Conspiracy in the Solar System: Review of Mercury Rising by R.W.W. Greene
Mercury Rising. R.W.W. Greene. Angry Robot, May 10, 2022.
Set in an alternative past, R.W.W. Greene’s Mercury Rising explores a version of history where Kennedy didn’t die, and although the book doesn’t focus too much on major historical events as we know them, there are recognizable figures dotted throughout the narrative. Humans are already exploring the solar system, and they’re not alone. Aliens from Mercury attacked without warning, reducing cities to “glass-lined craters.” Or did they? Everyone’s heard the stories, seen the devastation, and there’s no shortage of movies on the matter, but no one has actually seen a Mercurian—no one living, anyway. Information is thin on the ground, leaving plenty of room for conspiracy theories: everything from Nixon blowing up a city to win re-election to aliens posing as government officials. No single belief is given greater credibility than another; with the plethora of fake news and propaganda we’re subjected to these days, the reader is in much the same position as the protagonist, Brooklyn Lamontagne.
Lamontagne doesn’t start out as a likeable character, but he grows with the story, discovering truths and his place in the wider world. His lack of strongly-held beliefs aligns him with all and nothing. As he navigates through various groups of people, this ambiguity helps him blend in with both leftist intellectuals and top-brass military, although he’s often happiest in his own company. Lamontagne is the everyman, hoping to coast on his own inertia and survive unscathed. Neither happens. At the outset, his circumstances are all his own doing—running with a criminal gang leads to his friend’s death and a choice between jail and the Extra-Orbital Forces (EOF)—but he rises to the challenges he faces, albeit reluctantly at times and often driven by guilt. In a grim world with few opportunities, we could only hope to be so accidentally heroic. Given the current climate in our own world—some days I don’t want to turn on the news—it’s not difficult to put ourselves in Lamontagne’s shoes.
As readers and writers, we all know about the “hook,” that opening chapter that grabs us straight out of the gate and draws us in. Mercury Rising doesn’t have it. In fact, on starting the book, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it at all (technologically advanced, gung-ho flyboys aren’t my thing). But I persevered, somewhat resigned, into Part Two. There’s a 14-year jump between Part One and Part Two, catapulting us into the life of Brooklyn Lamontagne. The leap is surprising, changing the narrative from heroic soldiers in space to the reality of a small-time, earthbound criminal trying to muddle through with as little effort as possible. As I read on, the cleverness of Greene’s opening became apparent; it exposes how (fictional) historical events have been dramatized, perhaps even fabricated, for the benefit of those in charge.
Throughout the book, Lamontagne doesn’t get much say in where he ends up—jail, EOF training camp, the Moon—forcing him to find his place each time. Lamontagne’s main contribution to a new crowd is making top-notch vodka, which he takes pride in, but there’s little risk in doing something everyone likes. Figuring out where he belongs (or maybe who he is or wants to be) has always been a struggle, and his discomfort often causes him to lash out. It’s a recurring theme, especially when he’s challenged in the realm of emotional responsibility. The truth is, Lamontagne doesn’t believe he’s worth much, and he rebels against anyone trying to prove otherwise.
Brooklyn’s eye had healed as fast as the cut the doctor made. He cleared his throat. “Terr… I’m… S’pose I freaked out when you said I could be a good influence on Murph.”
“Ah.” Terry looked confused. “This is when I’m supposed to say, ‘go on.’”
“I ain’t a good guy. I got my best pal killed, and was ready to let another one die, too. No one should follow my example.”
Found family plays an important role in Lamontagne’s arc: despite his protestations, and perhaps his better judgement, he cares about the people around him. None of the groups he joins could be described as utopian—some are pretty grim—but there’s a common pragmatism among them, prioritizing making the best of a bad situation and forming a community. This opened up the story for me, not just in terms of understanding the mechanism for Lamontagne’s growth, but as a reminder of what people can become when they work together. This is never made clearer than when Lamontagne is talking to a new friend.
“Lot of people lost hope at the same time. Realized that we were all here for the long haul and couldn’t take it.”
“What stopped it?”
It’s a reminder for all of us how vital people are in our lives, particularly in our darkest moments.
Hosting a large cast of diverse characters, Mercury Rising addresses some key societal issues from the real world, not least gays in the military and transgender identities, and does so without falling into tropes or stereotypes. Bigotry and intolerance for LGBTIQA+ individuals is less pronounced within Mercury Rising’s fictional society. But the novel does hold up a mirror to our own society’s prejudices, with stances that recall the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of the Clinton administration. After being stationed on the Moon, Lamontagne is posted to the Baron, a spaceship manned by an all-gay crew. The EOF aren’t exactly promoting homosexuality, but rather they found a way to utilise it:
“Women weren’t allowed in space back in the ‘50s, and guys didn’t like being out so long without them. So, the Baron launched with an all-gay crew. Idea was they’d fight harder for lovers than they would for pals.”
Greene handles the topics with tact and sensitivity, baring and putting to rest Lamontagne’s prejudices, however slight, as he embraces a broader view of the world (or solar system). What struck me most about this is how naturally it all folds into the narrative; it doesn’t feel forced or obvious and often deals with intolerance in a way that is both humorous and poignant. Upon Lamontagne’s arrival on the Baron, he receives a physical.
Brooklyn unbuttoned his coveralls. “Never had a, you know, a gay doctor before.”
Carruthers washed his hands. “You never had one you know of. I’m just hoping heterosexuals keep everything in the same place. Hate to find out your head is where your ass is supposed to be.”
This exchange is one of many that highlight the absurdity of some people’s views, and although the narrative is set in an alternative past, I found it just as relevant today.
Mercury Rising falls into the sci-fi genre, but it’s also something of a galactic whodunnit. The Mercurians are an ever-present menace, yet shrouded and obscure, and Lamontagne’s discoveries and experiences only feed into the sense that something isn’t right. Even when our protagonist meets non-humans, he has as many questions as answers. There are echoes of Ender’s Game here: a lot of speculation and very little communication, which leads to a catastrophic end.
Start to finish, the book spans over 20 years, six of which follow Lamontagne. The broad time span doesn’t give the impression of urgency on behalf of the alien enemy: rather, it implies a more threatening long game. We’re made to wonder why they don’t just swoop down and finish the job of destroying Earth—they certainly appear more than capable. Greene plays out the conspiracy brilliantly, the pennies dropping and the pieces coming together just as it seems the characters can do nothing to halt what’s coming. The outcome is a testament to Lamontagne’s growth as a person, and while it’s not exactly a happily ever after, it is fitting.
This book stayed with me for a while after I finished, as much for the characters as the story itself. It’s engaging, thought-provoking and confounding. Greene has alluded to more books to come in this series and I hope that’s true. If nothing else, there’s a suggestion at the end that history might’ve been rewritten (again), and I want to know by whom.
PS Livingstone writes epic contemporary fantasy and is the author of The Transcendent Saga series, as well as numerous short stories. She works as a ghostwriter and editor, suiting her reputation as a renowned grammar fiend. Pamela lives in Glasgow with her partner and three cats, and can often be found in her allotment, usually covered in mud. You can find her on Twitter.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. The author and editors were not acquainted prior to the review. ARB did not arrange a review copy for this piece.