RogerBW's Blog

Before Mars, Emma Newman 06 February 2022

2018 science fiction, concurrent with After Atlas. Anna Kubrin, geologist and painter, arrives on the Mars base to join the four-person scientific crew there. But then she finds a painting, in her own distinctive style, warning her not to trust one of them; equipment is missing from what she remembers packing, though the inventory matches what's there; an inscription is absent from the inside of her wedding ring; and worst of all, she knows just what paranoia looks like, because she saw it in her father's breakdown.

Wow. I think this is my favourite of Newman's books so far; they've all had protagonists facing different sorts of despair, but this one spoke to me in a way that the others didn't quite. (Or perhaps I was just in the right mood for it.)

It's really hard to tell a satisfying story about a person with an unreliable memory; that was one of my problems with Planetfall, the first book in this setting (though they aren't strictly a series and I think one could read any of them in isolation). Newman comes dangerously close to dropping the ball, but manages to keep my interest even as Kubrin is falling apart. There's an older SF book which tremendously frustrated me with the things the protagonist didn't think about (for reasons which I won't go into, as they'd be a spoiler for this book); that problem is avoided here, and instead we get a really interesting interior life of someone who has to distinguish between untrustworthy memory and untrustworthy external data.

There's also a fine picture of post-natal depression, as Kubrin reflects on her life before the Mars mission and how the moment of total love for New Baby simply didn't happen for her the way everyone else claimed it had for them (or were they all lying too?). And now she's abandoned husband and child for an indefinite stay on Mars, and of course she feels guilty about that even as it was clearly the only thing for her to do…

Of course there's the external plot too, of the covert shenanigans surrounding this assignment. There are the rest of the crew at the base, each of whom has their own problems as well as potentially being a pawn in the grip of greater powers (so yes, there's a mystery element to the story too). And what's going on elsewhere, which is where having read After Atlas will bring on an extra layer of foreboding…

This is not necessarily an easy read, but it gets just about everything right.

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Previous in series: After Atlas | Series: Planetfall | Next in series: Atlas Alone

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