcoran delivers the action of an armed rebellion the same way he delivers everything else you might want from a book like this.
One of the chief mysteries revolves around the slow reveal of the real extent of a burgeoning AI power on the moon. Content to slow build its resources, the rising conflict forces the AI, as it does all of the other players, to plays its cards long before it is ready. That aspect of the novel delves into the nuts and bolts of the physical limitations of computing power, and the effects of server farms and file sharing and data management on the day-to-day existence of an AI. The psychological alien-ness of this character comes across, as does its vulnerabilities. Powers of the Earth touches on the operation of an AI with considerably more deftness than most AI novels. The silicon and server side of things, the coding and IT side of an AI, shows up as an interesting subplot that could easily stretch to fill a volume in its own right.
In a similar way Powers of the Earth spends time touching upon the political without sacrificing the story for messaging. As is traditional in these Campbellian throwback tales, Corcoran doesn’t shy away from strong political messaging, and clearly favors a “less is more” approach to managing an economy. The difference between the corrupt authoritarian ruling class of Earth and the less corrupt ruling class of the lunar colony are painted in stark contrast. Which isn’t to say that Corcoran paints anarcho-capitalism with rosy hues. The weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the lunar colonial government pop up all over the place, and the chief protagonist struggles to resist the temptations to give in to his advisors and rivals and just assume control of things. He acknowledges the advantages of a collective managed from the top and struggles to wring what he can from the fiercely independent colonists who fled the yoke of the Earth’s dystopia – none of whom are eager to replace that yoke with one of extra-terrestrial manufacture. As with everything in the book, Corcoran touches lightly on the subject, but never dives too deep into itself to slow the action or grind the plot to a halt.
Whatever you want from hard sci-fi, you can find it here. It might be jammed in side-by-side with a whole lot of other things. But it’s probably in here somewhere. And it’s done in a way that will leave you eager to pick up Book Two, if only to find out what other fun themes and tropes Corcoran can jam into the mix.