The backstory is that Earth has established a colony on a planet around a nearby star. A hardbitten female officer, Shan – on the verge of retirement – is suddenly pulled in for an interview with a high ranking Minister and put in charge of a mission to the colony planet. The journey will take seventy five years so the crew will be frozen.
It appears that colony – a vegetarian devout Christian settlement – is thriving. However they did have help from an alien whose people live on another planet in the system.
Another (aquatic) alien race lives on the human-settled planet beneath the sea, and yet another race wants the humans gone so that they can settle on the planet themselves.
Back home, Earth is at the mercy of Biotech multinational corporations who have patented all of the world’s manufactured crops. They are looking for new material and this planet appears to be the motherlode.
Shan, the reluctant leader of the survey team, finds herself having to mediate between all parties and begins to forge a relationship with Aras, the guardian alien who has become an accepted member of the human colony. However he holds a secret which could lead to war between the various alien races.
The style is reminiscent of Mary Doria Russell and Sheri S Tepper in that there is an intensity in the relationships between various characters that is seldom found in the work of male genre writers.
The central story is the relationship between Shan and Aras, one which starts awkwardly and yet deepens into something if not sexual then of deep mutual respect. Traviss employs some cunning devices in that (a) the alien race is a matriarchal one and Aras is to a certain extent hardwired to kowtow to women in authority and (b) he is hosting a parasite which not only imbues longevity but incorporates useful alien DNA into the host’s metabolism. Thus he has become partly human.
The theme of an alien/human relationship is not a new one. Julie Czerneda employed it in her Web novels recently. It tends to be avoided in SF literature generally although TV Scifi find it almost obligatory for reasons of ratings and demographics. It is not employed here however as a cheap trick and has not so far descended to the level of a romance.
The novel makes very strong points about Genetically Engineered Crops and the Capitalisation of the world’s gene pools. This is paradoxically contrasted by Aras, who to all intents and purposes appears to be genetically engineering himself, or had at least initiated the process.
A fascinating novel that provokes much thought.
‘The Ship is home to a thousand alien races and a near-immortal crew who have no knowledge of its origins and or purpose. At its core lies a secret as ancient as The Universe.
It is about to be unleashed.’
Blurb from the 2001 Orbit Edition.
A ship constructed from the raw elements of a Jupiter-sized planet, five billion years old, enters our Galaxy some time in the far future. Humanity lays claim to it and so founds a mobile civilisation augmented by ‘passenger’ races who travel about the galaxy.
Mutated humans, the ‘Remoras’, like their namesake fish who live ion a symbiotic relationship with sharks, live on the exterior of the ship, effecting repairs to the hull and maintaining defences against asteroids and other dangers.
The Immortal Captain discovers a secret at the core of the ship, an iron planet the size of Mars which is racked with volcanic activity but sustains a diverse eco-system which has adapted to such Hellish conditions.
An exploratory group of sub-captains and scientists finds themselves stranded on the planet, which has been christened ‘Marrow’.
Robert Reed is an author new to me, although I’ll certainly be looking for more from him. Of course, I am presuming that Reed is a man, which may not be the case, as James Tiptree Jr (aka Alice Sheldon) could testify were she here to tell us, God Rest Her Soul.
It reads very much like a female writer. I’m reminded of Octavia Butler and Marge Piercy in terms of style and characterisation. Yes, it’s that good!
Reed paints vivid portraits of a cast of characters all of whom are virtually immortal, and he seems to have gone to the trouble of thinking seriously about how someone whose genes automatically kick in to repair all but the most fatal of injuries would behave and think.
Having endowed his humans with indefinite life-spans Reed is free to extend the timescale of his novel and so, perhaps as an ancient human would review her memories, occasionally leaps decades or centuries forward in time to catch up with the characters and resume the action.
The science is perfectly balanced against the human stories and never overwhelms one with techno hyperbole, although from what I can determine, the science is well-researched and clearly presented.
There is a poetry in this novel which renders it readable and adds a mythic quality which accentuates the backdrop of immense size, age, distance and timescale.
Interestingly, the three main characters are female, complex, ambitious and powerful. Their male counterparts, although in some cases just as powerful, tend to be psychotic, devious or simplistic, and not really as interesting.
There’s some neat plot twists and turns, some clever ‘wee thinky bits’ and teasingly brief glimpses of the ship’s alien and machine life-forms.
At heart though, it’s a book about being human and what the concept of immortality might actually mean in real terms.
If we incorporate into ourselves genes which will almost instantly heal even the most terrible of injuries, up to and including decapitation, how would that affect our sense of personal danger? What plans can we lay when we can expect a lifespans of upwards of a hundred thousand years?
This is what Science Fiction should be.
‘Mars. The red planet.
