Finches of Mars feels like a callback to Golden Age SF, an extended reflection on the meaning of desire and faith in the context of mortality, as well as an ongoing analysis of the role of the intellectual in policy work and social revolution. All of this is accomplished by chronicling the linked histories of the first human colonies on Mars and the decline of a brain-drained Earth. While intriguing, this is a deeply uneven novel, with no one theme or idea explored to completion. Perhaps this is due to the narrative structure; the novel moves between planets and people, leaving plot threads unresolved or unexamined.
The first three chapters of Finches begin by laying out the basic premises of this world. The Martian settlements are ethnically, politically, and socially diverse, and are the pet project of the United Universities—the UU. The funding for these towers rises and falls in accordance with public, national, and international interest in the project. Without this funding, the colonists would quickly run out of basic supplies, and fail. Like many academic research projects, this Martian colony has an uneasy relationship with the media. The six towers are representative of "linguistic rather than political bases" (p. 3). Unfortunately, these linguistic divisions become a shorthand for ethnic stereotyping:
Screamers [a type of news media] had run an opinion poll about the six towers in the Martian settlement. The towers were graded as follows:
CHINESE: MOST ELABORATE
WEST: MOST LEARNED
RUSS-EAST: MOST ARTISTIC
SINGA-THAI: MOST EXCLUSIVE
SCAND: MOST SPARTAN
SUD-AM: MOST EXOTIC (p. 2)
According to the CIA World Factbook, the six most common languages spoken in the world today are Mandarin (not Chinese!); Spanish; English; Arabic; Hindi; and Bengali. Three of these languages are not represented by a tower; this is because the atheism clause in the colony's establishment charter does not permit them to join. However, their absence as intellectuals and researchers isn't missed. "This was one of the several reasons we were, sadly, unable to introduce Muslims to Mars. Not that there were many Muslim universities willing to contribute. True, there were some Muslim communities that might have been welcome—Malaysia, for instance" (p. 50). This was really strange for me to read, because it’s possible to be culturally Muslim, much in the same way it's possible to be culturally Catholic, Buddhist, or Jewish. Considering that Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are all emerging tech giants in the space race, I expected Finches to explore the impact anti-Arab sentiment and Islamophobia had in hampering the colony's success, particularly because of its implicit dismissal of universities. However, my hopes were quickly dashed. "One of the women from the Exploration Desk laughed. 'Oh, the toilets, you mean? But thousands of Muslims live happily without toilets. And Africans. And—'" (p. 51). Over the course of the novel, this type of characterization of Muslims and Africans as poverty-stricken and semi-savage is consistently reinforced.
After the colony is established, they begin accepting new immigrants from Earth. These immigrants must be highly educated atheists. The assumptions associated with this class background serve as one of the most explicit discussions of the sidelining of writers and philosophers working in academia, itself known as an ivory tower.
The woman to whom a terrestrial computer had allotted the name Sheea said, "Are we the elite or the rejects, Noel?"
Noel raised a delicate eyebrow. "I prefer to think of us as the elite."
"Here we are on Tharsis Shield, parked in six towers—we were so proud of being chose for this extraordinary exile—is this indeed the honour we imagine it to be? Or do you think we have been dumped here so as not to interfere with the villainies brewing on Earth?" (p. 5)
Unfortunately, this type of provocative interrogation of the role of the intellectual in modern society is sidelined in favor of other plotlines that themselves lack follow-through. As the colonists struggle to maintain their project's funding, they are also faced with another, more personal hurdle: every human child born on Mars has been stillborn. This impacts their funding, because one of the goals of the Martian program was to raise a group of kick-ass analytical young people, the inheritors of a human legacy torn apart on Earth through constant, petty warfare. Plus, because these Martian colonies are rapidly becoming nonviable projects in the eyes of the Earth-bound general public, the colonists are constantly stressed about supplies and the overall financial well-being of their little world. Why fund a colony unable to generate its own biopower? What point is there in establishing a highly funded intellectual community if it cannot produce its own graduates, its own disciplinary line of descent?
