The Moon and the Sun: A Different Kind of Sci-Fi – a book review

Science fiction fans will be surprised by Vonda N. McIntyre’s The Moon and the Sun, for it is not your typical science fiction book. Instead of aliens, super-techy intergalactic transportation or the awesome laser gun, The Moon and the Sun, takes place in seventeenth-century France, at the court of King Louis XIV – where court rituals, court intrigue, irksome, ‘all-knowing’ men, romance, natural philosophy, extremely long and cumbersome French titles, and mermaids, I mean, sea monsters, abound. Fans of McIntyre, or simply alternate history fans and romantics who love an intelligent, compassionate heroine will devour this book, all 416 pages, yelling in outrage at the men who belittle our heroine and sighing with delight when she finds love.

The Moon and the Sun, published in 1997 by Pocket Books (a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.), follows twenty-year old Marie-Josèphe de la Croix, lady-in-waiting to Mademoiselle d’Orléans, Louis XIV’s niece. Marie-Josèphe, an ambitious and curious young lady, loves mathematics and finds natural philosophy fascinating. When her brother, Father Yves de la Croix, returns from a scientific expedition, he brings back with him the endangered sea monster, whose flesh is rumored to give immortality – something King Louis XIV would love to take a bite of. Marie-Josèphe gets the chance to be her brother’s assistant, sketching the dissection of the male sea monster and feeding the live female one, which Marie-Josèphe decides she will train and tame. As Marie-Josèphe juggles her lady-in-waiting duties, her chores for her brother and the sea monster, and composing a cantata for the king, Marie-Josèphe finds herself at odds with some members of the court, especially from the men, who try to treat her as a plaything and scorn her for her interests in math, science, and music composition (all things women could never, should never do, let alone excel at). Marie-Josèphe has to endure all of this while trying her best to follow all of King Louis’s complicated rules of etiquette. Thankfully, the respectful Count de Chrétien – one of the king’s most trusted advisors and the epitome of etiquette and refinement – is there to help Marie-Josèphe. Soon, Marie-Josèphe comes to realize the captive sea monster is not a creature, a monster, but a sea woman, one with language, history, intelligence, who yearns to be free. As the only one capable of understanding the sea woman, Marie-Josèphe, with the help of Monsieur de Chrétien, must convince the youth-seeking king to release the sea woman even while others, including her brother, write her off as ridiculous and infatuated with her ‘pet.’ In the end, Marie-Josèphe has no choice but to defy her king, her brother, even His Holiness, Pope Innocent XI, in order to do what is right and save another ‘human’ creature.

One of the major themes in this story is the treatment and roles of women, especially women inclined to the sciences.  Colony-raised and fresh from convent school, Marie-Josèphe is an innocent, a fact that the other men try to take advantage of.  Previously, Marie-Josèphe had thought many men, such as the Chevalier de Lorraine, to be handsome and kind.  Instead, Marie-Josèphe discovers these men are crass, treating her as just another frail object to be played with. The chevalier even holds Marie-Josèphe down as she is bled because she is ‘hysterical,’ though Marie-Josèphe begs him not to let them bleed her. In one particularly horrifying scene, Marie-Josèphe is chased, pinched, taunted, and clothes ripped by three other male noblemen (men Marie-Josèphe had previously thought handsome and kind) while participating in the King’s Hunt. Marie-Josèphe is restrained by the role the court places on women, just as the sea woman is held captive and thought incapable of intelligence beyond base primal instincts. As the Pope says, “Women should be silent and obedient.” That is their lot in life, and Marie-Josèphe is trying her best to not be contained by that belief.

Expanding from that, McIntyre also explores what constitutes humanity and intelligence. The utter refusal of most of the characters to acknowledge the sea monster as an intelligent, conscientious being instead of a dog is astounding. The court’s utter incapacity to accept the sea monsters as another culture and race and give the sea monster due respect is cruel. As a result, the sea monster, once free, declares war on the human race if ever they should cross her path.

This leads us to empowerment from freedom– or the hint thereof. The sea monster character is reflected in Marie-Josèphe herself, a captive in her role as a woman. Marie-Josèphe, though unable to physically fight back at her tormentors, still manages to bring herself to defy them; in doing so, her punishment unwittingly releases her to pursue her dream, leaving her free to explore her love of natural philosophy. Haleed, Marie-Josèphe’s slave, also finds empowerment from freedom, even though she knows not how her life will pan out.

Marie-Josèphe’s fight against the constraints men have placed on her reflects the many other heroines featured in feminist science fiction.  The terrible treatment of women is what many feminist authors are fighting against – what their heroines are fighting against, and what everyone, should be outraged about. McIntyre’s well-researched depiction of the French court shows that the fears of feminists are not unfounded. The undermining of women has happened for centuries; what we need to remember is the immorality of such treatment – of woman and sea people.

McIntyre’s writing and research envelop you into seventeenth-century France.  You have no choice but to be sucked in and laugh at the outrageous fashion of fontanges (Google it, really). Though be warned, the French nobility have long, multiple titles, and though McIntyre tries to abbreviate, using M. and Mme. for Monsieur and Madame, names and characters can become confusing. Thank goodness McIntyre includes a character list of who’s who.

And for those who do not know, The Moon and the Sun has been chosen to be adapted into a movie, starring Pierce Brosnan next year. I, for one, cannot wait.


2 responses to “The Moon and the Sun: A Different Kind of Sci-Fi – a book review

  • cstabile

    This is the best review I’ve read this quarter (and I’m not just saying that because I love the novel). You do such a wonderful job covering the plot, the main themes, and you capture such a sense of the scope and depth of the novel. I’m glad you brought up two things: Haleed (whose challenges to Marie-Josephe reflect McIntyre’s awareness of the limits of the category of women that we discussed last class) and the boundaries between humans and animals that are so crucial to the novel.

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