What was it about Mars and science fiction in the early nineties? On top of this work and Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, Ben Bova also had a novel about Martian settlement, titled, simply, Mars. Maybe there was a sense that we were only a generation or so away from a manned mission to the red planet….which we still seem to be. This novel really isn’t about Mars though, which is one of its problems.
The novel is narrated by Casseia Majumdar, a woman raised on Mars in the twenty-second century. In fact, we soon learn that the novel is an autobiography of sorts. A group of independent corporate entities called BMs run various portions of Mars, but different factions make efforts to create a united government by alliance or coercion. The novel begins with Casseia as a college student, rebelling against one of these efforts, but she eventually works her way into a united government. The biggest issue for Mars is independence from Earth, which is populous, technologically advanced, rich, and powerful. Artificial intelligences called "thinkers" are common there, as is nanotechnology, and most humans have enhanced themselves with these technologies. Casseia works to prevent Earth from overwhelming Mars, and she is close to a brilliant young man named Charles Franklin, who makes breakthroughs that could help achieve this goal.
This is my second encounter with Greg Bear – I’ve also read the novella version of Blood Music – and it seems that his strength lies in imagining new technologies and considering their implications. That’s science fiction at its most basic. He does a great job with it for most of this novel…with one big exception. Unfortunately, that exception becomes the crux of the book, and everything else in the novel really exists to serve this one idea. Without giving anything away (though the title is a big hint), I’ll say that the deck is stacked in both interplanetary politics and interpersonal relationships so that this new super-technology will be used, despite some of its more terrifying implications. In the end, this is no longer a story about Mars, or even about Casseia, though she’s always at the center of things, it’s about this new tech. Worse still, the technology opens up some very interesting doors, but Bear wants to tell the story of its utilization, and is more or less willing to stop there. I’m a lot more interested in how this technology will be used fifty or a hundred years after the novel’s end.
That said, the novel has a lot going for it. Casseia is a strong female character with complex emotions. She’s that rare character in science fiction – she’s smart and likable, but she makes mistakes, and she has weaknesses. She’s not an anti-hero or a Mary Sue; she feels like an actual human being, and that’s nice to see. The scenes on Earth and the depiction of its technologically driven youth culture are also quite well-rendered, as are scenes of fossil-hunting for Martian
But, the depiction of Mars itself fell flat, especially in comparison to Robinson’s work, and it was in the lead-up to the increasingly inexorable climax that the novel lost much of its appeal.