Closest to Earth in our solar system, surely life must exist on it? We dreamt about the builders of the canals we could see by telescope, about ruined cities, lost Martian civilisations, the possibilities of alien contact. Then the Viking and Mariner probes went up and sent back nothing. Mars was a barren planet: lifeless, sterile, uninhabited.
In 2019 the first man set foot on the surface of Mars: John Boone, American hero.
In 2027 one hundred of the Earth’s finest engineers and scientists made the first mass-landing.
Their mission? To create a New World.
To terraform a planet with no atmosphere, an intensely cold climate and no magnetosphere into an Eden full of people, plants and animals.
It is the greatest challenge mankind has ever faced: the ultimate use of intelligence and ability: our finest dream.’
Blurb from the 1993 HarperCollins paperback edition.
Authors occasionally surprise you. More rarely they creep up behind you and hit you over the head with a work so impressive that a coma is sure to follow.
In truth, ‘Red Mars’ (and its sequels) was not that unexpected since Robinson had apparently been researching it for some sixteen years, and the effort clearly shows. The science is plausible and – thankfully – understandable, and balances well with the multi-character storylines which weave together to tell the tale of the colonisation of Mars.
In 2020 John Boone (the eponymous All American hero) was the first man on Mars and seven years later becomes one of the First Hundred, an international group sent to found the first Martian colony.
A lesser author would have shown us Humanity surviving against all odds and conquering Mars. In a sense, that is exactly what happens, but Robinson subtly shows Mars itself – the major character in this series – changing Mankind just as much as Man changes Mars.
Much is made of politics and there are obvious parallels with colonies throwing off the yoke of control from their parent cultures, in particular the United States. The analogy is referred to within the text when after thirty years or so of terraforming and planetary development Earth – crippled by problems of economy, ecology and over-population – finances the construction of a Space Elevator. Thus, Mars’ rich deposits can be plundered in a cost-effective manner while the ‘excess population’ is shipped off to Mars.
Those who feel themselves to be true Martians become politically polarised between the Reds (those who wish to preserve as much of the pure Martian landscape as possible) and the Greens (dedicated to terraforming the planet).
The development of Martian society and its eventual and inevitable march toward Revolution is seen through the eyes of a selected few of the First Hundred.
For a while the narrative follows Nadia Cherneshevsky – a formidable Russian engineer – who throws herself into solving the numerous problems of construction and survival, but eventually
takes time out to travel the planet and finally realise the beauty of her surroundings.
It is often in the depiction of the Mars landscape itself that Robinson comes into his own and provides perhaps the most satisfactory visions of the Red Planet ever written.
‘The sun touched the horizon, and the dune crests faded to shadow. The little button sun sank under the black line to the west. Now the sky was a maroon dome, the high clouds the pink of moss campion. Stars were popping out everywhere, and the maroon sky shifted to a vivid dark violet, an electric color that was picked up by the dune crests, so that it seemed crescents of liquid twilight lay across the black plain. Suddenly Nadia felt a breeze swirl through her nervous system, running up her spine and out into her skin; her cheeks tingled, and she could feel her spinal cord thrum. Beauty could make you shiver!’ (page 171)
Later, the focus switches to John Boone who is travelling around Mars in an attempt to find the ‘Red’ saboteurs, and in the process giving the reader a glimpse of how future colonists may live in habitations stylish, imaginative and very plausible. Robinson writes like an artist. He has an acute sense of aesthetics within a community, from the initial way in which the first colonists colour their bricks in order to bring a sense of design to their habitation to the polished magnesium mirrors covering the Hall of Infinity hollowed out at the centre of the Martian moon Phobos. There are glass-fronted towns built into the vast walls of Martian canyons, domes capping large craters and labyrinthine tunnel cities carved into the Moons of Mars. One Japanese colony has turned an area of the desert into a vast Zen garden, while elsewhere white pyramids of salt extracted from the soil have been given a protective coating and sit gleaming in the Red Martian desert. Carbon extracted from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere creation process is similarly turned into black pyramids by tireless robotic slave-machines.
Although this epic work features a large cast of characters the unfolding narrative follows four of the First Hundred, Maya Toitovna, Nadia, Frank Chalmers and John Boone.
Superficially Boone appears to be a cliché, the charming and charismatic American hero. The novel begins with his assassination, instigated by Chalmers, some twenty-six years after their arrival on Mars, after which the narrative returns to the point where the colonists are setting off for the Red Planet.
Each character is complex and multifaceted, although one could possibly label Boone as a representative of American ‘Democracy’ and Chalmers as Republican. Their relationship is a close yet ambivalent one as they are constantly at odds with each other, rivals for power, status and the affections of Maya. Frank has the darker nature and is possibly the most enigmatic character, being such a polished politician and negotiator that ultimately he himself begins to question his own identity and motivation, becoming almost a Shakespearean figure, tortured by his guilt over Boone’s death, realising much later that Boone is needed to deal with the problems which arise and lead to the Martian revolution.
