Finches of Mars: Flat, boring characters and narrative

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It was with mixed feelings that I picked up Finches of Mars by Brian W. Aldiss. On the one hand, I had fond memories of being introduced to his short stories via my father’s book collection. And fond memories too of reading, much later, his HELLICONIA series and his history of science fiction. On the other hand, I’d read that Finches of Mars was to be his “last novel,” and I’ve had some poor luck with those in the past. Unfortunately, that bad luck held true and though it pains me to write, given the circumstances, Finches of Mars was one of the worst reads I’ve had in a while. As usual in these cases, this will therefore be a relatively brief review.

The novel is set mostly on Mars, in a future where a consortium of universities has sent the best and brightest to colonize that planet. Living in six culturally distinct towers (Western, Russ-Eastern, Chinese, Sud-Am, Scandinavian, and Singa-Thai), the colonists wrestle with the difficulties of supplies, ennui, internal and cross-tower tension, the surprising discovery of life on Mars, and, most difficultly, the utter inability of women to carry babies to term. As life on Earth, already awful, continues to spiral ever downward into a hellish cycle of war and environmental degradation, the question arises as to whether or not the colonists will ever become a viable population. Will they, as Darwin’s finches had, radiate outward and evolve to find their surviving niche?

The problems with Finches of Mars are manifold. The characters don’t feel at all like fully living beings either through their actions or, worse, their dialog, which is often stilted, rarely sounds human, and can be at times cringe-worthy (particularly when referencing sex). None are likable, a potential obstacle for some readers even if it isn’t a deal-breaker, but more damning by far is that none are at all interesting, either. The flatness of the characters is mirrored by the flatness of the narration, which at times felt like a nineteenth century novel robbed of its authorial voice or personality. Plotting doesn’t offer up much help either, as much of it feels wholly random and at times wholly implausible (“Really?” appeared more than once in my margin notes). Shifts can be clumsy, there is some unfortunate Muslim-bashing that leaves it unclear if we’re supposed to scorn the characters who mouth such or nod in agreement with the author and some wince-worthy presentations of female characters, plot threads are dropped or arise abruptly, and the less said about the sex scenes the better.

I want to say Finches of Mars was the worst book I’ve read in months, but I’m not even sure it rises to the level of “book” (or, to be fair, if that is its intent). It was a struggle to finish, and to be honest, I wonder if part of the reason I did finish, beyond that sense of reviewer obligation and the respect due a Grandmaster, was less to see if something good would turn up as some strangely compelling fascination about whether it would maintain that lack of “bookishness” throughout. Like trying to turn your eyes away from a horrible accident. In any case, as you might imagine, I’m not recommending this one. Try Helliconia Spring instead. Or one of Aldiss’ short stories. Or even watch the movie AI, based on one such story.

Published on August 4, 2015. In this thoughtful meditation on the future of humanity, colonists on Mars struggle to prevent their own extinction. Doomed by overpopulation, irreversible environmental degradation, and never-ending war, Earth has become a fetid swamp. For many, Mars represents humankind’s last hope. In six tightly clustered towers on the red planet’s surface, the colonists who have escaped their dying home world are attempting to make a new life unencumbered by the corrupting influences of politics, art, and religion. Unable ever to return, these pioneers have chosen an unalterable path that winds through a landscape as terrible as it is beautiful, often forcing them to compromise their beliefs—and sometimes their humanity—in order to survive. But the gravest threat to the future is not the settlement’s total dependence on foodstuffs sent from a distant and increasingly uncaring Earth, or the events that occur in the aftermath of the miraculous discovery of native life on Mars—it is the fact that in the ten years since colonization began, every new human baby has been born dead, or so tragically deformed that death comes within hours. The great Brian W. Aldiss has delivered a dark and provocative yet ultimately hopeful magnum opus rich in imagination and bold ideas. A novel of philosophy as much as science fiction, Finches of Mars is an exploration of intellectual history, evolution, technology, and the future by one of speculative fiction’s undisputed masters.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who’s been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the “Notable Essays” section of Best American Essays. His children’s work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he’s not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. What a fascinating concept for a novel! It’s too bad that the execution is so flawed.

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