Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Moving Mars

I had real difficulty getting through this book by Greg Bear, and I am not sure if it has to do with the book itself or my own circumstances as I was reading. Suffice to say, as you start this book (if you start this book), allow yourself plenty of time to get embedded in it. It takes a while to get going, but persevere, because when it moves, it really moves.

The book takes the form of a memoir of Casseia Majumdar, a human inhabitant of Mars (in the place of "inhabitant", I nearly wrote "colonist"--the main conflict of the novel lays in the difference between those two terms). So, one would expect that the fictional events of the memoir would be of some importance, and this is where my difficulties came in--their importance is sadly lacking through three quarters of the novel. To be sure, Casseia offers an honest viewpoint of the world/Solar System she lives in. Bear spends a great deal of time showing the daily life of the Martian, including a couple of forays into the xenobiology of Mars that is discovered by its human inhabitants. Then Casseia goes to Earth, and we see what life there has become. These studies of the daily life of the planets take place against the backdrop of events "going forward" though very little progress is made at all, either socially or personally for Casseia.

Perhaps this is the root of my discontent; Casseia is not a very interesting person, nor is she a very good writer. Because we meet Casseia in her first year of college, I kept getting a taste of Heinlein's juvenile novels as I read. Casseia doesn't really have plans for her life but she gets sucked into the big events that affect her political sphere, almost with little action on her own part. She becomes involved in a student rebellion on her planet, and she goes to Earth in an attempt to politically assuage Terran fears about Martian government. And all the people she meets along the way turn out to play vastly important roles in the final crisis and its resolution. I recognize that, like the heroes of Heinlein's juveniles, Casseia is immature and of course so much flotsam on the events of her day, but Heinlein's heroes mature quickly under pressure and begin showing signs of adulthood. Casseia doesn't really show that growing maturity until she gets pulled along into the biggest problem Mars faces. Only when she becomes involved with creating a democratic government on Mars does she become active, and even then she is overshadowed by the eventual president. It is these dual flaws which make me feel most uncomfortable in the beginning parts of the book--we know that we are being set up for bigger events down the road, but to get there, we have to go through what amounts to a diary of someone I'm not sure I would care to know.

Eventually, though, events come to a head; Casseia's former lover discovers a way to change the very nature of the universe and Earth, acting like a 20th century country (as Bear so often reminds us) attempts to pre-empt the use of the discovery as a weapon by attacking Mars before it can be fully developed. Casseia herself notes that such an action is insane since it forces Mars into the position of retaliating, dying, or taking even more drastic action, but we never really get to see the story from the Terran point of view, nor do we ever determine who the malefactors are on Earth. But even as the crisis swirls about her, Casseia explicitly thinks about how she is just a victim of forces, how she really has no choice in doing what she ultimately does, and even when she does get a chance to perhaps take a different path, Earth attacks again, forcing her hand for the ultimate time.

Moving Mars won the Nebula for best novel in 1993, and I cheated by looking at the list of other nominees for that year. I only recognized one other novel from the class, though I did recognize the authors. To openly wonder if it was just a bad year for novels of speculative fiction is not entirely fair, but I felt dissatisfied at the end of the novel. Casseia is eventually a hero to her people, but I never get the feeling she really earns it instead of having it cast upon her. Her ex-lover often apologizes about the burden his successive discoveries put on her. While the novel ends up taking the reader to a place not really visited since James Blish's Cities in Flight, it is not an easy trip nor nearly so enjoyable and I end up regretting Casseia's lover was so smart too.

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