Boone’s assassination has obvious parallels with that of JF Kennedy. He was seen by the Martians as the man who could save Mars from the rapine plans of Earth’s powerful trans-national companies. Indeed, Robinson includes a poignant selection of anonymous accounts relating simultaneous phenomena and portents which occurred the moment Boone was killed: Black smoking meteorites streaming from the sky; lightning striking; the planet-wide grief as the news spread.
The novel slowly makes us believe in the power of Mars itself to change those who have chosen to call themselves Martians, allowing them to forge a new society by the process of areophany. There is also a sense of inevitability in the sequence of events, reminiscent of Asimov’s Foundation series, possibly defined by Hiroko’s mantra ‘Shikata Ga Nai’ (There is no other choice). Martian society seemed fated to move through the predestinate grooves of its various crises to the inevitable point of Revolution and Independence.
This trilogy is a monumental achievement, destined to be one of the SF classics of the Twentieth Century. Wonders, marvels and profundities appear seemingly on every page. Not since Burroughs has an author made Mars so vast, thrilling, wonderful and real.
‘Four students discover a manuscript, The Book of Skulls, which reveals the existence of a sect, now living in the Arizona Desert, whose members can offer immortality to those who can complete its initiation rite. To their surprise, they discover that the sect survives, and is willing to accept them as acolytes. But for each group of four who enter the rite, two must die in order for the others to succeed.’
Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz SF Masterworks edition.
Despite the fact that one could justifiably argue that this is borderline SF at best, it is undoubtedly one of Silverberg’s best works, and one which works on various levels.
Eli, a Jewish linguistics student, discovers a medieval document in the University archives, ‘The Book of Skulls’ and in translating it, finds that it offers the chance of immortality if four people undertake the trial. he and his three room-mates then travel from new York to Arizona to find The House of Skulls, all of them knowing that in order for two of them to achieve immortality the others will have to die.
It is written in a vibrant and poetic four-voice narrative with each of the boys taking alternate chapters to continue the narration, in which they occasionally provide contrasting and contradictory viewpoints.
Silverberg, as is pointed out briefly early in the narrative, casts the boys in the archetypes of Leader, Hunter, Shaman and Clown.
These were the four roles taken by members of hunting parties in primitive societies and can be expanded to define entire national communities today, divided into Government, Military, Church and Media, the organisations which effectively control society.
The leader is Timothy, a rich boy with an impeccable pedigree. The Hunter is Oliver, a muscular blonde attractive medical student whose background is from rural Kansas. The Clown is Ned, an openly gay student, and the Shaman is Eli; Jewish, awkward with women, and the unlikely initiator of the whole enterprise.
During their drive from New York to Arizona we come to know as much as they know about each other. They are close friends from being room-mates, but all have their secret fears and desires.
It is also a novel which says much about America of the early Nineteen Seventies. From New York through Chicago and into Arizona, the book is rich with atmospheric detail and intriguing transient characters, most of them female. Indeed, it is only Eli who briefly seems to show any real respect or feeling for a woman, but even he, under pressure from his friends, leaves her in New York and moves on with the boys.
Eventually, the quartet discover that the House of Skulls actually exists and they petition the Brotherhood to volunteer for The Trial.
The monks warn them that once they have sworn the Oath they will not be allowed to leave until the trial is complete. If one leaves, then the others must forfeit their lives.
Events then move on with a sense of doomed inevitability.
The boys are initiated into a strict regime of diet, exercise and meditation, and are even given lessons in sex by some compliant in-house women.
A turning point is reached however when the Head of the House informs the boys that each must confess his most terrible secret to the next in line, so that each of them will hold one secret of one other.
Ned confesses to Timothy that he had affairs with both halves of a gay couple and that his manipulation of their emotions drove them both to suicide.
Timothy confesses to Oliver that he raped his younger sister having been earlier rejected by a date.
Oliver confesses to Eli having had sex with his male cousin and enjoying it.
Eli, trying to evade confessing his secret, initially tells Ned of Oliver’s confession and then confesses that his betrayal of confidence is his crime. He then relents and tells Ned that his place in University was gained by stealing the research of a dead man.
The denouement is brilliantly Shakespearean and inevitable. Eli has gained strength and confidence from his time in the House while Timothy has perhaps, lost his status in a place where his money is powerless. Timothy attempts to escape but is caught by Eli, who crushes his skull with a boulder.
Meanwhile, Ned has seduced Oliver who, overcome with shame and self-disgust, has hung himself.
Thus, the terms of the Oath have been fulfilled.
It’s a complex and morally ambiguous conclusion, although it’s maybe significant that the Jew and the Gay man – the usual underdogs of society – have survived.