Review: The Moon Moth

The Moon Moth is a science fiction classic written by Jack Vance, a prolific and well-regarded American sci-fi, fantasy, and mystery writer. Originally published in 1961, the graphic novel edition of the story I read was adapted and illustrated by Humayoun Ibrahim. This was my first experience with Vance, and I thought starting off with a graphic novel would be an interesting way to start my exploration of his works. And I was right!

Faced with an alien culture where all individuals have to wear masks, how can an outworlder fit in–and locate a recently-arrived killer? While the story takes place in the future, on another planet, I found the questions it illuminated applicable to today (which the best sci-fi should do). Though we may not wear beautiful, painted masks like the Sirenese do in The Moon Moth, we are expected to hide our true feelings–especially if they are ugly, like fear, jealousy, or hate–and we can only recognize and acknowledge one another when we are “masked.” You could even say that the functioning of society necessitates our wearing of these masks–and it’s when they start to slip that we are faced with murder, poverty, and war.  So what could have been simply a thriller placed on an alien world instead became a meditation on what it means to feel, and how we choose to communicate those feelings in public. I love that this story brought up these issues!

The artistic style tended to be straightforward, without too many embellishments to detract from the story. The titular Moon Moth mask is kind of ugly, but others’ masks and the landscapes were very intricate and I appreciated Ibrahim’s attention to detail. My one concern with the art was the choice to make the Sirenese slaves black, while our protagonist and other characters in positions of power were white. There was no context given to this choice, and it detracted both from my enjoyment of the novel and the sense that this was in a far-flung and advanced civilization. However, I’m not sure if the original text mandates this, or if it was a choice of the illustrator.

Something that I instead enjoyed was the way music was illustrated in the text–something that could have been clunky was instead handled clearly and creatively. In the world of Sirene, musical instruments are of huge importance to communication and society. Each individual is expected to know how to play 6 or 7 instruments, and know in what social situation each instrument is appropriate. (As someone who is terrible at playing music, this would be my hell, btw.) For example, when talking to a slave, you should use your hymerkin, but when talking to people above your social status, you’ll need to use your kiv or your zachinko. Visually, the music was depicted as differently colored and patterned shapes encircling the characters’ text: our protagonist’s use of the strapan was always shown as light blue stars, crescent moons, and rays, while using his hymerkin to speak was drawn as sharp, discordant red triangles.

If you are unfamiliar with the stories of Vance, like I was, or if you’re already a fan but would like to approach his writing in a  new way, I would highly recommend you take a look at the graphic novel version of The Moon Moth!

I received an advance copy of this book for review from publisher Macmillan through NetGalley. The Moon Moth will be released on May 22nd.

Bookwanderer Rating: Four out of five stars

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