What could isolation and paranoia do to a person 33 million miles from home? What if that’s not far enough to escape the past?
In Before Mars, the third novel in the Planetfall series by Emma Newman, geologist and painter Anna Kubrin is sent to Mars by the head of of GaborCorp ostensibly to paint authentic landscapes for him to sell to the impossibly wealthy. Months alone in the spaceship have affected Anna deeply and, combined with her conflicted emotions surrounding leaving her husband, Charlie, and daughter, Mia, behind, enhances the feelings of loneliness and longing that she had even while on Earth. Being stuck underground in a cramped base with only a handful of other scientists and a mysterious note in her own handwriting, warning her not to trust the psychologist in charge of the mission, only amplify the feelings of paranoia and distress.
The technological and sociological background of the Planetfall series is less science-fiction and more science-future, or an extrapolation of current technology and possibility without taking too many leaps into the fantastic. Implanted chips with personal data storage and connection to a wider network, implanted retinal lenses with augmented reality projection, 3D printers to create food, medicine, and building materials, and an Artificial Intelligence running the whole show all seem an extension of current technology taken out another 50-75 years into the future. The exact timeline of Before Mars is vaguely indeterminate, but dropped references to vast socio-political changes in the ’30s gives the assumption that this novel is set in the late 21st century. This allows Newman the opportunity to explore relatable technology and situations, paralleling the apprehension we culturally may have towards the advance of technology. It also allows Kubrin to feel trapped inside a virtual world, wondering if what she is experiencing is real, a figment of her imagination, or a simulation projected onto her consciousness.
The concept of loneliness is central to not only the plot of the book, but its central character as well. Separated from her family, her planet, stuck with an artificial intelligence and a handful of strangers for comfort, Kubrin is forced to deal with her emotions alone, especially the complex and devastating realizations about her feelings towards her family. It is about this point in the novel that the expected tropes take a bit of a twist, for better or worse. Kubrin dealing with the real issues of post-natal depression along with her complicated feelings about her husband and their relationship complicates not only the environment in which she finds herself, but also her relationship with readers. Once her feelings come to the fore, she becomes a much more complex character and much, much more difficult to reconcile with.
There are no fantastical sci-fi elements in Before Mars. On the contrary, the biggest conflict is between Kubrin and her own thoughts and emotions. From my own perspective, as a married man with children, I had a very difficult time relating with Kubrin’s emotional state throughout the book. That in no way diminished what Newman was trying to achieve with the character, but it made her a less sympathetic protagonist at times. Again, I’m not trying to diminish the very real pain that can be experienced. Newman is brutal with her descriptions of Kubrin’s mental state. Once the climax and later acts of the book fall into place, the jump in time causes her emotional issues to have little resolve inside the narrative. Considering the events leading up to the climax, however, I’m not sure that any actual resolution is even possible.
Before Mars is a strong, hard sci-fi novel with real promise in its continuing story, exploring the dystopian, corporate future and how a very small group of people can band together, not to change the world, but to change their small corner of it. Even if it’s a cold rock 33 million miles from home.