Luna: New Moon’s Ian McDonald brings a knife to a sci-fi fight

Author Ian McDonald writes about why you don’t want to get into a knife-fight in his novel Luna

9781473202238 (1)

9781473202238 (1)Killing with style and panache

Never ever get into a knife fight.

One of the first tasks you take on when you’re an epic dynastic story is, okay how do your epic dynasts kill each other? Where you have feuding families with great wealth and power, that happens. A lot. And if you’re writing an epic dynastic yarn of feuding corporate families in the early days of the industrialisation of the Moon, then the next consideration is, how does the Moon affect that?

The Moon is a harsh place. It’s drier than the driest desert, colder than the Antarctic, hot as hell and can fire a nuke’s worth of radiation through you. And is pretty hard vacuum as well. Lady Luna is a good murder weapon –and I certainly put her to good use in that department.

But I wanted something more personal; hand-to-hand. The first go-to in any kind of families-at-war story is guns –and I rejected them pretty quickly. The Moon makes guns problematic. Lunar gravity is a sixth of Earth’s: you’re a lot less firmly glued to the ground. Recoil from a gun can be… tricky. But the main reason I ditched guns –and most forms of projectile weapons—is because, in a world where you live surrounded by the technology that makes life on the Moon possible –water and air, power and heating and information services, spraying bullets around is certain to take out some key bit of life support. And then everyone gets hurt.

So I needed something close and personal –breath close. By the time of the story there are one and half million people living on the moon, in soaring, cathedral-like underground cities, but it’s still crowded, jostling and intimate. Edged weapons –you can’t get much more intimate than that. Not swords –they’re overused, there isn’t enough room for dazzling swordplay and kerching! repartee and they’re not dirty enough. Also, you can’t pull a sword out of your Christian Dior retro-1950s dress. Not without disastrous results for the dress. But you can a knife. Knives. Intimate and nasty.

Ian McDonaldKnives are the weapon-of-choice of the bodyguards of the Five Dragons –the great families that own the Moon’s major corporations. Tasers for the knock-down, knives for the kill. The Asamoah family like cyborg drone-insects. They’re famous contrarians among the Five Dragons, but they have flair.

But knives are mean. Knives are never noble, like swords. No one ever gives a knife a name. But they have personality. Carlinhos Corta’s preferred weapons, his gift from the secretive School of Seven Bells in Queen of the South, where he learned the way of the two blades, are twin knives forged from lunar meteoric steel. There’s an assassination attempt on a major character using a bone knife 3D printed from the assassin’s DNA.

Now I had my weapons, I had to know how to use them. Lunar law is unlike any other. There is no criminal law, no civil law, there is only contract law. Everything is up for negotiation, from marriage to murder. You contract your lawyers, the law you agree to be bound by and the judges who rule on it. Trial by combat is perfectly acceptable –and once you set that up in a book, you have to use it. I wanted a knife duel.

I asked a few people who know of these things and they all told me the same thing. Do not ever get into one. Even if you think you know what you’re doing; don’t. The difference between knife fighting and sword fighting is that the sword is both attack and defence. You can strike and parry. Not with a knife. Every action is to cut. Knife fighting is fast and hideously lethal. Your first mistake is your last. It’s close and very intimate: at touching distance, rather than the length of sword blade. It’s a very personal way to kill. There are demos on Youtube. I watched a lot of them and I am quite happy never to see them again. But I had what I wanted for a climactic duel. How does it end up? I’m not going to tell you! But it’s short and brutal. And left me with a firm conviction to keep myself well away from edged weapons. But on the Moon, they’re perfect: stylish and brutal at the same time. A bit like the world of Luna, really.

Luna: New Moon is published 17 September by Gollancz. You can buy it in paperback for £14.88 at Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.