June 1, 2013


by Brian Aldiss
224 pages, The Friday Project

Review by Pat Black

When we landed on the moon in 1969, people probably thought it hailed the dawn of exploration into deep space.  

If someone had told an awed public back then that nearly 45 years later, we hadn’t made it to Mars yet, the Woodstock generation would have blown us a raspberry. Nonsense, they’d say. We’d have bases set up on the moon by the year 2000. From there we’d make Mars. And beyond. Possibly on our rocket jetpacks while popping protein pills. We’d be regular wee Dan Dares.

We continue to poke and prod at the crust of Mars, but we’re still a good while off landing a living human there. And although there are a million earthly reasons why we should solve other problems before sorting out the space programme, most of us would admit that we’d quite like to see humans on Mars in our lifetime.

Politics, rather than progress, has hindered us in this regard. This is something that Brian Aldiss is keen to explore in his final science fiction novel as he looks at a near-future expedition to set up a colony on Mars.

Finches of Mars is a curious piece of work. A fragmented narrative looks at a concerted effort by a body called the United Universities to set up an expedition to the Red Planet. It has strict guidelines; if you want to go, you must be within certain physical and mental boundaries. You also can’t believe in any deity. Our future among the stars, the UU decides, must be followed without god.

Although we do meet some characters more than once, we don’t follow any one in particular. There’s a philosophical bent to the proceedings, particularly in an early section where two ageing hydrologists, fresh from discovering that water exists beneath Mars’ crust, take a melancholic look back at their lives on their journey back to Earth.

At the age of 87, and announcing his retirement from sci-fi writing, you could perhaps forgive Aldiss for including a wistful look back in time. But Finches of Mars is not wholly valedictory nor elegiac. Indeed, there’s a sly sense of humour at work, particularly in one eyebrow-raising mystery over who was responsible for impregnating one angry man’s wife. The path of evolution seldom runs true, Aldiss appears to be saying.

As the colonists encounter grave difficulties, such as their women not being able to produce babies owing to the change in gravity, we are forced to consider – much as Darwin did of the finches of the Galapagos aboard the Beagle – how humans might have to adapt to alien environments in order to survive and prosper.

Aldiss’ story occasionally checks back in on the motherworld, which is in a sorry state owing to a rising population, environmental concerns, warfare and terrorism. The former United States in particular is a mess, brought to its knees by invaders and its roads seeded with landmines. Aldiss appears to be adamant that in order for the human race to survive, it must leave its home planet behind. And not only that, but it must make sure that only the brightest and best are selected for the mission.

Much of the book acknowledges what Burns wrote about the best laid plans o’ mice and men, however. It turns out that not everyone on the UU expedition is a super-intelligent seraph. All-too-familiar human foibles and divisions come into play. The question of belief is also addressed, as some fall back on old habits, even as Mars’ colonists adapt and change physically and mentally. Life on the towers of Mars is initially ascetic, but people can’t let go of a fascination for art. Language changes, too – the new word metanipoko, a clash of sublimnity and regret, is perhaps the most intriguing example of this. It seems we will undergo linguistic evolution as humanity experiences new horizons and searches unknown terrain. To me this was the most beautiful concept of the book.

Aldiss has an intriguing stab at answering the question of how life came about in the universe, and then goes for broke by looking at whether or not we’re alone (spoiler: we’re not).

His final chapter reads as a warning to the human race, a thinly-veiled polemic on behalf of the author himself. But Aldiss’ wisdom comes with a smile. In the penultimate chapter, the final revelation from an unexpected visitor had me laughing my head off.

And so we go.

Read the author interview here.

Read the Booksquawk Exclusive short story by Brian Aldiss here.

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