Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids: Brian Aldiss examines whether the human species has a future in ‘Finches of Mars’

May 4, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 4, 2019

I gave passing mention to British science fiction author Brian W. Aldiss about two and a half years ago, in the first part of my examination of which science fiction grand masters have had the most works translated into television and film. But only recently have I ever read any of his novels.

Finches of Mars came out in 2012; it was Aldiss’s last science fiction novel, although he subsequently published an original anthology, a revised novel and a non-genre novel before his death in 2017. Somewhat like Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station, Finches of Mars features a narrative that, at least initially, floats almost aimlessly from character to character and even, in this case, planet to planet. (However, I have no indication that Aldiss wrote the chapters as individual pieces or intended them to work on their own, as Tidhar appears to have done.)

The situation Aldiss posits is rather dire: Roughly a century in the future, Earth is even more conflict-riven than today. About four million people live on the moon, but they must rotate back home every three months to prevent deleterious effects of longterm exposure to low gravity. A consortium of schools, UU, or United Universities, has established humanity’s first beachhead on an entirely different planet: Six residential towers, segregated by region. (Westerners, Chinese, Russians, Singapore and Thailand, South America and Scandinavia each have their own building on Mars.)

The Martian settlers, with a handful of exceptions, have been selected for equanimity and intellect; all have rejected religion and renounced all possibility of returning home, and most have chosen new names. But the colony is hardly utopian, in part because, as Aldiss explains right at the start of the story, the red planet’s environment is rather forbidding:

The word “scenery” was not in use on Mars. One might talk instead of “the prospect.” 

The prospect was modestly dramatic. Volcanoes on this section of Tharsis were small and scattered. The settlement site on the Tharsis Shield had been chosen for its underground water supply and its comparative smoothness. A path had been worn leading eastwards a short way. A man and woman were walking side-by-side along the path, treading with the high-kneed gait the lower gravity of Mars encouraged. The pair were thickly dressed and wore face masks, since they were beyond the atmospheric confines of the project settlement. 

The constitutional exercise, though remarkable enough, had come about by events and arrangements of some complexity, inspired in large part by the findings of the NASA experimental vehicle, Curiosity, in 2012 AD — when both of these new Martians were not even conceived. Rooy and Aymee were taking their daily exercise. They had discovered in the austerities of this derelict planet something they had sought without discovering in their previous lives. No air: perfect vision — clarity of sight and mind. Martian orange-grey sterility. Aymee, dark of skin and outspoken, always declared that Mars served as a physical manifestation of the support system of the subconscious. 

The great spread of an ocean less world surrounded them. Such water as there was flowed hidden underground. As usual, the couple had walked until the brow of Olympus Mons showed like consciousness above the horizon. 

They were walking now between two volcanoes, believed to be extinct, Pavonis Mons and, to the south, Arsia Mons, passing quite close to the rumpled base of the former. In one of these small fissures they had four a little clump of cyanobacteria which added to the interest of their walk. They believed it to be a mark of an ancient underground waterway. 


“I was wondering about our contentment,” Aymee said. “If we weren’t under some odd compulsion to come here? Or if we’re not here and are experiencing some form of delusion? Reality can be rather tenuous up here.” 

“And not only here,” said Rooy, chuckling. 

The dialogue here is somewhat representative of the rest of the book. When the characters aren’t brooding or sniping at each other, they tend to ramble on about their childhoods or their problems or their philosophical musings. Humans in Finches of Mars have made impressive strides and amazing discoveries, learning that the sun has a distant twin and uncovering the existence of a new type of radiation with the rather doltish name of normon. (Some scientists have used the normon’s existence to draw up “an equation which proved that the universe itself is a life form.”)

But none of this prevents the conflicts, big and small, that plague our species today, and indeed have throughout existence. In the book, as in life, lovers quarrel; strangers snipe and brawl with one another with minimal provocation; suicide bombers target hospitals and government buildings. Some nations wage bloody imperialistic campaigns; others are fractured by internal strife.

‘Finches of Mars’ (published 2012; 2015 American cover shown) by Brian W. Aldiss

Meanwhile, the Martian colony has yet to become financially self-supporting, much to the chagrin of the cash-strapped UU. The outpost has yet to record a live birth. And after one of the settlement’s towers experiences catastrophe, an administrator named Noel makes an immensely callous decision that contradicts the express wishes of one of the colony’s guiding lights, an influential Earth pundit named Mangalian.

A few positive developments emerge, but for each step forward there are seemingly two steps back. In the end, after a sort of deus ex machina appears, I realized that Aldiss fashioned Finches of Mars as an extended parable — with what message, I’ll leave it to his readers to conclude.

I was somewhat amused by a few of Aldiss’s invented slang terms: Partness has replaced wife, compoutat has supplanted computer, and radio and TV programs are called screamers. But on the whole, the book is a bit of a challenge, populated as it is with dour characters and bleak episodes. Again, like Central Station, the book is more interested in exploring philosophical themes than telling a traditional story. I’d recommend Finches of Mars to readers looking for a novel of ideas, but not those seeking an adventure tale.

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