Dull characters, pointless ideas, directionless plot (1/5)
My first Brian Aldiss novel, the beginning of a beautiful author-reader relationship, was in 2008 when I read his 1964 novel Starswarm. From my memory, I gather it was a great read because it’s still on my shelves, along with five other Aldiss works which I further read in 2009, among them Non-stop (1958) and Long Afternoon of Earth (1962). These two works rank highly in parallel to Aldiss’ Greybeard (1964) and Cryptozoic! (1967). I haven’t been disappointed with any Aldiss yet, so I thought, “Let’s see his newest work which is heralded as his ‘final science fiction novel’.”
Now near the age of 88, it seems as if Aldiss has collected pet theories over the past eight decades, kept them locked in a drawer, then dumped them all out in random order to form Finches of Mars. It’s not so much about the number of ideas as it is the quality and transience of the ideas… like hitchhiking hippies.
Inside flap synopsis:
“Mars is in crisis. Ten years have passed since the formation of the Earth colony of the red planet, but it has yet to produce a healthy child. Every baby has been deformed and stillborn. With Earth overpopulated and at war the Mars experiment is crucial to the survival of the human race. Something must be done to ensure its success.”
Beyond the year 2112, humans have finally settled Mars. Aquifers under the Tharsis Shield have enough water to support humanity’s advancement on the red planet. Thus, robotic drills tapped the water source and constructors built six towers for man’s self-enforced segregation: (1) Chinese, (2) West, (3) Russ-East, (4) Singa-Thai, (5) Scand, and (6) Sud-Am. The reason for this segregation is unexplained though it may be due to funding by United Universities (UU), a collective of intellectual institutes which funnel money, research, and material for the fledging colonies on Mars. But if the universities are “united”, shouldn’t the towers be ethically and culturally integrated? Sadly, only the Chinese tower is explored to a deeper degree, leaving the other four towers as mere fodder.
Each colonist to Mars must sign on for life, with no hope for a return to Earth. After ten years on the surface of Mars, which seems to have friendly air pressure and fairly human-friendly, the colonies have yet to produce viable offspring; in the West tower alone, eighty-five births had been born, “some with no legs, some with eggshell skulls, one of them with no brain at all” (32). This worry of being unable to expand their colony with their genes plagues the minds of the colonists; other worries blow over like spring showers, but the fetal deaths rest like a boulder upon their shoulder while the wind blows on their bellies—their advancement is slow and painful.
To the average colonist and even the landlubbers back on Earth, “The knowledge of so many stillbirths had been suppressed … The images of Mars as a pure place, as a great desert not too far from holiness, had now been corrupted by a vision of desiccating corpses scattered like dead snail shells” (61). The scientists of Mars remain optimistic of their human organism’s ability to adapt and evolve citing the arduous voyage from Earth as the reason for their inability to properly birth a child; soon, they hope, the “trillions of bifidobacteria” will to the radiation and gravity of Mars so that the symbiotic relationship can prosper once again.
In addition to their waiver of ever returning to Earth, the colonists also must be free of any religion for fear that the inclusion of each religions dogmatic tendencies will bring war and hatred with it. The UU feared that “a new religion might spring up, become indigenous and prove even more of a cause for division than do terrestrial religions” (50). The atheists and agnostics of Mars, by their own hardship, look for ultimate answers to their pleads of “why me?” and “why us?”. If emotional destitution and adversity of hope give rise to religion, then the colonists are not immune to the tides of hope in the form of paternal salvation.
“Although an indifference to religion had lured them here, they were overcome by a sense of sanctity” (155)—Mars as purity manifested, as adventure meets despair, as regret meets sublimity (“metanipoko”). This dichotomy of attachment and detachment transcending the nationalism of the six towers is so pervasive that even the discovery of life on Mars, which walks and swims, isn’t enough to tear their attention away from the generational plight. If only they had a sign.
I don’t mention any characters in the synopsis above. There are characters in the book but none above mediocre or in the limelight enough to even mention. The majority of the book takes place in or around the West tower with a scene or two involving the Chinese tower, and while Aldiss includes many brief scenes with a slew of generic cast members, the sum is less than the whole—each participate adds too little to the overall picture, a mosaic-like snapshot of life on Mars but a mosaic composed of the dull colors of copper, coffee, khaki, and camel.
