Fiction Reviews

Finches of Mars

(2013) Brian Aldiss, The Friday Project, 14.99, hrdbk, 203pp, ISBN 978-0-007-47892-7


It is the not-too-distant future. Mars is being explored by humans and soon there is a move to set up a permanent colony. The colony consists of six towers. Each are quite separate but they are loosely clustered together. Each tower is staffed by a specific group of countries. However the whole colonisation enterprise is undertaken at a decided stretch. The Earth is suffering from over population, resource depletion and growing conflict. Even governmental cooperation at an international level cannot coordinate such a venture. Who do are the major universities of the world not so much for colonisation (though that is the clear goal) but for the gathering of knowledge. That the goal is colonisation, and that it is an extreme effort, is exemplified by the understanding for nearly all colonists that the trip to Mars will be one way.

However, from the start the venture is beset by problems, not least the need to keep resources flowing from Earth to fuel the venture. The greatest threat they have is that live births on Mars tragically seem impossible: few are born alive and those that do live for only a few days. There are equally great threats from the mind. The colonisation effort was meant to be secular, but religious thought seems reluctant to be completely extinguished. Will the new Martians eventually thrive, or will the colony simply follow the path of those left behind on Earth?

Brian Aldiss, and I say this only for the benefit of this site's younger visitors, is Britain's living SF grandfather. The principal body of his oeuvre was published from the late 1950s through to the first half of the 1990s. He is not just noted for his science fiction, starting with Non-Stop a.k.a. Starship (1958), but also his non-fiction: here notably his profile of the genre with Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1986). In addition he has sojourned into drama including with the three-person play he wrote and in which he starred, with Ken Campbell, called The Science Fiction Blues which some of our longstanding visitors might remember we covered back in SF2 Concatenation's print days in 1988.  Sadly and inevitably for all good things come to an end Brian has announced at the age of 87 that Finches of Mars will be his last SF novel. It is therefore difficult for seasoned genre aficionados to read this novel without this in mind.

Mars is clearly a suitable place for Brian to end his SF novel writing career: it was, after all, the focus of much SF attention in the first two thirds of the twentieth century; the period of the genre's adolescence and the first half of Brian's career. So there have been very many Mars stories; stories that concern life on Mars and space exploration.

Finches of Mars itself does not have a tightly focussed storyline on, say, a specific event. Rather it is a future history of the establishment of the first human settlement and the beginnings of human civilization on Mars. If there is a focus then it is that of the tension being dependent on Earth for both key consumables and new blood (successful births on Mars seem impossible due to the lower gravity) on one hand and the desire for independence from Earth on the other. The 'finches of Mars' in the title refers to the allopatric (separate place) speciation (the initial process in evolution of one species into another) of the human race from Earth-borne humans into what they hope to be a human Martian race. Such speciation was famously observed by Darwin of finches in the various separate Galapagos isles.

The more of a loose theme, rather than a firm plot focus, frees Aldiss up for many observations on his characters' lives and predicaments. Indeed Finches of Mars is packed with wry observations and vignettes, so much so that they are almost crammed hard in to this short, 200 page novel as if Brian is desperate to get it all down on paper before he forgets. This, as well as with the well worn SFnal theme of Mars, one almost has the feeling that the author is in no small part musing on past considerations and memories as well as tying loose ends: that he is in fact wrapping up his SF writing career, which is of course is what the great man has himself announced.

Without introducing a spoiler, matters within the novel do come to a nexus point.

So what do we have? Well, a fond farewell for one thing. For another, one gets the sense that change is part of the human condition and that humanity is no more than a clever animal. Yet we have spoiled our cradle, the Earth, and so our future is out there away from our home world. But it is a future we can imagine now and it is SFnal. It is as if the future is, through science fiction, reaching back to us so that we can bootstrap ourselves into whatever type of finch we might eventually evolve. One just hopes that it will not just be a truly smart animal but one that has greater maturity.

This book will certainly be eagerly sought by older, seasoned SF readers.  It will also appeal to younger readers of, what some call, 'literary' SF.  To both these camps this novel needs little recommendation, just seek it out.

Jonathan Cowie

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