My Say 3 - Martian Book Reviews

Karen Johnson, from Out of the Kaje #3, Jan 1999

Kim Stanley Robinson 1984
Harper Collins 1997 (obviously republished after the success of the Mars trilogy)

Although this novel starts in the asteroids and ends on Pluto, large chunks of the action take place on Mars. I haven’t yet read Robinson’s sweeping Mars saga (it’s next on the list), but I have a feeling that this book was where he started to explore many of his ideas. He presents a half-terraformed Mars, with a growing atmosphere and plant life, but not quite enough oxygen for people to breathe unassisted. The political situation is extremely murky. Mars is run by an organisation called the Committee, which has successfully combined the worst aspects of both the USA and the USSR. Ostensibly benevolent despots, they’ve been running Mars since the beginning, and by now they’ve got such a firm grasp on the reins that they can afford to relax. All the same, do anything to annoy them and you’ll find yourself in very unpleasant circumstances.
The book’s first narrator, Emma Weil, is caught up in a revolt against the Committee in 2248AD. The Committee has decreed that galactic exploration (or going any further than the Asteroids, which provide valuable mineral resources and are exploited to the full) is a foolish waste of resources and time. A group of idealists disagree. They steal a pair of asteroid mining ships and attempt to revamp them into a starship. Then they take off into the wide blue yonder under cover of a mass revolt on Mars, leaving Emma and a number of others behind.
The second narrator, Hjalmar Nederland, is an elderly archaeologist who’s attempting to prove his theory that there was a planet-wide revolt in 2248AD. The Committee have had 300 years to cover the facts under a layer of BS, and they’ve been so successful that popular opinion says it never happened at all or at best was an uncoordinated sporadic affair. In the midst of his attempts, the Icehenge is discovered standing on Pluto, and a can of worms is opened.
The story culminates in 2610AD. Edmund Doya, the final narrator, is Nederland’s grandson. As a young man, he was obsessed with the Icehenge. Now he believes that the whole thing was a fake, and he’s determined to prove it. His quest ends in an assemblage and expedition of Henge experts, going to Pluto to investigate the Henge in detail. What do they find? I’m not going to tell you. There’ve got to be some secrets left. Read it and find out. Just don’t expect any definitive answers. This is a book to make you think, not a Space Opera.
Kim Stanley Robinson is a science fiction author who doesn’t seem to be interested in writing about whizz-bang technical sophistry. This story is about definitely about people, not machines. To take one example, medical advances have granted humans a potential lifespan of up to 1000 years. None of the technical details of the process are described other than the fact that injections have something to do with it and they start at age 10, but the societal and personal ramifications are considered in depth. Childhood, for example, becomes anything under the age of about 30.
This book provides a prime example of what happens when an artist is commissioned to paint a cover, but not given sufficient background detail. The Henge (a vast sprawling assemblage of over 30 gigantic ice pillars standing on the lip of a low crater) is not the small neat 16-stone ring depicted. In the book it clearly states that the pillars of the Henge are not capped by lintels, but freestanding. I know an artist can only paint cover-details that they’ve been told about, but the Henge is clearly described (and even diagrammed) in the third section of the book so they could have got it right.

Moving Mars
Greg Bear, Tor 1993

The young may not remember Mars of old, under the yellow Sun, its cloud-streaked skies dusted pink, its soil rusty and fine, its inhabitants living in pressurized burrows and venturing Up only as rite of passage or to do maintenance or tend the ropy crops spread like nests of intensely green snakes over the wind-scoured farms. That Mars, an old and tired Mars filled with young lives, is gone forever.
Now I am old and tired, and Mars is young again.
Our lives are not our own, but by God, we must behave as if they are. When I was young, what I did seemed too small to be of any consequence; but the shiver of dust, we are told, expands in time to the planet-sweeping storm…
Casseia Majumdar was a daughter of one of Mars’ oldest, most conservative Binding Multiples – the extended family syndicates that had colonized the red planet. But her life was changed forever by the student protest of 2171. Those brief days of idealism forged bonds that would last a lifetime, and set the stage of a more dramatic act of revolution than anyone could have imagined.
Charles Franklin, too, was caught up in those days of passionate youth. A brilliant young physicist with a deep love for his native planet, he was forced to leave his world behind to gain the training he needed. And in those years, the political distance between Earth and Mars was growing wider than the empty reaches of interplanetary space.

