I’m so glad I picked up this book- even if it does mean I have to go back and find the installations in Emma Newman’s previous Planetfall series! (No hardship, if they’re as good as this one.) I was expecting something along the lines of Andy Weir’s The Martian, but in the end, good as that novel was, I think I ended up enjoying this one more: for the breadth, and the subtleties, of the themes that Newman explores in her writing.
The main character, Anna Kubrin, is probably most of why I loved this book. She arrives on a remote research facility in Mars, to become her new team’s resident geologist- although she’s really there because of her skill as an artist, which impressed GaborCorp, the company that owns Mars. But when she arrives, she’s in for a surprise: she’s left a note in her own handwriting, that she has no memory of hiding, warning her not to trust the resident psychologist. Is something up- or is her paranoia a result of her fragmenting mental health?
Anna is a great character- and important, too. She’s a woman who feels conflicted about her role as a mother, about marriage, and about the post-natal depression she suffered after the birth of her daughter, Mia. As a result, she’s learned not to trust her own emotions- or her thoughts- but her uncompromising honesty is refreshing to read, whilst her views on motherhood are so important in a society where it’s often idealised. Though it can be uncomfortable to read, it’s also brave, and made me like her more as a result- especially as she gradually grows in confidence over the course of the novel.
She’s also one hell of a detective- something that becomes ever-more important as the story progresses. Newman does a fantastic job of creating such a detailed, fascinating world: from the ‘mersions’, or immersive virtual reality, to the technology that she’s taken a step further from what we already have- like printed food- and to the intricacies of the politics taking place back on Earth, it’s a really fascinating look at what the future could be, as well as a commentary on mental well-being, how far we should trust technology, and where we’re going as a species. Newman wields her pen like a scalpel, delicately peeling back layers of human behaviour and delving into feelings and issues that lesser authors would be extremely apprehensive about approaching.
Also, that ending. Before Mars has its fair share of twists and turns, building tension steadily as we, like Anna, don’t know who to trust- and what’s really happening- before knocking you out with a sucker-punch of a twist that I, for one, did definitely not see come. Amazing: I was bowled over, and also a little traumatised.
More please! I’ll be watching eagerly to see what Newman cooks up next. Just give me a few weeks to get through her back catalogue first.