Gollancz | 2018 (19 April) | 340p | Review copy | Buy the book
After months of solitary travel, Dr Anna Kubrick has arrived at Mars Principia, the base on Mars run by GaborCorps for the purpose of science, entertainment and making money. Anna will be the base’s new geologist but Gabor wants her there primarily for her ‘hobby’ – Anna is an artist and he believes that her Mars paintings will be priceless. She can also help Banks, Gabor’s very own TV presenter, whose series about life on Mars is so hugely popular. But Anna arrives to find that not all of the small crew are glad to see her. She’s particularly wary of the base’s psychiatrist and that suspicion is boosted when Anna finds a notice in her quarters warning her not to trust her – but the note is written in Anna’s own handwriting. Matters become even more strange when Anna realises that her wedding ring isn’t the one she wore when she left Earth. And then there’s that one human footprint left in a crater that has never been visited by mankind…
Before Mars is the third novel by Emma Newman set in her perfectly created Planetfall universe. Each of the novels stands alone but the main characters in each – fascinating women all – are troubled to varying degrees with mental disorders of different kinds. Anna Kubrick has a history of paranoia and she’s well aware that her increasing suspicion about the base could be easily misconstrued. The novel is written in the first person, with Anna’s voice, and so we’re made keenly aware of her self-doubt, her reasoning and her fear, as she argues with herself about what she is experiencing. This is also a world where everything is recorded and can be re-lived as a ‘mersive’. When life is hard, it’s easy to become addicted to these happier memories.
Emma Newman is so brilliant at worldbuilding. Life aboard Mars Principia is vividly described as is the hostile yet beautiful world of Mars outside the habitat’s walls. I also loved the way in which society back on Earth is presented. This is a near future world in which the level of one’s human rights now depends on one’s salary. An almost communist capitalism controls society. Money is God. The state provides but only to the level that you can afford. And, not surprisingly, control is everything and, just as everything is recorded, so too do AI’s watch over everybody’s decisions. The glimpses of life back on Earth that we’re given tantalise – they’re both normal and so far away.
The importance of the Pathfinder, a being that is so crucial to the series as a whole, continues and this adds such a fascinating level of intrigue and speculation about what lies out there, beyond the solar system. There’s a contrast between hope and resignation, everywhere else and Earth. Mars is somewhere caught in the middle. And it’s up to Anna to try and make sense of it.
Planetfall is such a wonderful book by such a fine writer – it’s beautiful, elegant and also so insightful about the human condition. This is strongly continued in Before Mars. I would certainly suggest that you read Planetfall first but otherwise these are stand alone novels (I have yet to read After Atlas although it’s climbing high on my reading mountain), all throwing light on an extraordinary, emotionally powerful and gently dystopian future. Before Mars finishes in such a way that it strongly suggests another book may be on the way. I really, really hope so.