Aside from the prolific yet dull cast, Aldiss also includes a plethora of inane ideas which clog the stream of the narrative, much like water hyacinths block canals. These scatter-brained ideas, or possibly pet theories dug up from the depths of Aldiss’ junk drawer, amount to nothing. Nothing is added to the narrative yet it does sap away any steam gathered in the prior pages. The crux of the Martian trouble is in its obstetric dilemma, yet valueless ideas keep flying past the reader’s eyes, here ranked by annoyance:
(1) The discovery of Martian life should be a joy for the people on Mars and Earth, alike. However, the colonists, eager for protein for their diet or simply substance for their stomachs, immediately take the creature to their kitchen. It’s saved, but little research is done on the subject and the whole matter dies in a few chapters.
(2) There’s a newly discovered form of radiation emanating from the Oort Cloud which is carried by the normon, “regarded as benevolent, indeed as a helpful propagator of microscopic life on early Earth” (24). This seems to be part of the universe as a life form itself (53): it’s a strip rather than a particle (86), travels faster than light (86), and contain amino acid similar to DNA (129). This, ultimately but very lamely, ties in with the conclusion, I believe. Booksquawk says the conclusion “goes for broke” but, while it does seem absolutely far-fetched, it actually does tie in well with the rest of the story… still, this doesn’t save the entire novel from being an amalgamation of concept inanity and narrative meandering.
(3) Nemesis, a “dull dwarf star” (52), is a companion star which orbits 1.5 light-years from Sol, making our solar system part of a binary system. The end. Aldiss writes, “Even the knowledge that humanity lived in a binary system did not greatly alter matter” (109), so too does this inclusion relate to nothing else in the novel, it alters nothing with its inclusion or deletion.
(4) In an attempt to portray the technology of communication in the future, Aldiss uses some idiosyncratic monikers:
(a) Squealers, as in “His squealer was ringing” (31), “some of the headlines in the squealers” (40) or “received a message … on her private squealer” (173). Supposedly, this is some sort of personal handheld device, but it also sounds like blog journalism.
(b) Shriekers, as in “news shrieker” (27), “We must noise it in the press … and shiekers” (29), “he spoke on the shrieker” (41) or “Her shrieker went off” (162). This sounds exactly like a squealer, so I’m not exactly sure whether there’s a distinction between the two.
(c) Squeakers, as in “headlines in the … squeakers” (40) or “when the news came through on the squeaker” (55). This, too, sounds like a combination of a personal communication device-cum-news service provider. No distinction from squealer or shrieker is given.
(d) Screech, as in “record those worries on the UU screech” (101). This also sounds like a squealer, shrieker, and squeaker.
(5) There seem to be different types of computers in the Mars colonies, but there is no distinction made between the three types: compoutat (pages 56, 65, 67, 68, and 114), watputer (pages 60 and 151), and wakipurr (page 177). The inclusion of this jumble of gobbledygook makes no sense without any assistance from character dialogue or authorial aside, much as the squealer, shrieker, squeaker, and screech lose all importance when their function is ignored.
(6) The five footnotes are superfluous and useless. The additional comments add nothing to the reader’s understanding of the text and one footnote, the first on page 8, simply directs the reader to a synopsis from a fictional non-fiction book entitled The Unsteady State or, Starting Again from Scratch by the characters Mangalian and Beth Gul. The footnote refers to a three-page appendix at the end of the novel, which reads like Aldiss’ personal manifesto what humanity is doomed. This is just added weight to a ship which is already sunk.
There’s nothing redeemable here. Just because this takes place on Mars doesn’t mean it’s an “answer song” to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1992-1996); in my opinion, Finches of Mars is Brian Aldiss’ own swan song. This is my own opinion, which is shared by other on Amazon.co.uk, but it seems that there are two professional opinions which counter my dislike for this novel: Paul Di Filippo at Locus Magazine and Adam Roberts at The Guardian. Like most “professional” reviews and accolades, I rarely ever see eye-to-eye with them.