Monday, November 17, 2014

Review of Moving Mars by Greg Bear

It is myth; it is legend; it is part of the fabric of the culture.  Every schoolboy and girl in the US knows the story of the Pilgrims, how they were oppressed in their native land and came to a new world to practice their beliefs in freedom. Ahh, America.  Among the first Europeans to settle in the West, this historical event is commonly viewed as a seminal moment in US history.  As a result, similar stories have come to be prized by the culture: good ol’ American fighting spirit and can-do will win the way when one desires to live a certain way or practice a particular political ideal.  Taking the myth/legend to the next planet outward in the solar system, in 1994 Greg Bear penned Moving Mars.  Nominated for every major American science fiction award (and winning once), it’s fair to say the cultural mindset continues to reinforce itself.

Moving Mars is the story of Casseia Majumdar, university student and daughter of one of Mars' oldest families.  Called Binding Multiples, blood relations are not necessarily the common denominator to the big communities.  The BMs’ mixing corporate and genealogical ideals into ‘bloodlines’, their clannish presence is as far as Mars’ governance has evolved since humanity first settled the planet.  Growing up ‘red rabbit’, Casseia lives in the tunnels of Mars along with five million others, getting a university education, and living as normal a life as Martian underground conditions allow for.  In comparison to Earth, this is rather limited.  Technology is available but always a few upgrades behind, and in limited supply.  And while people are free to mix as they please, Martian society remains more provincial in its customs and traditions.  Following on a love affair after university, Casseia is selected by her BM for an amazing honor: to accompany a relative to Earth for political negotiations.  What she sees and experiences there forever changing her worldview, little does she know it is her knowledge Mars will be drastically changed by in the future.

Truly feeling like a young, motivated woman, the first sections of Moving Mars describe a tender, empathetic experience.  Just entering adulthood, Casseia’s choices are ones the adult reader will remember with the same apprehension, and her beliefs with the same understanding: a young woman who wishes to change the world for the better.  Undergoing confusion regarding love, coming into greater responsibility, and cultivating a less generalized view of life, Bear presses her development in insightful fashion, emphasized via the comparisons and contrasts of life on Earth and Mars. 

But at some undetermined point, trouble starts brewing—narratively speaking: the balance of Moving Mars shifts from Casseia’s to solar system affairs.  The development of her character begins to lose focus while so-called ‘big concepts’ take on increased presence.  Hard sf/space opera coming into the spotlight, a concept known as ‘tweeking’ (a very cleverly imagined idea) wildly extends the story’s scope and becomes the driver.  Casseai’s character dwindling from the three dimensions it had occupied to two, the shift from the personal to the abstract, while engaging from a viewpoint of scientific possibility and action-oriented sf, disrupts the aura of what had been a solid coming of age narrative. 

Transitioning from a relatively complex and personal story of a young woman learning about love and society to full blown we/good vs. them/bad narrative, Moving Mars ultimately feels like a Moebis strip: everything on the surface fits together into something whole, but it leaves a queasy feeling in the brain that precludes most everything plausible regarding the initial outlay.  One truly empathizes with Casseia and her early relationship with Charles, her yearning for something more as she visits Earth, and the complexities of politics that surround her and her family.  But by the end of the novel, one loses sight of her view as the narrative swerves into solar system good and evil. Certainly core genre fans will appreciate Bear’s introduction of ‘exciting elements’, and probably believe that ‘without which the book would have sucked’, but it comes at the price of abandoning what was a more personal, relevant story.

And a note must certainly be made regarding the ending which results from said conflict.  A denouement America believes is still possible but which Europe has transcended, it is the principled rebel’s victory—the Pilgrim’s story in more ways than perhaps Bear himself was aware while writing.  Threats real and perceived narrowing the societal view to one more egomaniacal in nature, the ending of Moving Mars is the classic American anti-diplomacy, take-actions-into-my-own hands behavior. In the novel’s case, this is thoroughly justified by fields of nano-grown, blood-thirsty robot soldiers from Earth…  Yeah, not exactly the most relevant bit of plot motivation.  But when the world is seen only in black and white, such simple scenarios are naturally the result. (What colors are the Pilgrims always depicted as wearing?)

Moving Mars is now twenty years old, but its story elements do not feel as though they have aged significantly.  Neither near or far future, the technology and social structures Bear postulates in his mid-future vision feel plausible, that is, besides the results of the hard sf speculation, but even that is delved into with realistic explanations.  Transport between the blue and red planet not a zip-zip affair, eight months are needed during which physiques must be adapted—physically, immunologically, and otherwise.  Telecommunication gear, both physically internal and external, feels like the step after next, and the society on Mars Casseia is from and on Earth that she visits, are logical extensions of our own political structures and, in the Earth’s case, would be in existence if virtual immersion and warm-sleep tech existed.  And the year, 2171, is not so far distant as to render fantasy indistinguishable from science fiction, while at the same time it’s obvious the available tech is more than just a year or two in the future of our current state.  The logical minds, for example, lean closer to fictional AI than the limited machine ‘sentience’ which exists in the world today, but are not so advanced as to be fully human machines as seen in a lot of other sci-fi.  As a whole, Bears finds a nice middle ground linked reasonably to the situation we find ourselves in today yet extrapolative enough to feel futuristic.

In the end, Moving Mars is a tale of two halves. The midpoint hazy, what begins as a young lady’s multi-faceted coming of age on Mars subtly becomes a solar system swallowing, polarized space opera.  Fans of either type of story will be able to find something enjoyable in each but something lacking in the half they do not favor.  The overall tale is essentially a retelling of the Mayflower’s journey to a new world, but with another big M being piloted: Mars.  Through political tension with the crown (Earth), and subsequent journey to a new world (another solar system), the novel reiterates the American belief that: if your principles are being oppressed, best to find some lebensraum and establish a new society.  Not exactly the most progressive political ideal given the lack of lebensraum on Earth today, it nevertheless lies at the heart of American culture, and Bear captures it perfectly.

Side note: I listened to rather than read Moving Mars, and given the quality of the narration, I must make a note.  Sharon Williams does a superb, highly professional job.  Using a combination of effects, voice alterations, and accents, not to mention a finely tuned confidence in her abilities to subtly imbue characters and situations with emotion and relative excitement or peace, she drives the story in engaging fashion, adding to, rather than subtracting from, the novel.  Bravo.

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