Meliorating mystery turns to stillborn assumptions (2/5)
My 22nd Brunner novel happens to be one which was serially published in Amazing Stories (December 1966 and February 1967). This isn’t an usual practice for Brunner, who also published similar serial novels before in 1966 (The Productions of Time) and in 1964 (The Enigma of Tantalus) but also continued creating serial novels throughout his career, such as The Evil That Men Do (1969) and The Stone That Never Came Down (1973). What makes Born Under Mars distinguishable from his other serial novels is the sheer difference in direction and quality between the two halves: the first being a cauldron of mystery which develops flavors as it stews and the second half being heavily salted with assumptions, stereotypes, and genealogical lineage.
Rear cover synopsis:
“When mankind colonized the stars, it developed into two different, antagonistic types that had left Mars behind. As well, they had left behind the dead-end Mars-born mutations—with which man had once testes his adaptiveness—on a world that had since fallen into apathy and decay.
But when secret agents of the two branches of humanity focused their unwelcome attention on the most recent star mission of one such mutation, he had no time to ponder the plight of his home planet.
For Ray Mallin found himself the unwitting key to a secret that could affect the entire future of mankind.”
Once having departed their home system of Sol, two lineages of human stock settled in the north and south: the Bears and the Centaurs. The Bears, “permissive and casual”, and the Centaurs, “rigid and disciplined” (98), left behind the rest of humanity stranded on the bodies of Earth and Mars. Free from the homogenization, social norms, and behavioral governances of the rest of humanity, the two diasporic sects evolved into two drastically different forms of humanity: the Bears “cheerfully accepting randomness as a major factor or life” and the Centaurs with a “society rigidly pre-planned” (145).
Ray Mallin is a Martian who is skilled in four-space engines but stuck out of the system for want of return passage back to Mars. He’s fond of the casual ways of the Bears, especially the welcoming Bear girls, and dislikes the staunchly formal Centaurs, a feeling backed by Earth’s common allegiance to the Bears. A chance encounter allows him a bunk on a Centaur ship, but his entire time aboard is occupied by caring for the splenetic engines of an overpowered linear. Back on Mars and thankful for the return trip, he is immediately taken into custody and subjected to lashes with a nerve-ship. To cope with the pain and clear his mind, Ray uses the teachings and techniques of his childhood teacher, Thoder.
Visiting Thoder at a later time, Ray recaps the time he has spent on Mars since returning on that dreaded ship: tortured to within an inch of his life, dumped on the surface of Mars nearly drowning on sand trickling through his mask, picked up and cared for by an Earth couple, and told of his five-generation lineage on Mars. It had been a bizarre homecoming and Ray wants a few answers, but Thoder isn’t prepared to reveal to Ray the extend of the mysteries behind his return.
Clarity doesn’t come to Ray after he wakes up and realizes two things: he doesn’t own a null-gee bed and more time has elapsed than can be accounted for. His homecoming maintains its surrealism. Returning to the apartment of the Earth couple, Ray is greeted with a hesitant smile and a jerky welcome. The couple produce a lie about caring for a friend’s child, a lie which is established when Ray is further greeted by the visiting “doctor” who has a noticeable Bear accent. Considering Ray’s past few days experiencing torture, lies, and missing time, Ray is getting more irritable as events progress towards an unforeseen apex.
Between the cold warring differences of the Bears and Centaurs is more than the prying schism of culture; rather, they represent two eugenic furcations of humankind’s progress toward an uncertain future. Back in humanity’s home system of Sol, the human genetic code’s obsequence for evolutional superiority has slacked, resulting in a homogenous and stagnant population on Earth and a seemingly flawed genetic pool on Mars. At the center of his genetic proliferation and stagnation is the child… some say rescued, others say kidnapped. This pinnacle of progeny is both mankind’s hope and Ray Mallin’s bane of existence.
Most of the five-paragraph synopsis above reflects the first half of the novel. It’s a great beginning which follows an ordinary Mars man and down on his lucky yet lucky enough to get a trip back home with a generous bonus. The odd series of events which Ray finds himself in generates a great amount of interest in exactly where Brunner is taking this veering plot of his. And just after the halfway point (a dozen pages before the True® cigarette advertisement between pages 96 and 97), things turn sour.
As mentioned in the introduction, this novel is a serial novel. The second half of the novel takes all the tantalizing strings from the first half and, rather than gather them nicely into a tidy skein, Brunner makes a gnarly tangle of the fine threads. The synopsis relays an importance of (1) genealogy, (2) genetic diversity, and (3) social differentiation; these three vague aspects of the plot come into play in the second half of the novel, but their vagueness and interest soon evaporate when the intensity of the subjects becomes too much.
(1) The importance of the genealogical thread comes late into the game like a second-string team, and, much like a second-string team, the sub-performance is disappointing in light of the great mystery which unfolds in the first half. Too many lineages from too many sects come into fold where all importance is muddled and all interest wanes in the confusion.
(2) The genetic variety of the Bear and Centaur population seems to be in response to the genetic stagnation of Earth and Mars, but over the course of five or six generations for which the human colonies have separated from Sol system, there seems to be too rigid a system to enable such behavior in the colonies behaviors: the Bears are naturally casual, the Centaurs are naturally disciplined. Brunner attributes these overarching attributes to each sect’s social norms, but formative genetics also plays a role in the scheme.
(3) The diametric cultures of the Bears and Centaurs is a little tiring, where the reader is reminded of the polar differences three different times, at length (two instances quoted in the synopsis above). As Joachim has said on Born Under Mars, “Cultures are never monolithic, stereotypes are bad and the cultures on other planets (besides Mars) need more description than a few adjectives.” Brunner’s justification for this bipolar diversity is good, not feeble or flimsy, but the simple-minded inclusion of the genetic and social schism between the two populations is generic.
On the one last negative side… Brunner teases the reader by mentioning multi-generational arks seeding the galaxy after the invention of four-space drivers. All authors should understand this point: NEVER tease the reader about multi-generational arks seeding the galaxy! The very idea and limited access to stories (including Brunner’s own “Lung Fish”  in Entry to Elsewhen ) is upsetting to hardcore science fiction readers who crave this sacred niche of their preferred genre. There hasn’t been a decent take on the theme for quite a while now, nothing refreshing from the themes of yore produced by Heinlein (“Universe” ) and Aldiss (Non-Stop ).
This isn’t one of Brunner’s worst novels, a dubious honor held by Give Warning to the World (1959) and The Wrong End of Time (1979), but it does sink to the bottom of the heap of castoffs. This isn’t a keeper. If it were just more focused on the mystery surrounding Ray Mallin, and his unfortunate circumstances with the ship he arrived on, rather than the non-so-exciting manipulation of genetics and society across the stars… saying that, it does sound enticing, but the delivery is of a stillborn plot in the second half.