Before Mars: Impossible to put down

Before Mars by Emma Newman science fiction book reviewsBefore Mars by Emma Newman science fiction book reviewsBefore Mars by Emma Newman

Emma Newman has done it again with her third PLANETFALL novel, Before Mars (2018). I ignored my usual daily reading goals and limits, I ignored a growing stack of paperwork, and I even ignored dinner because I was far more invested in Dr. Anna Kubrin’s declining mental state. What other reason could there be for her growing distance from reality? Why else would she be convinced that something nefarious is going on at her tiny, isolated Mars research station, when the other four scientists-in-residence and the station’s AI insist that everything is copacetic?

Interestingly, Before Mars seems to exist contemporaneously with After Atlas, but the specific timeline isn’t revealed until the very end, creating a definite sense of creeping dread for me as I kept turning the pages. Two particular characters from After Atlas are key to why Dr. Kubrin is on Mars, but Dr. Kubrin herself is the star of the show, and her inability to trust her own eyes, ears, and mind kept me guessing until the very last page. Her motive for being on Mars is simple enough: she’s a brilliant geologist who also enjoys painting Martian landscapes, and a super-wealthy benefactor has sponsored five years’ worth of research for her lab in exchange for Dr. Kubrin going to Mars itself, with the understanding that any paintings she creates at the Mars Principia station will be sold by her benefactor at a tremendous profit to himself.Planetfall by Emma Newman (November 3, 2015)

Back on Earth, the capsule left behind by the prophet Suh (whose travels are described in Planetfall) will soon be opened, leading to intense speculation about what might be inside. This speculation is even a topic of discussion at Mars Principia, where the other scientists — Drs. Petranek, Banks, Arnolfi, and Elvan — have all been getting along just fine without her, thank you very much. After six long months of total isolation during her solo trip to Mars, Kubrin has trouble integrating into their clique, a difficulty which is only compounded by a very serious shock once she arrives: she finds a hidden note in her own handwriting warning her not to trust Arnolfi, the station’s psychiatrist, with absolutely no explanation for how that note could have been created and hidden on Mars during her journey from Earth. And things only get stranger from there once she discovers a human bootprint in a location which the station AI claims is untouched. But Kubrin has a family history of dissociative paranoia and other mental health issues of her own, so how much of what she experiences is real?

Newman takes a tremendous risk with certain details of Kubrin’s characterization, especially those other mental health issues that I’m leaving deliberately vague, but I think she was successful, and they add to Kubrin’s complexity. There are aspects of Kubrin which don’t see much honest coverage in either fiction or non-fiction, and her layered identities as an individual, a mother, a wife, a daughter, and a sister all take turns under the microscope. It’s a bold choice, but Newman is unflinchingly honest about Kubrin’s less-admirable qualities, and Before Mars is all the better for that honesty.After Atlas (A Planetfall Novel) by Emma Newman (November 8, 2016)

One key component, something that is most obvious with regards to Kubrin but also affects her fellow station-mates, is isolation. Kubrin arrives at Mars Principia disoriented and withdrawn after six months alone in a capsule; she’s a deeply introverted person who grew up in an isolated commune which rejected government surveillance; Principia itself is on a time-delay for communications from Earth, in addition to being a very lonely outpost for five people on the entire planet. Kubrin consistently has trouble connecting with others, which feeds her distrust of them and her tendency to withdraw, which makes it difficult for her to connect with others, and so on. Her sense that the AI and the other people at Principia are hiding things from her only become more intense as unexplainable things keep happening, but Newman keeps a firm hand on the narrative, and neither the plot nor the truth get too out-of-control or unbelievable. She does a great job of incorporating social sciences, the ramifications of real-world technological advances and economic wobbles, and human psychology into each of the PLANETFALL books, and Before Mars is no exception.

All in all, Before Mars was tremendously engaging and surprising. The PLANETFALL series is easily one of my favorite ongoing science-fiction series: the characters are always complex and richly written, the plots are engaging and credible despite their futuristic trappings, and Newman has a keen understanding for social behavior in both the best and worst circumstances. I sincerely hope she’ll continue writing more books in this series, and I highly recommend it to any readers who love science fiction.

Published April 17, 2018. Hugo Award winner Emma Newman returns to the captivating Planetfall universe with a dark tale of a woman stationed on Mars who starts to have doubts about everything around her. After months of travel, Anna Kubrin finally arrives on Mars for her new job as a geologist and de facto artist in residence–and already she feels she is losing the connection with her husband and baby at home on Earth. In her room on the base, Anna finds a mysterious note, painted in her own hand, warning her not to trust the colony psychiatrist. A note she can’t remember painting. When she finds a footprint in a place that the colony AI claims has never been visited by humans, Anna begins to suspect that she is caught up in an elaborate corporate conspiracy. Or is she losing her grip on reality? Anna must find the truth, regardless of what horrors she might discover or what they might do to her mind.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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2 comments

  1. You’re obviously really enthusiastic about this series. I may have to give the second book a try.

    • I think there’s a very good chance that you’d like the second book, or even this one — I think that since you’ve read Planetfall, you could read either After Atlas or Before Mars next.

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