I’m at a distinct disadvantage here. I read this book two months ago, and I didn’t have time to do more than type the Jacket blurb before it had to go back to the library. Shameful I know, but that’s the way life goes sometimes. I’ve left the blurb in place for two reasons – one, it’s much more interesting than many I’ve seen; and two, it will hopefully make up for any deficiencies in this review caused by the passing of time. After a two-month lapse, the details of the story have slipped away from me, but there’s one thing I do remember – it was very original and I enjoyed it a great deal.
This is yet another book where Earth-Mars politics are hostile to say the least. Mars wants freedom, but Earth refuses to grant it. Sadly, I suspect that that’s actually a fairly realistic view of events. The process of building a self-supporting colony is extremely expensive, taking vast amounts of time, effort and resources, especially in the early stages. Once a government has made that kind of commitment, I can’t see them being eager to say ‘OK, you’re all grown up now so you can do what you like…’ There aren’t many cases of earthly colonies where that’s happened (witness India, America etc.) so it probably wouldn’t be any different out in space.
It’s the little things (like the Martians having over 50 different names for dust and sand) that make this book so convincing. Although some of the science is so far out on a limb as to seem impossible, Greg Bear’s obviously thought it all out carefully, or managed to convince me that he has anyway. Charles Franklin, one of science’s bright young things, is searching for ways to use a thing called the ‘universal descriptor’. The ultimate in physics, they believe that understanding it will enable them to make a technological leap as great in its impact as that from vacuum tubes to solid state electronics. They’re actually looking for new communications tools, but what they find is much, much more…
Meanwhile, Casseia Majumdar is making similar strides in the political arena with the aid of her mentor, an older woman whose name I’ve forgotten. For a while, it seems that Casseia and Charles will get together, but circumstances force them apart, changing the paths of their lives. As you can probably tell by now, this book tells two stories at once. The first, surface story is about the coming-of-age of Casseia and Charles, while the second, broader strand tells of the coming-of-age of the entire civilisation.
One more thing – if you read the blurb and introductory pages of the story carefully you’ll discover something I didn’t realise until the very end of the book. I thought the title ‘Moving Mars’ was a bit of a misnomer or referred to the rapidly changing political situation, but it doesn’t…

Babylon 5 book 1: Voices
John Vornholt, Dell Publishing 1995

Babylon 5 just sneaks into my Mars theme, as the action moves from Mars to B5 to Earth and back to Mars again. To go with the real-universe theme of Babylon 5 (the alien cultures, extra star systems etc. are all invented, but the Earth is definitely our Earth) Mars is the ‘real Mars’ rather than a terraformed construct. There’s no atmosphere, no oxygen, and no plant life. The human colonists live in domed cities, and it rarely occurs to any of them that it’s possible to go outside in a protective suit. There’s only one major difference between John Vornholt’s Mars and ours – he made a boo-boo. Vornholt’s Mars is a 200º Celsius desert, whereas a little research would have told him that due to its age, distance from the sun, and thin atmosphere (no CO2 blanket to keep it warm) Mars is a cold planet. The surface temperature usually hovers around -100°C and occasionally reaches +16°C at the equator. It’s a forgivable mistake though – John Vornholt took over the job of writing the first B5 novel on very short notice, when Kevin J Anderson turned it down. He managed it in double-quick time – eighty thousand words in 25 days - but it wasn’t easy. As he said himself “It was the fastest book I’ve ever written. I must have been insane”.
Back to the story. Despite the cover blurb, a particularly melodramatic spiel which suggests that the plot is pulp of the worst kind, I enjoyed the fast paced story. After a bomb blast destroys the Martian hotel which is to host the annual Telepath’s conference, the venue is moved to Babylon 5. All is going well (or as well as can be expected when you put 500 telepaths onto the same space station as Commander Ivanova) and Talia looks like picking up a lucrative contract with the commercial telepath organisation known as The Mix, when there’s a bomb blast. The bomb goes off under Bester’s nose (almost literally) and coincidentally Talia’s just rushed out of the room with very little excuse. Did she do it? All the evidence says she did, so she flees B5 with Garibaldi and Gray in close pursuit, and the Psi-cops a hair behind them. The rest of the story is taken up with our heroes’ attempts to prove Talia’s innocence, and their efforts to keep the Psi-cops from killing her out of hand. (Their argument: Talia ran, therefore she did it, therefore she’s a renegade, and the easiest way to deal with a renegade telepath is to ‘remove’ them. Also, Psi-Corps is never wrong.) The story moves along quickly, from Mars to B5 to Earth and finally back to Mars. Along the way, we meet several familiar characters– telepath Harriman Gray (who wanted to hold the convention on B5 solely so he could spend more time drooling over Commander Ivanova), shady underworld figure Deuce, and the Psi Cop we all love to hate – Alfred Bester. A number of new characters also play a part, including two prominent members of commercial Telepath organisation ‘The Mix’ (Arthur Malten and Emily Crane) and Talia’s renegade Martian Uncle Ted.
There isn’t anything wrong with the story, and it’s rather better than some of the Star Trek novels churned out lately, but subtlety isn’t a big feature in “Voices”. The ‘relationship’ between Talia and Garibaldi is seriously overplayed for something which is almost invisible on the screen, and he appears to be totally obsessed with her rear end (he identifies her by its wiggle on a crowded shuttle!) Also, Bester is badly injured in the bomb blast, getting his rear end blown off. How’s that for a well-deserved injury? There are some good moments too, especially before the balloon goes up. Look out for Lennier’s occasional appearances and for all the fun and games created by 500 telepaths on B5. I wouldn’t rush out and buy this book tomorrow, but it’s a good way to assuage B5 withdrawal symptoms. Borrow it from someone else if you can.

