Out of the Fog of Memory: A Review of The Moonday Letters by Emmi Itäranta
The Moonday Letters. Emmi Itäranta. Titan Books, July 2022.
In the home stretch of Emmi Itäranta’s resonant new novel, one of the diegetic chapter epigraphs provides an introduction to Fog, a synthetic cannabinoid approximately a thousand times more psychoactive than marijuana. It was initially developed to treat muscle pain arising from life in Martian gravity, and is now widely used across many colonies; but it is often impure, and has side-effects such as the generation of an “almost coma-like state in users, which makes them indifferent and incapable of reacting to external stimuli”. It is not the only element in The Moonday Letters that invokes mind-body dissociation: the protagonist and narrator, Lumi Salo, who is searching for her mysteriously elusive spouse, is a spiritual healer whose soul-journeys take her away from the waking world, leaving her groggy and disoriented on her return. But there is something foggy and occasionally enervating about the novel for the reader, as well: in addition to the (expertly executed) conceit that the whole thing is a document collection published in the 24th century concerning events in the 22nd , much is withheld, mostly because it is unknown to Lumi, but sometimes because she doesn’t want to write about what she knows. So the risk of reader indifference is not zero. In the end, however, I was put strongly and favourably in mind of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005). Both books are restrained novels; both start in fog, and spend more time looking inward than outward; both are about narrators who don’t allow themselves to know everything a reader might want to know. And both are novels in which the closing pages unleash a painful clarity.
Itäranta’s two earlier novels, Memory of Water (2012), a near-future climate fiction, and The City of Woven Streets (2016), a weird environmental fantasy, are similarly moody. The Moonday Letters applies the same ruminative and dreamlike tone to a setting reminiscent of the populated anthropocene-challenged solar systems of Robinson, McAuley, Corey and others. Here’s a paragraph from early on, when Lumi is writing about her time in a Europan city under the ice:
Apart from the ocean and ice, silence is one of the most remarkable features of Europa. […] The thickness of the ice is so important to sheltering the settlements from radiation that a crack anywhere on the surface of Europa could trigger fatal consequences. The ice is sensitive to sound, so the decibels are never permitted to exceed a certain level. Europans have developed all kinds of silent ways to go about their business in these unusual circumstances, and I learned that when they first started building the settlements, almost entirely soundless new kinds of robotic machines had to be invented so the crust would not be disturbed.
It’s hard to take this literally: the thickness of ice that would provide appropriate radiation shielding is not going to be vulnerable to cracking if people talk above a whisper. But it is tremendously evocative: the image of a hushed cold community, surrounded by darkness, negotiating with the local environment to find new ways of living. There’s a lot of this sort of description in The Moonday Letters, and a lot of it is compelling.
Most of the documents collected in The Moonday Letters are diary entries framed as letters, in which Lumi addresses her absent spouse, Sol Uriarte. Sol is an ethnobotanist who initially seems merely to be travelling around the solar system for work, but who then vanishes entirely, prompting Lumi to attempt to track them down. So the entries are digressive, speculating on where Sol might be, or whether there is something in their shared past that could shed light on their disappearance. Lumi thinks a lot about what Sol would think of her letters, in a way that reminded me not just of Ishiguro, but of Ian R. MacLeod’s protagonists: anxious, tentative, drawn into the wake of someone who initially appears more purposeful than they are, forced to re-understand their life from another’s perspective.
Where Itäranta goes beyond either Ishiguro or MacLeod is in her forays into the metaphysical. The novel’s title is drawn from a memory palace that Sol and Lumi build together in happier times, their Moonday House; Lumi returns to it several times over the course of the novel, and it serves as a conduit between them when they are apart, even as we come to suspect each of them has actually been building a slightly different house. Even more striking is Lumi’s work as a healer. She holds sessions with clients that are framed as a type of spiritual therapy, helping to restore damaged souls, and she is aided in her task by an animal familiar, a lynx who guides her through other planes. Lumi’s abilities are, as far as a reader can tell, real within the world of the novel; their origin is never definitively explained, but they provide an intriguing counterpoint to Sol’s more conventionally scientific engagement with the non-human.
It would be easy for a story of this kind to drift – “each time we walk in memories again”, Lumi writes to Sol, “they grow a little stronger, and we grow a little weaker”. So it’s important that the present-tense story keeps moving: in pursuit of Sol, Lumi travels from Europa to domed cities on Mars, cylindrical space station habitats, the Moon colonies, and, crucially and ultimately, to drowned Earth itself, which has disintegrated into under-developed island-states whose economy is predicated on tourism. None of the settings are rote – this is not a utopian solar system, nor a dystopian one; it is a future where capitalism continues unabated, but where there is a sense that change is at least possible, if difficult. What gives the travelogue a sense of direction, even when there is little external incident, even when Sol starts to seem unreal, is Lumi’s determination to solve the riddle of their life together and why it has suddenly ruptured.
It’s obvious, from much earlier than Lumi allows herself to admit, that Sol has abandoned their personal relationships because they are part of an ecological activist network known as the Stoneturners, who believe that landscape has value in itself and who appear to be branching out into ecoterrorism as a form of advocacy on the lands’s behalf. It’s also clear from about the half-way mark that, for all its incidental beauty and emotion, The Moonday Letters will ultimately stand or fall with the specifics of Sol’s choice, how (or if) their behaviour is justified or at least explained, and how its broader impact is narratively balanced with the personal impact on Lumi. In other words, Itäranta does need to burn off the fog to end her story well. She does, for my money, succeed, by answering questions that should be asked more: can humanity end the anthropocene? And, if so, what comes next? Of course, to make any answers to those challenges feel real, both personal and societal perspectives must be addressed. My realisation, at the end of The Moonday Letters, was that it had married the two from the start.
Niall Harrison has reviewed for Strange Horizons, The New York Review of Science Fiction, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and others. You can find him on Twitter.
This review was commissioned by an emailed pitch. The author and editors had no previous acquaintance. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander.
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