Thursday, 11 April 2013

Review: Saving Mars

Saving Mars
Saving Mars by Cidney Swanson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this up after Nathan Lowell recommended the sequel. I take Nathan's recommendations seriously, since I discovered Debora Geary, one of my favourite authors, through him, so I started out predisposed to like this a lot.

I did enjoy it, too, despite massive setting issues. More on that in a moment.

The writing is smooth and competent, with only occasional errors: capitol instead of capital, physician's when it should be physicians', discretely instead of discreetly, enormity used to mean largeness instead of dreadfulness. Not too bad. Four stars.

The plot is full of incident, with high stakes, suspense and drama. Unfortunately, the setup for the plot to be high-stakes, suspenseful and dramatic broke my suspension of disbelief and then danced on the pieces. (Again, more of that shortly.) Four stars for plot.

The characters were diverse, though I didn't think they achieved a lot of depth or departed far from their archetypes. We have the wise mentor, the stick-up-the-butt ambitious captain, the rash youth, the idealistic youth, the villiany villainous villain who is far too villainous (shooting minions, really?), the great and beloved leader. The only character who struck me as really original was the protagonist's brother, who's somewhere on the autism spectrum, and even then, he falls into the autistic-savant stereotype. I'm only giving three stars for characters. They weren't great, but at least they weren't annoying, and they took action based on clear goals that meant something to them. On reflection, probably three and a half.

Now, the setting. The author says in a note at the end, "I’ve done my best to keep the (meager) science in SAVING MARS at least somewhat accurate, but there are many points where I felt free to get quite speculative, and I’m sure there are numerous out-and-out errors as well." Well, yes. There are numerous out-and-out errors. In fact, I struggle to think of a single thing about the setting that I found remotely plausible. Not the astrophysics, though in space opera that generally gets a pass, but also not the politics, the economics, the sociology, the neuroscience, the medical science, the agricultural science (or extremely dubious lack thereof), the nutritional science, the way the people of Mars store their food in a high-oxygen environment when that is not what you do with anything that's remotely perishable, the logistics, the communications technology, the computer science, the pilot training that leaves out the ability to operate some of the communications devices for no apparent plot-relevant reason, or the nicknames "Lobster" and "Kipper" used by people who know nothing of seafood.

I could nitpick at the setting all day, but I'll confine myself to the two most prominent things, on which so much of the plot hinges.

The characters have to get off Mars for two reasons. Firstly, they can't grow their own food because of toxins in the soil, so they have to go to Earth every 17 years and get enough ration bars to last the entire population for the next 17 years. The population is more than 4000 (since that's mentioned as the number of people who have toured a facility early in the book), which at two ration bars per person per day for 17 years adds up to a huge number (and mass) of ration bars. The obvious question is, if they can somehow, inexplicably, lift that much mass off Earth, why don't they bring back some non-toxic soil to grow things in? Leaving aside the highly dubious idea that they wouldn't be able to find some other way around it. Leaving aside the highly dubious idea that the problem even existed in the first place. (No non-toxic soil on an entire planet?)

They also need to go to Earth to try and hack the killer satellites that are supposed to keep them on Mars in the first place. I'm no hacker, but I would have thought that if you could hack them from Earth you could hack them from Mars. Maybe not, though. I'll let that one pass, with a dubious look.

So we have a highly contrived reason that the characters need to go to Earth. They've had a war with Earth, and Earth thinks they're all dead by now anyway. One of the reasons they haven't restored contact with Earth is that Earth has a system of compulsory body-switching which, supposedly, has stabilized their society and their resource usage. People get 18 years in the body they were born in, then switch into a 54-year-old body to learn their trade. At 72 they switch to a 36-year-old body and work for 18 years, and then get to switch again into an 18-year-old body for their retirement, after which they die (having lived 72 years in total).

To me, this makes no sociological, psychological or economic sense, quite apart from the neuroscience being completely handwaved. At what time are children born? How are they born? If they're born naturally, from bodies that are in their prime childbearing years, everyone would be the children of retirees and lose their parents before the age of 18. Since this apparently isn't the case, is it all done with artificial wombs? How is this making more efficient use of resources?

I didn't buy the body-swapping at all, any more than the need to mount a clandestine mission to Earth, dodging killer satellites, every 17 years and bring back a huge cargo of nothing but ration bars in exchange for refined tellurium (which is poisonous to handle, incidentally, and you wouldn't carry round a bar of it in your bag).

No, sorry, it's one star for setting. I can forgive a few bits of dodgy science, but nothing about this setting makes sense to me. Most of the setting elements, in fact, are arguably out-and-out wrong.

That makes 12-and-maybe-a-half stars out of a possible 20, or just over two out of five. I'm going to be extra-generous (because I did enjoy the story, blatantly rigged though it was) and round up to three stars. I don't think I'll be reading the sequel, though, because all that bad worldbuilding is just too much work.

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