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Before Mars
by Emma Newman

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

Another I received as a free e-book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

Throughout the book, even after the end, I was puzzled by the title. Granted, there are flashback memories to prior events, but all of the action takes place on Mars. This is set in the same future history time line as Newman's two previous SF novels, Planetfall and After Atlas, although each can be read and appreciated as individual stories. The connecting event is the space ship Atlas, built by a consortium of scientists under the direction of the spiritual visionary Lee Suh-Mi, who had been nicknamed the Pathfinder. The second book was set on Earth, the main characters being ones who had a connection to members of the Atlas mission. Before Mars is set at approximately the same time as the concluding events in the second book, which in turn was close to 40 years after the launch of Atlas.

Before giving any more details, I want to talk a bit about first-person narrative form. I know many who don't like it, and it is a challenge for even the most accomplished authors. I can understand some of the arguments while not always agreeing with them. First, there is the worry about the unreliable narrator, the suspicion that they are withholding information. Second, the confusion as to when they are revealing the story. Is it after the fact or during the events, as if they're writing a journal, or dictating into a digital recorder, reporting things as they happen? All three of these books are in first-person, and even though the narrators are different, there is a commonality to their personalities. All have suffered from trauma in their pasts, with the possibility some events are imagined, or the memories are distorted due to that trauma. Add to that a new technology introduced in the second book, neural chips that connect the user directly to the Internet, an APA (Artificial Personal Assistant) for coordinating work and social calendars, and a MyPhys app for monitoring health and well-being. Now imagine that the chip can be hacked, memories altered, deleted, or false ones implanted. In this case, it is easy to assume the narration is occurring as it happened, recorded by the chip, complete with holes in the memory, some of it partially restored or reconstructed based on probabilities at the end.

In the opening pages we meet Anna Kubrin, a geologist (also an artist), during her ship's final approach to docking at Mars Principia, the only permanent base on the planet so far. She is greeted in turn by the four other scientists in residence, one of whom, Dr. Anolfi, is a psychiatrist studying long-term effects of habitation in low gravity. The mystery begins almost immediately, as Anna discovers a note in her quarters: "Do not trust Anolfi." It's not just a hand-written note, it is painted on quality paper identical to the sketch pads she has brought with her, and in a brush-stroke style she recognizes as her own. Examination of her personal effects reveals one less sketch pad than she thought she had packed, as well as several canvases missing, and everything arranged differently than she had packed them. Could someone have rifled through her luggage in the short time between her arrival and when she first entered her quarters? Even if so, how could they have duplicated her painting style, and so quickly? In addition to her geological studies, she had been chosen by Stefan Gabor, the sole investor in the Mars project, to paint Marscapes that he could sell to help finance the mission. Other mysteries include the surprising and unexplained hostility directed at her from Dr. Banks, whom Anna had looked forward to meeting, since she was a big fan of the documentaries he hosted. Another is her eerie attraction to another member of the crew whom she has just met. She begins to wonder if she knew him previously on Earth, and while he also seems to be attracted to her, he gives no indication they aren't meeting for the first time.

One of the features of the neural chip is the mersive, an immersive virtual reality experience. It is used for gaming, instructional videos, as well as personal memories to be replayed at the user's leisure. These are recorded by the chip using optical and audio implants. At one point Anna says that she had not been as prone to mersive use as many others, including her husband, and yet she used them frequently on her six-month voyage to Mars, mainly because she was, oddly enough, the sole occupant of the ship. People who use the feature too often may begin to exhibit behavior that points to their inability to distinguish between a mersive and reality. Not only did Anna use mersives a lot during her journey, being an artist she also has a highly developed visual memory, and on more than one occasion she recounts a past event, ending with an "End mersive" command, only to realize she wasn't in a mersive, and having to deal with the puzzled looks of the other crew members who are wondering what she just experienced. In this and many other ways, we begin to doubt the narrative, to doubt Anna's sanity. This is reinforced when she tells of similar things that may have plagued her father, to whom she has not spoken for more than twenty years. We also learn that she thinks of herself as a bad wife, a bad mother, and in general a horrible person who can't feel and express emotions like 'normal' people.

I'm glad I did not spoil the concluding events in my review of the second book, and since those events overlap with the ending of this one, I will refrain from doing so here. They are tragic events, but not the conclusion of the story, as I am sure there will be at least one more book to follow. If there's not, I will be extremely disappointed. I almost rated this 5 stars on Goodreads, but several scenes toward the end were too much of an info dump, too much exposition that could have been doled out in smaller doses earlier. Other than that, I liked this as much as the first two books. I've only read these three SF novels by Newman, although I have the first book in one of her fantasy series. If her fantasy is even half as good as her SF, I need to read that soon. I'll let you know when I do.

Related Links:
My reviews of Planetfall and After Atlas.
And now a fourth book, which closely follows the second, Atlas Alone.


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Emma Newman


Finalist for:
British SF

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