Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Review - Moving Mars

Moving Mars
by Greg Bear
1994 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

There's a rather large contradiction in Moving Mars that I think illustrates the fundamental problem with the book well. At the beginning of the book it is made clear that the narrator telling the story is looking back at it decades later at the end of her life. At the end of the book it is made very clear that she is telling it shortly after the narrative ends. It's less than ten years later but she made reference to the events being decades before.

And that's the problem. The book at the end is not the same book as the one at the beginning. It is a much worse book; so much worse that I had to wonder what happened to the careful political plotting and human insight that made the first half enjoyable.

Mars has been colonized by small corporations rather than governments or even large corporations and each "family" tends to have its own small outposts. The story follows the life of young politician as she gets her first taste of political activism in college, winds up a member of a trade delegation to Earth, and stumbles into a position of prominence in the attempts to bring the families together under one banner so that they might have some recourse against the economic dominance of Earth.

And then someone invents magic.

No, really, they invent magic. With minimal effort they can instantly teleport large masses across any distance, convert any amount of matter to anti-matter, communicate instantly with any point in the universe, impart velocity to objects, and more. Their manipulation of energy, space, and matter have no limits. Suddenly anything becomes possible and practical solutions to all aspects of the problems presented in the book are within reach in the long term. In the short term things would naturally become more complicated politically. It should be the start of an Earth/Mars cold war where even if they hate each other neither side can really do that much about it.

So naturally rather than dealing with this sudden turn over in political power in anything resembling a realistic measure Bear decides that the Earth thinks that the best way to handle someone who has power of life and death over the universe is to start shooting at them. Any political developments that had been occurring are out the window for a shooting war.

When you give characters god like power to pull anything out of their hat you're inviting a world of writing complications. Every reader who picks up the book is going to be thinking of how they could take advantage of those abilities in given situations and so the author pretty much has to be smarter than his audience. When a team of super geniuses and all of the think tanks on Earth can't come up with solutions using their god like power and the readers easily can then the book's plot falls apart.

I wouldn't be going on about this so much except for the fact that the first half of the book was so good. The protagonist was an interesting character as she was constantly over her head and struggling to stay afloat; she was smart, clever, a quick learner, and diplomatic but there were people around her (and often in opposition to her) who could do more due to their experience. Her biggest advantage was often being the right person in the right place at the right time. I could sympathize with her and watching her grow from a politically ambivilant college student swept up in a revolution to a driving force in Martian nationalism both was interesting and felt natural.

Bear also set up an interesting political situation where the culture on Earth pays lip service to diversity of culture and thought but only in approved ways. In the significant ways the world has become a homogenous population who practice groupthink but they are not able to recognize this in themselves. It makes a natural conflict with the independent minded Martians who have to be pushed into working together in even the most basic ways. Putting people on both sides of the political divide who have good points is something that too many authors fail to do and I appreciated that even though Mars is our viewpoint the population of Earth as a whole are not villains.

If Bear had stuck to his beginning concept and if the amazing technological leap forward in the middle of the book that changes the balance of power had been more reasonable (just instantanious communication would dramatically change things) I would have enjoyed Moving Mars a great deal. It's a great set up that is flushed down the drain of a poorly thought out space opera. Because of that I have to recommend avoiding this one.