Travel Documents 13: Finding Life On Mars

Finding Life on Mars: A Novel of Isolation

Jason Dias
Genre: Dystopian, spec-fic, cli-fi, literary fiction

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The Dust Cover Copy

It’s Jaye’s 21st birthday, but since she was raised on Mars, it passes just like every other day: harvesting mushrooms from the grow room, tending her fellow Trueborn Children of Mars, and stalking her murderous, neurotypical father.

Until a message comes from Earth–an Earth they thought was lifeless. Apparently one man still draws breath, and he’s a maniac with the launch codes for a nuclear missile in Martian orbit.

Jaye must work with her father or everyone dies – including her own daughter. And she needs more than just survival. She needs a reason to live.

The Deets

The Scene

Worldbuilding

Let’s be honest here: it’s not often that you see life on Mars written about in a realistic way. It’s even less often that you see it written about in a realistic and readable way. Ever try reading Clarke’s work on a bus ride? Don’t do it. You’ll fall asleep and miss your stop.

Of course, if you grab Dias’s work you may miss your stop too, but it will because your mind is on another planet. You’ll be checking fungus in the growing chambers with blind Madeline, finding peace in deep caverns beneath Martian soil with Leto, or worrying over the depleted stores of fluorescent bulbs with Merlin. You may be staring into the deep blackness inside a soul, or gazing on the violations humanity has wrought on its mother planet. You may rage, and you may cry. You may work to restrain yourself. But you won’t be looking up from the page.

The worldbuilding in this work does not allow us any easy answers. Humanity did not enter space as gods ascendant, but as refugees on the run. There are no frills on Mars. There are barely enough necessities. A can of jam is treated as sacred ambrosia. The fact that Dias had the courage to write such stark reality is impressive; most authors shy back from such a future. But Dias has leaned into it, removing even the semblance of a link with a dying Earth ripped apart by Coriolis storms, disastrous temperature differentials, and human fear.

The scientific research that has gone into this work is wonderful; spanning biology, physics, aereology, psychology and climate science, this story is one of gritty reality and clear-eyed resolve. Reading, you can almost taste the tang of iron and cold air on your tongue. You feel your skin prickle.

The Crowd

Characterization

It’s the characters that make this story more than a scientific dissertation. On Mars Colony One, we see a life of refined asceticism that reminds one of monastic life. We are given our window into this world through the eyes of Jaye, a Trueborn Child of Mars. Making her our access character was a stroke of genius on several counts. Through the eyes of Jaye, we truly see in new ways. We are never quite told the reason, but we are allowed to infer and shown clearly that these daughters and sons of the Colony are truly children of another world.  We see a new kind of human emerge, one with far lower tolerance for the lies their forebears told themselves and each other. The old story of the gulf between parents and children is given a new and fascinating twist in this tale.

Jaye is far more sensitive to nuance than your average human, and this has allowed the writer to describe his world and the characters peopling it in meticulous detail while still staying completely in character.

The dexterity with which the neurodivergent characters were written was wonderful. I’ll be honest, in reading there were times I longed desperately for Jaye’s control of her emotions and her ability to clarify situations. But make no mistake, this book is not creating heroic special-needs kids. We see the struggles as well: the difficulties in stressful situations, the overheard conversations between parents on what to do with their offspring and how to keep from ‘upsetting’ them. We see the painful gulf between two sets of worldviews.

What this story shows is not inspiration porn, by any means. What it is showing is the many facets of humanity, and the fact that what it means to be human goes beyond what cues we exhibit externally. The Trues may not be what we see as typical, but they are intensely human: they sense and care for one anothers’ state of mind, protect and teach their children, look at a world that offers them long odds on any sort of future and resolve to take the gamble on life regardless. They stare into the dark, acknowledge it, and shine their lights as long as they can.

Through Jaye’s eyes, the emotional complexities of her elders are both clearer and, in a way, more poignant. A blind woman remembering the things she’s seen. A wounded man takes responsibility for the death of his wife and allows others to call him a killer. A despairing man looks for death. A storyteller sings into the endless night. Parents want to love their children but cannot understand them. The tenuous nature of life in a world never meant to house the living makes every interpersonal situation more meaningful.

Wound through this tapestry of personality and experience is the warp thread of determination, and a most slender thread of hope. Never optimisim—let me make that clear—but hope. Hope that, should we die tomorrow, what we tried to live for was not in vain.

Compassion, too, is a keynote in this story. It is an uncompromising compassion, the type that will not lie to you. But it is a rarified and powerful emotion, one that looks at the world and truly understands why it is as it is.

I was deeply taken with these characters and their way of life.

The Lingo

Writing Style

There is a quiet lyricism to the writing style in Finding Life. Beginning the book is a bit like stepping into a cool bath: it takes some adjusting to the formal speech patterns. But the story is clarifying and refreshing, the imagery stark and beautiful.

A particularly effective literary tool was the use of dictionary-like word entries as headers for sections. Since the story revolves around a self-contained society with a large information bank as their only reference and connection for the society from which they are transplant scions, it allowed for an emphasis on the alienation of the Mars-born characters and a beautifully subtle form of foreshadowing.

Only one irritation cropped up for me, and it’s a nitpicky one: hyphens were used throughout the book, when they should have been replaced by em or en dashes. It’s minor as a complaint, but it is there.

The Moves

Plot

Smooth, lyrical and deftly literary, this story blends elements of biography, mission record, reminiscence and storytelling into an engaging whole. The plot is woven much as the colony is built, from stark elements that offer little compromise. But like the tools and goods of the colonists, what is available has been inventively combined into a satisfying whole.

The sword of Damaclese hanging over our characters throughout the tale is double-edged and makes sure the story never loses its tension: human madness could engulf them in the form of an external aggressor, or darkness could swallow them in the shape of their own demons. But the resolve of the characters to wake up each day and do what needs to be done keeps the plot moving, and that tiny glimmer of hope keeps us turning pages.

Overall Rating

This made my favorite future shelf, between Far Horizons and Pale Blue Dot. A valuable and affirming read.