One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez 1967, This edition translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa
Penguin Books 1970

Last time I went to the library (that’s where I get a lot of the books I review) I saw this book sitting on the shelf. I borrowed it for two reasons a) it sounded interesting ‘tells the magical story of the Buendia family, who love, lie, fight and rule for a century , and b) I was curious about this ‘magical realism’ thing that Bruce Gillespie and others have been talking about.
It took me a while to get around to reading it, but when I did I have to say the opening grabbed me “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember the distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Who is this Colonel? Why is he being executed? What does ice have to do with it? I read on “At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.” Lovely use of language there. Either the Spanish original or the English translator liked poetic language. Keep going. “The World was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.” It goes on, but you’ve got the idea. In the first paragraph, which goes on for another full page, we get the setting ( general atmosphere, two of the main characters etc.)
I kept going and read the first fifty pages or so in an evening, but after that I’m afraid I lost impetus and started to bog down. Almost all the male characters share the same name (it’s a family tradition to name sons after their father) and it got very confusing. Jose Arcadio Buendia was patriarch, fathering Colonel Aureliano Buendia, who wasn’t a colonel until page 100, Jose Arcadio and Amaranta. The good Colonel married a young girl named Remedios Moscote, and fathered Aureliano Jose and Aurelianos. Neither of them fathered anyone else, but Jose Arcadio had a son named Arcadio, whose three children were Remedios the Beauty, Aureliano Segundo, and Jose Arcadio Segundo, and then there were a further two generations, who also shared the same names. The only way I know all this is because there is a family tree in the front of the book – without it I wouldn’t have a clue. The translation also seemed to get rather turgid, though I doubt it was actually any different from the opening paragraph I quoted above. The language was beautifully polished, but the prose rolled on and on and on and on, and never really seemed to go anywhere. I’m afraid I don’t know how the story ends, because I never got past page 200. If this is typical of ‘magical realism’ I’d recommend it to three types of people 1) those who can read the novels in their original language, rather than having to wade through a translation; 2) insomniacs; and 3) the very, very patient.

Deadly Dose: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons
Serita Deborah Stevens with Anne Klarner
The Howdunnit Series, Writer’s Digest Books 1990

Ever wanted to get rid of someone but not known how to do it? This book might give you some good ideas. Written in plain English, this book includes details (name, toxicity, source of the toxin, effects and symptoms, reaction time, antidotes or treatments, and real-life case studies) for hundreds of different toxic substances. In short, everything the self-respecting mystery author needed to write a cracking good yarn, or the death part anyway.

There are chapters on the ‘big three’ poisons (arsenic, Cyanide and strychnine), household poisons, poisonous plants and fungi, living creatures, medical poisons, pesticides, industrial poisons and street drugs. Finally, in case none of the listed poisons is just right for you there’s a final chapter called ‘Create your own poison’ giving sensible guidelines on how to do it (one good way to invent a poison is to combine several real chemical names into one eg.di-chloro-metho-sulphide. Just make sure that the purported effects of the poison match up with the genuine article – eg. The effects of the example above should include the burning effects of chlorine and have a distinctive smell.)

There’s only one thing that’s disappointing about this book – while it enable you to find an appropriate poisonous plant or animal for most parts of the world, Australia barely gets a mention despite our vast array of potentially deadly inhabitants (and no I’m not talking about the politicians!) Anyone reading this book with the intention of setting their dastardly deed down-under would get the impression that we live in a very safe country.