My first exposure to Allen Steele came back in the early 90s when my uncle had a copy of the first Near Space book (back before they were being called that): Orbital Decay. I had never read much science fiction back then, and wasn't really familiar with the concept of hard sci-fi vs. soft or operatic sci-fi. Steele writes pretty crunchy sci-fi. And while I've found I prefer softer sci-fi, I make an exception for Steele (or at least this series) because of what he chooses to focus on: blue collar wage slaves in space. While Orbital Decay had a sweeping plot about the NSA (foreshadowing?), it was more about the day-to-day lives of the beamjacks working on building a giant satellite in space. Essentially, it's Ironworkers Local #395... IN SPAAAAAAAACE!
Hey, after all those stores about lantern-jawed men with blaster rays in the spacity ships banging green-skinned virgins from Orion, it's a pretty jarring shift, but a very welcome one. It may be hard sci-fi, but it's also comfortable and even a little familiar (the moondogs think their union is a useless leech; ASWI must be part of SEIU). There's no ray guns or faster-than-light travel, or anything. Hell, it's called Near Space for a reason: the furthest outpost is Mars, and that's only tangentially mentioned. It may take place 40 or 50 years in the future (from its publication in 1991), but it's still very, very grounded (HA!) in the real world. And, again, it's Joe Lunchpail in space. I just love that concept. It's why I latched on to Orbital Decay so tightly. In fact, I still have my copy of that book (my uncle didn't like it so he let me have it) sitting on the bookshelf in my spare bedroom/library. I still pull it down and read it from time to time, and just might do so again before too long.
But enough about the series in general and my nostalgia goggles. What about Lunar Descent itself?
Well, if you read the book's blurb, you'd think it was about the lunar base going on strike for various reasons. But you'd be wrong. While there is a strike (more general labor relations issues than the sweeping social commentary of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), that particular plot doesn't really come up until about 80% of the way through the book. It's almost like Steele said, "Oh, right. Conflict."
The bulk of the book is just slice-of-life events of the people living and working on the moon. Despite the potentially pedestrian nature of that, it's really quite fascinating. From the new manager trying to do right by both the workers and the company, to the workers pushed to somewhat extreme measures just to make life tolerable.
Interspersed throughout the book are passages written as clippings, news programs, or interviews conducted by the author himself. These segments work really well, actually. It's a way to give background information without having people telling each other things they already know, and it adds a layer of verisimilitude to the story, making parts of it feel almost documentary-like. Frankly, it works much better than Stoker's infodumps-via-newsclipping in Dracula.
Of course, being hard science fiction written in 1991, it has amusing moments where things that Steele couldn't have predicted are painfully commonplace in the real work, yet missing. Agencies communicating via telex, for one. Back in 1991, AOL, Prodigy and CompuServe existed, but they weren't terribly common, were insular, and were somewhat niche. He must have been shaking his head when, four years later, the internet (and especially the World Wide Web and graphical browsers) exploded, super-saturating the market. So while he's created and exceptionally believable world, and one that would have seen perfectly realistic in 1991, it looks dated and feels like a parallel world when read in 2014.
Then again, you could argue that even in 1991 it was a parallel world; a world where the US didn't largely give up on space, leaving their greatest ambitions to build a research station in orbit. Of course, I suppose you could view it as an argument for private business over government (as all the installations are owned by SkyCorp), but he doesn't exactly paint SkyCorp in a positive light. But as government-supported monopoly, it's hardly open market anyway.
But, honestly, that's really not terribly important. Despite dealing with labor relations (IN SPAAAAACE!), this isn't a political book. Or rather, the politics isn't the primary point of the novel. He's wanting to tell an interesting story set on the moon; politics and labor relations just happens to be unavoidable when talking about blue-collar hourly workers.
Amusingly, this book has very, very faint supernatural elements (a ghost). However, the way this is handled makes it feel very much like a sailor's story of the Flying Dutchman or the kind of thing most any large industrial site will have. It's not critical to the plot and very well could have been a hallucination by the character in question. While normally, something like that would feel horribly out of place (and the vague supernatural elements in Clarke County, Space weren't handled nearly as well), it seemed to fit perfectly here. But, again, this is more an apparition than a vengeful ghost.
All in all, I really quite liked this book. He definitely matured and improved as a writer between 1989 when he wrote Orbital Decay and 1991 when he wrote this one (his sophomore novel, Clarke County, Space wasn't particularly good). This novel flows better, the flashbacks and intercut scenes are clearly identified, which makes for a much less confusing read. Since these novels are just in the same world and not strict continuations of each other, I would say it's well worth picked up, especially if you like hard science fiction. And even if you prefer more operatic, this is still quite enjoyable.