|Cover design by Adam Auerbach|
Gollancz, 19 April 2018
I'm SO grateful to Kate for passing me her proof of this book (see her review here).
This is the third book set in Newman's Planetfall series, following Planetfall itself and After Atlas. Planetfall is set on a distant world some time after it was colonised by humans aboard the ship Atlas. After Atlas shows what happened on Earth after that ship departed, and Before Mars is a companion, happening alongside After Atlas but, as the site suggests, on Mars where the main character, Anna Kubrin, has travelled to paint and to geologise. (If you've read After Atlas that will give you an idea of some of the events here, although you don't need to have done to appreciate this book).
When I say Kubrin is the "main character" here, that is probably understating her role. Why she has gone to Mars, what she leaves behind and why she is as she is are all issues that preoccupy the unfolding story. As in Planetfall, there is an aspect to Kubrin's personality and history that is gradually revealed and which answers a question I asked myself early on - why has she gone to Mars? The colony there - a handful of people - is ostensibly carrying out research, though really it seems to be more of a setting for a reality TV show, but the idea of going there to paint seems bizarre even in a future where everything seems to be run by oligarchs ("gov corps") at least one of whom is quixotic enough to send an artist all that way.
Newman excels here in putting across exactly what Anna is like, what she is running from and what she is looking for. Without wishing to speculate too wildly I think there are some deeply personal things being explored here and it must have taken great courage to write parts of this book. I hope nobody finds that off-putting - the result is a convincing and deeply human protagonist who would be fascinating even outside the pages of a gripping SF story, which this is. In a genre sometimes criticised (fairly or not) for flat characters and tech-based storytelling, this book stands out as a penetrating character study.
It is also, as I said above, a gripping SF story. There are mysteries here. Upon arrival on Mars, Anna discovers a note to herself warning her against one of the crew. then she finds that her neural chip has apparently been hacked, allowing her very memories to be used to send her messages. All of this makes her worry that she may be losing her grip on reality in the same way her father did. And that's before a certain AI begins misbehaving (shades of 2001 here).
Occupying a corner of the Planetfall universe and calling back to some of the same events referred to in the earlier books, this is nevertheless a fairly standalone story albeit one that - I hope - points to further instalments ahead. I certainly hope so: Newman can certainly spin a tale and is second to none in creating real, human, fallible and credible characters.
The author's website is here. I reviewed Planetfall here and After Atlas here. Originally published in the US, they are both now available in the UK, published by Gollancz alongside Before Mars.