By Matthew E. Milliken
March 29, 2016
Frontera, the 1984 first novel by Lewis Shiner, is a the tale of a mission to Mars undertaken by a small, ragtag group of astronauts who harbor multiple secrets and varying agendas. Shiner uses the tale to explore the nature of humanity, asking what happens when traditional governmental and national structures fail due to decisions both intentional and otherwise.
The novel is set at some point in the early 21st century. Ten years ago, as governments around the world began collapsing for unspecified reasons, a ship was sent to Mars to recall colonists from the American base at Frontera. A few dozen souls opted to stay behind; later, their numbers were reinforced by survivors of a disaster (also unspecified) that struck the Soviet Union’s colony on Mars. Frontera sent a few grim transmissions in the two years following the recall, but the updates stopped, and most people believe all the colonists to be dead.
The travelers are quite an eclectic lot: Lena, the expedition’s medico, whom Shiner gives such shallow treatment that she barely exists as a character; Takahashi, scion of the Japanese affiliate of Pulsystems, the corporation that is sponsoring the flight to Mars; Kane, the nephew of Morgan, Pulsystem’s über-capitalist CEO; and Reese, an aging astronaut who was the first American to set foot on Mars, and who never wanted to leave the red planet but did so because (apparently) he was duty-bound to staff the recall flight.
Shiner alternates narrators, switching between Kane, Reese, one of the colonists and a fourth individual who joins the action midway through the book. It gradually becomes apparent that a few of the colonists have been developing a revolutionary new technology, one so powerful that its existence is supposed to be a closely guarded secret, even from Frontera’s governor. (It turns out that the project hasn’t been concealed as well as some of its participants desired.) As knowledge of the development spreads, various characters and factions race to exploit its potential to generate immense amounts of energy, to propel humans far beyond the bounds of the solar system and, inevitably, to wreak tremendous havoc.
The new technology is hardly the only information that the characters in Frontera are trying to hide (which they accomplish with varying degrees of success). There’s also the question of what the loyalties and intentions of Takahashi and Curtis, the colony governor, might be; what Reese hopes to gain from his nine-month journey back to Mars; why he wants to reunite with Molly, Curtis’s wife and one of the book’s narrators; how the head wound Kane sustained as a corporate mercenary might still be affecting him; and what genetic burdens must be borne by Molly and Curtis’s child, a member of a generation that has been ravaged by radiation-induced mutations.
Throughout the book, Shiner toys with notions of prosperity and poverty. Frontera is a relatively stable settlement, but life for the Martian colonists is harsh and dispiriting, and they are far removed from their goal of terraforming the planet into an Earth-like paradise. Pulsystems owns and operates Johnson Space Center, but the once-thriving Texas community adjacent to it has never recovered from riots that followed the collapse of government. The nearby metropolis of Houston is a barren socialistic neo-feudal society; the city center has light and power and people, but it’s surrendered by abandoned buildings and cars. The mission to Mars is somewhat threadbare, employing “antique” NASA remainders and relying upon a violent, hazardous maneuver to decelerate upon reaching the red planet. The flight is so under-equipped, in fact, that there’s no guarantee the voyagers will find a landing module capable of descending to the Martian surface.
Kane mulls the situation shortly after arriving in Mars orbit in an early passage from the book:
North Africa had been the beginning, his head wound the sharp dividing line that separated him from the obvious and natural course his life had been following. He was lucky to be alive at all, they told him, said the headaches and the dizziness and the occasional failure of a motor nerve were minor side effects of a brain lesion that should have been fatal. He’d been unconscious for a month and had been kept in a private ward at the Pulsystems clinic for over a year.
What he couldn’t understand was the atrophy of his ambition, his sudden inability to reach a threshold of drive and desire that would bring him into the highest echelon of the company. His intelligence was unimpaired; his memory was perfect, frighteningly so at times. Yet in the three years that he’d been back at work, he’d hesitated over the smallest decisions, unable to focus his thoughts, intimidated by the endless chain of consequences that each one provoked.
And in those years Morgan had seemed to lose interest in him, had become cool, preoccupied, indifferent. Before the war, before the wound, there had been a moment, an instant, when Kane had seen fear in Morgan’s eyes, fear of what Kane was becoming, of his growing power in the company, of the physical strength and competence he’d developed in basic training.
But not since. Even when Morgan had first suggested the Mars mission, it was offhand, as if he didn’t care whether Kane went or not. Kane himself had brought it up the second time, and pursued it.
And so, he thought, this was where it had brought him. Lying on a canvas sling, a sack of raw nerve endings and sublimated combat training, knowing that if they couldn’t come up with a working lander, if they had to turn around for another endless, horizonless, destinationless trip, he would be the first to crack.
Kane is an interesting character in part because he has mysterious, vivid dreams about fictional quests. Later, he begins rambling about a pattern, an obvious reference to what Shiner calls Joseph Campbell’s Pattern of the Hero in an author’s note. (The pattern is popularly known as the hero’s journey or the monomyth.) Kane functions as meta-commentary on the nature of fiction; his awareness of his lack of agency, of his being used by other characters without his consent, calls to mind the nature of fictional creations, which are always subject to the whims of their creators.
I was feeling a little under the weather on Sunday, and I ended up zipping through Frontera in four or five hours that evening. It’s a fun read, and it brings up some interesting ideas, but I think it will mainly appeal to science fiction aficionados.