Moving Mars

by Greg Bear

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: November 1993
Printing: December 1994
ISBN: 0-812-52480-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 500

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It's the middle of the 22nd century, and after discovery of artificial intelligence, revolutionary work in genetic engineering, and improvements in psychotherapy, technology has been stalled for some time. The Earth has colonized the Moon and Mars, the early problems of building permanent habitats on Mars have been solved, and the red planet has a stable population with backwater politics based on Binding Multiples, an economic extension of family. Some people are trying to unify Mars under a single government, and that's where the story opens: with Casseia Majumdar participating in a student protest on Mars against the unification government.

Moving Mars was released in the middle of publication of Kim Stanley Robinson's epic Mars terraforming saga and features government building, idealism about Mars as an independent world, and a trip back to Earth by Martian polticians. It begs comparison to Robinson's scientific epic. Bear, though, tackles his material from a different angle: Moving Mars, despite a slow start and a lot of character exploration as Casseia grows into her political position, is far different from Robinson's slow-paced scientific and political epic. It's a thriller, with tighter pacing, more scenery without strict scientific grounding, and little of Robinson's concentrated effort to paint on a giant canvas. If you want a realistic hard-SF Mars future, this will be a disappointment, but I think Bear writes a better novel.

The protest at the start of the book unravels in some nasty, ambiguous bits of political passion. It's not immediately apparent, but this sets the tone for the whole book; the core story is political, with the science there to set up the political problems.

The speed of the book slows drastically after the open. Casseia comes away with some connections, fumbles through a love affair, and gets an opportunity to go to Earth to negotiate over Earth's desire for Martian reunification. Bear keeps the story moving, mostly through character side-plots and Casseia's self-conscious first-person narration, but there's a lot of setup and groundwork in this story and the first half of the book can drag (although it's nothing like Robinson's most prolix moments). But it's setup for an intense explosion.

For the first half of the book, I was wondering if Bear was doing a pure future exploration using a character as a camera, but eventually it becomes obvious that he's building a boulder on a very high point. Mars goes forward with building its own native government, despite veiled threats from an Earth that is supremely confident in its psychologically improved population, great coalitions, and belief that all politics in the solar system should be run on the same lines. Then a scientific subplot that's been running since early in the book explodes at the same time as political relations with Earth, the thriller plot kicks into full gear, and the remainder of the book is a spiral of escalating suspense that I could barely put down.

The technology Bear uses here is pure handwavium, I didn't find his picture of the future Earth as believable as Robinson's, and I expect the scientific plot devices that he pulls out to drive the plot will make some people cringe. But this book isn't about the technology. It's about terrorism, separatism, independence, revolution, leadership, and ethics. It's about questions of mandate and responsibility, the interactions of science and war, and the scary futility of death spirals of mistrust. Bear draws no clear analogies; he just tells a story of politics with the highest possible stakes, with an agonized and ethical viewpoint character. The resolutions still come from the thriller world of unambiguous good guys who stand somewhat improbably at the fulcrum of events, but I was impressed by the depth of the dilemmas. Bear tackles hard questions more directly than I was expecting and puts his characters through ethical agony more often than physical. He builds up to a beautiful bit of dramatic catharsis, lets it go realistically sour, and then builds up to an even more satisfying ending. I thought the last third of this book was structurally exceptional.

Despite leaving science mostly in the background, Bear does play with some fun ideas. I particularly liked his portrayal of quantum computers; it's handwavium, but it's amusing handwavium that I thought had thought-provoking angles. I also liked his use of information warfare (with some strong DRM resonances for me). On the non-technological front, I'm not sure why the Mars natives calling themselves "red rabbits" worked so well for me, but it did. Bear has Casseia fully use the analogy and shows it as a core part of her identity, and it was effective enough that even at the end of the book I was still getting thrills from the emotional resonance the idea has for her. Bear paints both his societies and his physical background that way: rather than the exhaustive descriptions of Robinson, he drops hints, shows flashes, and makes good use of turns of phrase and personal symbols. He creates a framework of depth and lets the reader's mind fill in the emotional impact without requiring appreciation for endless minutiae.

It took me a while to warm to Casseia's voice, and the first half of this book can be slow. I wasn't sure that I cared that much about these people at times (although Casseia usually found a way to charm me again in short order). You will also need plenty of suspension of disbelief and a willingness to deal with science that doesn't fit the world as we know it. But as far as I'm concerned, the ending is worth every moment.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-02-25

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21