Finches of Mars
Brian W. Aldiss
Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy
While writing this review I was overwhelmed with the feeling of Metanipoko.
(What is Metanipoko? I’ll get to it later….)
Finches of Mars is the latest (and allegedly last) science fiction novel from Grand Master Brian W. Aldiss. It’s a philosophical/political/sociological/ study of the first ten years of Mars colonization.
Logging in at only 202 pages, it’s not a long read, but it felt that way. Each chapter is a sort of vignette, or perhaps snapshot is a better word, into the lives of the colonists as they struggle to advance life on Mars. They can grow plants. They can find water. They can build things. But they can not create life, or more specifically, human life. During the ten years they have been on the red planet every birth is either stillborn or dies soon after.
But after a few chapters, you simply don’t care. Why? Because the characters are one-dimensional. Names change, situations change, but there is nothing to emotionally attach the reader to the colonists’ plight.
There is a very creepy sexual undertone that sort of sneaks up on you. As the story progresses you begin to suspect that the talk of sex, sexual organs and mate selection will eventually lead (at least one thinks it should), to a resolution of the reproduction problem.
Yeah…well, let’s just say Spoilers and leave it at that.
There were times when I was reminded of Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Perhaps this was the approach Aldiss was taking. Perhaps. The snapshots of life on Mars gradually interconnect as the novel advances. Are we looking at the colonists’ psychological and physical changes as they live on the red plant?
About two-thirds of the way through we get his reference to Finches. It refers to Charles Darwin and the birds (finches) he observed in the Galápagos Islands. The finches evolved to fit certain circumstances of their environment, helping them adapt and survive.
A-Ha! Now I see what Aldiss is doing. This is a textbook case of humans (finches) on Mars (Galápagos) adapting to their surrounding for survival. This is not a story, rather it’s a journal. We are observers of nameless birds that on the surface all look-alike, but their subtle differences allow the strong to survive. Slowly we piece together small facts and situations to create a working theory. It makes sense! It’s all about evolution, survival of the fittest, adaptation and natural selection. The strong survive, certain traits help the species live….
And then the Deus Ex Machina ending of the novel pretty much slaps you in the face and throws that all out the window.
The colonists evolve the most through their language and the creation of new words. For example, after life is discovered on Mars (“Life! Let’s eat it!” Yes that happens…) instead of a plot twist that might lead to the solution of the procreation challenge (remember that “problem” that the novel is supposedly about?), the colonists debate how it makes them feel and how to describe that feeling. They settle on the word Metanipoko, or “an intensity of regret and delight”.
Which brings me to how I feel about this novel. Delight that I am once again reading a novel by Aldiss, Grand Master of Science Fiction … And regret that I could not write a glowing review for his last contribution to the science fiction genre.
What I Liked About The Novel: the attempt to write a textbook/journal type narrative looking back at the evolution of humans on Mars and their struggle to survive.
What I Did Not Like: the terrible use of a common sci-fi trope for an ending that totally negated the previous chapters and storyline. It was almost insulting. Almost.
Conclusion: If you are a fan of Aldiss you may want to skip this one. Remember instead his better novels and stories. Go re-read Super Toys Last All Summer Long or his Helliconia trilogy.
Two Stars out of Five.
Obligatory Caveat: I received a free advance copy of this novel from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.