Book Reviews Finches of Mars

Published on November 6th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley

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Finches of Mars – Brian Aldiss

There are so few of the great Sci-Fi authors that are still with us today, but prolific writer, Brian Aldiss is very much a living legend.

Despite having written over 100 books throughout his career, his works are not well known outside of the literary world, his only piece crossing over being a short story, ‘Super-Toys Last All Summer Long’, which was loosely adapted into the film AI directed by Steven Spielberg.

His latest book, is Finches of Mars, and is supposed to be his final science fiction novel, or so he claims, as he is 88 years old, this is hardly surprising, but many believe this isn’t going to be the last we see of his work, being so productive. Having not read any previous work (it doesn’t appear in book shops around here) this is the only work of his that I have any experience of.

The novel is about human colonisation of Mars, and is set in the not-too distant future. After some unsuccessful attempts to take humans to the red planet and back, the human race has finally managed to send several groups of peoples from around the world in one large but somewhat fractured campaign. 6 towers separating the people into different ethnic and racial groups are built on Mars and the novel covers the initial trials that they face, most notably, the stillborn births that all pregnant women experience since being on the planet.

Initially it’s hard to tell what the novel is trying to do, Science-Fiction serves as a platform, to explore or to educate, but this novel doesn’t fill you with the wonder of Mars or even allow you to marvel at new technology. Obviously SF is much more complex than just defining into two simple categories, but dotted or engorged with these two themes most good SF is. The problem is that at first, it’s hard to tackle the book and story, too much description and not enough clever exposition leaves one with a feeling of confusion about the lack of direction.

Mars Curiosity

There really aren’t any images I could use to further illustrate this novel. So here’s an image that Curiosity took of Mars instead. Isn’t it pretty?

Fortunately the novel picks up, the story begins to settle and the onwards approach begins to clear into more of a vague philosophical wander through the perplexes of human evolution in combination with colonisation, the loose referential nods to Darwin (from which the book derives its title) all but serve as informative framework to the plights of the colonists, but the limp characters and poor depiction of the other races leaves much to be desired, as the regressive characterisation and approach to the diversity of the planet leaves one with a depressing if not sour outlook of the future.

The depiction of Mars felt somewhat hollow, not descriptively, but that the writing wasn’t up to the task of immersion, it’s probable that this wasn’t a key aim for Aldiss, instead focussing on the human trial that is being on the red planet. Most of the plot takes place in the Sud-Am tower, whose inhabitants rarely go out, due to the hindrance of preparation and the tight security between towers. No member appears to feel the desire to explore or learn, which comes as a surprise to me, as I feel I would still be curious and inquisitive in most barren regions of Earth if I had been stuck there.

The ongoing premise is that the people on Mars need to solve the problem of stillborns if they ever wish to consider the colonisation a success, although they have been unable to find the direct cause, many experiments and unusual ‘treatments’ are given in the attempt to keep the terms going through to birth. There are a number of questions I had about the reaction to the problem. Why weren’t people very bothered? In the modern day, death during the period of childbirth is rather uncommon and shocking, not to mention incredibly distressing for all parties. In the novel, there seems to be only one psychologist in the entire building, whose traits are relatively abrasive and she is seemingly ineffectual at her job.

Small plot holes fail to ruin the aesthetic of the book, with a few interesting ideas and concepts cropping up periodically and the rather nonchalent introduction of alien life being some of the highlights. Towards the end the novel seems to lose track of some of the themes and finishes with an interesting overview which ties up the earlier parts well.

There are a number of redeeming and fun features about the book, which, although twinned with the downsides don’t equate to a great final product, certainly render it a good book and a worthy read for any enthusiastic SF readers.

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