I was afraid this novel would fall short of its titular promise, a bait-and-switch piece that neglects the physical feat of relocating an entire planet from one part of the galaxy to another, for a politically-charged story about a radical movement on Mars. Sure, I love political science (it was my undergrad major, after all), but you can’t name a novel Moving Mars and not move Mars. But then the characters started talking about quantum physics, and…
They really move Mars. To another part of the galaxy.
The story follows Casseia Majumdar, a third- or fourth-generation citizen of Mars, in a first-person recounting of events that begin in her early days as an unwitting political activist in college, and continues to her ground shaking political career during the tumultuous growing pains of Mars’ early days as a budding scientific power and rival of Earth. Much of Casseia’s story revolves around her relationship with college boyfriend and physicist, Charles, whose major breakthroughs shatter scientific knowledge and threaten Earth. When relations with Earth become too dangerous to bear, Casseia and Charles combine their prowess in their respective fields to defy Earth’s antagonisms, as well as several universal physical laws, and relocate their home planet. Like the “red rabbit” moniker all Martians endearingly adopt for themselves, they scamper away when things get dangerous, taking the entire planet with them.
Screw you, Earth. When Mars doesn’t want to play, it takes its toys and goes somewhere else.
It’s impossible to review Moving Mars without a comparison to Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic Mars trilogy, Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994), and Blue Mars (1996), both of which were published in the nineties and explore similar themes surrounding human settlement of Mars, with detailed accounts of its ensuing political, economic, environmental, and technological developments. Both novels devote entire chapters to the Martian constitutional congress, survival in the midst of a Martian dust storm, a provincial Martian visit to cosmopolitan Earth, Martian reliance on bots for all constructive enterprises, and mad scientists who transport Phobos, in order to spite Earth. (Poor Phobos, just a pawn in the hierarchy of planetary satellites.) Although Moving Mars is much shorter, and spans less time (years 2171 – 2185+), both KSR and Bear pin the settlement and subsequent development of Mars around the same time period (the Mars trilogy begins with settlement in 2026, with full terraformation by 2225; the Moving Mars timeline is similar but less explicit).
Aside from size and tone, Moving Mars’ most notable and intriguing difference is Bear’s treatment of Martian ancient history, written from the assumption that Mars was once alive in its early history. Bear’s characters have a fascination with Martian fossils, which document Mars’ unique, extinct life forms: flowers imprinted on sea glass, fossilized organic aqueducts, and the mysterious mother cysts– a mollusk of primordial soup that births various kinds of life, the forms of which are determined by the conditions of the moment. Bear’s playfulness with Martian life is a far cry from KSR’s love affair with the perpetually dead terrain, although both approaches are equally captivating.
But remove all of the politics and paleontology, and what you have is a coming-of-age romance with angsty teen overtones and a tad bit of R2-D2/C-3PO robot humor, which is exactly why a traditional scifi fan might avoid this novel for something more substantial, and exactly why dodgers of hard scifi might give this book a whirl. As readers of this blog have probably noted, my snark levels rise when reviewing romance-driven SF, but Bear handles the romance well, in a realistic and composed fashion. It won’t make you vomit. And, less tedious in detail, with more rapid character development than KSR’s seminal work, fans of pop SF (particularly the movie kind) will likely enjoy this book. The political arc adds just enough suspense to keep the non-romance fans interested, too. And, of course, THEY MOVE MOTHERFUCKING MARS TO ANOTHER MOTHERFUCKING SPOT IN THE GALAXY, so… that’s pretty awesome.
Physics fetishists beware! The actual moving of planetary matter is done by a bunch of mind/computer hocus-pocus, and not by any actual feats of engineering. Scientists clackety-clack on computers and calculate ambiguous formulas, while generic-voiced AI’s spout scientific babble. The mathematics are vague and, despite the behemoth idea of relocating a planet, the action of moving Mars is relatively uneventful (although the consequences of changing mantle tidal forces will result in catastrophe later on). In no way will this measure up to the unforgettable, physics-driven space elevator collapse of Red Mars, but it captured my imagination, nonetheless.
Overall, the story of Moving Mars is a story about bad timing, a theme that pervades each of the many story arcs. The relationship between Casseia and Charles is plagued by bad timing, in which internal and external factors always impede their not-quite-requited romance. As a political player, Casseia’s attempts to unify and strengthen the political power of Mars is met with resistance by its provincial inhabitants and the greedy BM’s (Binding Multiples- extensively networked “family” corporations) who are unprepared for such change. Earth’s ambition to pool the solar system’s resources in order to pursue interstellar travel occurs at a time when Mars has little bargaining power to survive such an unbalanced relationship. The reader gets the sense that, if things would happen just a little bit later and a bit more slowly, it would all work out.
But nothing ever works out for Bear’s story, and even his heroes suffer the consequences of their bold decisions. Casseia and Charles fail to connect romantically. Mars erupts into a violent coup. And when faced by Earth’s betrayal, in the form of a planet-wide, technological hostage crisis, Mars is cornered with nowhere to run, but an entire galaxy to disappear into, but not without major ramifications.
And perhaps that’s Bear’s message to his readers: although critical scientific and political advances are inevitable, they are painful when forced, and often poorly planned, controversial, and detrimental.
Moving Mars is an engaging read with an intriguing premise, and ideal for fans of popular SF. Despite my steadfast preference for KSR’s seminal trilogy, the quality storytelling of Moving Mars deserves as much recognition among its peers. The fans and critics couldn’t agree, either. Although Moving Mars lost the ’94 Hugo to Green Mars, it defeated that same opponent for the Nebula the following year. (I would have predicted the opposite.)