Friday, June 24, 2011

Book Review: Moving Mars

Greg Bear
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

Moving Mars takes place about 200 years into the settlement of Mars. Earth exploits Mars economically and most Martian settlers bridle at the exploitation. Their active resistance gradually escalates until Earth decides to crack down on them with deadly force. The Martians are backed into a corner, faced with either giving in and giving up their independence, or defending themselves with a super-powerful new technology that will have disastrous consequences for Earth and will change the lives of everyone on Mars as well.

The main character, Casseia Majumdar, is a lowly student protester at the University of Mars at the beginning of the book but eventually winds up as a powerful Martian politician faced with the burden of deciding whether or not to use their new weapon.

I originally read Moving Mars several years ago and liked it. I just read it again recently and I’m no longer so sure.

On the one hand, the story takes place on Mars, is based on a good main premise, and has a strong female protagonist.

On the other hand, Casseia often makes frustrating decisions and seems disingenuously naïve about her influence on others. The book strikes a frustrating middle ground between hard and soft SF: there is too much scientific explanation for inventions to be simply fantastical, but they are too vaguely explained to be believable. And the book introduces lots of different ideas and subplots but doesn’t explore them with any depth.

Example 1: One cool subplot that weaves in and out of the story is that Mars had sophisticated native life forms that went extinct millions of years ago. The book’s characters keep finding their fossils. But, unlike Isaac Asimov’s Nemesis, this is never directly tied into the main plot line and just sort of ends up being an interesting aside that doesn’t go anywhere.

Example 2: Mars’ economy is organized into Binding Multiples, which are not only business conglomerates but also extended families functioning as self-contained, semi-cooperative governments. Residents of Mars are deeply resistant to any attempt to form a Martian state government any more centralized than their existing BMs. But it’s not entirely clear where their passionate and sometimes violent anti-statist fervor comes from, especially when Earth will so clearly be able to crush a divided Mars, when the BMs don’t actually work so well, and when the government they do end up creating is so loosely federated. This is very different from the situation in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, where resistance to centralization makes a lot more sense.

Example 3: Another frustrating sub-plot (or co-main-plot) is Casseia’s on-again, off-again romantic history with Charles Franklin, the chief architect of the super-weapon. Their relationship is never really ended or resolved, even though both of them get married to other people at different points. Charles is drippy, willing to wait his entire life just hoping she’ll come around. And Casseia, who is an able politician and a smart person, seems to be unable to decide what to do about Charles and constantly gives him double messages. She basically only comes to grips with what she wants when it’s too late.

I should make it clear that I am a Greg Bear fan. But I like Bear best when he takes an original, unique idea – of which he has many – and explores it in a more focused way without so many false and unresolved leads. It seems like Moving Mars is trying to do the job of several different books at once and doesn’t quite succeed at any of them.

My recommendation would be that if you want a realistic hard SF story about the colonization of Mars and a deft exploration of the tension with Earth that would naturally result, read Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. If you want a mind-stretching read about enormous planetary-scale engineering projects, read Larry Niven’s Ringworld. And if you want a creepy, page-turning, fun book by Greg Bear, run right out and get Blood Music, a sort of biological version of Cat’s Cradle that, as far as I know, never won any awards.

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