MD Lachlan’s Celestial is a hard book to pigeonhole. It is set in an alternative 1977, so is steeped in Cold War and post-Vietnam vibes, takes place mainly on the Moon (but not really) and references a smorgasbord of human beliefs and mythologies. And after all this, the narrative does not adquately answer any of the big questions that it sets itself.
Ziggy Da Luca is a linguist who specialises in ancient languages and finds herself working for NASA. Thinking that she is going to be fired (because she never really knew why she was hired in the first place) she is let into a secret – that a structure has been discovered on the Moon by the Russians. Two cosmonauts entered through a hatch in the structure but never returned. Ziggy recognises the symbols on the hatch and relates its location to ancient texts that she has deciphered. Without delay she is stuck in a lunar lander and sent to the Moon with a team of four others, one of whom, a Vietnam vet, openly despises her because of her Asian appearance. When it appears their lander has been destroyed Ziggy and her two companions have no choice but to enter the hatch. And then things get really, really weird.
The bulk of this novel is spent inside the structure the crew find on the Moon. There are strange passageways, they encounter figures from their pasts, they have to deal with mythology (and at one point a cheesy 1970s scifi show set on the Moon) come to life and negotiate with the opposing Russian forces they encounter. This all just comes across strange and disorienting and to seemingly no purpose. Not much of it makes any real sense, although Ziggy and her Russian counterpart Kovacs, who for unexplained reasons develop a psychic bond, have a good stab at trying to explain some of it.
In the end, reading Celestial feels like what a bad acid trip might be like. Random nightmarish visions from the character’s pasts, shining lights and sliver lakes, portals that open just by thinking. And all this with a mishmash of mythology including Baba Yaga and the Norse World Tree and a Vietnamese prison camp and Space 1999, among other things. If there is an alien intelligence at work, it never explains itself and the characters never encounter it directly. So none of what the characters go through is ever really explained, or resolved and even the fact that the alien structure is there in the first place is waved away.
Lachlan may have had an idea of what he wanted with Celestial but it never becomes clear. This is billed as an alternate history but besides the premise none of that history is really explored or explained. And any message or philosophy or theme are lost in the weirdness. It is one book where a little more exposition might have gone a long way.
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