THE MOONDAY LETTERS by Emmi Itäranta (BOOK REVIEW)
“We carry within us every home, including those that no longer exist, so we’d have somewhere to return to.”
“Pests have hitched rides with humans to new islands and continents as long as we have known how to cross those distances; why should space be any different? We leave a trace of ourselves wherever we go: a plastic bag printed with a supermarket logo at the bottom of the deepest sea, a soft drink can half-buried in mud on a high mountain, a dump of toxic waste amid the bone-white dust of the Moon.”
Emmi Itäranta’s previous two novels, the dystopian climate change novel The Memory of Water (2014) and the post-New Weird fantasy The City of Woven Streets (2016), established her as an exciting new voice in speculative fiction, equally capable of gorgeous prose and innovative speculative ideas. Her new novel, The Moonday Letters (2022), delivers on the promise of her earlier books. Written in epistolary form, the novel is a bold and necessary exploration of climate change and the damage we are causing to our own planet. It is also a deeply moving portrayal of queer love, and a meditation on faith and science and the ways they shape our understanding of the world. Itäranta has written a work of science fiction that demonstrates just how crucial the genre is for exploring the problems that face humanity as a species and not just our world but any other worlds we may eventually leave Earth to explore. It joins Marian Womack’s The Swimmers (2021) and Monica Byrne’s The Actual Star (2021) as a key work of modern speculative fiction engaged in asking the difficult questions about humanity after the Anthropocene.
The Moonday Letters are told through the letters written by Lumi Salo, an Earth-born woman, to her non-binary partner Sol Uriarte, interspersed with transcripts, documents and news reports which provide further context and worldbuilding. Lumi is a healer who grew up on an Earth ravaged by climate change and pollution that now ekes out a precarious living as a series of amusement park-style holiday destinations for Martian colonists or rich off-worlders living in the orbital cylinder cities. Trained by itinerant healer Vivian, Lumi now earns a living traveling between Mars, the cylinder cities and Europa, helping return people lost parts of their souls. Lumi returns from a healing assignment on Europa to Sol’s family home on Mars, only to find Sol missing, having left behind a cryptic message. Via the letters that Lumi writes so that Sol can share her experience when they are reunited, we follow Lumi’s journey across Mars, the cylinder cities, Earth and the Moon, as she goes in search of her lover. Lumi discovers along the way that there are many things she did not know about Sol, particularly Sol’s involvement in eco-terrorist group the Stoneturners, who may be planning something catastrophic.
Itäranta’s novel is fiercely engaged with humanity’s relationship to the ecosystem. The Moonday Letters is set in the year 2168, and people have dealt with climate change by essentially abandoning the Earth. The colonies on Mars and Europa, supported by genetically engineered crops, and the cylinder cities, are artificial environments that are ironically more welcoming than our home planet now, and whilst work is being done on combatting pollution and the effects of climate change, it is slow and ineffectual, and now that the wealth is concentrated off-world it is not seen as a priority. The Moonday Letters asks, what is our responsibility to the Earth now that we are aware of the huge impact we are having on our planet? Itäranta extends this question outwards as well – now that we have ruined one planet, why do we think that gives us the right to destroy other worlds, even if they do not support life? These are questions that Sol, who works as a bioengineer, wrestles with. The moral dilemma leads them to join the Stoneturners, who are driven by desperation to change from a peaceful protest organisation into ecoterrorists. Sol asks Lumi what she would be willing to sacrifice to fix the Earth, a question that takes on extra resonance as the full extent of what the Stonecutters intend to use Sol’s research into symbiotic fungi and lichen is revealed.
The Moonday Letters is also very much about faith and science as opposing ways of understanding the world. Lumi, as a healer, represents faith, an aspect of herself that comes into conflict with Sol’s rationalist understanding of the universe as a biologist. Although The Moonday Letters is a science fiction novel, it is still a book that finds a place for faith. The reader gets to follow Lumi’s journeys into the spirit realm as a healer, led by her spirit guide, and Itäranta treats the spirit realm as just as real as the physical world. Indeed, the spirit realm is shown to be contiguous with memory, the seductive past that is now thrown into a new light once Lumi learns of the secrets that Sol and her former mentor Vivian kept from her. The Moonday House which gives the book its name is the house of memory that Lumi and Sol have built together in their imagination as part of their relationship. The spirit realm gives the book an aspect of numinosity, a connection with the ancient world of traditional folk beliefs that is perhaps even more important now that humanity has largely become separated from Earth.
The Moonday Letters is also a novel about homes, and the many ways in which people are displaced from their homes. People living on Earth are generally those who can’t afford to leave, and the ones like Lumi who do manage to travel get treated as second class citizens by the prosperous Martian colonists or the inhabitants of the cylinder cities. But the people living on Mars, Europa and the cylinder cities are constantly reminded of the precariousness of their existence, living in artificial environments surrounded by inhospitable space. The cylinder city of Fuxi, where Lumi and Sol first live together, is destroyed when a fungus consumes all of its plant life, forcing all its citizens to evacuate. With large swathes of the Earth uninhabitable, humanity as a whole has become a population of refugees. The desire to return home to Earth is a large part of what drives the Stoneturners’ fanaticism. The Moonday House, the home that Lumi and Sol have built for themselves out of their own relationship, is all the more important in comparison. The love story between Lumi and Sol forms the heart of the book, and is told with warmth and tenderness. It’s made even more affecting by the ambiguities of Sol as a character, as their actions with the Stoneturners are called into question. The Moonday Letters is a remarkable book, full of imaginative worldbuilding, engaging characters and beautiful writing. Itäranta has written a powerful and urgent novel that is as thought-provoking as it is moving, one that will linger on in the reader’s mind long after the final page is turned.