Finches of Mars by Brian W. Aldiss
It was with mixed feelings that I picked up Finches of Mars by Brian W. Aldiss. On the one hand, I had fond memories of being introduced to his short stories via my father’s book collection. And fond memories too of reading, much later, his HELLICONIA series and his history of science fiction. On the other hand, I’d read that Finches of Mars was to be his “last novel,” and I’ve had some poor luck with those in the past. Unfortunately, that bad luck held true and though it pains me to write, given the circumstances, Finches of Mars was one of the worst reads I’ve had in a while. As usual in these cases, this will therefore be a relatively brief review.
The novel is set mostly on Mars, in a future where a consortium of universities has sent the best and brightest to colonize that planet. Living in six culturally distinct towers (Western, Russ-Eastern, Chinese, Sud-Am, Scandinavian, and Singa-Thai), the colonists wrestle with the difficulties of supplies, ennui, internal and cross-tower tension, the surprising discovery of life on Mars, and, most difficultly, the utter inability of women to carry babies to term. As life on Earth, already awful, continues to spiral ever downward into a hellish cycle of war and environmental degradation, the question arises as to whether or not the colonists will ever become a viable population. Will they, as Darwin’s finches had, radiate outward and evolve to find their surviving niche?
The problems with Finches of Mars are manifold. The characters don’t feel at all like fully living beings either through their actions or, worse, their dialog, which is often stilted, rarely sounds human, and can be at times cringe-worthy (particularly when referencing sex). None are likable, a potential obstacle for some readers even if it isn’t a deal-breaker, but more damning by far is that none are at all interesting, either. The flatness of the characters is mirrored by the flatness of the narration, which at times felt like a nineteenth century novel robbed of its authorial voice or personality. Plotting doesn’t offer up much help either, as much of it feels wholly random and at times wholly implausible (“Really?” appeared more than once in my margin notes). Shifts can be clumsy, there is some unfortunate Muslim-bashing that leaves it unclear if we’re supposed to scorn the characters who mouth such or nod in agreement with the author and some wince-worthy presentations of female characters, plot threads are dropped or arise abruptly, and the less said about the sex scenes the better.
I want to say Finches of Mars was the worst book I’ve read in months, but I’m not even sure it rises to the level of “book” (or, to be fair, if that is its intent). It was a struggle to finish, and to be honest, I wonder if part of the reason I did finish, beyond that sense of reviewer obligation and the respect due a Grandmaster, was less to see if something good would turn up as some strangely compelling fascination about whether it would maintain that lack of “bookishness” throughout. Like trying to turn your eyes away from a horrible accident. In any case, as you might imagine, I’m not recommending this one. Try Helliconia Spring instead. Or one of Aldiss’ short stories. Or even watch the movie AI, based on one such story.
What a fascinating concept for a novel! It’s too bad that the execution is so flawed.