2018’s Before Mars is the third book in Emma Newman’s Planetfall series.
Anna Kubrin is offered a chance too good to refuse: a chance to go to GaborCorps’ Mars base as the resident geologist/artist. This is her only chance: GaborCorps has a monopoly on Mars exploration. But … if she accepts the post, Anna will spend two years away from her husband George and child Mia.
This weighs on Anna — as does her awareness that two years away from her family does not bother her nearly as much as convention demands. Despite this, there was never any doubt that she would accept; by the time the novel begins she has made the journey.
GaborCorps has a monopoly on Martian exploration and is very, very choosy about who it sends to participate in its research-oriented reality show. Everyone else on Mars got there by being the best in their field. Anna failed to qualify when she applied; she won her spot when the spouse of Gabor’s company head decides that he likes Anna’s art.
Not a good start to Anna’s stay. Her fellow Marsnauts do not hesitate to let Anna know how they feel; she got in by a fluke and doesn’t meet the high standards that they achieved.
Anna has other things to worry about. When she enters her room for the first time Anna discovers a note warning her not to trust base psychologist Arnolfi. That’s concerning, but what is even more concerning is that the note is in Anna’s own handwriting. She has absolutely no memory of writing it. Nor can she work out when she could have written it, as she has only just arrived on Mars.
Odd notes continue to arrive. Odd facts turn up. Anna knows that GaborCorps is carefully curating the image of its work that it shows to Earth. She expected that life on Mars wouldn’t be as shiny as GaborCorps pretends it is. But the oddities she is encountering are just inexplicable. Either something bizarre is happening on Mars or Anna has gone mad.
Anna is not sure what to think. After all, madness does run in her family…
Another book in which space is the place and Earth is for losers! Science fiction likes that theme (although I will admit the sudden flurry of reviews of books with that theme is no coincidence: I got a head’s up about a book headed my way and decided to commit an unofficial review series). Before Mars is something of a subversion of that theme, however, because the characters who are most willing to embrace that ethic are also unambiguous villains.
Anna is inclined to question herself, not only because she fears hereditary madness, but because she is worried that she is not a good wife or a good mother. Does she really love George? Does she feel the self-sacrificing love for her daughter that convention tells her she should feel? Did she marry to secure a better living allocation than a single person would merit? Perhaps she’s just a bad person….
But it’s not just Anna. Her worlds, Earth and Mars, seem to be an ongoing experiment (if an inadvertent one) to see just how far one can crank up the Gini Coefficient before the whole system collapses. To identify the point at which the lower orders decide that if they are going to starve to death, they might as well die in revolt. But the Gov-Corps have a good eye for how much people will endure for security; they have powerful tools to compel obedience.
The narrative hovers between mystery and dream, just as Anna is never sure if she is dealing with outside manipulation or just her own madness. This works. Anna’s increasing consternation as the facts fail to add up is compelling.
Having read the previous two books in the series, I knew where this was headed; the Planetfall books are a bit like a detective series in which every case turns out to revolve around the Maltese Falcon. This undermines the suspense somewhat for anyone who knows the series, though it does introduce a new source of suspense. How will Anna and her compatriots react when they finally learn what the reader has known all along?
Anna is an engaging character. Her increasing consternation as the facts fail to add up is compelling.