Ever since Solaris (1961), it has become something of a trope: interplanetary human colonisers get more than they bargain for when First Contact is not with extraterrestrial beings—who can be conquered, combated, or co-opted—but with the planet itself (or a part of it)—sentient, yet indefinable. Warning us of the perils of the colonial enterprise, the unbridgeable gap between intelligences, and—ultimately—the follies of human ambition, this tradition of speculative fiction writing explores themes that are always interesting, but, by now, defined and predictable.
Leigh Matthews’s Colony—a novel about a doomed attempt to colonise Mars—places itself firmly within this Solaris tradition while attempting (in ways that I shall discuss) to transcend it as well. The premise is straightforward, and as suggestive as the title itself: a seemingly thriving Martian colony begins to fall apart as—one by one—peoples’ bodies and minds begin to turn against them. Physical discomfort is followed by loss of mental control, hallucinations, and outwardly directed belligerence, which is swiftly succeeded by death. All that’s left behind is excessive radiation and a growth of crystals. What begins as a set of stray and isolated instances soon turns into an epidemic. Trapped on Mars, the survivors must now race against time to prepare the launch that will take them back to Earth, while somehow keeping more attacks (this time upon themselves) at bay. And as they do so, the survivors begin to discover that there is a strange pattern to the attacks, a non-random targeting of certain individuals. Discovering the pattern in the short time that they have may make the difference between life and death.
Colony, therefore, straddles two traditions of SF writing. The second is a far older one, perhaps first popularized by Ray Bradbury, and most recently reimagined in The Martian (2011): the colonization of, and survival upon, Mars, with doubtful results. The Red Planet is never easy: whether it is the colonizing “pioneers” of the SF novels of the 1950s, or the more “sophisticated” terraformers of recent vintage, Mars always has surprises in store, many of them hostile. In Colony, that hostility is escalated to (what appears to be) an actively murderous intent.
One might well ask: why is a novel that seems to be simply The Martian Chronicles (1950) crossed with Solaris worth reading in the first place? There are two answers to this. The first is that the crossover itself is somewhat unique. The alien character of the encounter in Solaris is framed by the fact that it takes place on a far-distant planet; that separation from Earth is necessary to drive home the otherness of what is happening. The events in Colony, however, take place in the shadow of Earth; the protagonists are in contact with Earth, their departure conditional upon power plays between the State and the private companies back home—and, towards the end of the novel, they must grapple with the very real problem of carrying back “infected” human beings to Earth. This “nearness” (in more ways than one) serves as a constant reminder that the struggle between the survivors and their attacker is taking place in the context of an attempted colonization, even though it may be of a planet that does not have life as we know it. The fact that what is happening is colonization is easy enough to forget in a Solaris-like situation, where the form of life that is being colonized is nothing recognizable. Matthews’s choice of setting, however, makes it impossible to forget.
The uniqueness of the crossover works in the other direction as well. Martian stories tend to revolve around the known: the planet’s hostile terrain, its volcanoes and its ice, and its harsh atmosphere, are all well-known, and frequently explored, obstacles to human colonization (often enough, they are a threat to human life). A seemingly sentient—yet indescribable—“intelligence,” which cannot be understood in any vocabulary known to us, is something new, and brings to Colony just the right amount of strangeness that lifts it above the mundanity of simply another Martian exploration story.
The second answer to the question of worthiness lies in Matthews’s choice of characters. For much of the novel, the story is driven by Silver, a senior, female crew member of the Mars mission (the senior-most surviving officer, Aliyaah, is also a woman, as is the doctor charged with discovering the pattern behind the attacks). Of Navajo ancestry, and having left behind a wife and a young daughter home on earth, Silver’s past—and her present, where her marriage begins to break down under the stress of distance—is repeatedly foregrounded in the story. One might say that, in 2018, making a lesbian and indigenous person the protagonist of a space exploration and colonization story is no longer as radical as it once may have been; that said, there is something very refreshing about the unapologetically feminist orientation of Colony. Not only is the spotlight firmly on Silver (with the novel succeeding or failing based upon how convincing readers find her), but also on her own concerns, which are inextricable from her identity as a woman, a lesbian, a person of indigenous ancestry—and how all these features interact in her personal and professional history. All this is central to the plot of the novel, rather than being incidental or ancillary.
Indeed, at times, the politics are too obvious. In one of her musings, for example, Silver “recognized, albeit reluctantly, that if she really considered what settlement meant, if she thought back to her time in the desert and the land that the white explorers had declared empty so they could justify its theft, she might come to a conclusion about space exploration that she didn’t like.” This is not something that needs—or should need—to be put into words. And the fact that it is being put into words—so explicitly and specifically—has the unfortunate effect of suggesting to the reader that there is a message that the author intends to convey, and one that they are not confident enough of conveying simply through the characters that they have given us.
Colony, therefore, could perhaps do with a better show-tell balance at times. This is especially because Matthews’s characters are strong enough to let the politics speak through their conduct, instead of through a strange mixture of interior monologue and narrative point of view. That is, however, a minor quibble. Despite the long-established traditions of SF within which the novel has chosen to place itself, Colony has enough that is unique and interesting about it to overcome the burden of its choice of theme and setting. This is especially true of its ending, which may remind readers of a little-known 1943 short story by Frank Russell, called “Symbiotica.” That name itself is something of a giveaway, however … and perhaps readers should be left to discover the details for themselves!