The first of Stuart Aken’s ‘Generation Mars’ books takes three major contemporary social drivers – capitalism, religious fundamentalism and liberalism – and transplants them to Mars following economic and environmental collapse on Earth. The story takes the innovative form of a study based on recordings made by representatives of all three drivers with the most positive spin given to utopian liberals The Chosen.
The Chosen make a good case for social and sexual advantages gained by removing the other two, particularly religion. However, these hot-housed super-humans aren’t always the paragons they like to think. They’re not above the odd bit of racism, despite being deliberately diverse. They are also fixated on their beauty and that of their contemporaries, which can get a bit ‘Love Island’. The name ‘The Chosen’ sets off other alarms; their existence is an innate rejection of others. They are to create a whole new race on Mars, with the recordings meant to be a history lesson cum guide for future generations. However, The Chosen have no intention of sullying their precious gene pool with either the mining colony or the asteroid belt workers, some of whom are – shock – actual criminals! These flaws feel deliberate; perfection is boring and there are tensions in the group despite their constant insistence that there aren’t.
Meanwhile, the spirit of free enterprise is represented by Janine, a working-class sex professional based in the Martian mining colony. She’s doing all this to buy a car she’ll never actually get to drive, but despite her apparent vacuity Janine is a born survivor. She needs to be, because en route to Mars is a group of terrorists determined to end all human life in return for the usual snivelling visa to paradise.
Religions tend to be a hotch-potch of different cultural and historical influences; so too is this nightmare mashup. The main source feels like the sort of extreme wahabbism that has so distorted Islam, although the perpetrators are a mixed bunch. They include the son of a wealthy Western industrialist along with the sort of cretin who struggles with words and sounds like the tweets of Donald Trump.
The terrorists are a source of particularly dark humour. Anyone who disobeys their arbitrary rules is placed out in the Martian atmosphere and in one of my favourite lines, the fascistic leader then says ‘None could summon up the faith to continue their existence’.
This humour is just as well; the matter-of-fact horror of constant rape and murder perpetrated by the terrorists would make the book a tough read otherwise. These villains are proper monsters and I admit they gave me pause. Most of the contemporary terrorism their philosophy is based on is about gaining power, with the ISIS caliphate only the most recent example. However, given that the Earth is needlessly destroyed by stupidity as much as anything else, the author seems to be saying there is little difference between those unable or unwilling to stop the slide into avoidable catastrophe and the terrorists they despise.
The star of the novel is Mars itself. ‘Blood Red Dust’ is one of those really good science fiction stories in which eagerness to find out what happens next ensures the reader hoovers up loads of information about the red planet that might otherwise have been lost in the vagaries of academia or scientific research. Gravity is a good one; on Mars, it’s far less than Earth; a fact many Martian stories, especially on film, fail to address. Then there’s the length of the Martian day, which is longer than those on Earth due to distance from the sun. This means that the teenager whose research we are reading is only nine Martian years old. Meanwhile, the difference in atmosphere means certain weapons like missiles don’t work, so to defend themselves, the utopians make creative use of a space elevator and a laser they build themselves. There is more sly humour in their attempts to construct the weapon; they were meant to be the perfect society, so why should they need either weapons or the desire and ability to create them?
The attack by the terrorists is gripping stuff, particularly as the stakes rise in the face of pointless psychopathic assault. There are parallels here with climate change denial, gun ownership and the anti-knowledge movement and the novel dramatizes these dark forces very well. However, at times the author’s rage and frustration rise too close to the surface and there is some very on-the-nose sermonising about the glaring stupidities of fundamentalist creeds (including capitalism) that the book’s natural readership will already know about and probably agree with.
However, by the conclusion I had a lot more sympathy for The Chosen, who want to help everyone and do their best to see it through. The terrorists are very determined; indeed, even the utopians grudgingly admire the persistence of their idiotic but lethal foes. That the outcome ultimately rests on diligence and compassion makes the novel a timely read. It’s also hard to put down and I devoured it in one sitting.