Over the years, the colonists start minor feuds with one another and between the towers, particularly when the Sud Amer tower is discovered to have finches. These finches are sick, but still regarded with a mixture of covetousness and annoyance. The colonists also debate larger cosmic issues with a comical emotionality; in fact, one of these atheist scientists is so excited about the discovery on Mars of an obscure saint's hagiography that she wets herself. This scene in particular is oddly disheartening. The saint's hagiography is discovered in the heretofore lost robotruck of Operation Horizon, the original expedition that helped determine the viability of the Mars colony. Its presence on the expedition was an oddity. Prestwick and Simmons, the two scientists who were tasked with finding water on Mars, have a rambling conversation about spirituality, authenticity, and women. During this conversation, Prestwick talks about an affair he had with a Chilean woman named Carmen, so "real" he "got a mild dose of the clap off her" (p. 14). He talks about Carmen's poverty, the gender dynamics framing it, and concludes that it was "a rich experience" (ibid). The hagiography belongs to Prestwick; as he and Simmons discuss the book, Prestwick yearns for a time of authenticity signified by gendered oppression in the West's Middle Ages and gendered oppression in present-day Chile. Modernity, with its clean sheets, and sex ed, grieves him.
Simpson gave a laugh. "[Christina of Markyate] was quick-witted at least. But 'Bride of Christ' . . . ? Who'd believe that today?"
Prestwick answered sadly, "No one would. Today most teenage girls in the West have lost their virginity by the age of fifteen and think well of themselves for having done so."
. . . Silence fell between the two men. Then Simpson said, "At least we treat women better now."
He felt he had scored a point there. (p. 19)
While Finches of Mars contains all the elements of a good SF novel, they never gelled for me. For example, I was not sure of the connection between Christina of Markyate's hagiography and the colonists' experiences on Mars. After researching this saint more thoroughly, I found that she lived in a world of contradictions: she was best known as a hermit, but is also remembered for her political and social allegiances with powerful men inside and outside the Church. While there is a connection between this history and the colonists, because the colonists become Martian intellectual ascetics living in (ivory) towers, the lack of explication felt like a missed opportunity. For example, Christina's first struggles to maintain her devotion to God center on her body and consent by maintaining her virginity. This demonstrates the ways in which her body and its reproductive and sexual capabilities are treated as a resource in a patriarchal society, and is similar to the ways in which female colonists' bodies become a site of reproductive panic, subject to all sorts of cures designed to make them deliver healthy fetuses. These bodies and their physical well-being become key to the novel's ultimate resolution, which involves the colonists' future descendants traveling to the past in order to guarantee the colony's survival by providing the colonists with a more efficient way of extracting oxygen. One narrator thinks to herself, "We are the great resource" (p. 200), because it's only through the colony's reproductive success that this future generation of humans comes into being.
In the hands of a more overtly feminist or anti-racist novelist, the cynicism of this statement might be more apparent. After all, the bodies of women, the working class, people of color, and the colonized have been, and still are, "the great resource" whose exploitation powers social revolution. This is especially glaring, given the novel's exclusion of Muslims, Africans, and other colonized subjects; its fetishization of Asian culture and bodies (the Western tower members sneak out at night and get drunk at the Asian tower; the author's Appendix discusses restaurants as one of China's big gifts to the world); the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't discussion of the brain-drain on Earth, as the best and the brightest (as judged through the lens of academic and professional success) go to Mars; and the fixation on the damage space flight and reduced gravity have on women's reproductive organs as the primary cause of Martian infertility.
This is a novel with no heroes. Instead, the focus is on the march of time and human social and biological evolution. There is no resolution to any of the concerns presented, including the fertility issues faced by the Martian colonists. While this focus on chronology instead of plot is an interesting conceit, it unfortunately left me feeling as though this was a novel with no center, no core set of characters or ideas to call its own or to fully explore. It ultimately offered a premise more interesting than its content, and snippets of plot worthy of better follow-through. Both of these are drowned out by the lack of a feminist or anti-racist critique in an SF novel centering on colonization, women's bodies, and biopower. These gaps are emphasized in the cavalier Appendix, where Aldiss dismisses China as "non-exploratory" and as having "contempt for the happiness of women" (p. 201); describes former Soviet and British colonial states as experiencing "inertia" because of UN aid (p. 202); and describes aid to Africa as "largely futile" because of the pervasive "[t]yranny, warfare, rape, starvation, [and] illness" (p. 203). He goes on to write, "We need to separate the truly enlightened from the vast majority. That can only be done by transplanting the best of our stock and striving—on Mars and beyond—to realize true civilization" (ibid). It's unfortunate that a storied author's career should end with an author's note reminiscent of eugenics propaganda.
Maria Velazquez is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research interests include constructions of race, class, gender, and sexuality in contemporary media, as well as community-building through technology. She serves on the board of Lifting Voices, a District of Columbia-based nonprofit that helps young people in DC discover the power of creative writing, and blogs for The Hathor Legacy, a feminist pop culture blog. She recently received the Winnemore Dissertation Fellowship from the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.
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