Before Mars (Planetfall 3) by Emma Newman (book review).

In the third of her ‘Planetfall’ books, Emma Newman returns to a loosely-related setting in ‘Before Mars’, a book with the same background but this time set on Mars several years after the departure of the colonists who feature in ‘Planetfall’. Just as in the first book, the setting and plot are intriguing but once again Emma Newman’s strength is her astonishingly complex characterisation of realistically flawed people.

Anna Kubrin is the latest addition to a small Martian expedition. She is a geologist and painter, sent both to carry out scientific work and also to paint unique Martian landscapes. The corporation that owns the rights to Mars is more interested in media and art than science and so the focus shifts away from what you might expect from a Mars novel and concentrates instead on commercialisation and industrial espionage. During her six month solo voyage, Anna has spent much of the time in immersive simulations or mersivs, leaving her with the symptoms of immersion psychosis when she arrives. This leaves her disoriented, imagining she is still in a mersiv, prone to intense daydreams and confused memories, lending the book a Phildickian air, though less psychedelic. Odd discoveries and contradictory memories lead her to doubt her own memories and distrust the personnel already at the base.

Anna is a fabulously deep character who, just as with the main protagonist Ren in ‘Planetfall’, has a traumatic background and layers of conflicting feelings and habits that become more and more intense as the book progresses. As we progressively discover more details about her personal history, her motivations and relationships, the reasons for her actions and attitudes become poignantly clear. Emma Newman has steered well away from stereotypes here and gives us a compelling character and situation that puzzles and confounds without descending into mind-bending bizarreness.

The majestic surface of Mars features as much through Anna’s artwork as through direct interaction and we get what feels like a highly original viewpoint in her combination of geological understanding and artistic appreciation. The social interactions of the small group of humans and the restrictions of the neo-socialist society and government-corporations back on Earth play a stronger part than do the technology. There’s enough detail to make the Mars venture seem realistic without any detail on how any of it works. Technology such as the virtual reality sims, interactive personal assistants and molecular printers are shared across the ‘Planetfall’ books and their influence on daily lives and society is explored in different ways in each book, rather than just being thrown in as background dressing. How they got to Mars and the technology that keep them alive is more like the set-dressing and of little concern to their everyday lives.

I haven’t read the three books in order – I still need to get hold of ‘After Atlas’, but feel maybe I need a breathing space to recover from the emotional intensity of this book, which gave me flashbacks to the intense and haunting exposition of ‘Planetfall’s character Ren. This is a masterfully-told story that leaves a powerful impression.

Gareth D Jones

May 2018

(pub: Gollancz. 338 page enlarged paperback. Price: £13.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-473-22389-9)

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