The Dark Side
by Andrew O'Neill
"Only a lunatic would live on the Moon.
The Moon is a dead rock--eighty-one quintillion tons of dead rock. It's been dead for nearly four billion years. And--inasmuch as a dead rock wants anything--it wants you dead too."
So opens The Dark Side, a bold, brash, larger-than-life adventure with the aforementioned lunatics on the dark side of the moon. Exploding goats, discussions of democratic murder, bouncing chases across rooftops--bouncing because of the lower gravity, of course--, men with bowie knives popping up to interrupt informants as they open their mouths to tattle on the villain, rough terrain vehicle chases across moon craters… this book's got it all.
In some ways, The Dark Side reminded me of Douglas Adams, if Douglas Adams decided to borrow plot points from Guillermo de Toro and James M. Cain. Like Hitchhiker's Guide, the tone of the book is conversational, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall with explanatory asides to the reader, apparently with the assumption that the reader is a prospective tourist to the moon. The whimsical and punny character names-- Q.T. Brass, Johnny D-Tox, Dash Chin, Prince Oda Universe, etc-- reminded me of Adams as well.
However, there is one sharp difference: the level of gore. Since the city started life as a penal colony, the number of immoral characters isn't much of a surprise, but the details of some of their atrocities are still horrifying. Don't get attached to the characters of The Dark Side because in almost every case, here's what's going to happen: the character will be introduced, be humanized (or dehumanized) through a backstory, and then suffer a grisly fate. All within a few pages. Rinse and repeat. Sure, Adams has a pretty high death toll in Dirk Gently and Hitchhiker's Guide, but Adams' deaths are comparatively gentle and mostly happen offscreen, with a whale and a pot of petunias suffering some of the most graphic on-page deaths. (I still feel badly for the whale.) Like Adams or early Pratchett, I think O'Neill is using death as comic relief, but it's something I have difficulty appreciating, particularly since the deaths are often wincingly, breath-catchingly graphic. Unfortunately for me, I don't find death--even the death of sperm whales falling towards a planet--all that funny.
At the same time, O'Neill really, really gets the hardboiled/noir vibe. He's got the cheerfully immoral city, the almost admirably egotistical gangster kingpins, the enigmatic femme fatales, the sly wit, and the jaded but earnest detective. Example quintessential hardboiled quote:
"He's come to trust the droids implicitly. It's an illusion, of course, because he knows very well that robots can be programmed to betray, but in his experience humans are always programmed to betray."
Our protagonist, Damien Justus--pronounced like "Eustace," although no one on the moon seems to believe him-- has just been transferred to the city of Sin, part of Purgatory, on the dark side of the moon. (They tell it like it is in Purgatory. Motto of the city: "There's nothing better than living in Sin.") On his first day of work, he gets a bombing, and while no one on his team seems all that bothered, Justus quickly realizes that the murder may be tangled up in something much, much larger: a conspiracy that will put him in the middle of a power struggle between mob boss Fletcher Brass and his daughter, QT Brass. All too soon, Justus is fencing with the Brass family and their shared "art of preemptive candor" while dodging bullets, escaping hits, and investigating an ever-increasing pile of bodies. Even as Justus remains mired in Sin, a psychotic android is on its way to the city, swiftly internalizing Fletcher' Brass's "Brass Code" into its new moral system:
"Never bang your head against a wall. Bang someone else's."
If you're in the mood for a crazy, colorful, flamboyant noir space adventure, The Dark Side may be for you.
~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~