Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Before Mars

Emma Newman
Completed 10/1/2019, Reviewed 10/2/2019
3 stars

This was a book club selection and I wasn’t too excited about it.  It was selected on a day I wasn’t at book club, so I can’t complain because I didn’t vote.  However, it wasn’t too bad of a book.  It’s a mystery that takes place on a small research station on Mars.  I found the backstory of the main character to be a little tedious at times.  I kept thinking, let’s just get on with solving the mystery.  And the mystery part was good.  It’s just that the journey was not always exciting. 

The story begins as Anna Kubrin walks out of a spaceship and into the Mars research facility.  In her new quarters, she finds a note to not trust the facility psychiatrist, and it was painted by Anna herself, though she has never been to Mars before.  She goes to put on her wedding ring and she realizes it’s not her ring.  Then she notices discrepancies with the AI that runs the facility, images of Mars that the AI supposedly took that have stones in the wrong place and media antennae that disappear.  Is she going crazy or is there really some conspiracy afoot?

The reason Anna thinks she’s going crazy is because her father went crazy when she was twelve.  She also suffers from severe post-partum depression, which prevented her from bonding with her baby, for which she is wracked with guilt.  Lastly, she is in a loveless marriage ahead of which she puts her career.  All these things create a very unstable mental environment for Anna.  When she is alone, she plugs into immersion videos to remember the family she left behind on Earth, but that only causes more grief.  So when things don’t add up on Mars, she has to questions her own psyche as she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Anna is a very well-developed character, as we get intense background on her.  There are times when she’s reflecting when she’s not even sure if it’s a normal memory or immersion psychosis (I think that’s the term the author used).  This sometimes makes the reality line seem tenuous at best.  It’s a great way to get the back story on a character.  However, I felt that it was too much, interfering with the flow of the mystery.  At one point I thought that if there was one more scene about how she didn’t love her baby enough, I would just not finish the book.  I felt it wreaked havoc with the pacing.  On the other hand, it’s the first story I’ve ever read with a character with post-partum depression.  So it was quite informative on what goes on in a woman’s mind when she’s afflicted with this terrible state.

The cast of characters is rather small, so there’s some pretty good development for their characters as well.  I was particularly fond of the non-binary person who used “hir” and “ze” for their pronouns.    It was pretty good preparation for a book I’ve requested through interlibrary loan about a civilization with five genders, using five different pronoun sets. 

In the end, I was glad I read the book, but overall, I felt the book was just okay.  I was going to give it two stars initially, but the ending was quite good.  And I had to give it props for tackling a serious mental illness that you don’t often find in fiction, particularly science fiction or fantasy.  So I ended up giving it three stars out of five.  The book was nominated for a British SF Award in 2018.

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