Before Mars by Emma Newman. Review.

Before Mars by Emma Newman

Gollancz, pb, £13.99

Reviewed by Sarah Deeming

For her new job as a geologist and resident artist, Dr Anna Kubrin must travel for months to reach GaborCorp’s Mars base. Once she arrives, Anna struggles from a strong disconnect from her old life on Earth and with her new colleagues some of whom are outright hostile to her presence while others are more familiar than they should be. Then she finds a note written in her own hand not to trust the base’s psychiatrist, only she doesn’t remember writing it.

As Anna begins her new life on Mars, she finds other inexplicable phenomenon, like footprints on Mars surface that she’s assured have never been explored before, and her memory of the landscape is different from the pictures she’s taken. Is she losing her grip on reality, like her father before her or is she collateral damage in the middle of a corporate conspiracy?

Before Mars is billed as a Planetfall novel, but that doesn’t mean you need to have read the first two novels to understand what is going on. There are enough references to what has gone before to place Before Mars in the Planetfall Universe.

This is at the lighter end of the genre, the focus is less on science, the how things are done, and more on the personal aspect of separation, mistrust and cover-ups. The story is told through present events and Anna’s reminiscing of the past ranging from her father’s breakdown to her experiences of motherhood. The memories are not in chronological order, unfurling as different aspects of her past become relevant in Anna’s now.

Newman’s cast is varied and multi-cultural in the tradition of science fiction embracing people from all walks of life. By doing so she brings layers of conflict and acceptance we wouldn’t have otherwise. Dr Banks is a person of colour and he resents Anna’s presence of Mars because he fronts the scientific show that is broadcast back to earth and he’s worried that she’s been sent to take over because she is white. On the other hand, Petranek is non-binary and hir discussions with Anna about how ze found people who accepted hir for who ze was and the right language to use helps Anna deal with her own feelings as a failed mother because her reactions to her daughter seem muted in comparison with everyone else’s. Before Mars is a compelling read about the clarity distance between ourselves and our loved ones can give us to discover things about ourselves we had never fully realised. A must if you’ve read the other two but it also works well as a stand-alone