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Finches of Mars Hardcover – 6 Jun 2013
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‘It’s a terrific yarn, but more than that; as Aldiss casually throws out ideas and speculations, it’s a reminder of why he’s one of the giants of the field.’ SFX Magazine
‘A must-read for science fiction fans with the potential to be a modern classic.’ We Love This Book
‘Brian Aldiss is one of those writers who can stand back and look out across the vast fictional landscape of sciences fiction, and consider himself both a creator and a destroyer of worlds; a mortal God if you will.’ Starburst Magazine
‘Once again he demonstrates the power of his imagination.’ Daily Mail
'This grandmaster of the genre, who has laid down many a milestone in his 60-year career, including classics such as Hothouse, Greybeard and the Helliconia trilogy, is retiring on a high note.'
About the Author
Brian Aldiss, OBE, is a fiction and science fiction writer, poet, playwright, critic, memoirist and artist. He was born in Norfolk in 1925. After leaving the army, Aldiss worked as a bookseller, which provided the setting for his first book, The Brightfount Diaries (1955). His first published science fiction work was the story ‘Criminal Record’, which appeared in Science Fantasy in 1954. Since then he has written nearly 100 books and over 300 short stories.
Top customer reviews
Aldiss, whose major work was the Helliconia trilogy, says that this will be his last book. It seems to me that he is now not concerned about possibly offending anyone and so he says again what SF has been saying for generations - Earth is doomed to die from overpopulation.
He presents a staggeringly unlikely habitat on Mars - six towers, each funded by universities, when it is more likely that solar and background radiation would incline colonists to dig into the rock for shielding. The towers are totally dependent on imported foodstuffs from Earth, and no live animals are allowed, when it seems clear that any colony would be establishing gardens, chickens and fish tanks in order to be self-sustaining. Food is an expensive payload.
I don't see a mention of where universities are getting this money, and consider that industrial, business-driven space exploration is far more likely.
Aldiss says that religions are forbidden on Mars, blaming Earth's terrorism, overpopulation and intolerance on illiterate people following primitive writings.
Sadly for the colonists, their babies are all born dead or die swiftly. The conclusion is that people have not evolved to live on Mars, in hypoxia, cold, low sunlight and low gravity. Aldiss is telling us that it may be that the Earth is the only world where we can live as a race, having evolved here. His characters did not suggest sending Andean mountain dwellers or Tibetans to Mars; this would be a good start as these people have each evolved their own means of survival in hypoxia and cold.
This book is a useful discussion starter. Sadly in my view it does not make for a riveting read. As it is a short book, those who start it will probably finish it, but by the end we have barely seen more than one side of the main characters and have not gained much sympathy for them. The constantly jumping viewpoints, through persons, times and locations, can be coped with but serve to create a disconnect between the reader and the characters. There is no real protagonist and all but a couple of the Martian dwellers come across as ineffectual.
Devotees of Aldiss will no doubt want a read of this not at all cheerful book. Some of the themes are also present in the Helliconia world where a planet with an eccentric orbit, which is alternately baked and frozen over the centuries, has evolved people who are adapted as a race to cope with the challenges presented. The first two books are an excellent read; the third is the least good.
Having recently read The Martian by Andy Weir, I would recommend that hard SF adventure aficionados read that enjoyable book instead of Finches of Mars.
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.
Dreadfully disappointing and perhaps showing the author as a spent force.